Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. on 7 July 1965


Transcript

Edited by David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, and Marc J. Selverstone, with Kieran K. Matthews

The two issues dominating this approximately 30-minute conversation were ones that dominate the overall legacy of the Johnson administration: civil rights and Vietnam. The previous day, the House began debate on the voting rights bill, and King phoned with his worries that a weaker substitute bill by the Republican leadership might gain traction and derail the administration’s effort. For King, however, the more ominous immediate political problem concerned fallout from comments on Vietnam he had made five days earlier in Petersburg, Virginia. To a friendly crowd of members of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he reportedly declared that he was “not going to sit by and see war escalated without saying anything about it” and believed that the war had “to be stopped” through “negotiated settlement” that included the Vietcong.[note 1] “Dr. King Declares U.S. Must Negotiate in Asia,” New York Times, 3 July 1965.

The conversation transcribed below is primarily a series of extended monologues by President Johnson. In the first part, Johnson displayed his grasp of parliamentary procedure and relayed his fear that southern segregationists on Capitol Hill might outmaneuver them by joining with Republicans. That combination could force delays and gain concessions. Introduced almost four months earlier during the struggle over the Selma–Montgomery march, the administration-backed bill had passed overwhelmingly in the Senate on 26 May and had been reported out of the House Judiciary Committee on 2 June. It then languished until 6 July, largely because House Rules Committee Chair Howard “Judge” Smith of Virginia took the full amount of time to send it up for debate on the House floor. Despite the fears of Johnson and King, two days after this call, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill favored by the administration except for the House provision that completely banned all poll taxes. This major sticking point awaited resolution in Conference Committee since the Senate version left the poll tax issue up to the U.S. Attorney General to pursue in court. The administration believed that the courts would find an outright ban unconstitutional.

In the final section of this call, King offered a careful clarification of his remarks on Vietnam. Johnson responded with a torrent of words explaining his rationale for escalating the war, a course of action that the White House was actively pursuing. Three weeks after this call, Johnson announced a largest troop call up to date, expanding the number in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000 and doubling the draft call from 17,000 per month to 35,000.[note 2] "The President's News Conference," 28 July 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27116

The audio quality for King on the original recording is poor, making sections of this conversation inaudible.

Operators connect the call.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello?

President Johnson

Yes?

King

Yes, President Johnson?

President Johnson

Yes.

King

This is Martin King.

President Johnson

Yes.

King

How do you do, sir?

President Johnson

Fine.

King

Fine. Glad to hear your voice.

President Johnson

Thank you.

King

I was calling because we are very concerned about the [William] McCulloch [R–Ohio] amendment in the House, and I wanted to get your advice on this and see what we can do to really block this serious development, which will stand in the way of everything we've tried to get in the voting bill.[note 3] William McCulloch [R–Ohio] was the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee who had been vital for gaining Republican support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and had been that party’s leader on pushing for a voting rights bill. He had written a substitute voting bill being supported by new House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford [R–Michigan]. Among its key provisions was a weakening of a triggering mechanism for sending in federal officials to oversee local voter registration. The administration bill called for it automatically in any state with 20 percent black population where fewer than 50 percent of the state’s population was registered to vote or actually voted in the 1964 presidential election. The McCulloch bill required that 25 residents file a complaint to trigger federal intervention. I talked with the Attorney General [Nicholas Katzenbach] earlier this morning, and he had some concerns about the possible closeness of the votes. And we are very much concerned about it because this would be a very serious setback. I'm sure you're familiar with the ramifications of it.

President Johnson

Yes. If I can speak to you in confidence, I don't want to be in the position of trying to influence or pressure anyone.

King

Sure, of course.

President Johnson

But I’d be glad to. All right, I think that we are confronted with the realistic problem that we've faced all through the years, a combination of the South and the Republicans. The Republicans have got new leadership. They've kicked out [Charles] Halleck [R–Indiana], and there's a great challenge to that leadership between [Gerald] Ford [R–Michigan] and a fellow named [Melvin] Laird [R–Wisconsin] of Wisconsin who was [Barry] Goldwater’s [R–Arizona] choice to be chairman of the platform committee.

