At noon on the eve of the 1968 presidential election, the Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor arrived at the West Gate of the White House bearing an unpublished story with a Saigon dateline. Within minutes, National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow was handed a note informing him that the Monitor was “holding out of the paper a sensational dispatch from Saigon (from their Saigon correspondent) the first paragraph of which reads: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President [Nguyen Van] Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks—at least until the American Presidential election is over.” Bureau chief Saville Davis “said he will await WWR’s comments.” That morning, the President had gone out riding at his Texas ranch. He returned to find a message from Rostow asking him to call right away. The President apparently didn’t tape his return call, but according to the White House Daily Diary, “The President told Walt that he couldn’t confirm anything. He had his suspicions, but just didn’t know. Told Walt not to talk to [Davis], but to have him referred to the State Department.” LBJ went out riding once again, but returned in less than an hour and asked for a conference call with Rostow and two other top advisers, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford.[note 1] Unsigned note, 4 November 1968, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
He's getting ready to talk.
[Pause.] Are you ready in there, Jim? Ready?
One second, tell him.
One second. One second. One second.
Secretary [Dean] Rusk isn't on yet, sir.
All right. Put him on.
He'll be with us in just a moment.
Put him on. Secretary Clifford?
Yes, I'm on.
Walt, are you on?
All right. Just one second. Secretary Rusk, operator. The President’s on, so I'll get off.
[Pause.] Secretary Rusk is on now, sir.
Hello, Dean? I think you and Clark and Walt ought to meet on this Saville Davis thing.
And it concerns me a great deal. I don't want to be in the position of being a [Joseph R.] McCarthy.[note 2] The President refers to the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy [R-Wisconsin], notorious for making accusations of treason unsupported by evidence. I don't know much more than I told the candidates themselves the other day, which my notes will reflect there, namely, that these folks had tentatively agreed out there to go along, and then they started having doubts, because we had reports of some folks, the old China Lobby, contacting embassies, etc.[note 3] The “China Lobby” generally refers to the Chinese Nationalists and American politicians and activists who blamed the Communist revolution on the Truman administration and, in this case, specifically refers to Anna C. Chennault, a prominent Republican fundraiser who was born in China. See note below. [Rusk acknowledges throughout.] Now, I can't get much more specific than that, (A) because of the sensitivity of the source, and (B) because of the limited nature of the information.[note 4] The sources were National Security Agency intercepts of messages from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., to Saigon, the Central Intelligence Agency’s bugging of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s wiretap of the embassy’s phone line. I told [George A.] Smathers that—Senator Smathers—who called saying that he understood from what I told [Everett M.] Dirksen that I was likely to make public this information if it were confirmed and if they kept interfering with it.[note 5] George A. Smathers was a U.S. senator [D-Florida] from 1951 to 1969, and a member of the Finance Committee. Everett M. Dirksen was a U.S. senator [R-Illinois] from 1951 to 1969, and served as Senate minority leader from 1959 to 1969. I also told Dirksen that I believe that the friends of one of the candidates was reporting to the folks out there that they ought to wait.
I did that on the basis of two things. One, the intercept from the ambassador—
—saying that he had had a call and the boss said wait and so forth, and second, this China Lobby operation, the madame involved.[note 6] The FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy overheard Chennault tell Ambassador Bui Diem “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.” Walt Rostow to Johnson, 2 November 1968, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. [Rusk acknowledges.]
Now, I don't want to have information that ought to be public and not make it so. On the other hand, we have a lot of . . . I don't know how much we can do there, and I know we'll be charged with trying to interfere with the election, and I think this is something that’s going to require the best judgments that we have. I'm rather concerned by this Saville Davis conversation with the embassy this morning.
Now, which conversation?
The Christian Science Monitor man—
—called the embassy this morning and wanted to see the ambassador, and he was unavailable. [Johnson paraphrases an FBI report] He told the party answering that he wanted to check out a story received from his correspondent in Saigon [Rusk acknowledges throughout], that he planned to come to the embassy and wait until he could see him, that “the dispatch from Saigon contained the elements of a major scandal, which involves the [South] Vietnamese ambassador, and which will affect presidential candidate [Richard] Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it.”
