111. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk1

Rusk: We have a telegram in from Saigon.2 The South Vietnamese would like to put in their reply to U Thant before Guam so it would not look as though it was sort of dictated to them at Guam. Their reply accepts U Thant’s proposal in principle, but then it makes two suggestions. One, that a military truce ought to be worked out by the military commanders, perhaps meeting in the demilitarized zone between North and South, and secondly, that they suggest that we just go on to an international conference among the interested governments. They don’t reject the idea of preliminary talks, but they say, “Why don’t we just have a conference?” Now this is consistent with the various things that we have said but there is some point in their going ahead and putting in their reply before Guam. On our own reply, there’s nothing in it that we have not said many times before, and if Arthur Goldberg were to make clear to the Secretary-General that we’ve made many diplomatic approaches to Hanoi without success and they fail to agree to discussions, and we should not suppose that we’re going to take further pre-conditions which Hanoi might seek here, and that we are not prepared to accept the Secretary-General’s proposal and then negotiate down from them, I think there is some advantage in getting these things off. There is nothing in our reply that we haven’t said publicly on a number of occasions. So I would think we ought to go ahead and make it quite clear to the Secretary-General that he mustn’t try to negotiate us down without anything from Hanoi in his hands.

President: Well, I just have this thought. I proceed from one negotiation to the other constantly waiting for something that never comes and usually find myself in worse shape at the end of the proposal than I do at the beginning. I think that the time, after all these attempts, fifteen or twenty that we have agreed to, time ought to come sometime when one of these proposers, these guys that like to get into these acts all the time, would at least be told that “you bring us something and you’ll find a pleasant and favorable response, but you don’t take anything from us until you get something from them.” I just think we ought to, because if we don’t I’m very fearful that you’ll be in here [Page 257]next week and say, “Now Mr. President, I just don’t think we ought to be doing this this week on account of so and so.” Now, we constantly do that, three years of it, and we’re on borrowed time now and just a few months before the judgment day, and I don’t think that U Thant is our friend. I don’t think he’ll do much for us except embarrass us. I think the whole outfit up there is potentially a very embarrassing thing. So I just want to meet them as frankly as I can to begin with and say, “Now, you go and show us what you can deliver, and your problem will not be with us. We’ll be reasonable.” But I do not want to be saying that we are willing to do so and so and so and so until we know what they’re willing to do. Now, heretofore we’ve been doing this. But that hasn’t produced anything, and I wish we could just one time say to them, “Tell us what you’ll do.” That’s my feeling.

I’m afraid that you and Bob will be in next week saying, “Well, now, we agreed to do this; we told him to go ahead and we would do so and so,” and I’m terribly afraid of these negotiations at this stage because I don’t think they want them and I don’t think they’re ready for them and I don’t think they’re prepared to give a damned thing. And if they were prepared, I’d be more frightened than I am because I don’t think they’re prepared to give what we must have. And I think the time, we have a limited time to go ahead and get ourselves in condition and I don’t want anybody interfering with it—with the Ronnings, or with the British Prime Minister, or with Kosygin or any of these folks—if we can. I’m prepared to pay the price with public sentiment going against me if U Thant does this. But I know this: that when U Thant makes a proposal or Bobby Kennedy makes one or somebody else one, although we are ready to do our part, it just costs us five or ten points [in the public opinion polls] next week. We get their hopes up, and then the people say, “Oh, good God, here it is,” and then they’re nailed again each time we strike out. It’s just like Mickey Mantle coming to bat and we strike out, and I don’t want to give them enough hope I think if it’s going to be a strike out and I think it’s going to cost me another five or ten points and a lot of criticism.

