83. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1

Rostow: [Here follows Rostow’s reading of the reply of Ho Chi Minh as delivered by Le Chang, the North Vietnamese Chargé in [Page 175]Moscow.]2 So it’s about flat as it could be, sir. I’ll get it translated. I wanted you to know immediately. My first reaction is that we ought to fairly soon soberly take stock of where we go from here both on the North and the South and political policy. But I wanted you to know right away, sir.

President: We got a letter in here from these Congressmen—they’ve already released it—on the CIA. I don’t know—I guess we better send it over to Nick [Katzenbach] and get him to answer it. But I’ll send it over to you. The first thing you better talk to Nick about is what kind of acknowledgment Henry Wilson3 ought to make, and then get that dictated to Henry, and get Meg to call these fellows in and tell them what’s happening. And I think somebody ought to get a little brochure on Ramparts, and let them know what’s happening here, that this is a Communist propaganda campaign, and I think we’re going to have to tell the country that all these speeches are being used as propaganda against your men, every one of these speeches. Don’t you think so?

Rostow: It’s perfectly obvious. They still think they’ve got enough of a hold on us through public opinion and these public speeches to make us stand down. They haven’t given that up. No, I think there are a number of moves. This is the end of one phase and I think that as far as Hanoi is concerned, we ought to stop probing them. We ought really to put on a major effort, not only of course to accelerate the military and all that, but to work on Chieu Hoi contacts on the Southerners, and take an attitude for a little while, “You call me, I won’t call you” for a bit. I think it’s—it may encourage them that we have been just so—to them we may look over-anxious. Now, we have a delicate balance; we want to keep the door open. I think a little hard work, a little leaning on them, a little acceleration in what we’re doing, and carrying forward the political process in the South because I don’t know of course but I suspect that what they may have decided is that if they’re going to lose this, they’d rather withdraw silently and let the fellow in the South make any deal, rather than overtly get into negotiations with us and admit they lost the war. It may be something like that. In any case, our work’s cut out for us, and we ought to line it up soon enough.

President: Do you think that this is urgent enough to have Rusk come back?4

Rostow: No, sir, I do not think it’s that kind of a—I think he should be informed it’s negative, and I don’t think that we should react convulsively, [Page 176]but I think that we’ve come to a stage, all this sort of fussing-about before Tet, I think that the truth probably is that their government is so split in Hanoi that the one position they could agree on is this no bombing for a possibility of talks, that all this talk of peace feelers and so on got them in trouble with the Chinese faction and they know they’re terribly vulnerable …

President: You said in your memo that the State Department leaked this. I was told that Bobby’s [Kennedy] boy Vanden Heuvel5 told the people back here and they leaked it. Where’d you get the State Department leaked to Newsweek that Bobby had a feeler?

Rostow: Wasn’t that … didn’t that … It’s not my memo—it’s Nick’s.

President: Well, ask him who leaked it in the Department.

Rostow: Yes, I will. I have no knowledge …

President: Just tell him our information from a pretty good source was that it was Bobby’s people leaked it. Ask him what he’s got to dispute that. If our people did leak it, I want to see. I think it is outrageous to make it look like we got a feeler, because it shows that it affects Hanoi, doesn’t it?

Rostow: That’s right. I shall get back on that.

President: I got a letter from Dick [unintelligible word] last night saying that this fellow, this Frenchman that talked to Bobby, they got a good record on him.6

Rostow: Oh, I know that. He’s been anti-U.S. and very much tied up with the left. He was out with—De Gaulle looked to him very much for the line he took in that speech at Phnom Penh, you’ll remember, in Asia, in Cambodia. Well, sir, I’ll be getting this up to you …

President: I think you ought to brief somebody on that, Walt. Give me a memo on Manac’h and his background, who he is and so forth, what he is and what—just so I’ll have general knowledge of him.

Rostow: Shall do it, sir.

President: Now, does Nick think there’s any truth in the Washington Star editorial—that we brought Bobby in and just murdered him and so forth?

Rostow: No. I think that what Nick feels is that Bobby felt very put upon, Bobby felt very put upon. Whether he thinks it’s any—I don’t think that he feels that he was treated badly, but Bobby got himself into trouble and he felt he was put into a very difficult position. The thing that I don’t understand about Bobby is that suppose he did feel this [Page 177]way—he’s a big boy now, and he ought to know that when you go and talk to the President of the United States you don’t go around to every dinner party belly-aching. He above anybody ought to know that’s not the way this country runs, and …

President: But he was belly-aching to me. He’s telling me everything is wrong in every country, and I just said, “Yes, sir,” sat there and listened to him. Then he got in here and started getting up on my State Department, well I just had to tell him that it wasn’t mine—he picked out the God-damn State Department that he was running with. I didn’t pick them. I didn’t select these folks that he was whoring around with. Now what else did we say besides that?

