Lyndon Johnson Pressures Senator Hartke

Lyndon Johnson Pressures Senator Hartke

In a secretly recorded telephone conversation with Democratic Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana on January 23, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressures Hartke to vote for his excise tax bill, which is hung up in the Senate. On June 21, 1965, Johnson signed the Excise Tax Reduction Act into law.


By the time Johnson took office, many of Kennedy's New Frontier proposals had been talked to death in the House and Senate committees. Johnson called in old friends like Senator Mike Mansfield, the Democratic floor leader, and House Speaker John McCormack to apply pressure to release the bills from committee. This pressure, which Johnson called "jawboning," plus the overwhelming grief and sentiment that followed Kennedy's death were more than enough to speed legislation through Congress. By late February, Kennedy's proposal for a tax cut had been approved. In June 1964, an expanded version of Kennedy's civil rights bill was signed by President Johnson.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and only had been passed after fifty-seven days of senate filibustering (lengthy speeches designed to delay or prevent passage of legislation). The act outlawed racial discrimination in places of public accommodation - restaurants, hotels, theaters, and even in gas stations. As for political rights, the law outlaws racial discrimination in the registration of voters. Today legal case management software is used by lawyers to track cases. It stated that a sixth-grade education must be accepted as proof of literacy in states where an ability to read and write was a requirement for voting.

Johnson announced a War on Poverty and the Economic Opportunity Act was passed that year. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was created to coordinate the campaign against poverty. A number of new programs established by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 were directed by the OEO. "One was the Job Corps, which offered remedial and vocational education to school dropouts. Another such program, VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America, a domestic peace corps, was established.

After an overwhelming election to a full term of office in 1964, Johnson went into high gear. In 1965 there were 115 presidential legislative recommendations, and more that 90 were approved . Among the most notable was the Appalachian Development Act, which allocated $1 billion to the eleven states Appalachian region for the development of highways and other projects. One of the most publicized of the government's programs was HEAD START . In order to provide poor children with the skills necessary to improve educational levels in low-income schools. The Medicare and Medicaid programs were developed. Discriminatory immigration laws were abolished.

Johnson went far beyond Kennedy's program in the area of civil rights. Despite the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the approval of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, there were still counties in the Deep South where not a single black was registered to vote. In March 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Selma Alabama, to dramatize the situation. King was jailed, but public response to his march was overwhelming.

At the close of 1965, the Great Society seemed like an unqualified success and Johnson could congratulate himself on his triumphs. A southerner, he had engineered the passage of laws that not only ended the ear of Jim Crow segregation but also seemed to promise southern blacks real political power in the state and local level. A man who had accumulated great personal wealth, Johnson had shown that he had not forgotten the poverty of his Texas boyhood. He had taken the federal government into areas of social reform and where other Presidents had not dare to go. It seemed that the Great Society was becoming a reality.

1966 would be the last energetic year of the Johnson administration. The creeping specter of the Vietnam War was now on the horizon.


LBJ Goes for Broke

“I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and how to use it,” said Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Majority Leader. In Robert Caro’s new book, Master of the Senate—the third in his four-volume study of the 36th President—the author charts Johnson’s masterful exercise of power.

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“My books are not biographies of famous men but are about political power, the power that affects all our lives,” says Caro, whose The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1975. “In the new book, I had to find out where LBJ found power in the Senate and how he used it to transform that hidebound body.”

Caro (and his one-person research staff, Ina, his wife of 44 years—an author herself) has devoted more than 25 years to Johnson, 12 to the latest volume alone. He interviewed 260 people, sorted through 2,082 boxes of Senate papers and wrote several drafts in longhand before typing others on an old Smith Carona. Caro calls Johnson “the greatest Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. I took the guy who did it best. And studied him.”

How does Caro feel personally about his subject? “I don’t think I like or dislike him,” he says. “But I am in awe of LBJ. Watching him get the 1957 Civil Rights Act through . . . I am in awe. This is not legislative power, this is legislative genius.”

