Over the holiday weekend, the Nixon biographer John Aloysius Farrell (who has sometimes written about the 37th president in this space) delivered what might be called a historical bombshell. Using notes from H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, he reported that despite years of insistence it was not true, Nixon had in fact used back channels to kill peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War on the eve of the 1968 presidential election, in order to give himself a leg up in that race. Farrell writes:
But Nixon had a pipeline to Saigon, where the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that Johnson would sell him out. If Thieu would stall the talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s actions as a cheap political trick. The conduit was Anna Chennault, a Republican doyenne and Nixon fund-raiser, and a member of the pro-nationalist China lobby, with connections across Asia….
Nixon told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s personal secretary, contact another nationalist Chinese figure — the businessman Louis Kung — and have him press Thieu as well. “Tell him hold firm,” Nixon said.
The discovery is, despite coming four decades after the events it describes, and 23 years after Nixon’s passing, timely, because Nixon feels especially relevant these days—if not now, more than ever, certainly now, more than any time recently. As Farrell notes, Nixon’s moderation and effectiveness in enacting major reforms appeal to Democrats dismayed with the rightward drift of the Republican Party. There are also less flattering comparisons: Nixon’s legendary volatility has drawn parallels with Donald Trump’s spur-of-the-moment decision-making style, and suggestions that generals might refuse to follow illegal or dangerous orders harken back to the days when Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, effectively placed himself between the president and any order to use nuclear weapons. And then of course there’s a break-in at the Democratic National Committee during the heat of a close presidential campaign—it could be Watergate, or it could be last summer’s hacking attacks.
But the dynamic of late 1968, with one president on his way out the door but trying to accomplish what he could, and another, aspiring president attempting to undermine those policies, also speaks directly to the present moment in American politics.
In fall 1968, Johnson was attempting to find a way to end the war, which he had inherited from President John F. Kennedy and expanded, and which had already destroyed his political fortunes, leading him not to run for reelection. A successful negotiated end to the war would not have saved his presidency, but it might have helped redeem his legacy.