35. Memorandum of Conversation1

Meeting of the President With the Australian Cabinet 11:13 a.m., December 21, 1967, Cabinet Room, Canberra

Prime Minister McEwen opened by saying that he wished that we were meeting under happier circumstances.2 Nevertheless, he, the rest of the Cabinet, and all the Australian people were profoundly grateful to the President for taking this arduous journey on this occasion. It was an act of true greatness on the part of the President. He was likewise grateful to the British Prime Minister and others who had come.

The presence of the President, the Prime Minister and others was an indication that Harold Holt had made his mark on the world. He wished to note that the Presidentʼs message to Mrs. Holt and the family had comforted them greatly.

Harold Holt was a warmhearted, generous man. He was seen by his own countrymen as a “typical Australian.” There was no higher praise. His country had been proud of him. He dealt around the world with other heads of government as his peers and was accepted as such. There was more than mutural regard here. He demonstrated that, although he was a leader of a small country, he and that country were being taken to peopleʼs hearts.

Moreover, he took firm positions on the great issues of his time. Be in no doubt whatsoever: the new government will carry forward the policies that Harold Holt had initiated. They will stand with the U.S. in Vietnam right through to the end. They do not seek a crushing victory over the North Vietnamese or the VC, but we have set out to frustrate an effort to enslave a nation. We shall make sure that nation can stand on its own feet. That is the Australian attitude and policy from which they shall not be deflected. Australia shall continue to pursue the development of understanding relations with all these Asian countries. We are learning to trust them. They are learning to trust us. Thus Australia will continue to play its part along with the U.S. in the great constructive task of building a new Asia.

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President Johnson. The President thanked the Prime Minister for the beauty, generosity, and eloquence of his expression. He said it meant a great deal. It was a privilege to sit at this table again.

He was here in Australia because he wanted to be here; and he simply could not be anywhere else. A representative of the television network asked him a few days before what drew the President to Harold Holt. He answered: He was drawn to him because he was an Australian—a man of character and tenacity, generosity and toughness, and a man of brotherly love.

Out of his whole experience with Australians, he must assume that there are bad Australians, but he had never met one. With Australians you never need develop a crick in your neck to see if they are behind you. They are either beside you or out in front of you. They crease their hat a little differently and have a slightly different accent, but I regard them as my people. Now the Australians are showing courage in taking sacrifice to prevent a little, independent country from being gobbled up. The Australian effort in Vietnam has our admiration and gratitude. The Australians show stability in the face of a great challenge—a great confrontation.

Even before be met Harold Holt, an Australian had represented him at Commonwealth meeting—Sir Robert Menzies. Before he went to one of these meetings, Menzies had asked what could I say on your behalf. I outlined our views. In fact, he went even further in defending our position than I had suggested.

There really is a special quality to the U.S.-Australian relationship. We do feel instinctively the same way about problems. It is reflected in the attitude of our boys in Vietnam. When they are asked where they wish to go for rest and rehabilitation, Australia emerges universally as their first preference. That was the way it was as the President himself knew during Second World War.

Our economic interests occasionally conflict. But we mange to stay reasonably close together in these matters on a live and let live basis.

His last memory of Harold Holt was of Holt stretched out in the sun at Camp David, after taking a swim, calling back to his colleagues charged with economic affairs in Canberra to work out amicably some difficult problems.

I know where you are this morning. Four years ago we faced this kind of moment when President Kennedy was killed. Permit me to say this: Now is the time for you to live together and work together by the Golden Rule. Donʼt shoot from the hip. Donʼt divide up the family firm.

I kept the Kennedy cabinet. None has been fired. Many have stayed right down to the present. In adversity a family gets together. That is why I am here.

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I remember well that I once called at the hospital to see my father who was then under an oxygen tent. He said, get me my britches, I am going home. When we argued against him, he said. “I want to be home where they know when you are sick and care when you die.” That is the way it is between us.

In these days ahead you will find the U.S. will stretch a little in the face of Australian problems to make it easier for you.

I remember when Harold Holt said be would go “all the way with LBJ.” I could see that was a slogan which might get him into political trouble—it might be misunderstood or even a disaster for him. Harold simply shrugged. I tried then to interpret it as meaning that the U.S. would go all the way with Australia.

