The Logan Act has been around for two hundred years. It was enacted in 1799 to prohibit private citizens from meddling in the foreign policy of the United States. It is sometimes invoked but never really enforced, in part because for most of our history there has been a general consensus that party politics should be suspended at the shorelines of America. And there has been a nearly universal agreement that we should leave the intricacies of foreign policy to the government of the United States.
The Trump administration’s violations of the Logan Act are a serious betrayal of American foreign policy norms, but probably they won’t change much or endanger anything really worth protecting in America’s sovereignty.
There have been much greater breaches of the Logan Act.
The most important crisis came in the fall of 1968 when Richard Nixon was running for the Presidency at a time when the War in Vietnam was tearing the United States apart. Nixon had what he called a Secret Plan for ending the war. Meanwhile, the Johnson Administration was working hard to negotiate an end to the conflict. Nixon, who was famously paranoid, feared that the negotiations might succeed, and that Vice President Hubert Humphrey might therefore win the presidential election. And Nixon wanted to end the war under his watch so that he would achieve immortality as the Peacemaker.
He encouraged a woman named Anna Chennault—born in Beijing, a mere civilian, an ardent Republican, and a Nixon supporterto make back channel contacts with representatives of the South Vietnam government, to instruct South Vietnam to refuse to participate in the Paris Peace Talks, and thus prevent a settlement from occurring before Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969. The Chennault intervention worked. The peace talks, which had been moving towards a peaceful settlement to the long, divisive, and tragic war, suddenly stalled out.
Nixon was elected. He not only did not end the war, but he prolonged it and indeed expanded it into Laos and Cambodia. (Remember the Kent State killings? Four Dead in O-Hi-O?) By the time the war finally ended in 1975, a year after Nixon’s ignominious resignation for high crimes and misdemeanors, another 21,202 Americans had died in Vietnam, not to mention the tens of thousands of Americans wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed, maimed, and left homeless.
It gets worse. The diplomatic settlement that ended American involvement, negotiated by Henry S. Kissinger, was essentially no different from what was on the table in Paris in 1968. In other words—after five additional years of mayhem and national agony—the United States finally, in 1973, cut a peace deal that represented no measurable improvement over what President Johnson had been prepared to accept in the fall of 1968.
That’s a violation of the Logan Act. Mrs. Chennault should have gone to federal prison—at the very least—and Nixon should have been impeached for that appalling, cynical, and murderous interference in America’s foreign policy. Compared to that, covering up the Watergate break-in is a puny indiscretion.
Because of citizen Nixon's illegal intrusion into the peace process, 21,200 Americans died when they might have come home to reenter American life. By 1975 Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. We lost the war and in terms of our national psychology, we have never quite recovered.
What Michael Flynn and others did between November 8, 2016 and January 20, 2017 seems insignificant by comparison, but the full story has not yet been revealed—and the full implications of this most recent violation of the Logan Act have not perhaps yet worked themselves out. And remember the principal lesson of Watergate: it’s not the crime that brings down an individual or a government. It’s the cover-up.
The image of Richard Nixon, by White House photographer Ollie Atkins, appears from Wikimedia Commons.