WH6809-04-13432-13433

Date: 
Monday, September 30, 1968 - 6:45pm
Participants: 
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jim Jones, Walt Rostow
Location: 
White House Telephone
Listen: 


Editorial Note: The State Department Office of the Historian transcribed this conversation and published the transcript in: FRUS, 1964-68: 7: Document 38. The version published here has been revised and updated by the Presidential Recordings Program.

Jim Jones: [The President is in] a meeting right now. I'll have to call him out. Will you inform the party there?

Operator: Yes.

Jones: Do you have him on?

Operator: Yes.

Jones: All right. Let me . . .

Operator: It's up to you.

Jones: Yeah, let me tell him that.

Operator: Fine. [Pause] Mr. [Richard] Nixon is on.

Jones: Hello?

Richard Nixon: Yes?

Jones: This is [White House aide] Jim Jones. The President's in a meeting right now. If you'll hold just a minute, I'll try to get him out right away.

Nixon: If--I would appreciate it, Mr. Jones.

Jones: All right, fine. Just a second.

Long pause.

President Johnson: Hello?

Nixon: Hello?

President Johnson: Hello?

Nixon: Hello, Mr. President?

President Johnson: Yes.

Nixon: I'm awfully sorry to bother you. This is Dick Nixon.

President Johnson: Yes, Dick.

Nixon: And the only reason that I bother you is that I'm going very shortly to be on a television program, and there just came over the wire this statement by Hubert [Humphrey] with regard to--saying that he would have a bombing pause, if elected.1 And the only purpose of my call is to determine whether there's any change in our own policy at this time with regard to what position the administration is taking.

President Johnson: No, there is not. I have not read his speech. It has not been discussed with me. I say this in strict confidence.

Nixon: I understand.

President Johnson: I don't want you to quote me or repeat me, so I'll talk freely.

Nixon: I won't. I won't. I'm not even letting anybody know I called you.

President Johnson: I have not read it. I've just had the press secretary [George Christian] call me with the flash that he says he'll stop the bombing pause--he'll stop the bombing if elected. And then it indicates that he has to have direct or indirect, or deed or act, assurance that they would respect the DMZ.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: I don't know really what he is saying. [Former U.N. Ambassador George W.] Ball said, two or three days ago when he quickly resigned, that the bombing was not . . . well, he said that the newspapers were pressing that too much, it was just a part of a whole big general picture.2

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: So I was rather surprised that as his adviser, that Hubert would take this position, because it looks like a little bit inconsistent with what Ball said.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: I haven't reconciled it, because I don't have the text. Our position is this: We are very anxious to stop the bombing. We went out before we met with the [Congressional] leadership prior to the Chicago [Democratic National] Convention and asked [Creighton] Abrams what effect the bombing operations in Vietnam were having. He came back and said, [reading and paraphrasing] "We believe we're destroying or damaging 15 percent of the trucks moving into the South. It is our conviction the air interdiction program has been the primary agent which has reduced trucks detected by 80 percent between mid-July and the present time. A third effect is to prevent the enemy from massing artillery and air defense means in the area to the north of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] from which they can attack our forces."3 You see, [unclear], they have to stop up [at] the 20th [parallel] now, and we're already up to the 19th—we haven't gone above that. But if we stop the bombing, they could just come day and night, with lights on and lights off, bumper to bumper, right down the DMZ where they'd be poised to hit us.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: So, in the light of these three things--the trucks that he's stopping, the 80 percent between mid-July and the present time, and the massing [of] the artillery at the DMZ, then we said, [reading and paraphrasing] Well, "what would be the effect of a cessation of that bombing?" He says, "First, military matériel would be able to reach the DMZ or the borders of Laos unimpeded. We believe the current attrition from truck destruction alone, not to mention truck parts, is running several hundred tons per day. The truck flow could be expected to return to the mid-July level or higher within as little as a week. We're talking about an increase--repeat increase--in southwest movements--southward movement--which could amount to as much as 1,500 tons per day or more. Next, the enemy would mass artillery, air defense means, [and] ground units north of the DMZ for use against our troops. Finally, freed from interdiction north of the 17th degree, the enemy could move reinforcements to the DMZ by truck or rail, thus drastically shortening transit time."4