The excerpt that follows chronicles Johnson’s seemingly hopeless 1957 attempt to pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which southern Democrats were at first determined to block, as they had blocked every other civil rights bill for 82 years. Johnson, Caro shows, had long wanted sincerely to help people of color in addition, he planned to run for President in 1960 and needed passage of the bill to make him acceptable to liberals and northerners. Though the bill that was originally introduced addressed a number of wrongs against African-Americans, what was left of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the attorney general new powers to enforce the rights of African-Americans to vote, rights that in much of the South had long been denied through trickery and intimidation. Getting any civil rights bill through Congress would mark a milestone. “It didn’t matter that the bill was not strong,” says Caro, “because blacks needed to know they could have hope that civil rights legislation could pass the Senate. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was hope.”

Passage of the bill hinged on an amendment giving a person charged with contempt for disobeying a judge’s order—say, a white official trying to prevent blacks from voting—the right to a trial by jury (which in the South meant an all-white jury). The amendment, which liberals felt eviscerated the act, had been drafted to make it palatable to the South, but satisfied no one. “All the compromises and deals that had been hammered out in seven months of negotiations had only brought the two sides to an impasse at which no compromise seemed possible,” Caro writes. In fact, everyone seemed to know that the bill was dead—except LBJ:

To keep the two sides negotiating— to keep the 1957 civil rights fight from degenerating into the open hostility and bitterness in which so many previous civil rights bills had died— Johnson had to persuade his colleagues to conduct the debate in an atmosphere of outward friendliness and respect, or at least civility, so for some days, the opening scene of the Senate each noon hour featured the Majority Leader as Emily Post. In statements written by aide George Reedy and delivered during Johnson’s opening remarks each day, he encouraged the Senate to mind its manners, saying that it was on trial, that the world was watching it, and that he was confident that the Senate would do itself proud.

Johnson’s opening homilies were almost his only public utterances on the subject of civil rights. He had again assumed a low profile, and was not often on the Senate floor, spending his time in the Democratic cloakroom or huddling with aides behind closed doors, or with senators in his offices in the Capitol or back in the SenateOfficeBuilding. But there, in the cloakroom or behind closed doors, he was fighting, too, using the gifts he had demonstrated so vividly during his entire life.

All his life, he had had what Texas oilman and backer George Brown called a “knack” for simultaneously convincing people on opposite sides of an issue that he was on their side, and never had this knack been more vividly displayed. He did it with the tone of his voice: with northerners, his Texas twang became harder, more clipped when he talked to southerners the twang softened into a full-fledged southern drawl. He did it with words. “If we’re going to have any civil rights bill at all, we’ve got to be reasonable about this jury trial amendment,” he said to liberal Illinois Senator Paul Douglas in the cloakroom one day. Five minutes later, he was at the opposite end of the cloakroom, telling Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina to “be ready to take up the Nigra bill again.”

He tried to make the southerners understand that as long as the bill contained a jury trial amendment, its passage would have minimal political repercussions for them. “You can go back [home] and say, ‘Listen, we could not stop them entirely. They just had too many votes, so they rolled over us. But look what we got. We fought and fixed it up so that those damned Yankee carpetbaggers couldn’t come back, and also they couldn’t brand you a criminal without a jury trial.’ ” He played on their pride as southerners. He played on their hopes: their hope that he might become President, and that if he did, that would be a victory for the South, a victory so great that its possibility should overrule all other considerations. He played on their fears. “The colored are not going to give up. They’re determined,” he told them. “We can’t continue to push these things down their throats. They won’t sit still any longer. We have to give them something. If we don’t allow progress on this issue, we’re going to lose everything.”

With the liberals—not with the most ardent “red-hots,” for with them there was no hope—the key words were also we and us. He made them feel that they were in a battle, and that in that battle he was on their side. Warning one liberal senator that there must be a liberal “sentry” on the floor at all times to guard against a sudden southern legislative maneuver, he told him, “They’ll get us on the floor if we’re not manned on the floor at all times.” He told him, “They’ll pick our moment of least resistance and move in.” He played on their fears—the fear of what southern power in the committees could do to their vital projects.

He had to persuade the northerners to allow some sort of jury trial amendment in the bill, even though such an amendment stripped the act itself of its teeth. He tried to make them understand that the important thing was to get some bill, any bill, passed “to show them we can do it—once we’ve got the first one passed, we can go back and improve it”—and that the only way to get it passed was to vote for the amendment. When Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey tried to argue with him, he said, “Yes, yes, Hubert, I want all those other things—buses, restaurants, all of that—but the right to vote with no ifs, ands or buts, that’s the key. When the Negroes get that, they’ll have every politician, north and south, east and west, kissing their ass, begging for their support.”

