History with the bark off.

That was LBJ’s homespun rationale for deciding to tape himself in the Oval Office. And the LBJ Library has just released the final batch of those tapes, from 1968, revealing Johnson’s perspective on the Democratic National Convention that year and also on Richard Nixon’s ostensible role in scuttling ongoing negotiations to end the debacle in Vietnam.

Johnson, horrified by the unfolding violence in Chicago and worried that Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t be chosen as the Democratic nominee, apparently considered saving the day by flying from Texas to the convention and announcing himself as an eleventh-hour candidate. That plan fell apart only after the Secret Service explained that it couldn’t adequately protect the president in Chicago, which stood poised on the brink of insurrection.

Perhaps even more interesting than that, Johnson explains that the FBI had provided him with evidence that Richard Nixon had “blood on his hands,” that, in other words, Nixon had sabotaged the Paris peace talks. Nixon, the LBJ tapes reveal, had dispatched Anna Chennault, one of his campaign advisers, to conduct unauthorized, back-channel discussions with South Vietnamese negotiators. Consequently, just as Johnson prepared to announce in October 1968 that the United States would halt all bombing in North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, having been promised by Chennault that a Nixon administration would deliver a deal much more favorable to their interests, pulled out of the talks entirely.

In a call to Senator Richard Russell, Johnson says

We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources. Mrs Chennault is warning the South Vietnamese not to get pulled into this Johnson move.

Nixon, meanwhile, insisted that he had no idea why the South Vietnamese had left the negotiating table and offered, out of the goodness of his heart, to travel to Saigon to set things right. Johnson, for his part, chose not to share Nixon’s perfidy with the public, because the president worried about the repercussions of revealing the extent of the FBI’s and NSA’s surveillance of American diplomats. Johnson did tell Humphrey, but by then, on the eve of the election, the vice president had closed the gap with Nixon and worried about stalling his own momentum by releasing a bombshell that might alter the trajectory of the campaign.

In the end, Nixon, Humphrey, and Johnson — at least the Johnson of 1968 — all come out looking terrible, office seekers willing to play politics with national security, at the cost tens of thousands of lives. I suppose we should praise Johnson for laying bare these insights from the past, but I find myself thinking he should have stripped the bark away at time.


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