Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 7 October 1968


Transcript

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

After months of declaring on the campaign stump that he would say nothing that would lead the North Vietnamese to think they could get a better deal from him than from President Johnson, Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon hinted on 7 October 1968 that he might be able to accept terms that LBJ could not. “We might be able to agree to much more then than we can do now,” Nixon told United Press International editors and publishers.[note 1] See E.W. Kenworthy, “Nixon Suggests He Could Achieve Peace in Vietnam; Indicates He Might Be Able to Agree to a Settlement Johnson Cannot Accept,” New York Times, 8 October 1968, www.nytimes.com (accessed 30 January 2009). A few hours later, the President told the candidate that he thought Hanoi would wait until after the election in the hope of getting a better deal.

President Johnson

I was talking to Johnny Pastore.[note 2] The President had Sen. John Pastore [D-Rhode Island] in the Oval Office to discuss changing Secret Service authority to protect presidential widows. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Congress had voted to provide Jacqueline Kennedy with a pension and Secret Service agents until her death or remarriage. She was about to marry shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis and would therefore lose Secret Service protection. See White House Daily Diary and Associated Press, “Mrs. Kennedy to Lose $10,000 Yearly Pension,” Los Angeles Times, 18 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 14 November 2013). I had to come in the next office. Excuse me.

Richard Nixon

I'll take only a minute. I had a very good briefing by Secretary [Dean] Rusk this morning [President Johnson acknowledges] up at New York.[note 3] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. And then I just went over and had a half hour with the General [Dwight D. Eisenhower] and he’s . . . it’s the longest visit he had.[note 4] Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961. He just looks great.[note 5] During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon had been vice president and Johnson the leader of Senate Democrats. Eisenhower was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center following a heart attack.

President Johnson

Didn’t he? Didn’t he? I just—I was so pleased I didn't know what to do.

Nixon

Yeah, you saw him. He just looked great and he was talking about everything the same—

President Johnson

Did he tell you what he tried to do to me?

Nixon

[laughing] No, no.

President Johnson

Well, now, you must not tell this.

Nixon

No, I won't. Deep secret. [President Johnson and Nixon chuckle.]

President Johnson

He said that he thought what we were doing was absolutely right. Just hold to it and not to give an inch, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] and we got through talking about Vietnam and he said, "You know what happened?" I said, "No." Said, "Mamie [Eisenhower] came in here a while ago and said that she's going to put on a robe—while you’re visiting me, she’s going to go down and put a Nixon sticker on your car." [Both laugh.]

Nixon

Yeah, well, he told me the same thing.

President Johnson

So he was just as gay as he could be and I thought that devil [unclear] that teasing was good for him.

Nixon

Right, right. Well, you know, it’s a miracle, a miracle that he did it, and doggone it. He wore a little blue robe that he put on. You know, he said he didn’t want to look like a hospital pallor, you know, kidding about it, you know. [President Johnson acknowledges.] When you can kid about yourself, you feel better.

President Johnson

That’s right. Well, Rusk was very pleased. I had three little things I thought you might be interested in.

Nixon

Sure.

President Johnson

I got a note from General [Robert] Ginsburgh, who is adviser to the [National] Security Council. [Nixon acknowledges.] He said, “How fast is time running out on negotiations? On the basis of experience in Geneva in 1954, we can conclude that it need not take a long time to negotiate a settlement.[note 6] The President is referring to the 1954 Geneva Conference that ended French rule of Vietnam and divided the country temporarily into two zones: the North controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist revolutionaries, the South by Bao Dai, chief of state for the Associated States of Vietnam, and prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The Indochina phase of the Geneva Conference lasted May the 8th to July 21, 74 days. There are 74 days from November 6th to January 19th.[note 7] In other words, the time remaining in the Johnson administration between the November 5 presidential election to the swearing in of the next president on January 20, 1969, was close to the number of days it took France to negotiate its exit from Vietnam.

