43. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • US
    • The President
    • Under Secretary Ball
    • Ambassador Bohlen
    • McGeorge Bundy
    • William R. Tyler
  • France
    • Couve de Murville, Foreign Minister
    • Ambassador Alphand
    • Charles Lucet, Foreign Office

After preliminary courtesies, during which the Foreign Minister conveyed General de Gaulle’s best wishes to the President, President Johnson referred to this morning’s events in Saigon. He had told some Senators only yesterday evening2 that you could never tell when there might be a new government in Saigon and this morning it had happened again.3 There had been something like ten governments in South Vietnam in the last few years.

Couve said this did not surprise people any more and that it illustrated the basic problem in South Vietnam, which is a political one.

The President said the Secretary of State had told him about the good talks he had had with General De Gaulle. He was glad the Foreign Minister had been able to come. He admired De Gaulle for being able to get away with few press conferences. He himself had held forty-six of them, whereas President Kennedy had held twenty-one, and yet he had been told that wasn’t enough.

At Mr. Ball’s suggestion, the Foreign Minister described his talk in Paris on Saturday, February 13, with the Communist Chinese Ambassador, who had just come back from Peiping. After the usual accusations against the United States, he had said that the thing to do in Southeast Asia was to go back to the Geneva Agreement of 19544 as a basis [Page 83] for negotiations. Couve had told him this was the French position, too, but the negotiations would have to be without preconditions, because their objective was to achieve a cease fire and see what could then be developed. The Chinese Ambassador had not said exactly that he agreed, which would have been asking too much. However, as the Ambassador left, Couve had summarized their talk according to his own understanding, and had asked if the Ambassador objected to any part of it, to which the Ambassador had replied in the negative. Couve said that France had some commercial relations with North Vietnam but no political relations, since France had diplomatic relations with South Vietnam. He said the French government did not see any difference between the North Vietnamese and the Chinese, except that the former are more anxious to negotiate.

The President said our information on what was happening in Southeast Asia was limited. He said we did not have the best sources available. We had always felt that in order to have useful negotiations, the other side must want to negotiate. We had not seen any sign of this, in fact our information reflected quite the contrary. (At this point the President read several passages from an intelligence report on the attitude of the North Vietnamese government which we had received through a private source.)5

Couve said it was normal that Hanoi should speak in this vein for propaganda purposes, but he did not think that this was the real position.

