Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 18 August 1968


Transcript

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

Unidentified Man

He’ll be with you in just a moment, Mr. Nixon. [Pause.]

President Johnson

Hello.

Richard Nixon

Hello?

President Johnson

Dick.

Nixon

Yes, sir!

President Johnson

How are you?

Nixon

I’m just fine, Mr. President. You still in Texas?

President Johnson

Yes, sir.

Nixon

Oh, good. How’re you feeling?[note 1] During their 8 August 1968 telephone conversation, President Johnson had mentioned that he was going into the hospital for tests.

President Johnson

Well, I’m just feeling fine. Got good reports.

Nixon

And it came out all right, huh?

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

Good.

President Johnson

There’s been no—we have a little problem, but there’s no discomfort at all. [Nixon attempts to interject.] Just something you look at, and no change since—we think since ’63 and we know since ’66.

Nixon

[chuckling] Good!

President Johnson

Dick, first, tell Rose Mary [Woods], whoever your scheduler is, to let us know where you are, give us kind of an itinerary or who will know any time, [Nixon acknowledges] because I may need to talk to you any time.[note 2] Rose Mary Woods was Nixon’s personal secretary. There’s not anything that I anticipate or any emergency or anything, but if it’s all right, I think it’d just be prudence to—

Nixon

Well, again, who is it that we—just let your—

President Johnson

Just call White House switchboard or—

Nixon

White House switchboard.

President Johnson

And just tell them [Nixon acknowledges throughout] that Vice President Nixon—here’s your schedule, or have your—whoever handles your schedule just give it to them or tell them that who—your headquarters or something. We called someplace today and we didn’t—

What I called you about is not too important, but it [will] follow through on what I told you the other day. The friend of ours abroad that was asking for permission has notified me [Nixon acknowledges throughout] that he is going on to Bogota, but that he is not going to Hanoi, and he implied or indirectly said through the third party that came to me, that it was because he’d requested and been refused.[note 3] In March, the papal delegate to the United States, Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk of a suggestion by Roger Fisher, a Harvard law professor, that the negotiating impasse between the U.S. and Hanoi could be broken if a third party invited both sides to talk. See Memorandum of Conversation, 18 March 1968, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964-1968: Vietnam, September 1968-January 1969, ed. Kent Sieg (Washington, DC: GPO, 2003), 7: Document 139.

Nixon

Huh!

President Johnson

Now, I think it would be a major error for us to divulge that.

Nixon

But I haven’t said a thing [unclear]

President Johnson

No, I know you haven’t and I know you won’t. [Nixon acknowledges.] But I think you ought to get the implications. It shows these people are not very anxious to even have any discussions at this—

Nixon

I wanted you to know I had a little press conference today, and they asked me about Clark Clifford’s statement about a bombing pause and they said, what was my view?[note 4] At a news conference, the defense secretary stated that before the United States would agree to stop bombing North Vietnam, it would require a reciprocal assurance from Hanoi that the de-escalation would not put U.S. troops near the Demilitarized Zone in greater danger. “What he has in mind is, if he gives up the bombing of even this limited part of North Vietnam, he does not want to do it at the expense of the lives of the men that we have in the northern I Corps, the South Vietnam region adjacent to North Vietnam.” Felix Belair Jr., “Clifford Terms Troops’ Security Key to Bomb Halt,” New York Times, 16 August 1968, www.proquest.com. And I said that . . . well, that I think I could reveal that that position was exactly the one now that the President disclosed was our position. That I have—I didn’t before—but I said as far as I was concerned, that—’cause I think I used this term—but I think that the United States has gone the extra mile in indicating that any step on the part of the enemy indicating that they would deescalate if we would deescalate would be reciprocated, but that I didn’t feel that we could take a step unless there was reciprocation and endanger the lives of those men. I just wanted you to know that that’s the line I’ve taken. It’s—