Day after day, he was arguing one side of a point with the southerners and the other side with the liberals—and arguing both sides with equal persuasiveness. At the same time that he was telling the South that he had counted votes and had found that a filibuster couldn’t win, he was telling liberals that they couldn’t beat a filibuster.

He was working the cloakroom and the corridors now, working them with everything he had.

He used his health. He had had a heart attack [in 1955], he said, he was a sick man and he knew it. The strain was too much for him, he said, when he went home at night, he couldn’t sleep, the doctors kept giving him new pills, they didn’t work, he was starting to get chest pains again. “Ah don’t want to die right here,” he said. “Ah don’t want to fall on my face, drop dead right on the floor of the Senate.” He couldn’t take much more strain “He made you feel that if you wouldn’t go along with what he was asking, you might be murdering this man,” one senator recalls.

He used their pride in the Senate: “We’ve got the world looking at us here! We’ve got to make the world see that this body works!” He used their pride in their party: “You’re the party of Lincoln,” he reminded one Republican. “That’s something to be proud of.” To Democrats, he said, “Our party’s always been the place that you can come to whenever there’s injustice. That’s what the Democratic Party’s for. That’s why it was born. That’s why it survives. So the poor and the downtrodden and the bended [sic] can have a place to turn. And they’re turning to us now. We can’t let them down.” He used his power and his charm. “I can see him now,” aide Bobby Baker says, “grasping hands and poking chests and grabbing lapels, saying to the southern politicians something like, ‘We got a chance to show the way. We got a chance to get the racial monkey off the South’s back. We got a chance to show the Yankees that we’re good and decent and civilized down here, not a bunch of barefoot, tobacco-chewin’ crazies.’ ” When he had finished presenting his arguments to a senator, aide Harry McPherson was to say, “he would sink back into the chair, his eyes wide with the injustice of his burdens, the corners of his mouth inviting pity and support.” Then he “would come back faceto- face, perhaps sensing that the other wanted to help and in that event should hear the whole story, all the demands, the pressures and the threats, as well as the glory and the achievement that awaited reasonable men if they would only compromise, not on the main thing, but just on this part that the other side would never accept as it was unless there could be some accommodation, there would be nothing, the haters would take over, the Negroes would lose it all, I need your help.” He used his stories, and he used his jokes, he used his promises, used his threats, backing senators up against walls or trapping them in their chairs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders and thrusting a finger in their chests, grasping lapels, watching their hands, watching their eyes, listening to what they said, or to what they didn’t say: “The greatest salesman one on one who ever lived”—trying to make his biggest sale.

To every crisis in his life, he had risen with that effort that made men say, “I never knew it was possible for anyone to work that hard,” that effort in which “days meant nothing, nights meant nothing.” Now, in this greatest crisis, Lyndon Johnson, heart attack or no, rose again to that kind of effort. In the early-morning hours the residential districts of Washington and its suburbs were dark and silent, but now, in the night, the silence of a darkened street would be broken by the faint ringing of a telephone in a senator’s house. The senator, picking it up, would hear, “This is Lyndon Johnson.” The persuasion would begin, and it might go on for quite some time. Finally, the call would be over. The senator would go back to bed, to sleep if he could. And on another street, in another senator’s home, the phone would ring.

Try though he did, however, it appeared, as July drew to a close, that he wasn’t going to win. On Friday, July 26, the lines had stiffened dramatically. That morning, there had been a meeting of the Southern Caucus in Georgia Senator Richard Russell’s office, and around the huge mahogany table that morning there weren’t many smiles. Emerging from the meeting, Russell told Bill White of the New York Times that the Caucus had decided to support the jury trial amendment “to the end.” If the amendment was defeated, Russell said, the southerners would fight the complete bill “with every resource open to us.” In his article the next day, White explained the meaning of Russell’s phrases. “He meant that [if the amendment was defeated] the southerners would put in the most implacable filibuster of which they were capable.”

Johnson flew to Texas late that Friday, but during his weekend on the ranch, he received another blow: proof that he had underestimated the depth of organized labor’s commitment to civil rights. He had been hoping that labor would be enticed into support of the amendment by the extension of its jury trial guarantee to unions, but on Saturday, July 27, labor began to be heard from, in the form of a letter to Johnson from James B. Carey, president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. The amendment, Carey wrote, “would prevent effective enforcement of the right to vote.

