231. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Clifford 1

Clifford: Hello, Mr. President.

President: I was kind of under the impression these folks were going to accept our reconnaissance. Apparently, these negotiators Don’t know what they’re doing over there. Now they shot down this plane this morning—I think that’s pretty serious.2

Clifford: Yes. I had my boys in as soon as we got the flash, and we talked it out. Here is my understanding of the agreement over there. Maybe somebody ought to check with Cy, because we’ll have it, we’ll get questions on it, and I go on this program tomorrow, and I want to be sure I have it right. But you’ll remember we went through the stage when Hanoi was insisting on a written minute of agreement—

President: Yeah.

Clifford: And they had language in there that said that we “shall not engage in any act of war.” After a couple of weeks of argument, when we talked about reconnaissance and all, that was changed to we “shall not engage in any act of force.” And that specifically meant that we were going to fly reconnaissance.

President: That did to us. Now what it meant to them, I don’t know. I thought they—I thought it meant that to them. But apparently they never have taken that position.

Clifford: No. I was just going to say that I think all that did was to permit us to fly reconnaissance. But I have never seen a word that indicated that they were not going to try to knock our planes down. We could have agreed ahead of time not to fly any reconnaissance. We said, “We’ve got to fly reconnaissance.” They finally say, “Well, okay, we’ll change the words—you fellows fly reconnaissance.” But at no time did I remember that they have said they would permit us to do that without trying to knock our planes down. And I think that’s the understanding.

President: Well, do we have an understanding we won’t knock hell out of their anti-aircraft?

[Page 684]

Clifford: No, we do not.

President: Well, then, why in the hell Don’t we do it? Just go right in there—that son-of-a-bitch that hit him, and let everything we have on him, so that maybe we could temper their shooting down a little bit.

Clifford: Yes.

President: I don’t think we can ask our boys to go over there and get hell shot out of them and then throw kisses at them.

Clifford: We cannot. Now this particular plane that went down was an unarmed reconnaissance plane but it was escorted. Now we Don’t—we know that—we know it was escorted by an armed escort. Now we Don’t have the details yet to know whether or not the armed escort went and attacked the ground fire. But my understanding is that the orders are, I’ll check with Bus, but I’m practically certain that our orders are that any plane that’s fired on we are to fire back at once and attempt to stop the firing on our planes. That’s the instruction.

President: I sure hope so. I don’t know any other reason why we’d have an armed escort with him.

Clifford: Well, the only other reason is—

President: Unless he’s just keeping him company. [Laughter]

Clifford: Well, no, no. There’re a couple other reasons. One other reason is to protect him against Migs at night.

President: Well, that’s what I’m talking about, though. I mean, if he has no authority to fire, there’s no point of having an escort.

Clifford: Right. He has authority to fire. And then the other purpose is that if a reconnaissance plane goes down, then this armed plane hopefully can stay in the vicinity and try to spot the fellow and then try to direct helicopters in to rescue the man. That’s all set up, and we’ve gotten a little hint yet in the reports that they were staging rescue operations here, but that they weren’t able to get the man.

President: That’s right. They heard a beeper, and heard his voice, but pretty soon they picked him up, I guess, got his beeper and everything.

Clifford: That’s right. Now, there is a flash out of Hanoi, just 5 minutes ago. You’ve seen it?

President: Yeah, yeah, they’ve announced it. I think this is going to give us great problems with our hawks here—that if our reconnaissance planes are being shot down and we’re not doing anything about it, and everybody thinks that our agreement at least implied that we could have reconnaissance, they wouldn’t be knocking them out of the air all the time.

Clifford: Well, I thought I’d straighten that out tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll get a question on it. I thought I’d be ready, and I thought I’d straighten [Page 685] by saying that we said that under no circumstances were we going to stop flying reconnaissance, that the President has to know what’s going on north of the DMZ. We can’t live in a vacuum.

President: What is going on there? Does that disturb you at all?

Clifford: As to what’s going on?

President: Yes, yes. What was the information you’re getting from there?

Clifford: Oh, there’s a lot. There’s a lot of movement in North Vietnam. There’s a good deal of truck movement. Interestingly enough, quite a lot of it moving from south to north, and there’s substantial movement of north to south. I’ve just been going over some figures here that are damned interesting. As far as men are concerned, in July and August, they were coming down at a rate of between 20 and 30,000. In September, it fell off to around 12,000. In October, it fell off to around 3,500. And so far this month, it’s run—it’s been—there’ve been about 600. So the last 3 months, there’s been a very substantial fall off in personnel moving from north to south. Now, there are more trucks moving over in Laos now than were moving before. Probably the main reason being—that that’s the road that’s passable. So that we’re moving—we Don’t say this publicly, but as you know—we’re moving our air power over, attacking them in Laos, and doing quite a good job.

President: I wonder what results are coming out of that. Are we getting much more since we stopped the bombing of North Vietnam in Laos than we were getting before?

Clifford: I’ll have—I’ll get those figures.

President: Get what we were doing October 31st and what we’re doing now.

Clifford: Now, also, one of the main points is, of course, why we were interested in the DMZ is that we wanted to be sure that there wasn’t going to be any infiltration through the DMZ. That’s another reason we’ve been watching North Vietnam very carefully. As far as we can ascertain, that’s been okay. There’s not been any infiltration through the DMZ. Now, the boys here have been putting me through a skull session. One of them asked a very good question. One of them said, “Now, Clifford, you say that over in Paris that there was a general understanding that involved the DMZ and involved the cities. Was that all that there was in consideration of our stopping the bombing?” I said, “Well, no. Of course, the GVN was to come to the table.” And then they said, “Was that all?” Then I said, “No. And my answer to that, unless somebody persuades me to the contrary, is the President has said all along, and it’s just as clear as it can be, that if they take any steps during the bombing halt that places our men, particularly up in the I Corps, in greater jeopardy, then that means that there is the kind of violation of [Page 686] the understanding that we cannot permit. And up until now, during the 22 days since the bomb halt, we do not believe that our men are placed in greater jeopardy in I Corps, and neither does General Abrams.” That’s the way I thought I’d handle that, because I don’t believe we can just confine our—the kind of general understanding we have with Hanoi to just the cities and the DMZ. I think we’ve got to include this other. If we saw, for instance, two divisions massing north of the DMZ, and saw them establishing a great military base just north of the DMZ, we couldn’t go on, you see. So, that’s the—

President: I’ll see you at 1 o’clock, I guess, won’t I?

Clifford: Yes, I’m coming over at 1 o’clock.3 But that seems to me to be the best way to handle that. That would protect us.

President: I’m worried about this plane. I think that our people will start coming, saying, “Okay, now, what are we going to do?” And they’ll think that we kind of left them under the impression—matter of fact, I was under the impression—that they were not going to knock our planes down.

Clifford: Well, I intend to step up to that one tomorrow, and tell them that our planes are being accompanied by armed escorts, and we will continue to accompany them by armed escort. But we might lose one of them once in a while. Of course, we’re not losing near the planes that we were before. But we’re—they’re flying with armed escorts who are authorized to destroy or to attempt to destroy anyone firing on our planes.4

[Omitted here is discussion of an agreement for the sale of aircraft to Israel.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, November 23, 1968, 11:45 a.m., Tape F68.09, PNO 9. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian.
  2. A single reconnaissance aircraft had been shot down over North Vietnam on November 23.
  3. From 1:25 to 3:10 p.m. that day, the President met with Clifford, Rusk, Rostow, Fowler, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs Frederick Deming, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System William McChesney Martin, Murphy, Edward Fried of the NSC Staff, and Christian. The President’s Daily Diary indicates that the meeting was “a rundown on what happened at the Bonn meeting of the Financial Ministers.” (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) A record of the meeting is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. VIII, Document 221.
  4. For comments made by Clifford during his televised interview the next day, see The New York Times, November 25, 1968.