135. Telephone Conversation Among President Johnson, the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow), and Secretary of State Rusk 1

President: Can he [Abrams] get here sooner than he can? I was under the impression he was ready to go. It was 20 hours at 11 last night. It looks like now it won’t be until tomorrow morning at—

Rostow: 5:30 [a.m.].

President: 5:30.

Rusk: Mm-hmm.

President: If they question them, I want to talk to him before we get signed onto something. I’m hoping maybe that Buzz can prepare them and then execute after we have our conversation—

Rusk: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

President: At 6 o’clock in the morning. I wanted to ask you two or three things. One, what is your feeling about the time to see the [Page 383] [Congressional] leadership and the candidates? Must it be before the order is sent out or should it be before it goes into effect?

Rusk: I would think that before it goes into effect and before the announcement. I think that the problem is that when you see them, you almost have to go straight into the announcement because they just won’t hold it, I’m afraid. And so, I would think, if you were to go into effect, say, tomorrow evening, that you’d probably want to see them sometime late tomorrow afternoon to explain to them. And I think at that point it would be a matter of your explaining to them why you have taken your decision rather than asking them to vote on it because I think this is a matter where the President carries a unique responsibility. But I don’t think—the principal reason I would shorten the time between the two is that I just Don’t think it would hold.

President: Is there any likelihood of adjustment in that time in any way? Is that too complicated?

Rusk: Well, I think the present time, unless the whole thing on the whole schedule is, say, put off 24 hours, I think the present time is pretty fairly locked on, I mean, in terms of relationships and the various factors. I think there may be an operational question about pushing the button tomorrow morning and having an announcement tomorrow evening in terms of contacts with various people that we’d have to—Bunker with Thieu, for example, is the primary one. I’m not so all that concerned about the—some of the allies, but we’d have to give them at least 2 or 3 hours advance notice. I’m sorry that Abrams can’t get back sooner. I was hoping that he’d be in here this evening.

President: Yes, I thought he could. But he can’t do it, I guess. They told me it was 20 hours.

Rusk: Uh-huh.

President: But when we got down to it, he just says 5:30 tomorrow morning.

Rusk: Uh-huh.

President: We’ll have to look into that and see what the delay is. First, he was delayed getting off for 4-1/2 hours longer than we thought.

Rusk: Maybe, I don’t know, do you, in view of what you’ve already got in cables and what the [Joint] Chiefs are prepared to say today, I don’t know whether you want to postpone this until you actually have a final talk with Abrams.

President: I don’t want to act on it until I do—

Rusk: I see.

President: Because then I might be on-again, off-again.

Rusk: I see. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

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President: What I’d really like to do, I wouldn’t object to in effect—well, you see what got it screwed up, you’ve got to add in 16 hours onto the product—

Rusk: Mm-hmm.

President: [Added to the time] of it, and it’s that 16 hours that makes a difference. You Don’t think that 3 or 4 of those would be manageable? Suppose—

Rusk: Well, I think for probably what we could do, if we had to have extra time, would be to, say, postpone the meeting until Sunday2 instead of Saturday, and just put the whole thing forward 24 hours.

President: At that point it would be too close to the election, you see.

Rusk: Yeah. I think it’s better to shoot for Saturday if we can.

President: I wondered—

Rusk: Although I think the announcement is the key thing, rather than the actual, in my own judgment.

President: Suppose we made the announcement at, say, 9:30 tomorrow night.

Rusk: Right.

President: And that would give us 12 hours before. Did Buzz say 12 hours or Abrams say 12 hours?

Rostow: Abrams did so. Buzz said 24.

President: Buzz said 24. Abrams said 12. That would give us until 9:30 in the morning. That’s what I’d really like to do if I could. 9:30 here would be, what, 10:30 [p.m.] out there?

Rusk: Ah, yes.

President: At night? Is that too late for Thieu?

Rusk: No, I think that would be all right as far as Thieu is concerned.

President: If we made the time 9:30 in the morning, that would give you whatever time you needed. It would be 10:30 in the morning [sic].

Rusk: It might be difficult to get some of our troop-contributing countries in that time frame. But we can—we can—let me just check the possibilities on that.

President: Give some thought, I don’t know if it would work, but we could say to Buzz: reposition everybody, the military, the top military, and we would try to say to you firm at 9:30 tomorrow morning. And we would shoot for a 9:30 announcement tomorrow evening, and [Page 385] we would ask for a 7 o’clock meeting tomorrow evening with the leadership and the candidates.

Rusk: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Now, you could—you might, if you wanted to, knock an hour or so off of that by seeing Abrams earlier—say, see him around 7:30 [a.m.], that kind of thing, and have your talk with him when he first gets in.

