Civility and the Johnson–Nixon Transition

Civility and the Johnson–Nixon Transition {
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After being sworn in as the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon called for a time of national renewal and reunification, hoping to heal the wounds wrought by the divisiveness of the 1960s, which — between President Lyndon Johnson’s “withdrawal speech,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, and the chaotic Democratic National Convention —  had found its ultimate expression in the election of 1968.

Though Nixon handily defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Independent George Wallace in the Electoral College (301–191–46), he only won 0.7 percent more of the popular vote than Humphrey. Clearly, the country’s divisions ran deep, but not as deep as they might have run, had it not been for the restraint of President Johnson.

On Oct. 17, 1968, just a few weeks before the election, Johnson began hearing reports that the Nixon campaign had engaged in secret negotiations with the South Vietnamese government, through lobbyist Anna Chennault. The administration had struggled to bring all parties of the Vietnam conflict to the negotiating table since late March. On the other hand, Nixon’s cronies had worked against the peace talks since April. They discouraged the South Vietnamese from joining the negotiations, promising that they would receive a better deal from the as-yet-unelected Nixon administration.

This interference with official U.S. diplomatic initiatives violated the Logan Act (1799), which outlawed unauthorized contacts between private citizens and foreign powers.

Johnson received confirmation of Republican duplicity on Oct. 30, just one day before he announced a full bombing halt in North Vietnam (a prerequisite to negotiations). On Oct. 31, only an hour before all four parties to the talks (North Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, the United States, and South Vietnam) planned to announce that negotiations would commence, South Vietnam announced that it was uncomfortable with the NLF’s presence in the negotiations, and therefore would not attend. The president was furious.

Two days later, Johnson called his old friend, senior Republican Senator and Nixon ally Everett Dirksen, to inform him that the administration was aware of the Nixon campaign’s meddling. After summarizing the course of events, Johnson explained that “I’m reading their hand, Everett. I don’t want to get this in the campaign. … And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.” He told Dirksen to make sure Nixon knew that the administration was onto him.

True to his word, the president refrained from exposing Nixon’s role in what came to be known as the “Chennault Affair,” to the point of declining to comment for a Christian Science Monitor report on the diplomatic duplicity. Johnson’s restraint allowed Nixon to win the election.

President Johnson did not expose Nixon for several reasons. First, while he knew that the Nixon campaign was complicit, it was not yet clear whether Nixon himself had a hand in the subterfuge (he did). Second, as Johnson biographer Robert Dallek writes, revealing Nixon’s intransigence “would have opened [Nixon] to possible indictment and prosecution,” thereby “precipitat[ing] an unprecedented constitutional crisis.” 

Even if Nixon survived such a crisis, it would likely hobble his legislative and executive efforts. Furthermore, Johnson was fearful that Nixon would retaliate against him and his advisers after taking office, and when Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Nixon's opponent) was briefed on the situation on Nov. 1, he also decided not to act on it, given the lack of proof that Nixon himself was directly involved.

Not only did Johnson not expose Nixon, but, as he promised before the election, he also worked intensively with the president-elect throughout the transition period. Having realized that he would leave office before the Vietnam negotiations ended, Johnson instructed his advisers to cooperate fully with the incoming administration. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk later wrote, “we thought the new president should make his own decisions for the future since he had been chosen by the American people to do just that.” 

By leaving the major decisions of the negotiations to the president-elect, Johnson both respected the will of the voters and left Nixon a full deck of cards, as it were. Rather than shortchanging Nixon and letting him deal with any negative ramifications from agreements made during negotiations before he even took office, LBJ graciously gave Nixon the full power to make his own decisions in discussions with the Vietnamese Communists. As White House correspondent Drew Pearson wrote to Johnson during the transition period, “you have been extremely cooperative with the incoming president-elect — more so than any previous that I know of—and he owes you more than any previous president-elect.” 

Lyndon B. Johnson clearly demonstrated his patriotism in his handling of the Chennault Affair and the transition period between his presidency and Nixon’s. While of course part of his reasoning for not exposing the Republican was the lack of evidence directly connecting Nixon to the interference, Johnson's nobler, patriotic side clearly won out over his political cynicism. As far as the transition period is concerned, Johnson had next to nothing to gain from cooperating with the incoming administration; indeed, he was hardly pleased with Nixon. The only viable explanation for his gracious attitude during the transition period is that he wanted Nixon to succeed, not for Nixon’s sake, but for the sake of the country.

Further Reading:

Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: The Life. New York, NY: Doubleday Press, 2017.

Hughes, Ken, ed. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. Chasing Shadows Series

Hughes, Ken. Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Johnstone, Andrew and Andrew Priest, eds. US Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy: Candidates, Campaigns, and Global Politics from FDR to Bill Clinton. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

Rusk, Dean and Richard Rusk. As I Saw It. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991.

Simpson, Connor. “Newly Released Secret Tapes Reveal LBJ Knew but Never Spoke Out About Nixon's ‘Treason’.” The Atlantic. Last modified March 16, 2013. 

Taylor, David. “The Lyndon Johnson tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘treason’.” BBC. Last modified March 22, 2013. .

Vandiver, Frank E. Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson’s Wars. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.


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