Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on 14 November 1968


Transcript

Edited by Kent B. Germany, Nicole Hemmer, and Ken Hughes, with Kieran K. Matthews and Marc J. Selverstone

As shown in his conversations about the bombing halt in Vietnam, the Chennault Affair, and the recent election, President Johnson was well aware of the Nixon campaign’s meddling on foreign policy matters. Events of this day exacerbated Johnson’s concerns that President-elect Richard M. “Dick” Nixon was actively encroaching on a sitting President’s Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief. A morning call to the President-elect, transcribed below, arranged the appointment of a Nixon liaison, the career diplomat Robert D. Murphy, to smooth the transition at the State Department. Nixon then gave remarks at a press conference about Murphy that turned this almost routine appointment into a matter of controversy. “To make this a viable arrangement,” Nixon declared, “it is, of course, necessary that there be prior consultation on such policy decisions and that the President-elect not only be informed but that he be consulted and that he agree to the courses of action.”

New York Times reporter R. W. Apple stated the prevailing view among reporters that Nixon was suggesting he “had been given a veto in fact if not in name,” or, in other words, that Nixon had to approve any of Johnson’s significant foreign policy moves before the inauguration on 20 January 1969.

In response to Nixon, White House press secretary George E. Christian Jr. offered a carefully worded affirmation of Johnson’s continued control of foreign policy. “Nothing has diluted the President’s authority,” he asserted, “and I don’t think either man would want to do anything to dilute the authority of the President.”[note 1] Yet the lede of Apple’s story suggested otherwise: “President-elect Richard M. Nixon indicated yesterday that President Johnson had agreed to reach no major foreign policy decisions without the concurrence of Mr. Nixon.” R. W. Apple Jr., “Nixon Says Johnson Gives Him Key Role on Foreign Policies,” New York Times, 15 November 1968. At 4:33 p.m., Johnson followed up with a second call to Nixon, urging him to publicly affirm that the United States would not have “two presidents” operating at the same time.[note 2] See Conversation WH6811-05-13736.

Richard M. “Dick” Nixon

Mr. President?

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

I wanted to tell you that, after our conversation the other day, I—what the Secretary of State [Dean Rusk] said about the feeling, you know, he, sort of—of sort of leaving Germany vacant at this time, I—the more I thought about it, I think he’s right.[note 3] Dean Rusk was U.S. secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. Nixon is referring to the appointment of an ambassador to West Germany. And so what I would like to do, if you would have no objection, the fellow that I think would be ideal, who could come and be my observer in Washington, would be [Robert D.] Bob Murphy.[note 4] Robert D. “Bob” Murphy was U.S. ambassador to Belgium from November 1949 to March 1952; U.S. ambassador to Japan from May 1952 to April 1953; U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from July 1953 to November 1953; U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs from August 1959 to December 1959; and an adviser to the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations. How does that sound to you?

President Johnson

He’s excellent. We think very highly of him. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] He’s on my Advisory Committee [President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board], and I consider him one of the best, and [Clark M.] Clifford—[note 5] Clark M. Clifford was a Washington lawyer; an adviser to presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1961 to 1968; chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from April 1963 to February 1968; and U.S. secretary of defense from March 1968 to January 1969.

Nixon

Well, I’m going to see him today at twelve [o’clock], [President Johnson snorts] and then if it’s all right—

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

—I’ll let it out today. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] Now, what I was going to ask you is this: [Dean] Rusk is abroad. Would you have your people wire Rusk or call Rusk and tell him that [President Johnson speaks over Nixon, repeating, “Sure, sure, sure”] that’s what—that it will be Murphy? [speaking over President Johnson] Because I don’t want him to read it in the paper.

President Johnson

Well, I’ll tell you ahead of time that he—yes, we’ll tell him. [Nixon acknowledges.] But I’ll tell you ahead of time that he and Clifford both will highly approve of—Murphy has been on the Intell—President’s Intelligence Board.

Nixon

I see. Good.

President Johnson

[Nixon acknowledges throughout.] And he’s one of the real stand-up guys. At the last meeting in March when most of them thought we ought to take certain actions, Murphy just stood up like a man, and Clifford had—Clifford was chairman of the Intelligence Board, and Murphy was a member of it, and Rusk had suggested Murphy for the United Nations, and Murphy didn’t feel like he could do it. So they have absolute, complete confidence in his ability, integrity, and his judgment.

Nixon

Uh-huh. Good. Now, the other thing—

President Johnson

As do I.

Nixon

Yeah, good. I was going to say that the way I understand it, I think the—we should just indicate that he will be, in the transition period—that he will be the—my representative in—at the State Department on foreign policy generally, but particularly with regard to Vietnam. Would that make sense? That’s the way we understood it, as I understood. It’s particularly Vietnam that we want him there for, because Murphy won’t be able to—you see, he will not continue, as you know. He won’t take any permanent assignment. So that’s the way I thought I would handle it.

President Johnson

Well, I don’t think I’d emphasize particularly Vietnam too much. You do what you want to. I think I’d say, “With these negotiations going on in Vietnam, I want someone there [Nixon acknowledges throughout] that the administration wants me to have, and I want to have someone there so that we can—"

Nixon

Sure.

President Johnson

"—have a perfect liaison.”

Nixon

[speaking over President Nixon] No, I wouldn’t [unclear]

President Johnson

But now, for instance, we’ve got a real blockbuster today. The Germans say that they have a—intelligence that the Russians are going to cause some—a showdown on the 15th, [Nixon acknowledges] which is tomorrow, and they want the British and the French and the Americans to all go together and serve an ultimatum on them.

