96. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell 1

President: In Bobby’s long speech, there was really just two things. He says that he wants to test Kosygin’s sincerity by halting the bombardment and saying we are ready to negotiate within the week, making [Page 222] it clear that discussions cannot continue for a prolonged period without an agreement, and that neither side will substantially increase the size of the war in South Vietnam.2 That’s the important proposal he makes. It’s not important, but that’s what he does. Now we just finished doing that. I don’t know where the hell he was. But against the advice of our military people, against the wishes of a good many of the countries associated with us, we halted the bombardment for 6 days and we said we are ready to negotiate and we pled with not only Ho Chi Minh direct. I wrote him a letter that you say—you said some of my actions were “unseemly,” but I …

Russell: I said “almost unseemly.”

President: I know it. I know it. It didn’t hurt my feelings.

Russell: I thought you’d have enough sense to know what I meant.

President: So, now, what I want to point out to you—this is not public, but I want you to know it—I wrote Ho Chi Minh a letter and I said to him that we will halt the bombing and we will stop our augmentation of our troops if you’ll stop your infiltration. Now, he just turned me down flat.3

Russell: Did he ever reply to you?

President: Yes, sir, he replied to it, and he said, “No soap.” He said the same thing he said to the Pope. Now, that’s not known, but what is known is that for 6 days we did just what Senator Kennedy said. We halted the bombardment and said we’re ready to negotiate within the week and we made it clear that discussions could not continue for a prolonged period without an agreement that each side would not substantially increase the size of the war. Now we did that for 6 days and each day we would repeat to Kosygin and Wilson to go and tell them that and get back, and they got back with nothing except what the Pope gave us.4 So we have tried within the month during the Tet period for 6 days just what the Senator proposes today, and we got the same result that we got the last time the Senator proposed a pause, 37 days—we got nothing. And the same result we got with the 5-day pause that he came down here and suggested that to me. Bobby originated the 5-day one, the first one. We gave them 2 or 3 days notice and told them we were going to pause and asked them if they’d stop, and we’d stop. They just …

Russell: When was that, Mr. President?

[Page 223]

President: Oh, a year and a half ago, I guess, I forgot, the last one. That was the first one. Five days. He came alone to this office. He came in here and told me he had “good reason to believe”—these fellows play Secretary of State all around the world—and I stopped it, I notified everybody that I was going to stop it, get ready, told the Russians to see what you can do, and stopped it for 5 days. On the second day after I had stopped it, they spit in our face, turned the letter back to us, and said, “To hell with you. We are not interested in this.” So I waited then, for several months, I’d forgotten how long, until the second one came along. Now if you want to know the reconstruction, I reviewed it with you once, but to make it short: The first man they got out there was Fulbright and Dobrynin told him. He came and told me. The next man they got was Mansfield. He came and told me. The third man they got was Morse. He had 3–1/2 hours. He came and told me. Then a number of others whom I do not recall except Bundy. They got Bundy, who was then on my staff. He came and sold McNamara. Then Bundy and McNamara came and tried to sell me and Rusk. We didn’t buy it. That held on several days and I went to Texas and they sold Rusk. Then I came back up here and had long detailed meetings that ran for a couple of days and had Clark Clifford and the head of the Intelligence Board and Abe Fortas to come in. I was about sold to start the pause, but Fortas said it was outrageous and predicted exactly what would happen. So did Clifford. Later, McNamara and Bundy said, “You went out and picked up two men on the street that hadn’t any information on this and brought them in here and followed their advice instead of ours.” I said, “Yeah, I sure as hell did. I’m not going to cause our boys to suffer down there unless I’ve got some quid pro quo, unless they’ll stop doing something.” So that went on for about a week. I went back to Texas and refused to take one. Then General Taylor called me up and said that he didn’t recommend it, but he would guarantee me that if I was ever going to stop—and it looked like I’d have to, to get ready for the Congress with all of this new money—that now was the time to do it because it wouldn’t cost me anything, that the weather was bad and they needed these planes over in Laos anyway, and that he would defend me, and so forth. So I got in my plane, came back and talked to General Wheeler, and Wheeler said that he didn’t recommend it, that he wasn’t for it, but he did see from the other angle that we ought to show some desire for peace to try to placate the doves and therefore, if I did it, he could defend it because, two reasons, one: he needed these planes in Laos more than he needed them in the North, number one, and number two: the weather was so bad over the North he couldn’t get anything done, but it would make it appear pretty good. Well, I didn’t never stress that. I want to get all of the blood out of it that I could so I just said “thirty-seven days,” and so forth. So I went through that one and was damned lucky to get back in. The last few days it looked [Page 224] like they’d keep delaying us. They had the British Prime Minister to go and they had Ronning of Canada5 to go and they sent our friends over there and then we couldn’t bomb while they were there.

