64. Telegram From Prime Minister Wilson to President Johnson1

T.30/67. You will realise what a hell of a situation I am in for my last day of talks with Kosygin. My immediately following telegram sets out what seems to have happened over the past week as I understand it but I want to concentrate here on the immediate way ahead. I have to re-establish trust because not only will he have doubts about my credibility but he will have lost credibility in Hanoi and possibly among his colleagues.

I propose to be pretty frank with him and to tell him that the present situation arises in my view from the deep American concern about intensive North Vietnamese movements during the Tet period. I shall say that I warned him at the beginning of the week that there should not be provocative DRV movements during Tet and remind him that on Friday at lunch on the basis of a message from you people I told him that certain movements in the first two days of Tet had been on a shocking scale.

Nevertheless, I think he will feel, because his own position has been weakened, that we cannot make any definitive progress towards a settlement in the next few days. I have got to get him into as relaxed a posture as possible and tell him that his position and mine must be not to concern ourselves with military activities but to concentrate on the longer term political situation.

On the vitally important question of whether as I have told him a cessation of bombing depends on a prior secret assurance by Hanoi that infiltration will stop2 or as now seems to be the case from your recent messages, will only take place after infiltration has stopped3 on this question I face very great difficulties. You must realise that at lunchtime on Friday he suddenly bit hard on what I said to him, namely that all that was required was a private assurance that infiltration would stop. He bit on this because he clearly knew as I did not, that your message to Hanoi was the tougher version which required a prior stopping of infiltration before bombing could cease. He thought I was telling him something new. I thought I was merely repeating what I had told him earlier with as I thought your authority.

As soon as I repeated this offer, he asked for it in writing, and he said he would transmit it at once to Moscow for Hanoi. In the evening he told me he had reported this to Brezhnev who had supported his [Page 140]action. At that moment peace looked like being within our grasp. I think this was David’s view at that time.

I can only now get out of this position if I say to him either that I am not in your confidence or that there was a sudden and completely unforeseeable change in Washington which as a loyal satellite I must follow. I cannot say either. George and I have discussed this dilemma for some three hours with Chet and David. My decision as to how to proceed is of course mine and not theirs, but I have fully taken into account all they have said.

I am standing by, as I must, the document which I handed to Kosygin at 7:00 p.m. GMT on Friday4 before I received Rostow’s message for transmission to Kosygin. Both Kosygin and I know that as of today we cannot accept this.

The only thing I can do is to say to Kosygin if he will go along with this one and press it on Hanoi, I will similarly press it on you. In this I am slightly encouraged, if that is a word I can use on a day like this, by the last sentence of Rusk’s telegram5 which David has shown me this evening.

If I do get Kosygin to agree, then I must press our line on you and if it is impossible for you to accept, we shall have to reason together about the situation which will then arise.

More generally it will be my attempt to get Kosygin into a position where he and I accept joint responsibility for trying to assist the parties concerned in the fighting to reach agreement. This is going to be very difficult particularly when bombing restarts. I shall not of course say anything to Kosygin about bombing or any other military question. But all week he has asserted a position very different from his previous posture. He no longer says this question has nothing to do with him, but is a matter for Hanoi. He now says he and I must do all we can to get a settlement. I want to nail him to this position despite his disappointment that nothing happened during Tet. I have thought since November that he chose the date of this week to coincide with Tet and he will be bitterly disappointed as indeed am I.

I do not know whether I can nail him to this in the communiqué. I hope I can. But he and I have got to move to a slightly more central position, each of us loyal to our respective allies but each slightly more capable of taking a detached view which if they and if we could agree we will then press on our respective friends. He agreed with an analogy I used earlier in the week that in one sense he and I were lawyers representing our respective clients, and that because they were at war [Page 141]they could hardly be expected to come together and that we must try to get a settlement out of court ad referendum to the two clients. I must now nail him down to a continuing acceptance of this position.

I assure you our fees will be low, and I am only too conscious of the infinitely heavier price you are paying in this matter.

I am conscious how much depends on the five hours or so I shall have with Kosygin at Chequers on Sunday evening. You should know that Chet Cooper will be in close proximity but no-one will know that. All necessary arrangements have been made for teleprinter and if necessary telephone communication to the White House whether for use by me or by Chet who will of course be in touch with David.

If I can get him to accept a continuing responsibility in these matters that is probably the best I can hope for. There could I suppose be a dramatic change on his side though this is unlikely. If it is, we must be ready to react.

But if I do nail him down to a continuing responsibility, it would be very helpful if, for example, after the communiqué, you were able to make some public reference to the value of a continuing joint effort by him and me.

Perhaps you and I are so close to this problem now—and of course most of the difficulties have arisen on an issue which must remain secret—that it is difficult for us to realise the impact which bombing resumption must make. But also on opinion in our two countries, particularly on Kosygin whom I certainly cannot warn in advance. I think I can handle the political opinion and party pressures in Britain though this is becoming increasingly difficult.

But in view of the clear breakdown in communication and understanding which has occurred this week, and the need for the fullest understanding in the future, we ought to meet very soon.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Sunflower & Sunflower Plus. Secret; Eyes Only. Received at the White House at 3:07 a.m.
  2. Rostow underlined the preceding phrase and wrote in the margin: “never when.”
  3. Next to this word Rostow wrote: “time.”
  4. February 10; see Document 60.
  5. Document 51. The last sentence of Rusk’s telegram was added by President Johnson as a revision to the original message.