New tapes show LBJ worried about Vietnam, Nixon

In the last months of his administration, President Lyndon Johnson voiced worry over the Vietnam peace talks and stridently suggested that associates of Richard Nixon were attempting to keep South Vietnam away from the table until after the 1968 election, recordings of telephone conversations released Thursday show.

"This is treason," Johnson said, referring to people close to Nixon, during a conversation with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. The Democratic president never accused the Republican who would succeed him of treason, but said, "If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the (peace) conference, well that's going to be his responsibility."


Nixon spoke with Johnson in another recorded phone conversation in November 1968 and tried to assure him that he supported Johnson's efforts to bring South Vietnam to a Paris peace conference with North Vietnam. He said he would do whatever Johnson wanted him to do to help before or after the election.

"I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this," Nixon said. "We've got to get them to Paris, or we can't have a peace."

Johnson agreed. Johnson had cited news articles and private information he'd been given that he said made him think Nixon's associates were trying to persuade the South Vietnamese government not to join the peace talks until after the election. Progress on peace in Vietnam before the November election presumably would have given Hubert Humphrey – the Democratic presidential nominee and Johnson's vice president – a boost with voters.

Allegations of Nixon's influence in the peace conference have been reported before, but the tapes provide a look at how Johnson handled the issue behind the scenes, said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor and expert on the presidency at the University of Texas in Austin.

"I think what's new here is the way Johnson characterizes it as 'treason' in his private conversations," Buchanan said. He said he suspects the follow-up conversation between Johnson and Nixon was not really a debate on the matter, but a formal exchange in which both men are saying what would be expected of them.

The approximately 42 hours of telephone recordings released Thursday cover the period from May 1968 through January 1969, when Johnson left office. The LBJ Library has archived and periodically released groups of the recordings, which were made throughout his presidency. The phone conversations took place at the White House and at the LBJ Ranch in Texas.

The LBJ Library's release of the final recordings Thursday made them available for the first time to the public and researchers.

In another newly released recording, Johnson can be heard expressing his condolences to Sen. Edward Kennedy after the assassination of his brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy, in June 1968.

"Ted, I know what a burden you bear, but your shoulders are broad and you've got lots of people who love you and who want to help you," Johnson told Kennedy. Kennedy's voice is barely audible in the recording, but he can be heard thanking Johnson and telling him "both my parents appreciate" his condolences.

Johnson's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, said the recorded phone conversations are helping a new generation understand her father's attempts to end the Vietnam War.

"You have Lyndon Johnson speaking for himself in candid conversations about the times that tried men's souls," she said at a news conference Thursday. She recalled her time at the White House in the late 1960s, when her own husband was fighting in the war, and hearing protesters against her father shouting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?"

In another recording, Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, called former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, on Christmas Day to wish them a happy holiday. Johnson told of speaking by telephone to his daughters' husbands, who were serving in Vietnam and couldn't be home for the holiday. He said his two young grandchildren also spoke to their fathers, and added: "We made 'em squeal over the telephone so they could hear them."

Johnson, who died in 1973, originally instructed a former aide that his recorded phone calls were to be kept sealed until 50 years after his death. But in the 1990s, then-library director Harry Middleton decided to make them public and got Lady Bird Johnson to agree. Since then, historians, students and others have heard for themselves Johnson's sometimes abrasive personality and his persuasion powers known as "the Johnson treatment."

"The telephone conversations reveal the man in a way that no document can ever possibly do – his humor, his seriousness, his dedication," Middleton said at the news conference.


LBJ Library director Betty Sue Flowers said at the news conference that in his decision to release the tapes, Middleton "had the courage and foresight to say no to President Johnson."

Joked Johnson's daughter Lynda Johnson Robb, "It's easier when he's dead."


On the Net:

LBJ Library and Museum at http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu