Editorial Note: The State Department Office of the Historian transcribed this conversation and published the transcript in: FRUS, 1964-1968: 7: Document 207. The version published here has been revised by the Presidential Recordings Program.
Operator: Yes, sir?
President Johnson: Operator, I had to come to another phone—I was eating dinner—and go ahead and put Mr. [Richard] Nixon on.
Operator: Fine. There you are.
President Johnson: Hello?
Richard Nixon∇: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yes, Dick?
Nixon: How are you? Did I interrupt your dinner? [Unclear.]
President Johnson: That's all right.
President Johnson: I was eating with some folks, but I came in another room. That's why I didn't want to talk [unclear].
Nixon: Oh, well, that's too bad.
President Johnson: No, it isn't.
Nixon: I'm just sitting here with your old friend [Bebe] Rebozo∇.
President Johnson: Oh, give him my love. I think he's one of the finest persons I ever knew.
Nixon: Yeah, well, when we've finished, I want you to say hello to him.
President Johnson: I would love to.
Nixon: He is a great admirer of yours. [Unclear]--
President Johnson: He's been awfully sweet to me.
Nixon: Let me say this that--
President Johnson: I'm glad that you've got a Rebozo because he gave me a lot of comfort when I needed it lots.
Nixon: Yeah. Right. I had a nice visit with the Vice President today.1
President Johnson: Good.
Nixon: And [Senator Edmund S.] Muskie [D-Maine], and they went on down to the Virgin Islands.2 And I want you to know how much we appreciated your wire and also Lady Bird's call to Pat [Nixon]. That was awful nice.
President Johnson: Yeah. It was.
Nixon: And then, as I understand it, we've worked it out now that it won't inconvenience you. We'll see you Monday at 1:30 [P.M.] up at the White House.3
President Johnson: That's good. That's right.
Now, getting to the one, the key point: is there anything I could do before that on this business of South Vietnam? If you want me to do something, you know I'll do anything, because we're not going to let these people stop these peace things, if you think I can do something.
President Johnson: Dick, I told [Senate Minority Leader Everett M.] Dirksen [R-Illinois] last night I thought it'd be better to do it that way than to be calling on the trips. I think this: These people are proceeding on the assumption that folks close to you tell them to do nothing until January 20.4
President Johnson: Now, we think--
Nixon: I know who they're talking about, too. Is it [Senator] John Tower∇ [R-Texas]?
President Johnson: Well, he's one of several. Mrs. [Anna] Chennault is very much in there. 5
Nixon: Well, she's very close to John.
President Johnson: And the Embassy is telling the [South Vietnamese] President [Nguyen Van Thieu] and the President is acting on this advice. He started doing it back about October 18, following our talk on the conversation on October 16.6 I had two bad breaks in the month of October. The first one came from the other side. Hanoi felt that because of what Bundy had said--Mac Bundy—
President Johnson: --that to withdraw troops, and what Humphrey had said that he wouldn't--7
Nixon: They could wait.
President Johnson: Well, he just said, "I don't--I will stop the bombing, period, I don't mean comma or semi-colon." So, Hanoi picked up the next day and went home for two weeks. We had it all wrapped up there and then for the meeting. Now, I don't know what'll come out of the conference. But that was the way it was. They went off. In the meantime, these messages started coming out from here that Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey and that they ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China.8 And we have talked to different ones. I think they've been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew. I think they think that they've been quoting you indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any conference and wait until you come into office.
Nixon: Right. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: Now, they started that, and that's bad. They're killing Americans everyday. I have that documented. There's not any question but what that's happening. Now, I said to you in that last talk that I don't believe you know it or you're responsible for it. And I said, you know, when I talked to all three of you that time.9
President Johnson: But I said we have problems. I looked over that transcript the other night. We have problems. I think we can work them out. I believe Thieu will ultimately come, but there are problems. Now, there are problems because these people are telling them that. Now, I think the wise thing to do from the standpoint of your country and from the standpoint of your presidency--and I hope you believe me.
Nixon: Oh, I do.
President Johnson: And I want to help you. I want to help you. I don't want to trick you or deceive you.
Nixon: Oh, I know that.
President Johnson: I want peace. And I don't want to get some Democrat in a favorable position over you. But I think they ought to go to that conference. Now--
Nixon: Let me ask you this: is there anything we can do right now?
President Johnson: Yes. I think you ought to have whoever you trust the most in Washington, whoever you're--
Nixon: Talk to the [South Vietnamese] Ambassador?
President Johnson: Yes, sir. Go to the Ambassador and say to him, [unclear comment by Nixon] "I told the President when he proposed these three points, number one, he assured me that he would not be for a coalition government."
