Friday, June 05, 2020

When a Candidate Conspired With a Foreign Power to Win An Election

August 06, 2017

Richard Nixon’s telephone calls came regularly during the 1968 campaign. And H.R. Haldeman took meticulous notes, jotting down the instructions he received from the candidate.


Haldeman, 42, was Nixon’s campaign chief of staff, a devoted political adjutant since the 1950s. In late October 1968, the two men connected on what came to be known as “the Chennault Affair.” Nixon gave Haldeman his orders: Find ways to sabotage Johnson’s plans to stage productive peace talks, so that a frustrated American electorate would turn to the Republicans as their only hope to end the war.

The gambit worked, and the Chennault Affair, named for Anna Chennault, the Republican doyenne and fundraiser who became Nixon’s back channel to the South Vietnamese government, lingered as a diplomatic and political whodunit for decades afterward.

Johnson and his aides suspected this treachery at the time, for the Americans were eavesdropping on their South Vietnamese allies—(“Hold on,” Anna was heard telling the South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington. “We are gonna win”)—but hesitated to expose it because they had no proof Nixon had personally directed, or countenanced, her actions. Historians scoured archives for evidence that Chennault was following the future president’s instructions, without much luck. Nixon steadfastly denied involvement up until his death, while his lawyers fended off efforts to obtain records from the 1968 campaign.

It wasn’t until after 2007, when the Nixon Presidential Library finally opened Haldeman’s notes to the public, that I stumbled upon a smoking gun in the course of conducting research for my biography of Nixon: four pages of notes his brush-cut aide had scrawled late on an October evening in 1968. “!Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” Haldeman wrote, as Nixon barked orders into the phone. They were out to “monkey wrench” Johnson’s election eve initiative, Nixon said. And it worked.


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