176. Memorandum of Conversation1

Memorandum of Conversation: The President, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, Charles Murphy, and W.W. Rostow, 10:00 a.m., April 3, 1968

The President opened the conversation by saying he had received Senator Kennedy’s wire.2 He was pleased at its spirit and wished to explore whether they could find areas in which the Senator could be helpful to the nation at this critical time.

Senator Kennedy said he was glad to do so and wished to do so.

The President said that he found the situation confronted by the nation the most serious he had seen in the course of his life. The nation was vulnerable abroad and at home. In Vietnam the situation in Saigon was quite troublesome. The Thieu government left much to be desired; but if that government went—if there were a coup—we would probably not get a government as good. This is about as good a government as we are likely to have. It is reasonably responsive to what we have urged upon it. It is now doing some of the most important things. Thieu would wish personally to do more, but he cannot get all he would like any more than the President can.

The nation needs a tax bill, or the dollar and the international trade and monetary system will be in mortal danger. It is a question of weeks, not of months.

The Middle East situation is explosive. The Soviets are likely to take actions detrimental to the peace. The President faced that problem in June when the Soviets were about to act. He turned the fleet around at that threat. But, essentially there are forces in the Middle East which are beyond our control. Hussein cannot survive another set of raids on Jordan; but the Israelis cannot have their buses blown up and children killed without taking action.

[Page 513]

It has been very difficult for the President to cope with these problems while under attack every day from Nixon, Senator Kennedy, Senator McCarthy, and the nation’s enemies—as well as certain of our allies. For example, Senator Fulbright made great difficulties yesterday, although he had been fully briefed by Secretary Clifford, as had the other appropriate leaders in the Senate. We had briefed the U.K. and the Soviet Government on exactly what we intended to do in our bombing limitation. The President had consulted a large group of outside experts, who had examined the whole question of bombing pause and Vietnam policy in general.

There was also irresponsibility with respect to the question of our planning to use nuclear weapons. A rumor started somewhere. Some woman may have telephoned a Senate committee. Instead of calling the Secretary of Defense, they went directly to the press. Secretary McNamara had told him that, in his whole period as Secretary of Defense, the question of nuclear weapons had never been raised with him, nor with the President. A group of scientists then got excited. They wired General Eisenhower. When they were queried, they said they were not worried about President Johnson using nuclear weapons but about General Eisenhower advocating their use. This kind of irresponsible behavior was unsettling.

The President said he had only one desire: to do the best he could for the country. He doubted that he and Senator Kennedy would be far apart if they sat at the same table. He had taken himself out of the election to remove any possible suspicion that what he was doing was self-interested. He would try to lead the country in the next nine months. He had great faith and trust in the judgment of the people.

The President said that he would have his own judgments and would exercise them, but except for a few fund-raising dinners, he planned to keep out of campaign politics.

Senator Kennedy said that he thought the President’s speech was magnificent. He understood the difficulties and burdens borne by the President. He regretted the lack of contact in recent times, and said that a lot of it “was my fault.” He would like to be of help to the President. He would try to help and make an effort. He understands the difficulties in the Middle East. He had had different ideas about Vietnam and expressed them. But he understood that the President’s speech had been made in the interests of the nation. He had always understood that President Johnson had placed the national interest as paramount. If there is anything he can do to help, he would like to.

The President responded that there was a great deal that he could do. If Senator Kennedy and the leaders in both parties wished to act in that spirit they could make a great contribution to national unity. He [Page 514] said that he hoped Senator Kennedy would keep in touch with Nick Katzenbach. When Nick had said that he had avoided contact with Senator Kennedy, the President had replied, “that’s too bad—he should make contact.” The President trusted him fully. He feels the same way about Senator Ted Kennedy, who has generally taken enlightened positions. Secretary Clifford would be glad to see Senator Kennedy anytime. The President had instructed Clifford to keep in touch with Senator Fulbright, and hoped that a new face in the Department of Defense would open up a new relationship.

The President himself would be available to Senator Kennedy or to his people. During this period the President would try to keep in touch with the spokesmen for various political groups. If national unity and a common outlook could be achieved, that would be good. But of course there would be no attempt to muzzle differing views.

