If questions remain about the paranoid Weltanschauung that occupied President Richard Nixon’s head, Chasing Shadows will dispel them. In a book filled with transcriptions from the tapes of both Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s presidencies, recounted stories of FBI, CIA, and Nixon aide intrigues, and material culled from principals’ memoirs, presidential recordings researcher Ken Hughes takes his readers on a journey down the rabbit-hole of Nixon’s conspiracy theories and fears of “Jews, intellectuals, and the Ivy League.” The book’s professed thesis that “the Chennault Affair played an unacknowledged, largely unseen, role in [the] Watergate wars” is almost lost in the maze of Nixon’s actions, but Hughes gets back to this “thread” at the end clarifying his argument that the entirety of the Nixon administration was built upon his pursuit of the conspiracies he saw around him and a need to protect his ultimate secret—that he used Mrs. Anna Chennault as a go-between to the government of South Vietnam to keep his presidential campaign abreast of their plans vis-à-vis the Johnson administration’s attempts to end the Vietnam War before LBJ left office. Hughes contends that Watergate was a continuation of the cover-up that started in 1968 even before Nixon was elected, as he pulled strings behind the scenes to defeat his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey.
The story of Mrs. Chennault’s connection to the Nixon campaign—the meeting between her, Nixon, and South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States Bui Diem, and their subsequent machinations to keep the Saigon government from agreeing, just days before the 1968 election, to attend multi-party peace talks to end the war—has been told many times before. Even my book on Chennault’s career as a model of informal diplomacy includes a chapter on the “October surprise.” It was first reported in the January 3, 1969 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and always denied by anyone accused or in the know or both, until Mrs. Chennault’s eventual admission in her 1980 autobiography The Education of Anna. Finally however, Hughes has brought together a wealth of information from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Presidential Recording Program and interlaced words from the mouths of two presidents and their staffers with now declassified documents, remembrances of onlookers, and analysis of several historians to tell a very complete story. Beginning with the bombing halt events, Hughes goes through the end of Nixon’s presidency tracing the fears that drove the president out of office. This created a sometimes confusing, but broadly compelling recounting of the events that started at least four years before the Watergate burglars left tape on the door alerting security guards to their presence in the building and leading to the first—and so far only—resignation of an American president.
The book’s professed thesis that “the Chennault Affair played an unacknowledged, largely unseen, role in [the] Watergate wars” is almost lost in the maze of Nixon’s actions, but Hughes gets back to this “thread” at the end clarifying his argument that the entirety of the Nixon administration was built upon his pursuit of the conspiracies he saw around him and a need to protect his ultimate secret …
The Chennault Affair (as Hughes calls it) began with Nixon’s request in 1967 that Chennault serve as an advisor to his campaign on Southeast Asian affairs. She was well-positioned to do so because of her role as a freelance journalist for multiple Asian publications and as a consultant to several American aviation companies. She was personal friends with President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos, among others, plus she knew most high-ranking aviation officers (and most in the other military branches too) in South Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan—all the non-communist allies of the United States in the region. Her dinners and parties where everyone mixed and mingled were a perfect setting for operation of the military-industrial machine, lubricated by the social milieu of the nation’s capital. Mrs. Chennault was the ideal connection for Nixon, her regular Asian travel made it easy to meet foreign leaders in various capitals, conveying the GOP “hold firm” message, while everything looked like business as usual. As Hughes says, “The Chennault Affair posed a risk for [Nixon], but the start of peace talks before Election Day would have posed a bigger one.” Since his public campaign position was that he supported South Vietnam accepting the peace talk invitation, he needed to be sure the South Vietnamese government knew his real position. Thieu’s rejection of the olive branch offered by LBJ less than a week before the election guaranteed it for Nixon and so began protection of his secret.
After taking office, Nixon (through his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman) attempted to gather any and all documents relating to the Chennault Affair left behind in various agencies by the LBJ administration. But doing that “was an impossible task” because the papers best able to reveal the truth left Washington with Johnson when he retired and went home to Texas. In fact, the very best documentary record of the Affair was placed in “an envelope marked with the letter X and the words ‘Eyes Only’” and given by Walt Rostow “on day two of [John] Dean’s testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, June 26, 1973” to the head of the LBJ Library who was told it was not to be opened for 50 years. LBJ gave Rostow (his former National Security Advisor) the file and asked him to hold it personally and in the case of the president’s death (which did occur in January 1973), it would go to the LBJ Library under conditions that Rostow set. At the time, Rostow included his own observations which recognized a connection between the Chennault Affair and Watergate. He opined that in 1968, it was reasonable for the GOP manipulators to have believed their efforts with the South Vietnam government might provide “the margin of victory,” and that they got away with it—no investigation of the Affair was ever conducted. Therefore as they approached the ’72 election, those same manipulators believed it was worth the risk again. Hughes noted the irony in Rostow’s complaint about the fact that “‘the matter was never investigated fully’” when his very sealing of the X file documents “ensured that it would not be fully investigated.” Not too long after Nixon’s death in 1994, Rostow ordered the documents released. They are available today in the LBJ Library. They also exist in the records of any number of historians who signed on to the Freedom of Information Act Request for the file’s release over the years. I signed on in the mid-1990s as a graduate student. My own reading of the file (which arrived after the Chennault biography was published in 2002) shares Hughes’ analysis.
