The moment Richard Nixon walked into the Oval Office, he already had a big dirty trick to hide.
Ken Hughes’ “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate” is the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations.
Taut and laden with touches of humor, “Chasing Shadows” mainly seeks to highlight the importance of the Chennault affair to Nixon’s undoing. What was the Chennault affair?
Late in the 1968 presidential campaign, President Johnson, having forsworn another term, was ready to halt the bombing of North Vietnam to try to revive peace negotiations. Nixon, the Republican nominee, considered the decision a ploy to help Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, who was trailing in the polls.
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So Nixon had his law partner (and later attorney general) John N. Mitchell speak to Anna Chennault, a 43-year-old Chinese-born Republican activist, who in turn spoke to Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador, who in turn told South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to reject LBJ’s initiative, promising a better deal once Nixon was elected.
This skulduggery arguably violated the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from freelancing in foreign policy. (Editor’s note: Not to mention potentially extending the war and its rising body counts. Furious, Johnson privately called it “treason” to a top GOP senator, he but did not disclose it.)
Roughly the first third of “Chasing Shadows” meticulously maps out the twists and turns in the bombing-halt negotiations, creating a delicious portrait of pervasive suspicion among Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey and their aides. His evidence comes in part from LBJ’s own White House tapes — yes, he made them, too — though not nearly as many as Nixon.
Having worked on the Nixon tapes since 2000 as part of the ambitious Presidential Recordings Program, Hughes then shows how this secret contributed to Watergate.
Told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in late 1968 that the bureau had bugged his campaign plane (a falsehood, Hughes says), Nixon decided he needed his own dirt to “blackmail” LBJ.
After taking office, he assigned H.R. Haldeman, his top aide, to gather intelligence to prove LBJ’s political motive for the bombing halt. Haldeman delegated the task to a young flunky named Tom Charles Huston.
Watergate buffs know Huston as the author of a breathtakingly illegal scheme to centralize secret intelligence-gathering in the White House, a plan Nixon approved but the turf-conscious Hoover killed. One virtue of “Chasing Shadows” is that it fleshes out our knowledge of Huston, who has largely kept out of sight since Watergate.
Nixon ordered a burglary — not carried out — of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to steal a report on the bombing halt. The report didn’t exist; what did exist, however, were the Pentagon Papers, which when leaked prompted Nixon to again order a break-in, again not executed.
Revealing as “Chasing Shadows” is, Hughes sometimes implies that the bombing-halt business is the Rosebud of Watergate — a hidden origin that explains it all. This strikes me as unfortunate, insofar as it suggests too tidy a picture of the Nixon White House’s chaotic, multifarious lawlessness.
Hughes does make clear the breadth of Nixon’s crimes, including illegal campaign contributions, abuses of the IRS and wiretaps that he and Henry Kissinger placed on journalists and White House staffers. He powerfully rebuts the wrongheaded cliche that the president’s cover-up was worse than his crimes.
“If Nixon had allowed the FBI to fully investigate their crimes, the notion that Nixon could have simply cut loose the guilty parties in the Watergate break-in and walked away scot-free himself is mistaken.”
David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.”
Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, by Ken Hughes (240 pages; University of Virginia; $24.95)
To listen to excerpts of conversations taped by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, go to chasing-shadows.org.