The President decides to advise the opposition party on the best way to respond to his Vice President (and Democratic presidential nominee) Hubert H. Humphrey’s nationally televised campaign speech calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. Everett M. Dirksen [R-Illinois], the Senate minority leader, had called less than an hour earlier to see if the President had anything to say about Humphrey’s bombing halt proposal.[note 1] See WH6810-01-13501.
On this subject that—Everett?
Can you speak?
On this subject you called me about, I've had a good going over and I would say that the best position on it is, “What does he mean?”[note 2] In his 30 September 1968 speech, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey said, “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. . . . 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.” In Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese, however, Johnson insisted not only that they respect the DMZ, but that they also agree to South Vietnamese participation in peace talks and stop shelling civilians in Southern cities. Humphrey had assured the President that his proposal included those additional demands as well, but the Vice President’s campaign aides assured reporters that Humphrey’s conditions were “‘window-dressing’ necessary to domestic and international political realities.” See R.W. Apple Jr., “Humphrey Vows Halt in Bombing if Hanoi Reacts,” New York Times, 1 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 12 August 2009) and WH6809-04-13435.
That’s up to him to say what he means. [Dirksen acknowledges throughout.] If he means unilateral without any conditions, that’s one thing. If he means they’ve got to re-institute the DMZ, well, then, that's another thing. Now, what does he mean? That's not quite clear and we don't want to be critical, and just wait until you hear further from him. And that’s the way—I think that the other fellows oughtn’t to get involved until that’s clear. If he has a condition that you have to close up that DMZ where people can't come down there, well, then I don't think anybody—everybody would be for that. We want it closed. We’ve been urging it all along. But the question is, does he make that a condition, or does he unilaterally pull out first? Do you get that clear?
Yes, I do.
Now, I’ll have the staff—the [National Security] Council—elaborate on each one of these points—there are four or five of them—and tomorrow or the next day, I’ll give you a little, short, succinct briefing so you can be positioned not to let your people be irresponsible and talk to your other fellows around the country so that they’ll know exactly what—how we analyze the thing.
And you can—I’ll just use you as the transmittal belt.
As a matter of fact, he didn't want anybody to know it, but he called me last night and asked me my evaluation.[note 3] Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon had called LBJ about Humphrey’s speech. See WH6809-04-13432-13433. And I told him we’d just have to see what—that we just didn't know anything about it and we’d have to see ourselves whether—what this fellow meant by it. [Dirksen acknowledges.] And I think that's a pretty good position for everybody. You don't have to say anything. Just say, well, just what does he mean? Can you tell me? Can he tell me? Does it mean that he’s willing to pull out, stop bombing without it, or if it's a condition, it's OK. If it's not, why, then we put those boys in pretty bad shape there.
I'll call you tomorrow.
“Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen on 1 October 1968,” Conversation WH6810-01-13506, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006062