President Johnson: "The President has assured me that."
Nixon: That's right.
President Johnson: "The President assured me he'd never recognize the NLF [National Liberation Front]. So I have those assurances from him."
Nixon: Right. Right.
President Johnson: "The President's going to be as strong on this as I am, but the President thinks that if we are to support South Vietnam through the years ahead that we must be willing to meet at a conference table."
President Johnson: "Now, that's all we're asking. Now, you cleared that on [October] 7 and on [October] 16 and on the [October] 28. At least that's what the South Vietnamese did--they all cleared it."
President Johnson: [with Nixon acknowledging] "Therefore, Mr. Ambassador, I think you ought to tell the President [Thieu] that I support our President on going to the conference, and I think you ought to go. And if they try to sell you out, you don't have to agree. But you ought to go because the [J. William] Fulbrights and the [Mike] Mansfields and even the [Everett] Dirksens will not go along with anybody that won't go to a conference table." Now, that's where they are tonight.
Nixon: Let me ask you this about the Ambassador--I met him about 5 or 6 months ago--does he have any influence with that government?
President Johnson: Yes. He is giving them these signals and--
President Johnson: --he is telling them that he has just talked to New Mexico, and he has just talked to the Nixon people, and they say, "Hold out. Don't do anything. We're going to win. We'll do better by you." Now, that's the story, Dick. And it is a sordid story. I told you that Sunday when I talked to you.
President Johnson: You remember when I talked to [George] Smathers and Dirksen?10
President Johnson: Now, I don't want to say that to the country because that's not good.
President Johnson: [with Nixon acknowledging] But they're playing that game. I don't think you're playing it, and I'd get off that hook. I'd just say to them, "You go to that conference, and you protect your country, and I'm going to support our President as long as he doesn't agree to a coalition government, as long as he doesn't agree to recognize the NLF, as long as he stands on the conditions he does, and we're united, and don't depend on me to give you a better deal."
Nixon: Right. We'll do that.
Now, let me ask you this: who would be the best one to--who do you think the Ambassador--who should I have talk to him? Have you got anybody in mind that--?
President Johnson: No, I don't.
Nixon: Could Dirksen do it?
President Johnson: Yeah. I don't know whether Dirksen has any contacts or not. I trust Dirksen. I think Dirksen is--
President Johnson: He's not for any Communist take-over, and at the same time he's intelligent.
Nixon: What I might--well, also, he's considered to be a . . . why don't we--let me try this out. Why don't I get--see if I can get Everett to go over to the Ambassador and lay it on the line with him?
President Johnson: That's what I--
Nixon: And say that this is--that he speaks for Nixon and Johnson. [Unclear comment by Johnson]
Now, let me say this, Mr. President, that there's nothing that I want more than to get these people to that table.
President Johnson: Yeah.
Nixon: And as a matter of fact, as I told you on the phone and I've said publicly, I'll even go out there if necessary to get them there. I think that would be a grandstand stunt, however, and it would not be the best way. But if you think the Ambassador has influence, I'll have Dirksen talk to the Ambassador, or I could do it myself, if you think that'll help.
President Johnson: I think it would help. I'd just call him on the phone and say, "I want you to know this: I don't want your people to get off-key. I'm talking to the President every day."
President Johnson: "And the President has assured me he's not going to do anything that we don't understand."
Nixon: Oh, I know that.
President Johnson: "And you tell your President that he better get his people to that conference and get them there quick. And what he does there is a matter for his judgment, but he oughtn't to refuse to go to a room and meet."
Nixon: OK, we'll work on it.
President Johnson: OK, Dick.
Nixon: Now, let me ask you this. One other thing. Tell me about [CIA Director Richard] Helms. What do you think of Helms? How do you [unclear]?
President Johnson: I think he's a career, former UPI∇ man I never heard of. I appointed an Admiral [William Raborn, Jr.] when [CIA Director] John McCone left—
President Johnson: —because I wanted to be sure I didn't get a patsy or a soft guy in there, and we had too many of them here. The Admiral took it over and this Helms was the deputy. I consider him--
Nixon: Let me ask your candid opinion. Would you continue him?
President Johnson: Yes, I would. Yes, I would. If I were you, I'd continue him, and if I were taking over from you, I'd continue him. He's objective.
President Johnson: He's a reporter. He was an old UPI man. He's fair. He's not an advocate.
Nixon: Oh, I know.
President Johnson: He's anti-Communist.
Nixon: When I met him out at the LBJ Ranch, I was very impressed by him, and I remember [unclear]. You feel that way, do you?
