Ken Hughes is a researcher in the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Since 1998 the program has transcribed many of the secretly recorded White House tapes of six American presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. Hughes is the author of a new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (University of Virginia Press), which uses declassified tapes from the Lyndon Johnson and Nixon administrations to delve into how the 1968 presidential election set the stage for the scandal that forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
What was the Chennault Afair?
The Chennault Affair was the crime that got Richard Nixon elected president. In 1968 the biggest political issue with regard to Vietnam was whether to halt the bombing of North Vietnam in order to get peace talks started. Lyndon Johnson had two secret military demands that he insisted Hanoi accept: Respect the demilitarized zone that divided Vietnam, and stop shelling civilian populations of South Vietnamese cities. Johnson set these demands in June 1968, and finally in October Hanoi accepted. The demands remained a secret, so when Johnson announced less than a week before Election Day that he was halting the bombing and that peace talks would begin the following week, it looked like a political ploy [to elect Democrat Hubert Humphrey]. Nixon publicly said he was in favor of the peace talks, but in private he used a fundraiser named Anna Chennault as a go-between with the South Vietnamese government. On November 2, just three days before the election, the FBI, which had a wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy phone, overheard Chennault telling the South Vietnamese ambassador that she had just spoken to her boss, not further identified in this conversation, and he had said, “Hold on, we’re going to win.” So Johnson knew the Republicans were interfering with his peace talks. On that day South Vietnamese president Nguyen van Tieu announced that Saigon would not be sending a delegation to Paris.
Who was Anna Chennault?
Anna Chennault was the widow of General Claire Chennault, a hero of World War II for his leadership of an American volunteer air squadron called the Flying Tigers that defended China against the Japanese invasion. She was the only Chinese-American woman to be a delegate to the 1968 Republican convention and raised a quarter of a million dollars for the Republicans during the campaign.
Why did the South Vietnamese boycott the peace talks in Paris?
One, they thought they would get a better deal from Nixon. Two, they thought that peace talks would lead to American withdrawal from South Vietnam, and they knew that South Vietnam depended on the American military for its survival. They knew peace talks would be the beginning of the end of South Vietnam.
Did Johnson talk to Nixon about what was going on?
Johnson knew the Republicans were interfering, but he did not have evidence against Nixon specifically. He confronts Nixon on November 3, and Nixon says, “I would never do that.” But we know from Nixon’s campaign speechwriter, William Safire, that despite Johnson’s request that Nixon call Chennault of, Nixon didn’t do anything to discourage her.
So how did this lead to Watergate?
Right after the election, Nixon did not know how much evidence was collected by the U.S. government with regard to the Chennault Affair. He knew that intelligence agencies had found something, but he didn’t know what. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, in his first meeting with the president-elect, bluffs and says that the FBI also had a bug on Nixon’s campaign plane—of course, that had never taken place. So Nixon had to fear that there was some evidence of his own role, if any, in the Chennault Affair. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced that Nixon was the force behind the Chennault Affair because he becomes obsessed with getting his hands on all the government documents related to the bombing halt. He claims that he’s doing this because he thinks Johnson was engaged in political chicanery, but we know that’s not the case.
You write that Nixon became convinced there was a secret file on the bombing halt at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and decided to steal it.
Nixon needed a team to conduct the burglary at Brookings, and that was his motivation for putting together this illegal, unconstitutional Special Investigations Unit [the “Plumbers,” two of whose members were later arrested for planning Watergate]. While he later claims publicly that he put it together to protect legitimate national security secrets, we know from the tapes that really his motivation was to protect illegitimate secrets that could damage him politically.
He discussed the break-in on tape?
Yes, and that’s key. The only breaking that we know for a fact Nixon ordered—and he ordered it several times—shows just how important it was to Nixon to get his hands on these bombing halt documents.
Nixon thought he could use them to blackmail the former president?
Nixon says, “I want you to break into the Brookings Institution and get this bombing halt report so I can blackmail Lyndon Johnson.” That really is an extremely unlikely motivation. One, there was nothing to blackmail Lyndon Johnson about. Two, the main thing Nixon wanted from Johnson was support on the Vietnam War. That was something Johnson freely gave. Third, and finally, it was an enormous risk to engineer a break-in. It was a criminal act and an impeachable offense. So in order to justify doing that, even in his own mind, Nixon had to have a much more compelling reason than a fishing expedition for blackmail material. I’m convinced that his real motive was to get all the evidence with regard to the Chennault Affair under his control. But the plan to rob Brookings got nixed.
Why didn’t Johnson reveal what he knew about the Chennault Affair?
A variety of reasons. One, the way that the material was gathered through the intelligence agencies of the U.S., through the CIA, the NSA and the FBI. These were things that people like Secretary of State Dean Rusk said should not become involved in American political campaigns. Another concern was that although they had evidence of Chennault’s involvement, they didn’t have direct evidence against Nixon himself. And Johnson and his aides seemed to be genuinely concerned that exposure of this sabotage would damage Nixon so badly should he become president that he wouldn’t be able to govern. So you see a Democratic administration putting itself above partisanship for the sake of preserving a Republican president’s ability to conduct his foreign policy. The final reason, which only came out on the tapes and that I find the most chilling, is that Johnson and Rusk thought that if the Chennault Affair was revealed, it would be the end of public support for the Vietnam War. If they were right and if that would have ended the war then and there, then more than 20,000 Americans who died under the presidency of Richard Nixon would have lived. The war would still have been lost, the communists would still have won, but that was the predictable outcome of American withdrawal.
These tapes were all recorded secretly. Does a president have an expectation of privacy for what he does in the White House?
It’s hard for people post-Nixon to realize that before Nixon, presidents secretly taped and kept absolute control of those tapes and kept the fact of the taping secret. Nixon was not the first president to secretly record his White House conversations. We think he was the last. But Franklin Roosevelt was the first to do so. Eisenhower, JFK and LBJ did so as well. Since they had all maintained control of their tapes and kept their taping, by and large, secret, Nixon had every expectation that his tapes would remain in his control and that he would never have to worry about them being heard by the American people. And if not for Watergate, he would have been able to keep them secret. What Watergate did was turn the tapes into criminal evidence, and Nixon couldn’t destroy the tapes. That is the only reason that we’ve got this priceless historical resource. So as people who love American history, we got incredibly lucky. It’s not at all clear whether we’ll ever be that lucky again.
Do you think presidents still secretly record in the White House?
I used to say no, and now I say I don’t know. I’m talking to you on a cell phone that is a more powerful and sophisticated recording device than the recording system that the president had in the Oval Office. We spend our days around equipment that has built-in microphones and built-in cameras. None of us fully understands how our technology works, but we all know it has the capacity to make these recordings.