Editorial Note: The State Department Office of the Historian transcribed this conversation and published the transcript in: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968: Vietnam, September 1968-January 1973. The version published here has been revised by the Presidential Recordings Program.
President Johnson: Hello?
Operator: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Dick?
Operator: I have not told them it’s a conference call. Do you want me to do so?
President Johnson: Do what?
Operator: I have not told them that they’re all going to be on with you.
President Johnson: I will--I will--
Operator: You’ll tell them.
President Johnson: Yes, I will--
Operator: I’ll put them right on.
President Johnson: Hello?
Operator: Just a moment. Go ahead please.
Hubert Humphrey: Hello?
Richard Nixon∇: Hello?
President Johnson: This is the President. This is a conference call that I have set up. I asked the operator to get the three Presidential candidates so that I might review for you a matter of the highest national importance and one which I know concerns you this morning. And I will make notes of this, a transcription of it, and you are at liberty to do likewise, if you’re prepared to do it. If not, you can take notes. If not, I will review it with you in more detail at a later date.
Nixon: Sure, fine.
President Johnson: Now, who was that speaking? [Republican presidential nominee] Dick [Nixon], is that you?
Nixon: Yeah, I’m on.
President Johnson: [Democratic presidential nominee] Hubert [Humphrey], are you on?
Humphrey: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: [Independent presidential candidate] George [Wallace], are you on? George? Hello, George? Hello, George? Tell the operator Wallace is not on. I think I will go on with you all. They told me they had all three connected.
President Johnson: This is in absolute confidence because any statement or any speeches or any comments at this time referring to the substance of these matters will be injurious to your country. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
First, I want to say this: That our position, the government position, today is exactly what it was the last time all three of you were briefed. That position namely is this: We are anxious to stop the bombing [of North Vietnam] and would be willing to stop the bombing if they would sit down with us with the Government of [South] Vietnam present and have productive discussions. We have told them that we did not think we could have discussions if, while we were talking, they were shelling the cities or if they were abusing the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone]. From time to time, beginning back late last Spring, they have nibbled back and forth at these various items. Each time they do, there is a great flurry of excitement. Now, we have been hopeful one day that they would understand this. We don’t want to call it "reciprocity"; we don’t want to call it "conditions," because they object to using those words, and that just knocks us out of an agreement. But we know that you join us in wanting peace the earliest day we can and to save lives as quickly as we can and as many as we can. So, one day we’re hopeful, and the next day we’re very disillusioned.
Now, as of today they have not signed on and agreed to the proposition which I have outlined to you, nor have they indicated that this would be a satisfactory situation to them in its entirety. Our negotiators are back and forth talking to them, and they have just finished their meeting in Paris this morning. But, yesterday in Saigon, because there are exchanges constantly going on, there came out a report that there was an agreement that would be announced at a specific hour. This morning in Paris the same thing happened, and [Averell] Harriman had to knock that down. We posted a notice here at the White House that said the same thing.
Now, very frankly, we would hope that we could have a minimum of discussion in the newspapers about these conferences, because we’re not going to get peace with public speeches, and we’re not going to get peace through the newspapers. 1 We can get it only when they understand that our position is a firm one, and we’re going to stay by it. And what you all’s position will be when you get to be President, I would hope you could announce then. Because we have really this kind of a situation. If I’ve got a house to sell, and I put a rock bottom price of $40,000 on it, and the prospective purchaser says, "Well, that’s a little high, but let me see." And he goes--starts to leave to talk to his wife about it, and [First Lady] Lady Bird [Johnson] whispers that, "I would let you have it for $35,000." And then he gets downstairs, and Lynda Bird [Johnson] says, "We don’t like the old house anyway, and we get it $30,000." Well, he’s not likely to sign up.
George Wallace: Hello?
President Johnson: The [former National Security Adviser McGeorge] Bundy speech didn’t do us any good, and there are other speeches that are not helping at all because these people--when they read one of these speeches and hear them, why, then they take off for Hanoi, or they do something else. 2 The government’s position is going to be this: Our--we are willing to stop the bombing when it will not cost us men’s lives, when the Government of South Vietnam can be a party to the negotiations, and when they will not abuse the DMZ and not shell the cities.
President Johnson: Now, we do not have to get a firm contract on all these three things. But I do have to have good reason to believe that it won’t be on-again-off-again Flanagan; that I won’t have to stop the bombing one day and start it the next. Now, obviously, they can deceive me, and we know that in dealing with the Communists that they frequently do that. We have had a good many experiences of that right in these negotiations.
