5. Notes of Meeting1
President Johnson’s Notes on Meeting in Cabinet Room, Friday, September 6, 1968, With the President, Senator Dirksen, Senator Mansfield, and Secretary Rusk, 10:15 a.m. They Were Joined at 10:37 by Director Zwick, Art Okun and Mike Manatos and at 11:35 a.m. by Harold Linder
The President told the group he had three or four subjects he wanted to bring up and discuss in some detail. The President said he would ask Secretary Rusk to bring you some information on some of the problems also.
The President said we wanted to be careful about how we deal with some of the East European countries—especially Germany. He said that Senators Mansfield and Dirksen both had been quite interested in our troops in Eastern Europe.
The President reported that it seems that we had both the Vice President and Mr. Nixon on board to the effect that they are not going to say anything that would indicate to Hanoi that they would get a better deal out of them than they can get out of us between now and January and the Vice President gave the President assurances as late as the day before that that was his attitude and it had always been Mr. Nixon’s attitude. The President pointed out that sometimes some of their aides talked for them indicating they might do this or might do that. He reported that Mr. Nixon had assured him that he would make no statement that would indicate any weakness. He said that he told Mr. Humphrey about it and suggested to Humphrey and Humphrey made it in a public proposal which Mr. Nixon could not accept. He said he was stunned—said he had already taken that position so that caused it to get knocked down.2
The President said he thought he would wait a week or two and try to approach it in another form, but that we did have some hopes. He said, however, that although we had hope, we did not have any assurances. He said there were conversations going on that you Don’t read about all the time and they are also making other attempts in other Capitals.[Page 14]
The President said:
“We read Ho Chi Minh’s letter. He wrote back. This is very confidential, but he wrote back to the Pope and told him that he would let the Pope come to Hanoi and we thought the Pope had a very reasonable request, a very earnest one, a very genuine one.3
“I think that if the people of this Country knew that this religious leader was trying to pull us together and really had all along leaned a little bit because they had been a little soft on our position. They had asked us to do this and do that. And while at the Ranch he sent his man down there to see me and asked me what he could tell them. And I went just as far as we dared go and told him we looked upon the trip with favor.”
Senator Mansfield asked, both Hanoi and Saigon?
The President reported both Hanoi and Saigon. He then wrote Ho Chi Minh and said that he would like to come to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh wrote back and told the Pope there was no use for his coming. The President said if that could be made public, it would arouse some folks that think we could do business with the communists.
Senator Dirksen asked if that was initiated by the Pope.
The President said yes, but before he proposed it to Hanoi the Pope sent his messenger over and he came to the Ranch and we did not give any notice of his coming. The President said he outlined to him what he could say and told him that the bombing would be stopped if they would do almost anything. The President said just give him some tangible evidence that they would react to it. He said he thought it would make His Holiness very pleased, but His Holiness came right back to the President and said that he was not very pleased—that he did not communicate with the State Department, that he was a private individual and did not want anybody to know it. The Pope got in touch with Hanoi and they turned him down. He then came back to the President through the same source and gave the President the letter from Ho Chi Minh to the Pope just saying that there was no use coming.
The President said:
“And now we have other meetings going on in addition to Paris that are scheduled that we hope will bring something out if we Don’t mislead them. We just photograph the wrong signals. We make them believe that if they just hang on a little more why I will have to give in or they will force me to do so and so. Now I want you all to know one thing. If I Don’t have anybody here except me, I’m not going to give in. And any of you normally know that. So there is no use of any pressure [Page 15]speeches or anything else that is going to do one damn bit of good until January 20 on advice about doing something that I believe is wrong. And I am willing to go 60 percent of the way, and lean and stretch, but I am not willing to stop the bombing unless they make some move. I have already stopped 90% of it and I already stopped it eight times. Now I am just not going to do it. So all we can do is kill a bunch of men by doing it.”