“The issue must be faced squarely,” Carey said. “We can have either the right to vote or trial by jury for contempt. We cannot have both.” And he said, “Labor will not barter away effective protection of the right of a Negro to register and vote” just to obtain gains for itself.

The only news Johnson received that weekend was bad news. He had waged a spectacular fight, but he was going to lose. All his work, it seemed, had been for nothing.

On Monday and Tuesday, developments appeared to confirm that appraisal. Monday, when Johnson returned from Texas, was bad, with Carey’s letter being read into the record by Pennsylvania Senator Joe Clark, who jeered at Johnson’s attempt to get labor support, with New York Senator Jacob Javits holding the floor for hours, further antagonizing southerners by his manner, and with increasingly bitter squabbling between liberals and southerners.

Tuesday was worse. The day began for Johnson when, still in bed that morning, he came upon a large advertisement in the WashingtonPost. It was “An Open Letter” to “the Senate of the United States,” but it might have been addressed to him personally, so directly did it attack what he had been doing: “It would be better not to pass any civil rights legislation at all than to pass [this] bill. . . . We are in a better position to get justice in civil rights cases under existing laws than we would be if you pass the proposed ‘jury trial’ amendment.” The letter was signed by eighty-one southern liberal leaders.

A column by Murray Kempton published that Tuesday in the New York Post described Lyndon Johnson as “almost the prisoner of the South,” and “with the 20-year dominant coalition between Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans in ruins, Lyndon Johnson’s cupboard is bare. The politicians who count in the Senate today are [California Senator and Minority Leader] William F. Knowland and [Vice President] Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon Johnson is a state of things whose time is past.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, however, things began to improve. While Lyndon Johnson had been in Texas the previous weekend, the telephone calls from George Reedy had told him that his attempt to woo leaders of organized labor like Carey and Walter Reuther and AFL-CIO President George Meany with a jury trial amendment had apparently failed. That Sunday, however, a dissenting if informal, even offhand, remark had been made by Cyrus Tyree (Cy) Anderson, the rough-spoken, incisive chief Washington lobbyist for the Railway Labor Association—a loose central committee representing twelve railroad unions—to a casual Capitol Hill acquaintance: “Any labor guy who is against jury trials ought to have his head examined.” The acquaintance happened to repeat it to George Reedy Monday morning, and Reedy quoted it in a memorandum he gave to Johnson sometime after Johnson arrived back on Capitol Hill on Monday afternoon. And Johnson acted on it.

No one had thought of the railroad brotherhoods as potential allies—for a very obvious reason: for almost a century they had been fighting against equal rights for black Americans. But Johnson saw why the brotherhoods might be turned into supporters. On Tuesday morning, he telephoned Cy Anderson and asked for support for the jury trial amendment from the twelve brotherhoods— including a formal statement he could use to counter Carey’s.

With his eyes focused on organized labor as a source of support for a jury trial amendment, suddenly Johnson saw more. There was one union to whom the memory of the power of federal court injunctions was especially fresh and bitter: the United Mine Workers. The UMW’s chief counsel was Johnson’s friend Welly Hopkins, and Johnson now telephoned Welly and asked him for a formal statement of support from UMW head John L. Lewis.

Sometime after Johnson had returned to his office from the Senate floor, Lewis’ telegram was shown to him. He returned to the floor. The time was about 5:40. Olin Johnston was droning on. Asking the South Carolinian to yield, Johnson read the telegram, maximizing the impact by implying that it was an unsolicited bolt from the blue. “John L. Lewis had never communicated with me directly or indirectly until 2:48 p.m. today, when he sent me the following telegram,” he said. And even before he came to the floor, Johnson had used the telegram he “saw to it,” as New York Timeswriter James Reston commented dryly, that it “was brought to [West Virginia Republican Senator Chapman] Revercomb’s attention.” On Lyndon Johnson’s smudged tally sheet, a number was erased from the right side of Revercomb’s name, and a number was written on the left side.