Rostow: One of the things that Noyes7 came back—he didn’t print it, but he said it last night, remember, I put a footnote on—he said that Bobby was saying that the kind of thing that you thought he was saying was leading to fellows getting killed over there. I don’t remember you saying that.

President: Not at all, not at all.

Rostow: I told him I didn’t remember that. Well, I … he … I said to Noyes that “I cannot vouch for how Senator Robert Kennedy feels. I have a feeling that he feels the whole episode turned sour on him. But that was not because of anything that the President did or we did over here in general, but that the true story—the story leaked that he looked kind of foolish, and he’s taking out the feeling that he got whip-sawed on this by the events and blame it on you and that talk. But in any case, we cannot vouch for how Senator Kennedy feels, but we can ask them if there is a story of this kind to check both ends of it.” He said, “That’s fair,” and he repeated that. He came back, he said, “Well, my reporter got it from the Senator,” and I said, “Yeah, I gather he did. He’s been talking to a lot of people. But did you call the President? Did you call Nick? Did you call me?” Answer: negative. All right. Check both sides. That’s where that ended up.

President: Well, you see Mary McGrory8 just runs an advertising agency for Bobby.

Rostow: I see, yes, yes. He probably wept on her shoulder.

President: Oh yes, that’s right, that’s right. Okay, then, you get a hold of this, and get me an analysis of it, your interpretation, by the time I come over. And I’ll get this letter over to you and you call Nick now and tell him we want to be prompt with these guys, and I think it’s better to get them a letter before Congress gets back in. And I think we ought to consider what we do to investigate things. I think we ought [Page 178]to set up some kind of a board to look in to it or something. And I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, but I think it’s bad for them to let somebody else do it. But I think all of that will come out if they have a Congressional committee. And they won’t touch me because I haven’t been connected with it. But I think Nick ought to know that we probably ought to try to set up some kind of a board like when we did when he had Allen Dulles9 and Bobby Kennedy and them study the Bay of Pigs thing. I don’t know how we ever got by with having that “objective” group look at the Bay of Pigs.

Rostow: Brought back Max Taylor as the nearest thing to a fig leaf we could get.

President: You don’t know when Rusk is coming back, do you? This is Wednesday, isn’t it?

Rostow: It’s Wednesday, sir.

President: I’m planning to leave tomorrow, so anything we need to do we ought to think about it.

Rostow: Well, I think that what ought to happen is that without you Nick and Bob [McNamara] and Cy [Vance] and the others and I should sort of take stock of where we are in Vietnam.

President: Now you think that what he says is, “We might talk if you quit bombing.”10

Rostow: That is correct. That’s exact. That’s exactly how the French would say. It never was more lucid than seeing it in French because it uses the conditional—pourrait—might—it’s not will, it’s pourrait, which is conditional—pourrait engager des conversations.

President: All right. Now, is there anything else of note—noteworthy about it?

Rostow: No, sir. Its obvious these—this fellow’s very sensitive to the notion that maybe he was talking while the bombing was on and we might use that against him with the Chinese and with the NLF. I mean, that comes through very clearly in this anxiety, and he’s partly clearing the skids with everybody, but it’s also perfectly clear he’s not willing—he’s just not willing to go beyond that. But I think that we ought to carefully analyze it, and then formulate what we’re going to do, and then see if we can’t accelerate some of these things in the South and maybe lean on the North, if you want to, and so on.

President: I want you to get your people to look at these targets a little more carefully. I think McNamara’s listened to these folks very closely, and I think we ought to get every damn target we can that [Page 179]hasn’t got a lot of civilian people around it not right in Hanoi. Now all these electric plants …

Rostow: I think we ought to tick off one of those every 4 days or every once a week.

President: Well look at it and see what we can do about the civilians and let’s see about it. And I want to get that steel mill and cement plant. I don’t know why, but I’d like to have the other side of the argument—why are they important to get them? Are they held back because they’re close to Hanoi?

Rostow: I think they’re held back because, the point is, I think Bob feels that one—they wouldn’t have much to do with the fighting in the South, two—they would raise a lot of diplomatic storm in the world for our hitting something that wasn’t directly connected to the fighting, and three—I don’t think the civilian casualty problem is very great with those two targets. A lot of people work in the plants, but I think that is not the primary point. The primary point Bob would make is one—they don’t have much to do with the fighting in the South; two —you pay heavy political and psychological costs around the world. It’s also true you’d pay pretty heavy political costs in the United States. But the boys in Hanoi, on the other hand, feel they can have those plants protected by their success in pressuring us psychologically in the rest of the world. But I think we want to take stock of the—there’s another thing we have to think about, which is that the Viet Cong have been working that channel over pretty good, and they have some Russian mines in there, and we either ought to put some mines up there in that Haiphong or tell the Russians that they better get those fellows to lay off—we’re sick of picking up Russian mines in the Saigon channel.

