Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 8 November 1968


Transcript

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

White House Operator

Yes, sir.

President Johnson

Operator, I had to come to another phone. I was eating dinner and go ahead and put—

White House Operator

Fine.

President Johnson

—Mr. Nixon on.

White House Operator

There you are.

President Johnson

Hello?

Richard Nixon

Mr. President?

President Johnson

Yes, Dick.

Nixon

How are you? Did I interrupt your dinner?

President Johnson

That's all right. [speaking over Nixon] I was eating with some folks, but I came in another room. That's why I didn't want to talk [unclear].

Nixon

Oh, well, that's too bad.

President Johnson

That’s what—no, it isn’t.

Nixon

I'm just sitting here with your old friend [Charles G. “Bebe”] Rebozo.[note 1] Charles G. “Bebe” Rebozo was a Florida businessman and close friend of Richard Nixon. Sen. George C. Smathers [D-Florida] introduced them in 1950.

President Johnson

Oh, give him my love. I think he's one of the [speaking over Nixon] finest persons I ever knew.

Nixon

Well, when we’ve finished, I want to you to say hello to him.

President Johnson

I'd love to.

Nixon

He's a great admirer of yours.

President Johnson

He's been awfully sweet to me.

Nixon

Let me say this that—

President Johnson

I'm glad you’ve got a Rebozo because he [Nixon acknowledges] gave me a lot of comfort when I needed it, a lot.

Nixon

Right. I had a nice visit with the Vice President today.

President Johnson

Good.

Nixon

And [Edmund S.] Muskie and they went on down to the Virgin Islands, and I want you to know how much we appreciated your wire and also Lady Bird [Johnson]'s call to Pat [Nixon].[note 2] Edmund S. Muskie was a U.S. senator [D-Maine] from January 1959 to May 1980. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson was first lady of the United States from November 1963 to January 1969. Thelma C. “Pat” Nixon was first lady of the United States from January 1969 to August 1974. That was awful nice.

President Johnson

Good. [Unclear.]

Nixon

And then as I understand it, we worked it now that it won’t inconvenience you: we'll see you at Monday at 1:30 up at the White House.[note 3] For Nixon’s visit to the White House, see: Notes of Meeting, 11 November 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 7: Document 211.

President Johnson

That's good. That's right.

Nixon

Good. Now, getting to the one—the key point: is there anything I could do before that on this business of South Vietnam? If you want me to do something, you know I’ll do anything, because we’re not going to let these people stop these peace things, if you think I can do something.

President Johnson

Dick, I told [Everett M.] Dirksen last night, I thought it'd be better [to] do it that way than to be calling on the trips.[note 4] Everett M. Dirksen was a U.S. senator [R-Illinois] January 1951 to September 1969, and Senate minority leader from January 1959 to September 1969. I think this: these people are proceeding on the assumption [Nixon acknowledges] that folks close to you tell them to do nothing till January the 20th.

Nixon

You got a—

President Johnson

Now, we think—

Nixon

I know who they're talking about, too. Is it John Tower?[note 5] John G. Tower was a U.S. senator [R-Texas] from June 1961 to January 1985.

President Johnson

Well, he’s one of several. Mrs. [Anna] Chennault is very much in there.[note 6] Beijing-born Anna C. Chennault was a prominent Republican fundraiser. At a secret meeting in New York, Chennault had introduced South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem to Mitchell and Nixon. According to Chennault, Nixon told Ambassador Diem to “please rely on her [Chennault] from now on as the only contact between myself and your government.” Anna Chennault, The Education of Anna (New York: Times Books, 1980), 175-176. Johnson was making an obscure reference to the China Lobby, the group of American politicians and activists, as well as Chinese Nationalists, who blamed the Truman administration for the Communist takeover of China. President Chiang Kai-shek was overthrown in the Communist revolution and set up a government in Taiwan.

Nixon

Well, she's very close to John.

President Johnson

And the embassy is telling the president [Nguyen Van Thieu] and the president is acting on this advice.[note 7] Nguyen Van Thieu was president of South Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1975. He started doing it back about the 18th, following our talk on the conversation on the 16th. I had two bad breaks in the month of October. The first one came from the other side. Hanoi felt that because of what Bundy had said—Mac Bundy—[Nixon acknowledges] that—withdraw troops—and what Humphrey had said, that he wouldn't—[note 8] 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 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,” New York Times, 13 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 19 September 2009)

Nixon

They could wait.

