Miller Center

American Forum - Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate

Sign up for exclusive updates  email signup
The Miller Center is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to provide critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.

Ken Hughes
November 5, 2014
11:00AM - 12:30PM (EST)

Ken Hughes
Ken Hughes

Television Broadcast: December 7, 2014

The break-in at the Watergate complex and the cover-up that followed brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon, creating a political shockwave that reverberates to this day. KEN HUGHES' new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, uses the Nixon and Johnson tapes to explore Nixon’s secret interference in Vietnam peace talks during the 1968 election. As a key player in the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, Hughes has spent more than a decade developing and mining the largest extant collection of transcribed tapes from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses. Hughes served as a senior consultant on Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, an HBO documentary, and is currently consulting on the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam.


Douglas Blackmon:  Our guest in this hour is Ken Hughes a scholar of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies who for nearly 15 years has been burrowing through thousands of hours of secretly made recordings of conversations in the Oval Office.  Now he’s written a new book proving once again that as much as we thought we knew about Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal and corruption at the highest levels of American government, there is much more yet to be discovered.  And none of it is pretty.  The book is Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate.  Ken, thanks for joining us. 

00:09:24;24                Ken Hughes: Thank you, Doug.

00:09:25:13                Blackmon: So the big revelation in your book is that in 1968 Richard Nixon is the Republican nominee for President. Hubert Humphrey is the Democratic Vice President and eventual nominee and Nixon realizes that Johnson, President Johnson’s efforts to bring North Vietnam to the peace table and end to the Vietnam conflict. Nixon realizes these efforts are going to be bad for his bid for the presidency and so he makes a secret overture to South Vietnam to discourage them from going to the peace talks and instead to wait until he has secured the presidency

                                   Hughes:   Nineteen sixty-eight was an absolutely horrible year for America and especially for Lyndon Johnson in the White House. The Vietnam War was not going well; it was the year of the Tent Offensive and even though American forces in Vietnam were able to – to drive back the North Vietnamese, the offensive itself showed that Johnson’s strategy had failed. Domestically it was terrible. It was a year of assassinations. And uh, for the Democratic Party, it was the year of their worst convention – a televised nightmare in Chicago. So Nixon starts the campaign about 16 points ahead. One thing he’s worried about is that Johnson might halt the bombing of North Vietnam in order to get peace talks started with the North Vietnamese and that a peace initiative right before election day would help Hubert Humphrey who in addition to, as you said, being the Democratic nominee, was also the Vice President of the United States. So the closer Election Day comes, the tighter the race gets. In October, Nixon’s lead gets cut in half to eight points. And there’s more talk that uh, that uh, a uh, the bombing halt is imminent and uh it, you know, gradually gets to the point to where Nixon and Humphrey are neck and neck the week before the election. Nixon took out insurance to make sure that if a bombing happened, it would not destroy his last best chance at becoming President.

                                   Blackmon:  So the elections are going to be in November in 1968, it’s in July that he is already concerned about, uh, or at least seeing there might be opportunity in creating a back channel into the Vietnam negotiations because they’ve been on and off uh, discussions between all three parties, North and South Vietnam and the U.S. at different times and always this question of, restarting or reviving the talks. So it’s in July that, that Nixon learns of that there’s a possible route into, directly into these discussions and he moves on that.  

00:16:36:00                Hughes: He learns directly from Johnson. Johnson briefed all the candidates on his conditions. He made them keep it secret from the public, which backfired on him near Election Day.  But Nixon knew that Johnson had these three conditions and he wasn’t going to budge from them. And Nixon was like, great, because I don’t want there to be a bombing halt.  Publically however, Nixon was saying, I will not do anything that will interfere with the possibility of peace. He made that part of his convention acceptance speech repeatedly, publically made this pledge, you know, putting peace before politics. Privately, however, he is putting politics before peace. He had a secret meeting in New York with the Ambassador from South Vietnam who Ngo Dinh Diem, Anna Chennault, a prominent Republican fundraiser, uh Chinese-American woman, the only Chinese-American woman who was a delegate to the 1968 Republican Convention.  The biggest fundraiser for the Republican Party that year. She raised a quarter of a million dollars. Nixon’s campaign chairman, John Mitchel.  And Nixon kept this meeting secret even from the Secret Service Agents who were tasked with, you know, protecting him. So ugh, clearly he wanted to keep it absolutely confidential. Even his closest aids like H. R. Haldeman who was Chief of Staff on the campaign didn’t know that this was taking place. According to Chennault, at that meeting, Nixon said she would be his sole contact with the South Vietnamese government for the rest of the campaign. Johnson is very worried that if he halts the bombings right before Election Day, everybody is going to think he did it to elect Hubert Humphrey.  Now, what Johnson finds out in the week before Election Day 1968, he gets a warning from a fascinating historical figure named Alexander Sachs.  Alexander Sachs entered world history in the late 1930s when he warned Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of Albert Einstein that Nazi Germany was in danger of cornering the market in Uranium and building an atomic bomb. And this warning started the path to the Manhattan Project.  So Alexander Sachs is not a guy whose warnings you ignore. He was credited with predicting the rise of Hitler, credited with predicting the 1933 bank crisis, and um, he was also an economist at Goldman Sachs.  And he goes to a lunch meeting with his fellow businessmen in October. And one of them who was very close to Nixon says, “Nixon is playing the bombing halt the way he played the nomination of Abe Fortas to be Supreme Court Justice. He is trying to block it. And he is telling Hanoi, I can make a better deal with you when I become President and he is telling Saigon I will make a better deal for you when I become President. So whatever you do, don’t go to the Paris Peace talks even if Johnson halts the bombing.