“He speculated that should the story be published, it will create a great deal of excitement.”[note 7] See Rostow to Johnson, “Embassy of Vietnam; Internal Security-Vietnam,” Document 91, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
Now, what he gets from Saigon is well and good and fine, but if he gets it from us, I want to be sure that, (A) we try to do it in such a way that our motives are not questioned and that the public interest requires it, and (2)—and that's the only thing I want to operate under. I'm not interested in the politics of it. The second thing is I want to be sure that what we say is—can be confirmed.
Well, Mr. President, I have a very definite view on this, for what it's worth. I do not believe that any president can make any use of interceptions or telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we cross over that divide, we're in a different kind of society.
Now, if this story is coming out of Saigon, I don't myself see how it could have come from American sources in Saigon, because we’ve been extremely careful not to pass along details of this sort of thing out there. It could have come from South Vietnamese sources. I don't know. Did Saville Davis say from what kind of sources it came?
No, he just says that he informed the ambassador. He wanted to check out a story received from a correspondent in Saigon.
And he planned to come to the embassy and wait for the ambassador to see him. Now, he has also tried to see the White House.[note 8] The FBI had the South Vietnamese embassy under surveillance and had observed Davis enter it. When he left, agents followed him to the White House. FBI Director to Bromley Smith, 4 November 1968, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
Well, I would think that we are—that since we are not involved in any contacts that the Republicans might have had with the South Vietnamese ambassador, that this is a matter on which only the Republicans could comment, and that we stay out of it completely. I really think that it would be very unwise. I mean, we get a lot of information through these special channels that we don't make public. I mean, for example, some of the malfeasances of senators and congressmen and other people that we don't make public, and I think that we must continue to respect the classification of that kind of material. And I think that all we can say is that we're not going to comment on such matters. That's for others to comment on if they have anything to say on it, but to be very sure that we ourselves are not ourselves putting out this story.
Mmm. Clark, do you have any reaction?
I couldn’t—I could not hear what Dean said.
I can't hear whoever that is.
I can hear the President very clearly, but all I can hear is Dean's voice, but I can't get his words.
Well, Dean just says he doesn't think that we can confirm or say anything or have any comment in connection with it on the basis of the sensitivity of the information.
Well, I would think there'd be a good deal of merit to that. I'd go on to another reason also, and that is [that] I think that some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I'm wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual elected. It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I would think it would be inimical to our country's interests.
Well, I have no doubt about that, but what about the story being published and our knowing of it, and our being charged with hushing it or something?
Oh, I think on that, Mr. President—excuse me.
I don't believe that would bother me. I think that any amount of information that we have that we don't think we should publicize—it has to do with the sensitivity of the sources, it has to do with the absence of absolute proof. I don't believe we have the kind of story that we would be justified in putting out.
Fine. I think both of you should have a paragraph from this report so you can look at it and also a question from Nixon, in the light of what his people are doing again today. They are going back over this thing, and he's having Senator [John] Tower to say its politics and stuff like that.[note 9] Sen. John G. Tower [R-Texas] called the bombing halt “unconditional” and “unilateral.” The President, however, had made three demands that Hanoi had accepted only in October. John W. Finney, “Doves and Hawks Divided on Johnson’s Move,” New York Times, 1 November 1968, http://nytimes.com, (accessed 17 February 2009). In return for the bombing halt, North Vietnam had to (1) respect the demilitarized zone dividing North and South, (2) stop shelling civilian populations of South Vietnamese cities, and (3) agree to accept South Vietnamese participation in the Paris talks. But in this conversation the other day, which you were present, I said to him that this thing—we've had these three propositions up to them for some time. Since the—certainly the early part of October, they were nibbling.
