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

Clifford: But by the time you got back, say Wednesday,2 I think you’re coming back—we could then have a memorandum. If we can’t agree, then we can set forth the items where we are in agreement and then others that we could sit down, maybe just the four of us, and talk out, because I think we are getting to a point where possibly because of an unsuccessful offensive on their part, possibly because of a concern on their part about the political situation in the U.S., that they see nothing ahead of them, there may be the possibility still in the next 3 or 4 months where great progress can be made.

President: I agree with all that. I think that’s a good plan. My thinking is this, and maybe you can understand, if you have this little background—I’ll try not to be too long—maybe you can weigh this in your drafting. Number one, I think a basic weakness of this government is that we do not come up with enough of possible outlines and suggestions and proposals for the other side to look at and evaluate and amend and moderate and so forth. And I think we just say we’ll go on fighting, we’ll stop the bombing, if you’ll stop everything. But you’re not going to stop anything. That’s our position, period.

Now, I happen to be one that never thought this was going to be a short operation over there. And I think it’s going to take time and [Page 2]I think it’s very likely to go into a long time in the next administration unless we surrender and pull out. And then I think it’ll in time come back, flame in again, and get hot, much wider territory. I would like for our record to show that our people are seeking peace so much, yearning for it so much that every month or so that we say, well, if this wouldn’t work, maybe this would. I would naturally like for that to go through our people in Vietnam—uh, in Paris—now that we have these contacts. It seems to me that we have a great obligation and duty to give them more than we do give them. They’ve got to sell real silk socks like I did when I was a kid, and when they just gave me four colors, I couldn’t do much business. But when they expanded the lot, and I had about eighteen, I could really move them. And I think we’ve got to give them some more colors to look at.

So I have tried to encourage State as well as our shop to be thinking of anything that we could legitimately give, and we could give our bombing, and what could we get that they could live with. Of course, if they’d re-establish the DMZ, I think we could get the JCS and everybody to go along. I Don’t see how they could do that because that would be a signal that the South’s not going to get any more help, and so on and so forth, and there’s two Vietnams. But if we could find out, and I just plain Don’t know, this is detail and technicality, we ought to find out if we were in their place what they could live with that we could live with. Now, I’m not about to run on that platform—run out on it. I Don’t want to wiggle from it one goddamn inch. I’m not a McCarthyite at all. I think he’s wrong. I think he’s unsound. I think that McGovern’s unsound. I think Teddy Kennedy’s unsound. Now maybe that that’ll be our policy in January and maybe Humphrey will come to that. But I honestly believe that their views—those in the Pentagon, among your civilians, the Enthovens and that group, and a bunch over in State too, I just believe they’re unsound. Now maybe, maybe they’re not. But I would like, though, on my own to try to have something more than we’ve got.

Now I was very interested and encouraged by your thought that here was something we could offer, and if they didn’t—they’d have to take one of three courses. The thing that I found wrong with it was that I didn’t think that you had the experience in stopping the bombing that I had had, and I think that it was kind of a professorial, idealistic, unrealistic approach to assume that we could ever stop the damn thing and get back in. And then I thought you were a little fuzzy on really whether we would get back in or not, whether you’d just come charging and say you damn right we will. That one had a little more appeal to me. And third, I didn’t think we could do any of that before the convention anyway because it’d be for political purposes. So, my thinking is, A—I want new proposals any damn kind, I’ll pay a reward for them.

[Page 3]

Clifford: All right. [chuckle]

President: By God, I’ll pay a premium, just like we do on our pole cats down there we sell. If it’s got a little white on its back, I’ll give a little extra. We used to ship them up to Funston’s in St. Louis where you lived. But anybody that’ll get us something that we can live with that might conceivably perhaps be appealing to them, so A—Averell can present it, B—so the Pope could have something that’s new that he could say, “I believe this could be done,” because I’m very anxious to give him a little something to chew on, because I’m holding him. Otherwise, he’ll be against us if we just keep on not ever finding anything for him. I want someday without hurting anything to do that. Third, at Oslo, I want something besides just the plain ABCs.3

Clifford: Yes.

President: Now I Don’t have the staff right under me that can come up with eighteen proposals. Defense has a group over there that I know want peace. And Rusk has a group of policy planners and so forth, and Rostow. So I have said to Rusk, please, please, spend the next month on getting us some initiatives here. I’m not really for putting them out in public. I’m for saying to Kosygin, “Now, you tell us that here on Czechoslovakia this is none of our damn business, and here’s generally about how our people feel about what’s going on, and we think it’s just as dangerous, more dangerous, in Eastern Europe than you think it’s dangerous in Southeast Asia. So, we feel this very strongly, and this is our view. Now here’s how we feel about Southeast Asia. You say that you think that you “have reason to believe” that something would come. Well, I have reason to believe we could do this if your reason to believe is any good, and give him something, I Don’t know what the hell it is, that he could work on.

Clifford: Yeah.

President: At the same time, I would tell Averell, “Now here, we’re going to do this with Kosygin, we’re going to do this with the Pope.” I would like when Nixon comes in on January 21, and he says, “Okay, what is it this crowd did? What did you do last year?” And I would say, “Well, Rusk and Clifford proposed on September the 3d that we go this far, and we did. And on September the 9th, we said to the Pope this. And on September the 18th, we said to Harriman this.” Or maybe Harriman first, and then the Pope, and then Kosygin.

