50. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk1

President: Dean? Dean

Rusk: Yes. Good morning, Mr. President.

President: I’m rather distressed at the papers this morning. I Don’t guess you’ve seen the Washington papers?

Rusk: No, I haven’t.

President: But Kraft2 says that this whole thing was worked out—Ball and HarrimanBall went over and saw Harriman, and really that Ball and Harriman wrote the speech for Humphrey3 and then that Nixon fell into a trap by saying that they laid for him—saying it hurt the negotiations. So Averell started commenting on the speech and saying it didn’t hurt the negotiations, and now Nixon has been trapped and Humphrey is really—

Rusk: Did Averell comment publicly on the speech?

President: Yes, yes. He’s a damned fool. He’s been playing politics, I found out from Cy, he didn’t want to tell it, and I was just shocked to death. And I asked him, I said, “Did anybody discuss this speech with you all?” And he choked and hung up. And I said, “Were you consulted about this speech?” And he said, “Yes, sir.” And I said, “Who consulted you?” And he said, “George Ball.”

Rusk: For heaven’s sake.

President: And so that just ruins it for the other side, when that comes out, in my judgment. Then, he’s got a new proposal. I’m sending him back up there to get him away from these columnists and out of this town—so you can talk to him if you want to.

Rusk: All right.

President: Don’t think it’s essential but you’ll probably want to give him a ring sometime on the weekend, whenever you can.

Rusk: He’s coming to New York?

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President: Yes. I Don’t think it’s necessary you come down here until you find out more than you know.

Rusk: All right.

President: But—here’s what Kraft said: “The Vietnam speech had a carefully prepared public build-up. A major speech was announced by the Vice President three days in advance. Leading advisers Under Secretary Ball and Postmaster General O’Brien were on hand. The text itself, while not altogether clear, was artfully wrought. The Vice President moved toward a total halt of the bombing of North Vietnam in a way that placed his position far in advance to that laid down in the most recent statements by the President and Secretary of State Rusk. The speech was hardly over before Mr. Ball was pointing out to various press people how the Vice President stands different from the current posture of the administration. At the same time, a halt in the bombing was made conditional in a way that protects the Vice President against the one man whose public disapproval he fears. That man is the chief Paris negotiator, Averell Harriman, whose views had been recently sounded by Mr. Ball. As to organizing a reaction, Senator Kennedy’s chief aide David Berg was briefed in advance on the speech by Van Dyke and Ira Kapenstein,4 O’Brien’s man. Kennedy followed the speech with an immediate telegrammed approval. Senator McCarthy was given an advance by [Thomas] Finney, a Washington lawyer, formerly top hand of McCarthy. So the Senator has not said anything because he is committed to remaining neutral while reporting the World Series, but the way is open to him to express approval of the Vice President’s advance position. Lastly, a trap was prepared for Nixon. It was expected the Republican candidate would reply to the Vice President by raising the question as to whether Humphrey’s advance toward the total cessation of the bombing would not adversely affect the Paris negotiations. Mr. Nixon did as expected. Arrangements were immediately made for Ambassador Harriman to deny the Nixon insinuation. All this does not mean, of course, that the Vietnam speech was a major triumph. On the contrary, the Vice President is still way behind, but he is beginning to show the qualities that could make the campaign a serious contest. And if he keeps it up, he begins to focus sharply on the issues” and so forth.

