Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate
By Ken Hughes, University of Virginia Press, 2014
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley called Richard Nixon “a diabolical pragmatist,” and Ken Hughes, in his recent book, Chasing Shadows, provides firsthand evidence for that characterization. Hughes is a researcher at the Miller Center Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, which houses the largest collection of Nixon White House tape transcriptions. His book draws heavily on the tapes to illuminate the enigmatic president and explain his historic fall.
Hughes’ thesis, which he first wrote about in 2007, is built on the tape-recorded evidence that Nixon’s first ordered break-in, at the Brookings Institution think tank on June 17, 1971, was done to retrieve files he believed incriminated him in the final days of the 1968 presidential race, when his campaign sabotaged LBJ’s Vietnam peace talks for political gain.
“Blow the safe and get it,” Nixon orders his Special Investigations Unit (the “Plumbers,” a group of men initially organized to stop information leaks from the administration), just four days after The New York Times began publishing the “Pentagon Papers,” the classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The tapes recorded Nixon ordering another break-in at Brookings on June 30.
The Watergate break-in, which occurred a year later, was just another felony that Nixon committed with his Special Investigations Unit—a team of burglars that would successfully break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist on Sept. 3, 1971, and into the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate building, first on May 28 and then on June 17, 1972, to plant bugs and search through files. “Indeed, the very creation of the SIU as an illegal, unconstitutional secret police organization was an impeachable offense,” Hughes says.
The author argues that it was Nixon’s obsession with seizing evidence of the crime by which he gained the presidency that caused him to lose it. The Watergate investigation understandably renewed Nixon’s determination to get his hands on FBI records that could incriminate him.
Just prior to his 1968 election, he had used a special agent—Anna Chennault, a Chinese-born D.C. lobbyist active in Republican politics—as his emissary to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to encourage Thieu to withhold his support of the peace efforts until after the election and to suggest that Thieu would receive a “better deal” from Nixon than from Humphrey. And during the Watergate investigations, “the Chennault Affair threatened to come to the surface…but it never quite did,” Hughes says.
Hughes’ research reveals that Johnson knew of the Chennault Affair on Nov. 2, 1968, at 8:34 p.m., when a teleprinter at the LBJ Ranch delivered an FBI report on a South Vietnam embassy wiretap, which he had ordered one week before the election: “Mrs. Anna Chennault” had told South Vietnam’s ambassador that “she had received a message from her boss (not further identified)….She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win.’”
“This is treason,” Johnson tells Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen over the phone at 9:18 p.m. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well that’s going to be his responsibility….I had them signed on board until this happened.”
But Johnson didn’t go public with the allegations. “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important,” he tells Dirksen.
The author shows Nixon to be paranoid, racist, blasphemous, bigoted, chauvinistic, crude, suspicious, profane, distrustful, anti-Semitic and irreverent. These character flaws, Hughes suggests, stem from the fact that Nixon was not one of “the cool guys” as a young man and used profanity and put others down to gain acceptance.
Hughes’ book is challenging and not for the general reader. If one is not aware of the players in the Watergate drama, Chasing Shadows will be perplexing, especially when it jumps back and forth between quotes. But these quotes and the exacting transcriptions from the White House tapes, along with hundreds of footnotes, assure the reader of accuracy.
The book’s true value will be for researchers who wish to use Hughes’ distillation of the Nixon tapes to attempt to understand this historic episode.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.