80. Telephone Conversation Among President Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace1
Operator: Mr. President, I have not told them that this is a conference call. Do you want me to do so?
President: Do what?[Page 220]
Operator: I have not told them that they're all going to be on with you.
President: I'll tell them.
Operator: I'll put them right on.
Operator: Just a moment. Go ahead please.
President: This is the President. This is a conference call that I have set up. I asked the operator to get the three Presidential candidates so that I might review for you a matter of the highest national importance and one which I know concerns you this morning. I will make notes of this—a transcription of it—and you are at liberty to do likewise, if you are prepared to do it. If not, you can take notes. If not, I will review it with you in more detail at a later date.
Nixon: Sure. Fine.
President: Who was that speaking?
Nixon: Yeah, I'm on.
President: Hubert, are you on?
Humphrey: Yes, sir.
President: George, are you on? George? Hello, George? Hello, George? Tell the operator that Wallace is not on. I think I will go with you. They told me they had all three connected. This is in absolute confidence because any statement or any speeches or any comments at this time referring to the substance of these matters will be injurious to your country. I don't think there's any question about that.
First, I want to say this, that our position, the government position, today is exactly what it was the last time all three of you were briefed. That position, namely, is this. We are anxious to stop the bombing and would be willing to stop the bombing if they would sit down with us with the Government of Vietnam present and have productive discussions. We have told them that we did not think we could have discussions if, while we were talking, they were shelling the cities or if they were abusing the DMZ. From time to time, beginning back late last Spring, they have nibbled back and forth at these various items. Each time they do, there is a great flurry of excitement. We have been hopeful one day that they would understand this. We don't want to call it reciprocity—we don't want to call it conditions—because they object to using those words, and that just knocks us out of an agreement. But we know that you join us in wanting peace the earliest day we can and to save lives as quickly as we can and as many as we can. So, one day we're hopeful, and the next day we're very disillusioned.
Now, as of today, they have not signed on and agreed to the proposition which I have outlined to you, nor have they indicated that this [Page 221]would be a satisfactory situation to them in its entirety. Our negotiators are back and forth talking to them, and they have just finished their meeting in Paris this morning. But, yesterday in Saigon, because there are exchanges constantly going on, there came out a report that there was an agreement that would be announced at a specific hour.2 This morning in Paris the same thing happened, and Harriman had to knock that down.3 We posted a notice here at the White House that said the same thing.
Now, very frankly, we would hope that we could have a minimum of discussion in the newspapers about these conferences because we are not going to get peace with public speeches and we're not going to get peace through the newspapers. We can get it only when they understand that our position is a firm one, and we're going to stay by it. And what y'all's position would be when you get to be President, I hope you could announce it then. Because we have really this kind of a situation. If I have a house to sell, and I put a rock bottom price of $40,000 on it, and the prospective purchaser says, “Well, that's a little high, but let me see.” And he goes—starts to leave to talk to his wife about it, and Lady Bird [Johnson] whispers, “I would let you have it for $35,000.” And then he gets downstairs, and Lynda Bird [Johnson] says, “We don't like the old house anyway, you can get it for $30,000.” Well, he's not likely to sign up.
President: The Bundy speech4 didn't do us any good, and there are other speeches that are not helping at all because these people—when they read one of these speeches and hear them, well, then they take off for Hanoi, or they do something else.
The government's position is going to be this. I—we are willing to stop the bombing when it will not cost us men's lives, when the Government of South Vietnam can be a party to the negotiations, and when they will not abuse the DMZ and not shell the cities. Now, we do not have to get a firm contract on all these three things. But I do have to have good reason to believe that it won't be on-again-off-again Flanagan; that I won't have to stop bombing one day and start it the next. Now, obviously, they can deceive me, and we know that in dealing with the Communists that they frequently do that. We have had a good many experiences in that right in these negotiations.[Page 222]
But what I called you for was to say in substance this: our position has not changed. I do not plan to see a change. I have not issued any such orders. I will talk to each of you before I do, and all of you on an equal basis. I know you don't want to play politics with your country. I'm trying to tell you what my judgment is about how not to play politics with it, and I know all of you want peace at the earliest possible moment, and I would just express the hope that you be awfully sure what you are talking about before you get into the intricacies of these negotiations. Over. Now, I'll be glad to have any comment any of you want to make or answer any questions.
Humphrey: No comment, Mr. President. Thank you very much.