Now, Evans and Novak5 has got the same Ball briefing apparently. “Ball has complained bitterly to close friends about what he regards as a stiffening with Johnson on the question of the bombing. He is convinced that this stiffening has compromised the negotiating team in [Page 132] Paris. Specifically, Ball has said that the President’s actions in Honolulu wrecked the careful diplomatic probe by Harriman, the President’s chief agent. Although precise details are confidential, there is reason to believe that a break in the Paris talks was imminent before Johnson went to Honolulu. These culminated in an extraordinary hour and a quarter tete—tete between the two heads of state. If there was a memorandum of conversation of this long and private talk, it is a closely guarded document.6 In Washington, the details of the long talk are known only by very few of the President’s most intimate advisers. Thus, the agreements made by Johnson in return for concessions by Thieu are still a state secret. But Ball and other members of the President’s official family believe the conversations contained certain agreements that convinced the Communists in Hanoi that the United States was not bargaining in good faith. Accordingly, the careful diplomatic initiative nurtured by Harriman and his aides in Paris was pulled up by the roots. Partly as a result of this, Ball has confided to intimates that Humphrey was placed in an intolerable political bind. Further, this bind was closed tighter by Johnson’s repeated contradictions of Humphrey whenever the Vice President claimed to see some glimmer of light. That then is the background of Ball’s much-criticized decision to desert the United Nations. Only one day after his confirmation by the Senate, Ball’s first job for Humphrey was to help write his Vietnam speech so as to minimize charges Humphrey is selling out the Paris negotiations. Ball first talked with Humphrey about this speech two days before he quit the United Nations. He spent much of last weekend conferring with Humphrey on the West Coast. He then returned with Van Dyke and O’Brien. He was in fact indispensable as Humphrey spelled out the difference between his position and Johnson’s. And while the President demands specific de-escalation or a quid pro quo from Hanoi as a condition to stopping the bombing, Humphrey is willing to assume good faith without Hanoi spelling out a quid pro quo. Although the difference is a major one in the careful diplomatic language of Paris, the immediate political reaction at home to Humphrey’s speech raises doubts whether he went far enough to accomplish its purpose to persuade the McCarthyites to work for Humphrey. As Humphrey’s newest adviser, in short, it is possible Ball may soon yearn for the peace and quiet of the United Nations.”

Then Murrey Marder’s7 got another story, “HHH Parried the Price for the Bombing Halt.” And he says that they told him over there—Harriman and company—how they feel and they’re much softer than [Page 133] we are. Now, then, that’s very bad. What’s really bad, though, that I just can’t justify at all ‘cause they’re in politics, I wouldn’t comment on it, but here’s a headline, “Humphrey Didn’t Impair Talks, Harriman Says.” “Chief negotiator Harriman sees no basis for thinking Humphrey’s Vietnam speech could jeopardize the peace talks here, a spokesman said today. Harriman authorized the spokesman to disclose this position and thus appeared to be rebutting indirectly the criticism of Humphrey’s speech by Nixon. Today at the 24th session of the deadlocked talks, Harriman’s counterpart said,” and they quote him, “with regard to Mr. Nixon, the warlike presidential candidate.” Wait a minute now. “Harriman’s comments surfaced when U.S. delegation spokesman Harold Kaplan was asked at his briefing whether the American negotiators had any feelings along those lines, referring to remarks by Nixon and sharper criticism by Tower. ‘No,’ Kaplan replied, ‘I Don’t think there is,’ but then insisted they should not be taken as a comment on Humphrey’s speech. Kaplan said he did not ‘discuss the general notion with Governor Harriman and he specifically authorized me to say that he sees no basis for the speech having any adverse effect on our negotiations.’ Harriman, himself a one-time Democratic governor, told a newsman earlier, ‘We’re engaged in negotiations and in that capacity I’m taking no part in the campaign.’” So forth and so forth. I told Cy there’s no use saying you’re taking part in the campaign and then start interpreting one man’s speech and then answering another man. You’d better just say you’re taking no part, period. I also gave him a pretty good lecture about the leaks and I find out that Ball has been over there and talking to him and they’ve been being martyrs to Ball. And Ball, that’s when he decided to quit after he’d had conversations over there. So I told Cy that I just didn’t think negotiators ought to be taking such wide latitude. They ought to carry out their President’s—

Rusk: The truth is, Mr. President, that the combination of these stories—I haven’t seen them, the ones you’ve talked about, I’ll get them later in the day—but the combinations of these stories will hurt our negotiations.

