236. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the Representative to the United Nations (Goldberg)1

Goldberg: [The recording of this conversation begins at this point.] which I think ought to be at night and not during the middle of the day, ’cause I think, you know, people look at it. Advance a proposition of this type, you say that—you have said to the American people that you want this settled by diplomatic means, if possible. You have also said that the ship and crew must be returned, and you adhere to that statement. Now, you are prepared, if the ship and crew are returned promptly, to then submit the—you would say, that we are satisfied on the basis of incontrovertible evidence, which has been now made public, that this ship was in international waters. Nevertheless, you are prepared to submit the entire matter, after the ship and crew are returned, to the International Court of Justice and abide by the results. If our case is not what we said it was, we would make appropriate reparations to them. If our case was as we said it was, they should make appropriate reparations to us. It would seem to me that such a statement from you—they’ll turn it down, Mr. President. Although in one instance—I’ve been researching the precedents over the weekend—there was a situation in the Corfu Channel case where Britain and Albania got into a problem about intrusion upon international waters and where the Albanians mined the Corfu Channel. [Page 544] And they agreed at that time it should go to the Court—the British ship was damaged—and the Court ordered the Albanians to pay damages. Now, there is great virtue—you know, our public and the world opinion believes very much in the judicial process. All fair-minded people think, “Submit matters to courts and courts decide it.” A proposition like that put by you in a solemn declaration to the American people and to world opinion would, I think, have a tremendous impact. Anybody who would then say that you were not acting with restraint, etc., could not say it. This is a far better proposal than [Senator] Mike Mansfield’s silly proposal that even though the ship was in international waterways we ought to lie to get our men back. That’s just asinine. [The President can be heard chuckling in the background.] But for you to put a proposal saying that “You return our men and the ship; however we will undertake—we will put the case to the International Court. We’re prepared to do it promptly upon the return, and we will abide the results of that decision.” Now there’s a Russian on the Court, so they can’t say the Court’s stacked against ’em—and a Pole. But on the whole, the Court is pretty—not badly disposed.

President: How many on the Court?

Goldberg: Let me see—

President: Give me a number.

Goldberg: Fourteen, I think. I haven’t got the exact number, but I could easily get it for you. It isn’t bad from our standpoint. It’s got Latin Americans, it’s got the Australians, it’s got British judges, its got—we’ve got a good judge in Phil Jessup. I don’t think we would do badly. And our evidence, the one we have been developing, is good evidence.

President: Where does this Court sit, in Geneva?

Goldberg: In The Hague. And we would have to invoke the Court. They sit whenever their jurisdiction is invoked. And we would, you could say, we would ask the Court as a matter of urgency to make this determination.

President: Did you talk to Rusk or Nick about it?

Goldberg: No, I have not yet talked to anybody, ’cause I didn’t want to start anything without—

President: I think it’s worthy of pursuing. I wish you would talk to ’em2 or I’ll talk to ’em later in the day. I think that would be very good. I think you did well up there. Now, what do you do tomorrow?

[Page 545]

Goldberg: I’m—as far as I’m concerned, if we can not get some agreement, which I doubt we can get, I’m going to kind of wind up this exercise. I’m not going to put a resolution forward, which we, you know, would be vetoed. That isn’t going to help us. And push the Russians to a veto. So that, my view would be that I would—we’ve done, I think, what we ought to do down here and that is we have stated our case and now the responsibility is on the Council to come up with a—some help.

President: What are they gonna do?

Goldberg: Not a damn thing, just between us. They’ll fiddle around. But I’ll know better today. I’ll see the Russian today and see if I can get a reading from him that’s any different from what Tommy has got in Moscow. I’ll put it straight to him, “Do you fellas want to defuse the situation? Then you ought to put your weight to a simple”—what I have in mind is to say to him, “You don’t have to have a resolution. Let’s get the President of the Council to propose that there be—the ship and so on be returned and say the Council will be prepared to carry on further to consider the matter, and so on.” But, I know as I read the telegrams I doubt that the Russians would agree to anything. And then we’d let it be known that this is the reason why they can’t do anything. I don’t want to risk a resolution. See, we got a good vote on inscription, and I think it’s much better to let it be where everybody is trying to use some—individually—some diplomatic pressure—

President: What’d you lose, three votes?

Goldberg: On the resolution itself?

President: On the inscription, yeah.

Goldberg: On the inscription we just lost three votes—Russia, Hungary, and Algeria. Now, that’s a pretty good posture to leave it in. I wouldn’t want to lose support as we go down the line. So that—but, I’ll have a better reading. I’m gonna send all the—

President: Talk to Nick or Dean. Let them get into this. We’re going to have to do something when you get through there, and we sure don’t want to be—we don’t even have our people out there. We couldn’t do anything if we wanted to militarily, so we’re gonna have to do something in between.

Goldberg: That’s right. And this would—of course, the best avenue out there—I don’t know whether you saw this—I prodded our people to respond quickly. The best avenue out there to get our boys back is this Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee.

President: Yeah, they’re working that carefully.

Goldberg: Yes. We got ’em working now. Their—those—that consists of the Swedes, the Swiss, the Poles, and the Czechs. And we sent a wire last night to get them working. They—the—see, the—I—it’s [Page 546] very important if you haven’t seen the message—you might ask Walt to get it for you—to see that the North Koreans sent a message through that commission.

President: Yeah, we read it and we replied.3

Goldberg: You read it?

President: Yeah, and we replied.

Goldberg: I didn’t know. There’s so much traffic. And you saw the reply?

President: Yeah, yeah.

Goldberg: Yes. That’s the best avenue—

President: We worked on it all afternoon.

Goldberg: Yes. Well, I should have realized that you’d be on top of that.

President: Here’s one they’re just trying to get out to Seoul now in reply to some of their worries. They just sent it in while you called. [At this point, the President read the entire text of a draft telegram to Seoul.]4

Goldberg: I think that’s very good. I have—

President: I see nothing inconsistent with it—with what you suggested. Looks like its fits in pretty well.

Goldberg: It fits in very well.

President: You do that, and I’ll be back in touch with you.

Goldberg: Thank you.

President: You talk to them.

Goldberg: And I hope to see an Ambassador coming in to see me, and I’ll follow the same line.

President: Thank you. Good bye.

Goldberg: Thank you.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and Goldberg, January 28, 1968, 11:38 a.m., Tape F68.01, PNO 2. Secret. This transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. Goldberg discussed the matter with Rusk, prompting Meeker and Sisco to set forth the advantages and disadvantages of taking the matter to the Court in a memorandum to Rusk and to the President. (Memorandum from Meeker and Sisco to Rusk, January 28, with attached memorandum from Rusk to the President; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US)
  3. See Documents 232 and 233.
  4. The draft consisted of paragraphs 1–12 of Document 237. The draft telegram along with a transmittal memorandum from Rostow to the President, January 28, is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident—Cactus I, Cactus State Cables, January 28, 1968 to February 10, 1968)