President Johnson

Yes, I think your position has been a sound one and I think that it’s in your interests very much and in the country and, I think, in freedom. I had a letter today from a man that was formerly involved very deeply in this, and he was suggesting a bombing pause.[note 5] The letter writer is unidentified. And the reasons that he gave for the bombing pause—for stopping the bombing now—were the identical reasons that he had given for stopping the bombing in the 37-day pause.[note 6] President Johnson initiated a bombing pause on Christmas Day 1965.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

Now, I believe we added up today, it was either six or eight times we have stopped the bombing.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

In the—what they call the “bombing pause.” [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] On the 37-day one, we stopped for 37 days. We didn’t touch them. And they just got more ferocious. The last time we stopped the bombing was on Buddha’s birthday.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

[chuckling] And that’s when they launched the Tet Offensive.[note 7] The President’s meaning is obscure. Tet is the New Year holiday in the Chinese and Vietnamese lunar calendar, and generally falls in late January or early February. The 1968 Tet offensive by Vietnam’s Communist forces began on Jan. 30. The offensive had a second phase that began in May 1968, called “Mini-Tet” by Americans. Buddha’s birthday was on the eighth day of the lunar calendar’s fourth month, which fell on May 11 in 1968, but “Mini-Tet” was well underway before that date. Lee Lescaze, “GIs Join Fighting in Saigon,” New York Times, 8 May 1968, www.proquest.com.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

So if—

Nixon

And even this time you’ve stopped it. They, of course, have talked, but on the other hand, they’re still building up.

President Johnson

On the [Eugene] McCarthy [D-Minnesota] thing, I don’t know whether you’re interested, but I asked the [National] Security Council to give me an analysis of McCarthy’s seven points.[note 8] Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy [D-Minnesota] and advisers to the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy [D-New York] had come up with a joint recommendation for the party platform position on Vietnam. They called for, among other things, “an immediate and unconditional halt to the bombing of North Vietnam without any reciprocal act by the enemy.” Steven V. Roberts, “War Critics Agree on Specifics of Vietnam Plank,” New York Times, 16 August 1968, www.proquest.com. You can make a note of them if you want to. This is confidential, but I’ll just read it to you quickly.

“One, immediate halting the bombing of North Vietnam.” That’s his proposal. [Nixon acknowledges.] Here’s the Security Council’s analysis: “The United States is prepared to halt the bombing whenever there is any reasonable assurance that Hanoi will not take advantage of such cessation to improve its military posture of aggression against South Vietnam.

“Two, reduce the level of conflict in the South by halting search-and-destroy operations.” Well, “it takes two to fight. It takes two to make peace, unless one chooses to surrender. The senator’s proposal would change the nature of the conflict, but not the level. In time, such a defensive strategy as the senator proposes would inevitably lead to military defeat by requiring us to hold fire until the enemy assembles and attacks the cities.

“Three, we will not further widen the war by increasing our forces or extending the conflict geographically. Despite the major increases in Hanoi’s forces in South Vietnam, the U.S. has no intention of extending the conflict geographically.”

Nixon

Got it.

President Johnson

“Four”—

Nixon

He’s referring there, I suppose, to Laos and all that—

President Johnson

Yes, and Cambodia and . . . “Four, gaining an agreement from all parties that free elections will be held.” Well, “the United States has already endorsed free elections in South Vietnam on the basis of one man, one vote. The government of South Vietnam has endorsed free elections on the same terms. Under their constitution, they have held a national election in which the proportion of voters paralleled the number who vote in the United States. Furthermore, the President has stated that all those who forego violence and accept the constitution can not only vote, but run for office. Hanoi has refused, preferring the bullet to the ballot in South Vietnam.

“Five, establishing through negotiations an interim coalition government to prepare for elections, withdraw our support if the government of South Vietnam does not agree.” “This proposal is the arrogance of would-be power. The government of the United States believes in governments elected by the people. We do not believe in governments negotiated by outsiders by ultimatum against the wishes of a majority of the people. The government of [South] Vietnam accepts the principle: one man, one vote.