Clifford: Right.

President: Now that’s all I’m saying. That’s rather disjointed. But I’m not trying to get a letter off to Kosygin yesterday.

[Page 4]

Clifford: That’s good.

President: I’m just trying to say to him, “For God’s sakes, let’s get something that will be sure.” Now, I really Don’t think it’s going to come to much. But I want to be an optimist. Now I said to Humphrey, “What I’d like to do is to be able to say to Harriman, ‘Now I’ve talked to Humphrey and Nixon, and you can tell the North Vietnamese there’s going to be no division in this country, that we’re going to be one man until a new President takes office and they Don’t need to count on any divisions among us.’” And Humphrey said, “That’s fine by me,” and Nixon had in effect said that to me before. “Well,” I said, “let’s wait ‘til next week and I’ll be back up there.” Well, goddamnit, he went right to the newspaper and called a press conference and said that this is what he thought ought to be done. Now you can see Nixon’s not likely to accept Humphrey’s proposal. But he just doesn’t understand. Now I would hope that next week we could get a couple of sentences that would say something like that and let Rusk quietly communicate it to Harriman, let Vance tell them some evening, that here’s what we’re authorized to say on behalf of Nixon and Humphrey and the President.

Clifford: I’ve got the picture. That’s very helpful. I’ll have my notes ready and the three of us’ll meet tomorrow. I’d like to come up with something so we have—in any event, I’ll have a paper for you on Wednesday so you can look at it.4

President: All right.

Clifford: And it will have some ideas in it and that may spring other ideas.

President: Well, what we could do, if you want to, Wednesday, before we have our [National] Security Council meeting, you could come in. I hear a lot better sometimes than I read from you. I think you’re the best pleader I ever heard. So I would like to have you outline for me any thoughts that you have. Now, I had thought seriously of asking you to come down here over Labor Day and come in and just sit here and talk like in a full day like I’ve talked in ten minutes here. I concluded against it. I talked to Rusk on the phone and told him what I thought instead, and I concluded against it for two reasons. One was, I didn’t know how quite to do it without Rusk being in on discussing this kind of proposal. And the second thing—I Don’t want to take you away from your golf Labor Day. And third, we had miserable weather anyway, and it’s a long six hours on a jet that can be used absorbing a little rest for the week ahead. I do think, a propos what you said the other day, that you might say to Jim Jones, “Now let’s do this in a quiet period, [Page 5]and give me—I Don’t want but 15 minutes. My guess is it’ll take an hour. Heh, heh. So, let’s just set aside an hour and let’s be damn sure we set it so another meeting won’t be crowding us. And let me try to explain some things, and let the President ask some questions and maybe explain his feeling to me.” And then I think we might either—the four or five of us—go out on a boat and visit around some if we still have sunshine or [Camp] David, or something maybe next week, and continue to probe. I’d like to let Nitze run the Department, and Katzenbach, and Brom Smith, and let you and Rusk and Walt try to figure out things that A—will give us some hope of success, that B—will at least be treating the American people fair, and C—that we’ll damn sure look good before an investigating committee in February when they say what in the hell did you do.

Clifford: That all makes a lot of sense. What we need is exactly what you have in mind. It’s what I need. I mentioned it before. It’s a chance to sit down where we Don’t have to be careful or cautious for somebody else that’s there. But with this—with the four of us, I can speak completely freely, and I’m sure they can, and I feel that you can. And that’s really what we need. We can take it all apart. And I can make any kind of suggestions, and Dean [Rusk] feels free to knock them down, and I can knock his down, and out of it can come something. The record is important, but I still feel that out of it can come something that in my—as I’ve said all along, it will be the crowning glory of your administration.

President: Well, we just sure Don’t want to be just the kind of hot-heads and hard-heads and stubborn Dutchmen that won’t consider anything. It’s awful hard to consider something when you haven’t got something.

Clifford: Yeah.

President: And I have this feeling too. Tommy [Llewellyn] Thompson is going back. Before he goes back, I’m going to talk to him. Nixon’s anxious to talk to him too. I would like very much to give Thompson a pretty good feel of several things that might perhaps maybe have some appeal where he can have something besides just greetings and the damn formal stuff when he gets back talking to his people and can kind of have something to try to appeal to them with.5 So, I’m going to try to see him Wednesday or Thursday. And maybe out [Page 6]of that, before we get a letter, we can say, now, here, would you try this on for size with them.

Clifford: Mm-hmm.

President: Okay.

Clifford: Thank you.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, September 2, 1968, 10:10 a.m., Tape F68.06, PNO 4. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. Clifford, in Washington, called the President at his Texas ranch, where Johnson was staying August 23 to September 3. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. September 4.
  3. Reference is to the indirect channel to the North Vietnamese through the Norwegians; see footnote 5, Document 20.
  4. Not found.
  5. In a meeting with Dobrynin on September 6, Thompson informed him that the President would be willing to overlook any potential domestic criticism and meet with Kosygin to discuss strategic matters. Thompson’s memorandum of conversation is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. XIV, Document 293.