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

[Omitted here is discussion of family matters.]

President: So, I called you this morning. We’re still wrestling on this general subject. We spent a long time with Kosygin [who] came in and leveled with me pretty heavy yesterday—said they got to do it and now’s the time and go ahead and quit arguing about details.2 While his letter was coming, we were talking to his man. I had initiated it ahead of time, and I told him that I wanted to be positive. Not only did these people understand—the North Vietnamese—that the GVN had to be present, which they had never agreed to before, but they had to also understand that we had the rules of engagement that had already been sent to Abrams that required him to act simultaneously with a response if the DMZ were violated or if the cities were shelled; that they had not agreed to that; we understood that; maybe they couldn’t. We wanted to be sure there was no language barrier and that all of them understood it. And, most important, we wanted to be sure the Russians understood it and that they felt like we were justified in acting on that assumption.

So, we laid it down pretty hard to the Ambassador. While we were talking to him, my personal representative—not in the State Department, one of my men—in came the Kosygin blast to really go now, and we’re still fighting on three points. One was who would attend the meeting, how we’d announce it. And we had agreed on that, Vance said this morning, and we will have a secret paper which says “on the basis of prior discussions, it is agreed that a meeting to find a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam problem will be held in Paris on date and time to be filled out. The U.S. has said that the RVN will be present and the DRV has said that the NLF will be present. Accordingly, the meeting will include representatives of the DRV and NLF, RVN and US.”3 So, that—

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Russell: I thought they’d already agreed to that some time ago.

President: Well, they—they—this is arguing about a secret minute, so it would be in writing, you see. They have implied—no, they’ve always held against this. But the last week, the breakthrough, if there has been one, has been that they have implied that [if] everything else could be worked out, they would let them come in. And that is what we are getting. Our people think that will give the Government of South Vietnam a hell of a boost in South Vietnam. It is tantamount to saying that they recognize this elected government. They let them come in, and I say, why didn’t it have the same effect on the NLF, but the diplomats say it doesn’t, and Bunker says it doesn’t. So, anyway, they think that we are getting a hell of a lot.

Russell: I understand that, but I guess its all right. I knew, of course, that they were going to bring the Viet Cong in there if they [we] brought in the Vietnamese Government.

President: Now, the next one on paragraph A, the DRV maintained its insistence on inclusion of the words “without conditions.” Now, we realize it is without conditions, although in effect by our telling them the DMZ and the cities that it really is a condition. Do you follow me?

Russell: Yes, sir.

President: Now, they want to put in the secret minute “without conditions,” and I don’t agree to that because I think that would make my other story look inconsistent. Do you follow me there?

Russell: Yes, I do, and I think it would make you look bad too.

President: Yes, but—

Russell: You Don’t have to spell out what the conditions are. But if you say “without conditions,” why that looks like you have surrendered a point that they were insisting on here 6 months ago.

President: At one point the DRV suggested alternative language to the quoted words to the effect that U.S. representatives stated that President Johnson in statements concerning cessation of bombing will not use the word “conditional.” But they added a second sentence to the alternative proposal that “representatives of the DRV understand this move is made without reciprocity.” We rejected this proposal. Now, we agree that they’re not agreeing to conditions, Dick, and we agree that we’re not getting reciprocity. But we are telling them what they’re going to get, and we are just stopping it for a day or two. And if we Don’t get that, if they Don’t try to de-escalate by these two things—the cities and the others—then we’ll go back to bombing. It won’t make any difference what happens. But I still think that we cannot have any language like that. But I would hate like hell for it to knock off our agreement. But, anyway, that’s one point that is holding.

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Now, the second one is—Thieu again asserted that the time interval could be discussed when and if the agreement was reached on the minute. However, after much discussion, the DRV representative finally stated that they proposed that if we stop bombing any time on X day the meeting could occur within a 6-day interval. So they have come down from 10 to a week to 6 days, and we’re still 3 days. Harriman and Vance said 3 days was our outside position. Now, that’s where we are now. Now, the question is, do I want to let this go and have the record show that I could have gotten it and let somebody else come in and agree to it right after election, or do I want to do it myself. That’s one question. The second question is how will it look to everybody in the country, and in the world, and in history, and in every other way. I do not want this war to go on one minute more. I want to de-escalate it as quick as I can. On the other hand, it seems I’d have a hell of a lot less problems with the country and with the world and with history if I did it the day after the election instead of the day before, or a couple of days before.

Now, that is what I’d like to get your real reaction on. Buzz Wheeler says that he and Abrams have got to have 2 days notice before so they can re-position their troops, so they can re-position their bombing orders for Laos and South Vietnam, and get extra targets and things of that kind.

Russell: Let’s see, it’s 11 days until election, isn’t it? Yeah, 11 days until the election.

