Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on 3 November 1968


Transcript

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

In this telephone call, Republican presidential candidate Richard M. “Dick” Nixon reached out to President Johnson to assure him that he would do all in his power before the election—as well as after, if he were elected—to encourage Saigon to attend a peace conference to settle the Vietnam War. Nixon was particularly eager to reassure Johnson after learning from Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen [R–Illinois] that the President believed the GOP was thwarting efforts to have South Vietnamese officials attend the talks, slated for 6 November in Paris.

President Johnson

Hello?

Richard M. “Dick” Nixon

Mr. President?

President Johnson

Yes.

Nixon

This is Dick Nixon.

President Johnson

Yes, Dick.

Nixon

I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett [M.] Dirksen [R–Illinois] with regard to your call.[note 1] See Conversation WH6811-01-13706. And I just went on Meet the Press. And I said that—on Meet the Press—that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election, and if elected, after the election. And that if you felt, the Secretary of State felt, that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it. That I felt Hanoi—I felt Saigon should come to the conference table, that I would—if you felt it was necessary—go there, or go to Paris, anything you wanted. I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this, and any rumblings around about [scoffing] somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude there certainly have no—absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.

President Johnson

That’s—I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because [Nixon attempts to interject] that is taking place. Now, here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you, but I wanted you—

Nixon

That China Lobby thing is something that is—[note 2] The “China Lobby” referred to Chinese Nationalists and American politicians and activists who blamed the 1949 Communist revolution on the policies of the Truman administration. Johnson, and now Nixon, used the term in this context to refer to Chinese-born Anna C. Chennault.

President Johnson

I wanted you to know what happened.

Nixon

Sure.

President Johnson

The UPI [United Press International] ran a story [Nixon acknowledges], quoting I guess it was Fink [Robert H. Finch].[note 3] Robert H. Finch was the Republican lieutenant governor of California from January 1967 to January 1969; U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare from January 1969 to June 1970, and counselor to the president from June 1970 to December 1972. Here, President Johnson mispronounced the name of Nixon’s political ally as “Fink.” Said, “A highly placed aide to Nixon said today the South Vietnamese decision to boycott the Paris talks did not jibe with the assurances given to the major presidential candidates by Johnson.” Then it says, “Nixon said the adviser felt that Saigon’s refusal to attend the expanded negotiations could jeopardize the military and diplomatic situation in Vietnam and domestically reflect [on] the credibility of the administration’s action to halt the bombing in North Vietnam.”[note 4] The White House received United Press International and Associated Press dispatches when they “moved across the wire” to news organizations around the world, so the President had access to multiple versions of the same story. The final version published in the Washington Post read: “A highly placed adviser to the GOP presidential nominee said Mr. Johnson had privately assured Nixon and the other two major presidential candidates Thursday that the Saigon government would go along with the bombing cessation and would not object to sitting across the conference table from the Vietcong.” The source, later identified as Lt. Gov. Finch, memorably added, “We had the impression that all the diplomatic ducks were in a row.” United Press International, “Halt Seen by Nixon as Hastily Contrived,” Washington Post, 3 November 1968.

Now, I went back. I want to give you the dates of these things. This has been going on, as I told you before, since June on this three-point basis.[note 5] Johnson had briefed Nixon on his three demands at the White House in July and at the LBJ Ranch in August. In return for a bombing halt, Johnson insisted that the North Vietnamese (1) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, (2) accept South Vietnamese participation in the Paris Peace Talks, and (3) stop shelling civilian populations in South Vietnamese cities. Number one, [Nixon acknowledges throughout] that they take the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] into the conference, and two and three, that they not shell the cities and that they not abuse the DMZ. We knew we could never get them to agree to it. You asked me one time, “Do they have to agree to all three?” And I said, “I don’t want to put it that way, but they have to know that if they do it, we’ll resume the bombing.”

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, I don’t know what led them to this, but in the early part of October, they came in and said, “Now, if we would let the GVN come in, would you need anything else? What else would you need?" Well, of course, we came back with these other points.

Nixon

Sure.

President Johnson

They ran off then to Hanoi. I thought it was because they had heard some speeches made in this country that indicated that that was to their interest and that they just wouldn’t take it up.

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

I told y’all that, in effect, in the October the 15th talk.[note 6] The earlier conversation actually took place on 16 October 1968, contrary to the President’s recollection. See Johnson to Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, 16 October 1968, Conversation WH6810-04-13547-13548. These three points.

Nixon

That’s right.

