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Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968
Volume VII, Vietnam, September 1968–January 1969, Document 207


207. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and President-elect Nixon11. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Nixon, November 8, 1968, 9:23 p.m., Tape F6811.02, PNO 12-13. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. Nixon called the President at Washington from Key Biscayne, Florida. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)

President: Hello?

Nixon: Mr. President?

President: Yes, Dick?

Nixon: How are you? Did I interrupt your dinner?

President: That's all right. I was eating with some folks, but I came in another room.22. The President had been at dinner with Lady Bird Johnson and guests. (Ibid.) That's why I didn't want to talk.

Nixon: That's too bad. I am just sitting here with your old friend [Bebe] Rebozo.

President: Oh, give him my love. I think he is one of the finest persons I ever knew.

Nixon: I want you to say hello to him.

President: I would love to.

Nixon: He is a great admirer of yours.

President: He has been awfully sweet to me.

Nixon: Let me say this that—

President: I am glad that you have got Rebozo because he gave me a lot of comfort when I needed it lots.

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

President: Good.

Nixon: And, uh, and 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's call to Pat [Nixon]. It was awful nice.

President: Good.

Nixon: And then, as I understand it, we worked it out so that it won't inconvenience you. We'll see you Monday at 1:30 at the White House.33. See Document 211.

President: That's good. That's right.

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

President: Dick, I told Dirksen last night I thought it would be better to do it that way than to be calling on the trips.44. See footnote 6, Document 202. I think this: These people are proceeding on the assumption that folks close to you tell them to do nothing until January 20th. Now, we think—

Nixon: I know who they are talking about too. Is it John Tower?

President: Well, he is one of several. Mrs. Chennault is very much in there.

Nixon: Well, she is very close to John.

President: And the Embassy is telling the President [Thieu] and the President is acting on this advice. He started doing it back about the 18th following our talk on the conversation on the 16th.55. See Document 80. I had two 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—that to withdraw troops, and what Humphrey had said that he wouldn't—66. See Documents 63 and 40.

Nixon: They can wait.

President: Well, he just said, “I will stop the bombing, period, I don't mean comma or semi-colon.” So, Hanoi picked up the next day and went home for 2 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. I think they've been talking to Agnew—I think they think they've been quoting you indirectly—that the thing they ought to do is just not show up at any conference and wait until you come into office.

Nixon: Right.

President: Now, they started that, and that's bad. They're killing Americans everyday. 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. I said—you know when I talked to all three of you 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. I want to help you. I want to help you. I don't want to trick or deceive you.

Nixon: I do. Oh, I know that.

President: 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 can do right now?

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

Nixon: Go to the Ambassador [Bui Diem]?

President: Yes, sir. Go to the Ambassador and say to him, “I told the President when he proposed these three points: number one, he assured me that he would not be for a coalition government. The President assured me that.”

Nixon: That's right.

President: “The President assured me he would never recognize the NLF. So I have those assurances from him.”

Nixon: Right, right.

President: “The President is going to be as strong on this as I am, but the President thinks that if we are to support South Vietnam on through the years ahead that we must be willing to meet at a conference table. Now, that's all we are asking. Now, you cleared that on the 7th and on the 16th and on the 28th.” At least that's what the South Vietnamese did—they all cleared it.

Nixon: Right.

President: “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 Fulbrights and the Mansfields and even the Dirksens will not go along with anybody that won't go to a conference table.” Now, that is where they are tonight.

Nixon: Let me ask you this—about the Ambassador, is—I met him about 5 or 6 months ago—does he have any influence with that government?

President: Yes. He is giving them these signals and 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 are going to win—we'll do better by you.” Now, that is the story, Dick. And it is a sordid story. I told you that Sunday when I talked to you.77. For this November 3 conversation, see Document 187. You remember when I talked to Smathers and Dirksen? 88. See Documents 186 and 181.

Nixon: Right.

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

Nixon: Right.

President: But they are 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 and you protect your country, and I'm going to support our President as long as he doesn't recognize the NLF, as long as 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—who do you think the Ambassador—who should I have talk to him? Have you got anybody in mind?

President: No, I don't.

Nixon: Could Dirksen do it?

President: Yeah. I don't know whether Dirksen has any contacts or not. I-I-I trust Dirksen. I think Dirksen—he is not for any Communist take-over, and at the same time he is intelligent.

Nixon: Well, also, he is 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 him?

President: That is what I would—

Nixon: And say that this is—say that he speaks for Nixon and Johnson. So let me do this, Mr. President. There's nothing I want more than to get these people to that table. As a matter of fact, as I told you on the phone tonight, I will even go out there if it's necessary to get them there. I think that would be a grandstand stunt. It would not be the best way. However, if you think the Ambassador has influence, I will have Dirksen talk to the Ambassador, or I could do it myself, if you think that will help.

President: I think it would help. I would 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: “And the President has assured me that he is not going to do anything that we don't understand.”

Nixon: Oh, I know that.

President: “And you tell your President that he better get his people to that conference and get them 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: Okay, we'll work on it.

President: Okay, Dick.

Nixon: Now, let me ask you this. One other thing. Tell me about Helms. What do you think about Helms?

President: I think he is a career, former UPI, man I never heard of. I appointed an Admiral [Raborn] when John McCone left 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. The Admiral took it over and this Helms was the Deputy. I consider him—

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

President: 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. He's a reporter. He was an old UPI man. He's fair. He's not an advocate. He's anti-Communist.

