126. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk 1

President: Dean?

Rusk: Yes, sir?

President: I looked at this report from Read on Vance and Harriman this morning2—that the agreement on prior discussions and who's attending the meeting and all. I don’t like the sentence, but that's already there. We can't do much about it if it's there.

Rusk: Well, I think on that, Mr. President, that there is a protocol practice which we'd bring into play. That is, since each side would have its own ribbon copy, and in our copy we would put the order in the way we want them.

President: Yeah.

Rusk: So we can deal with that that way. So, that leaves the condition point and the time point, and I'm prepared to stand pat.

President: Ah, the one thing I just Don’t think we can give on, and I've talked to other people about this like Russell 3 and men that have [Page 359]some judgment of the Congress and the Senate throughout the country, we cannot take 5 years and say that we've got to have conditions, we've got to have reciprocity, we've got to know what the other side is doing, and come along and put in secretly that we did it without them. We just can't. He says you never could explain that or justify it. And he said, furthermore, suppose you have to start bombing back the next day, and then the only reason you've got is that they didn't comply with your conditions. That's the only justification. He said, when you let them put this in here, you make it very difficult to ever get back.

Rusk: Ah, what time are you leaving today, Mr. President?

President: I'm gonna leave about 1 o'clock, 1:30.4

Rusk: I'm—what I'm working on now are two or three formulas that would make Hanoi mad but it might encourage them to drop the whole idea. For example, that Hanoi understands that this is not reciprocity, but understands the basis on which serious talks can be held, or the circumstances in which serious talks can be held. Or balance off that other thing.

President: I understand that it'd break up the conference. You know what I mean. That's what you're saying.

Rusk: In other words, put something back to them that is so obnoxious to them they might forget the whole thing and thereby perhaps reinforce what may be some advice from the Russians on this point.

President: Another thought. Russell says we could if we had to come up a day, provided we could get Bunker and Abrams in here and really talk to them. He said old man Bunker's name has been in the paper and everybody knows him and respects him, and he ought to just say this is why it's essential. And Abrams ought to just say, “Now, I assure this will not cost us lives, that we can let it do more good in Laos and South Vietnam than we can do in North Vietnam in the months ahead.” And, he said, make it awfully hard on Nixon to question Bunker and Abrams, both career people, when they take the initiatives. He said that's why it's important that they be here.

Rusk: One of the problems is that at that particular moment it would be extremely important that they be there. Bunker and Abrams both are going to have quite a job of management in terms of not only the political side but—

President: Buzz says Abrams could be here without any trouble because he's got a good man who could do it if given the orders, and so [Page 360]forth. Russell, rather, urges Bunker. You think that Bunker's got to stay there?

Rusk: I think he's got quite a problem on his hands. I think this is just a lull moment. And if he can come—well, I can't imagine a time when it's more important for Bunker to be in Saigon to keep this thing planted down. Abrams would—could help considerably with mollifying Russell, and he could quote Bunker—give Bunker's views.

President: Yes, I guess that's what we better do. And Russell says we've got to have in writing that they recommend this. Otherwise, they'll say it isn't. But he said that if you've got in writing that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and Bunker and Abrams and all the Joint Chiefs urge you to do this, then you're on pretty safe ground and Nixon's on bad ground. But he says, Don’t give too long— enough to ruin you in this country, and you must not ever yield an inch on the “without conditions” or stuff like that, because he says if you do, they'll say, “Well, hell, they could have done this all the time.”

Rusk: Yeah.

President: And he said another thing, he says if you're going to have to, if you call this thing, we'll say, on November the 2d or the 3d, and the next day they Don’t mess with the DMZ or the cities, he said they'll be writing that from out there, and the people will in effect say, well, he did get some results. And if they do, you've got instant retaliation. So, you've protected yourself there. And he said he believed he'd just as soon that came before the election as afterward. What do you think about that?

Rusk: I think—I think that's all right. My own thought, Mr. President, was, unless you told me not to, that I would get a fellow like John Hightower in, others from AP and UP, a couple of reliable people, and give them a little backgrounding on this so that before very long in a matter of hours, why they'll be writing that there's something behind the scenes, the details of which are not fully exposed.

President: I think we have to do it and do it out there too.

Rusk: Yeah.

President: Okay. You call me before you leave to get anywhere, and I'll be here maybe til 1:30.

Rusk: All right. Bye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, October 26, 1968, 12:16 p.m., Tape F6810.07, PNO 12-13. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. The Daily Diary entry regarding this call reads: “current situation in Paris, Abrams and Bunker.” (Ibid., President's Daily Diary) A summary of the conversation is ibid.
  2. See Document 124.
  3. See Document 125.
  4. The President left at 1:51 p.m. for a day-long trip to West Virginia and Kentucky. (Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary)