Jules Witcover: Chennault, the woman who helped Nixon sell out peace to win presidency
WASHINGTON — On March 30, 94-year-old Anna Chennault died, a shadowy figure in the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. What history will remember her for is the pivotal role she played in Nixon’s victory — a role that, if it had been widely known at the time, might have deprived Nixon of the White House and assured the election of Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.
Days before that election, Mrs. Chennault — the China-born widow of World War II hero Gen. Claire Chennault of the famed Flying Tigers and a major Nixon fund-raiser — passed word to South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he boycotted planned peace talks in Paris, he could count on support of a President Nixon.
The Nixon campaign feared that Thieu’s presence would result in a deal that would end the war and swing the election to Humphrey. President Lyndon Johnson had ordered a halt in the bombing of Hanoi, also raising those hopes. But when Thieu indeed stayed away, the talks collapsed and Nixon was elected by 0.7 percent of the vote.
At the time, Humphrey had received from LBJ surveillance by the FBI of Chennault visits to the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington to urge Thieu not to go to the Paris meeting. The FBI reported she had gone to the embassy, then to the Nixon campaign headquarters and back to the embassy. But Humphrey declined to make the information public, knowing it was classified, and he — incredibly — doubted Nixon would be capable of engaging in such a nefarious undertaking.
In Humphrey’s later memoir, he wrote: “I wonder if I should have blown the whistle on Anna Chennault and Nixon. He must have known about her call to Thieu. I wish I could have been sure. Damn Thieu. Dragging his feet this past weekend hurt us. I wonder if that call did it. If Nixon knew. Maybe I should have blasted them anyway.”
According LBJ aide Joe Califano later, Humphrey’s failure to use the intelligence on Chennault “became the occasion for a lasting rift” between Johnson and his vice president. “That refusal really tore it,” Califano told me. “Johnson thought Hubert had no balls, no spine, no toughness.” LBJ himself told Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen he considered Nixon’s actions an act of “treason,” as a possible violation of the little-known Logan Act forbidding individual citizens to inject themselves into the conduct of foreign policy.
At least two reporters were onto the Chennault story — Tom Ottenad of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Saville Davis of the Christian Science Monitor — and both were shunted off it by Johnson officials, though both made general references to it in their newspapers.
Some 26 years later, for a book about 1968, I contacted Anna at her Georgetown office and she basically acknowledged her role, saying, “Anyone who knows about these things knows that I was getting orders to do these things,” and I so quoted her in the book.
In 2014, Ken Hughes, a diligent researcher at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, confirmed the story in exhaustive detail in his book on the Chennault affair, as did Nixon biographer John A. Farrell in his book last year.
By this time, however, Nixon had already been undone politically by Watergate, and the earlier affair that could have changed history sooner was reduced to an obscure footnote, demonstrating the lengths through which the man was willing to go to gain power.
Nixon, in getting away with the Chennault caper, may have convinced himself he could do so again in Watergate. “If only we had known,” Hughes wrote. “Nixon wasn’t a rogue with a redemptive streak of patriotism. He played politics with peace to win the 1968 election. He did the same to win re-election in 1972 at the cost of thousands of American lives.”
The tragedies that marked 1968 were horrible enough, without evidence that the winner of its presidential election did so by engaging in an illegal and despicable scheme to sabotage a sitting president’s efforts to end the Vietnam War. Nixon’s agent in the matter was known in political circles as “The Dragon Lady,” and she long afterward chafed that she had not been properly rewarded for it. What a pity.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.