Over the past four decades, Republicans have dominated the outcomes of presidential races by mixing negative campaigning in public with illicit dirty tricks behind the scenes, as I've recounted in my last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep.
As a party, the Republicans have not only refined the art of the political smear – with such memorable moments as the Willie Horton ads in 1988 and the “swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 – but they also have defined the concept of the October Surprise, manipulating late-breaking events to drive the electorate toward their candidate.
Much of this Republican behavior traces back to their perceived victimization at the hands of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the razor-thin 1960 race. Though many historians dispute the significance of alleged voter fraud in that election, the notion that Richard Nixon was robbed became an article of faith inside the GOP.
In 1968, Nixon and his operatives were determined that they wouldn’t get outmaneuvered again. As the race entered its final weeks, their great fear was that President Johnson would negotiate a settlement to the Vietnam War and thus push Vice President Hubert Humphrey over the top to victory.
So, although a half million American soldiers were in the battle zone and the war was tearing the United States apart, Nixon’s campaign made secret contacts with South Vietnamese leaders, allegedly offering the assurance that if they refused to cooperate with the Paris peace talks, they could expect a better deal from Nixon.
The evidence is now clear that the Nixon campaign dispatched Anna Chennault, a fiercely anti-communist Chinese-American, to carry that message to South Vietnamese president Nguyen van Thieu.
Journalist Seymour Hersh first described the initiative in his 1983 biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. Hersh reported that U.S. intelligence “agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President Thieu in Saigon. … The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress.”
In her own autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
Reporter Daniel Schorr added more details in a Washington Post article on May 28, 1995, citing decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that “many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm.” On Oct. 27, he wrote, “The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. … I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage.”
On Nov. 2, 1968, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks, destroying Johnson’s last hope for a settlement and clearing the way for Nixon’s narrow victory.
Though Johnson and his top advisers knew of Nixon’s gambit, they kept it secret apparently out of concern that it could further divide the country.
Anthony Summers’s 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power, provides the fullest examination of the Nixon-Thieu gambit, including the debate within Democratic circles about what to do with the evidence.
Both Johnson and Humphrey believed the information – if released to the public – could assure Nixon’s defeat, according to Summers.
“In the end, though, Johnson’s advisers decided it was too late and too potentially damaging to U.S. interests to uncover what had been going on,” Summers wrote. “If Nixon should emerge as the victor, what would the Chennault outrage do to his viability as an incoming president? And what effect would it have on American opinion about the war?”
Summers quotes Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
The direct U.S. role in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years with additional American casualties of 20,763 dead and 111,230 wounded. The toll among the people of Indochina was far higher.
Johnson and Humphrey went into retirement – and to their graves – keeping silent about Nixon’s treachery.
No Political Peace
The Democratic silence about Nixon's sabotage of the Paris peace talks did not bring them political peace. Instead, it seemed to embolden Nixon.
In the years that followed, Nixon built a clandestine apparatus designed to neutralize his political enemies and ensure his reelection in 1972.
Nixon’s “plumbers unit,” employing former CIA operatives, spied on individuals who caused Nixon difficulty – the likes of Daniel Ellsberg who exposed the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War – and on the Democrats, too.
In May 1972, the plumbers planted bugs in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, apparently gleaning information about the last-minute strategies of the Democratic establishment to block the nomination of Sen. George McGovern, whom Nixon viewed as the easiest Democrat to beat. [For details on what Nixon got from the bugs, see Secrecy & Privilege.]
The next month, when the plumbers returned to plant more listening devices, they were caught by Washington police, leading to the Watergate investigation. But Nixon was able to keep the story mostly under wraps until he won his landslide victory against McGovern.
In 1973, with the help of such clever operatives as Republican National Chairman George H.W. Bush, Nixon tried to fend off the mounting evidence of his guilt, but he was finally forced to resign in August 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, then lost Election 1976 to Jimmy Carter.
Though many political observers assumed that the Watergate debacle taught the Republicans some harsh lessons, it actually convinced them that they needed a stronger media and political infrastructure so they could protect their leaders from future scandals. By the late 1970s, the modern right-wing media began to take shape.
The Republican hope for redemption came soon enough, in the 1980 race that pitted conservative Ronald Reagan and his running mate George H.W. Bush against President Carter.
The Reagan-Bush brain trust, especially campaign chief William Casey, saw the lingering crisis with Iran over 52 American hostages as a powerful vulnerability for Carter but also a potential game-changer if Carter succeeded in engineering their release shortly before the election.
Vice presidential candidate Bush talked publicly about the potential for Carter pulling an “October Surprise” by freeing the hostages. But the evidence is now overwhelming that the Republicans also were contacting senior Iranians behind Carter's back to make sure that Carter failed in that effort.
Over the past 28 years, more than a score of witnesses – including senior Iranian officials, top French intelligence officers, U.S. and Israeli intelligence operatives, the Russian government and even Palestine leader Yasir Arafat – have confirmed the existence of a Republican initiative to interfere with Carter’s efforts to free the hostages.
In 1996, for instance, during a meeting in Gaza, Arafat personally told former President Carter that senior Republican emissaries approached the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1980 with a request that Arafat help broker a delay in the hostage release.
“You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the elections,” Arafat told Carter. [Diplomatic History, Fall 1996]
Arafat’s spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif said the GOP gambit pursued other channels, too. In an interview with me in Tunis in 1990, Bassam indicated that Arafat learned upon reaching Iran in 1980 that the Republicans and the Iranians had made other arrangements for a delay in the hostage release.
“The offer [to Arafat] was, ‘if you block the release of hostages, then the White House would be open for the PLO’,” Bassam said. “I guess the same offer was given to others, and I believe that some accepted to do it and managed to block the release of hostages.”
In a little-noticed letter to the U.S. Congress, dated Dec. 17, 1992, former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican hostage initiative in July 1980.
Bani-Sadr said a nephew of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, returned from a meeting with an Iranian banker, Cyrus Hashemi, who had close ties to Casey and to Casey’s business associate, John Shaheen.
Bani-Sadr said the message from the Khomeini emissary was clear: the Republicans were in league with pro-Republican elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and were demanding Iran’s help.
Bani-Sadr said the emissary “told me that if I do not accept this proposal they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals.” The emissary added that the Republicans “have enormous influence in the CIA,” Bani-Sadr wrote. “Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination.”
Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan was accepted by the hard-line Khomeini faction.
Though some Carter advisers suspected Republican manipulation of the hostage crisis, the Democrats again kept silent. Only after the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986 – and witnesses began talking about its origins – did the 1980 story get fleshed out enough to compel Congress to take a closer look in 1991-92.
Again, however the Democrats feared that the evidence could endanger the fragile political relationships in Washington that enable governing to go forward. Once more, they chose to ignore the GOP machinations and, in some cases, literally hid the evidence.
[For the most detailed account of this October Surprise evidence, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
[Full article at Consortiumnews.com.]