However, in 1969, Nixon believed in the existence of a report written by the “Defense Department’s Office of International Security Affairs (ISA)” that explored “all events leading up to the bombing halt.” It was supposedly secured by Leslie Gelb “a top aide to [Paul C.] Warnke [a former assistant secretary at ISA]” and hidden in a safe inside the Brookings Institution. Nixon accepted all this despite a total lack of hard evidence. He demanded Haldeman get “that goddamn Gelb material,” even going so far as to tell his aides “[b]low the safe and get it.” The White House aide to whom Haldeman assigned the task of finding the bombing halt material, Tom Charles Huston, was responsible for the story of the so-called Gelb report. He later authored something Hughes called the “Huston Plan” designed “to expand the use of government break-ins, wiretaps, and mail opening in the name of fighting domestic terrorism.” Hughes implies that Huston’s plan offered an early blueprint for the modus operandi later made so infamous by CREEP[i] (the Committee to Re-Elect the President). Nixon’s obsession with the Gelb report continued throughout his presidency.
The administration’s actions as conveyed by Hughes’s many storytellers reveal successive and overlapping layers of intrigue surrounding Nixon’s attempt to either get the Gelb report or to keep anyone else from examining or revealing it. At times, it seemed that Nixon’s fears were as much related to his paranoia as to anything related to the Chennault Affair.
Fear of exposing the campaign secret kept Chennault from receiving any prominent appointment from the Nixon administration and in fact my own research revealed a strong effort by Nixon’s aides to keep her at arm’s length for his entire presidency most of the time. That was in spite of her prominence as the leading Republican hostess during the era, still she was not given the usual reward for campaign contributors historically doled out by newly-elected presidents. She was used by Nixon again in later efforts to build support for his opening of relations with China. By the time he died in 1994, she was very bitter over her treatment by Nixon and wrote scathing obituaries of his life for Chinese newspapers.
The administration’s actions as conveyed by Hughes’s many storytellers reveal successive and overlapping layers of intrigue surrounding Nixon’s attempt to either get the Gelb report or to keep anyone else from examining or revealing it. At times, it seemed that Nixon’s fears were as much related to his paranoia as to anything related to the Chennault Affair. As Hughes put it “[t]he flaw that brought Nixon down was his ability to convince himself, without evidence, that enemies were conspiring against him, and to use that to justify his conspiring against them.” Through 50 mini-chapters, Hughes recounts all the conspiracies Nixon saw around him, whether in the Federal Reserve, in the work of Assistant Commissioner of Labor Statistics or elsewhere, all ultimately leading to the Watergate burglary.
Of course, the morass in Vietnam was a thread through the mosaic of the many perceived dangers to Nixon’s administration. Nixon came to office claiming he would end the war “with honor” but found it was not that easy—especially when he turned on his former ally immediately following the election by insisting that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu attend the peace talks, after months of keeping him away. The burden of the Vietnam War hung over Nixon’s presidency like the pall it was. Hughes makes clear why Nixon dragged out the military withdrawal during his first term. “He needed the time for Vietnamization to work. Actually, he needed the time to conceal the reality that Vietnamization would never work.” Ultimately, Nixon created his own demon when he and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger “use[d] the CIA as a brake on the wheels of justice” in getting murder charges dismissed against “’eight Green Berets suspected of killing a Vietnamese double agent’” an act that “inspired [Daniel] Ellsberg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers.”
The trail of connections related to the New York Times publication of the records that became known as the Pentagon Papers led to another layer of secrets Nixon feared might be his undoing. The Papers were really a multi-volume study commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, a history of the previous twenty-plus years of American military and political involvement in Vietnam. While the printing of these Papers in the Times generally served as a revelation of deception or worse by his Democratic predecessors, instead of celebrating, it bred in Nixon fears of his own actions being made public. “’We have been more careful, haven’t we?’” he asked his Deputy National Security Advisor Alexander Haig. Nixon continued to acknowledge “[w]e have kept a lot from State, I know, and enough from Defense,’”. Above all, Nixon viewed the leak as “treasonable” and wanted the culprit brought to justice. Again, it appeared to the president that his enemies were really out to get him.
Ultimately, Nixon created his own demon when he and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger “use[d] the CIA as a brake on the wheels of justice” in getting murder charges dismissed against “’eight Green Berets suspected of killing a Vietnamese double agent’” an act that “inspired [Daniel] Ellsberg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers.”
With chapter titles such as “‘Charge Gelb,’” “‘Destroy the Times,’” “‘Break In and Take It Out,’” “‘All These Harvard People,’” “The Economic Conspiracy Theory,” ““Are They All Jews?,’” “Counting Ivy Leaguers,” and “Above the Law” it is not hard to discern the gist of Hughes’s argument. The level of paranoia that Hughes portrays in the president’s mind ratchets up with each event that occurs leading up to and following the Watergate burglary. According to Hughes, these fears were all linked to Nixon’s need to limit knowledge of the Chennault Affair. But there were other things to hide—the secret bombing in Cambodia, the existence of the Special Investigations Unit (aka, the Plumbers) and its activities—and more to fear like the interpretation of unemployment and inflation figures both of which he feared might negatively influence his re-election efforts in 1972 or his administration’s legacy.
Hughes gives us a pleasantly dense tale of the shadows in Richard Nixon’s mind that might have been there even without the Chennault Affair—assuming he would have been elected without the Chennault machinations. We can never know if it determined the election outcome, but one major consequence of the Affair that we do know was Watergate.