Lyndon Johnson and James Rowe on 1 November 1968


Transcript

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

Attempting to deal with Republican interference with his efforts to get peace talks started in Paris, the President reaches out to an old friend from the New Deal era, attorney James H. Rowe. Rowe’s law partner, Thomas G. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, was often referred to in the press as the escort of Anna C. Chennault, the top female fundraiser for the Nixon campaign. At this point, Johnson had identified Chennault as “kind of the go-between” for the Republican presidential campaign and the South Vietnamese government, “warning” the South “to not get pulled in on this Johnson move.”[note 1] See WH6810-10-13612. In return for the halt to American bombing of North Vietnam that the President had announced the night before this conversation, LBJ had demanded that Hanoi (1) accept South Vietnamese delegates at the negotiating table in Paris, (2) stop shelling the civilian populations of Southern cities, and (3) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam. Any refusal by the South to take part in the Paris talks at this point would thwart one of the purposes of the bombing halt and, as Johnson and his top aides feared, make it look like a political move designed to elect the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

White House Operator

Mr. Rowe?

James H. Rowe

Yes?

White House Operator

There you are.

President Johnson

Jim?

Rowe

Yes, Mr. President?

President Johnson

I don't want anybody to know that I've called you if I can avoid it, because it just leads to a lot of complications.

Rowe

I think only your Secret Service people know.[note 2] Rowe was at a Hubert Humphrey campaign rally in Peoria, Illinois, when a Secret Service agent told him the President was on the line. Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), 397, 524-525, n397. In some ways, the book's account of this conversation is the opposite of the tape’s. For example, Solberg quotes the President as saying, “I want you to tell Hubert we’ve got a problem. I’m not going to work out this Vietnam peace negotiation early enough to help him,” but on tape one can hear LBJ tell Rowe not to mention anything about the conversation to Humphrey at all, and at no point on this recording or any other did Johnson claim to be arranging peace talks to help his Vice President.

President Johnson

All right, just—you just speak on your own now, and not quoting me, or implying, or otherwise.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

You just keep the candidate from mentioning Vietnam until Tuesday night.

Rowe

Yeah. He isn’t talking about it anyway.

President Johnson

Yes, sir. [Rowe acknowledges throughout.] Yes, sir. This is the most explosive thing you've ever touched in your life. And . . . well, I can't go . . . his statement that he would stop bombing Vietnam, period—North Vietnam, period, no comma, no semicolon.[note 3] On the campaign trail Humphrey had called for a bombing halt “period, not comma or semicolon,” but that in making such a decision as President he would look for evidence “by word or deed” that Hanoi would restore the demilitarized zone. John W. Finney, “Humphrey Taunts Nixon as ‘Chicken,’” New York Times, 16 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 26 June 2012). It took us two weeks to get around that one.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

And Mac Bundy's.[note 4] McGeorge Bundy, who’d been national security adviser when Johnson had first deployed U.S. combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, had made a speech at DePauw University on 12 October 1968, calling for the steady and systematic withdrawal of U.S. forces even in the absence of a truce. The speech broke Bundy’s long silence on the war dating back to his departure from the White House in February 1966. Homar Bigart, “Bundy Proposes Troop Reduction and Bombing Halt; Former White House Aide Alters Stand on Vietnam Policy He Helped Make; Defends ‘65 Decisions; But He says ‘Burden’ Must be Lifted ‘From Our Lives’ Beginning Next Year,” New York Times, 13 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed 19 September 2009).

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Then he said, you know, he said he wouldn’t—he'd veto [Nguyen Van] Thieu, so that got Thieu mad.[note 5] “I believe there is very little bombing [of the North] if any done by the South Vietnamese and this matter must be something over which the government of Vietnam—South Vietnam—cannot exercise a veto,” Humphrey said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.” South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu responded that he was cooperating. Harry Kelly, “HHH Bars Thieu Veto on Bombs,” Washington Post, 21 October 1968, and Gene Roberts, “Thieu Declares He Is Assisting in Peace Efforts,” New York Times, 23 October 1968,http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed 22 February 2012). Now, Nixon picked up that ball right quick and started going into him through your China Lobby friend.[note 6] LBJ refers to Anna C. Chennault, a prominent Republican fundraiser and figure in the “China Lobby,” a loose collection of Chinese nationalists, American conservative political figures and activists who blamed the Communist revolution in China on the Truman administration.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

So he's in deep, telling Thieu and them, and Korea and all of them, not to go along with me on anything.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

Because [Hubert H.] Humphrey said here that he won't pay a damn bit of attention to him.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

And so what they better do is wait for him and he'll never sell them out, that he'll stay with them. Hell, he didn't think they ought to ever [have] sold out China.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

And they got your little friend, Mrs. [Anna C.] Chennault, and the whole outfit in it.[note 7] See previous note on Anna C. Chennault.

