1968: A Dirty Election During a Dirty War

This is the fourth of five exclusive excerpts from Conrad Black's new historical work, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States. Read the first excerpt here, part two here, and part three here.

[Richard] Nixon had a heavy lead at the start of the 1968 election campaign, but [Hubert] Humphrey ran a plucky race and gradually the antiwar left rallied to him, while the [Lyndon] Johnson Democrats, led by the president himself, stuck with Humphrey out of loyalty. As the race narrowed in the polls, the third-party vote for [George] Wallace began to diminish, as third-party votes in the U.S. usually do. With the election very close coming into the last week, Johnson and Nixon, two of the toughest and least scrupulous political leaders in the country's history, resorted to new levels of electoral skullduggery.

Nixon throughout the campaign had largely dodged the Vietnam issue by saying, "I have a plan," often patting his suit breast pocket as if it held the plan, and purporting to observe a moratorium on political discussion of Vietnam because the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had followed the advice of the Russians and were "negotiating" in Paris with the Americans. In fact, they were just arguing about the shape of a table, as the South Vietnamese refused to negotiate with the Viet Cong.

Nixon assumed all through the campaign that Johnson would try to pull it out for Humphrey by fabricating some peace breakthrough at the end. And some officials of the Nixon campaign, especially Anna Chennault, the widow of Chiang Kai-shek's friend and commander of the Flying Tigers air support group in China during the war, were friendly with the South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington and with President Thieu himself.

Johnson was tapping the telephones of the embassy of his South Vietnamese ally, as well as of Nixon and his senior campaign officials, and even of his own vice president and his party's candidate, Humphrey. He was trying to get evidence of someone illegally conducting foreign policy (the Logan Act), but the Republicans steered clear of that.

Finally, on October 30, just six days before the election, time ran out and Johnson went on television to announce the long-awaited, providentially timed and completely spurious breakthrough. Thieu had consistently refused to attend any such talks and didn't need Nixon to tell him that his government had a better chance with the Republicans than the Democrats. So Johnson said that the North Vietnamese had agreed to respect the DMZ (not a huge concession, since almost all their supplies came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos or through the port of Sihanoukville and the jungles of Cambodia anyway), and that they would not attack South Vietnamese cities. Johnson delicately said that the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese were "free" to attend.

Thieu cracked this farce wide open on November 2 by stating that he would not be a party to such an attempted sellout. Nixon announced yet another "personal moratorium" on Vietnam campaigning but had his campaign co-manager, the lieutenant governor of California, Robert Finch, issue a statement that he was "surprised" that Thieu was not in place -- i.e., that it was just an election stunt. Nixon interrupted his personal moratorium on November 3 to say that he personally didn't question Johnson's good faith, but that Finch had every right to consider the president's action a political trumpery if he wished.

Johnson took to referring to Finch as "Fink," as if he didn't know what his name was, and on election eve, as Nixon and Humphrey were on competing nationwide telethons, Nixon referred to the latest intelligence showing increased North Vietnamese infiltration (a complete falsehood).

There were no serious voting irregularities, unlike 1960, when Kennedy probably stole the election, or 1876, when Hayes certainly did when a deadlock was broken by a congressional commission. But in electoral mores, Johnson, on behalf of the unoffending Humphrey, and Nixon, had scraped the barrel. In a tragic time, with 400 conscripted servicemen dying every week and violence all over the country, the sacred privilege of the ballot was exercised at the end of a spectacularly reprehensible effort to manipulate the election.

Johnson had been more egregious than Nixon, and Nixon's desire not to be robbed again is understandable, but it was an outrageous burlesque of popular consultation. Nixon won, 31.77 million votes to 31.27 million for Humphrey and 9.9 million for Wallace, or 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent to 13.5 percent, and 391 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey and 46 for Wallace.

Excerpted from Flight of the Eagle. Copyright © 2013 Conrad Black Capital Corporation. Published by Signal, an imprint of the McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.