Chen Xiangmei died last week at the ripe age of 94. If you were trying to fathom all of the hell breaking loose in Washington and the rest of the country, you probably were distracted and missed news of her passing. In fact, if it weren’t for an email sent by a friend in Rhode Island that contained a link to her obituary, I might have missed this news as well.
Chen, known in this country as Anna Chennault, died in her penthouse apartment at the Watergate complex in Washington.
That’s right. The Watergate. As I read her obituary in the New York Times, it reminded me of so many things about her that are fascinating, including an experience I had nearly 35 years ago in China, the land of her birth.
In his email, my friend, who was my roommate when we were privileged to study in two Chinese universities as Fulbright Scholars, asked if I could remind him of an obscure connection I might have with Anna Chennault, nee Chen Xiangmei.
I called him to explain that, yes, there was a Six Degrees of Separation connection, but it was instead through her husband, Gen. Claire Chennault, who headed the Flying Tigers contingent that fought the Japanese during World War II. That Chennault connection was initiated, appropriately enough, in China.
During a break in one of our classes at Beijing Normal University in 1984, a diminutive man with a mournful face sat down next to me at an outdoor table in a small grassy area adjoining my classroom. “Can you help me with the meaning of this word?” he asked, pointing to a passage in a well-worn book bearing a 1949 copyright that was published in, of all places, my hometown of Philadelphia. (Part of this story was reported last year in a Plunderbund article, None Dare Call It Treason: The GOP And October Surprises.)
As he spoke a few more words, it was clear that his English was so much better than my Mandarin. Soon, I realized that he had chosen me to be the conduit for some information that he wanted others to know about, and we agreed to meet again in a park after my classes.
My new Chinese friend, whom I will call Lin for this article, asked that I not reveal his name; though he is probably deceased by now, I am still honoring my pledge to him. Another ground rule he established was that I couldn’t take any notes during our conversations since we were in a public park, and he was wary of being observed by state security.
Lin told me that under the new policies of Deng Xiaoping, Chairman Mao’s successor, he was being “rehabilitated” after serving 19 years in the Chinese version of the Gulag for supposed “anti-state activities.” Part of his problems during the Mao era, he said, were caused by the many close contacts he maintained, past and present, with Westerners, including that famous American, Claire Chennault.
As a young man in the early 1940s, Lin told me, his knowledge of English was such that he worked as an interpreter on Chennault’s staff and maintained contact with the general and his associates during and after the war. With regard to the leader of the Flying Tigers, Chennault divorced his wife and in 1947 married the much younger and exotic Chen Xiangmei.
During what turned out to be a three-week long interview, with almost daily meetings, we talked about a wide range of other topics, including the developing rapprochement between our two countries, the deep resentment the Chinese held for Japan as a result of its brutal WW II occupation, and how he was able to receive world news in a communist country. As a testament to what the Chinese political climate was like in the 1980s, I asked him several times to come and enjoy the relative comfort of my dorm room to continue the conversation. Lin declined, saying that my room was probably bugged by, you guessed it, state security.
In retrospect, although Lin and I talked several times about Chennault, I never did air my misgivings about the general’s wife and her political activism that developed after the death of her husband. Her obituary is important reading, however, because it brought up a notorious episode that needs to be recalled because of its uncanny connection to present-day developments.
While in China during that time, I was aware of then-sketchy reports that Anna Chennault, who was known for her fervent anti-communism and strong Republican ties, played a mysterious, behind-the-scenes role in Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. This passage from her New York Times obituary gives a hint of the part she played 50 years ago in the American political scene:
But there was a hidden side to Mrs. Chennault’s affairs, historians say. She was known to have been a conduit for Nationalist Chinese funds for the Republican Party, and to have been a secret go-between for American officials and Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Chinese generalissimo, and President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.
And in a contretemps of international intrigue and presidential politics that generated heated debate for years, Mrs. Chennault was recorded on an F.B.I. wiretap helping to sabotage a peace initiative during the Vietnam War in order to promote Nixon’s victory over Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
The full extent of Anna Chennault’s efforts at sabotaging the Paris Peace Talks that were held to end the Vietnam War was revealed only in the last several years when tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls and notes from other Nixon operatives like H. R. Haldeman clearly demonstrated Nixon’s treachery.