And so, I’d like to put him off until the atmosphere is a little better; until there’s some chance. I think that with this Constitution, if it comes through out there and if we can get an election in 90 days and have that work out well, I think that we’re going to be in a lot better condition than we are now. And I don’t want to just say, “No, we will not,” but I think we could say, “We are ready and willing if you can show us anything from them” period. Now what we’ll do depends on what they ask, but if they bring us another Pope’s letter,3 why, you [Page 258]know what the answer’s going to be. Now, is he in a position to get a much better thing than the Pope? If he did, I’d be frightened because I might have to say no.

Rusk: No, I think our problem here is, or stems from, the fact that U Thant is not helpful to us and that he would parley this thing into an appeal over our heads to public opinion here and abroad unless we put something in that would just cut across that. Now, the substance of what is in our proposed reply is simply something that we’ve said many times before.

President: We had different conditions before, though, Dean. We had 80 percent before and we’re down to under 40 percent [in the public opinion polls] now, and we’re getting weaker all the time, and we’ve said before we’d have pauses and we’ve had three of them. But the situation is a lot different now and we just finished the last big negotiation with Wilson and Kosygin, and I think we came out of it worse than we went into it. And we just played with the mothers of this country indicating there’s some chance and this then there’s just one little eyelash and it would have been “a peace in the world” according to Wilson, and I think that’s gullible.

Rusk: Well, I think that with the press yesterday, when they asked me about all this business, all the rumors all point to one question: “Where is Hanoi and what are they doing?” Unless you got an answer to that question, you haven’t got any peace yet.

President: That’s right, that’s right. That’s what I want to tell U Thant and Goldberg because they’re not up to any good purpose. They just think it’s a problem with the hawks of Johnson and Rusk and the Generals and so on and so forth.

Rusk: You would have no problem about South Vietnam going into the conference?

President: Well, I want to give them any leadership that you think you can consistent with my feeling. I just don’t want you to get grabbed by the nape of the neck and hauled in to some kind of a meeting and go repeat Korea all over. And I think that you’re playing in an explosive mine field and I don’t trust these people that are leading us into it. I don’t think their motives are pro-Johnson.

Rusk: Is there any special point you want to emphasize with the governors this afternoon?4

Johnson: Yes, I want that chart. I want to take that, and I want to—take the attitude I’m taking now—I want you to take the position—and [Page 259]I got it from you; usually I just repeat what you said a week before, but I want you to point out that they don’t hang up, they’ll answer you on the phone, and you’ve said it and you’ve said it and you’ve said it, and time comes if when you get out and you make your public pleas and you get on your knees and you walk, there comes a time when a proud country just thinks that they think they ought to keep their man standing and waving against those things, and until they show some seriousness, you see no reason why we ought to jump in and say “peace, peace, peace.” Now, we want peace more than anybody, but the best way to get peace is to be just be a little bit firm and have a little dignity and support those men out there. You do that very well, but I would really go awfully strong on it and I would show your charts, go over them and say, “Now, here’s seventeen nations and we did it in one day; we met our Security Council and our President; we said ‘yes, sir’ and they said ‘no, no, no.’ Now, they’ve said ‘no’ to seventeen of them, and here’s the last thing they’ve said, this is the Pope, now I want you to read these and I want all of you to remember, governors, its four things they told us: we had to get the hell out of there; we had to stop our bombing; we had to turn it over to the Viet Cong Communists. Now, we just can’t do those things, and that’s the last thing they said.” Now all this private stuff, we don’t have to depend on Weinstein5 or Bill Baggs or any traveling people. We can talk directly to this man. This is his attitude, and he confirmed it to us and he confirmed it to the Pope. Now, on the Goldberg thing, it’s your judgment that I want to follow, but I sure want you to know in making your decision I want you to know my instincts.

Rusk: All right. Fine. Thank you, sir.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, March 18, 1967, 5:30 p.m., Tape F67.09, Side A, PNO 2. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume. The President left that evening for the meeting in Guam.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. See Document 42.
  4. Reference is to the meeting of the White House Conference of Governors on Federal-State Relations held on March 18 from 9 a.m. through 4 p.m., followed by an evening dinner. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Dairy)
  5. Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis.