On October 31, [President Lyndon] Johnson stunned the country when he announced a bombing halt, as well as upcoming peace talks in Paris between the United States and both North and South Vietnam. The maneuver wasn’t completely out of the blue—Johnson had laid down his terms for a bombing halt in June. The breakthrough had come in early October when the North Vietnamese dropped its objection to South Vietnam’s participation in the proposed peace talks. Johnson now had his chance to end the war on his own terms and salvage his place in history in one fell swoop. There were still some significant hurdles to be cleared before there was any chance of an actual peace treaty, but the news buoyed his spirits considerably.
The news also lifted [Vice President and 1968 Democratic nominee for President] Humphrey’s fortunes. After Johnson’s announcement, Nixon’s lead vanished almost immediately and Humphrey was now in a dead heat with the GOP nominee. Nixon was irate and convinced that Johnson was trying to steal the election at the last minute in favor of his vice president. Nixon still had the bitter taste of 1962 in his mouth when a race he thought he was winning turned against him in the closing stages as a result of a piece of Democratic foreign policy that he had little respect for. Now he had an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. Luckily for him, however, he had prepared for something like this, and this time, he had an ace in the hole.
Chinese-born Anna Chennault was a well-connected former journalist who had relocated to Washington, D.C., following the death of her husband, Flyer Tigers founder Claire Lee Chennault, in 1958. One of the charter members of the so-called China Lobby, Madame Chennault had long been suspicious of Democrats, blaming Truman, Acheson, Marshall, and others for “losing China” to the Communists. She, naturally, gravitated toward Republicans, and her Watergate apartment soon became a popular hangout for powerful and influential Republicans. In 1964, for instance, Barry Goldwater and several of his advisors became regular fixtures there as they planned his ultimately doomed presidential campaign.
Chennault had been friends with Nixon since the latter’s vice presidential days, having met both Dick and Pat during a banquet held in their honor in Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek. Chennault volunteered for Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign and kept in touch with him during his wilderness years. During one of Nixon’s many trips abroad, Chennault even met up with Nixon in Taipei and drove him to the airport.
As Nixon followed me into my car, he cracked his forehead on the door. It was a hard, resounding blow that left no doubt about the pain. He bit his lip hard, not uttering a sound, and turned pale. Blood was oozing out of his forehead, spilling in a thin trickle across the bridge of his nose. I reached into my purse for a handkerchief and pressed it to his forehead, against the gash. He cupped it hastily in his hands, muttering, “I’m all right, I’m all right.” He seemed frantic with embarrassment, looking back everyone once in a while, handkerchief still pressed to brow, at Ambassador [Konsin] Shah [Chiang’s chief of protocol tasked with seeing off Nixon] . . . He mumbled apologizes about my dress, which was white and, by now, conspicuously spattered with drops of blood.
With 1968 gearing up, Chennault and Nixon reaffirmed their friendship. According to Chennault, Nixon had told her in the spring of 1967 that he intended to run again, and she had agreed to keep him informed of events in Vietnam, an issue that promised to dominate the upcoming presidential race.
She also agreed to serve as chair of the National Women’s Advisory Committee for Nixon. Chennault was an important “get” for Nixon, as she had a lot of friends in Vietnam and was close to several powerful South Vietnamese government officials, including South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States Bùi Diễm and Nguyen Văn Kieu, brother of South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.
In July 1968, Chennault and Bùi Diễm flew to Nixon’s campaign suite in the Hotel Pierre to meet with Mitchell and Nixon. Diễm, unlike Chennault, was not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and claimed to want close relations with both parties. However, Diễm was starting to get disillusioned with LBJ and his Administration’s handling of the ongoing war in Vietnam. “As the Democrats steered with all due haste away from the Indochinese involvement they had engineered, I was increasingly attracted to the Republican side,” Bùi Diễm recalled.
During the meeting, Diễm and Chennault liked what they heard from Nixon regarding his plans to win the war, and the two agreed to act as a secret back channel for the campaign to South Vietnam’s government. “If I should be elected the next President, you can rest assured I will have a meeting with your leader and find a solution to winning this war,” Nixon promised Diễm. With the entire election on the line, Nixon and Mitchell decided to deploy their secret weapon.
Almost immediately after issuing the bombing halt, Johnson started hearing rumblings about the possibility that the Paris peace talks were being sabotaged. The talks were always going to be a hard sell for the South Vietnamese, who had never formally recognized the North regime, yet Johnson pushed ahead, hoping for the best. Now, he was starting to hear whispers that South Vietnamese officials were stalling and being told to hold out until after the election in the hope of getting a better deal from Nixon.
Soon, they were more than whispers. Suspicious of their motives, US intelligence agencies had decided to place Chennault and Diễm under surveillance back in April. That was only part of the net that they had set up. The CIA had bugged the office of the president of South Vietnam, and the NSA was intercepting diplomatic messages from the South Vietnamese embassy in D.C. Mitchell, paranoid that something like this could happen but desperate to be kept in the loop, had established a protocol with Chennault where she would contact him on a different phone number each day so that he could keep the pressure up on the South Vietnamese to rebuff Johnson.
