In the midst of a crisis, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the President stops to brief the presidential nominee of the opposition party.
At 8:00, the Soviet ambassador [Anatoly Dobrynin] came in, having called a short time earlier and said he had a[n] urgent message from Mr. [Alexei N.] Kosygin.[note 1] Anatoly Dobrynin was Soviet ambassador to the United States from March 1962 to April 1986. Alexei N. Kosygin was chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union from October 1964 to October 1980.
And he read to me a two-page statement, the net of which was that the Soviet, and the East Germans, and the Poles, and others were invading Czechoslovakia in response to a request by the Czech government.[note 2] The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of liberalization in the Communist government led by Alexander Dubček.
He said this was not a matter that affected the United States's national interest. And Mr. Kosygin wanted Mr. Johnson to know that there's no matter that should concern them or that would in any way affect the good relationship between the two countries.
For the past several weeks, we have been exploring with them a good many subjects of mutual interest, some of which I’ve discussed with you, [Nixon acknowledges] some I haven't, because it just came up in the last day or two, but one of them is peaceful uses of nuclear energy. One of them is the missile—offensive and defensive missile situation, and we've been trying to set dates for certain of our staff to go to work in Geneva and we have offered to do it at the highest level preliminary, or the foreign minister level, or at the staff level, as I have previously explained to you.[note 3] This initiative would reach fruition in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of the Nixon administration.
They have given us no indication of anything like this. We were greatly concerned about their recent conferences.[note 4] In June, July, and August of 1968, the Soviet and Czechoslovak leadership met several times in an attempt to work out their differences regarding the Prague Spring reforms. But only yesterday we had other messages from—when I got off the plane last night in Detroit, I had a rather friendly message from them, but they moved with lightning speed tonight. And [Nixon acknowledges] we . . .
Were Soviet troops as well as the . . .
East German and Polish.
They were all in it, huh?
Yeah, and I don't know who else.
But they had their meeting, their Presidium today, 2 or 300, and our people have been concerned that this little nation, shoving them down, these conferences would be too much for them to stand, and they would have to respond.[note 5] The Soviet Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was previously known as the Presidium.
So we’ve kind of got, we don't know, something on the order of Hungary on our hands.[note 6] In October of 1956, student demonstrations in Hungary had grown into an uprising that threatened the Communist government until Soviet troops crushed the incipient revolution.
We do not know—we do not believe that the Czech government asked for this. We think that's incorrect, their statement to that effect. [Nixon acknowledges.] We received their statement with utter dismay, and I said to him that—I couldn't half understand all he said; he speaks very broken English—
This is Dobrynin?
But I summarized it by saying, "Well, the effect of this is that your troops are going into Czechoslovakia and that they’re doing so at the request of the Czech government. And you're saying to me that it's not a matter that affects our national interest. [Nixon acknowledges.] I have expressed to you before our feeling about situations of this kind, meaning aggression. The Secretary of State [Dean Rusk] talked to you just a few days ago at my direction, to tell you how we felt about what you were doing in Czechoslovakia, but that we were not the cause of what the Czechs were doing.[note 7] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. We were not instigating it or inspiring it. The Secretary spoke with full authority when he told you, well, we believe in freedom, and so on and so forth—independence—but he spoke with my knowledge, and at my direction, and with full authority, and he spoke the truth. We were not agitating." He said, yes, he understood that. I said, "I'll study your message if you'll leave it to me in writing and I'll have it typed up and I'll meet with the Secretary of State, who’s been called before the platform com—
Please don't ring him.
Are you getting this?
—and then we would go out to our allies . . . so much for Dobrynin. That's what we'd notify him tonight.
And then we’d go out to our allies and tell them what we'd done, and see what they were doing, and see if we’ve got a Czech voice in the United Nations tomorrow.
