293. Editorial Note

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew met with President Johnson on December 10, 1968, from 5:25 to 6 p.m. with William Bundy and Malaysian Ambassador Ong present. William Bundy sent Ambassador Galbraith a personal and eyes only letter, December 12, describing the conversation. Bundy’s account reads as follows:

“In the talk with the President, Ong and I were also present, although I had thought the President would wish to see him dead alone. The talk started a little slowly, but finally became quite relaxed and the President engaged in a considerable amount of personal reflection and reminiscences but also in some serious questioning of Lee about Singapore and Southeast Asia. Lee readily handled his end beautifully, with just the [Page 648]right amount of sincere praise for the President’s guts and determination, and a very frank and clear statement of how vital our sticking in Vietnam remained in his judgment. He also threw in some useful comments on Gorton and, for good measure, on Sihanouk—to the general effect that the latter readily depended on us just as much as everyone else in the area, even though he would hardly show it.

“However, I must tell you in the utmost confidence that some of the President’s remarks may have left an unfortunate impression about the firmness and resolve of the new Administration. The President said that he had no doubt whatsoever of Mr. Nixon’s personal views and intentions, but he then went on to say that he doubted very much that Mr. Nixon would stand up to the ’soft’ advice he would get from the new Secretary of State, Rogers, from Laird, and in general from the ’soft liberals.’ The net impression can well have been that Mr. Nixon would end up doing just about anything to get out of Vietnam on any terms at all, and that his standing in Southeast Asia was open to grave doubt. Quite frankly my own impression was that the President was indulging in the kind of disparagement of any successor that I have sometimes heard—in similar periods—from other senior officials. There was a good deal of the tone of ’I am a giant, and these men are pygmies.’ It may or may not turn out to be true, but I am not sure that Lee discounted it to the extent that I personally would do as of now.

“Into the bargain, the President made some very uncomplimentary remarks about Mr. Humphrey’s campaign speeches on the bombing, and this too may have left the impression that Mr. Humphrey and the dominant wing of the Democratic Party were ready to pull the plug in Southeast Asia. I injected myself once or twice to demur on this, but I doubt if I countered the impression the President was leaving. Nor do I think I was able to do so afterward—by further corrective efforts—believing as I do that Mr. Humphrey would in the end be at least as firm as Mr. Nixon, and that both would stand up to a considerable degree to the kinds of pressures that anyone can see.

“The point, of course, is that Lee may well be putting together his Harvard experience and what the President told him, into a very gloomy forecast indeed of future American intentions in Southeast Asia—and this is the serious possibility that warrants my telling you what was said.

“However, as I write this, there is one card left to be played, and that is his talk with Kissinger tomorrow. I myself am seeing Kissinger on other matters tonight, and will tell him quite frankly that he has a job to do—although I would not suggest that he give any flat assurances.” (Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, Private Correspondence with Ambassadors)

No record of Kissinger’s conversation with Lee has been found.

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