Nixon: Oh, I know. When I met him out at the Ranch,99. Nixon met Helms during a visit to the LBJ Ranch on July 26. I was very impressed by him, and I remember—you feel that way, do you?

President: Yes. I never heard of him until I appointed him. He was a deputy to this Admiral that I had and he's extremely competent. He's succinct. He tells you as it is, and he's loyal.

Nixon: Let me ask you to do this as a personal favor. Would you mind—I think it would be a nice way to work out our positions—could you tell him sometime before we meet Monday that we have talked. Well, I don't want to say now that we plan to continue him. Will you do that?

President: Yes, yes. I will be glad to.

Nixon: Because I think it is good that we have a, you know, a good transition. Now, on this fellow, the Ambassador, he speaks English pretty well?

President: Yes, yes.

Nixon: Yeah. Well, we could talk to him. I don't think we ought to on the phone. Maybe I—and I don't want him to come down—maybe I can see him when I come up to Washington. That might be a better thing. No, I might get to him before that, though. Maybe Dirksen is the best one.

President: I would write out whatever I said, and what I would say is what Rusk said yesterday, and Rusk is the best adviser you can have until you get a man you have that much confidence in. He will play fair with you—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 would say: “I support the President of the United States in going to the conference as soon as you can, and thereby there discussing the problems at issue, and we are united on that. Now, the President has given me assurances that he's not for recognizing the NLF as an independent entity and he's not for a coalition government, and that's what you said 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, that'll be much better.

President: It certainly will, because you want—

Nixon: This 60 days is the best time to get the damn thing going.

President: It certainly will, because you won't have 10 men in the Senate supporting South Vietnam 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, uh, 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, uh, 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.

President: I would do it, and I would say we will be in touch each day, and—

Nixon: Yeah.

President: And that he can be sure—he can tell his President that this government is going to operate as one before and after.

Nixon: Right.

President: And I am 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.

President: I haven't stayed in this thing 5 years to throw it away the last 5 weeks.

Nixon: The point is, too, that your position has always been, basically, as I told you, uh, you have taken the position which was extremely unpopular and which was right, and therefore I want to support you on it, and I am going to do it. No question about that. I want you to know that.

President: Thank you, Dick. Thank you.

Nixon: Great. Now, the only difficulty is, there is Rusk. Does Rusk think this fellow, the Ambassador—I don't know the fellow, I met him in New York about, oh, in April or May,1010. Bui Diem dated his meeting with Nixon as July 12. (Bui Diem with David Chanoff, In the Jaws of History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 236-237) and he is—

President: Rusk told me last night that Nixon ought to do one or two things, that “I'll go see Nixon if you want me to.” I said, “I think that will highlight a problem and there will be a lot of press around and it will embarrass Nixon and embarrass you.” And he said that you ought to do one or two things. You ought to pick out whoever you are going to have for Secretary of State, or whoever your closest friend is, 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. 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. I can give you that assurance.” And you ought to tell them that they are going to hurt themselves if Fulbright and Mansfield—

Nixon: Yes. The country will not support—

President: Mansfield's coming in to me tomorrow to say to them to go straight to hell and go on and negotiate—or get out—with Hanoi. That's why he is coming. He's the Leader of the Senate.

Nixon: You can't do that because we—because that way you would leave all those boys out there alone.

President: No, sure can't. Or pull them out and leave them there all alone.

Nixon: That is what I mean. Yes.

President: But if this damn fool just sits back and says—today he says 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: So, 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: Oh, of course. [Break in the recording] That Abrams—they trigger Abrams' reaction, so it is just on again, off again, just a matter of hours the bombing will be resumed. So then we went back to the Soviets and said we don't want to deceive anybody. This is close to the election. It is a very delicate period. I have told Nixon and Wallace and Humphrey all the same thing that I'm telling you now. Nixon said, “Do you have to have all three of them?” and I said, “No, I really don't have to have any if I thought that—I have said—if they do nearly any little thing, I would stop the bombing. But I would like to have all three, and I'm going to try to get all three.” Well, in effect, that is what we are likely to get. So I went back to the Russians and said, “Now, we don't want to be deceitful, and if we should stop the bombing—” [Break in the recording]

Nixon: Because otherwise they would be deserted. Okay, I'll get on it.

President: Okay. You let me know what you do and what you do so I will know.

Nixon: What time is it now?

President: If I were you, I would call him right now and I would 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 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 the NLF are having a propaganda field day.” Rusk told me that the great social charm in Paris is the NLF woman [Nguyen Thi Binh].

Nixon: Oh, God, yes. She's horrible.

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

Nixon: Right. Okay.

President: What I would say, there is nothing dangerous about it—you have said it publicly—that you support the President. “I support the government"—and I would just say—"Mr. Ambassador, some people have 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—just two partners.”

Nixon: Right. Will do it.1111. See Document 209.

President: Okay.

Nixon: Goodbye.

1 Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Nixon, November 8, 1968, 9:23 p.m., Tape F6811.02, PNO 12-13. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. Nixon called the President at Washington from Key Biscayne, Florida. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)

2 The President had been at dinner with Lady Bird Johnson and guests. (Ibid.)

3 See Document 211.

4 See footnote 6, Document 202.

5 See Document 80.

6 See Documents 63 and 40.

7 For this November 3 conversation, see Document 187.

8 See Documents 186 and 181.

9 Nixon met Helms during a visit to the LBJ Ranch on July 26.

10 Bui Diem dated his meeting with Nixon as July 12. (Bui Diem with David Chanoff, In the Jaws of History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 236-237)

11 See Document 209.