146. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Clifford 1

Clifford: One very quick item. I had a telephone call from Mac Bundy yesterday late in the afternoon. I thought he seemed exceedingly friendly and cooperative. Had no sympathy whatsoever for Bobby’s entry into the race.2 We had a little talk about the problems of Vietnam. He said he knew we were going through quite a difficult and critical period and made the offer if he could be of any help at all, you only had to let him know and he would be glad to come down and help. Now, I pass it on to you because I thought you might want to consider the advisability—if you thought well of it—of calling him and perhaps asking him to come down. This is a very important speech that has to be written. I spent a couple of hours with Harry McPherson yesterday afternoon and I had the feeling that maybe Mac could be quite useful during this particular period.

President: Yes, I think it would be very good. I think what we’ve got to do, too, is to get out of the posture of just being the war candidate that McCarthy has put us in and Bobby is putting us in, the kids are putting us in and the papers are putting us in. Lindsay3 is out advocating rebellions this morning and not responding to the draft and things of that kind. The Mayor urges youth to aid war resistance, and they’ve got 4-column front-page pictures. Now when the head of the biggest city goes to doing things of that kind, you’ve got to really look at the picture. And I think that if we could get your people, your men like, I don’t know who they are over there, I certainly don’t want some of the civilians that are giving us trouble, but if we could get, if we had any young men at all, I think Goodpaster is one we ought to look at, DePuy maybe, sit down with some of Rusk’s people, one or two there, maybe Habib and perhaps Bill Bundy, and see what it is that we could use with our left hand. Our right hand is going after their jaw with an offense on the war front, but we ought to have a peace front too simultaneously and use both fists—not just one, not fight with one hand behind us, so that we can say we are the peace candidate—but we are the true peace candidate. We’re not the Chamberlain peace—we’re the Churchill [Page 429] peace. We are not the guy that is going to throw in the towel and let them take Athens. We are the Truman who stands up and finally saves Greece and Turkey from the Communists. And that, of course, there is a temporary peace, and if we surrendered, you would have peace until they got their government installed and then by God you’d have a bigger war than ever. Now we have got to develop that. But in order to do it, we have got to come up with something. Now Goldberg’s plan is not worth a damn, but if we could say that we are going to cut off Hanoi and Haiphong for a period, a specific period, now we are not going to touch them, and if they will cut off on the DMZ or some other area, where it’s real reciprocation, then we’ll respond and something of that type where it’s really to our advantage, where the Russells just can’t murder us.4 We ought to do that. We ought to have some kind of something on peace because they’re concluding now that we are getting in shape and getting into pretty quick with McNamara’s peace talks, his “Harvard stuff,” and all the stuff they are putting out—you can see from Nitze’s letter5—where we are just the Goldwater of ’68 and we can’t take that.

Clifford: That is right. That is right.

President: We can’t take it and hold because people like Daley6 and them are not going to hold.

Clifford: They won’t hold. Really right in there, what it is, we are out to win, but we are not out to win the war—we are out to win the peace.

President: That is right.

Clifford: And that is what our slogan could very well be—win the peace with honor—and I think we have got to get that thought over. Now I have been giving consideration to offers of de-escalation. I don’t know whether they have anything, but if we could begin to start a negotiation toward de-escalation, something to the effect that, now if we could have an agreement with the North Vietnamese, that we would let Hanoi alone if they would let Saigon alone. I don’t know that it is very practical, but considering something of that kind, we can’t stop, but if there is some program of a gradual de-escalation that the parties could get into, we could then get in a better posture.

President: That is right. I don’t think they can do it because their announced thing is to do this job this year and that is why they are coming out of the woodworks and hitting us as they are—so they are not going to take anything off-limits. But if we could take something off-limits [Page 430] for a period that didn’t really hurt us, and it seems to me that the weather is not too good anyway, and it seems to me that we could say that we’re now going for several days without hitting Hanoi and Haiphong—it seems we have gone 2 months without it—we ought to say that to the public though. And we go in with a sporadic raid, we don’t get any real benefit out of it but we say now we are going further, but if you want to respond you let us know and we will go to a Geneva Conference or something. I think you and Rusk ought to try to explore something that we could offer in that way. My own thought is that we ought to stress this peace thing and we ought to stress the permanence of it—and anybody can get an umbrella and have a temporary one, but that just means more people get murdered later—but that we are willing to have a Geneva Conference. We are willing to sit down and pull our troops out of there as soon as the violence subsides. We’re willing to take our treasure and go back and help rebuild it as we did under the Marshall Plan and kind of add on to my Johns Hopkins speech a little, add on to Manila a little, but we’ve got to have something new and fresh that goes in there, along with the statement that we are going to win.

Clifford: Right. But we have to be very careful of what it is we say that we are going to win.

President: That is right.

Clifford: I think we would frighten the people if we just said we are going to win. They would think, “Well, hell, that just means we are going to keep pouring men in until we win militarily,” and that isn’t what we are after really.

President: Well, your President does and we don’t want to appeal to them too much. We have got to appeal to them some but we sure as hell don’t want to frighten the people. That’s the thing that gives you the most support that you’ve got and I bet that if you pay a little attention to the 45 percent that want to do more instead of the 5 percent that want to pull out we will have a different attitude. But I just can’t ever get Fulbright, but I can’t afford to lose Russell. Now, if I lose him, we’ve got nothing. That’s what we have got to remember. So we have got to get something that will not hurt our men materially, like Hanoi and Haiphong for a period, for a month, for two weeks, for something that Buzz Wheeler can tell them we wouldn’t do anyway. Then we’ve got to make that public. We’re not going to get these doves, but we can neutralize the country to where it won’t follow them if we can come up with something.

Clifford: Yes, that’s right. I think you put your finger right on it. We have a posture now in which Kennedy and McCarthy are the peace candidates and President Johnson is the war candidate. Now we must veer away from that and we can do it. What we need is a policy now [Page 431] that is a consistent far-ranging policy, but which we don’t have. I think we need a policy of the kind that—say a five-step policy, Mr. President, that we will continue to exert the military pressure. That I know we have to do. We’ll never get anything from them if we don’t do that. So, as you say, with our right hand we continue to exert the military pressure, then I think we have to have a well thought-out program that we try with our left hand. Step number one. Then that might be some kind of mutual de-escalation that really doesn’t hurt us. If it isn’t successful, we might move to step number two. Now at some stage in this matter, if nothing else works, then I think we have to keep in mind that before the [Democratic Party National] Convention, then if not before the Convention, before the election, I think we have to work out some kind of arrangement where we start some kind of negotiation.

President; Well, you can’t do that but one way, you know, and these folks are not wanting to do that. They want to get rid of us.

Clifford: I know. Yes, that is right. But I still think there is a good chance to do that if it is prepared properly and if we work up to it in this plan. All I am saying is we don’t have such a plan. The major task now is to come up with it and I intend to give a good part of my time and effort to see if we can’t come up with such a plan. But what I think at the moment is, with this important speech coming, I think it would be a good idea if you felt well of it to call Mac back and say come on down and help us, Mac, and he offered to do it.7

President: Thank you.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, March 20, 1968, 8:44 a.m., Tape F6805.02, PNO 5. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian.
  2. Reference is to Senator Robert Kennedy.
  3. Mayor John Lindsay of New York City.
  4. Reference is to Senator Richard Russell.
  5. Not further identified.
  6. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago.
  7. The President called Bundy at 9 a.m., immediately following this conversation. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No record of this conversation has been found.