Key recordings from the first month of an eventful year
Concern about mistakes in the management of nuclear weapons—much in the news recently—is not new. In Lyndon Johnson’s first recorded telephone conversation of 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefed the president on the crash of an American B-52 carrying four nuclear bombs in Greenland the day before. McNamara indicated that the situation had been contained.
Tape: WH6801-01-12608, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara
Recording starts after conversation has begun.
Robert S. "Bob" McNamara: —items that you're both—you're familiar with, both of which, I think, but I wanted to make certain of. One, the crash of the B-52 carrying nuclear weapons late yesterday afternoon. During the night, our people and State's worked with representatives of the Danish government on a news release, which is scheduled to be put out at ten o'clock this morning, which simply acknowledges that a B-52 carrying nuclear weapons, all of which were unarmed, crashed, and we anticipate no danger from it. It crashed, as you probably know, seven and a half miles from Thule, Greenland, on the ice. It burned—it either all or in major part fell through the ice into 250 feet of water. The Danes have an election tomorrow. Today is the last day of the campaign. The statement made is sensitive in relation to the election. I think the Danes and State and we are all in complete agreement on what should be said. I'm told by our people, inclusive of Harold Brown and others who are familiar in detail with nuclear technology, there's no danger from this.
President Johnson: Good.
The last week of January brought the first foreign policy crisis of 1968. Just as today, North Korea provided the catalyst. On January 23, North Korean naval forces approached and seized the American naval intelligence ship USS Pueblo. The incident occurred during a period of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula sparked by a North Korean incursion across the Demilitarized Zone with the intent of assassinating South Korean President Park Chung-hee. President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara discussed the incident, as well as the response in Congress and the media.
Tape: WH6801-01-12610, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara
President Johnson: The next thing: I think you ought to try to see that the Armed Services are fully briefed. Their statement's awfully wild on this other thing, [McNamara acknowledges] and I don't know how much you know. I'm rather disappointed we don't know more, and I don't quite understand this fellow's [Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher] action. And I was concerned with all the radio reports this morning: He called for help, and we wouldn't respond, although we had airplanes a half hour from there. Now, that's Russell and folks like that—
McNamara: We got—I think we've got that turned around. The newspapers this morning are very good, Mr. President. [President Johnson acknowledges throughout.] And the radio reports I heard at seven o'clock were good. We turned it around last night. You called Walt [W. Rostow], and Walt called me about 8:30, and we had it turned around in half an hour after that. On the AP [Associated Press]—it was the AP wire that caused the initial problem, and the reporter here got the information in the Pentagon. I think he got it right, but any case, he wrote it wrong. And whether we gave it to him wrong, or he misunderstood it, we changed it within half an hour.
President Johnson: Mm-hmm.
McNamara: And I think we're all right on that front—
President Johnson: Well, now, to answer, on half an hour, those were armed, and we couldn't—[speaking over McNamara] they weren't available, is that right?
McNamara: No, no. My point was within half an hour after 8:30 last night—
President Johnson: No, no, I mean Russell's statement. He doesn't—Russell, in effect, said this morning, and they've [McNamara acknowledges throughout] been repeating it twice on TV and a half a dozen times on the radio since 5:30. I've been listening to it. I started to call you at seven [o'clock]. I said, "Well, now, he'll be late five minutes and that'll embarrass him [McNamara laughs] that he's been here seven years, and I've never missed him, and I don't want to take any chances on it—"
McNamara: [both laughing] I was here at five after seven [o'clock] this morning.
President Johnson: But Russell said that what he could not understand, that from the time the man got in trouble [McNamara acknowledges throughout] until he was towed in—there is two hours that he did ask for help, we didn't respond, although we had planes in a half hour from him. Now, as I understand it, the planes that we had close by South Korea were loaded and couldn't be unloaded in time. Is that a correct statement?
McNamara: That is—that's absolutely correct.