President: Yes. Well, it’s presently what they would like to do now. They’d like to have the meeting on November 2d, and that would require halting the bombing on the 27th or 28th. Now I don’t think we can do that because I am not going to have this unless I go meet Abrams and look at his rules of engagement and have him look me in the eye and tell me that he urges me to do this. I am just not going to do it unless I’m sure. Now, you heard those other fellows the other day say that, and you have seen his letter. I got in Momyer yesterday,4 and he said he definitely recommended it; that he thought it would be much more useful; he didn’t want to say this publicly, but that he ran the bombers for a long time and that they need them more in Laos and South Vietnam than they do in North Vietnam. They’ll do a hell of a lot more good beginning this week. And he said that will be true for 4 months.

Russell: Is that Abrams?

President: No, that is Momyer, who was the air commander out there.

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Russell: Yes.

President: He has just been moved back to Langley [Air Force Base], and I got him to come up by himself. Did not tell him that the other Chiefs had even been in. Just said, “Now suppose you were President and you had this kind of proposition. What would you do?” And he said, “I would do it.” He said, “It is an acceptable risk. Your destruction can be more effective in Laos with the weather such as it is and in South Vietnam than it can in North Vietnam.” He said, “We can’t get in there over 2 days a month beginning now and lasting at least 90 days and maybe a 120.”

Russell: Did he give you that in writing?

President: I am sure he will. We took notes on him. That is in my note statement. Just like we took notes on what they all said the other day. Rostow takes notes on them all, and we got a quote from each General on saying that. And, of course, we would do it. I thought I might do this if it got that close to it. There’s nobody I can talk to even in the government hardly without getting it out except Buzz Wheeler and Dean Rusk. So damn many doves in every department. And you—that’s about all I can advise with or get it in the paper. But I thought I might have AbramsWheeler talked to me about it this morning—just fly into Honolulu a day or two before we had to, talk to him, and even if necessary just bring him on back here, and let him look all these leaders and candidates in the eye. He could probably be the most convincing man. I told Buzz Wheeler the other day that you had said that you thought his judgment would have about as much effect as anybody.

Russell: Well, I do.

President: He is not very eloquent, but he is tough and he tells you what he thinks. And the Commies are all out to get Westmoreland. I saw a report this morning—one of our Ambassadors down there said Westmoreland said the military ought to take over the country—it was Latin America where the Commies were, and they are trying to smear him, destroy him, I think, because he stood up out there. And he’s able and loyal, and everybody—and I think a good deal of South Carolina background. I just think the sons-of-bitches are after him. I read this mean report this morning from a fellow named Corey who is a left-winger with the Look Magazine outfit that Kennedy had in Africa, and we moved to Chile. But it was awfully ugly on Westmoreland. I don’t believe Westmoreland would ever say anything that ill-advised. I called Buzz Wheeler and he said it’s unthinkable—that he wouldn’t do anything like that at all. But they are smearing it all over. President Frei told the Ambassador that Westmoreland is saying that the military ought to take over Latin America.

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Russell: Latin America?

President: Yeah, the military ought to take over Chile, for instance, if they have any problems like they did in Peru and Argentina and Brazil and all these other places. In other words, he is advocating military government instead of civilian.

Russell: I don’t believe it. He may have done it in some one instance, some case where he knew the facts of it, the details of it, but I will be damned if I believe he is advocating any such thing as that.

President: He’s got too much sense.

Russell: If he thought it—he has got too much sense to say it.

President: But they really, you know, put it on you. Look what they’ve done to Agnew. I think Agnew is a good man.

Russell: He’s a decent fellow. Yes, sir, I’ve watched him, and what he says.

President: They’re just smearing him.

Russell: He’s a decent fellow, but they sure have driven him into the ground. They sure have.

President: So, what I—

Russell: Of course, he hasn’t broke out with ability, but he’s a decent man. He’s an honorable man.

President: The questions he asked us in the briefing and the way he conducts himself, Dick, are very judicious. A judicious man and, I thought, a good man.

Russell: He is a good man. He is a better man than Nixon. I would rather have him for President.

President: Well, my problem then is would it be better? You see, all the Democrats are going to say that we called the damn thing after the election so we can elect Nixon.

Russell: Well—

President: And the Republicans are going to say we called it before the election to elect Humphrey. And we’re not trying to elect—we Don’t give a damn about either one of them as far as—

Russell: It is a fact of political life that they will say that—some of them will, some of them won’t. A great many of them won’t. But, undoubtedly, there will be a great many that will say that. I don’t see how you are going to avoid that, whichever way you turn, whatever you do.

President: Therefore—

Russell: If, well, you can get it tied down, I would not, though, Mr. President, agree to have it written in the minutes that we agreed without conditions, without reciprocity of any kind, on this thing. I’d just [Page 358]leave that up in the air—not mess with it. If they are going to put that in the minutes over there, that’ll be published one of these days. I don’t know. If that gets out before the election, they will holler politics from here to high heaven. This election will turn around pretty good now, in my opinion. I am in a very isolated spot, but I can smell.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic political matters and the Presidential election.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Russell, October 26, 1968, 11:47 a.m., Tape F6810.07, PNO 10-11. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. The President, in Washington, phoned Russell at Winder, Georgia. The entry for this meeting in the Daily Diary reads: “talk about Lynda’s baby, general discussion of current status of peace moves and Paris talks, politics, General Abrams.” (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. See Document 122.
  3. See Document 124.
  4. See Document 110.