Politics & Peacemaking
The 1968 "October Surprise"
BY JOHN PRADOS
Toward the end
of the 1968 presidential election that pitted Richard M. Nixon
against Hubert H. Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered
the end of the Rolling Thunder bombing of North Vietnam. The
bombing halt was based on an understanding with Hanoi that North
Vietnam would not take advantage and would engage in serious peace
negotiations. At the time, all the elements that became the Paris
Peace Accords of 1973 were on the table.
At a conference on missed opportunities during the Vietnam War
held in Hanoi in 1997 between former senior North Vietnamese and
U.S. officials and historians, the North Vietnamese said that the
opening of negotiations in 1968-69 was such an opportunity and
that the 1973 agreement would have been possible at the beginning
of these peace talks. But in 1968, in the heat of the American
presidential campaign, political maneuvers delayed negotiations
and contributed to the election of Richard Nixon. Attempts by the
Nixon administration to force concessions from the North
Vietnamese only served to lengthen the hostilities in Vietnam.
The story of what becomes known as October Surprise begins in the
days after the 1968 Tet Offensive. President Johnson, in an effort
to open negotiations with Hanoi, ordered a partial bombing halt
and announced that he would not seek re-election. Talks began in
Paris in June. Deputy chief negotiator Cyrus Vance, meeting with
North Vietnamese diplomat Ha Van Lau in a CIA safehouse outside
Paris, offered a formula for a total halt to the bombing.
The United States posed three conditions: the halt should lead to
"prompt and productive" talks; Hanoi would not violate the
Demilitarized Zone; and the adversaries would halt all rocket and
artillery attacks on South Vietnamese cities.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1968 preliminary talks brought
Hanoi gradually closer to the view that serious peace negotiations
were possible. The Saigon government proved, if anything, more
intransigent than Hanoi. Saigon's position received some support
from American officials, including Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker,
Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser Walt
Beginning in September, President Johnson made an effort to put
his own house in order, bringing Bunker, Rusk, and Rostow into
line, then setting out to obtain the agreement of South Vietnamese
President Nguyen Van Thieu. Hanoi responded on September 13,
making inquiries on refining the American formula. Then the pace
began to quicken.
THE POLITICAL ELEMENT
The Democratic Party nominated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey
as its candidate for the presidency at its National Convention in
Chicago in August. Best known for the brutality of police against
antiwar protesters outside the convention hall, Chicago left
Humphrey with thorny problems. Though Humphrey had long been
quietly concerned about the American presence in Vietnam, he had
supported LBJ in public and remained strongly identified with
Johnson administration policy. With Americans steadily turning
against the war, Humphrey was at a disadvantage. Opinion polls
showed him trailing Republican candidate Nixon. On September 30,in
a speech in Salt Lake City, Humphrey broke with Johnson and
announced that if elected, he would begin to bring troops home.
After that Humphrey gained ground on Nixon.
Announcement of a diplomatic breakthrough such as "productive
negotiations" coupled with a bombing halt affected opinion in
Humphrey's favor. How Nixon coped with Humphrey's rise in the
polls created the October Surprise of 1968.
Nixon's solution was to create and exploit private channels for
information on the status of negotiations and to influence the
South Vietnamese government's diplomatic position. The first part
of this approach involved Henry Kissinger, a Harvard professor who
had advised Nelson A. Rockefeller. Having lost the nomination to
Nixon, Rockefeller allowed Kissinger to offer his services to the
winning candidate. Kissinger, who had been intimately involved
with a Washington peace feeler to North Vietnam in 1967, had
contacts in the Johnson administration. Through Nixon's campaign
manager, John Mitchell, Kissinger supplied Nixon with key
information on the negotiations.
These charges are denied by Kissingerwho went on to become
Nixon's national security adviser and Secretary of Statein a
footnote buried at the back of his book, Ending the Vietnam War.
The denial is oddly phrased, however. Kissinger insists he never
met Nixon and only twice saw Mitchell, saying nothing about phone
calls during which he passed key information, according to most
accounts of these events. Kissinger blames Christopher Hitchens, a
"reckless journalist propagating the myth" for the charge that
Nixon produced the October Surprise deadlock.
