Lyndon Johnson and John Knight on 3 February 1964


Transcript

Edited by Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany, with Ashley Havard High and Patricia Dunn

See the daily introduction for 1964-02-03  [from the Norton edition]

The newspaper baron John Knight was a regular target of Johnson’s lobbying efforts, which paid their reward in the fall, when all Knight Ridder papers endorsed Johnson’s reelection.[note 3] Despite the generally friendly tone of the conversation, the papers that Knight ran did not blindly support the administration. A few days after this call, for instance, his Charlotte Observer printed an editorial charging that since “somebody is trying to do a hatchet job on Don Reynolds,” the Rules Committee needed “to play as rough as it must to plow this hearing under.” Charlotte Observer, 11 February 1964.

Foreign policy dominated this call after Knight mentioned a column he had written about the situation in Panama, as the Panamanians had made impassioned charges that the United States had engaged in aggression in January and called for the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate under the authority of the Rio Treaty. The two men then turned, at Johnson’s request, to an even more challenging situation, Vietnam. Johnson offered Knight his assessment of his current options, none of which was good.

Lyndon Johnson had inherited a deteriorating situation in the region. The immediate problems had begun ten years earlier. Although the 1954 Geneva Agreements envisioned a unified Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration, which did not sign the accords, undertook an aggressive campaign to prop up the non-Communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. To shore up the Diem government, the United States established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and lavished Saigon with financial and military assistance. For a brief period in the 1950s these policies succeeded in bolstering Diem’s position. But the South Vietnamese ruler’s autocratic ways and the determination of the North Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh to reunify the country paved the way for warfare in the South, which intensified after the creation of the National Liberation Front in 1960.[note 4] Fred Greenstein and John Burke, How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965 (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1989); Robert Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1954–1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 69–96.

For the Kennedy administration, South Vietnam itself was the principal testing ground for its new counterinsurgency doctrine. The administration dramatically escalated the U.S. commitment in the area, and by the end of 1962 the United States had 9,000 so-called advisers stationed in South Vietnam. But the political situation within South Vietnam itself only continued to destabilize. In May 1963 widespread protests organized by Buddhists broke out against Diem’s regime; the government’s corresponding crackdown sowed doubts in Washington that Diem would ever be able to win the hearts and minds of his people, a necessary prerequisite, Kennedy administration policy makers believed, to triumphing against the Communists. Encouraged in Washington by Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman and in Saigon by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, a group of dissident generals toppled Diem’s regime in November and assassinated the overthrown President and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.[note 5] Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 3–63.

While Kennedy bequeathed his successor a dramatically expanded commitment in the area, he also near the end of his life sent conflicting signals, some of which suggested that he had begun to reconsider this policy, such as in Robert McNamara’s announcement in October 1963 that the United States would withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of 1964. Johnson came to office promising to continue Kennedy’s stated aim of ensuring the independence of a non-Communist South Vietnam. That goal was made all the more difficult by the continuing instability within South Vietnam itself, where the government of Duong Van Minh, which had overthrown Diem, was itself toppled in a late-January coup headed by General Nguyen Khanh.

But while the instability obviously weakened the U.S. position, Johnson himself had done little to guide U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia. After a flurry of meetings in his first two weeks in office, when he stated publicly his commitment not to lose the war and made clear his distaste for Kennedy’s decision to sanction the overthrow of Diem, Johnson all but ignored Vietnam for most of December and January. Events in the United States, rather than Southeast Asia, brought his attention back to the region: The President wanted to stifle the growing press criticism of his unsteady performance in foreign affairs. He also had a more personal concern, since the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, was running a write-in campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.[note 6] Anne Blair, Lodge in Vietnam: A Patriot Abroad (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 1–37.

President Johnson

Jack?

John Knight

Yes, sir.

President Johnson

How you doing?

Knight

Well, pretty good, thank you.

President Johnson

You quit pretty early down there. I . . . They said you was on your way home. My gosh, we’re just starting to work up here.

