213. Editorial Note
On November 12, 1968, Secretary of Defense Clifford held a news conference at the Pentagon. In response to charges that the administration enacted the bombing halt without prior agreement with the Government of South Vietnam, Clifford related the step-by-step process of negotiating the October understanding. He specifically referred to Vietnamese assent to each move, and he characterized the understanding as being “as clear as two partners can have, over a substantial period of time.” He then made the following statement:
“Now, here is the position the President was in on Thursday [October 31]—and I might say I feel it strongly, because I see what he had to go through. He worked through 5-1/2 months to reach an agreement that he thought could be a major step toward peace, and then in the last out of the ninth inning, why, suddenly they say, ‘No, we can’t go along.’ I think the President felt he had to proceed with his plan. He was committed. He had made the commitment to Hanoi. Vance and Harriman had put their word on the line, and I think he felt he had to go ahead. In addition to that, after all we have done in the country, after the enormous contribution that’s been made, with the knowledge that we had gotten to the point where we had the sort of agreement that we had been working toward, I believe the President was absolutely right in not giving Saigon a veto on the plan. I do not believe that you can work along with your partner up to the very last minute, with the understanding full and complete as to what the arrangement is, and then suddenly have Saigon change its mind and decide not to go ahead. I think the President owed it—under his constitutional duty, I think he owed it to the American people to proceed with the talks. Now, I say that I believe we should make every reasonable effort to demonstrate to Saigon why it should come in and join the talks. At the same time, if they chose not to, I believe the President has the constitutional responsibility of proceeding with the talks.”
The news conference is excerpted in the Department of State Bulletin, December 2, 1968, pages 568-573.
In a November 13 memorandum to the President, Rostow critically assessed Clifford’s press conference: “I would suspect that Thieu would feel that Secretary Clifford overstated the case that Thieu was kept ‘fully informed’ and ‘fully posted’. It is true that Thieu was told what he [Page 619]needed to know when he needed to know it, but he was not informed of the details of the private conversations. Nor was he informed of each conversation.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. VI [2 of 2]) Rostow later wrote the following reflections in a November 23 memorandum for the record:
“This memorandum for the record is set down at the instruction of the President. Sec. Clifford’s remarks on November 12, 1968, indicating that we might proceed with talks in Paris without the GVN, were made without prior discussion or clearance with the President. At that time the President was not prepared to act along the lines that the Secretary suggested; nor was he prepared to clear a public statement indicating that this would be a possibility. On the other hand, the President had encouraged Sec. Clifford and Sec. Rusk to have press conferences. He knew that Sec. Clifford would have a press conference on November 12, 1968. They did not discuss the content of his position before the event. This does not mean that the President might not, at some stage, have taken action to open talks without the GVN. But he did not feel at the time that the situation justified such action. The President spoke to me to the same effect as the above the day of Sec. Clifford’s press conference, when word of its content came in over the press wires.” (Ibid., Vol. VII)
In his memoirs, however, Clifford maintains that he acted at the behest of President Johnson; see Counsel to the President, pages 600-601.
In a memorandum of conversation, December 6, Ambassador Harriman discussed Clifford’s remarks about the conference that Clifford made to him during a private conversation:
“He explained to me in some detail the way in which his press conference of November 12 came about. He said the President the day before had said, ‘Clark, you haven’t had a press conference recently. Why Don’t you have one?’ He went home and thought it over, tried to think what the President had in mind for him to say. Clifford thought the press would ask him whether the stopping of the bombing was political, and he made up his mind that it was his job to tell the truth. He had been incensed by the increasing volume of leaks coming out of the Saigon Government to the effect that President Johnson had taken unilateral action without consultation, and had done it for political purposes. (He subsequently told me he would give me the gory details that there were supporters of Nixon who encouraged the Saigon Government to do all they could to prevent a bombing halt before Election Day. He said he didn’t have evidence that it was directed by Nixon, but it was certainly done by his supporters. (This explains what I had thought—that the Saigon Government was motivated in withholding approval of a bombing halt to attempt to avoid the election of Humphrey.)) [Page 620] Clifford thought out the night before what to do, and he made up his mind that he would tell the facts. Of course with the detailed precision with which he did it, no one can dispute the accuracy of his statement. I was particularly impressed with his telling the press that, having been up all night, they had gone to rest with the expectation that the President would go on the air that night, October 29. This was our belief in Paris. He referred to Bunker’s several telegrams of Thieu’s unwillingness to go along and requesting delay, and Clifford underlined the fact in his press conference that Vance and I had taken a commitment to North Viet-Nam that the bombing would stop and the U.S. Government had to live up to that commitment.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Trips & Missions, 1968-69, Paris Peace Talks, Memoranda of Conversations)