And Matthew Neely’s staff had been contacted, and a message had been sent to Bethesda. The dying West Virginia liberal had promised that he would leave the hospital and come to the Chamber in a wheelchair to cast his vote against the amendment if it was needed. Now that promise was withdrawn. Neely could not bring himself to vote for the amendment, but he said he would not leave the hospital to cast a vote at all. Although only one West Virginia vote would be added to the votes for the amendment, therefore, two were subtracted from the votes against it. The count had been perhaps 53󈞖 against Johnson before, but it was 51󈞗 now. He was only eight behind.

The other development that came to fruition that Tuesday was the result of another talent Lyndon Johnson had been displaying during the civil rights fight. It was a talent not merely for persuading men, but for inspiring them.

Frank Church had had six months now to learn the cost of crossing Lyndon Johnson. Young as he was, the tall, slender senator looked even younger with his big, toothy grin, shiny black hair, and cheeks so pink that he seemed to be perpetually blushing. Wags in the Press Gallery, amused by Church’s naïveté as much as by his youthfulness, mockingly called him Senator Sunday School. But he was already making a mark in Washington.

Although Church was in favor of civil rights legislation, his interest in the subject was, according to his legislative aide, Ward Hower, “only intellectual,” not “a visceral thing.” The plight of black Americans “was not a big issue to Frank Church,” perhaps because out of the six hundred thousand persons who lived in Idaho in 1957, only about one thousand were black. In 1957, Idaho had only two representatives in the House, “so,” Hower explains, “the Senate was the key for Idaho, like it was for the southerners. In the Senate, Idaho is equal to New York. For all the western senators, the Senate is their states’ protection. The right to filibuster is important to them.” He felt an identity with the southern senators’ need to preserve the Senate’s rules. But, Hower says, Church also knew that a reconciliation with Johnson was essential for his career, and “he was looking for a way to do something major for Johnson”—and “he understood that the civil rights bill was a key to Johnson’s strong ambition to be President.” And it was this understanding that, in mid-July, first got Church involved more deeply in the civil rights fight. In January, on the vote that had angered Johnson, Church had voted against the South on July 24, Church voted with it. Johnson’s attitude toward him became noticeably warmer.

Johnson had appealed to Church partly on pragmatic grounds Hower, for one, believes that Church’s desire for a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee was the key: “I don’t think anything explicit was ever said—you didn’t deal with Lyndon Johnson that way. But you knew that if you did him a favor, when the time came, if he could do you a favor. . . . This w as the w ay Lyndon Johnson operated. There was a tacit quid pro quo.” But Johnson had also appealed to elements in the young senator’s character that were not pragmatic. “You’re a senator of the United States,” he told Church. “You have to function as a senator of the United States. This is your national duty.” Says Frank Church’s wife, BethineChurch: “He made Frank realize that they needed him. Lyndon said: ‘If you don’t help with this, there’s not going to be a civil rights bill.’ It was a tremendous challenge, and Frank never loved anything as much as a challenge.”

Knowing that Johnson needed “something more” to attract new liberal and Republican votes for the jury trial amendment while not making it totally unacceptable to the South, Church, “being a lawyer,” tried to “think about the amendment” as a lawyer. Liberal antipathy to the amendment centered on the impossibility of getting a just verdict from the South’s all-white juries. “All right,” Bethine recalls Frank saying, “how about this?”—What if the juries weren’t all-white? “If the juries couldn’t be segregated, we could get the jury trial amendment through.”

Church’s addendum said that with the exception of illiterates, mental incompetents and convicted criminals, “any citizen” twenty-one years old “is competent to serve as a juror.” With the new paragraph added, the civil rights bill would not only reinforce an existing civil right, the right to vote, but would also confer on southern Negroes “a new civil right”: the right to sit on juries.

