237. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Former President Eisenhower1

Eisenhower: I think I’m a little better.

Johnson: I wanted to call you. I waited until he got through with his press conference. He played about the same old broken record in private that he did in public. We tried to get agreement on four or five points. We may have made a little progress on non-proliferation. We’re going to have Rusk and Gromyko work on it some tomorrow. We may be able to table an agreement, but we are not positive. It looked like there was some movement on arms limitation and on arms shipment and on disclosure and on reducing military expenditures, cutting our budget down for nuclear weapons or for offensive or defensive missile systems, etc. We both agreed in general principle, but he never would set a time and never would set a place and never would get down to really executing it. It was just largely conversation—pleasant, no vitriolic stuff, no antagonistic stuff, no bitter stuff, two or three little low blows below the belt every now and then. When you’d meet him the same way why he would get back to the normal level. He made clear they didn’t want any confrontation with the United States, didn’t want to fight us, didn’t want to go to war.

But on the Middle East just one simple instruction—looked like he couldn’t move one inch away from it on anything: there must be complete, absolute, immediate withdrawal of troops, period. Nothing else with it. That was going to be their resolution. They could pass that in the General Assembly. They wanted us to support it there and in the Security Council, and nothing else, and that unless and until that would be done, there was going to be a big great war, and those people would be fighting for ten years, that they would have to support the Arab nations, that he couldn’t understand why we’d want to support the Jews—3 million people when there are 100 million Arabs. I told him that numbers did not determine what was right. We tried to do what was right regardless of the numbers, and we felt like we’d have to take in maritime passage, that we’d have to consider where they were before they closed the Gulf, and if they were going to go back to the Armistice line, they were going to have to go back to the Gulf of Aqaba as it was. He [Page 559] said well that would have to be done later and take two or three years to work out all these other things. Wouldn’t give an inch on that.

On Vietnam he said we’ve got to stop our bombing. We’ve got to pull out. That’s what he said on television. Got to get all of our troops out. That we’re an aggressor there. We are an invader there. We are a perpetrator of aggression, and not anything else will do, no substitute. We exchanged some views, and I asked some questions of him in that connection. Asked him what would happen if we stopped our bombing. Would they talk, and if so how long, and would it just be another Korea talk to delay it, or would it be serious, or what would come from it, and what could he guarantee or underwrite or assure, or what did he think? The net of it was just another line. Stop your bombing. Send your troops home. Then things will work out.

Eisenhower: And then after that we will start talking?

Johnson: Yup. Then—but I submitted him some questions, things to think about, and his folks. I asked him to let McNamara sit down and talk to him about disarmament and give me the name and the date and the time and place. He would always dodge it. He claimed to be for it in principle but specifically he wouldn’t. He claimed that there should be other elements taken into the Middle East settlement, but he wouldn’t do any of them until withdrawal was effected. The Latin America thing, I gave him, told him, there were 6 or 7 hot spots, that they are using Soviet material—Cuba was—that we caught a bunch of them the other day in Venezuela, that they were giving us hell in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and Bolivia and half a dozen places, that this is a very serious matter, Soviet equipment, Castro-trained people. So—[speaking to someone nearby] Give me one of those, will you? [Speaking again to Eisenhower] He ought to realize that we thought this was very serious and we were going to have to take action. The OAS was going to take action. Would he give me his judgment, his comments and what he could do about it? He said he couldn’t comment now but he was leaving for Cuba tomorrow and he would bear these things in mind in talking to them. Acted like he was a little upset with Castro. Didn’t say so. I guess that’s about all.

He has an obsession on China, and just said we better understand that they are very dangerous people, and we’d better start talking about their exploding these nuclear weapons. They are trying to promote this. We’re just their stooges. He kind of makes the same speech about us as China makes about him. He said they all charged me with selling out to you. Said you know what the Chinese are saying. You know what the Arabs are saying. Said I want to ask you if you think I have sold anyone out. I said, yes, you sold me out, but you haven’t sold them out. You’re staying awfully close to them. He laughed. I’d think that was about it. I thought he was less vituperative and antagonistic [Page 560] and vicious and cutting and debating and argumentative than I have expected him to be, than Gromyko has been and Mikoyan or any of the rest of them. He’s pretty stolid, pretty stubborn. I felt like—one time we got into Cuba someway, and I said well you talk about you don’t believe us, you think that we let Israel have some arms, troop carriers or whatever it was, tanks or planes I think he said. I said we have tried to give them very little arms. Most of our aid has been economic aid. That’s not true with all the countries. Your aid there has been mostly military and much more sizeable than ours. Then you’ve helped others. I remember you’ve had a good many missiles in Cuba. He just flared up big, waved his finger at me, said I want you to know I opposed that, I fought that, I tried to keep Khrushchev from doing it, and when he did it I made him back up and get out.