President: Now what are you saying—the Russians’ve been putting mines in the Saigon channel?

Rostow: Not the Russians, but Russian-manufactured mines are being put by the VC. We have two of them, and they’ve been working over that channel pretty well, and if they want to play that kind of game, we can play it better than they can. I just have a note—Bob Komer did a note on it to me and I’ve been following it.

President: And say to them, “If you don’t quit putting mines in the Saigon channel, we’re going to put them in Haiphong"?

Rostow: Correct. That’s one thing we ought to consider. I’m not—I don’t want to go off half-cocked on something like that. But I do think we are sobering down the whole agenda with things like that. The trend of attacks in merchant shipping has risen from 1 in ’65, 2 in the first half of ’66, 5 in the last half of ’66, 3 in the first month of ’67. VC are now using thousand-pound Soviet contact mines. And I think at the minimum that we ought to tell our friend Dobrynin that [Page 180]“This is a game that two can play,” or maybe we want to go lay a few of them and see what happens. But all I’m saying is, sir, that we ought to take all the things we might do in the North, make believe that we never heard of them before, and then do pros and cons on them.

President: Can’t the South Vietnamese lay the mines in Haiphong?

Rostow: I don’t know whether they could fly that kind of aircraft. We could find out.

President: Well, how’d the Viet Cong put theirs in?

Rostow: They do it with boats.

President: Well, can’t the South Vietnamese do it the same way?

Rostow: Well, its kind of far to get up in a little boat.

President: I was just thinking that maybe we ought to tell him, “Now the South Vietnamese have been wanting to do this for some time and they’re going to do it.”

Rostow: That’s a pretty good idea. We could get them the planes—that type. All right, sir. Got it.

President: I’m going to talk to Bob about this and the targets too. And those power plants we know would hurt them some. I think steel and cement ought to, and I think we ought to just take one at a time. I’ve already approved them. Now, what else is there that we got that we can do?

Rostow: Well, I don’t know whether we could accelerate the barrier. I don’t know whether that’s technically possible. I think we ought to tell—I’d like to see—Westy has been running the war a little on a kind of a, how should I say, a safe, sort of “6%” basis. He’s been pushing his fellows pretty hard, but running it fairly comfortably without sort of forcing the pace much, in a very sober and competent way. It’s not the way it would be if he were in desperate straits. I think we ought to, without trying to be generals here, tell him that we’d like for the maximum the pace of operations to be really picked up against these VC bases. I think we really ought to get a burr under his saddle on accelerating pacification, both the ARVN side of it and our own thing. I think that we ought to try to get some roads open and stayed open. A sense of sort of urgency and hard drive of the kind that you had when you had a major war going on. Hell, out there MacArthur ran those operations with no landing craft, very economical, he strained to get every ounce of fighting power out of a limited supply situation. I’d like to see a little bit of that mood out there in South Vietnam because time is—the clock is—ticking on us. And then I’d like to see Ky get his village elections, and then talk to him, and from a position of confidence begin to try to reach out and grab and talk and cajole and buy out some of these fellows in the [Page 181]South and ignore Hanoi for a while except to clobber them a little bit more. I just think …

President: You don’t think Bob Murhpy’d11 be any good as Ambassador?

Rostow: I think he’s a little old, sir.

President: Well, I don’t know, he was pretty active the other day and pretty alert.

Rostow: Yeah, yeah, that’s an interesting thought. Max Taylor mentioned Frank Pace.12 I don’t have much feel for him.

President: Well, I think he’s a pretty smart cookie. Max mention anybody else? Walt, let’s have Max in on all these meetings.

Rostow: We will. I’m briefing him on the schedule.

President: I know it, but the other day I had to call him afterwards, and I think he’s got awfully good judgment.

Rostow: I agree with you, sir.

President: So let’s just when we have’em and when we’re talking about Saigon ask me in the morning before the lunch if we want to have Max Taylor.

Rostow: Right, sir.

President: Okay.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rostow, February 15, 1967, 9:24 a.m., Tape F67.06, Side B, PNO 1 & 2. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. See Documents 81 and 82.
  3. Henry Hall Wilson, Administrative Assistant to the President for Legal Liaison, was responsible for White House relations with the House of Representatives.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 82.
  5. William J. Vanden Heuvel, a principal adviser to Senator Robert Kennedy.
  6. See footnote 3, Documents 38.
  7. Crosby Noyes, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star.
  8. Mary McGrory, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star.
  9. Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence, 1953–1961.
  10. A quote from Ho Chi Minh’s February 15 letter to the President; see Document 82.
  11. Robert Murphy, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs until 1959 and an informal adviser to the President.
  12. Frank Pace, member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.