When America Last Had Two Presidents at One Time
In 1968, Richard Nixon torpedoed LBJ’s peace negotiations in Vietnam, newly revealed documents show—presaging today’s tension between President Obama and President-elect Trump.
Over the holiday weekend, the Nixon biographer John Aloysius Farrell (who has sometimes written about the 37th president in this space) delivered what might be called a historical bombshell. Using notes from H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, he reported that despite years of insistence it was not true, Nixon had in fact used back channels to kill peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War on the eve of the 1968 presidential election, in order to give himself a leg up in that race. Farrell writes:
But Nixon had a pipeline to Saigon, where the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that Johnson would sell him out. If Thieu would stall the talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s actions as a cheap political trick. The conduit was Anna Chennault, a Republican doyenne and Nixon fund-raiser, and a member of the pro-nationalist China lobby, with connections across Asia….
Nixon told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s personal secretary, contact another nationalist Chinese figure — the businessman Louis Kung — and have him press Thieu as well. “Tell him hold firm,” Nixon said.
The discovery is, despite coming four decades after the events it describes, and 23 years after Nixon’s passing, timely, because Nixon feels especially relevant these days—if not now, more than ever, certainly now, more than any time recently. As Farrell notes, Nixon’s moderation and effectiveness in enacting major reforms appeal to Democrats dismayed with the rightward drift of the Republican Party. There are also less flattering comparisons: Nixon’s legendary volatility has drawn parallels with Donald Trump’s spur-of-the-moment decision-making style, and suggestions that generals might refuse to follow illegal or dangerous orders harken back to the days when Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, effectively placed himself between the president and any order to use nuclear weapons. And then of course there’s a break-in at the Democratic National Committee during the heat of a close presidential campaign—it could be Watergate, or it could be last summer’s hacking attacks.
But the dynamic of late 1968, with one president on his way out the door but trying to accomplish what he could, and another, aspiring president attempting to undermine those policies, also speaks directly to the present moment in American politics.
In fall 1968, Johnson was attempting to find a way to end the war, which he had inherited from President John F. Kennedy and expanded, and which had already destroyed his political fortunes, leading him not to run for reelection. A successful negotiated end to the war would not have saved his presidency, but it might have helped redeem his legacy.
But Nixon worried that would help elect his rival, Democrat Hubert Humphrey. As Farrell explains, Nixon—a former vice president, senator, and U.S. representative—had a large network of contacts he could draw on to help torpedo the peace talks. Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser, had close ties across Asia through her lobbying on behalf of nationalist China. Through her, and with the help of Chiang Kai-Shek, they pressured South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to stall talks. Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary who would later become famous for erasing tapes from the Oval Office, worked another connection. Other elements of the effort were far simpler: Nixon threatened CIA Director Richard Helms with firing if he didn’t cooperate.
In the end, Nixon’s meddling worked, scuttling any peace deal. Perhaps it helped contribute to his victory in the presidential race, too, which he won by less than a percentage point in the popular vote. Whatever the benefit to Nixon, the costs of not ending the war are clear: More than 21,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam between the end of 1968 and the American withdrawal.
The effect of this strange maneuvering was that for a time, foreign leaders were negotiating with two different American heads of state, one elected and one not yet in office, a situation that is now being repeated with Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Nixon’s extensive government experience allowed him to intervene even before he was elected president, while Trump had to wait until after his upset win.
Since November 8, however, Trump has not been shy about jumping in. Lame-duck presidents are not a new phenomenon, and countries have long known that they can slow-walk through the last days of one administration to get to the next. What sticks out about Trump’s pre-presidency is his willingness to break traditions by using the bully pulpit even before he possesses it. He has openly disputed the overwhelmingly assessment of the U.S. intelligence community on whether Russia is responsible for the hacks. When the U.S. government lowered sanctions on the Kremlin over those attacks, Trump all but promised to reverse course once inaugurated. When the UN Security Council considered a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, Trump first lobbied the U.S. to veto it and then promised things would be different when he came to power.
There’s plenty of space for Trump to continue bedeviling Obama in the remaining few days of his term. The president is seeking to move as many prisoners as possible out of the facility at Guantanamo Bay before he leaves office. Taking prisoners has been a good way to curry favor with Washington for the last eight years, but with Trump noisily backing the facility, would a foreign leader want to take the risk of annoying the incoming president, a man who does not carry a grudge lightly?
Nixon’s meddling in the Vietnamese negotiations is reminiscent of Trump’s interactions with Obama in another way, related to the alleged Russian hacks. The White House became convinced during the presidential race that Russia was behind the attacks on the DNC and others, and some analysts concluded they were intended to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Trump’s. But Obama, expecting a Clinton victory and wary of being seen as meddling in the race, was hesitant to go full-bore. Finally, in early October, the White House formally accused the Putin regime of involvement, though it still tempered its language, only offering a full-bore condemnation after Trump’s victory.
Johnson, too, learned of Nixon’s moves before the votes were cast—he had the FBI track Chennault, Nixon’s Chinese national fixer. He was furious. But Johnson, like Obama, held most of his fire, never going public with the accusation because he did not feel he could prove it. Still, he seethed in a conversation with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican. “I’m reading their hand, Everett. This is treason,” he said, according to Farrell. “I know,” Dirksen replied.
Publicly, Obama has not used any language nearly this strong, though he was unsparing in his assessment of Trump’s qualifications during the campaign. But some liberal writers have been happy to haphazardly label Trump’s reaction to the hacking scandal as treasonous. Does Obama privately feel that strongly about Trump’s conduct? Some day, when he’s been ex-president for many years, perhaps his presidential papers will offer a hint. For now, though, he’s just one of two presidents—and perhaps the weaker of the two.