Nixon: Well, as you know, my—this is consistent with what my position has been all along. I made it very clear that I will make no statement that will undercut the negotiations. So we'll just stay right on there and hope that this thing works out.
President: George, are you on?
Wallace: Yes, sir, Mr. President, and of course, that's my position all along, too—is the position you stated, yes, sir, and I agree with you that we shouldn't play any politics in this matter so that it might foul up the negotiations in any manner.
President: Thank you very much. Now, what our policy is going to be I think all of you should know. It's not going to be an impetuous or hasty policy. I've outlined it to you. I do not want you to speak about it. I do not want you to lay down these points, because if you do, that causes them to say that they're conditions and it's reciprocity, and they may be able to take them if they don't think they're going to get something better by just waiting a few weeks or a few days. Now—so I think it is very important that this be confidential. Do you know whether your talking to me is knowledge to any of your people?
Nixon: In my case, the phone was picked up by somebody here—I'm at the Union Station in Kansas City—the phone was picked up by somebody else. It may be known, but I will seal them down. I'll just tell them we got a routine report.
President: Okay. If anybody asks, we will not mention it here, if they ask us, that we stated the facts as we see them. Namely, that there has been no agreement between us, that we will constantly negotiate, and when there is, well, the candidates will be among the first informed. Now, I'm not going to agree to anything unless my advisers—the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and all the Joint Chiefs themselves—consider the matter and give me their best judgment. And I get that from time to time. And it is all of their best judgment now at this moment that the position I have stated to you is the soundest position for this country. Namely, [Page 223]the Government of Vietnam must be included, and we could not expect an American President to have good discussions very long if they were shelling the cities or if they were abusing the DMZ.
Humphrey: Mr. President?
Humphrey: It's obvious that I am here at a school and I'm all alone. There's nobody with me, and they do not know that I've got a call from you. But I have been held up at a meeting, and the press is very alert. I'm just simply—is it all right to just simply say that we've had our regular report?
Nixon: That's good.
President: Well, what I'm fearful of—I'm afraid if they think that we're doing this, it will put a seriousness on it that wouldn't be justified.
Humphrey: What can we say?
President: I think, if you want to, I will just say that I called the three of you and I read to you the notice that Christian has posted here this morning—
Humphrey: Very good.
President: Which I will read to you now. It, in effect, says that these reports are premature, that there has been no agreement, and that we're not signed on with them at all.
President: Let me read it to you. “The position of the United States with respect to Vietnam remains as set forth by the President and Secretary of State. The position”—you can write this down—“The position of the United States with respect to Vietnam remains as set forth by the President and the Secretary of State. There has been no basic change in the situation; no breakthrough.”
Humphrey: All right.
President: “As you have been advised, when there is anything to report, you will, of course, be informed promptly.”
President: Now, I want to make this point to all of you candidates. First, I think you want to know what the situation is so you won't jeopardize it. Second, I don't want any one of the three of you to think that I am going to give a preference to any person. When we know what is happening that is significant to you, I will call each one of you just as quickly as I can before I would issue any orders. I think I have that obligation to you for your responsibility. So, don't think you are going to get tricked or deceived.[Page 224]
Now, we will be negotiating. We might sign up in—5 minutes ago. Our judgment is we won't. But this is our position. They have not accepted it, and I'm going on until January 20 along this line. I don't say there won't be some modification or moderation. But, in principle, this formula must be our government position as long as I'm here. Over.
Nixon: We got it.
President: Is that clear to all of you?
Nixon: We'll maintain your position. And Mr. Vice President, I'll see you tonight.
Humphrey: Yes, sir. Thank you.
Nixon: At the Al Smith Dinner.5
Humphrey: What time are you coming?
Nixon: I'll be there; I'm flying in from Kansas City. I'll be there about 7:30 p.m.
Humphrey: Are you coming in at the beginning of the dinner?
Nixon: Oh, yes. I'll get there. You won't make it that early?
Humphrey: Are you wearing a white tie?
Nixon: Oh, yes.
Humphrey: I gather. Okay.
Nixon: I've got to go home and put the thing on.
Nixon: All right. Thank you.
President: Goodbye, George.
Wallace: Mr. President?
President: Yes, George?[Page 225]
Wallace: Now, you asked if anyone knew about this call. Now, the Secret Service did know about the call.