00:19:39;14                Blackmon: But just to make sure what we’re describing here. So we have this this presidential campaign that is under way and we have the person who was the frontrunner is actually now slipping significantly and begins an overture to the, to an American ally but also to directly or indirectly to an American enemy of the time, the North Vietnamese, to say don’t move towards peace in Vietnam. This is in the middle of July 1968, the Tet Offensive have happened, but there’s still many people who are gonna die in Vietnam that year and by the time the U.S. gets out there are gonna be close to more than 30,000 more people I think, who die in Vietnam. And it’s almost like imagining that if in 2014 um because it was so apparent that what was happening in Iraq and and Syria was bad for the Obama administration, if we learned after the election of 2014 that Republican leadership had been encouraging uh generals in the Iraqi army not to fight very hard because it was bad for president Obama. Or, or if they’d been encouraging ISIS to murder more civilians because that’s bad for the Obama administration. It’s that kind of of uh of of activity we’re talking about and the way that Americans would react to that today. I mean it’s treason really, isn’t it?

00:20:55;14                Hughes: Well, it’s a violation of the 1799 Logan Act which, uh, makes it the treasonous offense for American citizens to interfere with the foreign policy making of the United States government.

00:17:08;14                Blackmon: And so the person that he, though who becomes the emissary of the Nixon campaign through this process is this woman, Anna Chennault. And how is it that she comes into even the radar of of Richard Nixon?

 0:17:23;03                 Hughes: Well, she was a prominent part of what’s called the “China Lobby,” uh, the Chinese Nationalists who uh blamed the communist revolution of Mao Tse-tung and Zho Enlia on the Truman Administration. Uh their their contention was that Truman lost china by not giving enough support to the nationalists. So Anna Chennault had to leave China uh with her husband, General Claire Chennault the legendary leader of the Flying Tiger Volunteer group that protected China defended China against the Japanese invaders during World War II. She eventually moved to America and her her very life story told the story that the Republicans were telling about Cold War politics. Which is that we are losing because the Democrats are just not strong enough, they’re not good enough friends, they’re not loyal enough.

00:18:13:00                Blackmon: These are Hollywood type characters, you’ve got the uh the American general who ran, who uh was in charge of the Flying Tigers, his beautiful Asian wife.  He divorces his first wife to marry this beautiful uh Asian woman after after the war is over and then they end up back in the United States campaigning for Chiang Kai-shek. I mean these are, these are, uh incredibly cinematic sorts of characters.

00:18:33;16                Hughes: I want the miniseries. But um I should, I should mention that once Johnson found out about Chennault, well, once we found out from Alexander Sachs that, you know, the Republicans were sabotaging his campaign, he check it out with diplomatic intelligence and at the time, uh, the National Security Agency was intercepting cables from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington to the government in Saigon, and the CIA had a bug in the office of the president of South Vietnam. So Johnson starts looking at this uh intelligence and that’s where he picks up Chennault’s name but you have to remember throughout the entire story that he does not know about this meeting that took place in New York City. He has very strong suspicions, he’s incredibly shrewd about politics, you know. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon were just about the two shrewdest Cold War politicians there are. He knows something is going on that’s gonna make him look terrible in the eyes of the voters and at the point when his only concern left politically is his own legacy. So uh there is a law uh on the books that does criminalize this kind of activity. Um, people point out that no one’s ever been convicted under this law. Uh, which is which is worth uh, we’ll discuss that later when we talk about the why Johnson didn’t do anything with it. But uh yeah and also it would have been just an incredible scandal. In retrospect it sounds like this procedural thing, you know, like when the peace talks start. It’s very hard to picture why that would be important. But it was the central issue of the campaign and you know if was the difference between making peace and not not trying to make peace.

00:21:45;17                Blackmon: Yeah, it’s it’s it’s really pretty staggering. Alright so you’ve set it up nicely uh let’s uh let’s now listen to some of the some of the recordings that uh that relate to this.

                                   Hughes:  This is November 2, 1968. Johnson after finding out from, after getting his warning from Schss, he ordered the FBI to put a tap on the South Vietnamese embassy phone to tail Anna Chennault, to tell him the names of everybody who walked in and walked out of the South Vietnamese Embassy, and to put the tap on Anna Chennault’s phone. The FBI did everything except that last thing. So on November 2nd,  um, Johnson gets an FBI report. Chennault has called Ambassador Diem and has said hold on, uh, she has spoken to her boss. The FBI says not further identified in that conversation. Uh, we’re gonna win. Hold on. He understands everything.

00:23:17;00                Blackmon: Alright let’s stop there, and uh and let’s let’s listen to the recording.

00:23:25;22                LBJ: I want o talk to you as a friend and very confidentially because I think that were, we uh, skirting on dangerous ground and I thought I ought to give you the facts and you ought to uh, pass them on if you choose. If you dont why, then, I will a little later. Some of our folks, including some of the old China Lobby, are going to the Vietnamese Embassy and saying please notify the President that if hell hold out until November the second, they could get a better deal. Now Im reading their hand, Everett, I dont wan tto get this in the campaign. And they oughtnt to be doing this; this is treason.