In Kissinger's White House Years he dates his sole contact
with John Mitchell to October 10 and maintains that he simply
provided general speculation on Hanoi's motivation to make a deal,
and that thereafter Mitchell merely "checked that judgment with me
once or twice during the campaign." Kissinger claims that Mitchell
gave him Bob Haldeman's telephone number and urged that he call
"if I received any hard information," but that he never used it.
But the fact of Kissinger's information is confirmed by Richard
Nixon in his own memoirs. The charges against Kissinger date from
at least 1983, in a biography by Seymour Hersh. The view that
there was an October Surprise was reported in the press within
weeks of the events and is today the consensus among historians.
Rather than directly denying his contribution, Kissinger chose to
cite an account of this period by former Assistant Secretary of
State William P. Bundy, whom Kissinger quotes as writing that "I
[Kissinger] had no access to information on the negotiations."
Bundy nowhere says that Kissinger lacked access to information,
but merely argued that he (Bundy) was persuaded by Kissinger's own
denials in his original memoir.
Here are the facts: North Vietnamese negotiators began to open up
between September 9 and 12. An official statement dated April 20,
1972, identifies September 12, 1968, as the date when American
chief envoy Averell Harriman conceded that the United States would
halt bombing "unconditionally." Secretary of Defense Clark M.
Clifford was with President Johnson at Camp David on the weekend
of September 14-15 when Harriman's cable reporting movement in the
talks arrived. A second key U.S.-North Vietnamese meeting took
place on September 15. Harriman immediately flew from Paris to
Washington, where he met with LBJ on September 17. Kissinger was
in Paris, where he met with members of the American delegation,
from September 18 to 22. Returning from Washington, Harriman met
the North Vietnamese again on the 20th.
Upon his return to the United States on September 26, according to
Richard Nixon, Kissinger "said that he had just returned from
Paris, where he had picked up word that something big was afoot
regarding Vietnam.'' Nixon also notes that this report came two
weeks after Kissinger's initial meeting with John Mitchell. This
directly contradicts Kissinger's account that he was introduced to
Mitchell for the first time on October 10. A few days later, Nixon
received a memorandum from aide Bob Haldeman reporting further
details from Kissinger: "There is a better-than-even chance that
Johnson will order a bombing halt at approximately mid-October."
Writing in 1997, William Bundy glossed over these developments
when he concluded that nothing was happening while Kissinger was
Declassified State Department diplomatic traffic reported in White
House cables to Lyndon Johnson show that President Thieu had
agreed on May 3, 1968, to a negotiation with Hanoi in which the
National Liberation Front would be represented under a "your
side/our side" approach. Thieu confirmed that understanding in
greater detail on June 25.
On October 9, Hanoi's negotiators in Paris asked if the United
States would proceed with the bombing halt if North Vietnam
accepted South Vietnamese participation under the same "your
side/our side" arrangement. On October 11, Hanoi sought further
clarifications. LBJ checked with Thieu and with American senior
officials, military commanders, and other nations that contributed
troops to the war. Consulted on October 13, President Thieu
concurred and said: "The problem is not to stop the bombing but to
stop the war, and we must try this path to see if they are
Nixon reports that Kissinger provided "another secret report" on
October 12, saying there was "a strong possibility" President
Johnson would move within the next ten days. By October 15,
Washington and Saigon had agreed that there would be a joint
announcement of the bombing halt and peace talks. The two
governments also considered convening talks within 36 hours of the
halt and hammered out the language for their public statement. In
Paris on October 15, American diplomats told the North Vietnamese
that the bombing halt could occur in as little as 24 to 48 hours.
The timing and specificity of Kissinger's information to Nixon
went far beyond general opinions based upon his analysis that
Hanoi might prefer to settle the war before the next
administration came to office, which is how Bundy characterized
THE ACTION COMPONENT
The second part of the Nixon operation involved Republican
political operative Anna Chennault, head of Women for Nixon-Agnew,
vice-chair of the Republican National Finance Committee, and
Washington hostess. She was well-connected in Washington circles.
