192. Telephone Conversation Among President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Clifford, Secretary of State Rusk, and the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1
President: Hello, Dean? I think you and Clark and Walt ought to meet on this Saville Davis thing.2
Rusk: Yes sir.
President: It concerns me a great deal. I don’t want to be in the position of me being a McCarthy. I don’t know much more than I told the candidates themselves the other day, which my notes will reflect there. Namely, these folks had tentatively agreed out there to go along and then they started having doubts because we had reports of some folks—the old China Lobby—contacting embassies, et cetera. Now, I can’t get much more specific than that, A, because of the sensitivity of the source—
President: —and B, because of the limited nature of the information. I told Smathers that, Senator Smathers, who called saying that he understood from what I told Dirksen that I was likely to make public this information if it were confirmed and if they kept interfering with it.3 I also told Dirksen that I believed that the friends of one of the candidates was reporting to the folks out there that they ought to wait.4
President: I did that on the basis of two things—one, the intercept from the Ambassador—
Rusk: Right.[Page 556]
President: —saying that he had had a call and the boss said wait and so forth, and second, this China Lobby operation, the Madame involved.
Rusk: Yeah, that’s—
President: Now, I don’t want to have information that ought to be public and not make it so. At the—on the other hand, we have a lot of—I don’t know how much we can do there and I know we’ll be charged with trying to interfere with the election. And I think this is something that’s going to require the best judgments that we have. I’m rather concerned by this Saville Davis conversation with the Embassy this morning.
Rusk: Now, which conversation?
President: The Christian Science Monitor man called the Embassy this morning and wanted to see the Ambassador and he was unavailable. He told the party answering that he wanted to check out a story received from his correspondent in Saigon; that he planned to come to the Embassy and wait until he could see him; that the dispatch from Saigon contained the elements of a major scandal which involves the Vietnamese Ambassador and which will affect Presidential candidate Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it.
President: He speculated that should the story be published it will create a great deal of excitement.
President: Now, what he gets from Saigon is well and good and fine. But if he gets it from us, I want to be sure that A, we try to do it in such a way that our motives are not questioned and that if the public interest requires it, and two—and that’s the only thing I want to operate under, I’m not interested in the politics of it—the second thing is I want to be sure that what we say can be confirmed.
Rusk: Well, Mr. President, I have a very definite view on this, for what it’s worth. I do not believe that any President can make any use of interceptions or telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we cross over that divide we are in a different kind of society.
Rusk: Now, if this story is coming out of Saigon, I don’t myself see how it could have come from American sources in Saigon because we’ve been extremely careful not to pass along details of this sort of thing out there. It could have come from South Vietnamese sources—I don’t know. Did Saville Davis say from what kind of sources it came?[Page 557]
President: No. He just says that he informed the Ambassador he wanted to check out a story he received from a correspondent in Saigon, and he planned to come to the Embassy and wait for the Ambassador to see him. Now, he has also tried to see the White House.
Rusk: Well, I would think that we are—that since we are not involved in any contacts that the Republicans might have had with the South Vietnamese Ambassador, that this a matter on which only the Republicans could comment, and that we stay out of it completely. I really think that it would be very unwise. I mean, we get a lot of information through these special channels that we Don’t make public. I mean, for example, some of the malfeasances of Senators and Congressmen and other people, that we Don’t make public. And I think that we must continue to respect the classification of that kind of material. And I think that all of what—all we can say is that we are not going to comment on such matters; that’s for others to comment on if they have anything to say on it. But be very sure that we ourselves are not ourselves putting out this story.
President: Clark, do you have any reaction?
Clifford: I couldn’t—I could not hear what Dean said.
Rusk: I can’t hear whoever that is.
Clifford: I can hear the President very clearly, but all I can hear is Dean’s voice, and I can’t get his words.
President: Well, Dean just says he doesn’t think that we can confirm or say anything or have any comment in connection with it on the basis of the sensitivity of the information.
Clifford: Well, I would think that there would be a good deal of merit to that. I’d go on to another reason also. And that is, I think that some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story, and then possibly to have a certain individual elected. It could cast his whole administration under such doubts that I would think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.
President: Well, I have no doubt about that. But what about the story being published and our knowing of it, and our being charged with hushing it up or something?
Clifford: Oh, on that, Mr. President, I don’t believe that would bother me. I think that the amount of information that we have—that we Don’t think we should publicize—it has to do with the sensitivity of the sources, it has to do with the absences of absolute proof. So, I don’t believe we have the kind of story that we’d be justified in putting out.