00:24:14;09                Blackmon: So I was right, it was treason. Uh. At least according to Lyndon Johnson. Um. W-we’ll play another cut in just a second, uh, in which, uh, President Johnson actually discusses this with uh with no the a uh the soon to be president Nixon. But so that recording though, November the second, is what, what day?

00:24:33;00                Hughes: Three days before the elections…

00:24:34;00                Blackmon: Three days before the elections. Why is it that uh that Johnson doesn’t’t run out in front of national television and uh and and tell everybody what he’s just learned?

00:24:50;09                Hughes: Well, there are a few reasons, um, the day before the election, The Christian Science Monitor came up with a story saying that we’re probably gonna start trying to sabotage these peace talks. So Johnson gets on the phone with Secretary of State Rusk, uh, national security adviser Rostow, and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, and says, what do I do? Um. Should I make this stuff public? And unanimously they advise him not to. They say this comes from diplomatic intelligence which we’re not supposed to inject into a campaign. They say we don’t actually have the good on Nixon himself.  We have the FBI wire tapped saying Anna Chennault is saying that she is speaking for her boss, not further identified. She also said in the conversation that her boss was in New Mexico. Nixon was not in New Mexico that day. His vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew was, but Nixon himself was not. And finally, all three of them said they were worried that if they made this public, Nixon might still win but his presidency might be crippled.

00:25:55;09                Blackmon: Imagine that, imagine an opposing party leader caring about the success of the other party’s upcoming presidency. Imagine such a thing happening in American politics. Lets take a pause there and listen to the next cut.

00:26:13; 27               Nixon: Let me ask you this about the AmbassadorI met him about 5 or 6 months agodoes he have any influence with that government?

                                   President Johnson: He is telling them that he has just talked to New Mexico, and he has just talked to the Nixon people, and they say, Hold outdont do anythingwere going to win and well do better by you. Now thats the story, Dick. And its a sordid story. I told you that Sunday when I talked to you. You remember when I talked to {Sen. George A.] Smathers [D-Florida] and Dirksen?

                                   Nixon: Right

                                   President Johnson: Now, I dont want to say that to the country because thats not good.

                                   Nixon: Right.

                                   President Johnson: Bu theyre playing that game. I dont think youre playing it, and Id get off that hook. Id just say to them, You go to that conference and you protect your country. And Im going to support our President as long as he doesnt agree to a coalition government, as long as he doesnt agree to recognize the NLF, as long as he stands on the conditions he does and were united, and dont depend on me to give you a better deal.

                                   Nixon: Well do that.

                                   President Johnson: I think theyve been talking to [Vice President elect Spiro T.] AgnewI think that theyve been quoting you indirectlythat the thing they ought to do is just not to show up at any conference and wait until you come into office. Now, they started that, and thats ad. Theyre killing Americans everyday. I have that documented. You wont have 10 men in the senate supporting South Vietnam when you come in if these folks refuse to go to the conference.

                                   Nixon: Absolutely, well Ill get on it.

00:27:54; 29               Blackmon: So what happened at the end of this conversation? What is fascinating about it is that Johnson lays out I’ve got the goods on you Dick. I know what you’ve been doing. And Nixon just “uh-uh uh-u” all the way through. What happens after they hang out, or does Nixon say more at the end of this?

00:28:20;29                Hughes: The fascinating thing about this conversation is that it takes place after the election. Um, people who thought that Johnson called the bombing halt to elect Hubert Humphrey should listen to this conversation because Johnson really threatens Nixon with exposure only after the election passes and Saigon is still refusing to go to the Paris peace talks. So what he is doing here is threating Nixon that he will expose the Chennault Affair if Nixon doesn’t immediately send a signal to South Vietnam saying go to the Paris Peace Talks. Which, Nixon immediately did. He sent Everett Dirksen, the man that Johnson was threatening in the earlier conversation, to tell them, look, you will loose American support if you don’t go to the Peace Talks immediately. And that was an existential threat to South Vietnam because they had never survived without American military and economic aid. As soon as they made that threat, Saigon was saying alright, we will send somebody.

00:29:23;05                Blackmon: But it also, and this is very important to the rest of your book and the rest of the story, is that this conversation establishes for Nixon, that Johnson and others undoubtedly know exactly what I did around this matter and that this is out there somewhere. This a known thing. So this will be hanging in the back of Richard Nixon’s mind for the entirety of his presidency. A fear that this could still come out somehow.

00:29:46:16                Hughes: Right, Johnson sounds like he has better information than he does. And uh, if you were Richard Nixon and you were guilty, this was a very scary conversation because Nixon wouldn’t know exactly where Johnson got that information. And shortly after this conversation, J. Edgar Hoover makes things worse, the director of the FBI has his first meeting with President elect Nixon, Hoover didn’t know much about the Chennault Affair, he knew what came in through the FBI wiretap. So he knew Chennault had said hold on, I’ve spoken to my boss, not further identified, were going to win. Hoover goes to this meeting with President Elect Nixon and lies. He says, not only do we have a tap on the South Vietnamese Embassy, we have a tap on Anna Chennault’s phone. Now according to Chennault, the person who relayed her orders was the campaign chairman John Mitchell, so if there had been a tap on Chennault’s phone, it might have picked up any conversations between Mitchell and Chennault on that phone. And Hoover made up a bug on president, on their public and Republican presidential nominees campaign plan in the last two weeks of the campaign. This did not exist.

