Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jim Jones, and Walt Rostow on 30 September 1968


Transcript

Edited by Ken Hughes, with Kieran K. Matthews and Marc J. Selverstone

Alerted by wire service reports that Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was about to deliver a nationally broadcast speech promising that, if elected, he would halt all American bombing of North Vietnam, the Republican nominee calls President Johnson to find out if there’s been any change in the administration’s position.

Jim Jones

—meeting right now. I'll have to call him out. Will you inform the party there?

White House Operator

Yes.

Jones

Do you have him on?

White House Operator

Yes.

Jones

All right. Let me . . .

White House Operator

[It’s] up to you.

Jones

Let me, yeah, let me tell him then.

White House Operator

Fine. [Pause.] Mr. Nixon is on.

Jones

Hello.

Richard Nixon

Yes.

Jones

This is Jim Jones.[note 1] James R. Jones was a special assistant to President Johnson from 1965 to 1969; he succeeded Marvin Watson as one of the President’s appointments secretaries in 1968. Jones also served as a U.S. representative [D-Oklahoma] from 1973-1987, and as ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997. The President's in a meeting right now. If you'll hold just a minute, I'll try to get him out right away.

Nixon

[Unclear]—I would appreciate it, Mr. Jones.

Jones

All right, fine. Just a second. [Long pause.]

President Johnson

Hello?

Nixon

Hello?

President Johnson

Hello?

Nixon

Hello, Mr. President?

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

I'm awfully sorry to bother you. This is Dick Nixon.

President Johnson

Yes, Dick.

Nixon

And the only reason I bother you is that I'm going very shortly to be on a television program, and there just came over the wire this statement by Hubert [H. Humphrey] with regard to saying that he would have a bombing pause if elected.[note 2] Hubert H. Humphrey was vice president of the United States from January 1965 to January 1969. Humphrey had videotaped a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, for national broadcast later that evening in which he announced: “As President, I would stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and thereby shorten the war. This would be the best protection for our troops. In weighing that risk—and before taking action—I would place key importance on evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. If the Government of North Vietnam were to show bad faith, I would reserve the right to resume the bombing.” R.W. Apple, Jr., “Humphrey Vows Halt in Bombing if Hanoi Reacts; A ‘Risk for Peace;’ Aides Hopeful Doves Will View Speech as Rift With Johnson,” New York Times, 1 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 12 August 2009). And the only purpose of my call is to determine whether there's any change in our own policy at this time with regard to what position the administration is taking.

President Johnson

No, there's not. I have not read his speech; it has not been discussed with me. I say this in strict confidence.

Nixon

I understand.

President Johnson

I don't want you to quote me or repeat me, so I'll talk freely.

Nixon

I won’t, I won’t. I’m not even letting anybody know I called you.

President Johnson

I have not read it. I have just had the press secretary call me with the flash that he says he'll stop the bombing—pause—he'll stop the bombing if elected. And then it indicates that he has to have direct, or indirect, or deed, or act assurance [Nixon acknowledges throughout] that they would respect the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone]. [Nixon attempts to interject.] I don't know really what he is saying. [George W.] Ball said two or three days ago, when he quickly resigned, that the bombing was not . . . well, he said that the newspapers were pressing that too much.[note 3] George W. Ball was under secretary of state from 1961 to 1966. It was just a part of a whole, big, general picture.[note 4] U.N. Ambassador George W. Ball had resigned just four days earlier to become the top foreign policy adviser to candidate Humphrey. “I have taken this step,” Ball announced, “so that I may devote all my time and energy between now and Nov. 5 to help assure the election of Hubert Humphrey and the defeat of Richard Nixon.” The next day, Ball said, “I think the whole emphasis on the question of bombing or not bombing is enormously distorted” and that it was just one of many issues in complex negotiations. “Texts of Statements and Letters in Resignation of Ball From Post at U.N.,” New York Times, 27 September 1968, and Drew Middleton, “Ball Says Thant Is Naive on War; Criticizes View That End of Bombing of North Vietnam Would Lead to Peace,” New York Times, 28 September 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 12 August 2009).