President Johnson: Now, second, the man never did ask for help.
President Johnson: Is that a correct statement?
President Johnson: Now, third, do you have any—what's your speculation on what happened to him?
McNamara: Mr. President, I honestly don't know, and I called [Nicholas] Nick [Katzenbach] this morning, and later Walt, and said, "I think we need a Cuban Missile Crisis approach to this. [President Johnson acknowledges.] And goddamn it, we ought to get locked in a room, and you ought to keep us there, insist we stay there until we come up with answers to three questions: What was the [North] Korean objective? Why did they do it? Secondly, what are they going to do now? Blackmail us? Let it go? You know, what? And thirdly, what should we do now? And there are a whole series of things we've thought of here: quarantine them, steal one of their ships, etc., etc., etc. But we just have got to act quickly. I don't think we can let the day go by before reporting to you our at least tentative views on those three questions.
President Johnson: I told Walt that I thought we ought to have done that beginning two o'clock night before last—
McNamara: Well, I think—
President Johnson: —and yesterday—
McNamara: I think you're right.
President Johnson: —and then today, too. McNamara: I think you're right—
President Johnson: And I just hope that they will, quickly as you can. I don't want to get any—confuse it, but I'm ready anytime any of you're avail—
McNamara: We're meeting at 10:30 this morning. We'll have [Richard M.] Dick Helms, [Earle G.] Bus Wheeler, Nick, Paul Nitze, Paul [C.] Warnke, Walt, [President Johnson acknowledges] [Samuel D.] Sam Berger—
President Johnson: If Clifford's got any time, I'd call him in there—
President Johnson: —because he'll be trying—he ought to learn it—
President Johnson: —because it's going to be heavy. OK.
President Johnson: I'll call you.
McNamara: Thank you
With Office of Economic Opportunity director and Kennedy brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver preparing to leave his position directing the War on Poverty, President Johnson offered him the position of ambassador to France. Shriver, however, found himself drawn to the possibility of running for Governor of Illinois – an effort that might allow him to aid a presidential challenge to LBJ by Robert F. Kennedy. In these conversation excerpts, Chicago mayor Richard J. "Dick" Daley disparages Shriver’s political prospects in Illinois, and LBJ reports on a recent poll of delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Tape: WH6801-WH6801-02-12611, Lyndon Johnson and Richard J. Daley
Recording starts after conversation has begun.
Richard J. "Dick" Daley: —never tell anyone. I say to him [R. Sargent Shriver], "Well, you're among [unclear]—a lot of candidates that are mentioned, and as far as the ultimate actions, I wouldn't tell you or anyone else."
President Johnson: Huh.
Daley: Well, even till the time he was leaving, he said to me, "Well, what would you do?" [with President Johnson acknowledging throughout] I said, "Well, when the President offers me a thing like that, I would be a hell of a thing to turn down, especially the fellow that's in your position. I imagine what you're looking for is a place on the ticket in the future as vice president or president. If you are, this is a hell of an attractive thing to be sent into one of the most difficult countries. And if you ever worked that situation out with our old friend over there, [Charles] de Gaulle, you'd be one of the top people in the country." But he's trying to find a [unclear] to land, whether it's in Maryland or whether it's in Illinois. He'd prefer to come back to Illinois and be the governor. Well, a lot of people would want to be governor of Illinois.
President Johnson: I would think that's right. I would think that's right. You better damn sure get your best candidate, if you want him, and I'm a Daley man myself. [Daley acknowledges.] First, last, and all the time.
President Johnson: And I'm for you when you're wrong. I haven't found you wrong, but when you are, you—when you need somebody [Daley laughs] when you need somebody, you're wrong, you count [Hubert H.] Humphrey [Jr.] and Johnson.
President Johnson: Just—and either—you can do it in that order or Johnson and Humphrey, whichever fits in the book better.
. . .