With all that surveillance in place, it was only a matter of time before Johnson heard what he needed to hear. On November 2, three days before the election, Johnson got word at his ranch from the FBI that they had a smoking gun.
Mrs. Anna Chennault contacted Vietnamese Ambassador Bùi Diễm and advised him that she had received a message from her boss [unidentified], which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to “hold on, we are gonna win” and that her boss also said: “Hold on, he understands all of it.” She repeated that this is the only message. “He said please tell your boss to hold on.” She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.
Nixon was not in New Mexico that day, but Agnew was. Later on, Chennault would say that she had meant to say “New Hampshire,” which was the home state of Robert Hill, former ambassador to El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico under Eisenhower, and the go-between for the campaign and Chennault. Either way, Johnson felt he had enough to confront the highest- ranking Republican official in D.C. Less than an hour after he received the FBI message, he spoke with his good friend, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and read the Illinois Republican the riot act. “Some of our folks, including some of the old China Lobby, are going to the [South] Vietnamese embassy and saying, ‘Please notify the President that if he’ll hold out till November the 2nd they could get a better deal,’” Johnson told Dirksen. “And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.”
Johnson went on, throwing out a not-so-veiled threat to Dirksen, knowing that it would get back to Nixon. “Now, I can identify them, because I know who’s doing this,” Johnson told Dirksen. “[Dirksen attempts to interject.] I don’t want to identify it. I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.”
Nixon called Johnson the following day and seemed to mollify the president with his “non-denial denials,” as Ken Hughes put it. “I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this, and any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude there [is] absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned,” Nixon told Johnson. In private, Nixon hardly seemed bothered at all. After the call, Nixon and his friends “collapsed with laughter,” according to the Sunday Times of London.
Nevertheless, Johnson wasn’t showing his cards in that conversation and did not repeat his threat that he had made to Dirksen about going public. According to Califano, Johnson informed his vice president of the matter and left it to Humphrey to decide whether or not to use it on the eve of the election, which the polls showed was too close to call. A Harris poll taken the Friday before the election had Humphrey winning a plurality of the popular vote and a clear majority of the Electoral College. However, the following day, South Vietnam announced it would not participate in the peace talks, a move that had the side effect of killing Humphrey’s momentum dead. “I saw [pollster Lou] Harris after the election and he told me his polls had been accurate,” recalled Stuart Eizenstat, Humphrey’s research director in 1968 who later went onto a long career in government where, among other things, he helped secure nearly $8 billion in compensation on behalf of Holocaust victims. “What happened was that they had stopped polling on Friday evening/Saturday morning and they didn’t poll the weekend. That was when the President of South Vietnam said he wasn’t going to the conference. That knocked the air out of our sails pretty badly.”
Despite knowing that it could possibly secure his election, Humphrey decided not to leak news of the Chennault affair to the press. According to Eizenstat, Max Kampelman and some other senior aides encouraged Humphrey to go public. “Max told me that he urged Humphrey to do it, but Humphrey refused,” said Eizenstat, who didn’t find out about the Chennault affair until several years afterward. “I think he would have won if he had leaked it, and probably would have ended up saving tens of thousands of lives.” There were other considerations. For one thing, Humphrey would have to reveal all of the wiretaps and surveillance methods being used by the Johnson Administration—some of which were illegal. Several of Humphrey’s loyalists maintained that what he had done was for the good of the country, because had Nixon won, he would have come into office under a cloud of suspicion that would have rendered him powerless to rule. “I know of no more essentially decent story in American politics than Humphrey’s refusal to [go public],” White wrote. Kampelman would later recount how, after the election, Nixon told him how thankful he was that Humphrey had put his country before the election and compared Humphrey’s sacrifice to Nixon’s own decision in 1960 not to challenge his defeat to Kennedy.
In the immediate aftermath of the Chennault affair, it wasn’t entirely clear what, if any, role Nixon had played in the whole thing. According to Chennault, she had dealt only with Mitchell. In her 1980 book, The Education of Anna, Chennault claimed that a frantic Mitchell called her right after Johnson announced the bombing halt and, despite his well-founded paranoid about surveillance, could not have been clearer about what he wanted. “Anna, I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon,” Mitchell told her. “It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position, and I hope you have made that clear to them.” Chennault responded that all she had done was relay messages. “If you’re talking about direct influence, I have to tell you it isn’t wise for us to try to influence the South Vietnamese,” she responded. “I don’t think either we or the Democrats can force them to act one way or another. They have their own politics, you know.” Later on, she confirmed to Witcover that she had been coordinating with the Nixon campaign. “The only people who knew about the whole operation were Nixon, John Mitchell and John Tower, and they’re all dead,” Chennault told Witcover. “But they knew what I was doing. Anyone who knows about these things knows I was getting orders to do these things. I couldn’t do anything without instructions.”