Church wanted to introduce his addendum immediately, but Johnson told him to wait. To minimize scrutiny of this proposed change, Johnson wanted it introduced only at the last possible moment, so that, as George Reedy explains, “there would be no chance for opposition to be mobilized.” Lyndon Johnson, master of so many aspects of the legislative art, was about to demonstrate his mastery of one final aspect: the floor debate. If Frank Church’s addendum was introduced at the right moment, and if the debate on the addendum was properly orchestrated for maximum effect, it might change a few votes—and a few was all Lyndon Johnson needed.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 31, Johnson still had only about forty-three votes. Knowland had about fifty-one. That morning, the Republican Leader repeated his earlier flat refusals to compromise—to accept a jury trial amendment in any form whatsoever. With the amendment included, he said, the bill simply “would not be a workable piece of legislation.” And he sent to the desk three unanimous consent agreements to set a definite hour for a vote on the complete bill. Each would allow six hours for debate prior to the vote. It quickly became apparent, however, that to the South the details of such agreements were irrelevant no agreement was going to pass. The South was not going to be forced. Russell rose to speak, and senators waited to hear what the South was going to do. “I have no desire to unduly prolong the debate but I shall insist that it be carried on so long as the representative of a single sovereign state . . . desires to address himself to it,” he said. The escalation of debate into open filibuster was very near. it was almost time for the curtain to rise—for the drama that Lyndon Johnson was staging for the Church Addendum to begin. Johnson had assembled an all-star cast of orators—fiery old Wyoming Senator Joseph O’Mahoney, fiery young Church, fiery little Rhode Island Senator John Pastore— and even the minor roles had been filled with care: a slow-talking, fastthinking southerner with great presence, Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge, was playing “the presiding officer.” Johnson had given all of them their cues, and Church could hardly wait for his moment, but it was dinnertime, and many senators had left the floor to eat. Johnson told him to wait a little longer. He wanted a full house, and at about eight o’clock, when most senators had finished dinner, he asked for a quorum call. And when the floor was again full of senators—almost every desk occupied—the curtain went up.

O’Mahoney had the opening lines: “Mr. President, it is my purpose tonight . . . to explain to the Senate, and to those who may be listening in the galleries, the reasons why I believe, from the depth of my soul, that the trial-byjury amendment” should pass. Defeating it won’t help Negroes to vote, O’Mahoney said. “Denial of trial by jury will not hasten a wise and permanent solution of the grave social problem of racial discrimination that is before us. . . . It w ill only make matters worse than they are, for trial by jury for criminal offenses is itself a civil right guaranteed to every citizen.”

Standing up at his desk in the back row, Church shouted, “Mr. President, will the Senator yield?” and O’Mahoney acted surprised at the interruption, and pretended reluctance. “I yield only with the understanding that I shall not lose the right to the floor,” he said. Johnson, playing himself as Majority Leader, delivered his line in the charade. “Mr. President,” he said, “I ask unanimous consent that the Senator from Wyoming may yield for not to exceed two minutes, with the understanding that he shall not lose the floor.” Presiding Officer Talmadge intoned, “Without objection, so ordered,” and Church introduced his addendum, saying it “is designed to eliminate whatever basis there may be for the charge that the efficacy of trial by jury in the Federal courts is weakened by the fact that, in some areas, colored citizens, because of the operation of State laws, are prevented from serving as jurors.” Standing tall and straight among the freshmen in the back row, he said, “We believe the amendment constitutes a great step forward in the field of civil rights. We believe also that it can contribute significantly in forwarding the cause to which most of us are dedicated— the cause of enacting a civil rights bill in this session of the Congress.” Then, as if he was unsure of the answer, he asked if O’Mahoney “would be agreeable to modifying [his] amendment to include the addendum I have before me.” It turned out that O’Mahoney was indeed agreeable. “It was perfectly appropriate for the Senator from Idaho to offer this amendment, which I [am] so happy to accept,” O’Mahoney assured him with a straight face. Ardent Johnson supporter that he was, Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger could barely contain himself. In a reference to a hokey stage melodrama of the nineteenth century, he muttered: “What’s next week? East Lynne?”

Stilted though it may have been, the opening scene captured the critics. Daughter of a governor, niece of a senator, born to politics, BethineClarkChurch glanced over at the Press Gallery when O’Mahoney agreed to accept the addendum, and what she saw was rows of reporters jumping up “like a wave” and running up the stairs to the telephones in the Press Room.

Then the rest of Johnson’s scenario unfolded. The Rhode Island bantam with the nimble mind asked for recognition from the chair. No one—not even Johnson’s staff—knew “what John Pastore was going to do,” says Democratic lawyer Solis Horwitz, who had been invited to sit, on a folding chair, next to Johnson to watch the show. “[Lyndon] did, because he said, ‘Now you just watch the little Italian dancing master and see what happens here.’”