And those people have got a substitute [bill], which is a very dangerous one. They tried in the Senate to get a big fight started over which way to repeal the poll tax. There were two ways, and we . . . [Nicholas] Katzenbach felt one of them would be constitutional because he thought he could get it in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas by challenging them in the courts, and he couldn’t get it in Vermont. And, so, if he had a blanket repeal it would all go out, but if he had an individual thing, he could get rid of it. I told him to get rid of the poll tax any way in the world he could constitutionally without nullifying the whole law. I didn’t want them to say I wrote a bad law that wouldn’t stand up.

And so they got some of them started over there, and they got a challenge to it, and some of the boys wanted to go a little further and help a little more. And, really, it was the best judgment we had that instead of helping more, it would help less. But anyway, finally we got it solved in the Senate, and it was acceptable. And it worked out. Now, it got over to the House, and they’ve tried every way in the world they could. The first thing they did is they went to the forces that are on our side and said, "Well, you’ve got to go . . . You’ve got to repeal the poll tax outright, which means you repeal Vermont, and Vermont is not a discriminatory tax. And, therefore, the court wouldn’t hold it, and you wouldn’t do any good." But they got [John] McCormack [D–Massachusetts] and they got the real friends that we have to go all the way, hoping that that would get the job done for them later on and would hold up the legislation.

I think the civil rights leadership is coming around now to see the problem that we all have. And if they don’t have much confidence in the Attorney General, they’re going to be in trouble anyway because he’s the man we have to try to rely on to help us. I picked him for that problem because he and [John] Doar and the others had demonstrated that they had the confidence of the leadership.[note 4] John Doar was the assistant attorney general for civil rights, replacing Burke Marshall, who had retired n December. But we got back then to the big question. What do . . . How do we avoid this combination?

[Howard] “Judge” Smith [D–Virginia] held it for awhile, and we had to file a 21 day rule.[note 5] Howard “Judge” Smith [D-Virginia] was the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee who controlled the process for bills making it to the House floor. One option to circumvent his authority was to have a majority of the House vote to support a discharge petition. And there’s been nobody really around here shoving it. I’ve done the best I could, but they’re hitting me on different sides, and the press is kind of . . . Vietnam or the Dominican Republic or some mistake here or some mistake there. And I’m getting kind of cut up a little bit. And [Roy] Wilkins is having a national convention, and you were somewhere else. And I called [George] Meany to ask him to help. He’d gone to Europe. I called [Walter] Reuther. He won’t be back till August. I called Joe Rauh and said, “For God’s sakes, you try to get in here before it’s too late.” We're all off celebrating and doing something else, and they’re going to put a package together that I can see forming. And I called [Andrew] Biemiller, and I got him to agree to go send some, and they got a wire sent from Roy [Wilkins] to all the Republicans.[note 6] Roy Wilkins was president of the NAACP, George Meany was president of the AFL-CIO, and Walter Reuther was president of the United Auto Workers. Joseph Rauh was a top labor attorney and a leader of the Americans for Democratic Action. Andrew Biemiller was the AFL-CIO’s chief legislative liaison and a former U.S. representative from Wisconsin.

But the Republicans are going to hold pretty well. They’re not going to—they’re going to quit the nigras. They will not let a nigra vote for them. They just, every time they get a chance to help out a little, they’ll blow it. And they could help out here, and they could elect some good men in suburban districts and in cities, but they haven’t got that much sense. That’s why they are disintegrating as a party. So they’re going to wind up being pretty solid. Then they’re going to get the southerners. And put the two together, it’ll probably be within ten votes of counting. Now, when I went up with my message, I could have probably passed it by 75. But it’s deteriorating. And the other day they almost beat my rental—my rent subsidy, which is very important to the working groups and the poor people because—

King

Quite right.

