According to records of President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s secret monitoring of South Vietnamese officials and his political foes, Anna Chennault played a crucial role on behalf of the Nixon campaign which attempted to help the U.S. ally South Vietnam preserve its independence. She arranged the contact with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem whom Richard Nixon met in secret in July 1968 in New York. It was through Chennault’s intercession that Republicans advised Saigon to refuse participation in the talks, promising a better deal once elected. Records of FBI wiretaps show that Chennault phoned Bui Diem on November 2 with the message “hold on, we are gonna win.” Before the elections President Johnson “suspected (…) Richard Nixon, of political sabotage that he called treason”.
At a July 12 meeting in Nixon’s New York apartment at the Hotel Pierre, 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.
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.
In a series of remarkable White House recordings we can hear Johnson’s reaction to the news. In one call to Senator Richard Russell he says: “We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources. Mrs Chennault is warning the South Vietnamese not to get pulled into this Johnson move.”
He orders the Nixon campaign to be placed under FBI surveillance and demands to know if Nixon is personally involved. When he became convinced it was being orchestrated by the Republican candidate, the president called Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate to get a message to Nixon. LBJ knew what was going on, Nixon should back off and the subterfuge amounted to treason. Publicly Nixon was suggesting he had no idea why the South Vietnamese withdrew from the talks. He even offered to travel to Saigon to get them back to the negotiating table.
Johnson feared that going public would require revealing the FBI were bugging the ambassador’s phone and the National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting his communications with Saigon. So they decided to say nothing.
DeLoach then requested the following clarification: “Now did you say, and just to confirm what you’ve just said, we did intercept that phone call that she made to Ambassador Bui Diem, and she said specifically that, that ‘my boss says to hold off, that we’re going to win, hold it off.’ The President replied: “Well, Ambassador told his President that. And the President told a bunch of people that. We were watching him pretty close, as you can imagine, in Saigon, and he repeated—this went all the way through the chain of command. The only thing I’ve got to do is see who her boss is, which we think is Agnew, because Albuquerque’s the place. We ought to look at it carefully, because she talked to Agnew.” DeLoach speculated that the 1:02 p.m. call to campaign headquarters actually was to Chennault from Agnew. Johnson agreed. “She got the message from Albuquerque,” he noted. “That’s logical that he was the one [who] gave it, because when he called Rusk, that’s what we thought, because that’s the only way he could get information to give her, was from Rusk.” (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and DeLoach, November 13, 1968, 5:15 p.m., Tape F68.09, PNO 8).
LBJ did let Humphrey know and gave him enough information to sink his opponent. But by then, a few days from the election, Humphrey had been told he had closed the gap with Nixon and would win the presidency. So Humphrey decided it would be too disruptive to the country to accuse the Republicans of treason, if the Democrats were going to win anyway. Nixon ended his campaign by suggesting the administration war policy was in shambles. They couldn’t even get the South Vietnamese to the negotiating table. He won by less than 1% of the popular vote.
In part because Nixon won the presidency, no one was ever prosecuted for this violation of the Logan Act. Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, then FBI Deputy Director, mentioned in his book Hoover’s FBI that his agency was only able to connect a single November 2, 1968 phone call from the then Vice President candidate Spiro Agnew to Anna Chennault, unrecorded details of which Johnson believed were subsequently transmitted to Nixon.
In 1971 Nixon made huge efforts to find a file containing everything Johnson knew in 1968 about Nixon’s skulduggery.
For additional information on the electronic and physical surveillance measures relating to this episode, see U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Vol. VI (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976); ibid., Senate Select Committee on Governmental Operations, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans: A Final Report, Book 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976); and Cartha D. DeLoach, Hoover’s FBI: The Inside Story By Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant (New York: Regnery Publishing, 1995).