Then we said, [reading and paraphrasing] "Is there any possibility of your providing even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties we would take if we stop the bombing of North Vietnam?" He said, "We would have to expect a several-fold increase in U.S. and allied casualties in I Corps." [repeating] "We would have to expect a several-fold increase in U.S. and allied casualties . . ."5

Now, for that reason, our people took the position in the [Democratic Party's campaign] platform that we would stop the bombing when we were assured that it would not cost us men by doing so.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: Now, we don't have that assurance as of now. At least, I do not have it. Then he goes on, I'm quoting Abrams now, [reading and paraphrasing] "With the bombing authority now in effect, I am able with forces available to limit the enemy's capability in South Vietnam by interdicting his roads and destroying a substantial amount of his munitions before they reach South Vietnam. In addition, I am able to suppress his artillery and air defense north of Ben Hai so that our positions south of the DMZ are secure." Now, this is the key question. "If the bombing in North Vietnam now authorized were to be suspended, the enemy in ten days to two weeks could develop a capability"--be careful of that word "capability"--"in the DMZ area in terms of scale, intensity, and duration of combat on the order of five times what he now has." In ten days he'd increase his capability five times.6

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: "I cannot agree to place our forces at the risk which the enemy's capability would then pose." Now, that was reviewed with the joint leadership. They know that. That has not been made public, because we don't want to notify Hanoi that that is our estimate.

Nixon: Sure. Sure.

President Johnson: Now, our position--which I've been very careful with you and very careful with Humphrey, and I've told both of you the same thing.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: And you both have the same information. Our position has been this: we are anxious to stop the bombing, we'd be glad to stop the bombing, if we can have any assurance that (A) they would respect the DMZ, thereby not endangering these four divisions, the three of ours and one allied, or stop shelling the cities—

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: —or, and most important of all, talk to the GVN, talk to the Government of [South] Vietnam. Now, we do not think that we ought to cause that government to fall and immobilize a million men that are going to be under arms this year, by meeting in Paris and dividing up their country or deciding what they're going to do without their being present. So our first condition all along has been to say that they have got to be present. They have consistently refused to agree to do that. We have said you can bring the NLF if you want to. But we can't decide the future of South Vietnam--it now has an elected government--in their absence without their presence. So, in effect, we have said we are interested in what you have to say on these three subjects: DMZ, GVN presence, shelling the cities.

Nixon: Yeah. But you don't insist on all three, just the--

President Johnson: Well, we'd like to have all three.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah.

President Johnson: But we ask them to make their commitment to us--tell us what they would do.

Nixon: On any one of these matters.

President Johnson: Now, we don't say that you've got to sign in blood beforehand. But we do say this: "What would happen if we stopped the bombing Sunday and we walked in Monday morning with the GVN? Would you walk out?" They have not responded, and we don't know what they would do. Now, until we do know, and that is very important to us, we don't want to gamble American lives. And when we do know, then we will have to make that decision.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: But they're making it now, and we don't know what they're going to do about it. They may decide that they'll try to hang on until January. They're taking a terrible--they're paying a terrible price. Now, the message--the information I gave you came in before the [Democratic National] Convention and we met with the joint leadership, Republican and Democratic. I had today a wire that came in yesterday from him. I'm trying to find it . . . from Abrams, the net of which he says that he thinks he is destroying between five and ten thousand military per--is it--

Johnson covers the phone and speaks aside with Rostow.

