19. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

About 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, January 17, 1967, the President called into his bedroom Senators Mansfield and Dirksen. They were in the living room of the Mansion at the President’s invitation before the dinner given in honor of the Vice President, Speaker McCormack, and Chief Justice Warren. Others present were Mr. Marvin Watson and Mr. Walt Rostow.

Senator Mansfield sat on a chair in the far corner of the room; Senator Dirksen sat on the President’s bed. The President was standing, in stocking feet, as he completed dressing for dinner.

The President said that he had asked them to join him so that they might share perhaps the most important communication he had received since becoming President. He needed their understanding and commitment. He asked whether they were willing to receive this communication on the understanding that not another soul would hear from them what he was about to say. The President then listed those who were at the lunch earlier in the day, who knew of the matter.2

The two Senators agreed to receive the communication on these terms.

The President then explained that we had been receiving a large number of hints and suggestions about negotiating an end to the war in Viet Nam. These came from many directions: Poles, Italians, Russians, Indians, etc. These had come to nothing.

We concluded that perhaps the best way of moving forward was direct communication with Hanoi. The President had considered addressing a direct letter to Ho Chi Minh. It had been decided, however, first to go directly to a representative of Hanoi in a certain capital. We had initiated this approach. We now had a reply which might be important.3 There was a certain hope.

This fragile hope could be destroyed by two things: first, by a loss of secrecy; second, by public statements or actions which were too soft or too hard. If Hanoi believed that, in fact, we would stop bombing without any compensating move on their side, they might persist with [Page 42] the war. They listen carefully to what is said by Senators and Congressmen. They read the newspapers and see the advertisements against our policy. Equally the chance could be destroyed if we acted too toughly, as if to put special pressure on them during a negotiation. The President cited the alleged effect of a statement by an unknown Admiral at a critical moment in a certain probe that aborted.

Therefore, the President was resisting the addition of major targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area at this time. He had today turned recommendations that steel and cement plants be attacked.

The President then read a modified version of a memorandum sent to him earlier in the day by his National Security Staff. (WWR memorandum of January 17, 1967, 11:00 a.m.)4

After reading the memorandum, the President said: “I want nothing to happen to disturb this possibility between now and, say, mid-February. I would hope the public hearings on foreign policy and Viet Nam could be held in abeyance until we see what we can do. Give me two or three weeks to run this out.”

The President then asked: Will Fulbright and Hickenlooper give us this little chance? Public hearings can do us no good at all at this moment, only harm. Can the Senate hold off? The President indicated he had no problem with continuing hearings in secret.

Senator Dirksen then said: “You must call them down. They have big egos. It is not good enough if we ask them to stand down. They must hear from the President and directly know the reason.”

Senator Mansfield strongly asserted the same position.

The President probed further as to whether there was any possibility of “gaining a little running room” without having fully to take anyone beyond the Majority and Minority Leaders into his confidence in this matter.

Senators Dirksen and Mansfield stated again strongly that there was no other way than to bring them in.

It was then decided that the President would invite for a meeting in the Cabinet room at 9:30 a.m., January 18, Senators Dirksen, Mansfield, Fulbright, Hickenlooper, Russell, Smith, and Aiken.5

The President then read to Senators Mansfield and Dirksen a draft [Page 43] resolution on Viet Nam. He said that he could not carry the burden of this war alone. He needed reaffirmation by the Congress.

Senator Mansfield immediately said: “This is the worst thing you could do. It is exactly what you don’t want to happen—a public debate questioning the foundations of our Viet Nam policy. Your opponents would have a field day.”

Senator Dirksen agreed. He said these are only words on paper. “You just pursue your course.”

Senator Mansfield said any talk of a resolution reminds them of the Tonkin Gulf resolution and “rubs the wrong way on both sides.”

The President then said that Secretary Rusk felt it might be useful (responding to a suggestion of Senator Fulbright) to have hearings next week on the Consular Treaty with the Soviet Union. Senator Mansfield asked if Mr. Hoover was now agreeable. The President said he could not control Mr. Hoover’s view.

Senator Mansfield then asked if it would be helpful if he made a speech on the East-West trade bill and the Consular Treaty early next week. The President said this would be helpful. Mr. Rostow agreed to supply Senator Mansfield by 9:00 a.m., Wednesday, January 18, a full listing of agreements made with the Soviet Union during President Johnson’s administration.

The President and the two Senators joined the party in the Oval Room at 8:15 p.m.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Sunflower, Vol. I. Top Secret; Sunflower; Literally Eyes Only For the President. A typed note on the memorandum reads: “For the Historical Record.” In a covering memorandum, Rostow told the President: “You asked me to take notes of last night’s remarkable bedroom session. Here they are—for the historical record only; and if you’ve got a tight enough safe!”
  2. The lunch with the President lasted from 1:15 to 3:10 p.m. Those present were Rusk, McNamara, Rostow, and Christian. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 16.
  4. Document 16.
  5. On January 18 the President and Rostow met with Senators Mansfield, Dirksen, Hickenlooper, Russell, and Aiken for a 65-minute off-the-record session. Senator Smith did not attend the meeting. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No record of the meeting has been found. For speculation that the President may have persuaded the Senators to delay for several weeks the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on Vietnam in order to avoid interference with the ongoing peace initiatives, see William Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, Part IV, p. 506.