20. Memorandum of Conversation1

  • The President
  • W. Averell Harriman
  • Walt W. Rostow

I had a brief talk with Walt Rostow before going in to see the President at quarter past 12. Walt came with me. (The President was most cordial. I thanked him for the telegram and flowers, etc.)

I went over the same ground with the President in some detail as I had with Dean.2 He did not argue about any aspect of it. He questioned me in some detail about my judgment of Kosygin’s attitude after the cessation of bombing, rather than before. I explained that Russia had the same commitment to NVN as we had to SVN. They were committed not only in hardware, but open-ended commitment on military personnel. They could not take any position as long as we were hitting what they called a Sister Socialist State and there would be a new situation if we stopped bombing NVN. We had no concern over the future of NVN; similarly, they would have little concern about SVN; but they would feel committed to support Hanoi in their position on the political settlement. On the other hand, they would be able to use influence. I underlined the desire of Eastern European countries to get a settlement, particularly Tito,3 Romania and Poland. He listened attentively and appeared to accept my conclusion. (After lunch, in speaking of this to Dean Rusk, he said, “Averell is more optimistic about our talks with Kosygin if we stop the bombing first.” Something to the effect that he thought “we ought to consider what Averell said”.)

The President listened to my statement about the understanding with Tho on the DMZ and my request for more leeway in discussions of the position of GVN in talks. The President asked whether I thought their intent was to accept the end of the bombing and then stall as they [Page 50] had for four months until a new President came along, or whether they would want to reach a settlement. I told him that I thought the latter would be the case, although it might take some time. They would accept an independent SVN, etc., according to the NLF program. Our major difficulty would be over who steered the government. We were insisting on Saigon having the lead; they would insist on the NLF. They would fight each item as long as they felt there was a chance of getting what they wanted. How far they would compromise I could not tell, but in any event by January 20 we would be well into the talks. The important question was to get the South Vietnamese talking among themselves in the hope of their working out a solution.

The President did not seem interested in the details but was interested in whether there would be a serious attempt to come to an understanding in the discussions. I pointed out the difference in the manner in which they were talking about mutual withdrawal of troops in last Sunday’s discussions with Tho4 than before, which encouraged me to believe they were thinking seriously of mutual withdrawal, but I couldn’t see now how we could police the withdrawal. I pointed out Tho’s question: why shouldn’t our troops be out at the same time theirs are out? I told the President time was rather short; I hoped he could make a decision within the next couple of weeks on ending the bombing, and I thought a meeting with Kosygin at the end of October would be too close to November 5th to be feasible and suggested mid-October as latest date.

(Note: In talking with Dean Rusk later, after the lunch, the President said you have to recognize our schedule is short and we have to have action (I thought he said late in October) or it would be too late. I commented that I thought before the end of September for end of bombing. He said “He meant all action including the Kosygin talk”.)

The President asked about Ohio.5 I said that I normally had some sort of a guess. I had none in this case. I explained the sense of authority [Page 51] that Le Duc Tho gave in talking to him. I couldn’t believe that they would want to transfer the talks to some junior person in Oslo. I said I couldn’t guess; we would have to wait and see.

I emphasized that bombing could begin at once in DMZ and just north if the DRV didn’t carry out its part. The President said that I was as bad as Dean in thinking it easy to start bombing again—he spoke of the 37 day pause6 and reaction when he started again, etc. I explained the difference between the present situation and then.

W. Averell Harriman 7


Dean told me that the President had said he had had an interesting talk with me and had covered a lot of ground. Rusk asked me to meet with him early tomorrow morning and go over the instructions needed. I told Dean I would talk the situation over this afternoon with Bundy.8 There were certain points I wanted to make and get a decision. On other points we might reach an understanding on what we had in mind.

W.A.H. 9
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Subject File, Johnson, Lyndon—1968. Top Secret; Nodis. The meeting lasted until 12:42 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) In a memorandum to the President, September 17, 10:15 a.m., Rostow transmitted guidance for the meeting in the form of five questions that the President should ask. (Ibid., National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Middle East and Vietnam Negotiations, September 1968) Rostow’s notes of this meeting are in his undated memorandum for the record. (Ibid., National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. I [1 of 3])
  2. See Document 19.
  3. Josip Broz Tito, President of the Republic of Yugoslavia.
  4. See Document 14.
  5. On August 6 DRV Ambassador to Norway Ngo Minh Loan suggested to the Norwegian Government that DRV Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Chan travel to Oslo before August 15 in order to reopen the indirect Norwegian channel of communication code-named Ohio. (Telegram 5963 from Oslo, August 7; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27-14 VIET/OHIO) The Department recommended that Davidson be sent to Oslo to act as the U.S. representative in these contacts. (Telegram 216977 to Oslo, Paris, and Saigon, August 7; ibid.) On the eve of the meeting, however, it was postponed by the DRV. (Telegram 221207 to Oslo, Paris, and Saigon, August 14; ibid.) Chan’s arrival in Oslo was re-scheduled for September 19, and his first talks with Norwegian Foreign Ministry officials were to begin on September 20. Davidson arrived the previous day for a briefing by Norwegian officials. (Telegrams 6605 from Oslo, September 18, and 6634 from Oslo, September 19; both ibid.) For the September 20 meeting, see Document 25.
  6. Reference is to the 37-day bombing pause during the period December 1965-January 1966.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  8. Notes of Harriman’s meeting with Bundy have not been found, but he did meet with Rusk during the morning of September 18. His notes of the conversations read in part: “We discussed problem of inclusion of GVN and I had to admit things would be difficult if we did not have an agreement. We couldn’t start bombing on this issue and we might have undignified and frustrative delay in Paris. He has Bunker and Saigon much in mind on this question.” Harriman added: “On Hubert and United States political situation, Dean is on another planet.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Subject File, Humphrey, Hubert H.—1963-1968)
  9. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.