—destroying between five and ten thousand military per month in Vietnam by his bombing alone. We are losing, oh, seven, eight hundred a month--

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: --our people, all told, a couple of hundred a week, 100 to 200 a week, maybe 250 sometimes. Now, we have 200 million [population]; we're losing 7[00] to 800 a month, and he's losing 5[000] to 10,000 just from the bombing. Now, if we stop that . . . he says that they have now a hundred-odd thousand . . .

Johnson covers the phone and speaks aside to Rostow.

Nixon: Hello?

President Johnson: Wait, I'm just trying [unclear].

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: [muffled] I've got his wire on the bombing, but [unclear], Dick, and I just answered your call out of a meeting.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: But he says very much that he's very much opposed to the bombing [halt], as of last night, to stopping the bombing—

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: —unless we get some of these things. Now, our negotiators have been unable to get them up to now. We have a meeting Wednesday. I thought after Wednesday I might have further talks with [U.S. Delegate to the Paris Peace Talks] Cy Vance and [Ambassador-at-Large W. Averell] Harriman and see what they had to say there. But--

Nixon: The way this--the way--I'm just seeing the AP dispatch here, and of course the papers tend to--the press tends to always make a bigger difference than there is. He says, that this was a dramatic--they say, a dramatic moving away from the Johnson administration war policy. But when you read further down, it says Humphrey said, "in weighing the risk, he would place importance on evidence--direct or indirect, by deed or word--of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone." So that would indicate that he wasn't just going to do it unilaterally, but--

President Johnson: I think the safest position for anyone to take--he takes it part of the way in his position, but he does not--

Johnson covers the phone and speaks aside to Rostow.

Nixon: I can't quite hear you. Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? I can't quite hear you.

President Johnson: I want to put [National Security Adviser] Walt Rostow on in just a second. [aside, to Rostow] Summarize for him Abrams' latest wire just as if he could read it.

Rostow: Mr. Nixon? This is Walt Rostow, sir.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Rostow: We went out again to General Abrams, and put the same questions we put a month ago.

Nixon: Yeah.

Rostow: His response was that the weather was changing and there were--he'd had some successful operations, but essentially, he would make the same answers that he would a month ago, namely that unless we got some assurance on the DMZ, we would take a very heavy military consequence from a cessation of bombing at this time.

Nixon: Well, to an extent, of course, I think Humphrey leaves that as a possibility where he talks about, that he would . . . you know, the press always tends to play the biggest part of the story. And it says, "But in weighing the risk, he said, he would place importance on evidence--direct or indirect, by deed or word--of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone."

Rostow: Yes, I noticed that on the ticker, Mr. Nixon.

Nixon: But, on the other hand, this will be interpreted, as I'm sure you know, as a dramatic move away from the administration. It's my intention not to move in that direction, I think, for this fundamental reason: As long as the administration is still negotiating, I think we've got--I think that my position has to be, in good conscience, that unless and until there is some evidence of a reciprocal step, that we could not stop the bombing.

President Johnson: Yes.

Nixon: That's still the administration's position?

President Johnson: Yes, except "reciprocal," Dick, is a bad word with them.

Nixon: Yeah [unclear].

President Johnson: I'd say unless they give us some assurance—

Nixon: Some--

President Johnson: —that it wouldn't--or, unless we had some indication that it would not cost the lives of our men.

Nixon: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: I found this memo, if you want me to read it to you very quickly. [reading and paraphrasing] "What is the effect of our current bombing operations in North Vietnam?" This is September 28 from Abrams to Johnson. "Deterrence is the first effect. Our air presence is keeping the enemy from moving his air forces, rail system, [and] logistic bases southward toward the DMZ. After better than 70 days of effort, it is now clear that our concentrated efforts to choke traffic at four prime areas and six road points and at six critical water points in North Vietnam have reduced the enemy's detected flow of troops from the mid-July high of 1,000 per day to less than 150 since that time. Southbound truck detections the past few weeks have numbered fewer than a hundred per day. If the bombing in North Vietnam ceases, a return to the level of a thousand per day would have to be expected. These efforts have also prevented the enemy from massing artillery, supplies, and air defense means for sudden attack against the DMZ. Possibly of greater consequence is the combined Navy and 7th Air Force interdiction efforts in North Vietnam [which] have effectively impeded the transshipment southward of a significant stock of supplies which continue to move into Thanh Hoa and Vinh areas by rail, road, and boat.