That’ll make some difference. Now, that's about it. [Nixon acknowledges.] It's not anything to . . . it's the biggest thing that happened. I think the lessons to be drawn from it are these: that even with the best of information, while we were concerned about it—I don't know what just caused me to drift in yesterday, but the good Lord just after my nap told me that He thought I ought to go on up to Detroit and take that engagement, and I hadn't even announced I’d accepted, and then come on into Washington, and I did.[note 8] Johnson had addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars at their annual convention in Detroit on 19 August 1968. The President reiterated his opposition to a total, unilateral bombing halt of North Vietnam: “First, are we Americans prepared to say to Hanoi that we are ready to have their men by the thousands and their supplies by the tons pour down through the DMZ against our American sons and our allies without obstruction, whether or not Hanoi takes action to deescalate the conflict? Well, that is what would be involved in an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam.” Johnson also outlined his goals for the Vietnam War in terms very similar to those Nixon would later publicly use as President: “First, our objective in Southeast Asia is peace, and the essentials of what we mean by peace for a long time have been quite clear. And I am going to repeat them briefly: Reinstall the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel, as the Geneva accords of 1954 require, and let the matter of Vietnamese unity be decided by the people of North Vietnam and the people of South Vietnam in the future; remove all foreign forces from Laos and reinstall and make fully effective the Geneva accords of 1962 on Laos; withdraw the United States forces from South Vietnam under the circumstances described in the Manila communique; encourage the people of South Vietnam to exercise their rights of self-determination. It is for them to decide in peace without any coercion of any kind—from anyone—their own political future on a one-man one-vote basis—in a free election-in the spirit of reconciliation reaffirmed by President [Nguyen Van] Thieu at Honolulu. He said there that all can vote in Vietnam, and all can run for office, if they will forsake violence and if they will live by the Constitution. We in the United States agree. This is what I mean by an honorable peace. I doubt that any American President will take a substantially different view when he bears the burdens of office, and he has available to him all the information that flows to the Commander in Chief, and he is responsible to our people for all of the consequences of all the alternatives that are open to him.” See “Remarks in Detroit at the Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars,” 19 August 1968, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1970), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29085. And this—I had a message from the Soviet waiting on me, on—a conciliatory message—
You didn't get the message till you got to Washington.
No, I didn't get the message till tonight, till 8:00. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] But I got a message last night that was a very conciliatory one, saying that they were ready to announce meetings about these other two, three, or four subjects, and that they would—
This is along the lines that Rusk suggested that they couldn't tolerate this, really. When we talked at your ranch, the Secretary said that he didn't really believe the Soviet [Union] could let this go by.
Yes, that's right, that's right. We have been concerned about that and—
I know you have.
—we didn't think that a big fellow can sit there and let a little fellow spit in his face and slap him and then just—he might clean it off and walk away, but he won't forget it. And evidently they were buying a little time, and evidently they went back and called their meeting of their cabinet, their people, and evidently they concluded that they had to go. The press, I guess, kept showing the freedom, and they thought that [Alexander] Dubček could control them and quiet them down, and they didn't do it, so I guess [Nixon acknowledges throughout] they just decided to act.[note 9] Alexander Dubček was first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from January 1968 to April 1969. Now, we're really not sure. We just—these are the most fragmentary reports and I didn't know that I even ought to bother you. On the other hand—
Let me say this—
—the Vice President was at the [National] Security Council and I thought you ought to know it because—
I appreciate that.
—if you’re kept informed all the time, you can at least—
Well, I won't say anything until I, you know, of course, hear more, and I'll, of course, let the Secretary know you . . . it seems to me, though, that this strengthens your hand on what you said on Vietnam, too.
I think it does two things, Dick. I think it shows you, and I think this is an appropriate comment, I don't know; I'm not putting words in your mouth, [Nixon acknowledges] and I'm not running your campaign by any means. Don't get disillusioned.
But I'm not going to trick you, either. I'm going to be fair with you because there's too much at stake or I'd be running myself if I thought that . . .
