Watergate was bad, but that was not Nixon’s greatest crime (a reprise)

Thinking of the actions of the most recent former president which led to an insurrection on the Capitol Building and its occupants, which to me are seditious in nature, I am reminded that he is not the first president whose actions could be regarded as treasonous. I wrote the following post about four years ago about another act.

I have been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent documentary on The Vietnam War. While tough to watch at times, the ten part series has been very informative, as it takes us through a variety of perspectives on this tragic war – American soldiers, Viet Cong soldiers, North Vietnamese soldiers, South Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, American parents and relatives of soldiers, draft dodgers, protestors, Presidents, military leaders, experts, etc.

What has been frustrating, JFK, LBJ and Nixon all were not very forthcoming with the American people or press on the Vietnam issues. They knew early on this was an unwinnable war and that we had partnered with a corrupt leadership in South Vietnam. And, as many American soldiers attested, we were fighting a very effective opponent in guerilla warfare. These leaders also led on the American people to believe we were winning the war, when that was not the case.

The two Presidents that frustrate me the most on these issues are LBJ and Nixon. For all the good LBJ did domestically, he went down a poor path that said we must stave off communism at all costs. As a result, he escalated the war. But, Nixon did something that was unforgivable that is actually worse than what he did with the Watergate break-in and cover-up that led to his resignation and jailing of over twenty of his staff members.

If it were not for Watergate, the Nixon Presidency would have been mostly remembered for its positives – opening up China, establishing better relationships with the Soviet Union and enacting the Environmental Protection Agency, balanced by the negatives of his widening of the Vietnam War and his iron thumb on protestors. So, what was worse than Watergate?

Richard Nixon committed treason and twenty thousand more Americans died and even more were injured. Nixon called the President of South Vietnam five days before the 1968 election against Hubert Humphrey to ask him to hold off on going to Paris peace talks that had been progressing and he would his influence on North Vietnam to get better terms. The encouraging news of the peace talks had brought Humphrey closer to Nixon in the election polls and Nixon felt the need to derail the peace talks for his benefit.

How do we know this? The CIA bugged the South Vietnamese President and recorded the conversation between him and Nixon (see below link). LBJ listened to the recording and called the most senior Republican Senator and a friend and they both spoke of Nixon’s treason, repeatedly using that term. LBJ decided not to act (does this sound familiar), but did get a call from Nixon where he noted to LBJ he had heard these rumors and they were not true. That was a lie, but LBJ did not call him on it. Maybe LBJ felt it would lead to his own lies on how well the war was going or maybe he felt like Obama did last year that it would look politically motivated.

The result of this treasonous act is the peace talks stalled and the war went on for four more years. Many more Americans died needlessly. To be frank, American deaths which occurred before then were needless as well, as we knew we could not win. Some folks may contend I am making this up or using inflammatory language. But, the word “treason” was used by the President of the United States and the lead Republican Senator to define what Nixon did. Intervening with a foreign entity to override our policy is far more than poor form. It is criminal. And, American people died or were injured.

Note, as an epilog in 2021, it matters not to me which member of which party defames the office he or she holds. As the Pentagon Papers revealed, from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon, four presidents gave a false impression that Americans were winning the Vietnam War when they knew we were not and could not. The old line of war is old men talking and young men fighting (and dying) hits home with me. Our leaders must exhaust every means not to send Americans to die in battle. But, at the very minimum, they must tell us the truth.



14 thoughts on “Watergate was bad, but that was not Nixon’s greatest crime (a reprise)

  1. Great post, Keith. I really must sit down and watch that Ken Burns special. I was just old enough to be aware of what was going on during that time, but young enough to not grasp all the threads as they unraveled.

      • Soundeagle, no question. The US strategy was to kill everyone, including civilians, the VC and the NV. Yet, the country kept replenishing. The US and French actually supported the side with a corrupt government over the group trying to unite its country, when the political issues are set aside. Keith

  2. Unconscionable action by Nixon. It seems to be a forerunner of various leaders that were to follow. They will lie, spin and distort events and facts for their own benefit. Australians were encouraged by a slogan – All the way with LBJ – I can even remember it in my youth. Australians died too as did other countries involved – and not forgetting the North Vietnamese as well. Needless deaths and destruction on all sides. And where did it get us? We trade and travel to and from Vietnam now just like the other countries in the region. In fact, prior to covid, it was a really popular destination for Australian tourists.
    I do wish politicians would become more honourable in their undertakings.

    • Amanda, thanks for raising the Australian perspective on things. Ironically, three Vietnam vets, Senator John McCain and Senator John Kerry and a third one whose name escapes me, led a conscious effort to estsblish US trade ties with Vietnam. I thought that was telling.

      As for officials lying, I was reminded last night watching a documentary on the talented Charlie Chaplin of those officials who targeted him for his pro labor sentiments calling him a Communist during the witch hunt period – FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper were joined in an unholy circular rumor tactic to defame Chaplin and others. Senator Joe McCarthy had a lot of help to impose his slander and strong arm tactics. It should be noted a young Richard Nixon also supported McCarthy’s efforts. Keith

      • PS – People who use their power to discredit others deserve the historical criticism they receive. President Eisenhower lamented not speaking out more against McCarthy even though he knew the wrong the Senator was doing.

      • This is a familiar tune, although it occurs within the social media realm where once it was in newspaper. The power of the media to influence public opinion is immense.

  3. Note to Readers: The best movie about the fight to publish the Pentagon Papers and why they matter is “The Post” starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham. The fight settled by the Supreme Court allowed The Washington Post and New York Times to report on their contents, which said four presidents and the military mislead Americans about the Vietnam War. Many Americans and others died needlessly because these leaders knew the war was unwinnable. Their stance makes you mad, but the courage of Katherine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Post to fight and the SCOTUS ruling makes you proud.

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