442. Editorial Note

On December 19, 1967, President Johnson began an international trip with the primary purpose of attending the memorial services for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt (who disappeared while swimming on December 17). The President arrived in Australia on December 21. That morning, from 11:13 a.m. to 12:03 p.m., he discussed the war in Southeast Asia with Prime Minister John McEwen and other senior Australian Government officials. According to notes taken by Presidential aide George Christian, during the conversation the President assessed the enemy’s plans for the immediate future:

“Hanoi, thinking of the French, is testing the will of the U.S. and its allies. He believes they will wait until after the U.S. election. In the meanwhile, we must maintain our posture; not widen the war; not cut and run. We must avoid flirting with either extreme, and keep the pressure on. The President said that he felt that Hanoi was under extreme pressure to achieve some tactical victory. Northern forces were being infiltrated into the South. He foresaw kamikaze attacks in the months ahead. That is one reason why he is pressing so hard for additional allied manpower. The President foresaw a sequence in which we maintain pressure without widening the war; imposed upon North Vietnamese increased losses; and then in time they would have to decide what to do in the face of the high cost and the continued frustration of their objective. Then, he believed, they would talk.” (Meeting of the President with the Australian Cabinet, 11:13 a.m., December 21; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, March 19, [Page 1121] 1970 Memo; the full text of the notes is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXVII, Document 35.)

The President also used the occasion to meet with a number of other Asian leaders who had come to Australia, including President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, with whom he dined on December 21 from 8:14 p.m. through 10:04 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) While no notes of the Johnson-Thieu meeting have been found, in telegram CAP 671170 to Ambassador Bunker in Saigon, December 27, Walt Rostow described the main points covered by the two leaders as “not permitting domestic political forces in each country to pull the two Presidents apart” and initiating a “Vietnamese priority program” of various domestic political, agrarian, and economic reforms. (Ibid., National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, I E (1), Post Inaugural Political Activity) In addition, during a December 18 telephone conversation, the President mentioned to Senator Mike Mansfield that he would tell Thieu “that this thing is so rough in this country that if he doesn’t take these steps that Bunker’s trying to shove on him, namely with the Viet Cong and others that can form a coalition and some of things we’re working on, that this is just too rough, and he’s just got to do it. Bunker’s been unable to shove him yet and they think maybe that I could let him see the urgency of it pretty strong.” (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Mansfield, December 18, 1967, 8:55 a.m., Tape F67.15, Side A, PNO 3)

In telegram 14445 from Saigon, December 27, Bunker reported on a discussion that he and Thieu later had regarding Thieu’s meeting with Johnson: “He noted that President Johnson had been interested particularly in plans for land reform, raising of taxes, progress in pacification, and the development of the joint U.S./Japanese educational TV project. Thieu said he described his plans on land reform to the President. These include a comprehensive land reform plan on which the GVN has been working, which Thieu expects to discuss in detail this week with the Minister of Agriculture, and which they hope will form the basis for substantial progress in the field. Thieu said he had also explained to the President the political factors bearing on the timing of any increase in taxes, noting particularly the inadvisability of such a move before the Tet holidays, especially with the normal upward pressure on prices generally during this period…. Thieu also said he had assured the President that the GVN was making every effort to move ahead on the new pacification plan and that he anticipated more rapid progress in the months ahead.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US-VIET S)

After their discussion in Australia, Johnson and Thieu issued a joint communiqué calling for national reconciliation and the right of [Page 1122] self-determination in Vietnam and assuring a willingness on the part of the South Vietnamese Government to talk to individual members of the NLF (although the organization as a whole would never be recognized nor dealt with on an official level). Also in the communiqué, the leaders expressed regret that the North Vietnamese had refused to follow up on any of the peace overtures made to them and agreed that in these circumstances there was no alternative to continuing appropriate military actions.” For the full text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pages 1046–1047.

Immediately following the memorial for Holt on December 22, the President flew to Khorat air base in Thailand. There, in the early hours of the next morning, he decorated several combat pilots and praised American steadfastness in pursuing the “just” cause in Vietnam. He then flew to Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam on a visit that Ambassador Bunker believed would “give great boost to morale of all here.” (Telegram CAS 402 from Bunker to Walt Rostow, December 19; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 84, Files of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Book 4-Vietnam Telegram Chrono.) The President reviewed troops along with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General William Westmoreland and presented medals and ribbons to numerous soldiers and commanders. In his informal remarks to the assembled servicemen, he promised, “We’re not going to yield and we’re not going to shimmy” while adding that the enemy had met its master and the American people were firmly behind the war effort. For the full text of the remarks of the President to the troops, see Department of State Bulletin, January 15, 1968, pages 73–76.

Johnson left Vietnam by 10:30 a.m. en route for Rome and a meeting with Pope Paul VI. Arriving in Rome by way of Pakistan on December 23, the President met with the Pope at the Vatican later that evening. At the meeting Johnson noted his opposition to a unilateral pause, although he was prepared to halt bombing if he could obtain acceptable guarantees from North Vietnam. He also discussed the plight of U.S. prisoners of war held by the enemy. In turn, the Pope personally requested an extension of the New Year’s truce. For an account of the meeting, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XII, Document 310. The meeting was also reported to Bunker by Rostow in telegram CAP 671171, December 27. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Walt Rostow, Memos to the President, Vol. 55 [2 of 2]) For the President’s public statement relating to his meeting with the Pope, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pages 1048–1049. For text of the aide-mémoire that the President gave the Pope after their meeting, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XII, Document 309. The Pope issued a public statement calling for a true commitment to peace. See The New York Times, December 24, 1967. On December 24 the President recorded a Christmas message to the public which detailed [Page 1123] his trip to Asia and the Vatican. For its text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, Book II, pages 1190–1191.