The President said that in the last fourteen months he had watched problems of concern to our allies very closely and very carefully, and that he had always been very cautious and had taken care not to throw our weight around. Illustrating his point with reference to an occasional bean ball thrown in a baseball game, he said that when these had come his way he had moved his head out of the line of fire and had refused to engage in quarrels with people. He had always told our own people that we didn’t want to get into fights needlessly. The President pointed out that President Eisenhower and President Kennedy had told the people of South Vietnam that we wanted to help them help themselves. This had always been our position and he wasn’t about to run out on our commitment. There were two or three thousand incidents a month in South Vietnam and he didn’t have to tell the French what this meant as they had had plenty of experience out there themselves. As the character of these incidents gets more serious we respond in kind in order to make our purpose clear, e.g.: when the North Vietnamese PT boats had been sent out against our destroyers, we had bombed their bases on the North Vietnamese coast. We had also shelled [Page 84] the attacking craft with our ships. Then the Viet Cong had been sent into a US compound and had killed a number of our boys. The President was not going to write them a thank-you note for this. There had been up to 78 such incidents. The President wondered what De Gaulle or Erhard or Wilson would do in similar circumstances. What we had done was to bomb certain of their staging and assembly points. Then the following night they had come and blown up a hotel and killed some more of our soldiers. So our planes went back and “sprinkled them a little.” The President said he didn’t think we had killed many of them. In fact he thought that our action had probably caused more concern in certain other parts of the world than it had in North Vietnam. The President said that whenever De Gaulle says something on the Vietnamese problem, the President asks the Secretary of State or Ambassador Bohlen to go and find out exactly what De Gaulle said. Then he is told that the suggestion is that we ought to have a political solution. The President said that he was all in favor of this but the question was how to bring it about. The President said that the press would like him to talk more than he does but he didn’t want to. He noticed that some of his colleagues talked to the press and he could tell which ones had done so from little lines here and there in the articles. The President repeated that our policy was to help the people of South Vietnam to help themselves. We would leave tomorrow if anyone would provide effective guarantees of the independence of South Vietnam. He said we would pull our men out tonight if we could achieve this. The President said that we were not going to give the other side a privileged sanctuary as in Korea, or tell them what weapons we would use or not use against them. We were going to keep them guessing and use appropriate means in response to their aggression. We don’t want to move to escalation, but if the others do it, we will do whatever is required on the basis of the wisest military judgment. We would like to have everybody else’s help in our efforts and we haven’t had much help from others. The President said that he had greatly valued President De Gaulle’s stand and help at the time of the Cuba crisis, and he had taken it into account in our relations with France. He said that until we get support we will never be able to explain our alliances satisfactorily to the American people. He said that we might have to leave South Vietnam for some reason but we hoped not. We welcomed the help and the counsel of everyone. If the North Vietnamese think that they hold all the trump cards and that they have the backing of world opinion, then they are misjudging the situation and us, just like Hitler and the Japanese misjudged us. We have no ambitions, but if we were to abandon Vietnam, we would be forced to give up Laos, Thailand, Burma, and would be back to Hawaii and San Francisco. He said that we ask for nothing for ourselves in Vietnam, we just want the Vietminh to leave South Vietnam alone. The President said we wanted a [Page 85] solution, and we would rather have a solution than the death of a single American or Vietnamese. The President said that when people talk about a political solution they always seem to come back to the thought that we haven’t used our strength properly. The President said that we intended to stay out there as long as necessary and we didn’t see what other courses we could follow. He said that we would continue to exercise prayer and caution, “waiting, praying and hoping that others more experienced than ourselves could come up with some good ideas.” The President said that he had not been too sensitive to demands for stronger action from people in this country. In this connection he specifically mentioned Goldwater, Nixon, Scranton, Rockefeller and Lodge, who had all asked for greater military measures.

The Foreign Minister said he fully understood the feelings expressed by the President. The essential problem was: how to get out. He felt that there was a complete contradiction between our respective information on the thinking of the Chinese and North Vietnamese. The French Government’s information differed from ours.

The President said he had heard that General De Gaulle says what we ought to do. He said de Gaulle is a great man, and that we are grateful that there are not as many changes of government in France as in SVN. The President said he would like to hear from him what he thinks we ought to do, with points a., b., c.

(At this point there was some comment by the President on what General De Gaulle really recommended with regard to the use of strength. Ambassador Bohlen explained this point to the President.)

The Foreign Minister said that the statement which the President had read was pure propaganda, and was too stupid.

The Foreign Minister said the French government believed in a political solution. According to its information, the other side wants to negotiate. On the other hand, US information is that they don’t.

Mr. Bundy asked whether the position of the other side was that the United States should withdraw first and then negotiate.

The Foreign Minister replied in the negative. He said that US withdrawal was their ultimate objective, but they said that we should all go back to the 1954 Geneva agreements first, in order to negotiate. They did not ask for withdrawal as the first step. The Foreign Minister said that the role of the Chicoms was far more important than that of the DRV.

The President asked if it was the feeling of the Foreign Minister that if we got an agreement it would be worth anything.

The Foreign Minister answered that the most important factor was what kind of a government there would be in South Vietnam. He admitted that this was a risk which one would probably have to take. It was not possible to tell what the nature of a South Vietnamese government would be.

[Page 86]

Mr. Ball asked whether France felt that any government likely to emerge would be dominated by Hanoi.

The Foreign Minister replied that nobody could say.

Ambassador Alphand interjected that Belgrade was not Moscow.

Mr. Ball referred to the problem of the other states in the general area of Southeast Asia: Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia.