President Johnson

Well, he just said, “I don’t—I will stop the bombing period. I don't mean comma or semicolon.”[note 9] Humphrey had called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in a nationally televised campaign speech on 30 September 1968 and repeated the call two weeks later at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, adding, “I said period, not comma or semi-colon.” John W. Finney, “Humphrey Taunts Nixon as ‘Chicken,’” New York Times, 16 October 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 26 June 2012). [Nixon acknowledges.] So Hanoi picked up the next day and went home for two weeks. We had it all wrapped up there and then for the meeting. Now, I don't know what’ll come out of the conference, but that was the way it was. They went off. In the meantime, these messages started coming out from here that Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey and that they ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China, and we have talked to different ones.[note 10] Johnson was referring to intelligence reports from the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The NSA had intercepted a 27 October 1968 cable from South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem to his government saying, "I [explained discreetly to our partisan friends our] firm attitude [censored] plan to adhere to that position. . . . In accordance with [censored] instruction, [censored] continuing my conversations to try to gain a clear-cut attitude. [Censored] the longer the situation continues, the more [we are] favored, for the elections will take place in a week and President Johnson would probably have difficulties in forcing [censored] hand. [I am] still in contact with the Nixon entourage, which continues to be the favorite despite the uncertainty provoked by the news of an imminent bombing halt. [Censored] informed that if Nixon should be elected, he would first send an unofficial person [censored] and would himself consider later going to Saigon before the inauguration. "[Censored] Delays Improve South Vietnam's Position," 28 October 1968, Director, National Security Agency, to White House, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. The CIA reported on 26 October 1968, that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu "sees a definite connection between the moves now underway and President Johnson's wish to see Vice President [and Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H.] Humphrey elected. Thieu referred many times to the U.S. elections and suggested to his visitors that the current talks are designed to aid Humphrey's candidacy." President Thieu's Views Regarding the Issues Involved in Agreeing to a Bombing Halt, 26 October 1968, CIA to National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Reference File: Anna Chennault, South Vietnam and US Politics, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. I think they've been talking to [Spiro T. “Ted”] Agnew.[note 11] An FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy overheard Chennault telling 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. The reference to New Mexico led Johnson and his advisers to wonder whether it referred to Nixon’s running mate, Governor Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, since his campaign plane stopped in Albuquerque that same day. I think they think that they've been quoting you indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any conference and wait until you come into office.

Nixon

Right. I [unclear]

President Johnson

Now, they started that, and that's bad. They're killing Americans every day. I have that documented. There’s not any question but what that's happening. Now, I said to you in that last talk that I don't believe you know it or you’re responsible for it, and I said—you know, when I talked to all three of you [Nixon acknowledges] that time—but I said we have problems. I looked over that transcript the other night. We have problems. I think we can work them out. I believe Thieu will ultimately come, but there are problems. Now, there are problems because these people are telling them that. Now, I think the wise thing to do from the standpoint of your country and from the standpoint of your presidency—and I hope you believe me.

Nixon

Oh, I do.

President Johnson

I want to help you. I want to help you. I don't want to trick you or deceive you.

Nixon

Oh, I know that.

President Johnson

I want peace and I don't want to get some Democrat in a favorable position over you, but I think they ought to go to that conference. Now—

Nixon

Let me ask you this. Is there anything we could do right now?

President Johnson

Yes, I think you ought to have whoever you trust the most in Washington, whoever you're—

Nixon

Talk to the ambassador?

President Johnson

Yes, sir. Go to the ambassador and say to him, [Nixon attempts to interject] “I told the President when he proposed these three points . . . number one, he assured me that he would not be for a coalition government.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“The president has assured me that.”

Nixon

That's right.

President Johnson

“The President assured me he'd never recognize the NLF, so I have those assurances from him.”

Nixon

Right. Right.

President Johnson

“The President's going to be as strong on this as I am, but the President thinks that if we're to support South Vietnam through the years ahead, that we must be willing to meet at a conference table.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“Now, that's all we’re asking. Now, you cleared that on the 7th [Nixon acknowledges], and on the 16th, and on the 28th [of October].” At least that's what the South Vietnamese did. They all cleared it.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“Therefore, Mr. Ambassador, I think you ought to tell the President that I support our President on going to the conference and I think you ought to go and if they try to sell you out, you don't have to agree, but you ought to go because the [J. William] Fulbrights and the [Mike] Mansfields [Nixon acknowledges] and even the Dirksens will not go along with anybody that won't go to a conference table.[note 12] J. William Fulbright was a U.S. senator [D-Arkansas] from January 1945 to December 1974, and served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 1959 to December 1974. Michael J. “Mike” Mansfield was a U.S. senator [D-Montana] from January 1953 to January 1977, and Senate majority leader from January 1961 to January 1977. Now, that's where they are tonight.