President: That's all right. We won't say anything about it, unless they quiz you. If they quiz you, the reporters, you say the President read you the memorandum which stated that the government position would remain as set forth by him in his public speeches, and there had been no change—the rumors to the contrary—there had been no breakthrough, and that he wanted to inform me of this fact because of the gossip so I wouldn't be up in the dark, and that he would keep me informed if there is any action taken.
Humphrey: Very good.
Wallace: Well, Mr. President, do you think continued talk about the matter of Vietnam is endangering the peace talks in any manner?
President: Well, I think it's what you say—what people say—that does. I think that if they think that either Wallace or Humphrey or Nixon—if they can hold out 3 more weeks and get a little better deal—buy the horse a little cheaper from you than they can from me, they're going to wait. You know that much.
Wallace: Yes, sir. But as long as we're strong. I've taken a strong position, and I don't want to do anything or say anything.
President: I know. What I'd do, I'd just give my views on it, but I'd bear in mind constantly that the enemy is looking at everything that's said in this country. We had a speech made day before yesterday, and a few hours later, they came in and said, “Well, we've got to go back to Hanoi.” And they did. Now, I think if I were in their place and I were negotiating, and I read that Ho Chi Minh was in a sick bed, and in 3 weeks he would be out, and a better deal's awaiting me, and the new—and the new President would really do better than he's doing, I just don't think I would dash in. Don't you feel that way?
Wallace: I agree with you.
President: Anybody that ever bought a cat knows that. And let's just all try to stay together. I suggested to Secretary Rusk that he get all three of you to sign a statement that would say our government has taken a position; we cannot change that position until January 20th; therefore, we will stand behind that position until we take office, and then let Harriman read that to them so they would know it. But before we got around and got the thing written, why it kind of blew up, and we decided it wasn't wise to do it.
But whatever you can do in the way of peace offers or things of that kind, I would be awfully careful. As a matter of fact, I never will agree to one sentence until I have gone over it with my Joint Chiefs of Staff and Rusk and Katzenbach and Clark Clifford and Dick Helms. And if I [Page 226]am afraid to make a statement like that with all of these people advising us constantly, you can imagine how a fellow is out at a box supper or a school or at a country picnic—he's shooting from the hip. And I just hope that you'll understand that if you make a statement and it blows these conferences, I think it will hurt you more than you will gain from talking about the details of a peace offer right now. Wait until you get to January 20th, and then you can really get into it deep.
Wallace: Mr. President, I'm not even going to say a thing to the newsmen if they ask me. I'm just going to say that I'm just campaigning. How's that?
President: That's okay. Thank you, gentlemen.
Nixon: Very good.
Wallace: Thank you, Mr. President. Bye-bye.
- Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Among Johnson, Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, October 16, 1968, 11:41 a.m., Tape F6810.04, PNO 2-3. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. An unknown White House telephone operator was on the line to arrange the call. Humphrey was the Democratic Presidential candidate, Nixon the Republican candidate, and Wallace the Independent candidate. From Washington the President reached Humphrey at St. Louis, Missouri; Nixon at Kansas City, Missouri; and Wallace at Los Angeles, California. The conversation lasted 18 minutes. The entry for this meeting in the Daily Diary reads: “Vietnam Situation—White House Release on Reported Peace Negotiations.” (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)↩
- See Document 75.↩
- See Document 76.↩
- See Document 63.↩
- For the President's remarks at the annual Al Smith Dinner that evening in New York, at which both Nixon and Humphrey were present, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon Johnson, 1968-69, Book II, pp. 1041-1043. Nixon noted that the President reassured him that he was still intent on achieving reciprocal action from the North Vietnamese before he would assent to a termination of the bombing effort during the dinner. (Ibid.) In his memoirs, Nixon recalled the conversation: “There was no breakthrough in Paris. The rumors were wrong. He urged us not to say anything. He said that there had in fact been some movement by Hanoi, but that anything might jeopardize it. I asked for some assurance that he was still insisting on reciprocity from the Communists for any concessions on our part, and Johnson replied that he was maintaining that three points had to be met: (1) Prompt and serious talks must follow any bombing halt; (2) Hanoi must not violate the Demilitarized Zone; and (3) the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese would not carry out large-scale rocket attacks against South Vietnam's major cities. If these conditions were fulfilled, of course, I would support whatever arrangements Johnson could work out.” See Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), p. 325.↩