339. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the President’s Counsel (Murphy)1

Jones: I have missed this part. You say you have been working on something?

Murphy: I have been working on this thing with Hale Boggs and he has come up with some language that seems to me to be all right, and the Vice President will go along with it. Hale would like to personally tell you what the language is. In this language “to stop all bombing of North Vietnam unless this action would endanger the lives of our troops”—2

[Jones passed the telephone to the President.]

President: Charlie, it does. We got that positively. Let’s don’t mislead and deceive people. I had rather be a poor peasant and wear a wooden shoe than be out on the door by myself.

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Murphy: In that case, well—

President: The “unless” is no goddamn meaningful. We know it. Read Abrams’ wire3 in front of you. He says it does.

Murphy: Well, in that case, the language would not call for the bombing to be stopped.

President: Well, that’s right. But why do you want to imply that you are going to stop it? You’re just saying to Hanoi something that it would take me a year to explain and then they’d say I am running away from it.

Murphy: I suppose one consideration is it’s a really critical situation here at the convention and it looks like the chairman of the platform committee who is sitting here might not be able to go to his platform committee except with a disagreement between the President and the Vice President. He thinks that would be a terrible situation.

President: Well, the President is not going to agree to stop all of the bombing, Charlie. Period. Now I just hate to say it; I am just like you. I had rather vote for Nixon than to kill my boys.

Murphy: Well, I am with you, but I don’t think we can sell that. Now, Hale is here and he would like to—

President: I don’t want to get into that because I don’t want to talk to anybody at the convention. I don’t care what they would like to do.

Murphy: All right, sir.

President: I just positively don’t want to do it and I think you had better say you are talking to Jim Jones. That is why I asked you to go out there. If I had wanted to negotiate with each one of these individuals, I would go out there. I just can’t do it. But I would say to them—if they won’t go for the language that we suggested, which I think puts Hanoi off bad enough, then they have to go on their own responsibility, which I will not accept.4

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[The President then put Jones on the line to speak to Boggs. In the ensuing conversation, they discussed the language of the platform on Vietnam. Boggs expressed his concern over the likelihood of open disagreement between the President and the Vice President on this issue. Boggs also objected to the conditionality of the President’s preferred statement, especially the phrase, “This action should take into account a positive response from Hanoi.” He noted that the convention would break up over the inclusion of this formulation. Boggs expressed concern about presiding over something that would result in a three-way split among Johnson, Humphrey, and the doves, which he characterized as “utter pandemonium.” Jones then asked for Murphy and handed the telephone back to the President.]

President: Charlie, we are not going to write the platform from down here. These are responsible men. Humphrey says to me that he does not favor “stop the bombing.” If he tells the truth, he ought to stay with it. If he doesn’t, he ought to go on his own. Now it’s that simple. We do not favor any words that say “stop the bombing.” Let’s make that clear and repeat it over and over again. We do not favor any words that say we are ready to stop the bombing. We think that signals Hanoi that the convention has ordered the commander in chief to stop the bombing. That’s number 1. We think it plays politics with the war, number 2. We think it puts a bunch of draft-dodgers and pacifists who’ve never seen a uniform in charge of telling us that we can’t bomb the people until they get out of the DMZ or even then where they can run over our men. So we do not favor anything that says “stop the bombing.” Now, is that clear? Now, if they’ve got to have that language to satisfy their pacifists, the language ought to say what they mean. Now, the language that Dean Rusk and the [National] Security Council people and the President would not find it necessary to just get out and denounce, although they might not accept it or follow it, but just might not have to split off from, would be language that says this: “stop all bombing of North Vietnam when this action would not endanger the lives of our troops in the field.” Now that would mean—what we mean by that is this: the President would determine when, the [National] Security Council would determine when—the Vice President’s a member of it—the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State would determine when. Those policy decisions are made in Washington. But we could never stop the bombing if we thought by so doing we would have a bloodbath, and no son-of-a-bitch ought to ask us to. Now that’s number 1. Now that’s all we’re saying. Now then, if you want to go further, I don’t see any need to go further at all, but if you want to go further, you could say this action—what action—stopping the bombing—this action should take into account a positive response from Hanoi, or if you want to say a response from Hanoi. Now, we’re not going to just take this [Page 976] action unilaterally, as I said on March 31st. We’ve taken unilateral action at those two big cities because that would not endanger the lives of our men. But if I move it right down to the DMZ, where they can come through day and night instead of only at night, where they can come bumper to bumper, a thousand trucks a week were coming in July 15, we’ve got them down to 150 now, but if we stopped the bombing a thousand would start immediately next week. Now Abrams said it would increase their strength five-fold. Now he said when they increase their strength five-fold he has to pull out of the northern I Corps area. That means Chuck Robb and every damn one of them get run over. They’ve got to retreat. Now these fools who don’t know anything about it cannot tell us that we’ve got to retreat, because we’re not going to do it. Now if we have to be against the platform and say that we’re a bunch of idiots, and that we can’t have a Republican platform, we can’t even stand for the Democratic war as strong as Nixon does, why then we have to just say so, and let them write what they want to. But this business about its timing indicates that they are determined to stop the bombing and then the timing is a matter that they want me to hurry up on but they give me a week or so. So the word “timing” ought to be out of there, just whatever they say. Now we can’t do anything on “the prospect of the dream.” We did 90 percent of it and said that if you’ll match any of it, we’ll take further steps. But when they put “the prospect” in there, they just say I ought to take this action on hope. Now, I just can’t do that. And I think that we ought to say to them, that if its 30–30–30 [split between the positions of the President, the Vice President, and the antiwar Democrats], if Hale resigns, all these other things, there’s not any of them is as important as killing a bunch of men. Now, we’re just now going to kill the men, and now we’re going to say so when that platform’s over with. Now, if you give me the language which I’m going to say, I’ll give it to you and you can take it down and let Jim see it—wait a minute—give me that [to Jones]—you get you a pencil now and take this down—if we have a speech, Charlie, this is what we’re going to say, and this is going to be the President’s position. There’s no use in agreeing to something today and unwriting it tomorrow night: “This country’s pledge to freedom is written in the treaties that we Democrats and Republicans have concluded by solemn constitutional process. They link our safety to the safety of allies in this hemisphere, across the Atlantic, and on the western rim of the Pacific. They were made to prevent World War III and to protect the vital national interests of the United States. There could be no greater disservice to peace than to let those who might become adversaries think that these treaties might not mean what they say. Our fidelity is written in the blood that our sons have shed on battlefields in Korea and Vietnam, for where we had to fight to stop aggression before it led to World War III, [Page 977] we did fight. I know there are well-intentioned people who want to stop our bombing in Vietnam regardless of the consequences. No American wants peace more than I. Hanoi knows that I am prepared to stop the bombing—I have stopped it eight times. Today, four-fifths of North Vietnam is free from bombing, although every square mile of South Vietnam is subject to bombing with rockets and mortars. Need I remind you that the President is commander in chief. Those who carry the burden of the battlefield tell me that stopping the bombing of North Vietnam would increase several-fold the enemy’s capabilities at the DMZ and that such action would immediately require allied forces to withdraw from important strategic areas of I Corps. That is why I have said we cannot substantially increase the dangers to our own men by this unilateral action and why we need some response from Hanoi.”