President Johnson

—when a man pays 25 percent of his income for rent . . . We’ll say a man makes 200 [dollars] a month in New York City working in a bakery shop. Why, he pays $50 a month rent, and his rent costs him maybe 67 [dollars]. Well, the government will come in after 25 percent, which is $50 of his 200. They’ll pay the other $17.50 themselves. And it’s the most modern idea we’ve had, and it takes care of lots of families. But they’ve beaten me—I beat them 208–202, but I had to work all night the night before.[note 7] Johnson’s bill passed the House a few days earlier along strict party lines. This 208-202 vote was a rejection of a Republican alternative. Jack Eisen, “House Votes Low Income Rental Aid,” Washington Post, 1 July 1965. And we called 90 people, and it was just a struggle of a lifetime. And the labor people who were supposed to be supporting it, they were off, and I couldn’t get them to help.

What they’ve done is just kind of taken a victory, Doctor, and not been concerned. Now [Howard “Judge”] Smith comes out and says my bill has had a lot of venom in it, I have a great hatred for the South, and I’m like a rattlesnake. I’m trying to punish you and all that kind of stuff. So he gets the congressmen from the 13 old Confederate states, and he puts 100 with 150 Republicans, and that gives him 250, and 250 is a good majority of 435. So we get some of them away from him. I’ll get a few from Texas away from him, and we’ll get a few from Tennessee away from him, the Confederate states. But he’ll still get 70, 80 of them, and unless we can pull some of the Republicans away, why, we’re in trouble, and we’re dangerous.

And even if we do, we get a bill in conference. Now, when it gets in conference with this House insisting on repealing blanket the poll tax—repealing it in blank—we think the court would not uphold us in that. We think that’s unconstitutional. We’ve said so, but we can’t avoid it because our own friends have bought it, and they want to be stronger for the Negro than Nick Katzenbach is. So we got to pass it that way. Then it goes to conference.

When it gets to conference, you can’t pass that way in the Senate because the Senate will not take it. They know that it’s unconstitutional, and they got six-year terms. They’re good lawyers and they’re not going to vote for it. So they get in an argument, and that delays it, and maybe nothing comes out. But if something does come out, then you got to go back to Judge Smith again, and you got to get a rule from him, and he won’t give you a rule. He . . . So you’ve got to file a [discharge] petition and take another 21 days. Now, the smart thing to do—if we had people that would all stay with us and follow leadership and get in and when the ball goes through the center or around the end, would follow it—would be to get some language that the leadership conference would agree on. And go in and see McCormack and our friends and say, "Now, let’s take this language that the Senate will accept without it going to conference so we can go on and get this bill passed and start registering our people and getting them ready to vote next year."

That’s what we need to do. But we—they’re playing us, and we’re not parliamentary-smart enough. If you want to be honest now, you asked for my advice, I’m just telling you. You all are either going to have confidence in me and in Katzenbach, or you ought to pick some leader you do have and [unclear]. Now, I started out on this voting bill last November right after the election. I called them down and told them I was going to do it. And I called you down here and told you what I was going to do. Then I went before the Congress and made a speech and asked them to work every weekend.[note 8] Johnson delivered the historic “The American Promise,” on 15 March 1965, a week after Bloody Sunday in Selma. Then we all went off, and they haven’t had any heat except from me. And they’re getting tired of the heat from me. They don’t like for me to be asking for rent one day and poverty the next day and education the next day and voting rights the next day. And they know I can’t defeat them out there in their district in Michigan, or some other place. So I’m just fighting the battle the best I can. I think I’ll win it, but it’s going to be close, and it’s going to be dangerous.

