Anna Chennault, 1923–2018
The power broker who schemed with Nixon
Richard Nixon might have lost the 1968 presidential election without Anna Chennault. Days before the vote, Chennault—the Chinese-born widow of a famed U.S. World War II general and a major Nixon fundraiser—sent word to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he boycotted planned peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris, he would secure the full support of a President Nixon. “Hold on,” she told South Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S., “we are gonna win.” The Nixon campaign had asked her to deliver the secret message, fearing that Thieu’s presence at the talks—organized by President Lyndon B. Johnson—could swing the vote to the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The plan worked. Without Thieu the talks collapsed; Nixon won the presidency by 0.7 percent of the popular vote.
Chen Xiangmei was born in Beijing to a family of diplomats and scholars, said The Washington Post. She was 19 years old and working for China’s Central News Agency as a war correspondent in 1944 when she met “the swashbuckling” Gen. Claire L. Chennault. Nicknamed “Old Leatherface,” he was three decades her senior and had led the Flying Tigers, a volunteer group of U.S. airmen fighting the Japanese in China. Married in 1947, the couple soon settled in Taiwan, where they ran an air cargo line, said The New York Times. After her husband’s death in 1958, Chennault moved to Washington, D.C., where she lobbied against the Communist regime that had seized power in mainland China in 1949. She testified in Congress, made weekly broadcasts in Chinese on Voice of America radio, and entertained 80 to 100 people a week in a Watergate penthouse “resembling a James Bond movie set.”
Chennault “never achieved her aim of becoming a high-ranking representative of her adopted country,” said The Wall Street Journal. She felt betrayed by Nixon, who snubbed her for an ambassadorship and visited China in 1972, opening the door for normalized relations. As a consultant helping U.S. firms do business in Asia, she ultimately reconciled herself to the Communist regime. When she traveled to Beijing with a congressional delegation in 1981, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping asked to sit next to her, not Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. “There are 100 senators,” Deng said. “But there is only one Anna Chennault.”