00:31:06                    Blackmon: As far as we know.

                                   Hughes: As far as we know. Well, all the FBI reports on the Chennault affair have been released and if one had existed, we would I think know about it at this point. But, at that point, Nixon had to worry that whatever his involvement was in the Chennault affair was somewhere in the FBI’s files. So, sidebar, he never did replace J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI. Even though he wanted to. 

00:31:35;19                Blackmon: Yeah it’s a twisted story. Of passive aggressive mega-geo politics, and its really amazing. But so, the way, lets go through that a little bit, the way that Johnson came to know this. You told some of the story before, but let’s go back over some of that. He first hears of it, from this guy Alexander Sachs, who is as you say, a historical figure, has been plugged in to very important things before, goes back to the time of FDR. But he’s really just relaying some hearsay, really. Some stuff he picked up over lunch in New York one day. And it turns out then, though, that the President is able to tap in to these other forms of confirmation. And one of them is a bug in the office of the president of South Vietnam. Not his cell phone, because he didn’t yet have a cell phone. But why was the United States bugging the President of South Vietnam’s office, our ally?

00:32:33;07                Hughes: Why were we bugging our ally  It was called diplomatic intelligence. Uh, Johnson wanted to know how the idea of a bombing halt was going down with South Vietnam. South Vietnam did not like the idea of halting the bombing of North Vietnam. It thought that peace talks were just a prelude to abandoning South Vietnam to the communists, to ultimately take over. And you know, as events turned out, over the next four years, that’s where things wound up. They were right about that. And also Johnson had the other diplomatic intelligent source of the National Security Agency, which was giving him all the cables that Ambassador Diem sent to the Saigon government. So he was doing that basically to see if he could get South Vietnam to go to the peace talks. He knew they were reluctant, but he also knew that America had enormous leverage over South Vietnam, and if it thought that both the Republicans and the Democrats were united around getting the peace talks started it would realize it really had no choice. Uh, Johnson only put it in the position of having that bipartisan ultimatum leveled against it right after the election, not before.

00:33:49;13               Blackmon: Now these peace talks that ultimately do, I mean, there there ultimately are some negotiations but they don’t bring. I mean this is 1968 into 69 and the war goes on uh

00:33:58;13                Hughes: Another four years

00:34:00;20                Blackmon: Another four years

00:34:01;06                Hughes: Yes, ultimately, um Nixon negotiated a decent interval, un-uh a decent interval uh deal with um, through Hanoi, uh sorry through Beijing and Moscow. Uh he had Kissinger assure Hanoi’s top uh two suppliers of military aid that as long as Hanoi waited a year or two after Nixon withdrew the last American troops, before the North took over the South, that Nixon would not intervene. So um the deal that Nixon ultimately struck totally withdrew American forces, which according to all his advisors uh in the first year in office, the State Department, CIA, Joint Chiefs, Pentagon, General Abrams, all said that South Vietnam depended on American troops to survive. The deal he struck in 1973 removed all them, got all our POWs back. Removed all American force from the war and uh basically Nixon once again had to threaten to cut off American aid to South Vietnam just to get uh Saigon to agree to that, because Saigon knew if we cut off aid, it would fall faster than uh decent interval. 

00:35:15:15                Blackmon: Isn’t it amazing, one I mean one just has to make the observation that that it was 40 years ago that we faced the situation where the United States had made a gigantic military uh decision and engagement in a particular place, built up an entire army then declared that this army was ready to stand on it’s own, and could hold up against these these outside forces, and it was time to withdraw and as soon as we withdrew, it all fell apart. 

00:35:38;11                Hughes: Yes and and Nixon and Kissinger did not believe in the the program of training and building up and modernizing the South Vietnamese army. They timed American withdrawal to the 1972 election. Uh they were worried if they brought the troops home too much before the election, Saigon would fall before the election. Uh, so they they planned more than a year in advance to bring the troops home sometime between July 1972 and January 1973. They call that the window of opportunism because that was that would protect Nixon and his re-election campaign, it would not protect South Vietnam. South Vietnam wound up having uh 1.1 million men in arms, trained, equipped. Uh North Vietnam had 150,000 soldiers in the south uh following the 1972 Easter offensive. And those 150,000 were there on the day that uh Nixon brought the last American troops home. And even though South Vietnam’s trained, equipped argument uh army dwarfed uh the North Vietnamese army, President Thiêu of South Vietnam and Nixon and and Kissinger expected Saigon to fall.

00:36:53:21                Blackmon: And it, a couple of years ago I had sitting in the same chair here uh a very important military scholar and uh we were talking about more current events. Uh and he was talking about the strength, the the apparent strength of the Iraqi army rebuilt by uh uh America. And I said gosh that sounds a lot like what was being said about the South Vietnamese army in 1968 and he said, “Oh no no no, that’s a completely incorrect comparison. No no possible reasonable comparison between Iraq and Vietnam and here we are. That speaks for itself. Um you make reference to uh uh another uh very interesting point in there of of the role of Henry Kissinger uh who uh at before these events uh during earlier in the campaign period uh where Nixon is uh because he had been a consultant to the administration on Vietnam matters and the peace negotiations, he actually has access to the American negotiators in Paris and uh during the campaign is talking to them and learning about the the the thinking of the administration and others involved but then is betraying the administration, betraying the trust of these these other uh negotiators and relaying all that information back to the Nixon campaign. 