President Johnson

Now, the other day, we had talked to [Nguyễn Văn] Thiệu on October the 13th, and stressed that we had to have these points, and he agreed.[note 7] Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was president of South Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1975. On October the 15th, we reviewed it with him again, and he bought a 36-hour period between stopping the bombing and the [snorts] conference. On October the 23rd, he agreed a three-day delay.

Nixon

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

On October the 28th, we agreed to the communiqué, that we would both make a joint announcement—

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

—when and if we could clear it with them, get them signed on.

Nixon

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you.[note 8] The National Security Agency intercepted messages from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., to Saigon. Now, that goes to Thiệu. I don’t—I didn’t say, as I said to you the other day, I didn’t say that it was with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.

Nixon

[laughing] Ah, no.

President Johnson

But—

Nixon

Well, as a matter of fact, I’m not privy to the—what you were doing, of course, but—

President Johnson

Well—

Nixon

—the whole point is this: I think one thing we have to understand here is that you know and I know that within the—there’s a hawk-dove complex out there as there is here, and that everybody’s been saying, “Well, now, after the election, what will happen?" And, of course, there is some thought that Hanoi would rather deal now than deal later.

President Johnson

Oh, yes.

Nixon

They think Nixon will be tougher, and I understand that. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] And I think that’s one of the reasons you felt you had to go forward with the pause. But my point that I’m making is this: that, my God, I would never do anything to encourage Hanoi—I mean, Saigon not to come to the table, because, basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause, that, good God, we want them over in Paris. We’ve got to get them to Paris, or you can’t have a peace.

President Johnson

Well, I think if you take that position, you’re on very, very sound ground, and—

Nixon

That’s what I said on—

President Johnson

I think it’s very much in the interest of your—

Nixon

I said that “the major thing that the President insisted upon and got was the right of”— [stumbles over a word] excuse me—“Saigon to be at that conference table. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] And they must be at the conference table, and I believe they should be.” And then that’s why I said that—I just felt that I ought to emphasize it—I said that “I know that nobody knows who’s going to win this, but if I do,” I said, “if I’m President-elect, I personally pledge to President Johnson I would do anything. [President Johnson attempts to interject again.] And I want to amplify that by—emphasize it by saying that I will do—if he and Secretary [Dean] Rusk indicate that my presence in Paris or Saigon”—and, incidentally, I want you to know I’ll do that.[note 9] Dean Rusk was U.S. secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. I’d go out there and talk to Thiệu if it’s necessary.

President Johnson

Fine. Well, I think that—I—

Nixon

[Unclear] or whatever you want. [Unclear]

President Johnson

My judgment is now that from what I see and hear, I want—let me read you what I said to you the other day, though, because apparently—I don’t know whether you remember it or not: “While this was going on,” talking of these moves on these three points, “we had gone out and talked to all of our allied countries.”

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

“And they tentatively agreed. Now, since that time, with our campaign going on here, [Nixon acknowledges] we have had some minor problems develop. First, there have been some speeches that we ought to withdraw troops, or that we should stop the bombing without obtaining anything in return.”

Nixon

I remember that.

President Johnson

“Or, some of our folks, even including some of the old China Lobby, [Nixon attempts to interject] are going around and implying to some of the folks that they might get a better deal out of somebody that was not involved in this. Now, that’s made it difficult on me, and it’s slowed things down some. I know that none of you candidates are responsible for it, because I’m looking at what you said to me when we talked last October 15th.”[note 10] See Johnson to Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, 31 October 1968, Conversation WH6810-11-13618-13619. There is no tape for this conversation, only a transcript.

Now, that’s what I said. And I thought the Finch remark was very much out of place, saying that I had left a wrong impression, because I thought, and I think now, that Thiệu will come to the conference. But I had a firm agreement with him two or three times on the joint communiqué and everything else [Nixon acknowledges] until he got this word.

Nixon

Well, I asked him [unclear]

President Johnson

And when I talked to you, I still thought that we could get him, and I think we can yet. But I did tell you we had problems.

Nixon

Yeah, that was the impression I had when the three of us talked. The impression I had when you talked to the three of us that you were confident he was going to come, you know, that Thiệu was going to come. And, of course, that was what the backgrounder in Washington that they reported indicated, too. And I just assumed he would come. But—

President Johnson

Well, we knew we had problems, Dick.

Nixon

You still think he’s going to come?

President Johnson

Well, we don’t see what else he can do. If we stay together, [Nixon acknowledges] we just think that no people are going to support an effort where a man will not talk to anybody.

