38. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Republican Presidential Nominee Richard Nixon1
Nixon: Hello, Mr. President?
Nixon: I'm awfully sorry to bother you. This is Dick Nixon.
President: Yes, Dick.[Page 95]
Nixon: And the only reason that I'm bothering you is that I'm going very shortly to be on a television program, and there just came over the wire this statement by Hubert with regard to—saying that he would have a bombing pause if elected,2 and the only purpose in my call is to determine whether there's any change in our own policy at this time with regard to what position the administration is taking.
President: No, there is not. I have not read his speech. It has not been discussed with me. I say this in strict confidence—I'll ask you not to quote me or repeat me; I'll talk clearly.
Nixon: I won't—that's why I called you.
President: I have not read it. I just had the press secretary call me with the flash that he says he'll stop the bombing pause—he'll stop the bombing—if elected. And then it indicates that he has to have direct or indirect, or deed or act, assurance that they will respect the DMZ. I Don’t know really what he is saying. Ball said, 2 or 3 days ago when he quickly resigned, that the bombing was not—well, he said that the newspapers were pressing that too much as just a part of a whole big general picture.
President: So I was rather surprised that as his adviser, that Hubert would take this position, because it looks like a little bit inconsistent with what Ball said.
President: I haven't reconciled it because I Don’t have the text. Our position is this. We are very anxious to stop the bombing. We went out before we met with the [Congressional] leadership prior to the Chicago [Democratic National] convention and asked Abrams what effect the bombing operations in Vietnam were having. He came back and said, “We believe we're destroying or damaging 15 percent of the trucks moving into the South. It is our conviction the air interdiction program has been the primary agent which has reduced trucks being detected by 80 percent between mid-July and the present time. The third effect is to prevent the enemy from massing artillery and air defense means in the area to the north of the DMZ from which they can attack our forces.”3 You see, Mr. Vice President, they have to stop at the 20th [parallel] now, or really up to the 19th, we haven't gone above that. But if we stopped the bombing, they could just come day and night, with lights on and lights off, bumper to bumper, right down to the DMZ where they'd be poised to hit us.
President: So, in the light of these three things—the trucks that he's stopping, the 80 percent between mid-July and the present time, and the [Page 96]massing of the artillery at the DMZ, then we said, “Well, what would be the effect of the cessation of that bombing?” He says, “First, military matériel would be able to reach the DMZ or the borders of Laos unimpeded. We believe the current attrition from truck destruction alone, not to mention truck parts, is running several hundred tons per day. The truck flow could be expected to return to the mid-July level—the high—within as little as a week. We're talking about an increase—repeat increase—in southwest movements—southward movement—which could amount to as much as 1,500 tons per day or more. Next, the enemy would mass artillery, air defense means, and ground units north of the DMZ for use against our troops. Finally, freed from interdiction north of the seventeenth degree, the enemy could move reinforcements to the DMZ by truck or rail, thus drastically shortening transit time.”
Then we said, “Is there any possibility of your providing even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties we would take if we stop the bombing of North Vietnam?” He said, “We would have to expect a several-fold increase in U.S. and allied casualties in I Corps.” Now for that reason, our people took the position in the [Democratic Party's campaign] platform that we would stop the bombing when we were assured that it would not cost us men by doing so.
President: Now we Don’t have that assurance as of now—at least I do not have it. Then he goes on, I'm quoting Abrams now, “With the bombing authority now in effect, I am able with the forces available to limit the enemy's capability in South Vietnam by interdicting his roads and destroying a substantial amount of his munitions before they reach South Vietnam. In addition, I am able to suppress his artillery and air defense north of Ben Thuy so that our positions south of the DMZ are secured.” Now this is the key question. “If the bombing in North Vietnam now authorized were to be suspended, the enemy in 10 days to 2 weeks could develop a capability"—be careful of that word “capability"—"in the DMZ area in terms of scale, intensity, and duration of combat on the order of five times what he now has.” In 10 days he'd increase his capability five times.
President: “I cannot agree to place our forces at the risk which the enemy's capability would then pose.” Now that was reviewed with the joint leadership. They know that. That has not been made public because we Don’t want to notify our enemy that is our estimate.