00:38:03;09                Hughes: Well yes you’re uh Kissinger had access to the declassified, I’m sorry, to the classified instructions to America’s chief negotiator with the North Vietnamese in 1968.  Um I haven’t seen any evidence that Kissinger specifically gave classified information to the Nixon campaign, but he did take advantage of his insider status, you know the trust of the Johnson administration, which Kissinger had gained in 1967 working on a a bombing haul deal that did not come off, and he used that to carry favor with Nixon and Nixon gave that as a prime reason why he made Kissinger National Security Advisor, because he he admired the way Kissinger was able to keep a secret.    

00:38:49;16                Blackmon: Yeah, so we end up with that even before the Nixon presidency has begun, ha even before President Nixon has even been sworn in, we have the Henry Kissinger has has been involved in something that is at at a minimum uh-

00:39:02;29                Hughes: Unethical

00:39:03;17                Blackmon: Unethical, dubious, uh a behavior uh and and President Nixon has been directly involved in something which is arguably criminal or even treasonist.

00:39:11;27                Hughes: Right.

00:39:11;28                Blackmon: And he’s not even president yet.

00:39:13;03                Hughes: Right, and these things have to do with foreign policy. People often kind of separate you know two Nixons. You have this foreign policy statesman and this rogue of domestic politics, and they think the two are kind of separate. But, in the Chennault Affair, shows that they’re really the same guy because Nixon is not only putting himself above the law, he’s putting his political uh well-being above the lives of American soldiers. Uh the 1968 campaign foreshadows that and his decision as President to time America’s exit from the Vietnam to his 1972 re-election campaign, and to negotiate a decent interval with uh the communists, shows that he just he continues to be the man who put his political well-being above the lives of American soldiers and it’s uh I I think it’s a far worse story than Watergate. You know the old saying is “Nobody died in Watergate.” Well, thousands of Americans died because Nixon uh you know prolonged a war and faked peace for political gain.

00:40:21:29                Blackmon: And tens of thousands of Vietnamese people died

00:40:23;15                Hughes: Tens of thousands uh yeah. 

00:40:25;20                Blackmon: In the same period of time

00:40:25;25                Hughes: And many many more.

00:40:26;26                Blackmon: Yeah yeah. Let’s listen to let’s let’s fast forward um to 1971 we’ve been in 1968. Let’s fast-forward to uh uh to 1971 when the uh when the the more domestic version of Richard Nixon, the story we know better, has begun to manifest itself, uh particularly in these recordings, uh the and you you point out in your book that while the recordings tell us much about Watergate, we actually still don’t ever have recording or other explicit evidence of Richard Nixon ordering the uh the plumbers to do the Watergate break-in, but he does order a different burglary at an earlier point in time. What is that?

00:41:03;06                Hughes: Yeah, um little background for that. Nixon enters the oval office January 1969. One of the first long term assignments he gives his Chief of Staff H.R.Haldeman was to make him a report with all the documents on the bombing haul. Nixon is immediately obsessed with getting his hands on everything having to do with the bombing haut.

00:41:23;14                Blackmon: Because?

00:41:24:21                Hughes: In in my opinion, because he is afraid of what’s in the files on him. He knows that Johnson decided to keep that information secret, but Johnson could not keep it a secret entirely from the rest of his administration, and Nixon is afraid that other democrats associated with Johnson might eventually release it. So Haldeman puts Tom Charles Huston in charge of this project and Huston later became notorious during Watergate as the author of the Huston Plan, uh, a plan ostensibly to combat domestic terrorism by stepping up government break ins, government wire taps, uh mail openings, things of that sort. What we didn’t know at the time of Watergate and for decades after, is that at the same time Houston is putting together the Huston Plan, he’s telling Nixon, “I’ve found out that in the final days of the Johnson administration, within the international security affairs office of the pentagon, they put together a report with all the documents on the bombing halt, and that former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and uh the guy who ran International Security Affairs, Paul Warnke, have copies of this and uh so does Leslie Gelb over at the Brooking Institution. So, Nixon now has reason to fear that in the hands of his enemies, is the information that could destroy him. Well it turns out this report apparently didn’t even exist, I mean it’s never come to light. They did uh an oral history interview with Houston, that just came out this year, um, in which he kind of acknowledged that the report he was talking about sounds an awful like the Pentagon Papers, which was a report with all the documents on events leading up to the partial bombing halt that Johnson announced in March of 1968, the same night that he announced he wasn’t going to run again.

00:43:24:08                Blackmon: An all of which is prior to Nixon’s efforts to intervene.

00:43:28:00                Hughes: Right. Yes. The Pentagon Papers doesn’t contain anything about Nixon. Um but this other report, the non-existent one, could. So, um, Nixon wants to get this report, but uh nothing happens. Um doesn’t it goes on the back-burner until June of 1971, when the New York Times starts publishing massive stories on the Pentagon Papers. Uh the time starts that on June 13th and Nixon’s deputy national security advisor Alexander Haig speculates, pulls out of the air, that the people responsible for the leak are Clifford, uh Morton Halperin, who also worked in the ISA, and Leslie Gelb. Nixon hatches a conspiracy theory. The Pentagon Papers, in Nixon’s mind, are the first step in leaks of his own national security secrets. He’s afraid Halperin is going to leak the secret bombing of Cambodia uh which Nixon started in 1969, an attempt to slow down the flow of supplies and soldiers from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. Um and he never says this on tape but I think he’s also worried about them leaking the Bombing Halt Report because he fears it has something on him. Um so four days after the Pentagon Papers leak, he’s in the oval office with his inner circle with H.R. Haldeman his Chief of Staff, his chief of  his Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman, and uh Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor, and Haldeman starts talking about uh blackmailing Johnson.