The President then turned to the military situation in Vietnam and said that the enemy was bringing down men and supplies in an effort to achieve a decisive military victory. General Momyer had told him that they were for the first time running their trucks at night with their lights on. It was the President’s duty to order a bombing policy that would hold back from South Vietnam as much of the supplies as possible. On the other hand, the President’s position was not inflexible. Westmoreland had asked for five aircraft squadrons. We didn’t have them immediately available and would have had to call up National Guard units. The President decided to take aircraft away from bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and put them into the area south of the 20th parallel. Senator Kennedy should be aware, however, that Hanoi and Haiphong are being used as military storage areas. The streets of Haiphong are full of military supplies.

On Nick Katzenbach’s advice, the President had drafted the speech in terms of the functional purpose of the bombing in the panhandle of North Vietnam rather than in terms of a geographic area. Fulbright had been briefed, but didn’t mention this. Although Russell and Stennis and others had noted that they had been informed. Mansfield had heard the full text of the speech at a time when the 20th parallel reference was still there.3

Then a Hanoi newspaper said the President had said “just above the DMZ.” This was backed up by a Tokyo newspaper, and before we knew it, Members of Congress and newspapermen were stating that the President had misled them. The President had to go back and have the tape replayed to prove that he had, in fact, followed his text exactly. One of our serious problems is the willingness of some in this country to play the enemy’s game.

[Page 515]

It had not been easy with the JCS. They voted 3 to 2 in support of the limited bombing cessation, and would not have done it without Bus Wheeler’s leadership.

The President underlined that the purpose of his strategy was to underline that he was taking a first step and would be prepared for other steps if there was a response.

The President then went through the attached memorandum and its two tabs with the Senator.4 Mr. Rostow went over the map with the Senator, pointing out precisely which routes and points south of the 20th parallel it was necessary to cover in order to protect our forces.

The President then resumed by saying that he had shaved his position on Sunday5 night just as fine as he could. He had to bear in mind not only making the most generous offer to Hanoi that was possible, but also the protection of his men and the position of our allies. What he had done had been difficult for Thieu and Ky; for the Thais and Koreans. He will try to move further if it is possible, but we must not be too confident that the Hanoi statement (which the President had made available to Senator Kennedy) was an authentic peace offer.

Returning again to the map and to the language used in the speech, the President explained the danger of a line permitting the enemy a sanctuary, as in the case of Korea, and explained how Nick Katzenbach’s suggestion had been negotiated between Katzenbach and Harry McPherson. He said, however, that the responsibility was only his own.

Senator Kennedy said he was glad to have this explanation. He had understood from the President’s speech that he was making a great effort. He had not understood the bombing limitation passage, but he had not criticized it. He was glad to have the explanation now.

The President explained Clifford’s conception of a step-by-step de-escalation. He said Tommy Thompson and Governor Harriman were ready for negotiations if the other side were ready.

Mr. Sorensen interjected that he had found the language of the speech excellent. As a speech writer, he thought it extremely well done. The whole manner of presenting the President’s case was that of a man searching for peace and prepared for peace. The President noted that the letters to Kosygin were better drafted at the time Sorensen was working in the White House than now. He noted also that Harry McPherson was not a belligerent-minded fellow and had helped to give this speech the right tone.

[Page 516]

Mr. Sorensen said the briefing had been extremely informative. It was a helpful session. He said there was an inclination in the press to divide us, but we don’t wish to keep divided. It would be good for the country if we were closer together. The President repeated that Nick Katzenbach would make available anything we had, as would Secretary Clifford. We would brief Senator Kennedy and his people just as we brief General Eisenhower and Mr. Truman.

If they had any suggestions for policy we would be glad to receive them and discuss them. In this way we could avoid the violent disagreements which are damaging both to the Democratic Party and to the nation. We must all pull together at this time. The President said that he felt no bitterness and no vituperation against Senator Kennedy nor against Senator McCarthy nor Nixon. He wanted to get peace above all. Some were urging him to stop all the bombing. But he had to take into account that towards the end of last year and early this year the North Vietnamese had sent down into South Vietnam large additional forces. Westmoreland, when he was here, had asked for a very substantial increase in the forces available to him. Secretary McNamara had worked it out so that we increased his forces by 45,000—to 525,000—planning to get the balance that Westmoreland wanted from the South Vietnamese (65,000) and extra divisions from the Thais and the South Koreans. The President had insisted that we get as much of the forces promised Westmoreland out by the end of 1967. By airlifting some, we had gotten out 102 of the 106 maneuver battalions promised Westmoreland by Christmas. Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese had raised their target from 65,000 to 135,000. The South Vietnamese had fought very well during the Tet offensive. Abrams tells us that of 149 maneuver battalions only 8 performed in an unsatisfactory way; 40 performed with military distinction; the balance good or better. We are now rushing equipment to them to improve their fire power.