Nixon

Yeah. Well, one thing I said—and I thought you’d be interested in this—I made this point, which I feel very strongly about, that let’s suppose that I should win. Now, all right. Then you’ve got—if Johnson and Nixon, and I pointed out that I have stood fairly close to you on this, as I said in answer to [Lawrence E.] Larry Spivak.[note 11] Lawrence E. “Larry” Spivak was an American broadcaster and host of Meet the Press. I said, “I’ve disagreed with the conduct of the war, but I agree that”—and then I used this term—“that I think President Johnson’s gotten a bad rap on terms of the commitment.” I said, “We’re there to try to stop aggression and start—and avoid another war.” And I said, “Now”—then I went on to say—I said, “the critical period could be the 60 days before the inauguration, and at that point, if we can present a united front, it seems to me that we might make the breakthrough that couldn’t be made later.” And I honestly believe that.

President Johnson

Yes, I—

Nixon

You see what I’m getting at? These people, I think you will agree—well, I think you’ve told me earlier, that these people over in Hanoi, to a certain extent, hold on because they think we’re divided in this country. Now, once we’ve had an election, and you have a Republican, if it’s Nixon, and you have a Republican and Johnson, a Democrat, it seems to me that’s a[n] awful strong, strong case.

President Johnson

Yes. Dick—

Nixon

I just want you to know, I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I mean, I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do, [President Johnson acknowledges] but I’ll do anything, because anything—

President Johnson

Well, that’s good, Dick. I—

Nixon

We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate, and I also want you to know this—I’ve said this to our mutual friend George [A. Smathers] [D–Florida] today.[note 12] George A. Smathers was a U.S. senator [D–Florida] from January 1951 to January 1969, and a member of the Senate Finance Committee. I was talking to him. You know, I’m going down to Florida after the thing. And I really feel this, that—and I feel this very deeply—that I think you’ve gotten a bad rap on this thing. I don’t think—I think the war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end, and if we can get it done now, fine, that’s what it ought to do. Just the quicker the better, and the hell with the political credit. Believe me, that’s the way I feel about it.

President Johnson

Well, that’s fine, Dick, and we’ll talk about it right after. I don’t think they’re going to do anything now. The important thing is for your people [Nixon attempts to interject] not to tell the South Vietnamese—if they’ll tell them just what you tell me, why, it’ll be the best for all concerned.

Nixon

Now, I said publicly on Meet the Press today, I said, “Look,” and that’s the only thing; I don’t talk to [chuckles] anybody else. I said publicly, I said that “South Vietnam ought to come to the conference table and that if the President feels that I could be helpful in getting them to come, I’ll go there.”

President Johnson

Yes, well, that’s fine.

Nixon

I mean that.

President Johnson

Now, you tell brother Fink [sic, Finch] that I told all of you the other day that we did have problems with these folks.

Nixon

Yeah.

President Johnson

And just what I said, because I didn’t mislead y’all. I told you that we had—

Nixon

You didn’t mislead me. I told the press today—I said that I felt that I got the impression that they were coming [unclear].

President Johnson

We all want them to come and hope they’ll come and really believe they’ll come.

Nixon

I rather thought that way.

President Johnson

I just don’t think they can, but I—

Nixon

It’s really a question of when they’ll come.

President Johnson

That’s right. I said, “Now, this has made it difficult, and it’s slowed things down a bit. [Nixon acknowledges.] I don’t—I know that none of you candidates are responsible for it, because I’m looking at the transcript.” And then I said, “The Vice President said, when I asked for comments, ‘Thanks much.’ Mr. Nixon said, ‘Well, as you know, this is consistent [with] my position. I made very clear I’ll make no statements [to] undercut the negotiation. So we’ll stay right on that and hope that this thing works out.’ Then Mr. [George C.] Wallace [Jr.] said, quote, “Mr. President, that’s my position all along. You’ve stated it, and I agree with you that we shouldn’t play politics so it might foul up the negotiations,” unquote.[note 13] George C. Wallace Jr. was governor of Alabama from January 1963 to January 1967, January 1971 to January 1979, and January 1983 to January 1987; and a third-party candidate in the 1968 U.S. presidential election. Wallace ran as a third-party candidate in the 1968 presidential election. And—

Nixon

And, incidentally, Wallace has been very good on this.

President Johnson

Yes, he has. Both of you. I gave you the three quotes—

Nixon

[Curtis E.] LeMay has popped off, but Wallace has been good.[note 14] Curtis E. LeMay was a general in the U.S. Air Force; Air Force chief of staff from June 1961 to January 1965; and a candidate for vice president as the running mate of independent candidate George C. Wallace Jr. in 1968.

