Anna Chennault, Behind-the-Scenes Force in Washington, Dies at 94

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.

Soon after President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam to ease the way for Paris peace talks that fall, Mrs. Chennault, a behind-the-scenes liaison for Nixon’s campaign and the Saigon government, was overheard urging South Vietnamese officials to boycott the Paris peace talks, saying they would get a better deal from a Nixon administration if they waited until after the election.

That same day, Nov. 2, President Thieu announced that his government would not join the Paris talks. Three days later, Nixon was elected.

President Johnson was furious when he learned of Mrs. Chennault’s intervention, and considered having her charged under federal statutes with criminally interfering with the conduct of foreign affairs. She was never prosecuted.


Ms. Chennault with her husband, Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, below a painting of him on their wedding day in 1947.

From “A Thousand Springs: The Biography of a Marriage”

Nixon lifted the tap on her telephones and awarded her Flying Tiger Line a lucrative Pacific cargo route. But for a supporter who had provided vital Asian contacts and $240,000 in contributions to the Nixon campaign, Mrs. Chennault received no major appointment in his administration, as she had hoped.

In her 1980 memoir, “The Education of Anna,” she denied involvement in the peace talk maneuvers but acknowledged her disappointment with Nixon.

“The ultimate handshake came months later, at a White House function, when Nixon took me aside and, with intense gratitude, began thanking me for my help in the election,” she wrote.

“ ‘I’ve certainly paid dearly for it,’ I pointed out.

“ ‘Yes, I appreciate that,’ he murmured, suddenly uncomfortable. ‘I know you are a good soldier.’ ”

Anna Chennault was born Chen Xiangmei in Beijing on June 23, 1923, one of six daughters of P. Y. and Isabelle Liao Chen, members of a prosperous family of diplomats and scholars.


Mrs. Chennault with President Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger in an undated photograph.

Schlesinger Library/Radcliffe Institute

Her father taught law at the University of Peking and was editor of the English-language New China Morning Post. She and her sisters grew up in a mansion near the Forbidden City with an entourage of servants and tutors.

As Japanese invaders approached Beijing in 1937, her family fled to Hong Kong. Her father became an envoy to Mexico, her mother died, and Anna and her sisters became scattered refugees in occupied China, with family jewels sewn into coat linings. Despite the war, she studied journalism with refugee professors and earned a degree from Lingnan University in 1944.

Fluent in Chinese dialects and English, she became a correspondent for China’s Central News Agency, covering the war and later Mao Zedong’s spreading Communist revolution. She met General Chennault in Kunming. He was three decades older, a married father of eight and the hero of the Flying Tigers, who shot down hundreds of Japanese warplanes and kept China’s hopes alive during the war.

In 1947, after his divorce, they were married in Shanghai. Besides Cynthia, they had another daughter, Claire, who also survives her, as do three sisters, Cynthia Lee, Sylvia Wong and Loretta Fung; and two grandsons.

The Chennaults lived in Shanghai, San Francisco, the general’s hometown, Monroe, La., and Taipei, where they ran the Flying Tiger Line and the Civil Air Transport, which was later owned by the Central Intelligence Agency and used in covert anti-Communist operations.


Anna Chennault with President Ronald Reagan, one of many political leaders in her orbit, at the White House in 1984.

Associated Press

General Chennault died of lung cancer in 1958 at 67, and Mrs. Chennault moved to Washington.

She was soon embraced by her husband’s friends, including Thomas G. Corcoran, a New Deal strategist who became a notable Washington lobbyist for corporations and foreign powers. He showed her the ropes of lobbying, and she dedicated her memoir to him, calling him “the best teacher of them all.”

In Washington Mrs. Chennault joined the Republican Party and right-wing cadres of influential Americans supporting Taiwan and opposing Communist China. In 1962, with President Kennedy’s blessing, she founded Chinese Refugees’ Relief, which assisted thousands fleeing China. She testified in Congress, wrote articles, gave speeches and, from 1963 to 1966, made weekly broadcasts in Chinese on the Voice of America radio.

In a penthouse apartment resembling a James Bond movie set overlooking the Potomac, she entertained 80 to 100 people a week, serving concoctions like “concubine’s delight” (chicken/snow peas) and “negotiator’s soup” (for Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger). At her soirees, Mrs. Chennault, less than 5 feet tall, cut a striking figure in slim Chinese dresses and spike-heeled satin shoes.

Her aura of intrigue was only enhanced by evasive replies to reporters’ questions about possible C.I.A. connections and her frequent travels to Asian countries embroiled in Cold War conflicts. “Mrs. Chennault — or the Dragon Lady, as she is called by her enemies — is well-known around Washington as a Vietnam hawk,” The New York Times Magazine said in 1970.

She chided Nixon for what she called his cautious prosecution of the Vietnam War. “He should have gone ahead and done what had to be done — clean it all out, go the whole way,” she told Parade magazine.

Her image as an implacable anti-Communist was eased in 1981 when she visited Beijing and Taipei for talks with Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, and President Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan. Acknowledging that her views had softened, she said people must be “humble enough to learn, courageous enough sometimes to change their positions.”

By then, her causes had all been lost. The Vietnam War was over, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were dead, and the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China.

Correction: April 3, 2018

A headline on an earlier version of this obituary misstated Ms. Chennault’s age at the time of her death. She was 94, not 92.

Continue reading the main story