[The President then noted that the Vice President had told him that he agreed with what the President had said at the August 18 VFW speech. The President added: “We are not going to change our position because I’ve got 550,000 men that are there, and I’m not going to do either of two things. One, I’m not going to substantially increase their capability and two, I’m not going to order my men to retreat.” He concluded with additional criticism of the Humphrey Vietnam plank.]5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Murphy, August 26, 1968, 8:04 a.m., Tape F6808.01, PNO 10–12. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. The President was in Texas; Murphy was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. According to notes of message to Johnson transmitted by telephone at 12:31 a.m. on August 25, Humphrey noted: “We’re doing well on the platform. I’ve been keeping a watch on it.” (Ibid.) Rusk’s assessment of the platform is in telegram CAP 82062 from Rostow to the President, August 18. (Ibid., National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, McCarthy Platform—1968) Another critique of the minority plank by Wheeler was transmitted to the President in telegram CAP 82215, August 28. (Ibid., White House Central Files, Conference Files, NB 19/CO 312, Vietnam, Situation in, January 1968)
  2. A draft speech for the President to deliver at Chicago by Rusk and Presidential speechwriter Horace Busby was transmitted in telegram WH 82068 from Rostow to the President, August 18. (Ibid., National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Speech Draft—President’s Address to the Democratic Convention) Rostow’s revisions are in his telegram WH 82076 to the President, August 19. (Ibid.) A finalized version of the speech was sent to Deputy Special Counsel Larry Levison from Califano in telegram LBJWH 8259, August 27. (Ibid.) Numerous other drafts and modifications of the speech are ibid.
  3. Document 337.
  4. The President was not so definite in a telephone conversation with Postmaster General Marvin Watson that day at 10:39 a.m. He noted: “I wouldn’t let anybody else know it because you tell somebody within the delegation, they’ll go tell some Texas reporter and it’ll be around. So we can’t tell anybody. But I would tell Daley that’s what we want to do and that’s what we plan to do, and that’s what you’re going to recommend to him, and you believe that if you tell me that he wants me and you want me and both of you say that there’s no danger and both of you say that there’d be a hell of a demonstration for me, you believe I’ll do it, but you can’t say, but you believe I will. And that you want him to be in a position to say that he invited me but hasn’t talked to me and hasn’t been in communication with me, where he can honestly say it.” In this same conversation, Watson and the President discussed a possible draft of Senator Edward Kennedy and whether the President would address the convention. (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Watson, August 26, 1968, 10:39 a.m., Tape 6808.02, PNO 5–6)
  5. The vote for the pro-administration Vietnam plank on August 28 was 1,576 in favor and 1,041 opposed. In a telephone conversation with Humphrey at 4:40 p.m. that day, the President informed him that while he could have come to Chicago, he had decided against it because Humphrey was “doing a good job” on the Vietnam plank. He suggested that the Vice President allow word of the President’s support for him leak out. (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Humphrey, August 27, 1968, 4:40 p.m., Tape 6808.03, PNO 3) Humphrey accepted the nomination on August 29. During a telephone conversation with the Vice President that day, Johnson recommended a number of prospective running mates for Humphrey. (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Humphrey, August 29, 1968, 10:41 a.m., Tape 6808.03, PNO 4)