Nixon

Let me ask you this about the ambassador. I met him about five or six months ago.[note 13] The question arises whether Nixon was probing to find out whether Johnson knew about the meeting he had held in New York City before the election with the South Vietnamese ambassador, Nixon campaign chairman John N. Mitchell, and Anna Chennault, a prominent Republican fundraiser. It was then that Nixon had first met Ambassador Diem. Years later Chennault revealed in her memoirs that after she had introduced the two, Nixon had designated her as his sole contact with the South Vietnamese government. "'Anna is my good friend,' [Nixon] said [to Diem]. "She knows all about Asia. I know you also consider her a friend, so please rely on her from now on as the only contact between myself and your government. If you have any message for me, please give it to Anna and she will relay it to me and I will do the same in the future. We know Anna is a good American and a dedicated Republican. We can all rely on her loyalty." Anna Chennault, The Education of Anna (New York: Times Books, 1980), p. 175. Diem, in his memoirs, gives the date of the New York City meeting as 12 July 1968, and writes: "Finally, Nixon thanked me for my visit and added that his staff would be in touch with me through John Mitchell and Anna Chennault." Bui Diem with David Chanoff, In the Jaws of History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 236-37. The National Security Agency intercepted some of Ambassador Diem's communications to his home government. If Diem sent Saigon a report on the key New York City meeting with Nixon, Mitchell, and Chennault, the NSA could potentially have intercepted it the same way. Such a report, if it existed, would have given the Johnson administration evidence that Nixon himself was directly involved in the sabotage of the Paris peace talks. There is nothing in the declassified record, however, to indicate the NSA ever made or Johnson ever received such a report. Nixon, however, did not know that. Does he have any influence with that government?

President Johnson

Yes, he is giving them these signals and [Nixon acknowledges throughout] he is telling them that he has just talked to New Mexico and he has just talked to the Nixon people and they say hold out, don't do anything, we're going to win and we'll do better by you. Now, that's the story, Dick, and it's a sordid story. I told you that Sunday when I talked to you.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

You remember when I talked to [George A.] Smathers and Dirksen?[note 14] George A. Smathers was a U.S. senator [D-Florida] from 1951 to 1969, and a member of the Finance Committee.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

Now, I don't want to say that to the country because that's not good.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

But they're playing that game. I don't think you're playing it and I'd get off that hook. I'd just say to them, "You go to that conference [Nixon acknowledges throughout] and you protect your country and I'm going to support our President as long as he doesn't agree to a coalition government, as long as he doesn't agree to recognize the NLF, as long he stands on the conditions he does and we're united, and don't depend on me to give you a better deal.”

Nixon

We'll do that. Now, let me ask you this: who would be the best one to—who do you think the ambassador—who should I have talk to him? Have you got anybody in mind that—?

President Johnson

No, I don't.

Nixon

Could Dirksen do it?

President Johnson

Yeah, I don't know whether Dirksen has any contact or not. I trust Dirksen. I think Dirksen is—[Nixon attempts to interject] he's not for any Communist takeover and [at] the same time he's intelligent.

Nixon

What I might—well, also, he's considered to be a . . . why don’t we—let me try this out. Why don’t I get—see if I can get Everett to go over to the ambassador and lay it on the line with them.

President Johnson

That's what I—

Nixon

And say that this is—that he speaks for Nixon and Johnson. [President Johnson acknowledges.] Now, let me say this, Mr. President: that there's nothing that I want more than to get these people to that table, and, [as a] matter of fact, as I told you on the phone and I said publicly, I'll even go out there, if necessary, to get them there, but I don’t think—I think that would be grandstand stunt, however, and it would not be the best way. But if you think the ambassador has influence, I'll have Dirksen talk to the ambassador, or I could do it myself if you think that'll help.

President Johnson

I think it would help. I'd just call him on the phone say, “I want you to know this. I don't want your people to get off-key. I'm talking to the President every day.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“And the President has assured me he's not going to do anything that we don’t understand.”

Nixon

Oh, I know that.

President Johnson

“And you tell your President that he better get his people to that conference and get him there quick. And what he does there is a matter for his judgment, but he oughtn't to refuse to go to a room and meet.”

Nixon

OK, we'll work on it.