"Question number two: What would be the military effect of a cessation of the bombing? "Answer: (A) The major result of a bombing halt would be the enemy's increased capability to position and maintain large ground forces north of the DMZ in close proximity to our U.S. and ARVN forces deployed to defend the I Corps. He could concentrate his artillery, armor, air forces, and air defense forces in direct support of these ground forces and place them in a position to initiate a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam with minimum warning time. (B) We can expect the enemy to develop forward logistic complexes. (C) The enemy will devote a maximum initial effort to reconstruction of his lines of communication south of the 19th parallel. (D) Airfields south of the 19th will return to service. A bombing pause would permit the North Vietnamese Army to make fuller use of land lines in communication. Country-wide, the North Vietnamese Army presently devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to his air defense mission." Now, these are two good figures: [with emphasis] "The North Vietnamese Army devotes an estimated 80,000 troops to his air defense mission." "Plus, perhaps 110-200,000 laborers. Complete bombing cessation would allow the North Vietnamese Army several options, any of which would increase the threat to American forces in or near South Vietnam.

"Question number three: Since March 31"--that was my speech--"what is the average number of trucks destroyed and trucks damaged per week? What is the average number of trucks sighted in the panhandle per week? What is your best estimate of the total number of trucks sighted and unsighted that flow through the panhandle each week and the proportion of this total that we're not getting? Answer: The enemy's day movements of trucks has been virtually halted. As a consequence of night attacks against the above areas, the enemy has ceased moving in convoys and has been unwilling to allow his trucks to wait behind crossing points. As a result, most of his trucks have been kept north of Route Package 1, moving out singly under the cover of darkness. Consequently, fewer kills have been possible. In the week of July 14-20, an average of 508 trucks per day were sighted from all sources. After that period, there was a steady decrease in truck traffic as the enemy felt the full weight of our interdiction bombing campaign concentrated at key traffic choke points. In the week prior to Typhoon Bess on September 4, the sightings had decreased from 508 trucks per day to 151 per day. Since September 4, truck kills and damages have averaged 32 per week as a consequence of nearly complete blockage of his [unclear] choke point.

Question four: What is the estimate of military casualties we inflict on the enemy each week in the bombing of North Vietnam? We believe the military casualties resulting from intensive air strikes since mid-July 1968 have increased significantly. As in our previous submission, casualties on the order of five to ten thousand per month do not seem unreasonable.

Question number five: Is there any possibility of your providing for the President even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties America would take if we stopped the bombing in North Vietnam? Answer: I have reviewed the factors considered in my response to this question. Further examination of the results of the air interdiction campaign convinces me that my estimate at that time remains valid. In summary, a cessation of offensive action north of the DMZ would enable the enemy to amass personnel and equipment along the DMZ. It would facilitate his infiltration and logistics support across and around the DMZ. It would increase the air, artillery, and ground threat to our forces located in northern I Corps. I must emphasize the adverse effect of a cessation without reciprocity on the morale of the officers and men of my command, as well as those of the Republic of Vietnam armed forces, who would be exposed to increased enemy pressure from a newly created sanctuary. Conversely, a complete bombing cessation would raise the enemy's confidence and his aggressiveness. It will validate his doctrine of the insurgency war. It would confirm his unrealistic view of the military, political, and psychological posture[s] of the warring parties. It would portray to him increased strength on his part and growing weakness on ours. It will demonstrate to him that he is winning. Above all, it will convince him that he must continue or increase the current tempo of the war to gain the ultimate victory. Militarily and psychologically, a complete bombing cessation will shift the balance significantly toward the enemy." Unquote. Now, that's today.

