Recently by Robert Parry: How Two Elections Changed America
With hopes brightening that President Obama is close to a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear dispute, Mitt Romney’s campaign is eager to counter any positive news. The moment is reminiscent of past October Surprise moments, says Robert Parry in this article adapted from America’s Stolen Narrative.
The phrase “October Surprise” is now part of the American political lexicon, referring to some last-minute event that might change the course of a U.S. presidential election. But the two prototypical “October Surprise” cases, in 1968 and 1980, have never earned a place in mainstream American history.
The October Surprise allegations of 1968 and 1980 also were something of a misnomer since they centered on Republican efforts to block an October Surprise by sabotaging game-changing diplomatic successes by incumbent Democratic presidents. In 1968, it was Lyndon Johnson achieving a breakthrough in the Vietnam War peace talks. In 1980, it was Jimmy Carter securing the release of 52 American hostages held in Iran.
President Richard Nixon in Robbie Conal’s painting, “Waterbugger,” at robbieconal.com.
In both cases, the Democratic presidents failed to accomplish their goals and the Republican candidates, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, went on to victories. Yet, these important October Surprise mysteries have remained largely unsolved: Did Republican sabotage actually play a role in the Democratic failures?
Recent disclosures from the National Archives as well as statements from participants have shed new light on these dark chapters of U.S. history – and revealed previously unknown links between the 1968 case and the Watergate scandal of 1972 and between the 1980 Iran-hostage case and the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985-86. The new evidence suggests a more continuous narrative connecting these scandals and thus represents a powerful challenge to the established history.
Possibly the most notorious “October Surprise” case – and the first of this modern era – occurred in fall 1968 when Republican Richard Nixon was locked in a tight presidential race with Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and President Johnson was making progress in Vietnam peace negotiations.
At that point, a half million American soldiers were in the war zone and more than 30,000 had already died, along with Vietnamese dead estimated at about one million. In late October 1968, Johnson saw a chance for a breakthrough that would involve a bombing halt of North Vietnam and a possible framework for peace.
However, Johnson encountered surprising resistance from U.S. allies in South Vietnam. President Nguyen van Thieu was suddenly laying down obstacles to a possible settlement in the Paris peace talks.
On Oct. 29, 1968, Johnson got his first clear indication as to why. According to declassified records at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, Eugene Rostow, Johnson’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, got a tip from Wall Street financier Alexander Sachs who said that one of Nixon’s closest financial backers was describing Nixon’s plan to “block” a peace settlement.
Nixon’s backer was sharing this information at a working lunch with his banking colleagues in the context of helping them place their bets on stocks and bonds. In other words, the investment bankers were colluding over how to make money with their inside knowledge of Nixon’s scheme to extend the Vietnam War.
Eugene Rostow passed on the information to his brother, Walt W. Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser. Eugene Rostow also wrote a memo about the tip. “The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” he wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem … to block. … They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait.”
In a later memo providing a chronology of the affair, Walt Rostow said he got the news about the Wall Street lunch from his brother shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.”
Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance,” leading Johnson to order an FBI investigation that soon uncovered the framework of Nixon’s blocking operation. [To read that Rostow memo, click here, here, and here.]
From the FBI wiretaps, Johnson quickly learned about the role of Nixon campaign official (and right-wing China Lobby figure) Anna Chennault contacting South Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem regarding the political importance for President Thieu’s continued boycott of the Paris peace talks.
After reading these secret FBI cables, Johnson began working the phones to counter the Nixon campaign’s gambit. According to recordings of the phone calls that have since been declassified, Johnson complained to Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen about the subterfuge.
On Nov. 2, just three days before the election, an angry Johnson telephoned Dirksen at 9:18 p.m., to provide details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene forcefully.
“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you [South Vietnam] must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.” [Johnson believed “the boss in New Mexico” was Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, who was there on a campaign trip.]
Johnson then injected a thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
Dirksen responded, “I know.”
Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”
Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him [Nixon], I think.”
“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. … You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”
After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. At 1:54 p.m. on Nov. 3, trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released by the LBJ Library.
Nixon: “I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. … I just went on ‘Meet the Press’ and I said … that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election and, if elected, after the election and if you felt … that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it, that I felt Saigon should come to the conference table. …
“I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”
Armed with FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”
Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28, 1968, when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”
“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace. … The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”
Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.
An Almost Scoop
After the conversation with Nixon, Johnson continued to consider whether he should go public with Nixon’s “treason.” A last-minute opportunity arose when a Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Saigon, Beverly Deepe, got word from South Vietnamese sources about the pressure on Thieu from the Nixon campaign to block the peace talks.
Deepe’s story draft read: “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 Presidential election is over.”
So, on Nov. 4, journalist Saville Davis from the Monitor’s Washington bureau checked out Deepe’s story with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem and with the White House. Bui Diem knocked the story down and the decision by the White House on whether to confirm the story went to President Johnson himself.
In a conference call, Johnson consulted with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Walt Rostow. All three advisers recommended against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to an “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. The cable added:
“Saville Davis volunteered that his newspaper would certainly not print the story in the form in which it was filed; but they might print a story which said Thieu, on his own, decided to hold out until after the election. Incidentally, the story as filed is stated to be based on Vietnamese sources, and not U.S., in Saigon.”
Rostow’s cable also summed up the consensus from him, Rusk and Clifford: “The information sources [an apparent reference to the FBI wiretaps] must be protected and not introduced into domestic politics; even with these sources, the case is not open and shut.”
Thus, the American electorate went to the polls on Nov. 5 with no knowledge that Johnson’s failed peace talks may have been sabotaged by Nixon’s campaign. Nixon prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.
After Nixon’s victory, Johnson tried to get the peace talks back on track. He appealed directly to Nixon in another phone call on Nov. 8 and again raised the implied threat of going public with his growing file on Republican contacts with the South Vietnamese:
“They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office. Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the peace-talk sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. … That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. … I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”
Faced with Johnson’s threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to join the peace talks. However, nothing changed. For LBJ, there would be no peace.
As Inauguration Day approached, an embittered President Johnson ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the file containing the secret evidence of this “sordid story,” a decision that would have its own unintended consequences.
After taking office, President Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Johnson’s wiretaps. But Hoover gave Nixon the impression that the bugging was more intrusive and widespread than it actually was. Nixon launched an internal search for the file containing the secret wiretaps, but to no avail.
For Nixon, the missing file emerged as a deepening concern in June 1971 when The New York Times began publishing excerpts from the leaked Pentagon Papers, a study of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967 that revealed U.S. government deceptions especially by the Johnson administration.
But Nixon knew something that few others did, that there was a potential sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a file on his campaign’s treachery in undercutting Johnson’s peace initiative and in extending the ruinous Vietnam War.
Just four days after the Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, one of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes – on June 17, 1971 – records him demanding extraordinary measures to locate the missing file. Nixon’s team referred to it as related to Johnson’s Vietnam bombing halt of Oct. 31, 1968, but it encompassed LBJ’s failed peace effort and more importantly the apparent Republican sabotage.
In the wake of the public outrage over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon clearly would have understood the danger to his reelection campaign if the second shoe had dropped, the revelation of Nixon’s role in extending the war to help win an election.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’.