And I have notified the labor people. And I’ve asked Lee White to talk to you and talk to Roy [Wilkins] and talk to any of them that call him . . . Whitney Young. I talked to a fellow named [Samuel] Proctor from New York in here today that was with the Council of Churches.[note 9] Whitney Young was executive director of the National Urban League. I tell them all that this is a very dangerous thing. And I’ve been at this business 35 years. I got a wonderful response on my speech at Howard [University].[note 10] "Commencement Address at Howard University: "To Fulfill These Rights," 4 June 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27021 I’ve had it printed. I’ve sent it out to all the leaders over the country. I’ve got them writing their congressmen and their senators, but I cannot influence the Republicans. Now, the people that can influence the Republicans are men like the local chapters of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] or NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] or your group in New York and in Illinois, downstate Illinois, and in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and these states where you got a good many Negro voters. And you’ve got to say to them, “Now, we’re not Democrats. We’re going to vote for the man that gives us freedom! We don’t give a damn whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson. And we’re going to know, and we’re not—we’re smart enough to know, and we’re here watching you. And we want to see how you go through that teller vote, and we want to see how you answer on that roll call—Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, California.” And do it.

Now, that’s what we need. We need it Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and maybe, maybe even Saturday, if they run over. And I told Joe Rauh that, and I said, “Now, don’t come back to me after it’s defeated and say, well, the President didn’t give us leadership, because I’m sounding warning.” And UP [United Press] put out a story Sunday, and that story says that there'll be less than a dozen votes difference. Now, they counted a good many southerners voting with us. We think we’ll lose some of those dozen that they give us. So . . . but we’re going to try to pick up some more Republicans.

That’s where you got to pick them up. No use trying to pick up a fellow from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, those places. We’ll pick up but one or two from Florida. We’ll pick up some from Texas. But the place you got to pick them up is Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York. You’ll get a fellow like [John] Lindsay. He’s running for mayor and he’s going to be with us. But you won’t get a dozen Republicans, and we’ve got to get—ought to get 25 of them, or they ought to be defeated.

King

Well, I duly appreciate your advising because I've been very much concerned about this, and I have . . . it's a real job for the people [unclear] the South. I guess this amendment came out before I really realized the extent of it and the real danger of it. And I just want us to get in front of it. People by the thousands [are] going back down into the Black Belt of Alabama and other cities and are trying to register. They can’t register.[note 11] The Black Belt was the colloquial name given to a fertile agricultural region that ran through central Alabama. It also had high concentrations of African American residents and a history of intense white supremacy. It means that there’s a lot of demonstrations on our hands that we really can’t control. And this is my great concern. It gives a psychological lift [unclear], and I see the voting bill as our way out.

President Johnson

It is.

King

And this is why I have taken the position that I’ve taken now. Something should be done to avoid a long battle in the conference between the House and the Senate, because this again complicates the problem. This makes it much more difficult for us to control the work that we have going on in—we have in [unclear] today.[note 12] King may say “in Lowndes today,” as in Lowndes County, Alabama, where many student activists, including SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, were engaged in voter campaigns and political organizing. Our work is in 84 counties now, and the whole summer [unclear], the whole summer program is predicated on passing the voting bill, which we have all been involved with. [If] we get bogged down for the rest of the summer, there’s a danger of an amendment, which keeps the automatic trigger in there. This would mean we have a very complex problem on our hands.

President Johnson

We sure do, and we’re back—we've lost a good deal of the gain we made last November. [King acknowledges.] And I don't know, and I have the problem. You know my practical political problem in the Senate. The Attorney—[Robert F.] Bobby Kennedy and [Edward M.] Teddy [Kennedy] were for the bill—a blanket repeal of the poll tax. I told the Attorney General to repeal it any way in the world he could, as quickly as he could, that I would like for them to vote at 18, and I would like to repeal the poll tax. And he came up with his lawyers, and he says that the best way to repeal it is to establish discrimination, and I can establish it in all the states but Vermont. But they'll bring the case on Vermont, and that'll be the case that they'll take to the court. And they will not hold that it's discriminatory in Vermont because it's not. It doesn't even apply to the poor.