                                   Blackmon:  Alright let’s listen to some of that conversation now.  And this is from June the 17th , 1971, Haldeman, Nixon, Kissinger are all in the Oval Office together and this is their conversation that relates to all of that.

00:45:30:00               June 17, 1971 Tape

                                   White House Chief of Staff H.R.Bob Haldeman: You can maybe blackmail Johnson on this stuff.

                                   President Nixon: What?

                                   Haldeman: You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.

                                   President Nixon: How?

                                   Haldeman: The Bombing Halt stuff is all in the same file. Or in some of the same hands.

                                   President Nixon: Oh, hows that show-oh, I wondered, incidentally-

                                   Haldeman: It isnt in this. It isnt in these papers, but the whole Bombing Halt file

                                   President Nixon: Do we have it? Ive asked for it. You said you didnt have it, Henry.

                                   Haldeman: We cant find-

                                   National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger: We have nothing here, Mr. President.

                                   President Nixon: Damn it, I asked for that because I need it. [Unclear]-

                                   Kissinger: Yeah, but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.

                                   Haldeman: We have a basic history of it constructed on our own but there is a file on it.

                                   President Nixon: Where?

                                   Haldeman: [Tom Charles] Huston swears to God theres a file on it at Brookings.

                                   Kissinger: I wouldnt be surprised.

                                   President Nixon: All right, all right, all right, you [unclear]

                                   Haldeman: In the hands of the same kind of [unclear] the same people.

                                   President Nixon: Bob, Bob, now you remember Hustons plan? Implement it.

                                   Kissinger: But couldnt we go over? Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.

                                   President Nixon: [unclear]. You know, I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

00:46:38:00                Blackmon: Wow. “Blow the safe and get it. I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it get in and get those files.” Wow. It’s also fascinating in the same, that in the same dialogue, when his top advisor suggests blackmail, President of the United States doesn’t say “Well I’m not so sure about blackmail” he says “How?”  It’s really something. Uh alright let’s go ahead and listen to another uh another uh piece piece of audio because in the end, I’m correct aren’t I that they don’t pursue the President’s orders here and do the burglary right off the bat. Yeah. So let’s listen to another tape, another cut of sound that comes about two weeks later on July the first, 1971.

00:47:34:00                July 1, 1971 Tape

                                   President Nixon: Were up against an enemy. A conspiracy. Theyre using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.

                                   (a few minutes later)

                                   President Nixon: Bob, get on the Brookings thing right away. Ive got to get that safe cracked.

00:48:03:00                Blackmon: Wow.

00: 48:05:27               Hughes: Well he was serious. This break in was one of the reasons he put together the plumbers, the special investigations unit. Um that included a former FBI agent, G. Gordon Liddy and a former CIA agent, E. Howard Hunt. Uh Nixon was able throughout the Watergate period of the 1970s to portray the creation of the plumbers as something he was doing to crack down on the leak of legitimate national security secrets like negotiating arms control or negotiating the opening to China. But the tapes show us that he put it together to commit crimes,  To uh to break into Brookings and to gather information from the grand jury investigation of the Pentagon Papers and the FBI investigation for him to leak to destroy uh Warnke, Helper, and Gelb. The imaginary conspiracy against him. So this was this was a criminal act – presidents are not allowed to do this. Uh and fast-forward a year to the Watergate break-in.  Um, once those burglars were caught in Democratic National Committee headquarters, uh the FBI was quickly finding out that the masterminds of that break in were Hunt and Liddy. So, if Nixon had not ordered a cover up, and unobstructed it an FBI investigation of Hunt and Liddy, would lead back to the creation of the plumbers, and that would lead back to uh the criminal order that Nixon gave uh and the criminal act he took in creating a group to carry out this order and that would have been an impeachable defense and not a really hard one to understand. I mean obstruction of justice the the crime that Nixon uh was exposed and was exposed as having committed right before he resigned, it’s it’s abstract. Ordering a break in, not abstract, very easy to understand. So um people argue that if Nixon had just uh you know cut the the guilty parties loose in June of 1972, he would have been fine. But no, no if he if he cut them loose it led straight back to him. And he might have, he might have lost the presidency sooner. So, um, people often say with Watergate it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up, but I say it's the crime committed to cover up the crime committed to elect Richard Nixon in the first place.

00: 50:48:22               Blackmon: Yeah and the crimes are not just the ordering of the blowing of the safe and the burglary, not not just that conspiracy, but in fact the real crime is this arguably treasonous thing that occurred even before he was President of the United States.

00: 50:59:17               Hughes: Right and if people had found out that he ordered this break in they would have investigated why?