President: Now, our position—which I've been very careful with you and very careful with Humphrey, and I've told both of you the same thing, and you, both of you, have the same information—our [Page 97]position has been this: we are anxious to stop the bombing, we'd be glad to stop the bombing, if we can have any assurance that A—they would respect the DMZ, thereby not endangering these four divisions, the three of ours and one allied, or stop shelling the cities, or, and most important of all, talk to the GVN, talk to the Government of Vietnam. Now, we do not think that we ought to cause that government to fall and immobilize a million men that are going to be under arms this year by meeting in Paris and dividing up their country or deciding what they're going to do without their being present. So our first condition all along has been to say that they have got to be present. They have consistently refused to agree to do that. We have said you can bring the NLF if you want to. But we can't decide the future of South Vietnam—it now has an elected government—in their absence and without their presence. So in effect, we have said we are interested in what you have to say on these three subjects: DMZ, GVN presence, shelling the cities.
Nixon: Yeah. But you Don’t insist on all three, just the—
President: Well, we'd like to have all three.
Nixon: Yeah, yeah.
President: But we ask them to make their commitment to us—tell us what they would do.
Nixon: On any one of these things.
President: Now, we Don’t say—we Don’t say that you've got to sign in blood beforehand. But we do say this. What would happen if we stopped the bombing Sunday and we walked in Monday morning with the GVN? Would you walk out? They have not responded, and we Don’t know what they would do. Now until we do know, and that is very important to us, we Don’t want to gamble American lives. And when we do know, then we will have to make that decision.
President: But they're making it now, and we Don’t know what they're going to do about it. They may decide that they'll try to hang on until January. They're taking a terrible—they're paying a terrible price. Now, the message and information I gave you came in before the convention and we met with the joint leadership, Republican and Democrat. I have today a wire that came in yesterday from him—let me find it—from Abrams,4 the nut of which he says that he thinks he is [Page 98]destroying between five and ten thousand military per—is it—destroying between five and ten thousand military per month in Vietnam by his bombing alone. We are losing, oh, seven, eight hundred a month, our people, all told, a couple hundred a week, a hundred, two hundred a week, maybe two fifty sometimes. Now we have two hundred million, we're losing seven or eight hundred a month, and he's losing five to ten thousand just from the bombing. Now if we stop that, he says that they have now a hundred odd thousand—[covers phone and speaks to Rostow]—I've got his wire on the bottom, but I've just found it, and I just answered your call out of a meeting.5
President: But he says very much that he's very much opposed to the bombing [halt] as of last night—to stopping the bombing—
President: Unless we get some of these things. Now our negotiators have been unable to get them up to now. We have a meeting Wednesday.6 I thought after Wednesday I might have other talks with Cy Vance and Harriman and see what they had to say there. But—
Nixon: The way this—the way was just seeing the AP dispatch here, and of course papers always tend to make a bigger difference than real, he says that this was a dramatic—they say a dramatic move away from the Johnson administration foreign policy. But when you read further down, it says that Humphrey said that “in weighing the risk, he would place importance on evidence—direct or indirect, by word or deed—of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone.” So that would indicate that he wasn't just going to do it unilaterally, but—
President: I thought the safest position for anyone to take—he takes it part of the way in his position, but he does not—[Johnson speaks to Rostow].
Nixon: I can't quite hear you. Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? I can't quite hear you.
President: Dick, I want to put Walt Rostow on for just a second. [To Rostow:] Summarize for him Abrams' latest wire just as if you could read it.
Rostow: Mr. Nixon? This is Walt Rostow, sir.
Nixon: Yeah, sure.[Page 99]
Rostow: Uh, we went out again to General Abrams, and put the same questions we put a month ago. His response was that the weather was changing and there—he'd had some successful operations, but essentially, he would make the same answers as a month ago, that unless we got some assurance on the DMZ, we would take a very heavy military consequence from a cessation of the bombing at this time.
Nixon: Well, to an extent, you know, of course, I think Humphrey leaves that possibility where he talks about, that he said, the press always tends to play the biggest part of the story. But in weighing the risk, he said, he would place importance on evidence, direct or indirect, by either word of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone.
Rostow: Yes, I noticed that on the ticker, Mr. Nixon.
Nixon: But, on the other hand, this will be interpreted, as I'm sure you know, as a dramatic move away from the administration. It's my intention not to move in that direction, I think, for this fundamental reason. As long as the administration is still negotiating, I think we've got—I think that my position has to be in good conscience that unless and until there is some evidence of a reciprocal step, we could not stop the bombing.