President: Of course, it hurts it. It’d be hell. You take it from me. I’m not a diplomat, you’ve been in on Southeast Asia for 25 years, but they’re not going to do anything until after the election. That’s period. If Humphrey’s elected, they’re in clover. If he’s not elected, then they can look and see what they want to do between me and Nixon. So you can just forget everything until then, in my judgment. Now, and I think it’s done that, I think Humphrey’s fuzzy speech saying—and having Ball background everybody—that it did change. And Don’t I think there’s any question but what this agreement between our negotiators and Ball and the Pentagon—they’ve been talking behind our back, that’s clear from my discussions here. And now they’ve all settled on [Page 134] this one Clark Clifford pitch the other day, if you saw it. It’s a Ball pitch. Ball knew about it but Ball just said, well, he thought he’d be a little more peaceful than Clifford, you know, he just said he wouldn’t require anything—Clifford requires the GVN—and then they kind of laugh off the other. That is the Harriman-Ball-Pentagon approach now that I called about from down in Texas. They’re working that end and the rest goes on assumptions. So now Cy has got a proposal this morning—he’ll be calling you about it in a moment. His proposal is that you say to your friend—and Rostow made a mistake indicating that your friend had said something to you, and I didn’t acknowledge it, I just didn’t say a word, I didn’t discuss any of your conversations with Cy with Gromyko because I know he’s got to talk to Harriman, and Harriman is like a hydrant—but Cy is going to say to you that he thinks you ought to say to Gromyko, and he’s doing this with Averell’s approval, that the real block to stopping the bombing is the GVN thing, that if they agree, the GVN, that is the one thing we need. I said, “Okay, what do we do about the DMZ and what do we do about the cities?” “Well, we assume that, and we tell them that we have to go back if they did that.” I said, “Well, I Don’t buy that, but you can tell Rusk that and I’d be willing to be guided by his putting those assumptions a little stronger than you put them. I Don’t want to have any doubt that in effect they’re agreeing to the three if they agree to one.” I Don’t think they’ll do a damn thing until November, but for the purpose of satisfying Cy’s vanity, that’s something I think you ought to explore.

Rusk: Yes. Well, I’ve wondered, Mr. President, I’ve thought about it, I thought it—the conversation of last night8—and maybe it might be well, if you think well enough for me to say to Gromyko, “Now look, you should be clear in your own mind that these three things are of fundamental importance. One of them has to be a matter of a political agreement—that’s the GVN. The others are facts of life that will be determined by events on the ground. Now we can understand that you may not yourselves go to Hanoi on these factual points. But if you can get them to move on the GVN, we will take up directly with them the question of the DMZ and the cities and you yourselves Don’t have to emphasize that particular point. But you should be clear in your own minds so that we Don’t mislead you about what is our view.”

President: That’s right. And then I’d further say to him that you just think that you ought to know, tell him the political system—he’s got pretty good intelligence on it—but you think you ought to tell him that no President can survive 48 hours if they’re moving in the DMZ

Rusk: Told him last night, and I also told him—

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President: Or shelling the cities.

Rusk: He asked me about the election. I said, “One thing you should be aware of is that there is a strong conservative movement in this country now and that anybody who thinks the ultra-liberals are getting anywhere in this election can think twice about it because when you put together the Nixon and Wallace vote it means that the American people are fed up with some of the fooling around here by some of these demonstrators and things like that, and the demonstrators are not speaking for the American people. Just look at the polls.”

President: That’s right. Now, the second thing is—Averell’s thought is—you’ve got Cy’s clearly, haven’t you?

Rusk: Yes, sir.