The President reported that General Abrams had told him that if we stop the bombing we will automatically increase, within ten days, the enemy’s capabilities several times, that his men will be fired upon from across the DMZ and will not be saved, that he will have to withdraw them.4
The President said we were not going to be following the McCarthy line and he thought the Legislative ought to know so that we just Don’t have any doubts about that. He said if the new President wants to do it, they can take this position if they want to—that they did not expect President Johnson to be advising them what to do. The President said:
“I am the only President and we are not going to tell him what he ought to do while he is President. I told Humphrey that’s the position I would take if I were you. That’s what Nixon is saying and if Humphrey says the same thing—we are not going to give you any better deal and then I think that we can save some lives that may bring this thing to an end. If we Don’t, then when they get in and get the responsibility they want. That’s first.
“Second, if the Congress does not agree to what I am doing, all you have to do is to repeal your Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Dick Russell put it in there so you could do it by majority vote and if the majority feels that way and wants to withdraw these troops on their own, they can do that. Now all you have to do is one man make a motion and then move to favor it. And you could get a vote right quick. And I suspect that you might get a majority, but I Don’t want it to be my blood. I want it to be the brave men who advocate it and let them get on record and stay there the rest of their life. So I hope that we can pull through these 30 or 40 days or whatever time you are going to be here until the new Administration comes in without unnecessary squabbling.
“Now last, before the convention, they built up and we had a hell of a week. We lost over 400 men and they lost—they have lost 8800 in ten days. That was really costly. How much of that is false hope that they have I Don’t know, but we want to try to not disabuse them. I Don’t want to make any more hard speeches, but you see we have plenty of communists without this stuff and it starts out in Hanoi and then it goes [Page 16]to Saigon and then Kosygin writes a letter or two—then every specialist in town starts speculating Johnson is going to stop the bombing.
“So these poor Hanoi people think I may do it. So then they play their cards accordingly. Now we are willing to do it, when they show signs that it would not endanger us. Now our platform says that we will stop the bombing when it will not endanger American lives. Now a man that takes the position that he is going to stop it when it does endanger them is in a hell of a poor position I think with the American people and he certainly will be with these men. So that’s about the war.” [Omitted here is discussion of the Symington Amendment to reduce funding for troops in Germany, the situation in Czechoslovakia, NATO force posture, and European security.]
Secretary Rusk then gave a rundown on the situation in Vietnam at the present time.
The President reported that Eugene Black was wanting to make a trip to Asia in connection with the Asian Development Bank and while he was there he would like to see Sihanouk so permission was asked for Black to see Sihanouk and he responded that he would see Black. The President briefed Black on what he could tell Sihanouk. This dealt mostly with boundaries which we thought would be acceptable to him, that we had no interest in doing anything but helping him, what we had in mind was the development of the area and what we thought the communists were doing to his country and try to show him what we knew they were doing there. He said to tell him we had the pictures and there was no question but what they are using his country as a base to kill our people every day.5
Secretary Rusk said in looking at things that are of key importance to us, both from a diplomatic and military side, we are inclined to attach great importance to the renewal of the DMZ.
Senator Dirksen asked Secretary Rusk if when he said restore the DMZ he meant respect the DMZ.
Secretary Rusk said that was correct. Let the international observers get back in there, both sides stay out of the DMZ, Don’t fire until they cross the DMZ, Don’t use it for infiltration, Don’t station troops there or anything of that sort.
[Omitted here is discussion of Supreme Court nominations, the budget, and the economy.]
- Source: Johnson Library, Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room. No classification marking. The President discussed the same matters in a telephone call with Muskie at 2:47 p.m. later that day. (Ibid., Transcripts and Recordings of Telephone Conversations) A full record of the meeting is ibid., Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room.↩
Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. VI, Document 345.↩
- See ibid., Document 333 and footnote 4 thereto.↩
- See ibid., Document 337.↩
- Eugene Black was the President’s Special Adviser on Asian Economic and Social Development. Johnson had met with Black on September 5 and announced Black’s trip to the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam at a press conference on September 6. “I have asked him to pursue plans for the Mekong Basin program for development for peaceful purposes,” the President noted. See Department of State Bulletin, September 30, 1968, pp. 330-335. Black reported on his trip in a meeting with the President on October 28; see ibid., October 28, 1968, p. 434.↩