President Johnson

Well, I didn’t want—when they said, “‘Nixon,’ said the adviser, ‘felt that Saigon’s refusal to attend would jeopardize the diplomatic situation and reflect [on] the credibility on the administration’s action—'”

Nixon

That’s [unclear]

President Johnson

“That his highly placed aide said the South Vietnamese [Nixon attempts to interject] decision to boycott did not jibe with the President’s assurances.”

Nixon

I hit that right on the nose today. [Herbert E.] Herb Kaplow of NBC asked me the question.[note 15] Herbert E. “Herb” Kaplow was a White House correspondent for NBC News from 1968 to 1972 and for ABC News from 1972 to 1994. I wish you could have seen the program [President Johnson acknowledges], ‘cause most of them thought it was pretty good.

President Johnson

Good, good, Dick. Well, you just—

Nixon

You know how it is. Good God, you’ve got people on your own staff over there [chuckles] that don’t—you know, George [W.] Ball, some of those guys are saying some god-awful things.[note 16] George W. Ball was a Washington lawyer with an international practice; an adviser to Adlai E. Stevenson II in 1952, 1956, and 1960; U.S. under secretary of state for economic affairs in 1961; U.S. under secretary of state from 1961 to 1966; and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1968.

President Johnson

Well, George Ball’s [laughing] not on my staff.

Nixon

Now, you know what I mean.

President Johnson

[laughing] Yeah, but what I’ve got, I’ve got both sides. Hanoi will look at one statement [Nixon acknowledges throughout] and the South Vietnamese look at the other. You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get any better deal out of the United States government than a conference.

Nixon

Yeah, and also, we’ve got to make sure that Hanoi knows they’re not going to get a [unclear]

President Johnson

Yeah, that’s exactly right, and I’m doing that.

Nixon

[unclear]. And the main thing that we want to have is a good, strong, personal understanding. I mean, after all, I trust you on this, and I’ve told everybody that, and that when we—and that once this thing is over, there’s nothing I would rather do, if I win the election, than . . . to do anything that you think we have to do [unclear].

President Johnson

Well, Dick, you noticed—you must—you must have noticed that when we proposed the date, the date was not November the 2nd, as suggested, but November the 6th—

Nixon

Yeah. Yeah, I know.

President Johnson

—before any meeting occurs.

Nixon

Yeah. Incidentally, we—I—

President Johnson

Smathers understands that.

Nixon

I visited Austin for the first time.

President Johnson

Well, yes, you—

Nixon

—and it’s a beautiful city, [President Johnson attempts to interject] I must say. We spoke in that new auditorium there, the circular thing. And I didn’t get over to your library, though, and—[note 17] Nixon held a midday rally at the Austin Civic Auditorium. Don Irwin, “Nixon Returns to Southland, Predicts He Will Carry State,” Los Angeles Times, 3 November 1968.

President Johnson

Well, we haven’t got—

Nixon

That’s where your library is, isn’t it?

President Johnson

We haven’t got it built yet, but you have to—

Nixon

Oh?

President Johnson

We’re just starting on it.

Nixon

That’s what you talked about, about the [unclear]—I thought the—oh, you’re building it later?

President Johnson

We’re building it now.

Nixon

I get it. I get it. But it is in Austin?

President Johnson

Yeah. Yeah.

Nixon

I see. I see.

President Johnson

Well, I’ll be in touch with you after Tuesday [Nixon acknowledges], and you just see that your people that are talking [Nixon attempts to interject] to these folks make clear your position.

Nixon

You understand, of course, [unclear] will be—there’s this business, you know, some of [Hubert H.] Humphrey [Jr.]‘s people have been gleeful, and they said the bombing pause is going to help them, and so forth.[note 18] Hubert H. Humphrey Jr. was the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota, from July 1945 to November 1948; a U.S. senator [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1949 to December 1964 and January 1971 to January 1978; Senate Majority Whip from January 1961 to December 1964; vice president of the United States from January 1965 to January 1969; and the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1968. And our people say it hurts, and—

President Johnson

Well, I’ll tell you what I say. I say it doesn’t help—doesn’t affect the election one way or the other—

Nixon

[Unclear] don’t think it does.

President Johnson

—because I’ve asked all the candidates to please support me, and the other day all three of them said—you led it off—but all three of them said, “We’ll back you, Mr. President.”

Nixon

Right.

President Johnson

So I say, “It oughtn’t affect the election one way, and I don’t think it’ll change one vote.”

Nixon

Well, anyway, we’ll have fun. [Laughs.]

President Johnson

Thank you, Dick.

Nixon

Bye.

President Johnson

Thank—

Cite as

“Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on 3 November 1968,” Conversation WH6811-02-13710, 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/4006126