Nixon

Oh, my [unclear].

President Johnson

Now, we have asked them for the intelligence they have. We want to evaluate it. We have called in the Soviet and said to them, “Now, you want to be very careful here.” But the history of the Soviet Union is that they take advantage of you in an electoral period. They did in the [Dwight D.] Eisenhower-Nixon administration, in Laos, before [John F. “Jack”] Kennedy could get sworn in.[note 6] Dwight D. Eisenhower was a five-star general of the U.S. Army; governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany from May 1945 to November 1945; chief of staff of the U.S. Army from November 1945 to February 1948; Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from April 1951 to May 1952; president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953; and president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961. John F. “Jack” Kennedy was a U.S. representative [D–Massachusetts] from January 1947 to January 1953; a U.S. senator [D–Massachusetts] from January 1953 to December 1960; and president of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination on 22 November 1963. [Nixon acknowledges throughout.] They did in ‘62 in the Cuban Missile Crisis; October the 22nd, they moved. Now, they think we’ve got a gap. I don’t want to brag on Republicans, but [George E.] Christian [Jr.] said to me this morning that the thing—that the best statement that you had made, since you entered the campaign, was made at the White House the other day.[note 7] George E. Christian Jr. was White House press secretary from February 1967 to January 1969. It did you more good with the press and with the country, that you put your country ahead of anything else. [Nixon attempts to interject.] And I think that—

Nixon

Well, you know, I laid it on the line, which [unclear].

President Johnson

I think that’s a notice to the Soviet and everybody else that they’re not going to just split us up and, while we’re running from pillar to post, divide us. So in the Murphy announcement, I would say—

Nixon

Be very good.

President Johnson

—that “in this period, I want a man that has great experience, and there’s nobody in this country that has served more ably or more faithfully [Nixon acknowledges] or in more different positions than Bob Murphy. And after consultations with him and with the Sec—with the President and the Secretary of State—"

Nixon

It’s all right to mention that we talked on the phone about it [unclear]?

President Johnson

Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, and I would say that “he serves now on the [Nixon acknowledges] Intelligence Board,” which will show that he has intelligence on every part of the world. “He meets regularly with them, and he’s done it under several Presidents; it’s not just one. He’s not a partisan.”

Nixon

Right. He’s a career man.

President Johnson

Yes, and I’d say that “he’s very knowledgeable in all areas of the world, and he will be my liaison and will keep me completely informed of these matters as the traffic comes in and as decisions are being made. I don’t want to hear about them afterwards.” [Snorts.]

Nixon

Right. Right. You know, the . . . I had a very—just a one, one aside. I’ve called on the phone in the last couple days the major committee chairmen and vice chairmen, you know, like—and it’s been very heartening to talk to guys like [Richard B.] Dick Russell [Jr.] [D–Georgia] and, you know, others who have been most—indicated that in these [sic] national security field, we are going to work together.[note 8] Richard B. “Dick” Russell Jr. was a U.S. senator [D–Georgia] from January 1933 to January 1971; chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee from January 1951 to January 1953 and January 1955 to January 1969; and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee from January 1969 to January 1971. They’re a good bunch of boys, aren’t they?

President Johnson

Yes, and they have been rather—they get—Congress gets more of a whipping than it deserves—

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

—generally speaking, and I think that if you—

Nixon

Oh, we know. [Chuckles.]

President Johnson

—if you treat them right, they’ll try [Nixon acknowledges] to be helpful to you. I hope that you can develop a relationship somewhat like Eisenhower had with them and you had with them when you all were there. I think that there’s always going to be some folks that’ll charge [unclear] with not paying enough for milk or eggs, but by and large, they were not the personal, mean—

Nixon

No, no—

President Johnson

—vicious attacks, and I think that’s what you ought to try to avoid—

Nixon

Well, it won’t—

President Johnson

—because if you’re weak, why, we’re all weak. And you’re just the pilot of a jet ship going across the [Nixon acknowledges] ocean, and if somebody is running up and hitting you in the back of the head with a[n] ax handle, why, you’re not going to be a very good pilot.

Nixon

They’re all delighted about [Bryce N.] Harlow, incidentally.[note 9] 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 from June 1973 to August 1974. Harlow was President-elect Nixon’s first staff appointment.

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

They, well, they shared your view. They thought—

President Johnson

Well, he’s a good man. [Nixon acknowledges.] Everybody trusts him, and he’s—he’ll make you a—

Nixon

And, incidentally, I thought you should know that our people are just—said that yours were tremendously cooperative and that [W.] Marvin Watson—they’re really high on that fellow.[note 10] W. Marvin Watson was White House appointments secretary from November 1963 to April 1968, and U.S. postmaster general from April 1968 to January 1969.

President Johnson

I told [William F.] Billy Graham [Jr.], and I told George [A.] Smathers [D–Florida] back there some time before, and I carried it out, that I would try to [snorts] be as least—less partisan as I could and still be head of my party [Nixon acknowledges] and be President, and I will try to be as helpful as I could when the inevitable happened, and we’re going to do that, and you’ll see that.[note 11] Reverend William F. “Billy” Graham Jr. was a Baptist minister and evangelist, and friend of the Nixon family. George A. Smathers was a U.S. senator [D–Florida] from January 1951 to January 1969, and a member of the Finance Committee.

Nixon

Good. All right, well, I won’t hold you any longer.

President Johnson

Thank you.

Nixon

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on 14 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-04-13734-13735, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Johnson Telephone Tapes: 1968, ed. Kent B. Germany, Nicole Hemmer, and Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4005501