Learn about the beta

188. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary Rusk 1

President: [I told Dirksen] generally that Nixon ought to tell his people to quit sending word out; that it'd be better for him; and he ought to just stay with the position he's taken all along. He said Nixon very distressed by what I told Dirksen about this China Lobby. I read him what I had said to Nixon the other day, and also told him that what this fellow Finch—Lieutenant Governor—had quoted Nixon as saying he'd been misled.

Rusk: Right.

President: So Nixon called me—I told Dirksen that last night and Smathers that at noon today—and Nixon just hung up.2 Said he wanted to make it abundantly clear that he knew nothing about anybody'd been talking to them; and he knew George Ball and some of the others, the Humphrey people, were very gleeful, and said they pulled all this off—well, he knew that wasn't right; and that they were appealing to Hanoi and it was naturally guessed that some of his friends thought that he might be harder on Hanoi than I was; therefore, Hanoi ought to meet now; and some of his friends might think that I would be harder on the South Vietnamese than he would be; but that that did not represent his view; and that he was willing to go to Saigon and see Thieu immediately after the election or to go to Paris or to do anything that I ask him to do or anything that you wanted him to do.

Rusk: Yeah. Did you see him on “Meet the Press"?

President: No, no.

Rusk: He said that on “Meet the Press.”

President: That he wanted to be sure that there's just one voice; and that he felt that they were about out of the war; and that he felt that it could be wound up; and so on and so forth. So, I told him that I hope that his position would be, with all of his people, tell them to quit telling any of the sympathizers one way or the other, that there was but one [Page 546]American position, that's the one that we'd taken and he supported. He said all right, that he would do that.

Rusk: Uh-huh.

President: Now, I don’t know whether he knows, and I don’t want to question his sincerity, whether he knows of what they're doing or not. But it's pretty obvious to me that they've had their effect.

Rusk: Yeah. Did Smathers ever say about what effect it's having down his way?

President: No. He didn't think it had an effect one way or the other. He said a lot of people thought it was political—that we had done it for political reasons.

Rusk: Yeah.

President: And I think that everybody I've talked to here, I thought they would interpret it that way, and a good many of them have. I saw the leading papers here yesterday morning had lead editorials saying they were disappointed in me that I would hold out this long but then I would cave into the NLF the day before election, and things of that kind.

Rusk: Yeah.

President: And I want him to advise—I knew that they would charge that. And the other side would've charged that after the election. And I just thought that we had to take it up while we had it if we could get it. But—

Rusk: I thought myself that any of this wasn't going to change a thing.

President: I don’t think it's going to change a hundred votes. But I think a lot of people think that motivates us.

Rusk: Yeah.

President: That's the question. Now, how do you see it, as of now?

Rusk: Well, I, um, I don’t know how to estimate the effect here. My guess is, as I said in the press conference the other day, I don’t think it's going to have much effect. But I don’t really think there's much we can do to change the situation between now and Tuesday.3 In any event, I don’t think there's much chance really of getting Saigon to announce publicly during today or tomorrow that they're going to Paris, that kind of thing.

President: I told Nixon today, and I think I'm right, I said we thought that Thieu would come to this conference. He had signed on two or three times, even agreed to a joint communiqué.

[Page 547]

Rusk: Yeah.

President: But we knew we had problems, and I stated to you that we had problems. And I read him the paragraph where I said even the old China Lobby's operating again and causing us some problems out there. And he said—

Rusk: On “Meet the Press,” he absolved you personally of any motives of this sort. He managed to get in some of what some of his advisors had said, and he said he dissociated himself from them. And then he said he would go—he thought that Saigon ought to go to the table in Paris; that he was willing to go to Paris or to Saigon, or to do anything else that you wanted him to after the elections; that he thought you were doing the right thing, and he was supporting you on it. So, he managed to get in these other wrinkles.

President: Yes. I don’t think they say these things without his knowledge.

Rusk: Yeah.

President: Of course—

Rusk: Well, certainly not without active knowledge of something that's put out there out somewhere.