Nixon campaign staffers have maintained that they did not know about the Chennault affair at the time. Indeed, some still doubt whether it actually occurred. “Didn’t know anything,” Garment said when asked about Chennault. “Anna Chennault was a mystery to me.” Sears, who was assigned to Agnew’s detail at the time, also said he wasn’t aware of anything involving Chennault. “I don’t know what role she actually played,” Sears said, noting that he had been warned by the Secret Service about making telephone calls due to the possibility that his phone could be tapped. “Maybe they thought I would have met her at some point, but I didn’t know her.” Buchanan said that he “did not believe it then” and does not believe it now. “Nixon would never have taken the insane risk of opening a back channel through Mrs. Chennault to Saigon to torpedo a peace agreement negotiated to end the war in Vietnam,” Buchanan maintained. In his manuscript, Evans does not mention Chennault’s name once, although his papers contain an August 1967 memo to Nixon referencing “the Anna Chennault appointment.” The memo also references Robert Hill, the man who, according to Anthony Summers, had escorted her to Nixon’s Fifth Avenue apartment in 1968 when she first met John Mitchell.
The questions surrounding Nixon’s involvement with the Chennault affair continued to swirl until 2014, when the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum released a declassified interview with Tom Charles Huston. The national chairman of Young American for Freedom, Huston first got involved with Nixon in 1966 when the former vice president was traveling around the country speaking on behalf of Republican candidates. During the 1968 campaign, Huston set up the Youth for Nixon group and then took a job at the White House doing research and speechwriting immediately after Nixon was inaugurated in 1969. Huston would attain greater infamy as architect of the Huston Plan, a 1970 domestic surveillance proposal that advocated burglarizing, eavesdropping, and even opening the mail of antiwar radicals.
In September of that year Nixon approached Huston to conduct an investigation into LBJ’s bombing halt the previous year. “He believed, incorrectly in my judgment, but nevertheless, he believed that the whole bombing halt thing had been a Johnson ploy to elect Humphrey,” Huston said. His investigation, inevitably, led to the Chennault affair. “I’ve concluded that there was no doubt that Nixon was—would have been directly involved, that it’s not something that anybody would’ve undertaken on their own,” Huston said. As for Mitchell, Huston found that there was “no question” that the campaign manager “was directly involved” and was the one “meeting with her.” “I think my understanding of the way in which—having been in the ’68 campaign, and my understanding of the way that campaign was run, it’s inconceivable to me that John Mitchell would be running around, you know, passing messages to the South Vietnamese government, et cetera, on his own initiative,” Huston said.
Then in 2017, John A. Farrell published Richard Nixon: The Life, which uncovered written notes from Haldeman in which his boss ordered Haldeman to “keep Anna Chennault working on the [South Vietnamese].” Haldeman also recalled Nixon asking if there were “any other way to monkey wrench” the peace talks and weighed the possibility of bringing in others to try to communicate to the South Vietnamese the benefits of holding out until after November 1968. While the notes would seem to be a “smoking gun,” the New York Times pointed out that there’s no evidence that Haldeman actually carried out Nixon’s orders.
Additionally, the chance of a peace deal was so remote that Nixon’s actions, if any, probably made no difference. As Jack Torry, Washington bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News and the Columbus Dispatch, wrote in his review of Farrell’s book: “Nothing Nixon said that night had the slightest impact on any deal which could have ended U.S. involvement in the war. The undisputed fact is there was no chance for a peace agreement in 1968 which would have been accepted by any American president.”
In any event, John Mitchell had proven that he would do just about anything to get Richard Nixon elected president. His vindication came with Nixon’s. In 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest presidential races in American history (third-party candidate George Wallace, governor of Alabama, turned in a strong third-place showing that contributed to the closeness of the race). Nixon won a clear majority in the Electoral College but defeated Humphrey by less than 1 percent in the popular vote. Much like in 1960, a few close states could have swung the election in the other direction. In this case, had Humphrey won Ohio, Illinois, and California (he lost all three by less than 3 percent), he would have won the presidency.
Nixon’s victory, which wasn’t confirmed until the following morning, was a tremendous accomplishment for both the candidate and his campaign manager. For Nixon, it was the culmination of an incredible comeback that seemed like a pipe dream after that fateful morning in 1962 when he behaved like a sore loser. For Mitchell, it was confirmation that he was one of the smartest, savviest lawyers in the country. The two men shared a moment right after the networks declared Nixon the winner. “Well, John, we had better get down to Florida and get this thing planned out,” Nixon said, putting his hand on his campaign manager’s shoulder. “Mr. President,” Mitchell responded, eyes welling up with tears. “I think I’d better go up and be with Martha.” As Nixon would later reflect, this was the first time anyone would ever call him “Mr. President.”