President Johnson: Well . . . Yes. I never heard of him until I appointed him. He was a deputy to this Admiral that I had, and he is extremely competent. He's succinct. He tells you as it is. And he's loyal. He's just--
Nixon: Let me ask you to do this as a personal [unclear]. Would you mind to, you know—I think it would be a nice way to work the transition if you could tell him sometime before we meet on Monday that we've talked and that while I don't want to say it now--that we're planning to continue him. Would you do that?
President Johnson: Oh, yes, yes. I'll be glad to.11
Nixon: That's [unclear]. Because I think it's good that we have a, you know, a good transition.
Now, on this fellow, the ambassador, he speaks English pretty well, if I recall.
President Johnson: Yes, yes.
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we could talk to him. I'll--I don't think we ought to do it on the phone, though. Maybe I ought to . . . but I don't want him to come down. Maybe I could see him when I come up to Washington. That might be a better thing. And . . . No, I might get to him before that, though. Maybe Dirksen is the best one to . . .
President Johnson: I would write out whatever I said, and what I would say—Rusk said yesterday—
President Johnson: —and Rusk is the best adviser you can have until you get a man you have that much confidence in.
Nixon: I know that. I have great confidence in him.
President Johnson: He'll play as fair with you--and I'll bet my life on it--as he will with me. He's a good man. Rusk said, "if I were Nixon I would write out one sentence, and I'd say: 'I support the President of the United States"—
President Johnson: —"in going to the conference as soon as you can, and there discussing the problems at issue, and we are united on that."
President Johnson: "Now, the President has given me assurances that he's not for recognizing the NLF as an independent entity and he's not for a coalition government, and that's what you say you want too. So you go on and talk it over, and if you can settle it, I'll be the happiest man in the world. If you can't, when I come in, I'll assure you that the President will work with me at trying to settle it."
Nixon: Actually, if we can get them to talking before that, it'll be much better, though.
President Johnson: It certainly will, because you won't--
Nixon: This 60 days is the best time to get the damn thing [unclear].
President Johnson: You won't have ten men in the Senate support[ing] South Vietnam when you come in if these folks refuse to go to the conference.
Nixon: Absolutely. Well, I'll get on it. As a matter of fact . . . we'll try to get--I'll try to get Dirksen on the phone now, and see if we can arrange to have this fellow--well, I'll work it out. You don't need to worry about that. We'll try to get to him, and I can just put it quite directly that we want him to go to the conference, period, and that you and I agree completely on what ought to be done. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: And I would do it. I'd say we'll be in touch each day, and--
President Johnson: --that he can be sure--that he can tell his President that this government's going to operate as one, before and after.
Nixon: Right. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: And I'm not going to make any decision there that will adversely affect those people without talking to you and without talking to them.
Nixon: Well, of course. The point is--
President Johnson: I haven't stayed in this thing five years to throw it away in the last five weeks.
Nixon: The whole point is, too, that you've always--your position has always been, basically, as I told you, you've taken the position which was extremely unpopular and which was right, and so therefore I want to support you on it, and we're going to do it. And there's no question about that. I want you to know that.
President Johnson: Thank you, Dick. Thank you.
Nixon: Now, if—the only difficulty is--now, does Rusk think this ambassador--I don't know the fellow well enough, I met him in New York about, oh, in April or May, and he's--12
President Johnson: Rusk told me last night that Nixon ought to do one or two things, said, "I'll go see Nixon if you want me to."
President Johnson: I said, "I think that will highlight a problem and there'll be a lot of press around."
President Johnson: "It'll embarrass Nixon and embarrass you." And he said--
Nixon: So he thinks I should just talk to the ambassador?
President Johnson: He said that we ought to do one or two things. You ought to pick out whoever you are going to have as secretary of state or whoever your closest friend is--
Nixon: We don't have that.
President Johnson: --to go tell him, or you ought to say in writing just two sentences that, "I want you to know"--pick up the phone and tell him--"I want you to know that I believe your country ought to go to this conference. It's going to make it hard for all of us if you don't."
President Johnson: "And the President talked to me about it before we had the conference, and he's going to talk to me about what happens at the conference, and you don't need to feel insecure. We're going to stay with you and be fair. And I can give you that assurance." And you ought to tell them that they're going to hurt themselves, though, if Fulbright and Mansfield--
Nixon: Oh, yeah. Oh there'll be no doubt that the country will not support--
President Johnson: Mansfield's coming in to me tomorrow to say to them to go straight to hell and go on and negotiate--or get out--with Hanoi. That's what he's coming. He's the Leader of the Senate.
Nixon: You can't do that because we--
President Johnson: No.
Nixon: --we've got to--that way you'd leave all those boys out there alone.