In a telling phone call, the president reached out to one of the leaders of the Republican “loyal opposition” to alert him about the disloyalty that was transpiring right before the election:
Johnson was livid. He even called the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen, to complain that “they oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
“I know,” was Dirksen’s feeble reply.
Foreign funds being funneled secretly to the Republican Party. A Republican intermediary in communication with representatives of a foreign government discussing information or action that might help to manipulate the results of the upcoming election. Wiretaps placed by the FBI that pick up conversations of American citizens in contact with representatives of a foreign government which center on scenarios that can influence voting results.
Again, what year was this?
In the last several months, we have seen reports of foreign funds in the form of Russian money being sent to the NRA for ultimate transmission to the Trump campaign. We also know about the notorious June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and several presumed representatives of the Russian government. Then there is the flap caused by Trump campaign aide Carter Page’s conversations being picked up as a result of a FISA warrant.
It sounds like we’ve been there before, with the 2016 election eerily resembling the 1968 Nixonian version, as members of the punditocracy expound on whether to call this nefarious activity treason or, more gently, collusion. A 2015 report by Robert Parry, a recognized authority on Chennault’s 1968 October Surprise activity, used the word that is popular in today’s coverage of the Trump campaign:
Relying on national security wiretaps of the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and surveillance of right-wing China Lobby activist Anna Chennault, Johnson concluded that Nixon’s Republican presidential campaign was colluding with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to derail the Paris peace talks and thus deny a last-minute boost to Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Sadly, Parry, whose groundbreaking investigative website, Consortium News, also chronicled the 1980 October Surprise and the purported collusion (or treason) between the Reagan campaign and Iranian operatives, did not live long enough to update us more about Anna Chennault. A premier award-winning investigative journalist, Parry died in January at the age of 68.
At some point, we might learn even more about Anna Chennault and the pivotal role she played 50 years ago on behalf of a Republican candidate as she colluded with a foreign government to influence an American presidential election. That does sound kind of familiar, doesn’t it? After all, it was Nixon himself who referred to her as the “Dragon Lady”, an off-handed way of recognizing her power and importance in GOP politics.
There’s another nugget in this story. How ironic that a “steel butterfly,” Richard Nixon’s Dragon Lady, would live, entertain, and take her last breath in the Watergate.
But the irony runs deeper. In an article several years ago, conservative commentator George Will made the point that Anna Chennault and her collaborators, through their actions on Nixon’s behalf in 1968, actually helped to birth the notorious Plumbers Unit that led, inevitably, to the Watergate burglary.
Will, in musing on a book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, said that “… Nixon ordered a crime in 1971 hoping to prevent public knowledge of a crime he committed in 1968.”
Come to think of it, I’m beginning to think that it’s a crime that we don’t know more about Anna Chennault. She is so much more interesting than our current Republican intermediaries named Kushner, Trump Jr., Page, and, of course, Manafort. The mystique about her was captured best in the subhead of a BBC story:
When Anna Chennault died last week at the age of 94, the world lost one of the most influential powerbrokers it had never heard of.
In reading Anna Chennault’s obituary and thinking about a Six Degrees connect through knowing one of her husband’s WW II colleagues, I’ve also been provided an opportunity to go through Lin’s writings and notes to see what new insights might be found in a small trove of material found in a filing cabinet that contains otherwise obscure artifacts of an exhilarating experience involving study and travel in China, the world’s oldest continuous civilization and most populous country on earth.
It all started with a chance encounter outside a classroom at Beijing Normal University in 1984. There, my friend Lin provided me much food for thought, with tales about a general named Chennault and the complexities of international relations. The recent death of the general’s widow at the Watergate and her role in colluding with a foreign government in an American election could not provide a more poignant model for us as we attempt to understand what happened in our last election and what we need to discover so it does not happen again.
For those of us who really want to get to the bottom of the current version of the treason or collusion which some pundits call Russiagate, let us remember the role of Anna Chennault, the steel butterfly and doyenne of the Watergate, the most influential powerbroker we’ve never heard of, as an important history lesson and learning exercise.
As for me, I also need a learning exercise. I’m determined to go back into a filing cabinet and reread a bulging folder filled with yellowed and odd-sized Chinese paper, knowing that Lin will also help me better understand the present through remembering the past.
For that matter, so will Anna Chennault. Speak, memory.