290. Memorandum of Conversation Between President Johnson and Prime Minister Lee1

Prime Minister Lee plunged in by telling the President that he had been in Cambodia to receive an honorary degree at the University; and Sihanouk had converted it into a big affair. At his arrival there were no representatives of Hanoi, NLF, or Communist China. At a banquet [Page 641]he had given a speech which was, for the setting, quite pro-U.S. The representatives of neither Hanoi nor the NLF walked out. At his departure there were representatives of both present at the airfield but not the Chinese.

This related, perhaps, to the fact that Hanoi now proposed to send a commercial delegation to Singapore. There is no longer any significant trade between Hanoi and Singapore because the U.S. has knocked out the cement factory and what they mainly bought from North Vietnam was cement. It is Lee’s judgment they are sending this mission for three reasons:

  • —to demonstrate Hanoi is not Peking;
  • —to increase their propaganda coverage since Singapore is a good enough distribution point;
  • —perhaps for long run political purposes.

Lee said that when President Johnson won his election in 1968, Hanoi will talk. He could not prove that statement to anyone; and he was not given to emphatic statements. But he was prepared to stand on it. He sees a softening in Hanoi’s general attitude. They could have treated him in Cambodia like a “cocker spaniel of imperialist U.S.”; but they did not. They are leaving avenues open.

President Johnson asked how Prime Minister Lee had enjoyed his trip in the U.S. He said it was an intensive 10 days of education; but not always pleasant. He was shocked by the disloyalty of some of the youth he saw at Berkeley and by the fact they were simply dirty. Returning to his view of Hanoi, he said there would be no change until the U.S. had demonstrated its staying power to Hanoi.

The President said that only 17% of the American people wished to get out of Vietnam; 35% underwrote his moderate policy; but 45% want to do more—use more military force. The question is, assuming Mr. Nixon is nominated, where will the 17% go? To Nixon or to President Johnson? The second question is, will Nixon be able to pick up the whole 45%.

In general, the anti-Vietnam pressure on the President had been diminishing from roughly the time Prime Minister Lee came to the U.S. We have taken some strides in consolidating support.

Lee then observed that he found Senator McCarthy ambitious, rather intelligent, lazy, and interested in making jokes, rather than talking seriously.

The President then went on to describe the present state of Republican politics and the possible role in the campaign of the candidacy of former Governor Wallace. The President described his problem in Vietnam as how to steer between a Bay of Pigs withdrawal, on the one hand, and an avoidance of escalation and widening of the war, on the other.

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Lee repeated: If you demonstrate your staying power, they will talk. I stake my credibility on that proposition. I have found that it is always best to speak the truth.

The President said we shall not compromise or trim in looking for an honorable peace.

The meeting ended with the Prime Minister wishing the President well in the 1968 election.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Conference Files, 1966–1972: Lot 68 D 453, CF 253. Secret. Drafted by Rostow. President Johnson and Prime Minister Lee were in Melbourne along with other foreign leaders and officials for the memorial service for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt who disappeared while swimming at sea on December 17.