President: Ah—was Agnew doing the telephoning from New Mexico?4

Rusk: WaltWalt said he was the only top man in New Mexico that he could find—that Agnew was in New Mexico. And if he did do this, just after my telephone call with him, then he and I have got a problem.

President: Did he call you from New Mexico?

Rusk: I don’t know where he called me from, because I didn't have to check that with him. At the time, I thought nothing of it. I had so little information.

President: See if your operator hadn't got that tomorrow.

Rusk: All right, I'll see if I can.

President: Ah, well, what do we do now—just say nothing?

Rusk: I would think we—we ought to hunker down and say nothing at this point.

President: What about Cy's talk today?5 What'd you think about that?

Rusk: Well, Cy and Averell are very embarrassed by this situation. But—and it's obvious, I think, that Hanoi's gloating a little bit over this [Page 548]situation. But I think Hanoi—that Harriman and Cy ought to relax a bit until we get it straightened out and not feel defensive. And we've done everything that we said we were going to do, and if we Don’t collect on the side of it quite as soon as we hoped to, Hanoi can—doesn't have to—we Don’t have to trigger anything from Hanoi on that.

President: Didn't we have an agreement with Hanoi on the 6th?

Rusk: Yes. They were ready to meet on the 6th.

President: That cable indicated today that they—I thought that they didn't understand. They were angry because I mentioned the 6th. You know—

Rusk: Oh, well, I wouldn't pay attention to that. But no, we indicated not before the 6th.

President: Yes, that's what I thought.

Rusk: That's right. Yeah.

President: Is that what I said in the speech?

Rusk: Ah, that's right—that they'd be—that the GVN would be free to be there on the 6th. And they had agreed on a sooner date than that. So they had no right to depend on them then. Because we said, “Fine, if you Don’t like that, what do you want us to do? Start the bombing again?” It's a deal-breaker on something like that.

President: Are Cy and Averell irritated at us?

Rusk: No, I think they're—in the first place, they've had as strenuous a week as we have. They've been on the phone 24 hours a day, and I think both of them are a little tired at this time. But they are as disappointed as we are. And since they are the ones that have to face these fellows across the table, I think they feel a little embarrassed, which professional negotiators should not have to feel—but I think they do. It's inevitable, I think.

President: Just their giving South Vietnam a little hell.

Rusk: Well, I expect that they have some strong thoughts on that—South Vietnam—yeah.

President: Mm-hmm. What do you think Thieu's going to do? Do you think that he's—

Rusk: That he's coming to the table? Yes. Regardless of which one of these fellows is nominated—is elected, I think that he'll come to the table when Nixon says “I'm with the President, and I want you to do what he wants to do,” or if Humphrey's elected, he'll come to the table because he has no other alternative. I think he'll come.

[Page 549]

President: I think you ought to see that that transcript of “Meet the Press” goes out to Bunker.

Rusk: Right.

President: Nixon's “Meet the Press.”

Rusk: Right.

President: What do you think I say? Just I got—just we're just watching things, and I'm not going to say anything until I get back to Washington.

Rusk: I don’t think I'd make any statements down there on the—

President: I'm not gonna make any, but I'll be running into hundreds of reporters. I'm speaking at 4 o'clock.6

Rusk: Well, I think you just tell them, in the last hour that the matter became unhooked. We had a good, solid agreement with the South Vietnamese. But then they had some internal problems of their own, all these secondary questions. And then at the very closing hours, the arrangements came unhooked. But we had been working with them and had been in full agreement with them for about—for several weeks before this.

President: Okay. Thank you. All right.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, November 3, 1968, 2:18 p.m., Tape F6811.01, PNO 8. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. A summary of this conversation is ibid. Johnson called Rusk, who was in Washington, from his Texas Ranch. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)
  2. See Documents 181, 186, and 187.
  3. November 5.
  4. On November 2 Agnew stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during a campaign trip. Following a telephone conversation between Agnew and Rusk, a call from Agnew's plane was placed to the Nixon-Agnew campaign headquarters in Washington. See Document 212.
  5. See Document 184.
  6. See footnote 11, Document 173.