Her associates ranged from political lawyer Tommy "The Cork''
Corcoran to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. She was married to World
War II hero Gen. Claire Chennault, a founder of Civil Air
Transport, which became the CIA proprietary Air America. Anna
Chennault became vice-president for international affairs of
Flying Tiger Air Lines.
She was a hawk on Vietnam and had direct links to Saigon. She was
also close to President Thieu's elder brother, Nguyen Van Kieu,
the South Vietnamese ambassador to Taiwan, and was connected to
prime minister Gen. Tran Thien Khiem, who had been Saigon's
ambassador to the United States in 1964 and to Taiwan in 1965.
Anna Chennault also was closely associated with South Vietnam's
ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem. Chennault favored
increased bombing of North Vietnam, not a halt. Her nickname was
Anna Chennault met Richard Nixon in 1954 at a banquet in Taiwan.
She was in Taiwan again in 1967, when summoned to meet candidate
Nixon in New York, where she took on the assignment of organizing
Republican women. Chennault volunteered to furnish advice on
Vietnam. In June 1968, in a series of letters, Chennault suggested
that she arrange for Nixon to meet with South Vietnamese
ambassador Bui Diem. She may have hoped to set up an encounter
between Nixon and Thieu.
The meeting took place in Nixon's New York apartment on July 12
and included an hour-long private session between Nixon, Diem,
Chennault, and the candidate's campaign director, John Mitchell.
Anna Chennault emerged from the Nixon meeting as the go-between
for Nixon and the South Vietnamese. She reported through Tower or
Mitchell, who was also Kissinger's contact. In late August,
Chennault and Bui Diem, just back from observing the Paris
negotiations, had a long session with Tower in which Chennault
reported to Nixon in a "Dear Dick'' note. A month later,
Nixon sent Chennault a note on personal stationery, complimenting
her efforts in his behalf.
The Chennault channel remained open in October when the
negotiations with North Vietnam began to move quickly. By
Chennault's own account, she was in touch with John Mitchell at
least once a day. On October 15, Anna Chennault sent Nixon a memo
warning that a bombing halt would have no impact on negotiations.
Nixon was in Kansas City the next day, where the White House
telephone switchboard found him at Union Station. Nixon took a
conference call from Lyndon Johnson in which the president
informed all the candidates that there had been movement in the
LBJ accurately recited the conditions he was imposing on the
bombing halt, insisting that there had not been a "breakthrough''
in the talks, however, and that "anything might jeopardize'' the
arrangement. Suddenly, in Saigon, President Thieu began to
backtrack on his understandings with Washington. He told
Ambassador Bunker that the National Liberation Front could not be
an entity at the forthcoming negotiation in contravention of the
"our side/your side'' formula and that the joint Washington-Saigon
government announcement of the bombing halt should contain no
statement regarding new talks. Thieu was silent in the face of
On that day, the carefully crafted diplomatic arrangement began to
unravel. On October 17 Saigon's position was that it would
"study'' the latest American proposals, and Saigon's foreign
minister told Bunker's counselor that his government would not
participate in a negotiation in which the NLF was represented as a
separate entity. Hanoi also got cold feet.
In Washington on October 18, Bui Diem met with Walt Rostow and,
according to the declassified record, declared that "Thieu is
opposing categorically the presence of the NLF at the Paris
conference.'' In Saigon on October 19, Thieu gave a televised
speech in which he thundered that Hanoi had made no concessions
that would justify a bombing halt and proclaimed his opposition to
NLF representation. The moment for a joint announcement of a
bombing halt and peace talks slipped further out of reach as the
Johnson administration tried to iron out these last-minute
Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford revealed in his 1991
account of these events that American intelligence knew that Anna
Chennault was in repeated contact with the Saigon government.
Ambassador Bui Diem sent one cable to Saigon on October 23
observing that senior Republicans were encouraging a firm stance
in the face of American pressure to proceed with the bombing halt.