Australia is one of the principal reasons that we have committed our power so fully in this part of the world. The U.S. could probably survive even if Southeast Asia were lost to the Communists. Perhaps the others there might not be wholly necessary for U.S security interests. But, if we are going to keep our ANZUS commitments, we must keep our alliances with others.

We have taken a hundred thousand casualties in South Vietnam, including the wounded. Hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded every month. But I am convinced in the long run this is the lesser cost. We would face a bigger war. It is better to stop this aggression at the takeoff than at the landing.

The purpose of an alliance is to make sure that if dictators start going after small countries, they will face the U.S. That is the kind of commitment we have to New Zealand and Australia, the Middle East and Europe and Latin America. Whether these commitments are right or wrong, we have them. I intend to honor them. With this kind of burden, it is good to find someone to stand up beside you. I want to thank you for your help in Vietnam. I want to thank you for your sturdy position in the face of British devaluation and your assistance in defending the dollar. The protection of our international monetary system, which is based on the dollar, is a serious matter, but somehow we shall cope with it. I shall be recommending measures next week which I almost shudder to mention here. But the speculator shall not prevail.

I want to thank you also for what Australia is doing for our boys; taking them into your homes; treating them like your own. This is what you did also when I was here in the Second World War.

Whatever you do in sorting out your domestic politics—in whatever manner the people exercise their judgment, donʼt let it mix with foreign policy. Remember also that we in the U.S. are stretching out our hand in this period, not in a paternalistic way, but to be worthy of your friendship. We know that to have a friend one must be a friend.

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We have been well served in this respect by Amb. Waller who was good enough to join us. It you have problems, let him know; he has the key to the front door and the back door of the White House. As for Ed and Ann Clark, I have been worried that he was going to run for political office—in Australia. He has been the best Australian Ambassador to the U.S. I have ever known—the most effective man in expressing Australian views and interests.

There are sad hours. I know that in being here I am doing what is right. I have come to pay my respects to a fallen friend. And, when the services are over, we will be able to raise our chins a bit higher knowing that no one can come between us.

The Prime Minister replied, whatever shake out there may be in the government, the President can be assured that there will be no change in the Australian attitude and policy towards the U.S. or in its foreign policy. The President should know that Australians are proud to be your friend and ally.

The President then reviewed the troop situation; the recent accelerated delivery of 10,000 men and 600 tons in 18 days. We shall have 102 of our 106 combat battalions in place by Christmas, others will come in the spring. We look forward to an extra division from Korea; an extra 10,000 from Thailand; the extra 65,000 from South Vietnam which will soon be debated in the Assembly. The enemy is building his forces in the South. We must try very hard to be ready. We may face dark days ahead.

The Prime Minister responded that they face a new situation in the light of the U.K. withdrawal and will sustain forces in Malaysia.

The President said that we will be responding to their thoughts on the problem of security in that area, but we are counting on their keeping their present forces in place. President went on to thank Australia for providing evidence to the Cambodians of Communist use of Cambodian soil. The pressure on us from that use may be more than we can put up with; although we agree with Hasluck that we must be cautious in this matter. But it is hard to see the troops forming up to re-attack; although we wish to keep the war from widening. We hope that Sihanouk will see the light. He didnʼt denounce us after we presented the evidence. Perhaps there is some room for diplomacy here. But we must constantly bear in mind that 2 more divisions from the North are coming down into South Vietnam. We must take this into account in our plans and in our thoughts.

Foreign Minister Hasluck said that the Australian policy with respect to Sihanouk was to remain quiet. Pay no attention to the unpleasant noises he might make. We were pleased to pass on information on your behalf, but thought it the part of wisdom for Australians not to be associated with it.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt W. Rostow, Australia and Round the World Trip, December 1967. Secret. Although there is no drafting information on the source text, a letter from William Bundy to Clark, December 30, indicates that this account was prepared by Rostow. (Ibid.)
  2. On December 17 Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming in the heavy surf at Portsea, Victoria. He was presumed drowned. President Johnson represented the United States at the memorial service in Melbourne on December 22. Prince Charles, accompanied by Prime Minister Wilson and Leader of the Opposition Heath, attended for Queen Elizabeth. Other foreign leaders attending were Presidents Marcos, Thieu, and Park, Prime Ministers Holyoake, Thanom, and Lee, and Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abzul Razak of Malaysia.