“Six, holding elections with all groups permitted to organize political parties under international supervision.” “It has been consistently the position of our government [that] the future of South Vietnam should be determined peacefully by the South Vietnamese free from coercion, external or internal, under appropriate international guarantees. U.S. policy is designed to achieve that objective, and the senator’s proposal would preclude this possibility.

“Seven, the selected government will be free to determine its future with regard to other nations, including North Vietnam.” “It has consistently been the position of the U.S. government that the relations between North Vietnam and South Vietnam is a matter to be determined by the Vietnamese themselves. In Honolulu, the presidents proposed the normalization of relations between Saigon and Hanoi when peace was established.

“In short”—this is their comment now—”what is good in the senator’s proposed platform plank is not new.” [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] “What is new is a prescription for disaster for the people of South Vietnam and all Southeast Asia in the form of an ultimatum that is repugnant to all this nation stands for.” Now, that’s what the security staff . . . answered it. [Dean] Rusk had these comments on the seven: “One”—[note 9] Dean Rusk was secretary of state from 1961 to 1969.

Nixon

Tell me, this security staff [unclear], that did not—was that put out?

President Johnson

No, no. This is just their analysis of his seven points for me.

Nixon

Right. For you, yeah, yeah.

President Johnson

And I just gave it to you. I’m not—

Nixon

I understand.

President Johnson

I’m not going to get out with it, but it just shows you—

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

It gives you analysis. Now, here’s Rusk’s comments on McCarthy’s platform—

Nixon

Is this publicly?

President Johnson

No.

Nixon

No, just—

President Johnson

“He’s in a fighting mood, and you may wish to unleash him at the right time.” That’s what the comment from my office said.

Nixon

Huh!

President Johnson

“One, some comments on the McCarthy platform should be found in the draft speech. Is this platform being submitted as an ultimatum to the platform committee: adopt it or accept a floor fight? What ultimatum have the proponents in mind, ‘Surrender to us on Vietnam or we will bolt the party’? Is not all this contempt? Why do the proponents not say what they mean? For example, instead of saying, ‘Halt the bombing of North Vietnam,’ why don’t they say, ‘You should stop bombing men and arms?’” Now, listen to this: “Why don’t, instead of saying, ‘Halt the bombing of North Vietnam–’” You can take this if you want to. I think it’s a good phrase.

Nixon

I’ll jot it down.

President Johnson

“Why don’t they say, ‘You should stop bombing men and arms moving southward across the DMZ to kill U.S. and allied forces’?”

Nixon

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Now, that’s what it means, Dick.

Nixon

That’s the crux of the matter.

President Johnson

That’s all. That’s in one sentence.

Nixon

No one understand[s] that.

President Johnson

We said, if they will assure us that they won’t move across [the DMZ] and kill these men while we stop, we’ll stop. But they say, “No, you stop so we can go and kill them.” Now, that’s the net of it.

“Four, if it is proposed to impose a coalition government on South Vietnam, when its proponents know, as they already must know, that this is wholly unacceptable to the majority of South Vietnam, is not the real object of the proposal [to] provide a pretext for the main purpose, namely the withdrawal of U.S. forces whatever the consequences for Vietnam or Southeast Asia?” It’s just a pretext for saying, turn it over to the commies. That’s all it is. “Five”—

Nixon

It’s—the negotiated thing is the [unclear].

President Johnson

That’s right.

“Five, if there is any interest in peace in Southeast Asia, why does the proposal fail to include, one, complete compliance with the Geneva Accords on Laos of ’62; two, cessation of North Vietnamese guerrilla action against Thailand; three, respect by the forces of both sides for the neutrality and territorial integrity of Cambodia [Nixon acknowledges]; four, why does the proposal not underline the necessity for talks between Hanoi and the elected government of South Vietnam?

