71. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara1
President: Say that “Your noble efforts must be recognized by giving you everything we possibly can without endangering our men,” and a little palaver where he’s really complimented and we can keep him aboard when he loses the battle and the war. And finally, when we get through with our stump speech and a flag in the blood, say to him something that will not—say it to him as much as we can say without endangering our people too much or unnecessarily. And I would think we could be able—would be able—to say that we will not resume—make it appear as magnanimous and as generous as we can, because we’re going to need it for the record, that here, we had it all wrapped up and then we wouldn’t answer him or we wouldn’t reply. I think that’s too dangerous. But we would say we would not resume our bombing, although there’re terrible things taking place right now, if Hanoi says they have ceased infiltration—men, supplies, and so forth. And soon as we get that assurance, we will take whatever actions we can to verify it and to observe it by land, sea, air, tunnel, and everything else, that they just be sure they close down and do not one damn thing on infiltrating. And within a period of very minimum necessary [Page 151] hours, if this is true, then we will be glad for he and the Indians, or Wilson and the Canadians or ICC, or anybody, ICC or co-chairmen or anybody else, to observe that we are ordering augmentation stopped. And then we’ll go to some neutral city, Geneva or some other place, for conferences in good faith that will try to result in a supervised election and some kind of a self-determination [inaudible]. And get the self-determination and neutralization and everything else we can think of in that part of it. Now, I would say that we’re going to gain by bombing during the two or three days, that we are checking to see if infiltration has ceased is not going to be enough—what we gain by bombing is not going to be enough—to justify us insisting on doing it. If we can get that kind of agreement and if we can cut him off from supplying them anyway, under the tunnels or Laos or sea or air, anyway, just make it so damn firm, in effect reiterate just what we’ve said, but doctor it up a little bit and instead of saying it has stopped just have them say it has stopped. And have Hanoi say that to the Russians and have the Russians say to us just that they believe this is true, or the co-chairmen say that it’s true. Anyway, I think we ought to try to write a wire, and when Fulbright thinks he’s got you and getting ready to railroad you and sends you right to jail, you can read this wire and he’ll say, “I’ll be damned, you did all a human could.” Now that’s what we ought to decide, and you can talk to your military man, and then you can—you ought to come on down to the Cabinet room. And, I’d like to though, while I’m dressing, have your thought on what you would do.
McNamara: Well, I think …
President: You just put yourself—now suppose you’re President, and you know damn well that we haven’t thought this bombing’s going to save our life, and we’re just hoping against hope that we could get out of it some way or other, and that we could get to a table some way or other. Just bear that in mind now, because we don’t want to get up close to it and then get arrogant and cocky.
McNamara: The formulation you suggested is just exactly what I would support, with one minor modification, perhaps. I hate to see another formula put on the table until we have at least word from Wilson that he said to Kosygin, “Well, I gave you a formula on the 7th, and then you asked for it in writing on the 10th, and I gave it to you on the 10th, and then you wanted to be sure it was from the highest authority, so I got that and gave that to you in writing on the 10th. Now, what do you say?” Then I’d come back and say, “Well, Kosygin said nothing, he hadn’t been able to get anything out of Hanoi.” Then I would still go back with the formula you suggest. But I hate to put another formula on when we haven’t even heard from Wilson before he’s even asked the question of Kosygin.[Page 152]
President: I just think that makes our case better, Bob, to do just what you said. Just say “Now, I want to thank you for your noble efforts and certainly if nothing results from it, it won’t be your fault because you’ve operated with a tenacity and a fervor that I haven’t seen before, and I just—as I understand it, you put it on February the 7th and we told you when we were assured to stop it, and then you came on February the 10th, and you did this, and then they wanted it confirmed, and we confirmed it, and you said ‘has, we said ‘has stopped,’ and the Chief, you and he both knew we’d already said this to Hanoi ahead of time, so what we said to Hanoi, and what you’ve said to him the 7th, and what you said to him the 10th, and then when we confirmed it on highest authority, it seems to me that it should have produced something, and it ought to produce something, and if you can’t make it produce something I can understand how harassed you must be and how disgusted you must be, but anyway because I love mother and God and little children, I’m still going to authorize you once more to continue your noble work by saying to him so-and-so.”
McNamara: Well, sure, that’s all right. I’m just a little curious from a negotiating point of view here as to what Kosygin has found out. He must have found out something. You would have thought that the first thing Wilson would say to Kosygin, “Well, now, you’ve been pressing all week for something. I gave it to you three different ways three different times. You’ve had 4 days. You said you’re in direct contact with Hanoi. Now what have they told you?” And then Kosygin would have had to say they told me something or they told me nothing.
President: Well, I’d suggest that in the wire, I just—and that’s a good way to put it if you could write it that way. I don’t know why you don’t bring your own Negro stenographer over there and just dictate it that way and let us work from there. But I’d say that in the wire: “Now here’s what’s happening, here’s what you’ve done, you’ve had four days and you haven’t told us anything, now why don’t you tell us something?” And then say, “I think you ought to pursue this, because you’ve done a noble job here, and I’m going to say so to the world, and I think that every freedom-loving person will admire it.” Now then, if that has failed, and you’ve got nothing else, and since it’s a completely one-way street anyway, I would say, and then I’d repeat the hardest damned thing to be sure I live with it. Because I have thought 95–5, and not much five, and I don’t want, though, when it leaves, him to say, “Well, they wouldn’t answer me, number one, and they held back or I could have done it.” Every guy thinks—you think you just might have made a million dollars if Henry Ford hadn’t have told you not to do something. And let’s just play this one for the record. And you be thinking all these things that we stuff up his bottom good and let him dilate before we shoot in the second one, you see. Or you might even get this one off right quick, and say, “I think that would [Page 153] make the record look a little better.” Just say, “We understand, we sympathize with what you’re going through, we appreciate your noble efforts, we’re going to say this to the world and we know everybody else will appreciate them, but here’s what has happened, and give them this résumé, and it looks like this man could say something. And while you’re trying to get him to say something, which we’d like for you to report right away, we will give you something in another hour that will at least be the final straw that broke the camel’s back.”
McNamara: Yeah, I’d be much inclined to take it in two steps.
President: Yes, I think that’s good. I think it makes us look like we’re—I’d point out the summary that you have and send it to him, and say, “Now, here’s what you’ve done. You offered it to him the 7th, and you couldn’t have been more diligent, persistent, tenacious. You offered it to him the 10th. Then you confirmed it. And now he’s in charge, he says he’s got influence in Hanoi—they told us that, Gromyko—and he says he’s been in touch with them. Now what is the answer?” It seems to be a blank silence. So find out the answer and communicate it to us.
McNamara: And we’ll then be prepared to respond immediately.
President: And we’ll be prepared to respond immediately. And if it’s nothing, why we’ll still give you every weapon we can before it’s over.
McNamara: I think that probably Dean and Walt and I ought to get down there. Should I call Walt and ask him to meet us?
President: I told Walt to call you now but not to do it for 5 minutes—and that’s probably him—so I could talk to you.
McNamara: Okay. Thanks.
- Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and McNamara, February 12, 1967, 10:13 p.m., Tape F67.05, Side B, PNO 4. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.↩