Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was literally the last man to warn the President that he was going to give a speech promising to halt the bombing of North Vietnam if elected. LBJ had learned of the imminent national broadcast of Humphrey’s speech from the news wires. Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, talked to the President about it 45 minutes before his own Vice President called.[note 1] See WH6809-04-13432-13433. Earlier that year, Humphrey had told a campaign aide that LBJ had threatened to publicly repudiate him if he came out for a bombing halt. “In fact, he told me that it would endanger American troops like his son-in-law and cost lives. I would have their blood on my hands,” Humphrey said. “He would denounce me publicly for playing politics with peace.”[note 2] Quoted in Ted Van Dyk, Heroes, Hacks, and Fools: Memoirs from the Political Inside (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 74.
Most of what Hubert H. Humphrey wrote in his memoir, The Education of a Public Man, about the following telephone call is contradicted by the tape of it: “About fifteen minutes before I began my speech, I called President Johnson from the studio. I told him what I intended to say and he said curtly, ‘I gather you’re not asking my advice.’ I said that was true, but that I felt that there was nothing embarrassing to him in the speech and certainly nothing that would jeopardize peace negotiations. I said we had been in direct contact with Averell Harriman and that George Ball was there with me. Johnson said tartly and finally, ‘Well, you’re going to give the speech anyway. Thanks for calling, Hubert.’ And that was that.’”[note 3] Hubert H. Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics, ed. Norman Sherman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), p. 403. The White House Daily Diary indicates that the Vice President didn’t speak with Johnson until 7:30 P.M., when the broadcast of his pre-recorded speech had already begun. Humphrey didn’t inform LBJ that he’d been in direct contact with Harriman, the President’s chief negotiator in the Paris talks with the North Vietnamese. Johnson would be furious a few days later when word of Harriman’s role in the speech leaked and the ambassador authorized a public statement saying Humphrey’s position would not undermine the bombing halt negotiations.[note 4] See WH6810-02-13512-13513. Neither of the quotes that Humphrey attributed to Johnson can be found on the tape.
How are you this evening?
Say, I'm going to be on your TV in about five or six minutes.
All right, I'll tune it on [unclear].
On NBC, and I just thought I should have called you a little earlier. They've had me taping here all day and I've been about half-dead.
Is it taped?
Yeah, it's taped.
That's good. Good. Well, I'll turn it on.
And it points out the things that we've done here on Vietnam, and it's about the arms control as well as the non-proliferation treaty. And it says, for example, that we've given the time for Asian nations to strengthen themselves and work together, and so we see a stronger Southeast Asia, a stronger South Vietnam—contrasted [with] a few months ago when peace negotiations were started. And there are new circumstances which will face the new president. In light of these circumstances and assuming no marked change in the present situation, how would I proceed? And let me make clear first what I would not do: I would not undertake a unilateral withdrawal. Peace would not be served by weakness or withdrawal, and I make that very clear. Nor would I escalate the level of violence in either South or North. We seek to de-escalate. The platform of the Democratic Party says the president should take reasonable risks to find peace. North Vietnam, according to its own statement, has said it will proceed to prompt and good-faith negotiations if we stop present, limited bombing, but we must always think of the protection of our troops. As president, I would be willing to stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace, because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and a shorter war.
Now, does that mean without any—
No, now wait a minute. This would be the best protection of our troops. [quoting from his speech] “But in weighing that risk and before taking action, I would place key importance on evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of the Communists’ willingness to restore the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.”
Now, would you just want evidence on that one point or . . . ? You know we have our negoti—you know our negotiating position. We have three. The South Vietnamese—[Ellsworth F.] Bunker tells us that that government, and those million men they have, would really go into chaos if we divided up at Paris their future without their having a chance to appear.[note 5] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973.
We would be willing to have the NLF appear, but about the most important condition we think we've got to have [Humphrey acknowledges] is that we not decide their fate without their presence—
—as [Adolf] Hitler and [Arthur Neville] Chamberlain did to Czechoslovakia.[note 6] President Johnson is referring, of course, to the Munich agreement negotiated by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler that yielded Czechoslovakian territory to Nazi Germany. Now—
Yeah, well we mention—we say that they must proceed with good-faith negotiations. And if they—
Well, would that include—you see, there’s three points. This is one of them. I gather from what you are saying, that you would require evidence—direct or indirect—deed or word—of their willingness to restore the DMZ. Now, that would give us some protection for our men if you would—
—if that is a condition.
Now, there are two other things that we say they ought to do if we stop bombing. One is not shell the cities, and two, to let the GVN come in, [Humphrey acknowledges] and we’d let the NLF come in. Now, they have not agreed to any of these three up to now. [Humphrey attempts to interject.] Would this be your only condition?
That would be my only specific, except that I say that they'd have to have good faith in negotiations. They'd have to show good faith. I said here, “North Vietnam has said it would proceed to prompt and good-faith negotiations if we would stop the present limited bombing of the North.” And then I say, “If the government of North Vietnam were to show bad faith, we would of course reserve the right to resume the bombing. And the—I would—iin weighing that risk and before taking any action, I would place key importance on evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of the Communists’ willingness to restore the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.” I don't say that's exclusive, but I say that that's one thing above all that they must do.
Well, there's two other things you want to remember.
Number one: [Humphrey acknowledges throughout] We've got 500,000 men; they got a million. Now, we don't want to divide up North or South Vietnam without both of them being present. So that ought to be understood before we give up our hole card—that if we bring them in, they wouldn't walk out. Negotiate in good faith with whom? With both of us, you see. The second thing is, we couldn't very well keep the bombing stopped very long, I think, from a practical standpoint, if they shell the cities.
Yeah, well, that's what we would mean by good-faith negotiations, Mr. President.
Mmm, all right. OK.
Now, I’ll tell you what. I want you to look at this and I've got a lot of stuff in there that we've done. I've built up the record so that we have a complete statement about the constitution, and the elections, and the improvement of the economy, and the fact of what's happened to the other nations of Southeast Asia and their regional development. And then we come down on the Non-Proliferation Treaty at the end and Mr. Nixon's point of view on it. I'd just like to hear from you afterwards, whether you think it's—I had to—I have to stake out some position, as you know, and I think I've done it carefully here without jeopardizing what you're trying to do.
You do require evidence of—direct or indirect, or deed or word—on the restoration of the DMZ—
—before you stop it.
That's absolutely right. I say just exactly, “in weighing that risk and before taking any action [President Johnson acknowledges], I would place key importance on the evidence—direct or indirect—by deed or word—of Communist willingness to restore . . .”
I'll turn it on. Thank you, Hubert.
God bless you.
“Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey on 30 September 1968,” Conversation WH6809-04-13435, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4005498