Eisenhower: Funny thing, I’ve heard Khrushchev blame his predecessors and so on.

Johnson: And then another thing, he said, I want you to know we are grateful to the American people. We fought by your side. I was in Leningrad. I was Stalin’s deputy 12 years, and we remember your great war against fascism and you were with us and you were patriots and we are awfully grateful and will never forget it, but he didn’t show a damn bit of evidence of it in anything he said on any of these things.

Eisenhower: Yes.

Johnson: And I held back about the meeting because I know these meetings—you just stir up a lot of hopes and you don’t get anything till the night he is due to go home, and he put off a day. I finally made Rusk go over it carefully, Dobrynin with Thompson. And then I got Rusk to go over it with Gromyko. Then I got Rusk to go over it with him himself, and he assured us there’d be substantive talks. We could take up any of these things and get his opinion. And I would say in fairness, as a teacher, I would grade him about a B plus on discussions on arms, that is offensive and defensive missiles, the ABM, and I think that when he gets back he’ll probably set a date. But he didn’t assure me of that. He did assure me that they would talk before he came here, but I just kept trying to get the time and place. I’d send McNamara or whoever he wanted any place. We’d talk in Geneva, we’d talk in Moscow, we’d talk here, we’d talk at the ambassadorial level. The main thing that I’ve told Congress, I said I’ve had them waiting three months. I don’t think I ought to go on this with a big appropriation here if there is any chance of our reasoning this thing out. But he never did say what he’d do, but I believe I made a little progress there. I believe we’ve made a little step closer in non-proliferation. I think that he thinks that we are not wild men. I believe I made a good impression on him from the standpoint of being prudent, being firm and being determined and not being a fraidycat or a bully either.

[Page 561]

And he made one or two passes that I don’t want to discuss with anyone but you, but he said I want you to know that if you do not deliver Israel here on this resolution—withdrawal—and you cannot pull these fighters back like you do two boxing men in the rings and separate the combatants and you pull them back to where they were before this war started then I want you to know there’s going to be a big war and there’s going to be a great war and it’s coming soon. And I said well now Mr. Chairman I hope that there’s not going to—and he said they’ll fight with their fists and they will fight with arms. I said now if you’re saying that the Israelis and the Arabs are going to have some further difficulties, I hope they don’t. I’m going to do everything I can to keep them from fighting. I hope you do everything you can to keep them from fighting. But if you are saying that it goes beyond that area, and others will be fighting, then you are speaking very serious business, something that concerns me greatly, and I think it should concern you. He backed away from it and said well I said that they would be fighting out there, and I said well, I’ll do all I can to keep them from fighting and hope you do too. He made another pass this afternoon along the same line. I met him the same way and he backed off from it again. I said I was talking about “they” would be fighting, he said.

Eisenhower: This thing about China—our concern and his concern about it. Did he make any specific suggestion or express any specific thought?

Johnson: No. He said we ought to have another conference on that. And you better be real concerned about these explosions. I said we are. He said that’s a matter that we ought to talk about at another conference. I said we’re ready any time. I’d be glad to have one every year and set a time for it. We could stack up every problem we got, every bilateral situation, and you could come here or we could come there.

Eisenhower: When you sent Ambassador Thompson down here the other evening, he gave me a good briefing. Then I suggested to him a thought that I have been talking with some people, and I told him if he had a chance to, to convey it to you. And I said as I study this problem, there are two in the Mideast—two problems—that have got to be settled before there is ever going to be even a modus operandi there in the Mideast. And one of them is these waters and the other one is these refugees. Now they can be tied up it seems to me if we could set up a scheme, a corporation, world corporation something like they started out with the Suez Canal or this atomic thing in Vienna. Suppose our government bought 51 percent of the stock and then we built in succession three great big salt purification plants in the Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean, and sell the stock to bankers all around the world and so on and make the water problem there—I mean a water solution—make it so attractive that both sides would almost be compelled [Page 562] by their people to take it. For example, I’ve been talking to some of these AEC people, or scientific people. They say that it’s not too expensive a thing, that you could put 500 million up to a billion gallons a day and water much of Israel, Jordan, Egypt east of the Suez, and some of Syria probably. Well now if we could get up a thing like that we not only would employ thousands and thousands of people and bring lots of land into cultivation. You see we had that old Jordan River thing that Eric Johnston had developed and the Arabs turned that down because they said they didn’t want the Israeli to get any benefit out of that. But here, this would be 20 times the benefit of that, dams on the Jordan, and it would be so attractive it seems to me to both sides that we might create an atmosphere where they themselves could do something.

