Secret White House recordings reveal a year quickly unraveling for President Lyndon Johnson
Amidst a swirl of inaccurate news reports that North Korea would soon release the crew members of the captured USS Pueblo, President Johnson railed against North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to Washington Star White House correspondent Garnett D. "Jack" Horner. Elsewhere in the call, Johnson criticized American journalists for repeating the false stories.
Tape: WH6801-01-12702-12703, Lyndon Johnson and Jack Horner
President Johnson: —And if I say something about it I'm a "McCarthy." And if I don't say something about it, my country is in a hell of a shape. So that's the, uh, that's the picture. Now, there are three things you can be sure of: One, we are pursuing not only the 83 boys, but we deeply resent their trying to kill our ambassador and trying to kill Park. Now, they are the criminals; they are the outlaws; they are the ones that ought to be tried, although I haven't heard of—haven't seen one bad editorial on the president or prime minister of North Korea. They're all defending—making us defend ourselves, and we're trying to protect them. We're their agent. It's just like a quarterback on a football team playing for your side, and you getting out and whipping hell out of him with a rope. I'm trying to protect my country, and they're all whipping me. Not a son of a bitch said a word about Hồ Chí Minh.
President Johnson: Not a—he hasn't been elected to nothing. He's a dictator if there ever was one. Nobody ever elected him like I went—was elected, by a convention and by the people. But he hasn't—you haven't ever heard an ugly speech by him—not even Strom Thurmond said anything against Hồ Chí Minh. Nothing—nobody said anything about North Korea. They talk about us bombing, yet these sons of bitches come in and bomb our embassy and 19 of them tried a raid on it—all 19 get killed—and yet they blame the embassy! [President Johnson chuckles and Horner joins in.] I don't understand it.
They talk about us bombing, yet these sons of bitches come in and bomb our embassy and 19 of them tried a raid on it—all 19 get killed—and yet they blame the embassy!
President Johnson: So I just want to make it emphatic enough that I'll make an impression on at least one, honorable, fair man, whose copy will stand up 50 years, and they won't be looking at him and say, "Why were you a[n] agent?" This Panmunjom conference has not proceeded to the point where anybody in this government can say it is, as of now, at all successful. That's number one. Now, that is the honest truth.
Horner: Yes, sir.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]
Despite the looming threat that Bobby Kennedy would challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination, LBJ reached out to the New York Senator for help on legislation that would create a national housing corporation. Late in the conversation, Johnson briefly turned to the subject of Vietnam.
Tape: WH6802-03-12731, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy
President Johnson: Hello?
Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy: Oh, Mr. President?
President Johnson: Bob, how are you?
Kennedy: Fine, thanks. How are you?
President Johnson: Fine. Bob, they've got this city message, and I don't know whether they've talked to you about it or not. I told them I wanted them to talk to you and [Abraham A. "Abe"] Ribicoff [D–Connecticut] and some of the leaders—[John J.] Sparkman [D–Alabama] and others—because I think it's so important. We've had Edgar [F.] Kaiser [Sr.] and a group of experts working on it. We've had our mayors in here on the Model Cities rent supplements parts of it. I wanted to send it up either today or tomorrow. [Michael J. "Mike"] Mansfield [D–Montana] thought that before I did that it would be good if I could get [Joseph A. "Joe"] Califano [Jr.] and one or two of the fellows that had worked on it, [Robert C.] Bob Wood from the Department [of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)], to talk to some of the leaders in the cities field.
President Johnson: We want to get everything that we can move, and the Senate's never been a problem for us. They gave us all we asked for on Model Cities. They gave us all we wanted on rent supplements. They give us—we think they'll buy the Kaiser plan. We've talked to some of them. But [Gerald R. "Jerry"] Ford [Jr.] [R–Michigan] and the southern Democrats, not having any mayors pressuring them and being the economy block, just cut our guts out every year. We thought, before we sent the message up, if we could review it with some leaders and get them to talk to some of their mayors, and when it does go up, kind of concentrate some attention on the House members and say—for instance, I told [John V.] Lindsay and [Nelson A.] Rockefeller, both of them were talking to me last year. And I said, "Well, I'll submit as much as you can get five Republicans to vote for."
President Johnson: Now, this—let's do it this year, we—last year we asked for $634 [million]. The House gave us nothing. The Senate gave us all of it. We got—in final conference, got half of it.
President Johnson: Now, this year, we're asking for a billion on the Model Cities program, and we got the new program of Kaiser. And I just wondered if you could sit down anytime next—today or in the morning, and listen to him for 30 minutes, and see if you had anything that ought to come out of it or [Kennedy acknowledges] any suggestions you ought to have.
Kennedy: I'd be glad to, Mr. President. I—
President Johnson: I'll have Joe Califano call your boy [Kennedy acknowledges] and see when it'd be convenient
Kennedy: Yeah, that'd be fine. I'd be glad to see him today. I had understood that they—that part of it was the housing message, and that what—as you know, I've been interested in [President Johnson acknowledges throughout] both for jobs and in housing to see if we couldn't have some tax incentive. And I gather they're not going to do that, which, of course, I think is disappointing because, I think, in the last analysis—
President Johnson: No, they don't have tax incentives. Our Treasury people just blow up because they think that every—after they did the road thing, that when we do it for any particular purpose, we tear down our structure. I don't know whether—I think if you'll listen to them and listen to Kaiser on his program, that maybe you can be helpful to us, and if you think that—see what they do with their approach. They're going to try—they think they've got one that'll work, and they've talked to some of the business people that you've been [Kennedy acknowledges] trying to sell them on. I don't believe, though, they contemplate the tax incentive thing, but it may be that if this doesn't go and you talk to them, maybe you can loosen them up some on it. At least give us a chance, and I'd like to get your views, and I'd like to get communication—I'm going to see U Thant today and hear his report. We've got our man back from Hanoi now, and they've thrown the San Antonio thing out the window, and I'm going to see what he has. And I'd be very happy if you've got any thoughts along that line, if you'd give them to us, or maybe have [Robert S.] Bob [McNamara] and Clark [M.] Clifford talk to you whenever you feel like it. He's trying to find some new approaches to these things and I'd—
Kennedy: I'd be glad [unclear]—
President Johnson: I want you to feel that we do need your help and we want it, and that we would be as responsive as we think we are justified in being.
Kennedy: Yes, I understand. Well, I'd be glad to talk to anybody anytime, Mr. President.
President Johnson: Thank you. I'll have Joe call your boy today, and we'll try to send up the message, hold it back till tomorrow. If you can, look at it and—
Kennedy: I'd be glad to.
President Johnson: —and get any help on it and maybe give us a little help to—we don't want to jump on the House, but if we could direct some of the mayors to the House, where we could get a few Republican votes, it'd be awfully helpful to us.
Kennedy: Fine, Mr. President.
President Johnson: Thank you, Bobby.
Kennedy: Thank you for calling.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]