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

So I was rather surprised that as his adviser, that Hubert would take this position, because it looks like a little bit inconsistent with what Ball said.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

I haven't reconciled it because I don't have the text. Our position is this: We are very anxious to stop the bombing. We went out before we met with the [congressional] leadership prior to the Chicago convention and asked [Creighton W.] Abrams what effect the bombing operations in Vietnam were having.[note 5] General Creighton W. Abrams was assistant deputy chief of staff and director of operations at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 1962 to 1963, and commander of the Millitary Assistance Command in Vietnam from July 1968 to June 1972. He came back and said, “We believe we’re destroying or damaging 15 percent of the trucks moving into the South. It’s our conviction the air interdiction program has been the primary agent which has reduced trucks detected by 80 percent between mid-July and the present time. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] The third effect is to prevent the enemy from massing artillery and air defense means in the area to the north of the DMZ from which they can attack our forces.”[note 6] See Abrams to Rostow, 23 August 1968, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964-1968: Vietnam, January-August 1968, ed. Kent Sieg (Washington, DC: GPO, 2002), 6: Document 337. You see, Mr. Vice President, they have to stop up at the 20th [parallel] now, and we’re really up to the 19th; we haven't gone above that. But if we stop the bombing, they could just come day and night, with lights on and lights off, bumper to bumper, right down to the DMZ, where they'd be poised to hit us.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

So, in the light of these three things—the trucks that he's stopping, the 80 percent between mid-July and the present time, and the massing the artillery at the DMZ, then we said, “Well, what would be the effect of a cessation of that bombing?” [Nixon acknowledges.] He says, “First, military matériel would be able to reach the DMZ or the borders of Laos unimpeded. We believe the current attrition from truck destruction alone, not to mention truck parts, is running several hundred tons per day. The truck flow could be expected to return to mid-July level or higher within as little as a week. We’re talking about an increase—repeat increase—in southwest movements—southward movement—which could amount to as much as 1,500 tons per day or more. Next, the enemy would mass artillery, air defense means, and ground units north of the DMZ for use against our troops. Finally, freed from interdiction north of the 17th degree, the enemy could move reinforcements to the DMZ by truck or rail, thus drastically shortening transit time.”

Then we said, “Is there any possibility of your providing even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties we would take if we stopped the bombing of North Vietnam?”

He said, “We would have to expect a several-fold increase in U. S. and Allied casualties in I Corps.” [President Johnson repeats.] “We would have to expect [Nixon acknowledges] a several-fold increase in U. S. and Allied casualties . . .” Now, for that reason, our people took the position in the platform that we would stop the bombing when we were assured that it would not cost us men by doing so.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

Now, we don't have that assurance as of now. At least, I do not have it. Then he goes on—I'm quoting Abrams now—"With the bombing authority now in effect, I am able with forces available to limit the enemy's capability in South Vietnam by interdicting his roads and destroying a substantial amount of his munitions before they reach South Vietnam. In addition, I am able to suppress his artillery and air defense north of Ben Thuy so that our positions south of the DMZ are secure."

Now, this is the key question: “If the bombing in North Vietnam now authorized were to be suspended, the enemy in ten days to two weeks could develop a capability”—be careful of that word, "capability"—”in the DMZ area in terms of scale, intensity and duration of combat, on the order of five times what he now has.” [Nixon acknowledges.] In ten days, he'd increase his capability five times.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

"I cannot agree to place our forces at the risk which the enemy's capability would then pose." Now, that was reviewed with the joint leadership. They know that. That has not been made public because we don't want to notify Hanoi that that is our estimate.

Nixon

Sure, sure.

President Johnson

Now our position, which I've been very careful with you and very careful with Humphrey, and I've told both of you the same thing, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] and you both have the same information—our position has been this: We are anxious to stop the bombing; we'd be glad to stop the bombing, if we can have any in—assurance that (a) they would respect the DMZ, thereby not endangering these four divisions—the three of ours and one Allied—or stop shelling the cities or, and most important of all, talk to the GVN, talk to the government of [South] Vietnam.