Knight

[Laughs] Well, I [the President chuckles too] have one excuse: I stayed in the office for lunch.

President Johnson

Well, that’s good. I just wanted to call you and tell you I was talking to old Houston Harte, and he called my attention to a column you’d written,[note 7] Harte was the former publisher of the San Angelo Standard-Times and a longtime Johnson supporter. and I got a copy of it in the Detroit Free Press of January 26, about Johnson and the Bobby Baker case.[note 8] In the article, Knight contended that Johnson’s relationship with Baker was no more worthy of condemnation than the relationship between other presidents and advisers who had engaged in corrupt acts without their knowledge. Detroit Free Press, 26 January 1964. And I thought it was a damn good column. I sure appreciate it. I thought it was very fair and just, and I think the facts will bear you out when all’s said and done.

Knight

Well, thank you, sir.

President Johnson

How else are things going?

Knight

Well, pretty good. George Smathers gets a little irritable about all of this, but I pointed out to him that when you’re in public life, why, stories do happen and . . . [note 9] Smathers had been the public official most implicated in the Baker affair. Working separately, Senator John Williams (R-Delaware) and the anti-Smathers Miami Herald had uncovered evidence that the senator had made several profitable deals with Baker. John Williams memorandum, 10 December 1963, Box 30, John Williams Papers, Morris Library, University of Delaware. [Laughs.] George is always very sensitive.

President Johnson

Well, you have to do that. It’s . . . My daddy said one time, “You don’t want to get on the firing line if you don’t expect to get shot at.”

Knight

Right.

President Johnson

And he—

Knight

I wrote something last Sunday on Panama that I hope you’ll see. It’s—

President Johnson

I didn’t. Tell me about it.

Knight

Well, I . . . Out of a background, of some knowledge down there, and some things I read by John O’Rourke of the Washington News, a very good friend of mine . . . This is . . . This anti-American spirit has been going on there for some time and organized by a good many people: The Arias family and the newspapers are very anti-U.S.[note 10] Arnulfo Arias, thrice Panamanian president (and thrice ousted by military coups), was well known for his nationalist sentiment. I just expressed the hope that we’d be damn firm about it.

President Johnson

We are going to be. That’s what we have been.

Knight

No unwillingness to talk, but no retreat either.

President Johnson

We called him [Roberto Chiari] the moment it happened and told him we’d talk about anything anywhere anytime and do what was fair and just, but we wouldn’t have a pistol at our temple and wouldn’t negotiate when there’s violence, and we wouldn’t have them telling us we had to rewrite treaties in advance, and so forth.[note 11] Panama was one of the major foreign policy issues that had arisen in January. On 10 January, tensions between Panamanians and Americans in the Canal Zone escalated into a riot, and skirmishes led to the deaths of more than 20 people. Once the initial hostilities subsided, the Johnson administration’s focus was on deflecting Panamanian demands to renegotiate the treaty governing the U.S. control over the canal. For transcripts of the extensive conversations, see Germany and Johnson, eds., The Presidential Recordings, Johnson, vol. 3, January 1964.

We’ve leaned over backwards to be fair and just and to tell them that we would look at anything and do anything that was right, but that we weren’t going to be intimidated. But they have insisted that we agree to rewrite treaties before they even resume relations with us. And we just said that we’re not going to do that.

Knight

Well, I stated most of that, but there are some of these sobbing columnists now that are . . .

President Johnson

And we got the New York Times and the Washington Post that are raising hell.

Knight

Yeah, well.

Anyhow, [chuckles] you know every time we—You can be just, but when we get soft with those people—I know something about them—they think that’s a victory. We lose face.

President Johnson

We haven’t done that, though, Jack.

Knight

I know that, sir.

President Johnson

And we’re not going to. And I think it’s sad that they feel that they won’t even talk to us, but that’s their hard luck.

