Nixon and the Chennault Affair: From Vietnam to Watergate

Richard Nixon in 1968 had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War but 31,000 American dead when he was elected grew to 58,000 by the Paris Peace Accords. Nixon lost almost as many Americans in four years getting the U.S. out of Vietnam as Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and LBJ lost in 23 years getting the U.S. into Vietnam. That Nixon almost doubled the American dead is largely forgotten, likewise that Vietnam started a chain of events ending in Watergate is largely unknown.

Beverly Deepe, a Christian Science Monitor reporter in Vietnam for seven years, learned shortly before the 1968 election that Nixon had Anna Chennault encourage the South Vietnamese to avoid signing any Paris agreement, that Nixon would get them a better deal after he presumably won. Deepe reported this but the Monitor did not publish it. However this story turned out to be true and had it been published, Hubert Humphrey might have been president. Her book Death Zones and Darling Spies (2013) and “The Almost Scoop on Nixon’s Treason,” a long 2012 article by Robert Parry, have the details. Wiretaps with the Chennault information that Deepe had learned were reported to LBJ but LBJ and Humphrey did not publicize the information lest it be thought a desperate last-minute smear campaign effort.

But Nixon had committed treason, according to LBJ. (Once asked his opinion of Nixon, LBJ replied that he could tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken manure.) According to the Logan Act of 1799, it is a crime for a private citizen, which Nixon was at the time, to interfere with U.S. government diplomatic negotiations. Of course Nixon went on to lead an assault on the U.S. Constitution, ie the Huston Plan, which led to the Plumbers and Watergate.

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2014) by Ken Hughes, a University of Virginia researcher, tells the full story. Anna Chennault, the widow of General Claire Chennault of  World War II Flying Tigers fame, and a well-known Republican activist, was at a secret meeting in New York in July 1968 with Nixon and the South Vietnamese ambassador. Nixon told the ambassador that Chennault was his designated link with the South Vietnamese government. The “Chennault affair’ followed by Nixon’s proposed break-in at the Brookings Institution is mentioned in the memoirs of John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman as well as those of Chennault herself and also Theodore White’s “The Making of a President 1968.”

After the 1971 publication of “The Pentagon Papers” Nixon feared a leak of the 1968 Chennault affair. He ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution where he thought the Chennault files might be found revealing his sabotaging negotiations that could have shortened the war. (Charles Colson suggested firebombing the Brookings and seizing the files sought in the confusion.) Nixon staffers ignored his Brookings order but initiated other measures at his instigation, notably the Huston Plan, to utilize federal agencies in concert to counter political opponents. J. Edgar Hoover, the designated Huston chief, in a brief shining moment as a civil libertarian, refused to share information with other agencies, part of the fallout from his 1969-1970 dispute with the CIA in Colorado, the Thomas Riha Affair. The death of the Huston Plan led to the Plumbers and Watergate when Nixon said if they won’t do it, we’ll do it ourselves.

In 1972 it was still essential for Nixon to keep the Chennault affair under wraps and to stall off signing the Paris Peace Accords until after the  1972 election. Nixon ended the war in January 1973 on approximately the same terms LBJ might have gotten in 1968 having almost doubled the American dead for naught. Had this been widely recognized, George McGovern might have been president. Author Hughes concludes that the Brookings break-in that Nixon ordered that was NOT carried out led to the Watergate break-in that he had NOT ordered that was carried out. Vietnam had directly destroyed LBJ and indirectly destroyed Nixon via Watergate as the Hughes book makes clear starting with its title.

For more information on the Chennault event, see “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery” by John A. Farrell in the December 31, 2016 New York Times Sunday Review.

Fred Donner, with two degrees in East Asian studies, served seven years in Vietnam as an air force officer, an airline manager, and a church group  staffer followed by five years in the State Dept. and ten years in the Defense Intelligence Agency, all in East Asia assignments.