King

Yes.

President Johnson

And he said I'll lose it there. Now, these boys are not good lawyers, and they just—it won't stand up. So I have to take his judgment, but I didn't get out and quarrel about it, one way or the other. But the Senate finally followed the Attorney General, and they understood it, and even the boys themselves did. And that passed the Senate.

King

Yes.

President Johnson

But while they were talking about it, [John] McCormack was afraid that somebody would be stronger for the Negro than he was. So he picked up the Kennedy argument they'd made in the Senate over in the House. So he came out, red-hot, for a complete repeal. So he and the Attorney General are on opposite sides now. But the Attorney General's got no choice because the Speaker's going to put it in there. So that's going to be a different bill from the Senate bill.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

So then when—if we beat off McCulloch, if we win with him, we've still got one bill in the Senate and one in the House. That's what the southerners, that are smart parliamentarians, want us to do. They want your wife to go one direction and you to go the other.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

Then the kids don't know which one to follow. [King chuckles] So they've got that happening. Then we go to a conference, and suppose we get them all in a room, and you come and talk to them, and everybody else talks to them, and says, "Please get your agreement. We're willing to follow the Attorney General." You get them agreed on it. Then they got to go back to Judge Smith to get him to give a rule to get the conference report up. That just makes it—we oughtn’t ever have to do that because he won't give it. So then we got to notify him and then give him 21 days notice, and they want to get out of here Labor Day, and they're playing for that time.

Now, they've been doing that for 35 years that I've been here and I've been watching them do it. And the only times that we've beat them is when I beat them in '57 and when I beat them in '60 and when I beat them in '63.[note 13] As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson had orchestrated compromises that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960. And this year we got to beat them again. But that's what they're doing, and you can't beat them unless you know what they're doing.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

And that's about it.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

So I would say there are about two things that ought to be done. You ought to have the strongest men that can speak for you, and the most knowledgeable legislative-wise, authorized to speak and authorized to tell people, like the Speaker, that—what you want. And you don't want this fight going on. And you ought to find out who you believe you can trust, if you can trust me, if you can trust the Attorney General. If you can't trust us, why, trust Teddy Kennedy or whoever you want to trust, and then get behind them and see that they take the thing. Because I'll give every bit—ounce of energy and ability, if any, that I have to passing the most effective bill can be written.

King

Yeah. Well, I certainly appreciate this, Mr. President, because as I said, I [unclear] this whole voting bill. But, naturally, I would be [unclear] Alabama.

President Johnson

You sure have, and—

King

[Unclear.]

President Johnson

Well, you helped, I think, dramatize and bring it to a point where I could go before the Congress in that night session, and I think that was one of the most effective things that has ever happened.[note 14] Johnson was referring to his speech “The American Promise.” But you had worked for months to help create the sentiment that supported it.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, the trouble is, that fire's gone out.

King

That's right.

President Johnson

We got a few coals on it, and we've got to put some cedar back on it, and put a little coal oil on it.

King

Yeah. Well, I'll get right to work, and I'll be talking with Roy [Wilkins] and some of the others [unclear].

President Johnson

Roy sent them a wire yesterday, but they just put a wire in their file. What they got to do is have you and Roy and Whitney Young, and Phil Randolph, and [James] Farmer, and some of these fellows—any of you that can work together—to come sit in a hotel room and talk to your people and get your reports and watch it for a day or two and be able to talk to men like Speaker McCormack and like the [House] Majority Leader [Carl Albert] [D–Oklahoma] and tell them what you want them to do. Because this morning the vice president—now he is very, very strong for you, and he is—his heart and soul is in this. Now, he said, "Please, men, let's don't go to conference and let Judge Smith keep us another 21 days. Let's don't get in a fight among ourselves. And the Attorney General is right, and let's get language, and the leadership conference is ready to go along on modified language, and I've got it here in my pocket."