Johnson had cast Pastore in a demanding role: that of a skeptic and doubter who, by giving voice to his doubts, convinces himself that they are groundless and is converted into a true believer. The subject of his doubts, of course, was the jury trial amendment Johnson had arranged with Pastore to, in historian Robert Mann’s words, “feign skepticism” about the amendment, to raise questions that many senators were asking and then to think through the answers out loud—and finally, seeing the validity of the answers, to be convinced by them, to “almost imperceptibly dissolve his skepticism into outright support” for the amendment. The Rhode Islander began to ask questions of O’Mahoney—the questions that many senators, uncertain about the amendment, were asking themselves: Would the amendment, for example, permit a southern registrar who had been jailed by a judge for civil contempt and then freed when he promised to register Negroes then be able to violate his promise? Would he, in effect, be immune from punishment because his violation was criminal contempt, thereby making him eligible for trial before a sympathetic jury that would not convict him? When O’Mahoney replied that there was no danger of this, because the judge would have ordered the registrar to register Negroes, and any violation of this order would still be civil, not criminal, contempt, Pastore said, “I think the Senator from Wyoming is moving a little too quickly. I think I know what he means, but I do not believe the Record is abundantly clear”— and led O’Mahoney through the reasoning again step by step until the densest senator could grasp it. And with each question that he asked, Pastore reiterated that he was asking it only to try to resolve his own doubts, that he still had “an open mind. . . . I have not as yet definitely resolved the matter in my own mind.” As he assured himself on point after point—after saying, on point after point, “I have not been able to make up my mind”—his “misgivings” about the amendment faded, to be replaced by support.

“All of this had been preplanned,” lawyer Horwitz was to realize, “and [Pastore] did one of the most effective jobs that was ever done.” His colloquy with O’Mahoney riveted the attention of both sides of the aisle. By the time Pastore finished “resolving” his doubts, he had convinced others. The show Johnson had staged produced the result he wanted. “The impact of Pastore’s performance was profound,” Mann writes. “He played the role of an earnest, undecided senator. But he had actually led his colleagues through a crafty, subtle argument for the amendment.” All through Senate history, there had been speeches that made senators rethink their views. This was one of them. And the next morning— Thursday, August 1—brought to Lyndon Johnson’s office the telegram he had been waiting for: a statement signed by the presidents of the twelve railroad brotherhoods. It was much shorter than John L. Lewis’ and quite straightforward: “We favor the enactment of an amendment to the civilrights bill that would preserve or extend the right to trial by jury.” Now Johnson had the ammunition he needed. That morning, Welly Hopkins called to ask how things were going. They were going just fine, Johnson said. Hopkins recalls that Johnson mentioned “certain senators. . . . He said, ‘I’ve got them. I’m just going to pick my time to call them. That’s when I’m going to put it to a vote.’” And that day, August 1, Johnson sprang his trap.

William Knowland walked straight into it—blind till the last. That very morning, at about the same time that Johnson was telling Hopkins that everything was going fine, Knowland was telling reporters—and the White House and Vice President Nixon—that everything was going fine and reiterating his confidence that “at least thirty-nine or forty” Republican senators would join at least a dozen Democratic liberals in voting against the jury trial amendment. Asked by a reporter whether Church’s addendum would strip away any Republican votes, the Republican Leader said he thought not. That morning, copies of the brotherhoods’ telegram were delivered to the offices of individual senators, to be followed by visits from Cy Anderson and other union lobbyists. Pastore’s logic had had time to sink in. And that morning, Lyndon Johnson made his calls—and after several of them, erased the number that he had placed next to senators’ names in one column on his tally sheet and wrote a number in the other column. Richard Russell was also keeping his own very careful tally sheet, and early that afternoon he told Johnson, “I’m ready to vote. I’ve got fifty votes.”

Knowland, however, still believed his own vote count. At any time he might realize the truth, and if he did, he would naturally change tactics: stop pressing for an early vote, and instead try to delay one. Votes had been changing back and forth for days and White House pressure might well change some back again a delay would afford time for that pressure to do its work. So Johnson made it very difficult for Knowland to change tactics. In a private talk now, he said he assumed that Knowland still wanted to vote as soon as possible. Knowland said he did, and Johnson quickly made those feelings public. Interrupting an exchange about the bill, he said, “I have conferred with the Minority Leader. I know how anxious he is for an early vote. I . . . am equally anxious to vote [and] I express the hope that we may be able to call the roll before the evening is over.” Turning to Knowland, standing next to him, he said, “I would assume that meets with the pleasure of my friend from California.” His friend from California said, “Yes . . . I wish to say that I am encouraged by the remarks of my good friend, the Senator from Texas, that he feels we may be approaching a time when we can get a vote.”

