Exclusive Excerpt: Drawn Swords in a Distant Battle: South Vietnam's Shattered Dreams
>Following is an adapted excerpt from leading Vietnam War historian and former Army Captain George Jay Veith's compelling new history Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam's Shattered Dreams.
Traditionally, the Vietnam War has been viewed through an American -- or more recently -- North Korean -- prism. But Veith looks at the war from the South Vietnamese political and social project lens of its leaders and allies. The following excerpt focuses on the "Anna Chennault Affair."
In 1968, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s refusal to join the opening of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would end the war in Vietnam created a major crisis with his American ally.
President Lyndon Johnson speculated that Thieu’s refusal to attend was the result of a backroom deal between Thieu and then-Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon.
Since 1969, this controversial account -- since dubbed the “Anna Chennault Affair” -- has sparked a litany of so-called scholarship suggesting that Nixon tapped Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of wealthy businessman Claire Chennault, as a backchannel to the South Vietnamese president via his ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem.
As the story goes, Nixon was trying to prevent the last-minute cessation of bombing in North Vietnam, an “October Surprise” as the episode became known, that would swing the election to Hubert Humphrey. Nixon believed (wrongly) that he lost the presidency in 1960 to voter irregularities and was on guard against an attempt to steal another election from him.
Advocates of this popular narrative claim that Nixon secretly attempted to convince Thieu to not attend the Paris talks in order to torpedo Humphrey’s momentum heading into election day, and hand Nixon the election. Nixon would then support Thieu’s peace demands as president.
Thieu did refuse to attend, and Nixon won the 1968 election by a narrow margin, thus the two events have become intimately linked in the popular consciousness.
With the exception of Bui Diem’s account, the South Vietnamese understanding of these events has been almost entirely neglected by journalists and historians. The intrigue surrounding Nixon and the inclination to understand every fact of his public life through the lens of the Watergate scandal has led to mass politicization and overwhelmed the pursuit of neutral fact.
According to South Vietnamese leaders, this is in fact how the “Anna Chennault Affair” unfolded.
Anna Chennault was a wealthy socialite and renowned hostess to Washington’s elite. After her husband’s death in 1958, she retained control of his aviation company, which had substantial contracts to haul cargo from America to South Vietnam. Given her contacts with South Vietnam’s top leaders, she was an invaluable source of information about the country.
In 1967, Nixon asked her to provide insights on the conflict and to act as a liaison between himself and the government there. Impressed by Nixon’s stated desire to win in South Vietnam, she agreed.
On the night of Oct 31, 1968, just after Johnson had announced a bombing halt in North Vietnam in exchange for the opening of talks in Paris with the North Vietnamese, Chennault claims she received a phone call from Nixon advisor John Mitchell. By her account, he called to express his concern about the impact of the announced bombing halt on the election. Mitchell said that he was speaking on behalf of Nixon, and that he wanted Chennault to communicate the “Republican position” to the South Vietnamese. She claims she was upset by Mitchell’s demand, as it would have changed her role from Nixon advisor to policy advocate.
Two days later, the FBI recorded a call from Chennault to Bui Diem. She “advised him that her boss … wanted her to give personally to the ambassador” a message to “hold on, we are gonna win.” By “boss” she claimed she had meant Mitchell, but Johnson thought she meant Nixon. The fact that Thieu had refused to send representatives to attend the talks, along with the recording of the conversation, created the enduring legend.
The unmasking of the supposed plot occurred early on Oct. 29, 1968, two days before the phone call between Chennault and Mitchell. A source in the Nixon campaign told economist Alexander Sachs that Nixon was trying to convince Saigon not to attend the Paris Peace Talks. Sachs passed the information to National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, who passed it to President Johnson. When Thieu suddenly refused that same day to participate in the Paris talks, Johnson ordered the FBI to wiretap Bui Diem and to follow Chennault, suspecting impropriety.
There are several flaws in Johnson’s theory. First, Chennault did not pass Mitchell’s message for two days. If she were using Bui Diem as a courier for the Nixon camp, one would assume a communication of this importance would have been delivered immediately. Equally important, the transcript of the call does not indicate any response by Bui Diem. He did not attempt to discuss or clarify her message, nor did he mention her call in any subsequent cable to Saigon.
If he were passing messages, such an urgent contact would have been quickly transmitted back to Thieu. The NSA would have intercepted it and provided it to Rostow. Such a cable would have provided concrete evidence of the plot, but no such document exists.
Thieu had his own reasons to undermine American eagerness for talks with Hanoi. In a rare post-war interview, Thieu denied he was directly influenced by a Nixon scheme. He repeated that his refusal to attend the Paris talks was due to the twin failures to arrange negotiations between Hanoi and Saigon and to prevent the Viet Cong presence at the talks.
In fact, every South Vietnamese who was involved in the negotiations insists they did not attend the Paris talks because of the political issues, not because of a Nixon request. For his part, Ambassador Bui Diem repeatedly denied making any deals with the Nixon campaign to sabotage the peace talks. Chennault has also rejected the allegations.
In an interview with journalist Neil Sheehan in June 1975, Bui Diem laid out his theory about what did transpire, one likely closer to the truth. He told Sheehan there was no reason to “weave a complicated plot” because the “dynamics of the situation were so obvious” based upon “Saigon’s assessment of the positions of the candidates on Vietnam. … The basic reason Saigon favored Nixon” was due to Thieu’s belief that “Nixon was ‘firm against the Communists’ while ‘Humphrey was wavering.’”
Focused solely on U.S. evidence and Nixon’s later Watergate crimes, believers in the Nixon conspiracy miss the possibility that Thieu and his Asian allies had their own motives for influencing the election. According to Thieu’s closest advisors, Chennault did attempt to convince Thieu not to attend the Paris talks, but she did it at the behest of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, not Nixon. Nor did she use Bui Diem as a conduit. She used Thieu’s brother, Nguyen Van Kieu, the South Vietnamese Charge d’Affaires in Taipei, as her main conduit. (Kieu had long acted as his brother’s go-between with various constituencies in South Vietnam.)
Ultimately, the "Anna Chennault Affair" has become an example of how partisanship and political intrigue, combined with conjecture, result in broad acceptance of sloppy, anti-historical narratives. Anna Chennault was the go-between for Chiang and Thieu, but the evidence suggests that she was only a messenger for Nixon and Thieu. Political historians would do well to embrace the facts as they stand and do away with one of the Vietnam War's last great conspiracy theories.