But McCormack said, "Oh, no. They'll do it when we . . . do it, then they'll come in and blame me, and I'm going to go for the strongest thing I can go for so nobody can blame me." I said, "Well, what are you going to do when the court holds it's no good and throws it out? Where are you going to be?" "Well, that'll be down the road a long time from now." So, that's where we are.

King

Yes.

President Johnson

So I think, my recommendation would be that you get the best lawyer that you and Roy and the rest of you have and get him to talk to [Nicholas] Katzenbach, and if he has confidence in Katzenbach, follow Katzenbach's legal judgment, then come in here and follow my political judgment, and see if we can't get a bill passed.

King

Yes. Well, this has been very sound and I certainly appreciate it very much.

Now, there was one other point that I wanted to mention to you because it has, again, concerned me a great deal. In the last few days, in fact, last week I made a speech in [Petersburg] Virginia, where I made a statement concerning the Vietnam situation. And there have been a number of . . . press statements about it, both reporting and editorial points of view.[note 15] King had spoken in Petersburg, Virginia, on 2 July, and had called for a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War. Allan Jones, "Dr. King Calls for End To War in Viet Nam," Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3 July 1965; "Dr. King Declares U.S. Must Negotiate in Asia," New York Times, 3 July 1965. And I wanted to say to you that this is no way an attempt to engage in a destructive criticism of the policy of the administration. I was speaking merely as a minister of the gospel.

As you are, I'm greatly concerned about this problem of war and the possibilities of nuclear annihilation. And I think the press, unfortunately, lifted it out of context and made it appear that I made a statement saying that we should unilaterally withdraw the troops from Vietnam, which I know is very unreasonable, and that the civil rights movement should take on the whole peace struggle of the foreign policy issue as a part of this whole struggle. And this was totally out of context, and I felt it would eventually come to your attention. And I wanted you to know exactly what I said.

It was merely a statement that all citizens of goodwill must be concerned about the problem that faces our world, and the problems of war and [unclear]. And they ought to debate on these issues. And I was just speaking generally in that area. And many of these papers took it out of context. So I just wanted to say that to you because I felt that, eventually, that it would come to your attention.

President Johnson

Well, it—

King

I know the terrible burden and awesome responsibilities and decisions that you have to make are just very complicated. So I didn't want to add to the burdens because I know they're very difficult.

President Johnson

Well, you're very . . . helpful, and I appreciate it. I did see it. I was distressed. I do want to talk to you. I'd welcome a chance to review with you my problems and our alternatives there. And I not only know you have a right, I think you have a duty as a minister and as a leader of millions of people to give them a sense of purpose and direction, and I . . . you have an obligation to do that, and I'll just welcome an opportunity to give you my views and problems I have because for 20 months, I have . . . well, the Republican leader had a press conference this afternoon. Ford demanded I bomb Hanoi, and I have tried my—[King attempts to interject] I've tried to do my best to . . . I've lost about 264 lives up to now.[note 16] House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford [R-Michigan] called on the Johnson administration to sanction the bombing of anti-aircraft missile sites near Hanoi in an effort to protect U.S. aircraft. E.W. Kenworthy, "G.O.P. House Leader Urges Bombing Hanoi's Missile Sites," New York Times, 8 July 1965.

King

Yeah.

President Johnson

And I could lose 265,000 mighty easy, and I'm trying to keep those zeros down and, at the same time, not trigger a conflagration that would be worse if we pulled out. I can't stay there and do nothing. Unless I bomb, they run me out right quick. That's the only pressure we have, and . . . if they'll quit bombing, if they'll quit coming in, if they'll quit tearing up our roads and our highways, and quit taking over our camps and bombing our planes and destroying them, why, we'll quit the next day if they'll just leave the folks alone. But they won't do it. So the only pressure we can put on is to try to hold them back as much as we can by taking their bridges out and delaying them, by taking out their ammunition dumps and destroying them, by taking out their radar stations that permit them to shoot down our planes.

