Watergate’s John Dean on the Chennault Affair

My Rolling Stone Q&A with Watergate figure John Dean got a lot of people talking. Dean told me that Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News. He also said that he doesn’t expect Trump to resign and a whole lot more.

One thing that we didn’t have room for was a question I asked John Dean about the Chennault Affair, another Nixon scandal that involved collusion with a foreign power to win an election and allegations of treason.

Here’s what I asked Dean:

Q. Watergate brought down President Nixon, but in terms of lives lost, the “Chennault Affair” was a far greater scandal. Do you see similarities in the Russia investigation and the Chennault Affair?

A: While I had heard rumors of the Chennault Affair, until Nixon biographer John Ferrell found the hard evidence, and wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, I was never sure if it was true – that Nixon had, in fact, intervened in LBJ’s efforts to bring the Vietnam War to an end in 1968. LBJ called it “treason,” and I think that is both historically and legally correct. In short, it was a terrible criminal act that resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths. Because there was no investigation of the Chennault affair, and the scandalous behavior never became public, it is not possible to compare it directly with Trump’s role, if any, in helping Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In short, only after we know what Trump did or did not do can we compare the conduct, but Nixon’s treason is worse than anything he did during Watergate.

Few people know of the Chennault Affair, which remains “an open secret that is too momentous and too awful to tell,” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in his polemic, The Trials of Henry Kissinger.

The central figure in the affair was Anna C. Chennault, a fundraiser for Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign known to all as “the Dragon Lady.”  FBI wiretaps recorded her advising  South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem not to participate in the 1968 Paris peace talks pushed by President Johnson. Chennault promised the ambassador a better deal when Nixon was elected.

“Hold on,” Chennault told him, “we are gonna win.”

The ploy “worked” in that the South Vietnamese junta withdrew from the Paris peace talks on the eve of the election, crushing the “peace plank” on which Democrat Hubert Humphrey had campaigned. Nixon won the election and the war continued for seven more years, consuming more than 20,000 American lives and an untold number of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian lives.

As Dean said, President Johnson called this treason in a phone call with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (transcribed here):

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Nixon’s treachery in 1968 was known not only to President Johnson but also to Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. They all decided to stay quiet.

In his memoirs, Clifford wrote that disclosure would have ruined the Paris peace talks and noted that the public was “considerably more innocent in such matters before the Watergate hearings and the 1975 Senate investigation of the CIA.”

A half-century later, FBI Director James Comey and the rest of the Obama administration decided, just as Johnson’s advisors had, to spare us the gory details of the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia in 2016. Even now, two years later, we still don’t the full story.

Silence in the face of treachery serves the ambition of the autocrat and there is no limit to how low he will stoop to get what he wants.

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