That because of some speeches—I had in mind the [McGeorge] Bundy and [Hubert H.] Humphrey speeches [Clifford acknowledges throughout], and Humphrey was on the other end of the line, and certainly [Eugene J.] McCarthy's type of stuff.[note 10] McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security adviser at the time of the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965, had broken his long public silence on Vietnam the month before the election to come out in favor a bombing halt and American withdrawal. 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. Homer Bigart, “Bundy Proposes Troop Reduction and Bombing Halt,” New York Times, http://proquest.com (accessed 19 September 2009). John W. Finney, “Humphrey Taunts Nixon as ‘Chicken,’” New York Times, 16 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 26 June 2012). Eugene J. McCarthy was a U.S. congressman [D-Minnesota] from 1949 to 1959, and a U.S. senator from 1959 to 1971. Because of certain speeches that were made at that time—I don't know what effect they had, but anyway, they went off and kind of let up for a week or so to Hanoi. Since that time, we had gone out to our allies and got them to tentatively agree—emphasize tentatively agree—that this would be a wise move. Then, the old China Lobby starts operating, contacting some embassies and others, and that interferes with the situation. I knew from what they had said to me previously—the three candidates—that they were not being responsible for this, but that I thought they ought to know that it created some minor problems and we were trying to work them out. A little later, Nixon asked the question whether we would stop bombing the South, and then said, "Of course, Mr. President, I know you don't know whether the conference will come off or not," implying that I had made my point—
—that they had these problems. But—“Would you stop bombing the South?" And I told him no, I wouldn't, and so forth. Now, he takes the position that he was under the impression that South Vietnam was going to be at the conference, and I told him yesterday we were all hoping it would be at the conference, and we had believed up until this China thing got into it that we had reason to believe that on two or three separate occasions, that the president shared our view.
But after this got into it, it created some doubt, and I told him of that doubt. [Clifford acknowledges.] He would keep running away from it. I reminded him of that a time or two. I noticed that a little bit later, he said in California something that kind of confirmed what he said on Meet the Press, that all of us thought [the] South Vietnamese would be there and so forth, but he didn't say that he had been warned.
Now, he has been warned. That may be a little bit too strong a word for it, but we told him we did have a problem with it, and he knew that [Clifford acknowledges throughout], and I confirmed that with Humphrey yesterday, too. So I think, Walt, you ought to get—I'll get Jim Jones to put on the wire to you, Walt, the two paragraphs I have in mind. You see that they get to—one for you and one to Rusk and one to Clifford.
I have them. I can send them very quickly, sir.
Well, you get the Nixon question [Rostow acknowledges], and you also get the—there's a good part there—I'll try to get it to you, because I specifically want to show you what I want them to see.
I'll wait for it and send it.
What did you say, Dean?
That's right. That's fine. I just think that our strongest position here is if such a story is going to run—and my guess is they'll publish it anyhow—is for us to say that we're in no position to get into that kind of thing. Not confirm it, but even no comment from us would tend to leave open the possibility there might be something in it, [President Johnson attempts to interject] but I just think that it's not for the President or the Secretary of State to appear to get into that story at all.
Is that your opinion, Clark?
See, I still can't hear Dean, Mr. President.
Dean says it's his opinion that we should just say we cannot get into that at all, period.
Well, I better have a talk with Dean about it. I think that would indicate that maybe we had information and chose not to get into it. Maybe we would want to say that we're looking at the story if they publish the story, and that we're looking into it or something of that kind. Why don't I—after we hang up, why don't I talk to Dean directly. Then I can hear him.
You do that, and—
I can't hear Clark from here, sir.
OK, you do that, and I'll get this information to you, and you three get together right away. And I will proceed on the assumption that we just do nothing and say nothing and stay out of it, and y’all do the same thing, and I don't think Walt should see Saville Davis. He wants to see Walt now.
Mm-hmm. I told him that I would not see him, sir.
My secretary told him I would not see him.
OK. Are you still on, Walt?[note 11] The Christian Science Monitor didn’t publish the story.
“Lyndon Johnson, Clark Clifford, Jim Jones, Walt Rostow, and Dean Rusk on 4 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-03-13713-13714, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006128