00: 51:03:20               Blackmon: Yeah, yeah. It’s uh it’s fairly staggering really. It’s a staggering story. Um, the there’s an interesting element to all of this as I was working through the book, that the that I’m intrigued with how you put this together uh because the you know it’s really Johnson tapes that confirm this – well, you know the the original events from ’68 Nixon is not yet the President, so there can’t be any presidential recordings uh of him planning the or talking about those things uh but you triangulate that that these events that uh of Nixon’s efforts to intervene in the in these peace talks or to slow them down. You triangulate it between the the sort of postdated events of uh of uh looking back on all of this and his fear on all of it, but then also the there’s a memoir by the uh South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States that makes reference to it. There’s a memoir by uh Anna Chennault herself. Uh and then there’s a document uh, there’s a memo that uh a Nixon speech writer wrote that refers to this and then hung onto it because he thought the meetings didn’t occur (Hughes: right) if I if I read the footnotes correctly. Uh the. So you triangulate between these things, and all of this adds up to a clear case that Nixon was in the loop on this effort to obstruct the peace negotiations. 

00: 52:21:07               Hughes: Nixon’s subsequent actions don’t make any sense if he was not guilty.  It makes no sense to break into Brookings to get this report if all he wants to do is blackmail Lynden Johnson. What he would he blackmail Lynden Johnson to do in 1971? Johnson was this spent force in democratic politics. The Bombing Halt was an issue that could not come up again um and breaking into the Brookings was an enormous risk, uh an impeachable offense, a criminal offense, an imprisonable offense. Nixon did not order any other break-ins as far as we know uh as far as we can prove, this is the only one we can prove that he ordered. Um it would be kind of a crazy thing for him to do if if he was not protecting himself. Also the Watergate cover up would be a crazy thing for him to do if he was not protecting himself. Um  wind up you know agreeing with Johnson, who despite what he said to Nixon, um you know saying that uh on the phone to Nixon he says that I don’t think you are behind this. On the phone with his own aides he’s like pretty sure Nixon is behind this.

                                   Blackmon:   There also are some some mysterious aspects to the triangulation, the, the uh uh the South Vietnamese Ambassador remembers that this uh critical meeting that set in motion, he he remembers it as having happened uh in July and a specific date and in 1968. And Anna Chennault remembers, describes what appears to be the same meeting but says it’s on a snowy day uh uh uh and and the and the um the substance of the meeting is shared between these accounts but all the details are a bit off between them.

00: 54:17:18               Hughes: Yes, Anna Chennault I think her memory was just a little a little bad. She had uh uh a good biographer. Catherine Forslund wrote an excellent book on her and got a chance to look through her papers and her diary and said the meeting did take place when Bui Diem said it did. So um the while the details are conflicting, I I think the fact of the meeting is clear from several sources and uh Chennault’s explanation of what was going on there makes the most sense because why would the Ambassador to South Vietnam, I’m sorry the Ambassador from South Vietnam, be spending so much time with a Republican fund raiser if she only just speaking for herself. 

00: 55:18:09               Blackmon: And then the most direct connection to Nixon himself, I mean the really tactile evidence that Nixon clearly uh knew about this and was apart of it is this other memo that’s written by a Nixon staffer uh to uh to Nixon himself and he makes a notation on it himself, but that document at least you cited – you cited from a book by William Safire in 1975 not the original document, so is the document floating around somewhere? Or…

00: 55:43:00               Hughes: I I don’t know um (Blackmon: Isn’t that interesting?) Isn’t it? It is. Um Safire did not think the meeting took place and that’s why he you know uh obviously a Nixon fan, included it in his memoirs, and it was the memo proposing that Nixon have a meeting with the South Vietnamese Ambassador. There would be nothing unethical about a nominee or a candidate meeting with the South Vietnamese Ambassador. So Nixon’s decision to keep it secret, and he writes about keeping it secret on the memo, uh even from his own Secret Service Agents is suspicious and makes one wonder why he would do that. This explanation that Chennault gives makes sense if he if he is creating this secret back channel to Saigon, then yes he would want to keep that secret.

00: 56:29:01               Blackmon: And so you say that this is not the magic key uh to understanding everything about Watergate. Everything, uh so so what do you mean by that? How is it not the magic key?

00: 57:01:23               Hughes: Watergate is this vast (laughs) vast uh network, complex of wrongdoing that includes so many other things um campaign financing, uh campaign financing of illegal activities, selling of ambassadorships, uh just the the politicization of pretty much everything is is what I call it and um Nixon had a um um um great ambition to be the Republican Franklin Roosevelt. To create a new governing coalition for America.  Johnson, I’m sorry FDR had one for the left and Nixon wanted to create one for the right and he succeeded.  And um it wound up dominating American politics for the rest of the Cold War. And it still is very powerful today. So it’s kind of relevant to see how that came into being, but the Chennault Affair is really just one part of it. A part that’s been overlooked. It’s a part the people need to know about in order to realize that Nixon enters office with something to cover up.  That the complex scandal we call Watergate extends back to before the beginning of his presidency and uh the way he became President kind of foreshadows you know the way he got re-elected and also his ultimate downfall.

01:01:56;10                Blackmon: And there are another, there a total of what, not quite 4,000 hours of Nixon tapes in toto?

01:02:04;04                Hughes: Three-thousand…they’ve recounted them and the latest number is 3,432 in total, of which 2,658 have been released to the public, 2,658 hours have been released to the public so far.

01:02:18;18                Blackmon: And a whole lot of that wasn’t released until August 2013.

01:02:20;00                Hughes: Right.