“In ’54, productive discussions did not really start until June 16th, when the issue of representation was finally solved. On the basis of their reading of history, Hanoi may have concluded they can arrive at a settlement even if they wait until after the election to start talking seriously.” Now, so much for that. [Nixon acknowledges.] That’s just a little tidbit. I thought that a little research on Geneva, that might be interesting. But I don’t—I told [Cyrus R.] Vance today—I don’t think they’re going to do anything until the election.[note 8] 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 U.S. negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. I think they read all these statements and they see the [New York] Times and I just don’t much believe if I could buy the [Washington] Evening Star for $10 million today, and I thought I might get it for $8 million if I waited a couple months, I just don’t believe I’d do it unless I was in an awful big hurry. So my judgment is [Nixon laughs] there’s not going to be much movement. I have a little note here today that they came in . . . Le Duc Tho says there’s nothing new whatever in the statements made by Vice President [Hubert H.] Humphrey.[note 9] Le Duc Tho was a member of North Vietnam's Politburo and led the most important secret negotiating sessions with Henry A. Kissinger in Paris. “It is still the same demand for reciprocity, which we totally reject.” That’s their delegate.[note 10] The North Vietnamese had publicly dismissed a 30 September 1968 speech by the Democratic nominee saying that he would halt the bombing of North Vietnam if there was evidence “of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.” The North was still demanding an “unconditional” bombing halt, although it would privately back off from that demand in the next few weeks. See “Hanoi Aide Brushes Off HHH Plan,” Washington Post, 2 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 26 August 2009).

I’ve got a good one here on [Glenard] Lipscomb, and [Melvin] Laird, and [Clark] Clifford, but it’s too long to read to you.[note 11] Glenard P. Lipscomb was a U.S. congressman [R-California] from November 1953 to February 1970. Clark M. Clifford was a Washington lawyer; adviser to presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; and chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1963 to 1968. Clifford served as secretary of defense from March 1968 to January 1969. But the net of it is that Humphrey and Laird are both completely out of the ballpark, as far as we’re concerned, officially.[note 12] Rep. Melvin R. Laird, [R-Wisconsin], chairman of the House Republican conference and soon to become Nixon’s secretary of defense, had insinuated that LBJ would announce a Vietnam troop reduction before Election Day and claimed the administration planned to bring 90,000 soldiers home by mid-1969. “Clifford Doubts Early Cutback in Vietnam Forces; Chides Those Who Forecast Day Troops Will Return; Secretary Terms Predictions ‘Disservice to Our People,’” New York Times, 30 September 1968, http://www.nytimes.com (accessed 30 January 2009). Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee, had said he thought the United States could start pulling American forces out of Vietnam in 1969 regardless of whether the Paris talks produced a settlement. Nixon criticized Humphrey for this statement, but as president in 1969, Nixon would begin withdrawing American forces from Vietnam without a settlement. See E.W. Kenworthy, “Nixon Says Humphrey Harms Efforts of U.S. in Paris Talks,” New York Times, 26 September 1968, http://www.nytimes.com 30 January 2009. We have no thought of [Nixon attempts to interject] pulling troops out of there.

Nixon

Good, I’m glad.

President Johnson

It’s just brought—well, here’s what Clifford says: “[In] the statement Laird points out the United States equipment upgrades . . . South Vietnamese personnel . . . South Vietnam sharply increased its draft call . . . our requirements are naive. In the normal course of events . . . September through next June . . . assess 200,000 of our men must be rotated. He continued”—and then he goes ahead and said, “Let’s not let politicians mislead us. This strength reduction is the not the kind of thing the Vice President has been offered”—he’s quoting now from Laird—“as an HHH sop to doves or HHH peace bonus. This is and has been ordinary, methodical military planning.”

“2. Representative Laird’s statement is not consistent with the facts. Two weeks earlier, on September 10th, I testified to the committee of which he is a member. The question was whether there would be a decrease in troops either late this year or early next year was raised by Representative Lipscomb, senior member, Republican, California. The following exchange took place:

Lipscomb: Upon what basis are the reports and announcements that there will be a substantial decrease in troops between either late this year or early next year—on what basis is this being made?

Clifford: You mean that we could then cut the number of American troops?