President Johnson

OK, Dick.

Nixon

Now, let me ask you this one other thing: tell me about [Richard] Helms. What do you think of Helms? How do you—

President Johnson

I think he's a career [officer], a former UPI man I never heard of.[note 15] Helms covered the Third Reich in the 1930s as a journalist in the Berlin bureau of the United Press and had interviewed Adolf Hitler. Richard Helms and William Hood, Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 17-26. I appointed an admiral when John McCone left—

Nixon

Yes.

President Johnson

—because I wanted to be sure I didn't get a patsy or a soft guy in there, and we had too many of them here.[note 16] After John A. McCone resigned as CIA director in 1965, Johnson replaced him with Admiral William F. Raborn Jr., who held the position for little over a year before Helms took over. The admiral took it over and this Helms was the deputy. [Nixon acknowledges.] I consider him—

Nixon

Let me ask your candid opinion. Would you continue him?

President Johnson

Yes, I would. Yes, I would. If I were you, I'd continue him and if I were taking over from you, I'd continue him. He's objective. [Nixon acknowledges.] He's a reporter. He was an old UPI man. He's fair. He's not an advocate. He's anti—

Nixon

Oh, I know.

President Johnson

He’s anti-Communist.

Nixon

When we met him out at the ranch, I was very impressed by him and I remember very [unclear].[note 17] The President had given the Republican nominees a classified briefing at his ranch after their convention. Notes on a Briefing of Former Vice President Nixon and Governor Agnew, 10 August 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 6: Document 327. You feel that way, do you?

President Johnson

Yes. I never heard of him until I appointed him. He was a deputy to this admiral that I had and he is extremely competent. He's succinct. He tells you as it is and he's loyal. He’s just—

Nixon

Let me ask you to do this as a personal favor. Would you mind to, you know, I think it would be a nice way to work [the] transition, if you could tell him some time before we meet on Monday that we’ve talked and that, while I don't want to say it now, that we're planning to continue him. Would you do that?

President Johnson

Oh, yes. Yes. I'll be glad to.[note 18] According to Helms’s account, Johnson spoke to him on the subject after the White House meeting with the President-elect. Helms, p. 376.

Nixon

[Unclear] because I think it's good that we have a, you know, a good transition. Now, on this fellow, the ambassador . . . he speaks English pretty well, if I recall.

President Johnson

Yes, yes.

Nixon

Yeah. Well, we could talk to him. I don't think we ought to do it on the phone, though. Maybe I ought to—but I don't want him to come down. Maybe I could see him when I come up to Washington. That might be a better thing. And—no, I might get to him before that, though. Maybe Dirksen is the best one to—

President Johnson

I would write out whatever I said and what I would say—[Dean] Rusk said yesterday [Nixon acknowledges throughout] and Rusk is the best adviser you can have until you get a man you have that much confidence in.[note 19] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from 1961 to 1969.

Nixon

I have great confidence in him.

President Johnson

He'll play as fair with you, and I'll bet my life on it, as he will with me. He's a good man. Rusk said, “If I were Nixon, I would write out one sentence and I'd say I support the President of the United States [Nixon acknowledges] in going to the conference as soon as you can, and thereby—there discussing the problems at issue, and we are united on that.”

Nixon

Good.

President Johnson

“Now, the President has given me assurances that he's not for recognizing the NLF as an independent entity and he's not for coalition government, and that's what you say you want, too, so you go on and talk it over and if you can settle it, I'll be the happiest man in the world. If you can't, when I come in, I'll assure you that the President will work with me in trying to settle it.”

Nixon

Actually, if we can get them to talking before that, it'll be much better, though.

President Johnson

It certainly will because you won’t—

Nixon

This 60 days is the best time to get the damn thing [unclear].

President Johnson

You won't have ten men in the Senate support South Vietnam [Nixon acknowledges] when you come in if these folks refuse to go to the conference.

Nixon

Absolutely. Well, I'll get on it. As a matter of fact . . . we'll try to get—I'll try to get Dirksen on the phone now and see if we can arrange to have this fellow . . . well, I'll work it out. You don't need to worry about that. We'll try to get to him and I can just put it quite directly that we want him to go to the conference, period, and that you and I agree completely on what ought to be done. How’s that?

President Johnson

And I would do it. And I'd say we'll be in touch each day and—

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

—that he can be sure that he can tell his president that this government's going to operate as one, before and after.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

And I'm not going to make any decision there that will adversely affect those people without talking to you and without talking to them.