Now, we do not think that we ought to cause that government to fall and immobilize a million men that are going to be under arms this year by meeting in Paris and dividing up their country or deciding what they're going to do without their being present. So our first condition all along has been to say that they have got to be present. They have consistently refused to agree to do that. We have said you can bring the NLF if you want to, but we can't decide the future of South Vietnam, that now has an elected government, in their absence, without their presence. So in effect, we have said we are interested in what you have to say on these three subjects: DMZ, GVN presence, shelling the cities.

Nixon

Yeah. But you don't insist on all three, just—

President Johnson

Well, we'd like to have all three.

Nixon

Yeah, yeah.

President Johnson

But we ask them to make their commitment to us, tell us what they would do.

Nixon

On any one of these [unclear].

President Johnson

Yeah, now, we don't say that you've got to sign in blood beforehand, but we do say this: What would happen if we stopped the bombing Sunday and we walked in Monday morning with the GVN? Would you walk out? They have not responded, and we don't know what they would do. Now, until we do know, and that is very important to us, we don't want to gamble American lives. And when we do know, then we will have to make that decision. [Nixon acknowledges.] But they are making it now, and we don't know what they’re going to do about it. They may decide that they'll try to hang on until January. They're taking a terrible . . . they're paying a terrible price.

Now, the message—the information I gave you came in before the convention and we met with the joint leadership—Republican and Democratic. I had today a wire that came in yesterday from him. I'm trying to find it . . . from Abrams, the net of which he says that it—he thinks he is destroying between 5[000] and 10,000 military per . . . is it [Johnson confers unintelligibly with Walt Rostow in the background] destroying between 5 and 10,000 military per month in Vietnam by his bombing alone. We are losing, oh, 7[00], 800 a month.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

Our people, all told . . . a couple hundred a week—100, 200 a week, maybe 250 sometimes. Now, we have 200 million, we're losing 700-800 a month; he's losing 5, 10,000 just from the bombing. [Nixon acknowledges.] Now, if we stop that, he says that they have now a hundred-odd thousand— [The President covers the phone and speaks to Rostow.]

Nixon

Hello? Hello? Hello?

President Johnson

Hold on, I’m just trying [unclear]. [Nixon acknowledges.] I've got his wire on the [unclear] , but [unclear] and I just answered your call out of a meeting.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

But he says very much that he's very much opposed to the bombing as of last night—to stopping the bombing—

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

Unless we get some of these things. Now, our negotiators have been unable to get them up to now. We have a meeting Wednesday. I thought after Wednesday, I might have further talks with [Cyrus R.] Cy Vance, and [W. Averell] Harriman, and see what they had to say there, [Nixon acknowledges] but—[note 7] Cyrus R. Vance was secretary of the Army from 1962 to 1963, deputy secretary of defense from 1964 to 1967, special representative of the president to Cyprus in 1967 and to Korea in 1968, and a U.S. negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. W. Averell Harriman was an ambassador-at-large and chief U.S. delegate to the Paris Peace Talks under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Nixon

The way this . . . the way—I'm just seeing the AP dispatch here, and of course the papers tend to—the press tends to always make a bigger difference than there is. He says that this was a dramatic—they say a dramatic moving away from Johnson administration war policy. But when you read further down, it says, Humphrey said, in weighing the risk, he would place importance on “evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone.” So that would indicate that he wasn't just going to do it unilaterally, but—

President Johnson

I think the safest position for anyone to take—he takes it part of the way in his position, but he does not . . . [The President covers the phone and speaks to Rostow.]

Nixon

I can't quite hear you. Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? I can’t quite hear you.

President Johnson

[Unclear], I want to put Walt Rostow on for just a second. [Nixon acknowledges.] [To Rostow] Summarize for him Abrams's latest wire, just as if he could read it.

Walt W. Rostow

Mr. Nixon, this is Walt Rostow, sir.

Nixon

Yeah. Yeah, sure.

President Johnson

We went out again to General Abrams and put the same questions we'd put [Nixon acknowledges] a month ago. His response was that the weather was changing and there were—he'd had some successful operations, but essentially he would make the same answers that he would a month ago. Mainly, that unless we got some assurance on the DMZ, we would take a very heavy military consequence from a cessation of bombing at this time.