President: The GVN will do the job. It’ll stop the bombing—it is the chief thing. Then we’ll assume on the cities and the DMZ, and we’ll retaliate if they violate either, promptly. Now I Don’t think he would, I think he’d be out of town and not answer the phone, but any way, that’s what they say. Second thing is AverellAverell thinks that this might be the way to do it: Tell them Wednesday we’re going to stop Sunday. Stop Sunday and meet them Monday. Tell them we want the GVN in here Tuesday. If they Don’t come Tuesday, then we can act. That’s Averell’s point. Now, what I think you ought to do with Cy, just as insurance, I think you ought to make clear to him that you think the real key is the GVN and you’ve got to get locked on tight. Now he agrees with that. Tell him that they ought to quit putting out this stuff, that there’s a difference between us, that this is awfully weak for the country and it helps the Communists. That’s the first thing. The second thing you say, that Cy, I Don’t want to mislead you, and you’ve got to know what the position is, what the government’s is. Number one—the President thinks when this speech is made, we’re not going to do anything until November. Now if we can, that’s good, but that’s his judgment. He thinks that you’ve got to wait until the election now to see. If Humphrey is elected, they can move; if he’s not elected, they’ll decide whether they want to move on the President’s terms or wait for Nixon—probably move on the President’s terms, but he thinks that. Now the second thing is, you might as well know here and now, and you and Averell better be signed on, that you’re not talking about one thing—you’re talking about three. And if you get an agreement on one—he’s got to think, and you’ve got to make him think that he’s got to believe that your judgment is sound—that the other two are in effect agreed because if they’re not agreed in 24 hours, you’re going to get some action.

Rusk: Yes.

President: So you ought to know and carry out and anticipate its consequences.

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Rusk: Right.

President: Now, Walt will call you, but you’ll be prepared and you Don’t need to tell him I’ve talked to you.

Rusk: All right.

President: He’s over with Cy now. But if I were you, I’d certainly get the three articles—Murrey Marder, Joe Kraft, Rowland Evans—and I believe that you ought to talk to Ball sometime in the next day or two. Don’t tell him what’s going on with Gromyko, but just tell him that you’re exploring this thing and just say that you’re awfully disturbed that we’re going to get some criticism of the Republicans about Harriman commenting and about Harriman in effect writing the speech. You know, they’re putting it out now that Harriman wrote the second paragraph so that he could defend it.

Rusk: Yes. I think, well, I think that Cy ought to come clean with us in terms of exactly what happened.

President: You’d better. I think you better just be a prosecuting attorney when you sit down with him. Just say, “Now, I’m Secretary of State here, and I’ve stayed religiously out of politics, and what I’ve said to one I’ve said to the other, but I’m very concerned that when Dirksen is coming in demanding to see Johnson this morning, I’ve got to know—when did Ball come in? What did he say? Who talked to him?” He says he came over, he talked to Averell, he talked to him and he talked to him about his resignation. He asked for their advice. He counseled them. That’s the way to put it. Then I said, “Well, did he discuss this speech with you?” He didn’t say he did on the trip. “No,” I said, “was this speech discussed with you?” And he hesitated and he flushed and he just—he honestly didn’t know what to say. He had to make up his mind whether he was going to lie or not. He decided, of course, he wouldn’t. So he came back and said, “Yes, yes, we knew about the speech.” I said, “Who discussed it with you?” He said, “I—I Don’t remember now.”

Rusk: [Laughter]

President: I said, “Now Cy, an important speech like that, and you’re telling me you Don’t remember?” I just kind of laughed at him [and] said, “You’re kidding.” And he said, “Well, George Ball.”

Rusk: [Laughter]

President: That’s pathetic. But I think you’d better go over that with him. Then I think you’d better furthermore say there are two things; we’d better tighten up our operation; that you’re in charge of it. One is our relations with the press showing the division between them and us—that’s number one. Number two—if they’re going to be talking to any of these people, just please refer the ball to the State Department, and just anybody else, Nixon, Humphrey, or Ball, or I Don’t know, [Page 137] Ellsworth—I’d guess that if Ball can do it for Humphrey, Ellsworth has a right to do it for Nixon, hasn’t he?

Rusk: Yes. Well, I’ll call you again as soon as I know when my appointment with Gromyko is.

President: Thank you. But you talk to Cy.

Rusk: Yes, sir.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, October 3, 1968, 10:15 a.m., Tape F6810.02, PNO 4-5. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. Rusk called from New York, where he was attending the UN General Assembly. The President was in Washington. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. Joseph Kraft, syndicated columnist.
  3. See Document 40.
  4. Theodore Van Dyke, speechwriter for the Humphrey campaign, and Ira Kapenstein, executive assistant to the Democratic National Chairman.
  5. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, syndicated columnists.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. VI, Documents 303 and 304.
  7. Murrey Marder, reporter for the Washington Post.
  8. See Document 47.