Lipscomb: Return men home, yes. 


Clifford: I have never said that. It has never come out from the Pentagon. We have no plan to reduce the number of troops in Vietnam at all. We have an authorized figure of 549,500. We will maintain that figure until there’s some development that causes us to decide we can bring some home. I know of no statement coming out of the Pentagon that says we’re prepared to bring any home. I was asked the question some time ago. 
‘Well, you predicted in ‘69, Clifford, you can bring groups of or some troops home. 
I said, ‘No, I cannot predict that. I am unwilling to say there’s any specific time we will bring any troops back.’


Lipscomb: Such reports are not coming out of the background briefings of the press?

Clifford: They’re certainly not coming out of the Pentagon.

Lipscomb: Pure speculation, then?

Clifford: Pure speculation, except for one statement that I noticed that President [Nguyen Van] Thieu of [South] Vietnam said when he made a speech, and said that he could confidently predict that American troops, some of them, could come back in the year '69. I was asked a question right after he said that, and the question was, ‘Do you agree with Thieu?’ and I said no. I cannot predict the troops in '69. I don’t know. I would hope we can have them back but I cannot make any prediction under present conditions. After news reports carried the September 24th Laird statement following the Vice President’s statements, I issued a statement on September 25th. I referred to the above testimony and I concluded that statement by saying, ‘I want today to reiterate that position. We have not yet reached the level of 549,500 in South Vietnam. We intend to continue to build toward that level. We have no intention of lowering that level either by next June or at any time in the foreseeable future.’ I have no idea where the Representative received his information. I’ve made further inquiries at the Pentagon. I found no found no foundation for Representative Laird’s position. I checked with General [Earl] Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and he has informed me that he knows of no plan to reduce the troop level in Vietnam, either this year or in '69. Furthermore, he knows of no one else who has ever produced any such plan nor has he ever heard of any such plan from General [Creighton] Abrams.[note 13] General Creighton W. Abrams was assistant deputy chief of staff, director of operations at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 1962 to 1963, commander of the Millitary Assistance Command in Vietnam from July 1968 to June 1972, and Army chief of staff from October 1972 to September 1974. Since my statement of September 25th, I have seen no repetition by Mr. Laird of his statement. He has not chosen to give any explanation of his statement to inform us on what it was based. Under these circumstances I think it’s a reasonable assumption that Representative Laird did not have the facts to support his position.”

Now, the only reason I read that—I don’t want to get in an argument with either Humphrey or Laird [Nixon acknowledges throughout]—but Humphrey said what he said and Laird said what he said.  So far as the president, and the secretary, and the chief are concerned, we have a level of 549,500. We’re within 5[,000] to 10,000 of that level. We’re unlikely to add many more so we won’t run over that level. We don’t want to run over it. But we don’t—we’re not going to pull out unless there is some change of which we are not aware at this moment.

Nixon

Yeah. Let me say that on my part—they’ve asked me about this thing—the thing I—the reason that I would never say that they—give any hope on the thing, or talk about the fact that troops could come back, is that it seems to me that that in itself weakens the bargaining position.

President Johnson

That’s—no question about that. None whatever, and—

Nixon

So I just said, well, I don’t—I suppose this is that Laird was basing it on some information he had, but [President Johnson acknowledges] I’m glad to get this and I—

President Johnson

That’s—well, I just wanted you to see that [Nixon acknowledges throughout] yourself so that you—I think it does weaken us. If they think we're getting ready to bring troops home, why—

Nixon

That's right.

President Johnson

—will continue. Now, our basis is this, and I will tell you when it’s otherwise. Our basis is three-fold. One, they must agree to recognize the GVN. We cannot take a chance on losing this million-man army. They’ve got to let them come into any talks we have on substantive matters. They have not agreed to that yet. They’ve also got to recognize the facts of life that we could not, if we stopped the bombing, carry out that stoppage very long if they did either of two things: if they shelled the cities or if they had mass infiltration. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] And we have said that to them constantly. Now, we don’t know what they’re going to do. They’ve given us no indication. We’ve said that to the Russians. It’s right at a stalemate now. My judgment is it’ll stay that way until election, unless they’re hurting worse than we think they are, and we think they’re hurting pretty bad. I rather think that before long I’ll be seeing [Ellsworth F.] Bunker and Abrams, and I’ll be brought up-to-date and I’ll keep you informed.[note 14] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973.

