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Craven: Foreign Meddling

Some have called this year’s alleged foreign interference in our Presidential campaign unprecedented. But while the circumstances are unique, the idea of a power play by a foreign government during election time is not new.

During the spring of 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced his startling decision to not run for re-election. The war in Vietnam was going badly, especially after the Tet Offensive earlier that year, when American forces were set back by successful incursions by Vietnamese opposition forces into U.S. controlled safe zones.

Anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy dominated the primary field and LBJ’s own advisors reportedly told the president that they had few further strategy ideas for Vietnam.

LBJ withdrew from the race - but secretly pursued a peace agreement with North Vietnam that neared completion – though he had to twist the arms of our South Vietnamese allies to accept the terms.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative writer Seymour Hersh, Henry Kissinger, one of LBJ’s Vietnam advisors, tipped off Republican candidate Richard Nixon about the imminent peace agreement. Recently released presidential papers now confirm that candidate Nixon felt his campaign threatened by the prospect of peace and dispatched Anna Chernault, his liaison to the South Vietnamese government, to persuade the Saigon regime’s President Thieu to – "hold on” – promising a better deal from Nixon if he refused LBJ’s ceasefire offer.

The Thieu government complied with Nixon’s request, the peace negotiations collapsed, and Kissinger became Nixon’s national security advisor. And Thieu used his leverage as Nixon’s special ally, frustrating U.S. efforts in 1972 peace talks.

LBJ was livid with Nixon, confronting him and calling Republican Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen, to complain that “they oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

“I know,” was Dirksen’s reply.

But Johnson didn’t go public, advised by defense secretary and Washington insider Clark Clifford, that the revelation, so close to the election, would rattle the nation.

In particular, Clifford told Johnson (in a taped conversation) that “some elements of the story are so shocking that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have [Nixon] elected.” Clifford concluded, “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be contrary to our country’s best interests.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and directs Kingdom County Productions
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