Knight

Well, they have an election coming up.[note 12] In the presidential election in May, Marco Robles defeated Arnulfo Arias. They’re all whooping it up and creating all the confusion they can.

President Johnson

Well, we’ll watch it, and we’ve got a prob—

What do you think we ought to do in Vietnam?

Knight

Well, of course, I’ve got a record on that for about ten years. It’s a little late now, but I never thought we belonged there. [Chuckles] And . . . you know, that’s a real tough one now, and I think President Kennedy thought at one time we should never—that we were overcom-mitted in that area. And—

President Johnson

Well, I opposed it in ’54.[note 13] In 1954 Dwight Eisenhower had conditioned U.S. intervention to salvage the beleaguered French military outpost at Dienbienphu on obtaining approval from the major NATO allies and support from Congress. He received neither, and Johnson, in his position as Senate minority leader, had joined other congressional Democrats in recommending against introducing U.S. forces to the area. But we’re there now, and there’s only one of three things you can do.

One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up compared to what they’d say now. I see [Richard] Nixon’s raising hell about it today. And [Barry] Goldwater too.[note 14] Democratic leaders had been especially concerned about appearing soft on communism since the “loss” of China to the Communists in 1949. In a supposedly “strictly nonpolitical” appearance at North Carolina’s Pfeiffer College, Nixon warned the United States not to “pussyfoot” around with any neutralization of Vietnam. In Minnesota, Goldwater was far more harsh, saying that Johnson’s administration had been “caught napping again” and that “Viet-Nam and the war there is drifting toward disaster.” Regarding Panama, he asked, “Where has Lyndon been while Panama burned? Fiddling with his political promises . . . or maybe listening to his Bobby Baker stereo set.” Washington Post, 4 February 1964; New York Times, 4 February 1964.

You can run, or you can fight, as we are doing, or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it. But nobody’s going to neutralize North Vietnam, so that’s totally impractical.

And so it really boils down to one of two decisions: getting out or getting in.

Knight

Well, you know, at the time of SEATO, that was organized, some of these other nations were supposed to be a party to these problems, but France wants none of it.

President Johnson

None.

Knight

They don’t do anything—

President Johnson

They just want to create problems. France does.

Knight

[Unclear] worried about Malaysia.[note 15] Indonesian President Achmed Sukarno had been pursuing an aggressive policy toward Malaysia, and Johnson had dispatched Robert Kennedy to meet with Sukarno a week earlier.

Well, I just felt badly about Laos, at that time, because that was no place to fight a war and . . . [note 16] Laos—a landlocked country bound by Thailand to the west, China and Burma to the north, Cambodia to the south, and Vietnam to the east—was given its independence at Geneva in 1954.

President Johnson

No.

Knight

This place down here is not going to . . . I just hope we don’t get involved in anything that’s full-scale. I don’t know. You see, I don’t have all the background. [Chuckles.] But I’ve worried about that thing for ten years.

President Johnson

I agree. I agree.

Knight

It’s very, very difficult.

President Johnson

I sat down with Eisenhower in ’54 when we had all the . . . problem. But we can’t abandon it to them, as I see it. And we can’t get them to agree to neutralize North Vietnam. So I think old man [Charles] de Gaulle’s puffing through his hat.

Knight

I think long range over there, the odds are certainly against us.

President Johnson

Yes, there is no question about that. Anytime you got that many people against you that far away from your home base, it’s bad.

Knight

The big question is how far can you commit—and over the globe—with the resources we have. It’s a very difficult problem, and I have every sympathy for you in it. It’s not something in which one can give an easy answer.

President Johnson

Well, let me hear from you, Jack.

Knight

Thank you very much.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and John Knight on 3 February 1964,” Tape WH6402.03, Citation #1839, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Toward the Great Society, vol. 4, ed. Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/9040021

Originally published in

Lyndon B. Johnson: Toward the Great Society, February 1, 1964–March 8, 1964, ed. Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany, vol. 4 of The Presidential Recordings (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).