Declassified tapes of President Lyndon Johnson’s telephone calls provide a fresh insight into his world. Among the revelations – he planned a dramatic entry into the 1968 Democratic Convention to re-join the presidential race. And he caught Richard Nixon sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks… but said nothing.
After the Watergate scandal taught Richard Nixon the consequences of recording White House conversations none of his successors have dared to do it. But Nixon wasn’t the first.
He got the idea from his predecessor Lyndon Johnson, who felt there was an obligation to allow historians to eventually eavesdrop on his presidency.
The final batch of tapes released by the LBJ library covers 1968, and allows us to hear Johnson’s private conversations as his Democratic Party tore itself apart over the question of Vietnam…
Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters clashed with Mayor Richard Daley’s police, determined to force the party to reject Johnson’s Vietnam war strategy…As they taunted the police with cries of “The whole world is watching!” one man in particular was watching very closely.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was at his ranch in Texas, having announced five months earlier that he wouldn’t seek a second term.
The president was appalled at the violence and although many of his staff sided with the students, and told the president the police were responsible for “disgusting abuse of police power,” Johnson picked up the phone, ordered the dictabelt machine to start recording and congratulated Mayor Daley for his handling of the protest.
The president feared the convention delegates were about to reject his war policy and his chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey.
So he placed a series of calls to his staff at the convention to outline an astonishing plan. He planned to leave Texas and fly into Chicago…He would then enter the convention and announce he was putting his name forward as a candidate for a second term…
They…discussed whether the president’s helicopter, Marine One, could land on top of the Hilton Hotel to avoid the anti-war protesters.
Daley assured him enough delegates would support his nomination but the plan was shelved after the Secret Service warned the president they could not guarantee his safety…
They also shed light on a scandal that, if it had been known at the time, would have sunk the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon.
By the time of the election in November 1968, LBJ had evidence Nixon had sabotaged the Vietnam war peace talks – or, as he put it, that Nixon was guilty of treason and had “blood on his hands“…
It begins in the summer of 1968. Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign…He therefore set up a clandestine back-channel involving Anna Chennault, a senior campaign adviser.
At a July meeting in Nixon’s New York apartment, the South Vietnamese ambassador was told Chennault represented Nixon and spoke for the campaign. If any message needed to be passed to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, it would come via Chennault.
In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared.
Chennault was despatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal.
So on the eve of his planned announcement of a halt to the bombing, Johnson learned the South Vietnamese were pulling out.
He was also told why. The FBI had bugged the ambassador’s phone and a transcripts of Anna Chennault’s calls were sent to the White House. In one conversation she tells the ambassador to “just hang on through election”.
Johnson was told by Defence Secretary Clifford that the interference was illegal and threatened the chance for peace.
Nixon went on to become president and eventually signed a Vietnam peace deal in 1973.
Are the two political parties being run today by politicians any different from the era of Johnson and Nixon?