But what I called you for was to say in substance this: our position has not changed. I do not plan to see a change. I have not issued any such orders. I will con--I will talk to each of you before I do, and all of you on an equal basis.3 I know you don’t want to play politics with your country. I’m trying to tell you what my judgment is about how not to play politics with it. And I know all of you want peace at the earliest possible moment. And I would just express the hope that you be awfully sure what you’re talking about before you get into the intricacies of these negotiations. Over. Now, I’ll be glad to have any comment any of you want to make or answer any questions.
Humphrey: No comment, Mr. President. Thank you very much.
Nixon: Yep. Well, as you know, my--this is consistent with what my position has been all along. I’ve made it very clear that I will make no statement that would undercut the negotiations. So we’ll just stay right on there and hope that this thing works out.
President Johnson: George, are you on?
Wallace: Yes, sir, Mr. President, and of course, that’s my position all along, too--is the position you stated, yes, sir. And I agree with you that we shouldn’t play any politics with this matter so that it might foul up the negotiations in any manner.
President Johnson: Thank you very much. Now, what our policy’s going to be I think all of you should know, that it’s not going to be an impetuous or hasty policy. I’ve outlined it to you. I do not want you to speak about it. I do not want you to lay down these points, because if you do, that causes them to say that they’re conditions and it’s reciprocity, and they may be able to take them if they don’t think they’re going to get something better by just waiting a few weeks or a few days. Now--so I think it’s very important this be confidential. Do you know whether your talking to me is knowledge to any of your people?
Nixon: Well, in my case, the phone was picked up by somebody here. I’m at the Union Station in Kansas City. The phone was picked up by somebody else. It may be known, but I will seal them down. I’ll just tell them we got a routine report.
President Johnson: OK. If anybody asks, we will not mention it here. If they ask us, we'll say that we stated the facts as we see them, namely, that there has been no agreement between us, that we will constantly negotiate, and when there is, why, the candidates will be among the first informed. Now, I’m not going to agree to anything unless my advisers--the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], and all the Joint Chiefs themselves--consider the matter and give me their best judgment. And I get that from time to time. [Humphrey tries to interject] And it is all of their best judgment now at this moment that the position I have stated to you is the soundest position for this country. Namely, the government of Vietnam must be included, and we could not expect an American President to have good discussions very long if they were shelling the cities or if they were abusing the DMZ.
Humphrey: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yes?
Humphrey: It’s obvious that I’m here at a school and I’m all alone. There’s nobody with me, and they do not know that I’ve got a call from you. But I’ve been held up in a meeting, and that press is always very alert. I’m just simply--is it all right just simply to say that we’ve had our regular report?
Nixon: That’s good.
President Johnson: Well, I think what I’m very fearful of--I’m afraid if they think that we’re doing this, that will put a seriousness on it--
Humphrey: What can we do?
President Johnson: --that we've justified. I think, if you want to, I would just say that I called the three of you and I read to you the notice that [White House Press Secretary George] Christian has posted here this morning--
Humphrey: Very good.
President Johnson: --which I will now read to you. It, in effect, says that these reports are premature, that there’s been no agreement, and that we’re not signed on with them at all.
President Johnson: Let me read it to you.
President Johnson: [reading] "The position of the United States with respect to Vietnam remains as set forth by the President and the Secretary of State. The position"--you can write this down--"The position of the United States with respect to Vietnam remains as set forth by the President and the Secretary of State. There has been no basic change in the situation. There has been no basic change in the situation: no breakthrough."
Humphrey: All right.
President Johnson: "As you have always been advised, when there is anything to report, you will, of course, be informed promptly."
President Johnson: Now, I want to make this point to all of you candidates. First, I think you want to know what the situation is so you won’t jeopardize it. Second, I don’t want any one of the three of you to think that I’m going to give a preference to any person. When we know what is happening that is significant to you, I will call each one of you just as quickly as I can before I would issue any orders. I think I have that obligation to you for your responsibility. So, don’t think you’re going to get tricked or deceived.
Now, we will be negotiating. We might sign up in--5 minutes ago. Our judgment is we won’t. But this is our position. They have not accepted it, and I’m going on until January 20 along this line. I don’t say there won’t be some modification or moderation. But, in principle, this formula must be our government position as long as I’m here. Over.
Wallace: We got it.
President Johnson: Is that clear to all of you?
Humphrey: We understand.
Nixon: We’ll maintain your proposition. Now--and Mr. Vice President, I’ll see you tonight.