In a second cable four days later, he said that he was "regularly
in touch with the Nixon entourage'' and that "the longer the
present situation continues, the more we are favored.''
On the evening of October 28 ,Walt Rostow's brother Eugene
received a telephone call from an old friend on Wall Street who
had connections with associates close to the Nixon campaign.
According to sealed presidential records opened in 1994, Gene
Rostow reported that one of these individuals recounted the Nixon
Vietnam strategy: "He was trying to frustrate the President, by
inciting Saigon to step up its demands.'' By that time the
bombing-halt announcement had slipped several times and Saigon's
line had hardened, with Thieu making occasional noises of
accommodation, but then going back on them. On October 29, after
Walt Rostow had passed this information on to him, Johnson ordered
National Security Council executive secretary Bromley
Smith to contact FBI deputy director Cartha DeLoach and begin
monitoring the contacts between Anna Chennault and Bui Diem.
In 1975 depositions to the congressional Church Committee
investigating U.S. intelligence, Attorney General Ramsey Clark and
the FBI's DeLoach described this operation. Clark approved
wiretaps against the South Vietnamese embassy. DeLoach maintained
that the FBI initially resisted similar surveillance of Anna
Chennault but was ordered to proceed. Walt Rostow reported the
first results of surveillance on October 30, a conversation
reported in the unsealed records as Bui Diem telling a woman
believed to be Chennault that ``just between us . . . something is
cooking.'' Chennault was seen entering the South Vietnamese
Embassy near Dupont Circle in Washington later that day. She
stayed for over an hour. Thereafter came daily sometimes twice
dailyFBI reports on Chennault and less frequent ones on Bui Diem.
Frustrated at being stalled, President Johnson finally made up his
mind to proceed unilaterally. He called MACV commander Creighton
Abrams home for a final check (after consulting with the Joint
Chiefs of Staff and other military authorities). Abrams arrived in
the dead of night and was spirited into the White House. He agreed
that a bombing halt would have no ill effects on the war effort in
South Vietnam. In fact, Abrams and others maintained that focusing
air action against the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be more effective
than the more dispersed air campaign.
The 2:00 a.m. meeting removed LBJ's last doubts. On October 31
President Johnson ended the bombing of North Vietnam and announced
that productive discussions with Hanoi would follow, adding that
the South Vietnamese were welcome to attend.
The end to Rolling Thunder that Lyndon Johnson ordered did not
mean this matter was over. American opinion had been moving toward
Hubert Humphrey, and his poll numbers were fast catching up to
Nixon's. Peace talks would accelerate that trend, and possibly
even give Humphrey the election. For the Nixon camp it became more
important than ever to prevent the opening of talks. On the
practical side, as the election neared and Nixon looked ahead to
implementing polices of his own as president, he also wanted to
avoid any commitments made by Johnson. From Saigon's point of
view, the more Thieu obstructed immediate peace talks, the more he
cast his lot with Nixon.
Richard Nixon appeared to support the American diplomatic
initiative while actually not doing so. After Johnson held another
telephone discussion among the candidates in the evening of
October 31, Nixon said, "We'll back you up, Mr. President.''
That night at Madison Square Garden Nixon told his audience, "I
will say that as a presidential candidate, and my
vice-presidential candidate joins me in this, that neither he nor
I will say anything that might destroy the chance to have peace.''
But speechwriter William Safire recounts: "I was told to draft a
statement fast that would point out the lack of guarantees of
mutual de-escalation, provide a reason for President Thieu's
refusal to come to Paris, and still not make us look like a
dog-in-the-manger about peace.'' Nixon took the statement, worried
about issuing it
himself, and instead gave it to aide Robert Finch.
Surveillance reports from the FBI make it clear that on November 1
and 2 "The Lady,'' as Rostow began referring to Anna Chennault in
his memos to President Johnson, was still at it. A key FBI report
on November 2, which arrived at the White House just before 2:00
a.m. on the 3rd, noted that Chennault had called Bui Diem and
"advised him that she had received a message from her boss (not
further identified)," which her boss wanted her to give personally
to the ambassador. The message was "Hold on, we are gonna win,''
and her boss also said, "Hold on, he understands all of it.''