Johnson: I broached that to him this afternoon. I didn’t get any comment. I told him that our people had talked to me about it just before the meeting. He said well, I just want to say this: I don’t think we can talk about anything else until we get the troops withdrawn. Said we are refugees in a fight and you got to get your man by the nape of the neck and I have to got to get our man by the nape of the neck and you’ve got to separate them and put them back in their corner. Said then we can talk about other things.

Eisenhower: [Unintelligible] about their man, though, they will have to pick him up and revive him. [Both men laugh.] That’s the difference. I’ll tell you, I have been through several of these things, and I know they are frustrating and you just have to guess. Now in ′55, Mr. President, we came out of there—they agreed to a half a dozen things and signed up: unification of Germany, and broadening of contacts between our two countries. So in October we sent our foreign ministers back to implement these things. But we took up 17 different ideas and they turned nyet every one of them, every one. I don’t know—they talk a little bit but I’ve seen no yielding yet to any of them.

Johnson: He came over here, in my judgment, the way I evaluated it, to give Israel hell, and to give us hell and try to get some of this polecat off of him. He smelled bad in sending them all that arms, and just, by God, getting whipped in three days, and he wanted to divert the attention and get us on the defensive, and give us hell, and we didn’t engage him, we just kind of let him falter up there. He was pretty much a flop. Then he started raising hell with every do-gooder in this country to have a conference. And I said well let’s see what we can do. I want to prepare for it and what are we going to talk about? They said everything from just a courtesy call to just to meet with him, an exploratory conference. And I finally made Rusk go up and start out with Dobrynin and go to Gromyko and then go to Kosygin himself and say now we’re ready to meet with you but you come to Washington or you [Page 563] go to Camp David. Wouldn’t go to Camp David because Khrushchev had been there. [Eisenhower laughs.] Wouldn’t come to Washington because the Chinese and the Arabs would give him hell, and wanted me to come and sit down in the United Nations, and I said I’m not going to do that. By God, every time a man gets on a horse and gallops over here—he hadn’t even told me he’s here yet officially, never did tell me he was even coming.

Eisenhower: Oh, I think you’re absolutely right not to go up there and get into that.

Johnson: I will be reasonable, and I said I’d go and meet anywhere, so I’ll meet him close to some city where we can have the correspondents file because there were 1,300 of them covering it, and they’re going to get everybody’s hopes up, but I’m going to try to warn them not to. And we did and then he wanted to talk further, and I said that’s fine. He said he’s going to not go home Friday he’s going to stay first Thursday and then Friday and then he said he was going to stay until Monday. And I said when do you want to meet again? He said well anytime. I said well let’s meet Sunday and so we did. But in the 10 hours we may have moved a little on two things. We’ll have to see. But it’s about the same experience you said just now. And I don’t think—

Eisenhower: His talk tonight gave no light at all, it’s just the same old—

Johnson: I thought I’d call and tell you and I sure appreciate your interest and your support and your help. You’ve been a tower of strength in every problem concerning the nation.

Eisenhower: Whenever there is anything in the country as a matter of fact that I can do anything, I’ll carry your satchel—

Johnson: I’ll tell you one thing you can do for me is just be damn sure you get well and get strong and let me know whenever you’re ready and then we’ll get our plane ready, and you can take it slow, but I don’t want you to let yourself get run down and not take care of yourself. You just be careful because you’ve got a hell of a lot of propping up to do around here for a long time, long as you got me. [Johnson laughs.]

Eisenhower: Well, I’ll tell you. You know if you could just pass on [thinking that you had gotten these people to do anything]constructive and reasonable, [it would be great].2 I have been at it since 1941—that was my first terrible blow with them.

[Page 564]

Johnson: You’re still at it and he’ll be prepared to stay at it a little while longer so just pull up your britches. Give my love to Mrs. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower: I will, thank you.

Johnson: Goodbye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a Telephone Conversation between Johnson and Eisenhower, Tape F67.13, PNO 1 and 2. No classification marking. Johnson was in Washington; Eisenhower was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume by the Office of the Historian.
  2. The bracketed portions in this paragraph, which are unintelligible due to distortion in the dictabelt recording, are taken from a transcript of the conversation made by the President’s personal secretary, Mary Rather, in the late 1960s, presumably before the distortion developed. (Ibid.)