Rowe

Working at it?

President Johnson

Yes, working at it. [Rowe acknowledges.] So as a result, we had them signed up when Hubert made his last statement about the veto and not . . . going to stop bombing, no comma, no semicolon, just period. That is, without any condition.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

So, we worked on it two weeks, and we got them back on the ship, again. And in the meantime, Nixon got them off. So I had to proceed unilaterally last night, which I didn't want to do because it could be shambles if the President, Thieu, tonight says he's pulling his army out, you see. [Rowe acknowledges.] Then we've just got to come home and it's all over. And it's just so delicate.

Now, all the reporters are saying that Humphrey is being very jubilant and very enthusiastic, and that all the aides are saying that this is the difference in the election. Now, if you do—

Rowe

No, I—

President Johnson

—you're going to get a political issue out of it [Rowe acknowledges] and you're going to have these folks—they're getting them antsy, and you got [Bourke] Hickenlooper, and [John] Tower, and all the Republicans.[note 8] Prominent Republicans had attacked the bombing halt, claiming the President had called it to help his Vice President win the election. “I think it’s tragic that American lives are being played with this way,” said Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If it can be done now, it could have been done sooner.” In fact, North Vietnam had rejected Johnson’s three conditions for a bombing halt until October, when Hanoi reversed position and accepted all three. Senator John G. Tower [R-Texas], called the bombing halt “unilateral” and “unconditional.” It was neither. In return for the bombing halt, the President insisted that North Vietnam (1) Respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, (2) Accept representatives of the South Vietnamese government at the negotiating table in Paris, and (3) Stop shelling civilian populations of South Vietnamese cities. And what I would say is just please bar him from mentioning Vietnam.

Rowe

I’ll get that done.

President Johnson

If I had to have one statement [Rowe acknowledges], I'd say like, President—like Nixon, and Wallace, and every other American, I pray for peace every night, period. That's all I'd say.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

I'll do the rest of it if they'll just—just won't be enthusiastic, and jubilant, and so forth [Rowe acknowledges], because if we had to order them back to bombing tomorrow—

Rowe

We’re in the soup. That's right.

President Johnson

So, I just wanted you to know the facts. [speaking over Rowe] Now, you have to act on your judgment.

Rowe

Yeah, I'll get it done. Let me make this one point [President Johnson attempts to interject] on the staff people—

President Johnson

[Dean] Rusk is just scared to death.[note 9] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. [Rowe acknowledges throughout.] He wrote me a memo in longhand which I read to Hubert, and said tell him not to open his damn mouth.

Rowe

Yeah. We’ve got about 150 press, and every one of them are on everybody's backs. We had—the one thing we did was have a staff meeting and say that, "Play this thing down. You don't know anything.” They’re only asking us one question: it’s, “What's the political effect?" We say we just don't know. [President Johnson acknowledges.] And hell, when they press too hard, I said I haven't heard anybody make a comment about it except Arthur Schlesinger.[note 10] Arthur M. Schlesinger was special assistant to the president from 1961 to 1964. [Chuckles.] Did you see him on the Today Show? Huh?

President Johnson

No, no, no.

Rowe

Well, he was on this morning and the first question was, “Are there any politics in this?” In his usual way, he said, "While I've had many differences with President Johnson, this is obviously not political." [President Johnson acknowledges throughout.] And I said that's the only comment I've heard on the politics of this, and we don't know. And the local politicians are all hit. The one thing we can't control: it may hit the local pols, ‘cause they’re saying they think it’s helpful, but they don’t—even they’re saying they don’t know how much. Our people are not saying anything except we don't know and sticking to that pretty damn closely.

President Johnson

Well, I—

Rowe

Maybe some of them are breaking it, but I don't think so, and I'll go around and lecture them again.

President Johnson

I just—it's for your good, it's not—another thing, I'm not going to get any votes Tuesday, but I just know and Rusk knows, and [Clark M] Clifford knows.[note 11] 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. And we have two real explosive things. One, if Hanoi invades the DMZ or hits the cities, we're going back in a minute. Just—they trigger the motion [Rowe acknowledges throughout] [Creighton W.] Abrams got his orders.[note 12] General Creighton W. Abrams served as vice chief of staff of the Army from 1964 to 1967; deputy commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, from June 1967 to July 1968; commander of MACV from July 1968 to June 1972; and Army chief of staff from October 1972 to September 1974. So that could leave you pretty dry if you're very jubilant about this move.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

The second thing is, we do not know where our allies are. Because as a result of the statement two weeks ago, we've lost Thieu.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

Because he thinks that we'll sell him out.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

And Nixon has convinced him. This damn little old woman, Mrs. Chennault, she's been in on it.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

And I—

Rowe

I wouldn't doubt it.