Chennault added that the boss had called from New Mexico. Nixon
running mate Spiro Agnew was in Albuquerque. In Saigon that day,
President Thieu said that South Vietnam would not attend the peace
Robert Finch then gave reporters on background the statement
Safire had written for Nixon. According to the Safire statement,
Finch said off the record, "We had the impression that all the
diplomatic ducks were in position.'' On the record he said, "I
think this will boomerang. It was hastily contrived.'' The White
House received another report from a source inside the Nixon camp
on November 4, the day before the election. By then the assessment
was that the political impact of the bombing halt had been reduced
a quarter to a third by their actions, that Thieu would continue
on his course as long as possible, and that Mitchell's strategy
was for Nixon to play the
statesman and avoid any additional steps, which could be
The Nixon maneuver ultimately could not pass unnoticed, which
again contradicts Kissinger's protestations about reckless
journalists propagating myths. The FBI watchers on November 4 saw
Saville Davis entering the South Vietnamese embassy. A reporter
for the Christian Science Monitor, Davis called the White
House the same day. He wanted to get Walt Rostow 's reaction to
his article for the newspaper. According to the White House
record, Davis quoted his lead this way: "Purported political
encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor
in the last-minute decision of President Thieu's refusal to send a
delegation to the Paris
peace talks, at least until the American election is over.'' The
newspaper did not print the article, but the Harris opinion poll
that day had Hubert Humphrey ahead by three points. Nixon was
concerned enough to drop his statesman posture in a telethon he
did that same day.
On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president of the
The day after the election Nixon and his close aides flew to Key
Biscayne, Florida, for a rest. An FBI wiretap on November 7 picked
up Anna Chennault telling Bui Diem, according to the Bureau's
report to the White House, that she had been talking on the phone
Lyndon Johnson was very upset by this chain of events. He went to
some trouble to perfect his knowledge of what had transpired. It
was late at night, DeLoach later told congressional investigators,
when a White House aide called to ask him to find out who had been
on the telephone from Albuquerque on November 2. DeLoach refused
to call the phone company at that time of night. But then Johnson
himself came on the line and told the FBI deputy that he, Johnson,
was the commander-in-chief and that DeLoach better get what he
wanted, and get it right away. DeLoach then called J. Edgar
Hoover, who told him to stand his ground. But Hoover reversed
himself the following morning, and the FBI made the check. They
were able to ascertain that someone in Agnew's traveling party had
made calls from Albuquerque on the 2nd, including calls to Anna
Chennault. But they reported no evidence directly implicating the
vice-presidential candidate. Instead, the calls were attributed to
the Agnew staffer responsible for Vietnam. Rostow reported this
information to LBJ on November 12.
Only Clark Clifford went public on the administration's side,
giving a news conference a few days later that virtually accused
Nguyen Van Thieu of dragging his feet on negotiations. Saigon was
furious, but by then Richard Nixon was president-elect, and Thieu
felt he held an IOU from the American leader. Had Humphrey won the
election, Hanoi had an incentive to settle before the inaugural.
Instead, Saigon had an incentive to stall. Thieu remained
intransigent on the question of representation for the National
Liberation Front, eventually reverting to the "our side/your
side'' formula. Then he began a fight over the shape of the
negotiating table. The diplomats finally gathered in Paris shortly
before Nixon's inauguration. The first substantive session of the
talks took place on January 25, 1969.
President Johnson decided against exposing the intrigue. He had
the information gathered into a file and kept separate from his
other papers at the Johnson Library in Texas. In early 1973, beset
by the Watergate scandal, Johnson's successor talked with aides
Bob Haldeman and John Dean about publicizing the fact that LBJ had
bugged Nixon during the 1968 campaign. Johnson retorted that he
would reveal the entire story of the October Surprise. Richard
Nixon never said anything more about the matter.
Whatever one believes about the chances for peace in Vietnam, in
October 1968 American politics and an unpopular war became hostage
to the tactical calculations of those vying for the highest office
in the land.