President Johnson: I sure can. Or pull them out and leave them there alone.
Nixon: That's what I mean. Yeah.
President Johnson: But if this damn fool just sits back and says--today, he says that he wants to go and head the United States delegation and tell us what to do, and under our Constitution, I couldn't do that.
Nixon: No, that's right.
President Johnson: So--
Nixon: All right--
President Johnson: What he's doing, Dick--these people--they thought that we were going to trick you and try to pull a bombing halt to defeat you. So their judgment was that they ought to take out insurance and get them to screw the thing up where no good would come. Now, we're not trying to do that, and I'm not. And I think that American boys are being killed every day. We ought to tell these folks to go to the conference, and we're going to support South Vietnam after the election just like we did before.
Nixon: And if they go, then there's a better chance for them than if they don't go.
President Johnson: Oh, of course.
Break in the recording as it changes to a new dictabelt (tape).
Nixon: Because otherwise they'll be deserted. OK, I'll get on it.
President Johnson: Of course, all right. You let me know what you do and what you say so I'll know there.
Nixon: What time is . . .
President Johnson: If I were you, I'd call him right now and I'd just say, "I have just talked to the President, period. I want you to know that I think your President should send a delegation there next week, period. I can assure you that I have assurances that this government, before and after January 20, is going to play it straight and fair with you. But you will lose if you don't get a delegation there and soon, period, because Hanoi and the NLF are having a propaganda field day." Rusk told me tonight that the great social charm in Paris is the NLF woman [Nguyen Thi Binh].
Nixon: Oh, God, yes. She's horrible.
President Johnson: And they're just sitting back and saying that the U.S. can't even deliver.
Nixon: Right. Right. OK.
President Johnson: And that's what I'd say to him. There's nothing dangerous about it--that--you've said that publicly.
Nixon: I believe it, too.
President Johnson: "I support the President. I support the government." And I'd just say, "Mr. Ambassador, there's some people who've raised the question, and I just think you ought to tell your President that I have an agreement with our President that we're going to act in unison"—
President Johnson: "—just as two partners."
Nixon: Right. Right. We'll do it.
President Johnson: OK.
The CIA reported on Oct. 26, 1968, that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu "sees a definite connection between the moves now underway and President Johnson's wish to see Vice President [and Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H.] Humphrey elected. Thieu referred many times to the U.S. elections and suggested to his visitors that the current talks are designed to aid Humphrey's candidacy." President Thieu's Views Regarding the Issues Involved in Agreeing to a Bombing Halt, 26 October 1968, CIA to National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "Reference File, South Vietnam and US Policies," Johnson Library. Digital National Security Archive item number VI02222 (subscription required).
The FBI reported that on 2 November 1968, Chennault told South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem over the embassy phone line "that she had received a message from her boss (not further identified) which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to 'hold on, we are going to win,' and that her boss also said, 'Hold on, he understands all of it.' She repeated that this is the only message. 'He said please tell your boss to hold on.' She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico." Message from Anna Chennault to Bui Diem, FBI Director to Bromley Smith, 3 November 1968, "Reference File, South Vietnam and US Policies," Johnson Library. Digital National Security Archive item number VI02278 (subscription required). The Republican vice presidential candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, had stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Nov. 2, 1968.
It was at this meeting that Nixon secretly designated Anna Chennault as his sole contact with the South Vietnamese government. "'Anna is my good friend,' [Nixon] said [to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem]. "She knows all about Asia. I know you also consider her a friend, so please rely on her from now on as the only contact between myself and your government. If you have any message for me, please give it to Anna and she will relay it to me and I will do the same in the future. We know Anna is a good American and a dedicated Republican. We can all rely on her loyalty." Anna Chennault, The Education of Anna, (New York: Times Books, 1980), p. 175.
Diem, in his memoirs, gives the date of the New York City meeting as 12 July 1968, and writes: "Finally, Nixon thanked me for my visit and added that his staff would be in touch with me through [Nixon Campaign Manager] John Mitchell and Anna Chennault." Bui Diem with David Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 236-37.
The National Security Agency intercepted some of Ambassador Diem's communications to his home government; if Diem sent Saigon a report on the key New York City meeting with Nixon, Mitchell, and Chennault, the NSA could potentially have intercepted it the same way. Such a report, if it existed, would have given the Johnson administration evidence that Nixon himself was directly involved in the sabotage of the Paris peace talks. There is nothing in the declassified record, however, to indicate the NSA ever made or Johnson ever received such a report. Nixon, however, could not have known that. For his own political survival, he needed to know whether he had successfully concealed his hand in the sabotage of the Paris peace talks or whether U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence implicating him directly.