Rostow: You think we ought to be thinking of the 12-hour difference, rounding out the troop contributors a little earlier in the evening.

Rusk: I’m trying to figure out a way to get to some of the people like Park and Thanom, people like that, the Prime Minister of Australia, before the middle of the night because that would create some sensation in some of these places.

President: Well, let’s look at, then, Thieu at 8 o’clock, see what that does, and we’ll check his schedule and see why he’s so long.

Rusk: All right.

President: And, now, it looks to me like we have to go over the draft announcement carefully.

Rusk: Did you see that telegram from Bunker about the joint announcement going in this morning indicating that Thieu had said, “Well, that’s—we have about everything we can possibly expect,” or words to that effect? He seems to be very—quite pleased with the draft announcement.3

President: That part of the Presidential letter to Thieu?

Rusk: Yes. I think that’s a good letter, and I would send that along with the instructions to Bunker.

President: As part of the draft?

Rusk: When you push the button.

President: That message to the troop contributors—

Rusk: I’m sorry. I didn’t get the last.

President: That message to the troop contributors—have you reviewed that?

Rusk: I’ve got to—I’ll look at that right away. I haven’t seen that.

President: The President’s statement’s got to be worked on by your Department come today.

Rusk: Right. Right.

President: Satisfied with the Presidential letter to Kosygin?4

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Rusk: I think that’s all right for now. I think we ought to get going on more detail just as soon as this action is taken. But I think as a first message, that’s all right.

President: What else do you think I would need to do?

Rusk: I—I think on your business of seeing the candidates—did you have in mind seeing them together or separately? I can see problems about seeing them together. I don’t know that you would want those fellows, or that they would want, to be in the same room together under present circumstances. And I think that in your talk with Nixon, you might want to say some things very direct to him. For example, remind him that the Republican party is a stockholder in this situation; that they were in power when Vietnam was divided and the North became Communist as a threat to Laos and South Vietnam and Thailand; that they were the ones who made the SEATO treaty; and that they were the ones who recommended to—President Eisenhower was the one who recommended to President Kennedy we put troops in Southeast Asia. And remind him that the record here is such that they’re shareholders in this problem so that he doesn’t get too gay about it. I think my own suggestion would be that you try, if you can, see these people separately, if you can.

President: Have four briefings then, I guess.5

Rusk: Yes. I think that the candidates you might be able to take care of, well, I think in terms of—with Hubert, you could probably spend 15 minutes with him, not more than that. With Nixon, it might be 30 to 45. And not more than 30 minutes with Wallace. Now, if Wallace doesn’t want to come in, we maybe just tell him towards the end of the business on the phone. It sort of builds him up to have him come and sit with the three. I think you’ll have problems with the three sitting in the same room.

President: What do you think about the Leadership?

Rusk: I think they will be generally acquiescent but skeptical. I think they will have a measure of skepticism, as all of us will have. The Secretary of State cannot base his good faith to the President on what some Communists say, or Don’t say, or do, even if we had a treaty with red ribbons on it, and the President is not in a position to guarantee to the Leadership exactly what the Communists are going to do. We can say that in our best judgment the chances are sufficiently good to make this step worthwhile, and we Don’t want to lose any chance that seems promising. And, as a minimum, it would transform the real relationship [Page 387] with the Soviets to this situation in Southeast Asia because if a fellow Socialist country is not under attack, they haven’t got a leg to stand on. And our—the possibility of putting major pressures on the Soviet Union are multiplied several times when a step like this is taken. But you and I can’t guarantee to the Leadership exactly what would happen. What we can say is it’s our judgment the situation is such that it is a wise move to make and there’s a fair chance it will be a real step toward peace.

President: What—old Mansfield’s going to be out in Arlington; Dirksen’s going to be in Illinois; Albert’s going to be in Oklahoma; McCormack’s not going to want to fly—he’s going to be at Boston. What would you think about just having a conference call with them?

Rusk: I think that would be—how many did you have in mind having in—maybe 10 or 12?

President: I might just confine it to those four top leaders.

Rusk: And as well as the Republican side?

President: Yes.

Rusk: Uh-huh.

President: I said Dirksen and Ford.

Rusk: Dirksen—Oh, I see, Dirksen and Ford.

President: Dirksen’s going to be in Illinois. Mansfield, and Albert

Rusk: And the Speaker?

President: And the Speaker. There’d be five.

Rusk: I’d be in favor of a smaller number the better. First place, it holds better. And secondly, you Don’t create a sense of monumental crisis by getting 30 or 40 people in here from all over the country with special flights and things of that sort. And maybe a conference call will take care of it. If anyone of them then wants to see you, he can come right on in and see you.

President: ‘Cause you know after they hang up the phone they’ll be talking.