President: All right. I think both of you should have a paragraph from this report so you can look at it, and also a question from Nixon in [Page 558] the light of what his people are doing again today. They are going back over this thing, and he’s having Senator Tower to say it’s politics and stuff like that. But in this conversation the other day at which you were present, I said to him that this thing—we’ve had these three propositions up to them for some time, since certainly the early part of October they were nibbling—that because of some of some speeches—I had in mind the Bundy and Humphrey speeches, and Humphrey was on the other end of the line, and certainly McCarthy’s type of stuff—because of certain speeches that were made at that time, I don’t know what effect they had—but anyway they went off and kind of let up for a week or so to Hanoi. Since that time, we had gone out to our allies and got them to tentatively agree—emphasize tentatively agree—that this would be a wise move. Then the old China Lobby starts operating, contacting some Embassies and others, and that interferes with the situation. That I knew from what they had said to me previously—the three candidates—that they were not being responsible for this, but that I thought they ought to know that it created some minor problems and we were trying to work them out. A little later, Nixon asked a question whether we would stop bombing the South, and then said, “Of course, Mr. President, I know you Don’t know whether the conference will come off or not,” implying that I had made my point that they had these problems. But—“Would you stop bombing the South?,” and I told him, “No, I wouldn’t,” and so forth.5
Now, he takes the position that he was under the impression that South Vietnam was going to be at the conference, and I told him yesterday, “We are all hoping it would be at the conference, and we had believed, up until this China thing got into it, that we had reason to believe that on two or three separate occasions that the President [Thieu] shared our view, but after this got into it, it created some doubt,” and I told him of that doubt. He would keep running away from it. I reminded him of that a time or two. I noticed that a little bit later he said in California, something that kind of confirmed what he said on “Meet the Press,” that all of us thought South Vietnamese’d be there and so forth. But he didn’t say that he had been warned.6 Now he has been warned. That may be a little too strong a word for it, but we told him we did have a problem with it, and he knew that, and I confirmed that with Humphrey yesterday too.7 So I think, Walt, you ought to get—I’ll get Jim Jones to put on the wire to you, Walt, the two paragraphs I have in mind. You see that they get two—one for you and one to Rusk and one to Clifford.[Page 559]
Rostow: I have them. I can send them very quickly, sir.8
President: Well, you get the Nixon question and you also get—there’s a good part there. I’ll try to get it to you because I specifically want to show you what I want them to see.
Rostow: Yes, sir.
Rusk: All right. I’ll wait for it.
President: What did you say, Dean?
Rusk: That’s right, that’s fine. I just think our strongest position here is—if such a story is going to run, and my guess is they’ll publish it anyhow—is for us to say that we’re in no position to get into that kind of thing; not confirm it. But even no comment from us would tend to leave open the possibility there might be something in it. But I just think it’s not for the President or the Secretary of State to appear to get into that story at all.
President: Is that your opinion, Clark?
Clifford: See, I still can’t hear Dean, Mr. President.
President: Dean says that it’s his opinion that we should just say we cannot get into that at all, period.
Clifford: Well, I better have a talk with Dean about it. I think that would indicate that maybe we had information and chose not to get into it. Maybe we would want to say that we’re looking into the story if they publish the story, that we’re looking into it, or something of that kind. Why Don’t—after we hang up, why Don’t I talk to Dean directly. Then I can hear him.
President: You do that, and—
Rusk: I can’t hear Clark from here, sir.
President: Okay, you do that, and I’ll get this information to you. You three get together right away. And I will proceed on the assumption that we just do nothing and say nothing and stay out of it, and you all do the same thing. And I don’t think Walt should see Saville Davis. He wants to see Walt now.
Rostow: I told him I would not see him, sir.
President: That’s good.
Rostow: My secretary told him that I would not.
Clifford: Are you still on, Walt?
- Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation of Johnson With Clifford, Rusk, and Rostow, November 4, 1968, 12:27 p.m., Tape F68.09, PNO 5-6. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. The conference call, placed by the President from his Texas Ranch, ended at 12:53 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) The Diary records a telephone conversation at 11:37 a.m. between Johnson and Rostow and summarized it as follows: “Walt wanted the President to know that Saville Davis of the Christian Science Monitor had a story from their Saigon correspondent that says that Nixon got to Thieu to change his attitude. Saville Davis wants to know if we can confirm this. The President told Walt that he couldn’t confirm anything. He had his suspicions, but just didn’t know. Told Walt not to talk to him, but to have him referred to the State Department.” (Ibid.)↩
- For concerns about a similar problem, see Document 189.↩
- See Document 186.↩
- See Document 181.↩
- See Document 166.↩
- See Document 187.↩
- On November 3 the President met Humphrey at a campaign rally in Houston. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary)↩
- See Document 194.↩