President Johnson

Well, I know it. Hell, I know it. [Rowe acknowledges.] I’m not [chuckling] doubting it.

Rowe

You want Tommy [Corcoran] to pull her out?

President Johnson

I don't know. I don't care, now. [Rowe acknowledges.] I've already done it.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

I took the action at 8:00 last night [Rowe acknowledges] and they pulled the planes out. Now, we have to wait and see what they do.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

If they—we can tell in the next 48 hours if they don't do anything, the people—it’ll be very evident [Rowe acknowledges] that we had a deal that worked.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

If they do do it, why, then we’re in trouble.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

But I just got a letter here from Clifford. He’s relieved. He said, "Mr. President, there have been times without number in the past five years when I've admired you for fortitude and determination and very unique effectiveness. As of this moment tonight, however, I feel it more deeply than ever before. Your performance on the Vietnam cessation has been magnificent. It was handled with courage, with rare discretion, and the most admirable statesmanship. I was aware of the myriad difficulties that confronted you and I drew comfort and inspiration from the masterful manner in which you met and you overcame all of them.”

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

“I have a profound sense of pride in your performance and in your success.” Now—

Rowe

We’re hearing this—for what it’s worth again—you’re hearing this kind of comment on the street. It ought to please you. [They] say, “This guy's been tough. We think he must be getting us a good, tough deal.” You know, they're saying, "By God, he's been holding in there."

President Johnson

If we get it—

Rowe

This is the man on the street talking.

President Johnson

If we get it, we got three things. They said they would never sit with these puppets. [Rowe acknowledges.] Now, they have said they would. That's number one. Number two, we’ve told them that there's no use in coming into the room if they either bomb the cities or abuse the DMZ.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Now, if they don't do either, we've got those two.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

If they do do them, we're right back where we started.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Now, we're gambling on the latter. We don't know. The Russians tell us they'll be all right. We've told them 12 times, but I just have a hell of a problem between two candidates and Averell [Harriman].[note 13] W. Averell Harriman was an ambassador-at-large and chief U.S. delegate to the Paris Peace Talks under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Averell cusses the generals everyday [Rowe acknowledges], and of course, they—everything, they pick it up and their ambassador wires their president and said, "Harriman said today that you're a bunch of puppet generals." So, of course, if you were president and you had a million men out there, and you're losing twice as many as the United States, how would you feel about that?

Rowe

Yeah, mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Then the next day, here comes a flash: Humphrey says you’ll never veto anything he does.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

So, Nixon just picked that one up and went out the same night, and said, "By God, I won't veto you. We'll work closely together." So then this guy quit me and went to Nixon.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Now, [Ellsworth F.] Bunker's worked all night for the last two nights trying to clean this thing up.[note 14] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973.

Rowe

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

And so . . . I told Hubert last night, in the long-hand note that Rusk has written, which I'll show you some day in my memoirs and let you have a little copy of it. Rusk said, "Tell Hubert please not to brag, please not to be exuberant, just say 'I pray for peace, period.'"

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

And let the others—they'll know what it does if you just—if we don't jump up and down about it. [Rowe acknowledges.] So you watch that.

Rowe

I will. I think his line has been pretty much, "This is the President that’s handling this," and so forth. [President Johnson acknowledges.] The only time he showed any jubilation was a little on the—after we were on the plane, I'm afraid a couple of the pool reporters saw him in the back.

President Johnson

Yeah, they described him as going up and down the plane being jubilant—exuberant [Rowe acknowledges], and of course, that just puts the John Towers—let me show you what they're saying about it, you see.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

It's just—it’s a good excuse for them.

Rowe

Yeah, that was the only mistake—publicly he didn't make any, but the pool fellows saw him doing it.

President Johnson

Here’s [Curtis] LeMay, he's talking about the politics of it . . . General [Lewis] Walt, he's put his mouth in it.[note 15] Curtis E. LeMay, the former Air Force chief of staff, was also a candidate for vice president as the running mate of independent George C. Wallace. General Lewis W. Walt, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, had served as commander of III Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam. [Pause.] “One of Nixon's key advisers and a military expert called for further explanation from Johnson. Tower said, ‘Johnson's announcement of unconditional cessation raised several questions.’ He is a member of the Armed Services Committee. Richard Nixon has consistently supported the President's efforts in Paris that would lead to this resolution. But he added, ‘The bombing announcement raised questions concerning what the United States received. Very recently, Abrams said that unconditional cessation would permit the enemy to increase his capability. I believe it's incumbent on the President to assure America immediately that circumstances changed, that General Abrams' contention is no longer valid. I think some explanation should be given for the timing of the announcement. It's understood everyone hopes the bombing halt will lead to peace. Let us be hopeful there will be some reciprocal gesture. It should be adequately understood by the American people that this unilateral action on the part of America to refrain from bombing does not end it,’” and so forth.