So this time the Tet came along. We had grave reservations about it, our military men had grave reservations about it, but we didn’t want to be bombing. We said we had agreed to go along with South Vietnam on Christmas, and if we’d go along on Christmas and our New Year, we ought to be fair with them. So we did go along. Now, at that time Kosygin and Wilson were meeting. So, they came to us and I said, “Now we have stopped bombing. Now is the time to get the job done.” I did the same thing to Ho Chi Minh. I can’t say that yet because I want to keep the channel open. I am writing back and forth to him, but I wanted you to know that. But they had it direct. We met their man. We delivered to their man in Moscow our letter to Ho Chi Minh. He took it back to Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh replied to me and said, “No go.” Now we thought, though, that the fact that he never publicized that letter was an indication that he was weakening and he wanted to keep that channel open, and all this other stuff, the Pope and Wilson, we thought was just so much crap and we still think so. We think Kosygin wants to get out of it. We think he is damned anxious to get out of it, with the Chinese thing what it is, but he’s embarrassed and can’t do anything. Bobby comes along, though, and says he does …

Russell: Which letter was it that Ho Chi Minh answered and just spit in your face. Was that one prior letter?

President: That wasn’t a letter to Ho Chi Minh. That was an offer, the first pause, the first 5-day one, and Bobby Kennedy was the author of that. That was the Bobby Kennedy pause. You can just tell him that when you were opposing it that he had more influence than you did, that he got the first pause: 5 days. Then he’s got the next one for 35 days; 37. Then he’s got the last one for 6 days. But nowhere, anytime, can he give you one damn word from Hanoi. Now they can quote preachers and teachers, and they can quote Kosygin and they can quote Wilson, and they can quote U Thant and Goldberg, but damned if you can get it from Ho Chi Minh, and Ho Chi Minh is talking to us and writing us and you know that he knows how to get a message to us if he wants to.

Russell: Well now, they’re voting in there on Rule 22 and I’ve got to vote. Now, what part of this can I use other than this last one?

President: You can use every bit of it except Ho Chi Minh’s letter, where I wrote Ho Chi Minh. You can say all the rest of it, and he …

[Page 225]

Russell: Is it all right to say “have communicated with him through other sources”?

President: Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, sure, sure. And, the main thing is, he [Kennedy] says halt the bombardment and make it clear that we’ll negotiate, but we won’t wait long. Well, tell him we halted the bombardment in Tet, we made it clear we’d negotiate through Kosygin, and we did wait 6 damn days, period, and what he’s suggesting this week we’ve just finished doing 2 weeks ago over your protest. And they build up 50 days …

Russell: All right. I have some misgivings about getting into a debate with the little pissant, but I’ll see about it.6 Bye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Russell, March 2, 1967, 3:15 p.m., Tape F67.08, Side A, PNO 5. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume
  2. In his March 2 speech to the Senate, Kennedy also proposed that an “international presence” be established to gradually replace U.S. troops and that all major political factions be included in the settlement process. For text, see Congressional Record, Vol. 13, pp. 5279–5284.
  3. See Document 82.
  4. SeeDocument 42.
  5. Chester Ronning, a retired Canadian diplomat, was involved in an abortive peace effort during 1966.
  6. The President contacted Rusk on the day of Kennedy’s speech and requested that he formulate a reply to Kennedy. (Johnson Library, Recordings of Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, March 2, 1967, 3:15 p.m., Tape F67.08, Side A, PNO 6 and 7) Rusk issued the following statement on March 2: “Proposals substantially similar to those put forward by Senator Kennedy were explored prior to, during, and since the Tet truce—all without result. We have had bombing pauses of 5 days in 1965; 37 days in December–January 1965–1966; and 6 days just 2 weeks ago—and we encountered only hostile actions in response. There is, therefore, no reason to believe at this time that Hanoi is interested in proposals for mutual de-escalation such as those put forward by Senator Kennedy. The President has consistently made clear that the door to peace is and will remain open and we are prepared at any time to go more than half way to meet any equitable overture from the other side.” (Department of State Bulletin, March 27, 1967, p. 516) The President also contacted Senator Everett Dirksen (R–IL) and Representative Carl Albert (D–OK) in an effort to further incite Congressional opposition to Kennedy’s proposal. Dirksen led the critical reaction to the Kennedy speech in the Senate, notably deriding the proposal as nothing new and declaring his support for the President’s policies in Vietnam. (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Albert, March 2, 1967, 3:30 p.m., Tape 67.08, Side B, PNO 1; and Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Dirksen, March 2, 1967, 3:50 p.m., Tape F67.08, Side B, PNO 2) For additional background on the Kennedy speech and the debate that followed, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 770–777.