Humphrey: Yes, sir. Thank you.
Nixon: At the Al Smith Dinner.4
Humphrey: What time are you coming?
Nixon: I’ll be there about--I’m flying in from Kansas City. I’ll be there about 7:30 [P.M.].
Humphrey: Are you coming in at the beginning of the dinner?
Nixon: Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ll get there. You won’t make it that early?
Humphrey: [Unclear.] Are you wearing a white tie?
Nixon: Oh, yes. [laughs]
Humphrey: I gather. OK.
Nixon: I’ve got to go home and put the damn thing on.
Nixon: All right. Thank you.
President Johnson: Goodbye, George.
Wallace: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yes, George?
Wallace: Now, this is--you asked does anyone know about this call. Now, the Secret Service did know about the call.
President Johnson: That’s all right. We won’t say anything about it, unless they quiz you. If they quiz you, the reporters, you say the President read us a memorandum which stated that the government position would remain as set forth by him in his public speeches, and there had been no change--the rumors to the contrary--
Wallace: Very good.
President Johnson: There had been no breakthrough, and that he wanted to inform me of this fact because of the gossip so I wouldn’t be up in the dark, and that he would keep me informed if there’s any action taken.
Humphrey: Very good.
Wallace: Well, Mr. President, do you think continuous talk about the matter of Vietnam is endangering the peace talks in any manner?
President Johnson: Well, I think it’s what you say--that what people say, that does. I think that if they think that either Wallace or Humphrey or Nixon, if they can hold out three more weeks and get a little better deal, buy the house a little cheaper from you all than they can from me, they’re going to wait. You know that much.
Wallace: Yes, sir. But as long as we’re strong. I’ve taken a strong position, and I don’t want to do anything or say anything.
President Johnson: Well, I know. What I’d do, I’d just give my views on it, but I would bear in mind constantly that the enemy is looking at everything that’s said in this country. We had a speech made day before yesterday, and a few hours later, they came in and said, "Well, we’ve got to go back to Hanoi." And they did. Now, I think if I were in their place, and I were negotiating, and I read that Ho Chi Minh was in a sick bed, and in three weeks he would be out, and there'd be a better deal awaiting me, and the new President would really do better than he’s doing, I just don’t think I would dash in. Don’t you all feel that way?
Wallace: Yeah. I agree with you.
President Johnson: Just anybody that’s ever bought a cat knows that. And let’s just all try to stay together. I suggested to Secretary [of State Dean] Rusk∇ that he get all three of you to sign a statement that would say that our government has taken a position; we cannot change that position until January 20; therefore, we will stand behind that position until we take office, and then let Harriman read that to them so they would know it. But before we got around and got the thing written, why, it kind of blew up, and we decided it wasn’t wise to do it.
But whatever you can do in the way of peace offers or things of that kind, I would be awfully careful. As a matter of fact, I never will agree to one sentence until I have gone over it with my Joint Chiefs, and Rusk, and [Under Secretary of State Nicholas deB.] Katzenbach∇, and [Defense Secretary] Clark Clifford∇ and [CIA∇ Director] Dick Helms. And if I am afraid to make a statement like that with all of these people advising us constantly, you can imagine how a fellow is out at a box supper or a school or at a country picnic--he’s shooting from the hip. And I just hope that you all will understand that if you make a statement and it blows these conferences, I think it would hurt you more than you’ll gain from talking about the details of a peace offer right now. Wait until you get to January 20, and then you can really get into it deep.
Wallace: Well, Mr. President, I’m not even going to say a thing to the newsmen if they ask me. I’m just going to say, "I’m just campaigning." How is that?
President Johnson: That’s OK.
Wallace: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: OK, thank you, gentlemen.
Humphrey: Very good, Mr. President. Bye-bye.
One week later, Nixon explicitly stated that he could accept terms that Johnson could not. "Always before, he has said that he hopes that the negotiations in Paris will succeed and that while the prospects for success do not look too bright, he will say nothing to jeopardize the talks or to lead the North Vietnamese to believe they can get better terms from him than from the Johnson administration," the New York Times reported. But on Oct. 7, 1968, the Republican nominee reminded the annual convention of United Press International editors and publishers that things would be different in January 1969. "We might be able to agree to much more then than we can do now." E.W. Kenworthy, "Nixon Suggests He Could Achieve Peace in Vietnam, Indicates He Might Be Able to Agree to a Settlement Johnson Cannot Accept," New York Times, 8 October 1968.