March 10, 2013 |
A favorite saying of Official Washington is that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” But that presupposes you accurately understand what the crime was. And, in the case of the two major U.S. government scandals of the last third of the Twentieth Century – Watergate and Iran-Contra – that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Indeed, newly disclosed documents have put old evidence into a sharply different light and suggest that history has substantially miswritten the two scandals by failing to understand that they actually were sequels to earlier scandals that were far worse. Watergate and Iran-Contra were, in part at least, extensions of the original crimes, which involved dirty dealings to secure the immense power of the presidency.
Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.
The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.
We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.
Rostow labeled the file “The ‘X’ Envelope” and kept it in his possession, although having left government, he had no legal right to possess the highly classified documents, many of which were stamped “Top Secret.” Johnson had instructed Rostow to retain the papers as long as he, Johnson, was alive and then afterwards to decide what to do with them.
Nixon, however, had no idea that Johnson and Rostow had taken the missing file or, indeed, who might possess it. Normally, national security documents are passed from the outgoing President to the incoming President to maintain continuity in government.
But Haldeman and Kissinger had come up empty in their search. They were only able to recreate the file’s contents, which included incriminating conversations between Nixon’s emissaries and South Vietnamese officials regarding Nixon’s promise to get them a better deal if they helped him torpedo Johnson’s peace talks.
So, the missing file remained a troubling mystery inside Nixon’s White House, but Nixon still lived up to his pre-election agreement with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to extend U.S. military participation in the war with the goal of getting the South Vietnamese a better outcome than they would have received from Johnson in 1968.
Nixon not only continued the Vietnam War, which had already claimed more than 30,000 American lives and an estimated one million Vietnamese, but he expanded it, with intensified bombing campaigns and a U.S. incursion into Cambodia. At home, the war was bitterly dividing the nation with a massive anti-war movement and an angry backlash from war supporters.
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