With Richard Nixon sending word to Johnson, through Billy Graham, that as President he would give Johnson "a major share of credit" for a settlement in Vietnam and would "do everything to make you ... a place in history," Johnson secretly favored Nixon in the campaign. "You know that Nixon is following my policies more closely than Humphrey," LBJ told his longtime friend Jim Rowe, a prominent Washington attorney, in October. When Humphrey persuaded Johnson to have a fence-mending talk at the White House and then showed up late from a campaign rally, Johnson refused to see him. Humphrey was furious. He told Van Dyk, "That bastard Johnson.... I saw him sitting in his office. Jim Jones [a member of the White House staff] was standing across the doorway, and I said to him: 'You tell the President he can cram it up his ass.' I know Johnson heard me."
At this charged moment in the campaign Elias P. Demetracopoulos, a Greek journalist who had fled Athens in 1967 after the colonels' coup, provided the President with a chance to damage, if not sink, Nixon's campaign. Demetracopoulos had learned that Greece's military dictators had funneled more than half a million dollars into the Nixon-Agnew campaign. He gave this information to Larry O'Brien, Humphrey's campaign manager. Demetracopoulos urged O'Brien to put this potentially incendiary news before Johnson; CIA Director Richard Helms, Demetracopoulos said, could confirm its accuracy. O'Brien took the story to the President, but Johnson, according to what O'Brien told Demetracopoulos, refused to act on it. He would neither ask Helms to investigate the report nor leak it to the press should it prove to be true. Johnson wanted something to use against Nixon if the Nixon Justice Department started to comb the Johnson Administration for scandal, and Nixon's Greek connection would serve that purpose handsomely.
Only in the final days of the campaign -- when Nixon destroyed Johnson's last chance of reaching a peace settlement as President by secretly persuading the Saigon government not to participate in peace talks and thus not to allow an October surprise that could give Humphrey the election -- did Johnson try to help Humphrey.
Johnson left it to Humphrey to decide whether to leak Nixon's "treason" on Vietnam. In what the journalist Theodore White called an uncommon act of political decency, Humphrey chose not to make Nixon's sabotaging of peace a last-minute issue in the campaign. Humphrey feared that should Nixon win anyway, accusations against him could provoke a constitutional crisis. Besides, Humphrey and Johnson would need to explain how they had learned of Nixon's actions. They didn't want to reveal the wiretaps and bugs that had brought them the information about Nixon's undermining of the peace talks.
If LBJ had run again in 1968, can there be any doubt that, unlike Humphrey, he would have used Nixon's skulduggery against him in the closing days of the campaign? How different our national perspective would be had Johnson, rather than Nixon, served from 1969 to 1973.
Robert Dallek is a professor of history at Boston University. His article in this issue is based on research for his book to be published this month by Oxford University Press.
Illustration by Andrea Ventura
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Three New Revelations About LBJ; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 42 - 44.