The President said that success by the Chinese would be likely to increase their appetite.

The Foreign Minister said that the main issue was the question of relations between the United States and China. China could not fail to be impressed by the immense power of the United States.

Mr. Ball referred to his talk with General De Gaulle on June 5, 1964.6 He thought that a major difference between our two governments was in our respective assessment of the intentions of Communist China. France thought that it was preoccupied with major internal problems and thus looked inward on itself, whereas we think that the Chinese are aggressive and land hungry.

Mr. Bundy said that another difference was that France seems to think that there can be no solution to the problem of stable government in South Vietnam while the United States remains there, while we think that there can be no solution if we leave.

The Foreign Minister said that government stability was impossible to achieve in a period of hostilities, but that if a cease fire could be achieved, then, with the US staying in South Vietnam, internal conditions could be expected to change.

Ambassador Bohlen commented that another difference was that France thinks that negotiations would last a very long time, whereas we thought that a conference would be likely to break up.

The Foreign Minister said that in estimating the probable course which the Communist Chinese government would take, it was useful to look at the Soviet example. He recalled that the Soviet Union had stayed quiet until World War II and had only started its expansionist policies at that time.

Mr. Ball said that Chinese expansionism had already been active in Africa. The Foreign Minister said this was different: before the war there had been activity in other countries by the Communist parties.

Ambassador Bohlen said that Communist China proclaimed its belief in militant support of indigenous movements, and that this raised the question of how it could be expected to retreat.

The Foreign Minister said that if the Chinese once agreed to come to the negotiating table, it would then be harder for them to resume fighting.

[Page 87]

The President asked what was the French evaluation of the Soviet thinking on these matters.

The Foreign Minister answered that the Russians had the same evaluation as the French, and that they constituted a moderating element. The Russians didn’t want to see the Communist Chinese expand, and would support North Vietnam against China.

Mr. Bundy said that unless the President had any special subject he wanted to raise, he thought there was nothing in particular to be discussed further except perhaps the question of gold. He said the Foreign Minister was one of the few friends gold has, to which the Foreign Minister rejoined: “Except for those who own gold.”

There was some mention of the President’s session yesterday with American businessmen7 and the question of whether moral suasion would succeed.

The Foreign Minister said that if the President succeeded, this would be a great achievement.

The President said that he personally had his own doubts about success.

The Foreign Minister said that after all the United States was a very wealthy country.

The President referred to the current dock strike which was still tying up some of our southern ports. He said that New York and Baltimore and Philadelphia were free again but that the Japanese were now buying grain from Red China while our own grain was lying on the piers in the South.

The Foreign Minister mentioned some sales to Japan by Australia and New Zealand, and some by France. In conclusion, the question of press guidance was discussed, and it was agreed that the Foreign Minister would say that he had talked about various subjects with the President, including South Vietnam. The Foreign Minister said that in reply to any further questions he would refer the press to the White House.

The meeting ended at 12:30 p.m.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Conference Files: Lot 66 D 347, CF 2480. Secret. Drafted by Tyler and approved in the White House on March 5 and in U on March 9. The meeting was held in the White House. Couve visited Washington February 18-20. Memoranda of his conversation with Secretary Rusk are in Department of State, French Desk Files: Lot 72 D 441, Visits—Couve. A memorandum of his conversation with Under Secretary Ball is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL FR-US. A memorandum by Rusk of a lunchtime discussion with Couve regarding Germany is ibid., POL 32-4 GER.
  2. According to the President’s Daily Diary, he met with Senators Carl Mundt, Clifford Case, and Hugh Scott at 9:10 p.m. at the White House. (Johnson Library) No record of the meeting has been found.
  3. Reference is to the abortive coup of February 19 led by Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao.
  4. For text of the 1954 Geneva agreements on Indochina, see American Foreign Policy, 1950-1955: Basic Documents, pp. 750-787.
  5. Not found.
  6. See footnote 4, Document 32.
  7. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Book I, pp. 206-208. See also Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. VIII, Document 44.