Nixon

Good. Well, the one thing I want to say is this, that my statements will continue to be, I hope, responsible. The thing that—the only reason that I—when I was talking to the secretary this morning . . . you know, this goddamn New York Times—they had three dope stories in there, and Rusk told me that they were all fabrications.[note 15] Nixon means stories supposedly based on inside “dope,” that is, information from sources within the government. [President Johnson acknowledges.] You know, I don’t know what to believe anymore, you know.

President Johnson

Well, [Nixon attempts to interject] the Vance story was, certainly.[note 16] The New York Times had reported that Ambassador W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus R. Vance, the top U.S. negotiators with the North Vietnamese, were urging Johnson halt U.S. bombing in the North. See Hedrick Smith, “U.S. Aides in Paris Said to Urge Halt; Negotiators Are Reported Asking Johnson to Consider Stopping Bombing Now,” New York Times, 6 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 14 November 2013). I don’t know what the others they’re referring to, but—

Nixon

Well, the others were involved in the fact that [W. Averell] Harriman and Vance were both pushing for a bombing pause.[note 17] W. Averell Harriman was an ambassador-at-large and chief U.S. delegate to the Paris talks with North Vietnam under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

And he said that's not true and that Vance had been rushed back here [unclear].

President Johnson

Well, Dick, I think this is true. I think this is true. I think everybody's pushing for a bombing pause. I think you are. I think—

Nixon

Oh, sure.

President Johnson

—I am. I think everybody is.

Nixon

With the right deal.

President Johnson

That’s right. But [Nixon acknowledges] so far as I know, Vance, or Harriman, or Rusk, or [Nicholas] Katzenbach, or Clifford, or [William P. “Bill”] Bundy, or Johnson.[note 18] Nicholas Katzenbach was deputy attorney general from 1962 to 1965. William P. “Bill” Bundy was deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1961 to 1963; assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1963 to 1964; and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from March 1964 to May 1969. Now, those are—Wheeler, or all the Joint Staffs, or Bunker, or Abrams. Now, as far as I’m aware, I believe every one of those men would recommend to me that we not stop bombing unless they would agree to let us take the GVN into the meeting. Now, they’ve told us definitely they will not do that. Now, we think if we did, and the GVN quit us or we had a coup out there, that we’d just be out of business. So we just think we couldn’t physically do it. We also think that they’ve got to understand the facts of life about these other things—about the DMZ and about shelling the cities. Now, we might, without getting an agreement from them, without getting reciprocity, if they agreed to the GVN, we’d consider that reciprocity. [Nixon acknowledges.] But we might then say to them that we will stop the bombing on Sunday, but if Tuesday, or Wednesday, or any other place [sic] they shell the cities, we would have to respond to it.

Nixon

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yes. Well that makes sense and we’ll . . . we wish you well. We'll—

President Johnson

Keep your good humor. Keep your good humor. Don't overdo it, and—

Nixon

I’ll try.

President Johnson

And you've just got a month more, and I know all of you will be happy when you get it over with, and nobody’d be happier than I am.

Nixon

That’s right. Well, when it's over, we'll come in and maybe we can find a little Scotch.

President Johnson

We will. I had a nice visit with your friend [Nixon acknowledges] Billy Graham, and with Everett [M. Dirksen], and I'll be talking to you.[note 19] Rev. William F. “Billy” Graham was an evangelist and friend of President Nixon. Everett M. Dirksen was a U.S. senator [R-Illinois] from January 1951 to September 1969, and Senate minority leader from January 1959 to September 1969.

Nixon

Right. Good. Well, awfully good of you to take my call. Bye.

President Johnson

Thank you, Dick.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 7 October 1968,” Conversation WH6810-03-13523, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006068