In addition we are sending 13,500 support forces for the 82nd Airborne and Marines that we had sent out by air at the height of the crisis. This includes artillery, Marine communications, and other units necessary for sustained operations.

We shall call up some Reserves, but only when we are clear that they have a mission, equipment, and something useful to do. The New York Times story about a request for 206,000 cost the nation a billion dollars in gold.6 The President had turned down all requests beyond these supporting forces; although he intended to build back the reserves to a position where we had seven deployable divisions, as opposed to the 12 we had when we began to send forces to Vietnam.

[Page 517]

This could involve a callup of something like 30–50,000 men.

This is the President’s present plan and he does not intend to do more than this, but situations could arise which would require more. The Congressional committees had urged for a long time that the President call up the reserves even to the level of 460,000. McNamara had resisted this for three reasons: it put the country on a war footing; it would cost a lot; and it was not necessary. As Senator Kennedy will recall, we learned from previous callups that there is a danger that the men will have nothing to do. The President was determined not to repeat that error and was insisting that the callups from now on take place only when the mission was clear and all arrangements had been made. He had learned from his son-in-law, Pat Nugent, what could happen: briefings on the weather which had already been on the radio earlier in the day, and sitting around reading magazines.

Additional expenditures would be required for two additional M16 factories; to run the helicopter plants 7 days a week rather than 5. We would get the Thai division beginning in the middle of the year. It looked for a time as though the Koreans might wish to pull out their two divisions from South Vietnam, but we made it clear that if this happened, we would have to send our troops now in Korea to South Vietnam. We still hope to get the Korean division. We also had the expenses of the callup and movement of forces in connection with the Pueblo crisis.

We are encouraging the South Vietnamese to think about talking with the NLF. Thieu is amenable, but faces many difficulties in South Vietnamese politics. Ultimately the President believes they will talk. Bunker works at it every day. He now has Berger beside him. He believes it is better to move them step by step rather than to be excessively tough and blow apart the frail political structure in Saigon. At our urging, Thieu has removed weak Corps commanders and installed new and more capable province chiefs.

The President then turned to the Stockholm conference. He said that the results were good. The Germans had stood up with us against the French. The British had accepted a very tough budget and the pound was steadier; but the whole international monetary system would remain fragile until the Congress passed a tax bill. This was absolutely critical.

The U.S. experts had worked out a surcharge which exempted those under $5000 income. And this was fair. It may, however, have been too complicated. It would have probably been easier to restore the old rates. That was WILBUR MILLS’ view. If we had the old rates, our tax income would be $24 billion higher than it will be this year. The surcharge bill would give us an extra $9 billion.

[Page 518]

The President said that, in retrospect, he never should have repealed the tax bill. And his advice to his successor will be: Never lower taxes.

The President then summarized his key concerns for the nation:

  • —Vietnam;
  • —the Middle East;
  • —the tax bill and the deficit; and
  • —the question of the cities and race tension.

With respect to the latter, he hopes to emerge with as much money as we had last year for the cities. If he got the tax bill, he would be prepared to cut an extra $5 billion from expenditures, including about $2 billion from Defense. It would be painful, but possible. He does not wish to go beyond a $5 billion expenditure cut. Under these circumstances, he feels that he could bring the deficit down to the range of $8–$10 billion and that would be manageable and would stabilize the dollar and the international monetary system.

He expected Congress to cut aid and space appropriation. And he expected cuts also in roads and agriculture. He hoped that the poverty would have at least as much as last year. We might have to follow the procedure of awaiting the completion of the 15 appropriation bills by June 30 and then taking something like 2% off payrolls and 5–10% off controls. This would bring the budget from $186 to $181 billion, of which $2 to $2.5 billion would be non-Vietnam defense. The President is intent on not abandoning his basic domestic programs.

The President then said the Senator might wish to know that he was going out to Honolulu this weekend to talk with Westmoreland about his successor—and if it were AbramsAbrams’ successor.