Rusk: Well, you’ll have to do your best to emphasize the timing factors and pledge them not to say anything about it until you do. I think that in the conference call, they’re likely to be a little better behaved on charges and counter-charges or anything of that sort. And Nixon on Sunday, despite, yesterday on, despite on some of the other things he said, pretty well left the pulpit on this particular subject. I think if he was smart he would roll with it. My guess is he will.

President: See, North Vietnam’s official radio tonight said North Vietnam is ready to accept any conditions in return for a U.S. bombing halt.

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Rusk: Well, that’s right. Well, they’re playing that line publicly, and I told Cy and Averell that they’ll have to make it clear that if North Vietnam does that, that we will have to—that we will be free to reply.

President: Well, now, what did you say to them about the—about their saying it’s unconditional after our talk last night?

Rusk: I told them that we were disturbed about that—that when they added that extra phrase that we would not object if they called it unconditional; that that looked like an assertion of the “without conditions” in our understanding with them in a way that’s to our disadvantage. And that we will probably have to ask them to make it clear to the other side when they see them next that if they claim this is unconditional that we will be free to reply. I regret myself that they just didn’t say that each side will be free to say what it wants to about it and leave it at that, so that we’re not tied in any way.

President: Why? What would we say?

Rusk: Well, he saw the point. He said he agreed it would have been better if they hadn’t specified that particular point.

President: I said, how will we reply?

Rusk: Well, I think we’ll, in the first place, background some press to go ahead with the speculation that we’ve already seen in the papers about what the terms are and urge them to give attention to the facts on the ground, and in fact to watch the DMZ and to watch the cities, and that will get them writing that there were understandings about the cities and the DMZ. I think if it’s Hanoi Radio or Nhan Dan editorials or something like that that a formal reply by the President or Secretary of State may not be required. I think that it could be the press is going to be writing on the basis of our opening statements that there were understandings involved here that were not being made public fully, and the people will generally rest with that for awhile.

President: When, would you think, if we announced, say, tomorrow night at 9:30, the halt, would you expect to enforce on both use of the DMZ and the cities?

Rusk: I wouldn’t do it in the official papers. I would let it be done—I would let it be done by a backgrounding.

President: I’m not talking about the statement. I’m talking about a fact out there—the performance on their part. You would expect them to start performing the same time we’d start?

Rusk: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

President: Well, will they observe that in 2 or 3 days?

Rusk: They ought to be able to. They ought to be able to.

Rostow: Every day they shell the South Vietnamese capital.

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Rusk: I don’t know whether you saw the intelligence this morning about the movement of four additional regiments in the northern part of South Vietnam—an artillery regiment and three other regiments withdrawing from Quang Tri province in the north into the North and one of them into Laos. That kind of thing, I think, is quite significant here and could be used with the Leadership. But that—that’s the sort of thing Abrams would be up-to-date on and could get you the material on in which to work on that.

President: I gather you think it would be better to have a conference call with them than to have the five of them brought in.

Rusk: Well, there’s got to be only five. I don’t think there’s too much difference on that.

President: We got Dirksen stirring up a lot of stuff in Chicago before he leaves, you know.

Rusk: I think what you might do is have a conference call. If things get too rough, then tell them to come on in. But I would think that you would not have too much difficulty on a conference call.

President: Would you try to figure out if we make a 9:30 announcement tomorrow night, we could reposition them today, and we could meet with Abrams early in the morning—6 or 7.

Rusk: Right.

President: And we could give Buzz the full 12 hours Abrams needed to reposition today, where he’d have 24 really but he’d have 12 before he executed. And then we see—got to see when Harriman and Vance inform their folks.

Rusk: I think we ought—myself, I think we ought to inform them secretly as soon as we issue the order so that they can get their guys on the road and we Don’t argue with them about the Saturday meeting.

President: All right. Well, you look at the 9:30 [p.m.], see what trouble it gives you. Or, I guess, 8 o’clock is what you—the last you suggested—look at what 8 o’clock does to you.

Rusk: If we can push a button at 8 o’clock here, we’ll try to work out a scenario and see what happens, and then we can adjust it if it goes beyond 8 o’clock.

President: We’ll talk back in a little bit.

Rusk: Right.

President: If you’ll do that, and then you make a list of everything you need to do.

Rusk: All right, sir. Fine.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Among Johnson, Rostow, and Rusk, October 28, 1968, 10:45 a.m., Tape F6810.08, PNO 7-8. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. A summary of the conversation is ibid. The President and Rostow spoke to Rusk through a speaker phone.
  2. November 3.
  3. See Document 136.
  4. Document 141.
  5. For the briefings of the candidates and of the Congressional Leadership, see Document 166 and footnote 7 thereto.