Now, that's what we've been doing. A good many people, including the military, think that's not near enough; I ought to do a lot more. But I've tried to keep it to that so I won't escalate it and get into trouble with China and with Russia. And I don't want to be a warmonger.

At the same time, if I didn't do that, I'd stayed as long as I could the other way. I held up till February after I came in in November. I went from November to November, and from November to February, but they kept coming. They just kept coming, and I couldn't stand it any longer. I had to get out or do it.[note 17] Johnson became president in November 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and had won the presidency outright in the November 1964 election. In February 1965, an attack on Camp Holloway near Pleiku caused Johnson to initiate a sustained bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder and to send in combat Marines to protect the major airfield at Danang in South Vietnam. Now I'm doing it with a restrained and with the best judgment that I know how.

King

Yes.

President Johnson

If I pulled out, I think that our commitments would be no good anywhere. I think it would immediately trigger a situation in Thailand that would be just as bad as it is in Vietnam. I think we'd be right back to the Philippines with problems. I think we'd . . . the Germans would be scared to death that our commitment to them was no good. And God knows what we'd have other places in the world. I think it's the situation we had in Lebanon. I think it's the situation we had in Formosa. I think it's the situation we had in Greece and Turkey and Iran, and Truman and Eisenhower, none of these people, allowed them to go in and take these people's freedom away from them.[note 18] President Johnson's allusions to earlier Cold War flashpoints include the landing of Marines on the shores of Lebanon in 1958 in the wake of an Iraqi coup that deposed a pro-western regime; the troubles in the Taiwan Straits between Communist and Nationalist China, which had flared in 1954-1955 and again in 1958; and the 1947 episode in which Britain's inability to fund anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey led to the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine and American support for anti-totalitarian forces in the Aegean and elsewhere. And I'm trying—I didn't get us into this. We got into it in '54. Eisenhower and Kennedy were in it deep. We had 33,000 men out there when I came into the presidency.[note 19] When Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the United States had roughly 16,000 military advisers serving in Vietnam.

Now, I don't want to pull down the flag and come home running with my tail between my legs, particularly if it's going to create more problems than I got out there, and it would according to all of our best judges. On the other hand, I don't want to get us in war with China and Russia, so I've got a pretty tough problem. And I'm not all wise. I pray every night to get direction and judgment and leadership that permit me to do what's right.

But when you come in, I'll just welcome a chance to have the secretary of state talk to you, the secretary of defense, any of our people. I'll give you all I know, and I appreciate, very much, your attitude and your desire to be helpful, and I know that is your desire, as it always has been in our dealings together.

King

Yes. Well, I certainly appreciate your position [unclear]. And the breadth of your concern, [unclear] represents true leadership and true greatness. And [unclear] and we all think it.

President Johnson

Well . . .

King

I don't think I've had a chance to thank you for what I consider the greatest speech that any president has made on the question of civil rights. [Unclear] the depth, the grasp, and the sensitivity and everything [unclear]. [Unclear.]

President Johnson

Well, I'll send out—I'm having some new copies printed. I'll send you some of them. And I've got one with your picture in it. But in one of our leadership meetings here, and I put some pictures in the printed copy. I'll send you some.

Martin Luther King

Well, I'll—

President Johnson

If you're up this way anyway, you let me know and [we'll] talk about it. And I hope that you do talk to Roy, and y'all see what can be done quick, because tomorrow's Thursday and this thing will be decided Thursday and Friday.

King

Well, I'll get right to work tonight.

President Johnson

OK, you let me know, and if I'm not available, in a [national] security meeting or anything, call Lee White.

King

All right, Mr. President.

President Johnson

Anytime you have any problems, call him anyway.

King

Thank you.

President Johnson

You know that, don't you?

King

Fine. I know.

President Johnson

OK. All right, OK.

King

All right.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. on 7 July 1965,” Conversation WH6507-02-8311-8312-8313, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Lyndon B. Johnson: Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty, ed. David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002519