Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life 7

Richard Nixon has been accused of sabotaging the Paris Peace Talks during his 1968 run for U.S. President.  Did Richard Nixon, using Anna Chennault as a go-between, try to convince South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu to back out of the Paris Peace Talks, thereby depriving the Democrats of an opportunity to take credit for a peaceful resolution of the Vietnam War?  Did Chennault, speaking for Nixon, claim to Thieu that he could get a better deal from Nixon were Nixon to become President?

Overall, Jonathan Aitken in Nixon: A Life, appears to be skeptical about this.  Aitken acknowledges that prominent Nixon campaign adviser John Mitchell spoke once with Chennault about the peace talks, but he doubts that Nixon was personally involved in Chennault's activities.  Aitken says that Nixon regarded Chennault as a "self-promoting chatterbox" (Aitken's words), and he seems to be saying that Chennault acted on her own initiative, since she opposed Lyndon Johnson's proposed deal with North Vietnam.  Aitken on page 366 states that "The telephone intercepts had...specifically recorded Mrs Chennault telling the South Vietnamese embassy that Nixon did not know what she was up to", yet Aitken goes on to say that "She may well have taken Nixon's name in vain during her conversations with her friends in Saigon..."

On the preceding page, Aitken says that "even if Nixon, through Mitchell, was something more than an innocent bystander in the contact with Mrs Chennault, he was certainly not a guilty party to the breakdown of the peace talks."  According to Aitken, Thieu had his own reasons not to participate in the Paris Peace Talks, and he did not need prompting from Chennault or the Nixon campaign to act as he did.  Regarding Lyndon Johnson's belief that Nixon was sabotaging the peace talks, Aitken says that LBJ was paranoid, and he contends that neither the wiretaps on the phones of Spiro Agnew and John Mitchell, nor the bugging of Nixon's plane, uncovered "any evidence of collusion" (page 465).  (NOTE: I have read in a couple of places that the allegation that Nixon's campaign plane was bugged was false.)  Moreover, according to Aitken, the reason that Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey did not go public with the accusation that Nixon sought to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks was that he did not believe that Nixon would do such a thing.

Aitken's narration of this appears to be rather contradictory, but he still offers perhaps the best defense of Nixon that I have read so far.  Was there solid evidence that Nixon was working through Chennault to sabotage the peace talks?  Or were Mitchell and Chennault acting on their own initiative?  Aitken does well to cast doubt on Chennault's claim that she was speaking for Nixon to the South Vietnamese, as she herself claimed on a few occasions that such was not the case.  But, as I say here, using Stephen Ambrose's biography of Nixon as my source, "Lyndon Johnson apparently had evidence that Nixon adviser John Mitchell, claiming to speak for Nixon, had asked Chennault to try to persuade Thieu to back out of the Paris Peace Talks."  Would Mitchell claim to speak for Nixon, without that being the case?

The answer to the question of whether Nixon knew about the activities of Mitchell and Chennault may revolve around how involved Nixon was in the details of his campaign.  There were times when Nixon was supposedly obsessed with the details of his campaign and intimately involved in what his campaign did.  But there were also arguably times when he had a more hands-off approach when it came to what his underlings did.  Watergate, in my opinion, is a good example of that.

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