President Johnson: Now, this Charleston, West Virginia, paper took a poll of all the delegates and it ran about 1,400 for me and Humphrey, and about 49 for [Eugene J. "Gene"] McCarthy [DFL–Minnesota] and about 39 for [Robert F.] Bobby [Kennedy] [D–New York]. The 39 stragglers, all of you damn fellows will put on a son of a bitch, and when you got 50 states and you only got 39 sons of bitches, that's a pretty good average. We've got more than one bastard on our delegation [Daley laughs] from Texas, but I thought the poll came out pretty good. But he has got a few peaceniks up here in New York and he's got [Arthur M.] Schlesinger [Jr.] up at Harvard [University], and he has decided that it's up to him to reclaim the Democratic Party.
President Johnson: Now, I'll just tell you what it'll happen now. Just beginning with me and Hubert Humphrey and John [B.] Connally and the rest of them.8 If you ever thought that they had a goddamn revolution in the party, you never would see that—
President Johnson: —these [have] just been a little kindergarten, play Indians until this one came along.
Daley: The only thing I—and, you know, you never make any suggestion to the President, you never [President Johnson acknowledges]—The only thing I would say to you, as a friend: don't let them get you too excited on this. It's—
President Johnson: They wouldn't. They wouldn't at all. But I—
President Johnson: —I just thought, look—
Daley: —I mean, I think there has been—and keep your mind open, you see, till we—we keep our mind open on everything.
President Johnson: Yeah.
President Johnson and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Arthur J. Goldberg discussed the possibility of working through various international organizations to resolve the crisis caused by North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo. In the first part of this call, Goldberg discussed the possibility of appealing to the International Court of Justice. He then advised the president that the U.S. would fare better before the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee than it would in the U.N. Security Council.
Tape: WH6801-02-12612-12613, Lyndon Johnson and Arthur Goldberg
Recording starts after conversation has begun.
Arthur J. Goldberg: —which I think ought to be at night, not during the middle of the day, 'cause I think, you know, people look at it. I 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 that we—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.
. . .
President Johnson: Now, what do you do tomorrow?
Goldberg: I'm—as far as I'm concerned, if we cannot get some agreement, which I doubt we can get, I'm going to kind of wind up this exercise. [President Johnson acknowledges.] I'm not going to put a resolution forward, which we won't—you know, would be vetoed. That isn't going to help us.
President Johnson: Mm-hmm.
Goldberg: 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 [U.N. Security] Council to come out with a . . . some help.
President Johnson: What are they going to do?
Goldberg: Not a damn thing, just between us. [President Johnson acknowledges throughout.] 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 [Llewellyn E.] Tommy [Thompson] has got in Moscow. I'll put it straight to him: "Do you fellows want to defuse the situation? Then you ought to put your weight to set a simple"—what I have in mind is to say to him, "Don't—you don't have to have a resolution. Let's get the president of the council to propose that the—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.
[A]s I read the telegrams, I doubt that the Russians would agree to anything.
President Johnson: What'd you lose? Three votes?
Goldberg: On the resolution itself?
President Johnson: On the inscription, yeah.
Goldberg: On the inscription, we just lost three votes: [President Johnson acknowledges throughout] 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 [President Johnson sighs]—but I'll have a better reading. I'm going to send all these—
President Johnson: Talk to Nick or Dean. Let them get into this and think. 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 going to 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 Johnson: Yeah, they're working on that carefully.
Goldberg: Yes. We got them working now. Now, they're—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 very important—if you haven't seen the message, you might ask Walt [W. Rostow] to get it for you—to see that the North Koreans sent a message through that commission.
President Johnson: Yeah, we've read it, and we've replied.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Johnson discussed the chain of decisions that had placed the USS Pueblo in a position where it could be seized by North Korean forces. McNamara took ultimate responsibility, concluding that “it was approved properly, but it was a poorly conceived mission.”
Tape: WH6801-02-12615, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara
President Johnson: And let's round up the whole outfit, and we'll talk to them about several of these things.
