Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen on 2 November 1968


Transcript

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

After only four days of operation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy struck paydirt. Johnson had the tap placed to find out whether Republicans were urging the South to boycott the Paris peace talks before Election Day. The FBI reported that Anna C. Chennault, the top female fundraiser for Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign, “contacted Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem and advised him that she had received a message from her boss (not further identified) which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win’ and that her boss also said, ‘Hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message. ‘He said please tell your boss to hold on.’ She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.”[note 1] Message from Anna Chennault to Bui Diem, FBI Director to Bromley Smith, 3 November 1968, “Reference File, South Vietnam and US Policies,” Johnson Library. While Nixon wasn’t in New Mexico on this day, his running mate, Governor Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, was. On this same day, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu announced that he would not be sending a delegation to the Paris peace talks. Less than 48 hours after Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam in return for its agreement to (1) negotiate with the South in Paris, (2) stop shelling civilians in South Vietnamese cities, and (3) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, Thieu’s announcement had thwarted the President’s peace initiative. Johnson placed a call to the highest-ranking elected Republican in the land, Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen [R-Illinois].

President Johnson

Hello?

Everett M. Dirksen

Hi.

President Johnson

Everett, how are you?

Dirksen

All right.

President Johnson

I want to talk to you as a friend and very confidentially, because I think that we're skirting on dangerous ground [Dirksen acknowledges] and I thought I ought to give you the facts and you ought to pass them on if you choose. If you don't, why, then I will a little later.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

We have on October the 13th, an agreement with [Nguyen Van] Thieu and [Nguyen Cao] Ky concerning the bombing halt.[note 2] Nguyen Van Thieu was president of South Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1975. Nguyen Cao Ky was prime minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

At that time, President Thieu stressed, “There must not be a long delay.”

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

That is, a delay between the halt and the conference.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

On October the 15th, Thieu agreed to a proposal that we had worked out, of 36 hours.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

On October the 23rd, after the North Vietnamese demanded two or three weeks [Dirksen acknowledges], Thieu reluctantly agreed to three days’ delay. On October the 28th, we agreed on a joint announcement.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

[Ellsworth F.] Bunker and [Creighton W.] Abrams reached an explicit agreement with Thieu that the gap between the bombing and the talks would be two or three days.[note 3] Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973. General Creighton W. Abrams served as vice chief of staff of the Army from 1964 to 1967; deputy commander, U.S. 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.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

With three days the outer limit.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Both Thieu and Ky stressed on us the importance of a minimum delay.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Then we got some of our friends involved.

Dirksen

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

Some of it your old China crowd.[note 4] The China Lobby was an informal group of American politicians and activists, as well as Chinese Nationalists, who claimed that the 1949 Communist revolution could have been avoided if the Truman administration had given more support to the anti-Communist Chinese Nationalist forces.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And here is the latest information we got. The agent says that she's just—they just talked to the boss in New Mexico.

Dirksen

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

And that he says that you must hold out . . . that just hold on until after the election. Now, we know what Thieu is saying to them out there.[note 5] The CIA bugged the South Vietnamese president’s office.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

We're pretty well informed on both ends.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

[Richard] Nixon's man traveling with him today said—quote—that he did not understand that Thieu was not aboard.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Did you see that? Did you see that?

Dirksen

No, I don't think I did. Who was that? [Bryce N.] Harlow?[note 6] Bryce N. Harlow was special assistant to the president for congressional affairs from 1969 to 1970, and counselor to the president from 1970 to 1971 and June 1973 to August 1974.

President Johnson

We don't know.[note 7] By the next day, the New York Times identified the source as Robert H. Finch, California’s lieutenant governor and a senior aide to Nixon. Robert B. Semple, Jr., “Nixon Willing to Go to Saigon or Paris,” New York Times, 3 November 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 21 February 2009). We have no idea. He speaks through these unknown people.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, we told Nixon, as we told you, that . . . well, let me get the transcript. While this was going on, we went out to Thieu and talked to him and all of our allied countries. And they all tentatively agreed.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, since that agreement, we have had problems develop. First, there's been speeches that we ought to withdraw troops.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

That was [Hubert H.] Humphrey and [McGeorge] Bundy.[note 8] On 30 September 1968, Vice President Humphrey, who was also the Democratic presidential nominee, had announced that, if elected, he would halt the bombing of North Vietnam as a peace initiative. “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.” R.W. Apple, Jr., “Humphrey Vows Halt in Bombing if Hanoi Reacts,” New York Times, 1 October 1968, http://www.nytimes.com (accessed 27 September 2010). McGeorge Bundy, 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 truce. The speech broke Bundy’s long silence on the war dating back to his departure from the White House in February 1966. Homer Bigart, “Bundy Proposes Troop Reduction and Bombing Halt; Former White House Aide Alters Stand on Vietnam Policy He Helped Make,” New York Times, 13 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 19 September 2009).

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Or that we stop bombing without any . . . obtaining anything in return.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Or some of our folks, including some of the old China Lobby, are going to the [South] Vietnamese embassy and saying, "Please notify the President that if he'll hold out till November the 2nd they could get a better deal."

Dirksen

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

Now, I'm reading their hand, Everett. I don't want to get this in the campaign.

Dirksen

That's right.

President Johnson

And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.

Dirksen

I know.