01:02:23;22                Blackmon: Along with 58 million pages or something of documents from the administration. Why wasn’t this until August 2013?  You know I thought that this was all out on the table. That we had, everyone thought that the Nixon tapes were the ones that got talked about in 1973 but it turns out there’s thousands hours more and they’ve all been locked away all this time. Why?

01:02:40;27                Hughes: Well Nixon made it his mission uh from the day he resigned in 1974 to the day he died in 1994 to have the tapes destroyed, which was plan A.  And he actually came pretty close to getting an agreement with the Ford White House that would have allowed him to do that. To um at least keeping the American people from ever hearing them.  So for those 20 years the only ones we ever heard were the Watergate Tapes and that only about 60 hours which is, you know, far less than one percent of the total. So uh after Nixon’s death, the legal situation changed uh thanks to the heroic efforts of a historian named Stanley Cutler and a public service research sorry a public service legal group, the National Archives began releasing these tapes in bulk.  And you know they release them in batches of hundreds of tapes at a time. Uh and on those day that they were released, reporters would rush, find the most interesting ones they could, publish and then move on to the next thing. And so by and large a lot of these tapes have just not been heard by very many people which is one of the reasons here that we have tried to make accessible transcripts. Transcripts that allow people to follow while they listen to the tapes, and provide the background so that they’re able to grasp the issues of yesteryear whose details have probably receded in memory. But by and large this stuff is untapped, unclaimed territory for the enterprising historian to go forth and claim.

01:04:20;28                Blackmon: How many, how many hundreds of hours or thousands of hours have you yourself digested?

01:04:25;08                Hughes: Haha, um, people ask that question and I’ve never kept a tally. I know I’ve listened to hundreds of hours but I certainly have not heard most of the tapes and I definitely have not heard all of them.

01:04:38;00                Blackmon: So what else is out there? What’s lurking?

01:04:39;15                Hughes: We don’t know. We don’t know. There’s uh you know this fantastic stuff about Vietnam, this stuff about Watergate that we did not know, even though Watergate for two years was uh the focus of national attention but uh also the focus of investigative attention by uh legendary uh you know investigative journalists like Woodward and Bernstein and others of that era, um, and of course they’re continuing into our era as well. But also people with subpoena power, the special prosecutors, the congressional investigators. And while we, while they did tremendous work, they closed their investigations without knowing that Nixon had ordered the Brookings break in. They did not investigate the Chennault Affair. That was just not part of the investigation at the time.  Nixon’s political misdeed regarding the Vietnam War, prolonging the war for political purposes to keep Saigon from falling before Election Day 1972. We had inklings of that before the tapes came out but the tapes prove it. You know, beyond a shadow of a doubt. So, anybody who is studying the Nixon administration, I strongly encourage them to dive in and see what they can find because there’s nothing, there’s no historical record like it. He had voice activated system, sound activated, so every time he had a conversation in the oval office for two and a half years the tape started rolling and there is interesting information to be found.

01:06:17;19                Blackmon: And why did he want the tapes at all?

01:06:43;00                Hughes: Fascinatingly, Nixon thought they would be available for him to correct lies told about the President. And, yes, there is irony in this.

01:07:26;19                Blackmon: Let me ask you a heretical question. A completely heretical question. Is it possible that in the 40 years since these recordings were made, since the end of the Nixon Presidency, that having been exposed to the depth of corruption and misdeeds and power politics of that era that we have now become so abhorrent of these kinds of practices that we have eliminated the ability of these incredibly powerful figures to exercise their power in ways, at times, is necessary.

1:08:06;15                  Hughes: I don’t think so. I’ve lived through some very powerful presidencies. Their problem is not can they get investigated. Ronald Reagan was a very strong leader. George Bush, the first George Bush, was a strong leader, at times. So is Bill Clinton, so is George W. Bush, so is President Obama. What we’ve lost is memory. I think the fact that Nixon is the best documented President and the best documentation of his presidency is his tapes and he lost his presidency because of those tapes has made everyone subsequent to him very reluctant to put anything in writing. I personally think we should tape them all but that’s very unlikely that policy recommendation will ever be adopted by people who have reason to fear that sometimes their remarks might be self-incriminating.  But I know that people who have tried to study subsequent presidencies have complained about the lack of documentation. As a citizen, that is something I worry about because, I know, as a historian, just what Nixon got away with and you kind of wish when you’re listening to the Nixon tapes that there were a hundred Woodard and Bernsteins working on them constantly because his worst abuses of power were in fact fatal, you know, to people of other countries and to American soldiers. And the sort of things that politicians say they need to keep confidential, you know, their policy discussions, they’re not the sort of things that Nixon had to hide. We need really, very much to know when presidents are making life or death decisions on the basis of politics.  And Nixon proves that our very most serious foreign policy president, and our very most serious foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger. These two guys are still highly esteemed in the field of national security. They habitually put their interest, their interest of, their political interest and their images above the lives of American soldiers and that is something that I thin is unacceptable to people across the political spectrum. It wouldn’t just be liberals and moderates who would object to prolonging a war for political reasons. It would be conservatives as well, most of them, only the most fanatical people would believe that that was a correct thing to do and that it is knowledge that presidents can engage in that kind of abuse of power that makes me think that yes we should have the tapes rolling while these guys are doing these jobs. Release them 10, 20 years afterwards just to find out how our government actually works.

1:11:08;19                  Blackmon: Well you’ve given us an important window into a remarkable period of time. Thank you for being with us.

More Events →