Nixon: That's the administration's position?
President: Yes, except reciprocal, Dick, is a bad word with them.
President: I'd say unless they give us some assurance that it wouldn't—unless we had some indication that it would not cost the lives of our men. I found this memo, if you want me to read it to you very quickly. “What is the effect of our current bombing operations in Vietnam?” This is September 28th from Abrams to Johnson. “Deterrence is the first effect. Our air presence is keeping the enemy from moving his air forces, rail system, and logistical bases southward toward the DMZ. After better than 70 days of effort, it is now clear that our concentrated efforts to choke traffic at four prime areas, at six road points, and at six critical water points of North Vietnam have reduced the enemy's detected flow of troops from the mid-July high of 1,000 per day to less than 150 since that time. Southbound truck detections the past few weeks have numbered fewer than a hundred per day. If the bombing in North Vietnam ceases, a return to the level of a thousand per day would have to be expected. These efforts have also prevented the enemy from massing artillery, supplies, and air defense means for sudden attack against the DMZ. Possibly of greater consequence is the combined Navy and 7th Air Force interdiction efforts in North Vietnam which have effectively impeded the transshipment [Page 100]southward of a significant stock of supplies which continue to move into Thanh Hoa and Vinh by rail, road, and boat.
Question number two. What would be the military effect of a cessation of the bombing? Answer: A—The major result of the bombing halt would be the enemy's increased capability to position and maintain large ground forces north of the DMZ in close proximity to our U.S. and ARVN forces deployed to defend the I Corps. He could concentrate his artillery, armor, air forces, and air defense forces in direct support of his ground forces and place them in a position to initiate a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam with minimum warning time. B—We can expect the enemy to develop forward logistic complexes. C—The enemy will devote a maximum initial effort to reconstruct of his lines of communication south of the 19th parallel. D—Airfields south of the 19th will return to service. A bombing pause will permit the North Vietnamese Army to make fuller use of land lines in communication. Country-wide, the North Vietnamese Army presently devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to its air defense mission.” And these are two good figures: North Vietnamese Army devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to its air defense mission. “Plus, perhaps 110-200,000 laborers. Complete bombing cessation would allow the North Vietnamese Army several options, any of which would increase the threat to American forces in or near South Vietnam.
Question number three: Since March 31st—that was my speech—what is the average number of trucks destroyed and trucks damaged per week? What is the average number of trucks sighted in the panhandle per week? What is your best estimate of the total number of trucks sighted and unsighted that flow through the panhandle each week and the portion of this total that we are not getting? Answer: The enemy's day movement of trucks has been virtually halted. As a consequence of night attacks against the above areas, the enemy has ceased moving in convoys and has been unwilling to allow his trucks to wait behind crossing points. As a result, most of his trucks have been kept north of Route Package 1, moving out singly under the cover of darkness. Consequently, fewer kills have been possible. In the week of July 14-20, an average of 508 trucks per day were sighted from all sources. After that period, there was a steady decrease in truck traffic as the enemy felt the full weight of our interdiction bombing campaign concentrated at key traffic choke points. In the week prior to Typhoon Bess on September the 4th, the sightings had decreased from 508 trucks per day to 151 per day. Since September the 4th, truck kills and damages have averaged 32 per week as a consequence of nearly complete blockage of his wide choke point.
Question four—What is the estimate of military casualties we inflict on the enemy each week in the bombing of North Vietnam? We [Page 101]believe the military casualties resulting from intensive air strikes since mid-July 1968 have increased significantly. As in our previous submission, casualties on the order of five to ten thousand per month do not seem unreasonable.
Question number five: Is there any possibility of your providing for the President even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties America would take if we stopped the bombing in North Vietnam? Answer: I have reviewed the factors considered in my response to this question. Further examination of the results of the air interdiction campaign convinces me that my estimate at that time remains valid. In summary, a cessation of offensive action north of the DMZ would enable the enemy to amass personnel and equipment along the DMZ. It would facilitate his infiltration and logistic support across and around the DMZ. It would increase the air, artillery, and ground threat to our forces located in northern I Corps. I must emphasize the adverse effect of a cessation without reciprocity on the morale of the officers and men of my command, as well as those of the Republic of Vietnam armed forces, who would be exposed to increased enemy pressure from a newly created sanctuary. Conversely, a complete bombing cessation would raise the enemy's confidence and his aggressiveness. It would validate his doctrine of the insurgency war. It will confirm his unrealistic view of the military, political, and psychological postures of the warring parties. It will portray to him increased strength on his part and growing weakness on ours. It will demonstrate to him that he is winning. Above all, it will convince him that he must continue or increase the current tempo of the war to gain the ultimate victory. Militarily and psychologically, a complete bombing cessation will shift the balance significantly toward the enemy.” Unquote. Now that's today.