”Six, does the Democratic Party now want to say to Hanoi, ‘Don’t make peace with President Johnson. Continue the war and see whether the Democratic Party would elect a [Pierre] Mendès France who could give them South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all at one time?’” [Laughs.]

Nixon

[Unclear]—I don’t blame him for being mad. You know, the thing is that—of course, I thought, just between us, that this fellow killed himself with that stupid business of that list for the Cabinet.[note 10] McCarthy had released a list of public figures he would like to appoint to the Cabinet if elected. New York Times, 18 August 1968, “McCarthy Talks at Garden; Urges a Vietnam Coalition.”

President Johnson

Oh, it was, it was.

Nixon

But I—yeah, I thought that some—

President Johnson

Well, I’m not concerned, except that they have taken his signals and will for four or five days, and have their hopes up a little. But the reason I read these analyses to you—I thought it was, in effect, another briefing of [Nixon attempts to interject] the experts’ reactions [Nixon acknowledges] to these questions that are being proposed so you would have information that—

Nixon

The only point is that, naturally, I’m not going to say anything on this, but if there is a change in position, that’s what I need to know.

President Johnson

Oh, that’s—you will.

Nixon

There’s nothing—there’s no—

President Johnson

You will.

Nixon

[Unclear] right where I am. I’m not—

President Johnson

You will, but I wanted you to have their views, because if you shared them, of course, you could express any time you want to as your own.

Nixon

I will.

President Johnson

And it’s pretty good. Now, I know you’re feeling as we are. We’re going out and have a little service here of all the men on the base and all the Secret Service [Nixon attempts to interject] for President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

We’re going to say prayers for him and—

Nixon

What is your report? I haven’t talked to—

President Johnson

The last report is that they have the thing stabilized, [Nixon attempts to interject] and he’s been doing a little better, but it’s still very critical.

Nixon

They’re—his electric—

President Johnson

Yes, yes.

Nixon

The guy must have amazing spirit. They—

President Johnson

Oh, [unclear]

Nixon

I heard that he even had a—even told a little joke or something.

President Johnson

They say that he had a good sense of humor.

Nixon

[Laughs.]

President Johnson

And, well, I just got him movies in there last week, and I got a letter from him today, a long letter saying that they had told him that they’d bring him in movies and show them there in the hospital and try to get his mind . . . He’s just got the most remarkable comeback. The second heart attack kills most people.

Nixon

I know.

President Johnson

He’s—[chuckling] he just has them by numbers.

Nixon

That’s right.

President Johnson

I just wanted you to know about the Pope. So that one’s out, and that, I think, is a pretty good reflection, Dick, that they’re waiting to see if they can hornswoggle somebody into a better deal here.

Nixon

Sure, well, the thing that I’ve always—that I’ve been saying constantly is that neither . . . nobody in either part[y]—that no candidate for president can responsibly signal the enemy, “Elect me, boys, wait and elect me and you’re going to get a better deal.”

President Johnson

That’s right.

Nixon

The moment you do that you destroy the possibility [President Johnson acknowledges] to negotiate a settlement now. [Unclear.]

President Johnson

Well, you’ve taken the position that’s best for your country and your soldiers out there, and I’ve got two of them that I’m—that are pretty close to me and 525,000 more that are awfully important, and [Nixon acknowledges] so I’ll be in touch with you and . . .

Nixon

Well, it’s good—it’s awfully good of you to call, and I’ll see that the White House operator has a number where we can be reached at all times.

President Johnson

Thank you, Dick.

Nixon

Thank you very much.

President Johnson

Remember me to [Spiro T. “Ted”] Agnew when you see him.[note 11] Spiro T. “Ted” Agnew was Nixon’s running mate and vice president of the United States from January 1969 to October 1973.

Nixon

I sure will. [chuckling]

President Johnson

Bye.

Nixon

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on 18 August 1968,” Conversation WH6808-01-13306, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Chasing Shadows, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006511