Rowe

[Pause.] Yeah, the only real problem we got, which we can't handle is, the reporters come off these planes, they come into the rallies, and they don't pay a bit of attention to Humphrey. They just start looking for local politicians they know. They don't talk to staff people, because we're all telling them same thing, and they realize this is the line now.

President Johnson

You know better than I do. All I know are the facts on two things. I want you to know the Asian allies may dump us any minute.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

If we do, we've got pandemonium. [Rowe acknowledges throughout.] The second thing, that Hanoi might not go through with it, that's the second thing. The third thing, I think that he could very properly say, and y’all could say, all three candidates said the same thing to the President, "We'll back you.” This is not any politics. This—all of them said, "We will back you up.” And that's all there is to say about it.

Rowe

Yeah. He's been careful. He said yesterday, there was a, you know, after the call, [President Johnson acknowledges throughout] which you had already said—I mean, you hadn’t, but you did say later—is that we had a conference call. We’d had one on October 16th. The President informed us. He informed us again.

President Johnson

That was good. [The President blows his nose.]

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

That was good.

Rowe

And then they started pushing. He said: "Well, that’s all." He said, "That’s all we know, is what he told the three candidates."

President Johnson

Well, what he ought to do now, is you just—

Rowe

He's done everything quite well, except that one thing [President Johnson attempts to interject] you’ve got there is he just, you know, he did—he happened to make a good speech and a good crowd, and this thing, too, and he just sort of got a little jubilant about it.

President Johnson

You just tell him on your own to just don't mention Vietnam, and when he does, just use two things. Say "All of us said they back the President as every American ought to, [Rowe acknowledges] because if you got them all backing, that helps him.

Rowe

That's right.

President Johnson

That we all—all candidates told him, each one of them—Wallace, Nixon, Humphrey—we back you up on this.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

That's number one. All the Joint Chiefs back us up.

Rowe

He ought to say that publicly.

President Johnson

Yes, he could. I don't know how public, I don't think I'd put it in a speech, but I'd tell everybody [Rowe acknowledges] that asked me.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

And then I wouldn't go any further, because I'd say, "I don't want to comment any further."

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

And if I were you and the strategists around him, say, “I don't know what effect it has. I think that that effect’s when Johnson withdrew in March.” [Rowe acknowledges.] I just think that—because they're already going to try to see if history says we threw an election.

Rowe

That’s right. [President Johnson acknowledges.] Well, now, let me give you this one other thing the press is saying that—you can put it with your press back there. There’s some kind of a rumor you’re going to Texas on the 3rd, and they’re saying, "Is he going to do it?" I said, "I don’t know if he’s going to do it." And they say, "Well, now, is he up on the mountain as President or is that old campaign spirit of his coming out?" Well, I said, "I think he can do both, you know."

President Johnson

Well, I'm going home, [Rowe acknowledges throughout] this afternoon, in the next hour. And I'm going make a television speech Sunday night that I worked on for a week here, and that's going to be my finale.

Rowe

You're not going to do the Houston?

President Johnson

No, no, no, no.[note 16] Johnson did, in fact, wind up appearing with Humphrey at a massive campaign rally in Houston’s Astrodome on the Sunday before the election. I told them that—

Rowe

I think it might be helpful with all this churning around that that can sort of get out, that he—you know, the President’s too busy with this problem, he can’t get to Houston.

President Johnson

No, I'm just—

Rowe

He promised to make a television speech, he'll do that, but he's not going to turn up at that big rally. Or something like that.

President Johnson

You see, I went on network the night before last, I went on the radio the night before that, and I just don't want to be doing it every night as a kind of a barnstormer. I just think it loses a good deal of the effect. [Rowe acknowledges.] OK.

Rowe

Yep. All right, sir. Thank you.[note 17] Despite the President’s express wishes, Rowe immediately informed the Democratic nominee: “when Rowe gave Humphrey the news, the Vice President asked him to fly back to Washington and pass word through the Corcoran channel that he expected to be elected president, and that the South Vietnamese would shun the Paris talks at their peril.” Solberg, Humphrey, p. 397. Rowe also put words in LBJ’s mouth that it is clear, from this tape, that the President didn’t utter, such as, “I want you to tell Hubert we’ve got a problem. I’m not going to work out this Vietnam peace negotiation early enough to help him.” Ibid.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and James Rowe on 1 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-01-13704, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006122