But I think this shows the folly of professors [Nixon laughs] trying to write into platforms strategy and tactics—
—and whether you stop bombing or whether you don't stop bombing, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] or what are they going to put in there about Russian tanks? What are these goddamn pink sympathizers going to say about these [chuckles] goddamn troops that are crossing the borders? Have they got a plank on that? And what are they recommending there? And I think that your position is just as sound as mine was when I said politics stops at the water's edge, and when President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower starts to Japan, when he starts to the Soviet Union, or wherever he goes, he goes with the one voice—the spokesman of the American people—and as long as he's president, Adlai Stevenson—his advisory committee—I'm not going to pay one goddamn bit of attention to what they say about foreign policy and how it's conducted. Only one man can conduct it. Now, your position has generally been—I don't want to subscribe, and don't subscribe, and don't embrace everything said or done, except this: “Until January the 20th it's that man's responsibility; after January the 20th, it's mine.” And—
You may have heard that at the VFW, I said that—
Yes, they told me.
—my God, when the President of the United States travels, or anything, he's our president, and we should have respect, you know?
That's right. Well, you know all of us, you learned down in Latin America, anybody, [Nixon acknowledges] by God, can—[note 10] An angry mob wielding stones and clubs had threatened Vice President Nixon’s life during a May 1958 visit to Caracas, Venezuela.
And you were out to meet me at the airport. I remember.[note 11] When the Vice President returned from Caracas, a huge crowd, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, greeted and cheered him.
Yes, sir. And anybody—you see, this—a lot of this stuff in this country has been encouraged by our own people. One of our—
—late friends, [Robert F.] Bobby [Kennedy], used to say, "The President and the Vice President are not free to go anymore."[note 12] Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy was the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and his campaign manager in 1960. Robert Kennedy served as attorney general of the United States from January 1961 to September 1964, and U.S. senator [D-New York] from January 1965 to June 1968. And that was a suggestion to go out and keep them from traveling. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] And that's it. But anyway, on this thing, I think it's a very appropriate comment that "people get in deep water, and I'm very glad of what our committee did and what our people did," and saying that "we’re going to reserve the right to give our judgments and our opinions, but we’re not going to put ourselves in a straitjacket or put our leaders, or our negotiators, or our country in a point where people will try to take advantage of it." And I don't know, and I'm very honest with you; I don't know how much they're listening to [George S.] McGovern and [Eugene J.] McCarthy tonight.[note 13] George S. McGovern was a U.S. senator [D-South Dakota] from January 1963 to January 1981, U.S. representative from January 1957 to January 1961, and Democratic nominee for president in 1972. Eugene J. McCarthy was a U.S. congressman [D-Minnesota] from January 1949 to January 1959, and a U.S. senator from January 1959 to January 1971. But it's damn funny to me that they selected three days before the convention to start biting off a little hunk.
Hell of a thing. Matter of fact, let me say this, that on this, that I don't give a goddamn what the politics is, that . . . and I hope—I’m sure Hubert [H. Humphrey] would feel the same way.[note 14] Hubert H. Humphrey was a U.S. senator [D-Minnesota] from January 1949 to December 1964, and from January 1971 to January 1978. From January 1965 to January 1969, he served as vice president of the United States. And I know how you feel about the whole peace issue, but we've got to stand very firm. And I won't say a damn word that's going to embarrass you, you can be sure of that.
Oh, I know that; I know that. I think, though, that it's all right for you to say that this concerns you, that it dismays you, and you are always concerned with aggression. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] Now, you don't know the extent of it, and you don't know the details of it, but the President did call you, and the President did [Nixon attempts to interject] outline to you all the facts he had, and that the President will no doubt have other statements to make, and as he makes them, why, you'll follow them and consider them, and so forth, but that you're not trying to second-guess the thing, and that you don't want anybody to get the idea that there are half-a-dozen presidents that are calling the signals here on foreign policy, and that's what you made clear at Miami, and that's what you're going to make clear till you’re elected.[note 15] Miami was the site of the 1968 Republican national convention.
Yeah. Let me ask you this: can you keep—just talking very candidly—can you keep your Vice President and others to keep them firm on this thing? 'Cause you know, the hell with the goddamn election. We must all stand firm on this. [President Johnson acknowledges] You know, [President Johnson attempts to interject.] I [unclear] going to go to war, but we've got to stand firm.