President Johnson

I don't know whether it's [Melvin R.] Laird, I don't know who it is that is putting it out.[note 9] Melvin R. Laird was secretary of defense from January 1969 to January 1973, and counselor to the president for domestic affairs from June 1973 to February 1974. But here is the UPI 48 that came in tonight.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And I'm calling you only after talking to [Dean] Rusk, and [Clark M.] Clifford, and all of them, who thought that somebody ought to be notified as to what's happening.[note 10] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from 1961 to 1969. 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.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Here's the Nixon release: “A highly placed aide to Nixon said today the South Vietnamese decision to boycott the Paris talks did not jibe with the confidential assurances given the three major candidates by Johnson.”

Dirksen

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

“‘We had the impression that all the diplomatic ducks were in a row,’ said the Nixon associate.”

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, I just read you what I told them. [Dirksen acknowledges.] And I told you that and I told everybody else. “Johnson got Nixon, Democratic candidate Humphrey and third party hopeful [George C.] Wallace on a conference call about the bombing.”[note 11] George C. Wallace was governor of Alabama from January 1963 to January 1967, January 1971 to January 1979, and January 1983 to January 1987.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

“The adviser”—Nixon's adviser—“volunteered the GOP candidate’s reaction on the condition that he not be identified.”

Dirksen

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

“Nixon, said the advisor, felt that Saigon's refusal to attend the negotiation could jeopardize the military and the diplomatic situation in Vietnam [Dirksen acknowledges] and reflect [on] the credibility of this administration.”

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, I can identify them, because I know who's doing this. [Dirksen attempts to interject.] I don't want to identify it. I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

I don't want to do that.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

But if they're going to put this kind of stuff out, they ought to know that we know what they're doing. I know who they're talking to and I know what they're saying.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And my judgment is that Nixon ought to play it just like he has all along: that I want to see peace come the first day we can, that it’s not going to affect the election one way or the other. The conference is not even going to be held until after the election.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

They have stopped shelling the cities. [Dirksen acknowledges throughout.] They have stopped going across the DMZ. We've had 24 hours of relative peace. Now, if Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the conference, well, that's going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that's why they're not there. I had them signed on board until this happened.

Dirksen

Yeah. [Pause.] OK.

President Johnson

Well, now, what do you think we ought to do about it?

Dirksen

Well, I better get in touch with him, I think, and tell him about it.

President Johnson

I think you better tell him that his people are saying to these folks that they oughtn’t to go through with this meeting. Now, if they don't go through with the meeting, it’s not going to be me that’s hurt. I think it's going to be whoever’s elected, and it’d be, my guess, him.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And I think they're making a very serious mistake, and I don't want to—I don't want to say this.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And you're the only one I'm going to say it to.

Dirksen

Yeah. I understood they were in Texas tonight or today.

President Johnson

I don't know. All I know is that I read you what I told him—the three candidates, just as I told you.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

I said, "Now, there has been speeches, that—some we ought to withdraw troops, and including some of the old China crowd that are going in implying to the embassies.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, Everett, I know what happens there, you see what I mean?

Dirksen

Yeah—I do.

President Johnson

And I'm looking at his hole card.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, I don't want to get in a fight with him there. I think Nixon's going to be elected.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

And I think we ought to have peace and I'm going to work with him. [Dirksen acknowledges throughout.] I've worked with you. But I don't want these sons of bitches like Laird giving out announcements like this that Johnson gave them the wrong impression.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

I gave him the right impression, except I gave it to him decently [Dirksen acknowledges], when I said, that you ought to keep the Mrs. Chennaults and all the rest of them from running around here.

Dirksen

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, you see, I know what Thieu says to his people out there.

Dirksen

Yeah. I haven't seen Laird.

President Johnson

Well, I don't know who it is that's with Nixon. It may be Laird, it may be Harlow, it may be [John N.] Mitchell.[note 12] John N. Mitchell was campaign chair of the Nixon election committee in 1968. He later served attorney general from January 1969 to February 1972, and as the Nixon re-election campaign chairman from March to July 1972. I don't know who it is. I know this, that they're contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.

Dirksen

That's a mistake.

President Johnson

And it's a damn bad mistake.

Dirksen

Oh, it is.

President Johnson

Now, I don't want to say so, and you're the only man that I have enough confidence in [Dirksen acknowledges throughout] to tell them. But you better tell them they better quit playing with it, and the day after the election, I'll sit down with all of you and try to work it out and be helpful. But they oughtn’t to knock out this conference.

Dirksen

Wherever they are, I'll try to get a hold of them tonight.

President Johnson

Well, there are two things that they ought to do. One is, they ought to stop this business about trying to keep the conference from taking place. [Dirksen acknowledges.] It takes place the day after the election.

Dirksen

Exactly.

President Johnson

The second thing is, we can all sit down and talk about it after that time. [Dirksen acknowledges throughout.] And I'm not a bitter partisan here, and you know it.

Dirksen

I know. Well, I'll try to find them, wherever they are tonight.

President Johnson

Well, you just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing and if they don't want it on the front pages [Dirksen acknowledges throughout], they better quit it, number one. Number two, the—we better sit down and talk about it as soon as this thing’s over with, and we'll try to work a—

Dirksen

That's right.

President Johnson

And they ought to tell their people that are contacting these embassies [Dirksen acknowledges] to go on with the conference.

Dirksen

Right.

President Johnson

OK.

Dirksen

I agree.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen on 2 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-01-13706, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006123