Nixon: That's just today.

President Johnson: That's today. Now, we have not given that to the Vice President. He has not asked for it. We will give it to him if he does ask for it.

Nixon: Sure.

President Johnson: I didn't call him [unclear comment by Nixon], because I don't want to be coaching in this campaign. I'm trying to run the war.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: The position that I think is safe--

Nixon: Yeah, what is it? [Nixon chuckles]

President Johnson: --is the position that the President—and there's just one President—the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador Bunker, and General Abrams are responsible for that situation in Vietnam. They're going to be responsible until a new President is elected. Therefore, that you're not going to try to look over their shoulders without all the information and tell them what is best. You have to have some confidence in the professional army, and in the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense. And you believe that every American wants peace, but you're not, in order to win a campaign, not going to be in a position of trying to overrule all of these men without any information that would justify your doing it.

Nixon: Well, that's what I've been saying. Of course, I think on this, too, I can just say what I have said previously, that as I understand it, it is the position that if there's any evidence that there would be--that a bombing pause could take place without endangering our men, we'll go ahead and do it. Isn't that really our position?

President Johnson: Well, not necessarily. We have said we favor the stopping of bombing if it doesn't endanger our men. And--

Nixon: You name those three things.

President Johnson: --of course, then we want them to close that DMZ. We don't want them to take advantage of us.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: That's San Antonio.7 We said we don't want them to take advantage if they'll assure us.

Nixon: Yeah.

President Johnson: We said don't shell the cities.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: The most important thing though, Dick--

Nixon: Is the recognition of the government [of South Vietnam].

President Johnson: We've got to--well, not necessarily--yes, just letting them hear, just let them sit in.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: We've got a million men there.

Nixon: I know.

President Johnson: Now, if they pull out, we're in one hell of a shape. We've lost everything.

Nixon: [Unclear.] We're done. That's right.

Well, I hesitate to bother you, but I appreciate--

President Johnson: No, I think that--

Nixon: I just want to be sure that I was up-to-date on everything.

President Johnson: I think that--I think that--

Nixon: This is the kind of [unclear]--

President Johnson: --the least you can get into tactics and strategy, the better any candidate is. And I say that to American Party, Republican Party, or Democratic Party. And I'd put that responsibility on somebody else until I had to assume it myself and was elected.

Nixon: Right.

President Johnson: And then I would just say to them that you believe that the Joint Chiefs, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense have made our position clear at Paris, and that you're not going to overrule that position unless you have more information than you have.

Nixon: Right. Right.

President Johnson: OK.

Nixon: That's what I'm going to continue to say.

President Johnson: Thank you, Dick. Bye.

Nixon: [chuckles] Appreciate your time. Bye.

President Johnson: Bye.