McNamara: [with President Johnson acknowledging] And you might talk about Khe Sanh, without digging too deeply into the Pueblo, because they themselves, frankly, don't know all I know about the Pueblo yet. And—
President Johnson: Who's responsible for this, then? The—
McNamara: Well, Mr. President, I don't—
President Johnson: The Navy?
McNamara: Pardon me?
President Johnson: Who gives them the assignment? Who—
McNamara: Well, let me just tell you as little as I know now, which isn't the—all the story by any means. The . . . proposal initiated with the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet [John J. Hyland Jr.] around the—I think it was around the 17th of December, if I recall the date correctly. Then it went into—and he [Hyland] listed what he wanted to do.
President Johnson: Is that the fellow—who is that?
McNamara: Well, I can't—
President Johnson: Where is he stationed?
McNamara: He's stationed in Honolulu, [President Johnson acknowledges] but in turn that came up from a lower level to him, and I haven't got the lower—at least I haven't seen the lower-level papers yet. Then he [Hyland] gave it to Admiral [U. S. Grant] Sharp, and Admiral Sharp turned it into the [Joint] Chiefs around the 23rd of December. And the Chiefs reviewed it—these things are handled on a relatively routine basis—they reviewed it, and then it became part of what's called the "Monthly Schedule of Reconnaissance Activities." And that then went, between the 23rd of December and, I would guess, the end of the month—I haven't the exact date yet—to the 303 Committee, on which sits the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul [H.] Nitze, [Richard M.] Dick Helms, Walt Rostow, I think [Nicholas] Nick [Katzenbach], I'm not—a State Department representative in any case. And the 303 Committee has to approve every one of these actions, and it approved this one. So, I, myself, I feel personally responsible for the mission because either my deputy or I approves every one of these things. So it was approved properly, but it was a poorly conceived mission. That's my conclusion. Now, this part of it I haven't gone all over with the Chiefs yet, because some of this I got yesterday, and I was in here, but they weren't. And I will, of course, go over the whole thing. I'm having a paper prepared, and I'll go over the whole paper with the Chiefs before Bus and I have to testify.
President Johnson: Well, I would sure get my best explanation, because—Now, what's the—
Tape cuts off and recording ends.
One day after Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered his views about the incursion. Johnson raised concerns about the domestic political implications.
Tape: WH6801-02-12617, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara
President Johnson: What is the story behind the . . . well, what was your evaluation yesterday? I wanted to ask you to go in the office, and I looked at you, and you thought—I thought you were so damn tired you better go home to your wife.
McNamara: No, no. No, I was—
President Johnson: And we'd had—well, we'd start at that breakfast, but I just didn't—
McNamara: No, I'm sorry. I would love to have come in. Well . . . I . . . I think it shows two things, Mr. President. First, that they have more power than some credit them with. I don't think it's a last-gasp action. I do think that it represents a maximum effort in the sense of, they've poured on all of their assets, and my guess is that we will inflict very heavy losses on them, both in terms of personnel and materièl, and this will set them back some, but that after they absorb the losses, they will remain a substantial force. I don't anticipate that we'll hit them so hard that they'll be knocked out for an extended period or forced to drop way back in level of effort against us. I do think that it is such a well-coordinated, such an obviously advance-planned operation, that it probably relates to negotiations in some way. I would expect that were they successful here, they'd then move forward more forcefully on the negotiation front, and that—thinking that they have a stronger position from which to bargain. I don't believe they're going to be successful. I think that in Khe Sanh, where we're going to have the real military engagement, I believe we'll deal them a heavy defeat. I think in the other areas it's largely a propaganda effort and a publicity effort, and I think they'll gain that way.
I think that in Khe Sanh, where we're going to have the real military engagement, I believe we'll deal them a heavy defeat. I think in the other areas it's largely a propaganda effort and a publicity effort, and I think they'll gain that way.