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August/September 2004
FEATURE
 
 

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 W. Rostow.

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 Kissingerwho went on to become Nixon's national security adviser and Secretary of Statein 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 in Paris.

SAIGON POSITIONING

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 serious."

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 Kissinger's denials.

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 "Dragon Lady."

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 negotiations.

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 Bunker's protests.

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 difficulties.

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 dailyFBI 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 talks.

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 counterproductive.

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 United States.

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 to "Florida.''

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 peace
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.

   

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