Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Nixon derailed Vietnam peace talks in '68

Presidents and prime ministers are like popes: they become known on the basis of a single name. The names "Kennedy", "Johnson", "Thatcher" invoke certain ideas and points of reference, but the name Nixon is probably the most despised in the list of US presidents because of the man's political techniques while in office. It appears, however, that Nixon's predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was partial to listening devices also, and with the passage of time information illegally collected is being released, the BBC reports. Most damning from Nixon's point of view is the knowledge that, in opposition prior to the '68 election, Nixon worked to derail Vietnam peace talks, essentially ensuring the loss of tens of thousands of lives in a bloody war that might have been averted but for his meddling. Nixon was finally forced to end the war in '73. "[The story] begins," writes the BBC's David Taylor, "in the summer of 1968."
Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign. 
He therefore set up a clandestine back-channel involving Anna Chennault, a senior campaign adviser. 
At a July meeting in Nixon's New York apartment, the South Vietnamese ambassador was told Chennault represented Nixon and spoke for the campaign. If any message needed to be passed to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, it would come via Chennault. 
In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris - concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared. 
Chennault was despatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal.
"So on the eve of his planned announcement of a halt to the bombing," we learn, "Johnson learned the South Vietnamese were pulling out."

Whatever it takes. It's hard to think of a more immoral undertaking than to actively pursue the continuation of military hostilities merely in order to further your political career. Well, it's not impossible. The active pursuit of the war against Iraq by George W. Bush, based on bald lies and massaged facts, approximates Nixon's actions in terms of its sheer moral turpitude. Bush got reelected in '04 on the back of his warmongering stance, because the media had not done its job at the time of Iraq to warn the community about how flimsy was Bush's case against Saddam Hussein.

In the case of the Johnson tapes medicinal time has had its soothing effect. By the time the truth comes out about Dubya there will be other, more pressing things to occupy our attention. The release of this new information is hardly timely. If it can do anything it should remind us that politicians will often do anything necessary in order for them to reach elected office, even sacrificing thousands of lives if that's the price for glory. And the importance for the community of people in high elected office will continue to grow. We see this in the way that Kevin Rudd, elected prime minister in Australia in 2007, continues to be a shadowy presence behind the current PM. Any sign of weakness - a fall in opinion polls, the failure to pass proposed legislation - becomes an opportunity to speculate on party support for Julia Gillard.

The world is becoming increasingly globalised and complex. Old certainties fall by the wayside as the corporatised liberal polities and the emerging powers of the global South forge ahead into the white field of the future, where our destinies are yet to be written but where there is an always-receding goal-line that invites nation states to strive forward, and be the first to reach it. In this shifting and uncertain landscape we reach for assurances. In some countries that might take the form of extreme nationalism or religion. In secular Australia we cling to the British monarch to make us feel better, make us feel safe. It's ironic that as our leaders become more presidential and awe-inspiring, we become less likely to embrace independence and finally go the last step to sever the ties that bind us to the House of Windsor.

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