I have two items for my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. The setting is the 1968 Presidential election. The main candidates in this race were Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent George Wallace.
1. There were no presidential election debates in 1968. Why not? On page 192, Ambrose says that Nixon refused Humphrey’s challenge to debate because Nixon had problems with Wallace’s participation. Nixon believed that Humphrey wanted the Southern Governor Wallace to get more exposure through a debate on the assumption that this would take away Southern votes from Nixon (even though, as Ambrose argues, Wallace was probably taking away votes from Humphrey, as well). For Nixon, a debate that included Wallace would undermine the two-party system. And, until Congress got rid of a rule requiring that presidential debates include all presidential candidates, a debate between Humphrey and Nixon alone was out of the question. (Whether Ambrose is conceptualizing that rule accurately, I do not know. I have a hard time envisioning a rule that a presidential debate would have to include, say, the Socialist Party candidate.) But Nixon resented Humphrey calling him “Richard the Silent” and “Richard the Chicken-hearted” (which, according to Ambrose, were rare incidents of Humphrey’s wit), saying that he was not afraid.
Nixon himself addresses the topic of why he refused to debate Humphrey in volume 1 of his memoirs, on page 395. Nixon essentially says that he thought that Humphrey would benefit from a debate because Humphrey was way behind Nixon in the polls, and that Nixon also did not want to “elevate Wallace”, who was already taking from Nixon “a substantial number of votes.” Nixon says: “It was not fear but self-interest that determined my decision on the debates.” At least Nixon is candid here: he didn’t debate because he thought that would hurt him politically! There’s no grand talk here about how great the two-party system is!
And, by the way, I don’t see what’s so great about the two-party system. I wish that the U.S. had viable alternative parties so that my choice wouldn’t be limited to the Republicans and the Democrats.
2. Did candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 sabotage the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam by sending Anna Chan Chennault to General Thieu of South Vietnam so she could tell Thieu that he could get a better deal from Nixon than from Johnson, thereby discouraging Thieu from participating in the Paris talks? Did this result in the prolongment of the Vietnam War, meaning the loss of more American and Indochinese lives? There have been articles about this topic recently. See here and here.
Someone I know posted one of these articles, and a commenter said that this is not new information, for progressive Thom Hartmann has been talking about this topic. But, actually, this topic has been discussed for quite some time. Ambrose talks about it in this book, whose copyright is 1989. And, according to Ambrose, a number of reporters in 1968 suspected that Nixon had sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks, but they did not have hard evidence. Lyndon Johnson apparently had evidence that Nixon adviser John Mitchell, claiming to speak for Nixon, had asked Chennault to try to persuade Thieu to back out of the Paris Peace Talks. But Johnson did not want to go public with this evidence because it was obtained through wiretapping.
Nixon’s story to Johnson was that Chennault was acting of her own accord and did not represent Nixon. And, according to Ambrose, Theodore White—-the author of books on the 1960, the 1964, the 1968, and the 1972 presidential elections—-actually defended the Nixon camp on this issue, saying that Nixon’s aides were “appalled” (White’s word) when they learned of what Chennault had done. Ambrose quotes White as saying: “The fury and dismay at Nixon’s headquarters when his aides discovered the [Chennault] report were so intense that they could not have been feigned simply for the benefit of this reporter” (White, quoted on page 214). But here’s a possibility: Maybe Nixon told Mitchell to call Chennault without informing his aides!
Ambrose’s view on this topic is on page 215: “Insofar as the charges imply that Nixon prevented peace in 1968, they are false. Not that Nixon did not want to, or try to, but he did not have to.” The reason was that Thieu did not need Nixon’s encouragement to avoid the Paris Peace Talks, for Thieu liked having the Americans in Vietnam, since they protected South Vietnam and its government and were also significant in terms of contributing to the South Vietnamese economy. I tend to agree with Ambrose here, for Nixon in his very own memoirs portrays Thieu as rather obstinate when President Nixon himself (through Henry Kissinger) was attempting to forge an agreement to end the Vietnam War. See my posts here and here.
Nixon in volume 1 of his memoirs, as far as I could see, did not address the question of Chennault talking with General Thieu. Nixon just says on page 406:
“Thieu’s reaction [in choosing not to participate in the peace talks] was totally predictable. He watched American politics no less carefully than did the leaders in Hanoi. Given his disapproval of any bombing halt, and the fact that Humphrey was now talking like a dove, it was scarcely in Thieu’s interest to acquiesce in a bad bargain. By holding back his support, Thieu fostered the impression that Johnson’s plan had been too quickly conceived and too shakily executed.” Maybe Nixon thought that Thieu would get a better deal under him than Thieu got under Johnson, or would get under a President Humphrey.
Ambrose does not present Nixon as flawless, but he also seems to argue that President Johnson was less-than-candid with the American people about the progress of the talks—-that not as much progress had been made as Johnson was implying.