Nixon

Well, of course. The point is—

President Johnson

I haven't stayed in this thing five years to throw it away in the last five weeks.

Nixon

The whole point is, too, that you've always—your position has always been basically, as I told you, you've taken the position which was extremely unpopular and which was right, and so therefore I want to support you on it and we're going to do it, and there's no question about that. I want you to know that.

President Johnson

Thank you, Dick, thank you.

Nixon

Now, if the only difficulty is—now, does Rusk think this ambassador—I don't know the fellow well enough. I met him in New York about, oh, in April or May, and he's—

President Johnson

Rusk told me last night that Nixon ought to do one of two things. He said, “I'll go see Nixon if you want me to.”

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

I said, “I think that will highlight a problem, and there'll be a lot of press around.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“And it’ll embarrass Nixon and embarrass you.” And he said—

Nixon

So he thinks I should just talk to the ambassador.

President Johnson

He said that we ought to do one of two things. You ought to pick out whoever you're going to have as secretary of state or whoever your closest friend is—

Nixon

We don’t have that.

President Johnson

—to go tell him or you ought to say in writing just two sentences that “I want you to know”—pick up the phone and tell him—“I want you to know that I believe your country ought to go to this conference. It's going to make it hard for all of us if you don't.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

“And the President talked to me about it before we had the conference and he's going to talk to me about what happens at the conference, and you don't need to feel insecure. We're going to stay with you and be fair, and I can give you that assurance.” And you ought to tell them that they're going to hurt themselves though, [speaking over Nixon] if Fulbright and Mansfield—Mansfield's—

Nixon

Oh, yeah. There’ll be no doubt the country will not support—

President Johnson

Mansfield's coming in to me tomorrow to say to them to go straight to hell and go on and negotiate a get-out with Hanoi. That's what he's coming—he's the leader of the Senate.

Nixon

You can't do that because—

President Johnson

No.

Nixon

—we’ve got to—that way you’d leave all those boys out there alone.

President Johnson

I sure can, or I'd pull them out and leave them there alone.

Nixon

That's what I mean, yeah.

President Johnson

But if this damn fool just sits back and says—today he says that he wants to go and head the United States delegation and tell us what to do and under our Constitution, I couldn't do that.

Nixon

No, that's right.

President Johnson

So—

Nixon

All right—

President Johnson

What he's doing, Dick, these people—they thought that we were going to trick you and try to pull a bombing halt to defeat you, so their judgment was that they ought to take out insurance and get them to screw the thing up where no good would come. Now, we're not trying to do that, and I'm not, and I think that American boys are being killed every day. We ought to tell these folks to go to the conference and we're going to support South Vietnam after the election just like we did before.

Nixon

And if they go, then there's a better chance for them than if they don't go.

President Johnson

Oh, of course—

There is a break in the recording as it changes to a new dictabelt.
President Johnson

[unclear] it is.

Nixon

Because otherwise they'll be deserted. OK, I’ll get on it.

President Johnson

Of course. All right. You let me know, now, who you—what you do and what you say so I’ll know there.

Nixon

What time is—?

President Johnson

If I were you I'd call him right now and I'd just say, “I have just talked to the President, period. I want you to know that I think your President should send a delegation there next week, period. I can assure you that I have assurances that this government before and after January the 20th is going to play it straight and fair with you, but you will lose if you don’t get a delegation there and soon, period.” Because Hanoi and NLF are having a propaganda field day. Rusk told me tonight that the great social charm in Paris is the NLF woman.[note 20] “Floating in a light cloud of Chanel No. 5, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Binh, leader of the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) delegation to the Paris peace talks, said last night she was optimistic about resolution of the Vietnam conflict.” London Sunday Times, “Vietcong’s Mrs. Binh Optimistic on Talks,” Washington Post, 10 November 1968, http://www.proquest.com (accessed 15 November 2012).

Nixon

Oh, God, yes. She’s horrible.

President Johnson

And they're just sitting back and saying that the U.S. can't even deliver.

Nixon

Right. All right. OK.

President Johnson

And that's what I'd say to him. There's nothing dangerous about it—that you've said that publicly.

Nixon

I believe it, too.

President Johnson

“I support the president. I support the government.” And I'd just say, "Mr. Ambassador, there's some people raised the question, and I just think you ought to tell your president that I have an agreement with our president that we're going to act in unison [Nixon acknowledges] just as two partners.”

Nixon

Right. We'll do it.

President Johnson

OK.

Nixon

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 8 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-04-13723-13724-13725, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006133