The President explained Operation Pegasus and the opening up of the routes to Khe Sanh.7 On the whole, he thought the South Vietnamese had responded well to the Tet attacks; were coming back in pretty good spirit with an apparent willingness to stand increasingly on their own.

Mr. Rostow then explained at somewhat greater length how the enemy’s attack on Khe Sanh had proceeded; the role of air power in the withdrawal of some units; and the objectives of Operation Pegasus.

The President then repeated that Senator Kennedy should feel free to talk with Katzenbach and Clifford and also in the White House to Mr. Murphy, DeVier Pierson, and Walt Rostow at any time.

The President then said that he proposed that George Christian tell the press that the Senator had sent him a wire offering his cooperation. [Page 519] The President had accepted the suggestion. The Senator had come in and they had generally discussed the international situation: Vietnam and the whole picture. They might be meeting again from time to time. They did not go into politics.

Senator Kennedy then said that he wished to ask a question about the President’s political position. He had the highest admiration for what the President had said in his speech, but he wished to know where he stood. Would the President oppose Senator Kennedy’s candidature? Would he mobilize political forces against him? The President replied that he hadn’t talked to any other candidate. Mrs. McCarthy had called him; but he had not gone beyond what he had said in his speech.

He had told the Vice President last year that there was no certainty that he would run in 1968; in fact, he rather thought he would not run. The President said he does not wish to forego his options. He does not wish to mislead Senator Kennedy or anyone else. It is his hope that he would be able to stay as close as possible to the statement he had made on Sunday night and keep the Presidency out of the political arena, if that can be avoided.

The President said that he was not pure or holier-than-thou; but he was simply scared about the position of the country. He had asked the Vice President to meet him later during the day.8 He would go over the same ground as he had with Senator Kennedy. The Vice President had been an exceedingly good Vice President. He would not advise him whether or not to run. The President’s objective in the months ahead was to try to get as much done as he possibly could; to get as nearly universal support for his actions as he could, Democratic and Republican. He would like his successor to take over with as few problems as possible. If he thought he could do that job and engage in politics, he would have run. He concluded that he could not do it. Speaking subjectively, the President said that he thought he had done more for the young via education; for the Negro; and for the colleges—via the higher education bill—than any other President. But the fact is they feel a detachment from the President. This has been heightened by what Senator Kennedy, Senator McCarthy, and the Republicans have said. The President concluded that the country would not be served by having a controversial President in the middle of a campaign at a time when the nation faced such grave issues.

The President went on to say that in fact he had not wanted to be Vice President and had not wanted to be President. Two men had persuaded [Page 520] him to run in 1960: Sam Rayburn and Phil Graham.9 They had said that unless Johnson were on the ticket, John Kennedy could not carry the South. Without the South, Nixon would win. He would have greatly preferred to have continued to be the leader of the Senate.

The Vice Presidency is a job that no one likes. It is inherently demeaning; although no one ever treated a Vice President better than President Kennedy had treated him.

The President said, “I found myself in this place and did the best I could.” He had the feeling that perhaps Senator Kennedy did not understand his feelings about President Kennedy. When he accepted the Vice Presidency, he felt he went into a partnership with President Kennedy. They disagreed seldom, but they did disagree a few times. Once on civil rights, for example, involving an Executive Order including the banks and savings institutions. A few times President Kennedy was a little irritated with him and showed it; but no one ever knew; although on one occasion President Kennedy had asked Robert Kennedy to talk to him about a matter of disagreement.

As President he had continued to look on his task as a partnership with President Kennedy. He felt he had a duty to look after the family and the members of the firm which they had formed together. He had never asked a Kennedy appointee to resign. He had never accepted the resignation of a Kennedy appointee without asking him to stay. As President, he had felt President Kennedy was looking down on what he had done and would approve.

The President said he felt the press had greatly exaggerated the difficulties between Senator Kennedy and himself.

Summarizing his attitude towards the campaign, the President said he would vote; he would not forego the possibility of stating publicly his views; but he planned to keep out of pre-convention politics and keep out of the convention. He recalled President Truman’s ineffective advocacy of Harriman at the Democratic convention. He doesn’t plan to do that. On the other hand, he is making no commitments and he may say whom he will vote for.

Mr. Sorensen then pressed the point by asking: Can Members of the Administration work for one or another Democratic candidate? The President said he had no hard and fast rule; he would like to think about that. It is a decision he will make perhaps sometime down the road. He wants no role as a king-maker; but he also wishes to keep his options open. When he was in Chicago and saw Dick Daley he didn’t talk about the nomination. He may at some future time but he has no [Page 521] plans. As for members of the Administration becoming involved with one or another candidate, this is a matter he would like to consider before making a decision.