Nixon: That's just today.
President: That's today. Now, we have not given that to the Vice President—he has not asked for it. We will give it to him if he does ask for it. I didn't call him because I Don’t want to be coaching him on his campaign. I'm trying to run the war.
President: On the other hand, I think what's safe—
Nixon: Yeah, what is it?
President: Is the position that the President, and there's just one President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador Bunker, and General Abrams are responsible for that situation in Vietnam. They're going to be responsible until a new President is elected. Therefore, you're not going to try to look over their shoulders without [Page 102]all the information and tell them what is best. You have to have some confidence in the professional army, and the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense, and you believe that every American wants peace, but you're not, in order to win a campaign, not going to be in a position of trying to overrule all these men without any information that would justify you're doing it.
Nixon: That's what I've been trying to say. Of course, I think on this too, I can just say what I have said previously, that as I understand it, it is the position that if there is any evidence that there would be—that a bombing pause could take place without endangering our men, we will go ahead and do it. Isn't that really our position?
President: Well, not necessarily. We have said we favor the stopping of bombing if it doesn't endanger our men. And of course, we—then we want them to close that DMZ. We Don’t want them to take advantage of it.
President: That's San Antonio.7 We said we Don’t want them taking advantage if they'll assure us. We said Don’t shell the cities. The most important thing though, Dick—
Nixon: Is the recognition of the government [of South Vietnam].
President: We've got to—well, not necessarily—yes, just letting them hear, just let them sit in.
President: We've got a million men there. Now, if they pull out, we're in one hell of a shape. We've lost everything.
Nixon: We're done. That's right. Well, I hesitate to bother you, but—
President: No, I think that—
Nixon: I just want to be sure that I was up-to-date on everything.
President: I think that—I think that the least you can get into tactics and strategy, the better any candidate is. And I say that to American Party, Republican Party, and Democratic Party. And I put that responsibility on somebody else until I had to assume it myself and was elected. And then I would just say to them that you believe the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense have made our position clear in Paris that you are not going to overrule that position unless you have more information than you have.
Nixon: Right.[Page 103]
Nixon: That's what I'm going to continue to say.
President: Thank you, Dick.
Nixon: Appreciate your time. Bye.8
- Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Nixon, September 30, 1968, 6:45 p.m., Tape F68.06, PNO 5-6. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian.↩
- See Document 40.↩
- This message was transmitted as telegram MAC 11409 from Abrams to Rostow, August 23; see Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. VI, Document 337.↩
- Abrams' message was transmitted in telegram MAC 13145 from Saigon, September 28, which was excerpted and analyzed in a memorandum from Rostow to the President, September 28. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 96) In a memorandum to the President the day before, Rostow reported that he had sent a back-channel message to Abrams requesting his assessment. (Ibid.)↩
- Following a meeting with Special Assistant Joseph Califano and Director of the Bureau of the Budget Charles Zwick from 6:20 p.m. to 6:40 p.m., the President made two brief telephone calls to Rostow and Christian before taking Nixon's call. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)↩
- October 2.↩
- See footnote 7, Document 35.↩
- In a telephone call to Dirksen on October 1, the President commented on Nixon's reaction to Humphrey's speech: “As a matter of fact, he didn't want anybody to know it, but he called me last night and asked me my evaluation. I told him we'd just have to see what—that we just didn't know anything about it and we'd just have to see for ourselves what this fellow meant by it. And I think that's a pretty good position for everybody. You Don’t have to say anything—just say, well, what does he mean? Can you tell me? Does it mean that he's willing to pull out and stop bombing without—if it's a condition, that's okay. If it's not, why then we put those boys in pretty bad shape there.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Dirksen, October 1, 1968, 11:22 a.m., Tape F6810.01, PNO 12)↩