216. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • US
    • President Lyndon B. Johnson
    • William D. Krimer, Interpreter, Department of State
  • USSR
    • Alexey Kosygin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR
    • Victor Sukhodrev, Interpreter, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Kosygin informed the President in strictest confidence as follows: In anticipation of a meeting with President Johnson he had two days ago contacted Hanoi in the person of Tran Van Dong [Pham Van Dong] as to what he could do during his meeting with the President to help bring this war to an end. Just now, while he was having lunch with the President, a reply from Hanoi had been received. In substance, it amounted to the following: Stop the bombing and they would immediately go to the conference table. Mr. Kosygin did not know what the President’s views of this proposal would be, but he wanted to express his own opinion very strongly, to the effect that he thought the President should follow-up this proposal. It provided for the first time the opportunity of talking directly with Hanoi at no risk for the United States. He asked the President to recall the experience of President De Gaulle of France who had fought in Algiers for seven years and still wound up at the conference table. He was sure of the North Vietnamese will to continue to fight for many years if necessary. And what would the President accomplish? He would carry on a war for ten years or more, killing off the best of the young people of his nation. Mr. Kosygin knew that American soldiers fought well, that they knew how to fight, and that they fought willingly since they believed that they were fighting for their country. The young people of the Soviet Union in similar [Page 548]circumstances would also fight just as well. In his view, it was now time to end the war and to sit down at the conference table and then the President could see what would develop. This could be the very greatest problem which the two of them could resolve here together today: to end this obnoxious war and to let the rest of the world breathe easier because the danger of it spilling over into a bigger war had been removed. He repeated once again that this message was intended for the President only; that this was not to be made public in any way.

The President replied that first of all he agreed to the limitation on disseminating the information provided. Secondly, however, he asked what would happen if we went to the conference table this very minute; would this mean that fighting would continue as it had during the Korean armistice negotiations?

Chairman Kosygin replied that he could not guarantee that the war would end, neither could he guarantee however that it would escalate. With great emphasis he made the point that while the President thought he was fighting the Chinese in North Korea, Mr. Kosygin had to tell him that he was actually helping the Chinese in achieving their very worst designs.

The President said that China represented the very greatest danger to both countries at present, and that he certainly did not want to do anything that would promote Chinese policy.

Mr. Kosygin asked the President to bear in mind that this meeting between them was of an emergency nature, that time was short and that if time were available they would be able to explore the most delicate problems at greater length. While he considered North Viet-Nam’s proposal to be the President’s own business, he emphatically believed that now the President had ample reason to sit down and negotiate with North Viet-Nam. He had not wanted to take any responsibility upon himself in speaking on behalf of North Viet-Nam and it is for this reason that he had asked for a statement of their position and had received this reply just an hour ago. If the President could see his way clear to follow the proposal, this would be an immense step forward in the right direction. Sooner or later American forces would have to be withdrawn from Viet-Nam and it was better sooner than later. Could the President imagine what great sighs of relief would be heard throughout the world if such a truly historic decision were taken by him now. At several different times in the past, the President had sought an intermediary between the US and North Viet-Nam and had even considered using the offices of some second rate countries, which carried no weight in the world, but here and now there was an opportunity to engage in direct negotiations with Hanoi and he earnestly urged the President to weigh this possibility. Mr. Kosygin would still [Page 549]be in New York on Saturday and Sunday2 and would be glad to transmit any reply the President had to make.

To the President’s question of when the Chairman expected to leave the United States, Mr. Kosygin replied that he was leaving on Monday and added, again in confidence, that he would visit Cuba on the way home.

The President asked for additional clarification on the following points: He was informed to the effect that North Viet-Nam had five divisions deployed immediately north of the DMZ. It was the best advice of our military people that if the bombing stopped, these five divisions would be brought to bear upon our Marines immediately south of the DMZ, resulting in a great many casualties among our boys. Mr. Kosygin surely realized that should this happen following the President’s decision to stop the bombing, he would be crucified in this country for having taken the decision.

Chairman Kosygin thought that from a practical point of view the question could be put as follows: If the bombing stopped today, representatives of the United States and North Viet-Nam would meet tomorrow, wherever the President wished—Hanoi or New York or Moscow or Paris or Geneva or any other place. From that point on, it would be up to the negotiators to work out what was to follow. In establishing such direct contact with Hanoi, the President could present all questions between the United States and North Viet-Nam and the other side could do the same. Certainly, this could save hundreds of thousands of lives which would otherwise perish in vain. The President could set the condition that if the bombing were stopped, representatives of the two countries should meet at any place designated in, say, two days. Without such direct contact, no solution was possible. The President did not know what they wanted and indeed North Viet-Nam did not know what the President wanted. Mr. Kosygin urged the President to try this step, which in addition carried no risk to the position of the United States. He urged the President to weigh this proposal, he did not then ask for a reply today, he asked the President to think it over.3

The President asked the Chairman whether he would and could provide assistance at the conference table, if such a meeting took place, in obtaining self-determination for the people of South Viet-Nam?

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Mr. Kosygin replied that he could not decide this question independently without advice from North Viet-Nam. But, if by tomorrow night the President could inform him of his views and conditions on this question, he would immediately transmit them to Hanoi for a reply.

The President again asked the Chairman whether, assuming that we got to the conference table, the Soviet Union would and could help us obtain an agreement providing self-determination for the people of South Viet-Nam which would ultimately enable us to withdraw our forces. The President had formerly informed Mr. Gromyko that if such an agreement could be obtained, we would be prepared to withdraw our troops regardless of former investment in the area. He would interpret free elections in South Viet-Nam under the supervision of the co-chairmen as fulfilling the conditions of such an agreement.

Mr. Kosygin replied with a suggestion that the question the President had asked him be formulated on paper without reference to Mr. Kosygin or the USSR, that it be addressed to North Viet-Nam, and be given to Mr. Kosygin for immediate transmission to Hanoi. Such a statement should preferably be brief and clear and he, Mr. Kosygin, would consider this to be an important step forward.

The President asked Mr. Kosygin when and where he could meet with him if he would give favorable consideration to addressing such a question to North Viet-Nam? He suggested another meeting with the Chairman on Sunday afternoon at the same place, in other words, at the Glassboro State College.4

[Here follows discussion of arms control and the Middle East.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 US. Top Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer. Other parts of the day’s discussions between the two leaders are ibid. In a June 21 memorandum to the President, Rostow suggested that above all other U.S.-Soviet issues, especially in light of overtures from the North Vietnamese and recent apparent moderation on the part of the Soviets, “the serious case for talking with Kosygin is Viet Nam.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, USSR, Hollybush II) Several papers on what the President should expect in his talks with Kosygin specifically regarding Vietnam were composed by Cooper and sent to Katzenbach. (Memorandum of June 16 and memoranda of June 22 by Cooper; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S) Complete documentation on the Glassboro Summit is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XIV.
  2. June 24 and 25.
  3. During a working dinner between members of the Soviet and U.S. delegations on June 21, Gromyko had told Rusk that the Americans “were turning things topsy-turvy in wanting talks to precede end to bombing. Only way which to create situation where talks could mature is to stop bombing unconditionally.” (Telegram 5848 from USUN, June 22; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US-USSR)
  4. A message was prepared that called for a halt to operations by both sides across the DMZ following the cessation of bombing and the opening of talks. See Document 217. The President conditioned the message with the following: “I want you to know that if talks do not lead to peace or if protracted talks are used to achieve one-sided military advantage against us, we shall have to resume full freedom of action.” (Memorandum from Rusk to Johnson and attachment, June 24; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, USSR, Hollybush II, Addendum)