  • 1. Humphrey had videotaped a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, for national broadcast later that evening in which he announced: "As President, I would stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and thereby shorten the war. This would be the best protection for our troops. In weighing that risk--and before taking action--I would place key importance on evidence--direct or indirect--by deed or word--of Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. If the Government of North Vietnam were to show bad faith, I would reserve the right to resume the bombing." R.W. Apple Jr. , "Humphrey Vows Halt in Bombing if Hanoi Reacts, A 'Risk for Peace,' Aides Hopeful Doves Will View Speech as Rift With Johnson," New York Times, 1 October 1968.
  • 2. Ambassador George W. Ball had resigned as permanent U.S. representative at the United Nations just four days earlier to become the top foreign policy adviser to candidate Humphrey. Before his posting at the United Nations he had been deputy secretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. "I have taken this step," Ball announced, "so that I may devote all my time and energy between now and Nov. 5 to help assure the election of Hubert Humphrey and the defeat of Richard Nixon." "Texts of Statements and Letters in Resignation of Ball From Post at U.N.," New York Times, 27 September 1968. The next day the Times reported that Ball had criticized U.N. "Secretary General [U] Thant's assertion than an end to the United States bombing of North Vietnam would lead to peace" as "a naive assumption that bemused and befuddled the public." Drew Middleton, "Ball Says Thant Is Naive on War," New York Times, 28 September 1968.
  • 3. The original document which Johnson is reading says:
    We believe we are now destroying or damaging approximately 15 per cent of the trucks believed to be moving into South Vietnam. This amounts to an average of 90 trucks per week. Second, and of greater importance, is the reduction we have caused in the number of trucks moving. While other factors may also be at work, it is our conviction that the air interdiction program in the North Vietnam Panhandle has been the primary agent which has reduced trucks detected from a level of 1000 a day in mid-July to between 150 and 200 a day at the present time. A third effect is to prevent the enemy from massing artillery and air defense means in the area to the north of the DMZ form which they can attack our forces." Creighton W. Abrams to Walt W. Rostow, 23 August 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 6: Document 337.
  • 4. The corresponding section of the original document reads: "Question 2: What would be the military effect of a cessation of the bombing? Again, there are several important effects. First, military materiel (much of it POL and ammunition, as fires and secondary explosions testify) would be able to reach the DMZ or the borders of Laos unimpeded. We believe the current attrition from truck destruction alone, not to mention truck park storage areas, is running several hundred tons per week on the average in the NVN Panhandle. Second, the truck flow could be expected to return to a level of 1,000 a day or even higher within as little as a week. If we take average truck loading at 3–1/2 tons, we are talking about an increase, repeat increase, in southward movement which could amount to 1,500 tons per day or more. Next, the enemy would be able to mass artillery, air defense means, and ground units freely north of the DMZ for use against our forces. He could deploy his air force into areas north of 17 degrees from which to threaten or attack our forces and installations throughout much of South Vietnam. He would be able to reopen his railroad as far south as Vinh and subsequently to Dong Hoi. He would thereby free additional numbers of trucks to support his forces in the south. Finally, freed from interdiction north of 17 degrees, the enemy could move reinforcements to the DMZ by truck or rail thus drastically shortening transit time. Creighton W. Abrams to Walt W. Rostow, 23 August 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 6: Document 337.
  • 5. The original document reads: "Question 5: Is there any possibility of your providing for the President even an approximate estimate of the additional casualties we would take if we stopped the bombing of North Vietnam? During the period May through July this year we have been sustaining in the fighting in I Corps losses amounting to an average of 240 killed in action each week. Approximately 70 percent of these have been U.S. The intensity of enemy action, i.e. the scale and duration of combat in which his units are involved, is a direct determinant of the magnitude of our losses. Assuming that the cessation of bombing would be reflected in a several-fold increase in his logistic capability to support combat, and in the intensity of combat, we would have to expect a several-fold increase in U.S. and allied casualties in I Corps." Creighton W. Abrams to Walt W. Rostow, 23 August 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 6: Document 337.
  • 6. The corresponding section in the original document reads: "With the bombing authority now in effect, I am able with forces available to limit the enemy's capability in South Vietnam by interdicting his roads and destroying substantial amounts of his munitions and supplies before they reach South Vietnam. In addition, I am able to suppress his artillery and air defense north of the Ben Hai so that our positions just south of the DMZ are secure. If the bombing in North Vietnam now authorized were to be suspended, the enemy, in 10 days to two weeks, could develop a capability in the DMZ area in terms of scale, intensity and duration of combat on the order of five times what he now has. Creighton W. Abrams to Walt W. Rostow, 23 August 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, 6: Document 337."
  • 7. Johnson was referring to his 29 September 1967 speech in San Antonio in which he said, "The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of the bombing cessation or limitation." "Address on Vietnam Before the National Legislative Conference, San Antonio, Texas," 29 September 1967, Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967.

Original tape courtesy of LBJ Library. This transcript is a working draft. Please let us know if you find important errors.