A George Will column this week, reviewing a book by Ken Hughes called Chasing Shadows, mentions almost in passing that presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon secretly sabotaged peace talks that appeared likely to end the war on Vietnam until he intervened. As a result, the war raged on and Nixon won election promising to end the war.
Will treats the matter as a technicality, citing the law against private diplomacy rather than the principle that one shouldn’t undermine a government’s attempts to halt an episode of mass-murder.
You’d almost have to already know what Will was referring to if you were going to pick up on the fact that Nixon secretly prevented peace while publicly pretending he had a peace plan. And you’d have to be independently aware that once Nixon got elected, he continued the war for years, the total carnage coming to include the deaths of 4 million Vietnamese plus hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and Laotians, with the deaths from bombs not previously exploded continuing on a major scale to this day, and, of course, the 58,000 Americans killed in the war who are listed on a wall in D.C. as if somehow more worthy than all the others.
Will is not the only one to acknowledge what Nixon did. The Smithsonian reported on Nixon’s treason last year, on the occasion of new tapes of Lyndon Johnson being released. But the Smithsonian didn’t call it treason; it treated the matter more as hard-nosed election strategizing. Ken Hughes himself published an article on the History News Network two years ago saying almost exactly what Will’s column said this week. But the publication used the headline “LBJ Thought Nixon Committed Treason to Win the 1968 Election.” Of course LBJ thought all kinds of things, sane and otherwise. The first two words of the headline ought to have been deleted.
The point is that it’s now apparently become fashionable to acknowledge, but minimize, what Nixon did.
Will’s focus is on Hughes’ theory that Nixon’s plan to break into or even firebomb the Brookings Institution was driven by his desire to recover evidence of his own treasonous sabotaging of peace, and that Watergate grew from Nixon’s desire to coverup that horrendous crime. This differs from various theories as to what Nixon was so desperate to steal from Brookings (that he was after evidence that Kennedy murdered Diem, or evidence that LBJ halted the bombing of Vietnam just before the election to help Humphrey win, etc.) It certainly seems that Nixon had reasons for wanting files from Brookings that his staff did not share his views on the importance of. And covering up his own crimes was always a bigger motivation for Nixon than exposing someone else’s. Nixon was after Daniel Ellsberg, not because Ellsberg had exposed Nixon’s predecessors’ high crimes and misdemeanors, but because Nixon feared what Ellsberg might have on him.
But Nixon’s sabotaging of peace in 1968 has been known for many years. And that explanation of the Brookings incident has been written about for years, and written about in a context that doesn’t bury the significance of the story. One need only turn to writings by Robert Parry (for example here, and in the book pictured on that page). Writes Parry:
“One of the Washington press corps’ most misguided sayings – that ‘the cover-up is worse than the crime’ – derived from the failure to understand the full scope of Nixon’s crimes of state.”
The way Parry tells the story might explain why the Washington Post prefers George Will’s version:
“Rostow’s ‘The “X” Envelope,’ which was finally opened in 1994 and is now largely declassified, reveals that Johnson had come to know a great deal about Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage from FBI wiretaps. In addition, tapes of presidential phone conversations, which were released in 2008, show Johnson complaining to key Republicans about the gambit and even confronting Nixon personally.
“In other words, the file that Nixon so desperately wanted to find was not primarily about how Johnson handled the 1968 bombing halt but rather how Nixon’s campaign obstructed the peace talks by giving assurances to South Vietnamese leaders that Nixon would get them a better result.
“After becoming President, Nixon did extend and expand the conflict, much as South Vietnamese leaders had hoped. Ultimately, however, after more than 20,000 more Americans and possibly a million more Vietnamese had died, Nixon accepted a peace deal in 1972 similar to what Johnson was negotiating in 1968. After U.S. troops finally departed, the South Vietnamese government soon fell to the North and the Vietcong.”
Parry even puts Nixon’s action in the context of a pattern of actions that includes Ronald Reagan’s election following sabotage of President Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran. Parry has written as well about LBJ’s failure to expose Nixon as part of a pattern of Democratic Party spinelessness. There’s President Clinton’s failure to pursue Iran-Contra, Al Gore’s failure to protest a Supreme Court coup, John Kerry’s failure to protest apparent election fraud in Ohio, etc.
A less partisan and less contemporary context might include Nixon’s phony pro-peace election campaign with those of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and other presidents elected to stay out of wars that they promptly jumped into. And that pattern might include candidate Obama’s innumerable campaign-rally promises to end the war in Iraq, which as president he kept going for years, attempted to prolong further, and has begun trying to restart now that an opportunity has presented itself — meanwhile having tripled troop levels in Afghanistan, attacked Libya, created a new kind of war with drones in multiple nations, and pushed the U.S. military into a greater and more active presence in numerous African and Asian countries.
It’s almost universally maintained by those who have expressed any opinion on the matter that if the public had known about Nixon’s treason while he was president, all hell would have broken loose. Are we really such idiots that we’ve now slipped into routinely acknowledging the truth of the matter but raising no hell whatsoever? Do we really care so much about personalities and vengeance that Nixon’s crime means nothing if Nixon is dead? Isn’t the need to end wars and spying and government secrets, to make diplomacy public and nonviolent, a need that presses itself fiercely upon us regardless of how many decades it will take before we learn every offensive thing our current top officials are up to?
Photo from the Nixon Archives, public domain