Very frankly, I don't know. That's the honest answer. I just plain [Nixon acknowledges] don't know. I have—
Well, I stand firm.
—I have done it up to now, and I think it would be the best thing for the country, and I have said to them that, and I have furthermore said that in my judgment, if they didn't do it, that you would murder them. That you would say—
—here in the time of crisis, you goddamn fellows tried to suck up to these folks, and when you look at the polls this morning, and it's 61 to 24 [Nixon attempts to interject] against stopping the bombing. And I look at my two son-in-laws out there, and I tell them to lay down your plane, keep it grounded, we won't let you use it.[note 16] Marine Captain Charles "Chuck" Robb, the husband of Johnson's eldest daughter Lynda Bird, and Air Force officer Patrick "Pat" John Nugent, married to Johnson's younger daughter Luci Baines, were both serving in Vietnam at the time. And they say, “OK, what are you going to take away from them?” And I said, “Nothing, we haven't talked about that.” Well, they'll say, “Screw you!”
And these boys are coming home someday. I got 32 applauses in 41 minutes last night, and I had a standing ovation when I went in, I had a standing ovation about half-way through my speech, I had a standing ovation at the end, I had 31 applauses, and by God, there wasn't a paper in the United States that mentioned it.
Well, the bastards, you know, like that goddamn New York Times, they don't print the truth, that's all.
They don't print the truth.
Well, anyway, I think you can—you have nothing to be—[Nixon attempts to interject] you can have every reason to be proud of what your platform is.
Let me say I won't take any advantage of you—
Oh, I know that. I know that, I wouldn't be—
[Unclear] naturally, because we've got to do the right thing.
I wouldn't be calling you. I want to keep you informed—
I appreciate it.
—just as much as I keep anybody informed, [Nixon acknowledges] and I’m going to tell you everything that affects the country.
Right. Now, in—tell me this: in the morning, is the best one for me to call Rusk? Is he the guy [President Johnson acknowledges] that will know what's going on?
He'll be very good—Rusk always—and he's the best one in the government.
Good, good, good. All right, I won't bother you, but I may give him a call in the morning.
All right. Anytime you want to, I'm free. So you just call me or call him whenever you want to.
All right. And the main thing, Mr. President, don't—I mean, just speaking of the country, don't let your Vice President get off on this.
I'm going to do my best. But as you know—
He’s under pressure, I know. But he mustn't go—
[speaking over Nixon] I hope I can do as good a job as you did in Miami, but I would doubt it.
Yeah, but these fellows, you know, damn it, these fellows, McCarthy and this bunch, Mr. President, goddamn it, they're wrong! They're wrong!
Well, it just shows the utter—it just shows how asinine it is to say to these Communist people that this is—we're not going to do anything about your aggression in Southeast Asia, and while you're doing it, by God, they start moving into Eastern Europe.
That's right. And they're moving real strong.
And they'll be moving into Berlin the next day, if they think they could get by with it, and here we are talking about pulling our troops home and here we are talking about—
Stopping the bombing.
—that we can't be policemen, and they're [unclear] talk about stopping the bombing, and we got to bring our boys, and we can't be policeman of the world. Well, hell, if we want to turn it all over to them, that's one thing. But the American people didn't say so in 61 to 24 yesterday.
You know—you have no objection, if I’m asked tomorrow, I’m . . . that I say that I'm greatly dismayed about it, and the President has informed me—
Sure, no, no. I’d think it’d be quite proper—
I’d just put it right on that line, OK?
No, I think it would be quite proper. I'd say after the [National] Security Council adjourned, the President called me and reviewed with me everything that had taken place. And we exchanged viewpoints, and I asked questions and he asked me for my views, and we—I'm going to follow it very closely and they’ll be in touch with me as this thing goes along. [Nixon acknowledges.] This is one country and I’m . . . I consider myself the responsible leader of one of the responsible parties.
And the President has told me that he will recognize that and that he wants to.
I appreciate your calling.
Thank you, Dick.
“Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 20 August 1968,” Conversation WH6808-01-13309-13310, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006029