Nixon

Well, to an extent, of course, I think Humphrey leaves that as a possibility, where he talks about . . . that he would . . . you know, the press always tends to play the biggest part of a story, and it says, "But in weighing the risk, he said he would place importance on ‘evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone.’"

Rostow

Yes, I noticed that on the ticker, Mr. Nixon.

Nixon

But on the other hand, this will be interpreted, as I'm sure you know, as a dramatic move away from the administration. It's my intention not to move in that direction, I think, for this fundamental reason: As long as the administration is still negotiating, I think we've got to—I think that my position has to be, in good conscience, that unless and until there is some evidence that—of a reciprocal step, that we could not stop the bombing.

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

That's still the Administration's position [unclear].

President Johnson

Yes, except "reciprocal," Dick, is a bad word [Nixon acknowledges throughout] with them. I'd say, unless they give us [Nixon attempts to interject] some assurance that it wouldn't—unless we had some indication that it would not cost the lives of our men. I found this memo if you want me to read it to you very quickly. "What is the effect of our current bombing operation in North Vietnam?" This is September 28th, from Abrams to Johnson:

"Deterrence is the first effect. Our air presence is keeping the enemy from moving his air forces, rail system, and logistic base southward toward the DMZ. After better than 70 days of effort, it is now clear that our concentrated efforts to choke traffic at four primary . . . and six road points, and at six critical water points in North Vietnam have reduced the enemy’s detected flow of troops from the mid-July high of 1,000 per day to less than 150 since that time. Southbound truck detections the past few weeks have numbered fewer than a hundred per day. If the bombing in North Vietnam ceases, a return to the level of a thousand per day would have to be expected. These efforts have also prevented the enemy from massing artillery, supplies, and air defense means for sudden attack against the DMZ. Possibly of greater consequence is the combined Navy and 7th Air Force interdiction efforts in North Vietnam [which] have effectively impeded the transshipment southward of a significant stock of supplies which continue to move into Thanh Hoa and Vinh by rail, road, and boat.

“Question number two. What would be the military effect of a cessation of that bombing? (A) Answer: The major result of a bombing halt would be the enemy’s increased capability to position and maintain large ground forces north of the DMZ in close proximity to our U.S. and ARVN forces deployed to defend the I Corps. He could concentrate his artillery, armor, air forces, and air defense forces in direct support of his ground forces and place them in a position to initiate a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam with minimum warning time. (B) We can expect the enemy to develop forward logistic complexes. (C) The enemy will devote a maximum initial effort to reconstruction of his lines of communication south of the 19th parallel. (D) Airfields south of the 19th will return to service. A bombing pause would permit [the] North Vietnamese Army to make fuller use of land lines in communication. Country-wide, the North Vietnamese Army presently devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to his air defense mission.” Now, these are two good figures [chuckles]: "The North Vietnamese Army devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to his air defense mission, plus, perhaps 110[000] to 200,000 laborers. Complete bombing cessation would allow the North Vietnamese Army several options, any of which would increase the threat to American forces in or near South Vietnam.

“Question number three: Since March 31st"—that was my speech—"what is the average number of trucks destroyed and trucks damaged per week? What is the average number of trucks sighted in the panhandle per week? What is your best estimate of the total number of trucks sighted and unsighted that flow through the panhandle each week and the proportion of this total that we’re not getting? Answer: The enemy’s day movements of trucks has been virtually halted. As a consequence of night attacks against the above areas, the enemy has ceased moving in convoys and has been unwilling to allow his trucks to wait behind crossing points. As a result, most of his trucks have been kept north of Route Package 1, moving out singly under the cover of darkness. Consequently, fewer kills have been possible. In the week of July 14-20, an average of 508 trucks per day were sighted from all sources. After that period, there was a steady decrease in truck traffic as the enemy felt the full weight of our interdiction bombing campaign concentrated at key traffic choke points. In the week prior to Typhoon Bess on September the 4th, the sightings had decreased from 508 trucks per day to 151 per day. Since September the 4th, truck kills and damages have averaged 32 per week as a consequence of nearly complete blockage of his [unclear] choke point.

"Question four: What is the estimate of military casualties we inflict on the enemy each week in the bombing in North Vietnam? We believe the military casualties resulting from the intensive air strikes since mid-July '68 have increased significantly. As in our previous submission, casualties on the order of 5[000] to 10,000 per month do not seem unreasonable.