The President said that he had told only Secretaries McNamara and Rusk what he planned to do before he did it. Shrewd observers might have guessed something, however, through the decision of Governor Connally. Governor Connally had said he was willing to run for Governor only if the President was going to seek another term. It might have been noted that Governor Connally did not run.

The President is conscious of what the Senate did to President Wilson and President Truman. He simply did not command the leadership to get the results the nation needed.

As for the candidates, he had not talked to them and they have not talked to the President. He wanted it understood that he had a warm affection for the Vice President. No one has ever served a President better in that post. The Vice President has not indicated whether or not he is going to run. The President simply doesn’t know.

The President received more than 5000 telegrams in response to his speech, many asking to whom should they now turn. The President had answered them politely but did not respond to that question.

Senator Kennedy then asked this question: If the President decides to take a position on a candidate, would he inform Senator Kennedy before he does so? The President said: I will try to honor that request if I can be that cool—unless I lose my head in response to a particular situation.

Senator Kennedy said, I merely ask that so that I can be clear in my own mind as to your position. The President then said he would call Senator Kennedy if he decided to take a position in the campaign.

Senator Kennedy said he regarded the President as a brave and dedicated man.

The President then said that he would summarize his position and attitude as follows: He does not believe the country understands the gravity of the international position. There are many points of trouble: Vietnam and the Middle East, notably, but also Frei10 is in trouble; there is trouble in Brazil; Ayub11 is ill and no one knows who might succeed him; the India/Pak tension is just beneath the surface; the whole South East Asian situation is fragile in Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos.

In addition, there is the monetary situation, race problems, and the cities.

[Page 522]

The President would do his very best to get peace. He was not optimistic, but he thought all would benefit.

He would do his best to have a good summer. In fact, there would be more jobs this year than last; there would be more money for urban activities, although not as much as he wanted. The Ford group was getting well organized to provide jobs in the private sector; there were more housing starts in the cities. On the other hand, there were all the disruptive liabilities of an election year. He would do anything he could to maintain a stable country.

He would like to emphasize that things are more dangerous than people realize. He hopes that his successor can do better.

Concluding, the President said that he had responded to Senator Kennedy’s telegram because it was right for him to do so. He would try to behave the way he would wish Senator Kennedy to behave if their positions were reversed. He had already talked in this vein to Mrs. McCarthy. He would talk with the Vice President. The Senator should understand his great affection for the Vice President. He feels towards him the way, perhaps, Ted Sorensen feels toward Senator Robert Kennedy. But he intended not to involve his office in the campaign because:

  • —he would not be effective;
  • —it would not be consistent with what he wants to do with the Presidency; and
  • —if he were to get in campaign politics, he would have been involved on his own behalf.

He wishes to keep the freedom to do and say what he feels right later in the campaign, but he does not plan to enter it.

The President said that if there were any way in which he could have avoided being a Presidential candidate in 1964, he would have not run then. He wants Senator Kennedy to know that he doesn’t hate him, he doesn’t dislike him, and that he still regards himself as carrying out the Kennedy/Johnson partnership.

W.W. Rostow12
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Kennedy, Robert F. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting lasted until 11:41 a.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) The President discussed the meeting beforehand with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Daley, April 3, 1968, 8:23 a.m., Tape 6804.01, PNO 13) Soon after the meeting began, the President received a call from Clifford at which time they discussed what to say to Sorensen. (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, April 3, 1968, 10:30 a.m., Tape 6804.01, PNO 14)
  2. Kennedy sent a telegram to the President on April 1 requesting the meeting. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 172.
  4. Not found.
  5. March 31.
  6. Reference is to the March 10 story that broke news of the troop augmentation request; see footnote 2, Document 116.
  7. Operation Pegasus referred to operations involving the clearing of Route 9 to Khe Sanh which began on April 1.
  8. Immediately after the meeting with Kennedy, the President saw Humphrey. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) Notes of this meeting have not been found.
  9. Former Senator Sam Rayburn and former publisher of the Washington Post Philip L. Graham.
  10. Eduardo Frei Montalva, President of Chile.
  11. Mohammed Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan.
  12. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.