"Question number five: Is there any possibility of your providing for the President even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties America would take if we stopped the bombing in North Vietnam? Answer: I've reviewed the factors considered in my response to this question. Further examination of the results of the air interdiction campaign convinces me that my estimate at that time remains valid.

"In summary, a cessation of offensive action north of the DMZ would enable the enemy to mass personnel and equipment along the DMZ. It would facilitate his infiltration of the logistic support across and around the DMZ. It would increase the air, artillery and ground threat to our forces located in northern I Corps. I must emphasize the adverse effect of a cessation without reciprocity on the morale of the officers and men of my command, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] as well as those of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces who would be exposed to increased enemy pressure from a newly created sanctuary. Conversely, a complete bombing cessation would raise the enemy's confidence and his aggressiveness. It will validate his doctrine of the insurgency war. It would confirm his unrealistic view of the military, political and psychological posture of the warring parties. It will portray to him increased strength on his part and growing weakness on ours. It will demonstrate to him that he is winning. Above all, it will convince him that he must continue or increase the current tempo of the war to gain the ultimate victory. Militarily and psychologically, a complete bombing cessation will shift the balance significantly toward the enemy." Unquote. Now, that's today.

Nixon

That's just today.

President Johnson

That's today. Now, we have not given that to the Vice President. He has not asked for it. We will give it to him if he does ask for it. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] I didn't call him because I don't want to be coaching in this campaign. I'm trying to run the war. The position that I think is safe—

Nixon

[chuckling] Yeah, what is it?

President Johnson

—is the position that the President, and there's just one president—the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador [Ellsworth F.] Bunker, and General Abrams are responsible for that situation in Vietnam.[note 8] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973. They're going to be responsible until a new president is elected. Therefore, you're not going to try to look over their shoulders without all the information and tell them what is best. You have to have some confidence in the professional army, and the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense, and you believe that every American wants peace. [Nixon acknowledges.] But you're not, in order to win a campaign, not going to be in a position of trying to overrule all of these men without any information that would justify your doing it.

Nixon

That's what I've been saying. Of course, I think on this, too, I can just say what I have said previously, that, as I understand it, it is the position that if there’s any evidence that there would be—that a bombing pause could take place without endangering our men, we will go ahead and do it. Isn't that really our position?

President Johnson

Well, not necessarily. We have said we favor the stopping of bombing if it doesn't endanger our men and—

Nixon

You name those three things.

President Johnson

—of course then we want these—we want them to close that DMZ. We don't want them to take advantage of us.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

That's San Antonio.[note 9] The President refers to his 29 September 1967 speech in San Antonio in which he said, “The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of the bombing cessation or limitation.” See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1968) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=28460 (accessed 14 May 2013). We said we don't want them to take advantage. If they’ll assure us. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] We said don't shell the cities. The most important thing, though, Dick—

Nixon

—is the recognition of the government.

President Johnson

We've got to—well, not necessarily. Yes, just letting them hear; just let them sit in.

Nixon

Right!

President Johnson

We've got a million men there. Now, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] if they pull out, we're in one hell of a shape. We've lost everything.

Nixon

We're done. That's right. Well, I hesitate to bother you, but I appreciate—

President Johnson

No, I think it—

Nixon

I just wanted to be sure that I was up to date on everything.

President Johnson

I think that . . .

Nixon

This is the kind of [unclear].

President Johnson

—the least you can get into tactics and strategy, the better any candidate is. And I say that—American Party, Republican Party, or Democratic Party. And I'd put that responsibility on somebody else until I had to assume it myself if I was elected. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] And I would just say to them that you believe that the Joint Chiefs, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense have made our position clear at Paris, and that you are not going to overrule that position unless you have more information than you have.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

OK.

Nixon

That's what I'm going to continue to say.

President Johnson

Thank you, Dick. Bye.

Nixon

[Chuckles] Appreciate your time.

President Johnson

Bye. [Nixon acknowledges.]

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jim Jones, and Walt Rostow on 30 September 1968,” Conversation WH6809-04-13432-13433, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4005497