But while Knowland couldn’t count, Nixon could, and coming to the Capitol, he did so—and promptly launched a frantic Republican lobbying campaign. One after another, GOP senators were summoned to the Vice President’s Room, for, in reporter Douglas Cater’s words, “the kind of subtle persuasion an administration in office can exert.” But at 5:40 p.m., Johnson asked for recognition from the chair to propose a unanimous consent agreement to set a time for the vote on the jury trial amendment. And the Majority Leader didn’t propose his own agreement, but rather the very same agreement that had been proposed three times on Wednesday by the Minority Leader. “Mr. President,” Lyndon Johnson said, “yesterday the distinguished Minority Leader offered a unanimous consent agreement. I wish to offer the same agreement today with two modifications.” The modifications would bring on the vote even faster than the distinguished Minority Leader had wanted Knowland had, for example, allowed six hours for debate on the amendment. “In view of the fact that we have spent a good deal of time today on the bill, I am reducing the . . . hours from six to four,” Johnson said. Knowland, aware now that the vote would be, at the least, very close, said he still preferred six, and Johnson suavely said that that was fine with him. Knowland could offer no other objection—he could hardly object to an agreement he himself had proposed over and over, telling the Senate each time how vital its passage was. As they realized the significance of Johnson’s proposal, and the reason why he had made it, liberal senators from both sides of the aisle gathered in little groups on the floor, trying to think what they could do about it. But they could do no more than Knowland had. If Knowland had proposed the agreement yesterday, they had supported it with equal vehemence they were hardly in a position to object to it now. Florida Senator Spessard Holland, in the chair, asked, “Is there objection to the unanimous consent request?” There was only silence. “The Chair hears none, and it is so ordered,” Holland said.

Johnson then addressed the chair again. The vote on the jury trial amendment would probably take place that very evening, he said. “It is the intention of the leadership to remain here until a vote is had.”

New York Senator Irving Ives asked: “When does the debate start? Does it start right now?”

“Right now,” Lyndon Johnson said. Checkmate.

As the hands on the clock neared midnight, and Nixon came in to take the presiding officer’s chair, a page placed a lectern on the Majority Leader’s desk, and Johnson himself rose to give the last speech. “Mr. President, sometimes in the course of debate we use loose language. But it is not speaking loosely to say that the Senate is approaching a truly historic vote. By adopting this amendment, we can strengthen and preserve two important rights. One is the right to a trial by jury. The other is the right of all Americans to serve on juries, regardless of race, creed or color.” And his last line was the perfect climax, the most fitting last line, the only last line, really, for a legislative drama.

“Mr. President,” Lyndon Johnson said, “I ask for the yeas and nays.”

For a time, to those in the galleries, the vote may have seemed to be going against the Leader. The first two senators called—Aiken and Allott—responded “Nay,” and at the end of twenty- five names, with the roll just finishing the Ds, the tally was 16 to 9 against the amendment. But Johnson, sitting at his desk with the smudged tally sheet in front of him, wasn’t worried. He knew what was coming—and, with the start of the Es, it came. “Eastland?” Aye. “Ellender?” Aye. “Ervin?” Aye. By the time the clerk reached the Ms, the ayes were ahead—and so many of the Ms were from the MountainStates and the Northwest. “Magnuson?” Aye. “Malone?” Aye. “Mansfield?” Aye. “Murray?” Aye. Shortly after midnight—at 12:19 a.m. on August 2—Nixon announced that the amendment was approved, by 51 votes to 42.

On August 29, the Senate passed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The vote was 60 for and 15 against. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the historic bill into law on September 9.


Digital Repository @ Maurer Law

Vance Hartke was born on May 31, 1919 in Stendal, Pike County, Indiana. He attended public schools in Stendal, and then he attended and graduated from Evansville College (now the University of Evansville) in 1940. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

With the conclusion of World War II, Hartke entered the Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington, graduating in 1948. He began his law practice in Evansville. He served as the deputy prosecuting attorney for Vanderburgh County from 1950 to 1951, and then he was elected mayor of Evansville, serving from 1956 to 1958. In 1958 he was elected to the United States Senate, replacing fellow Indiana University Law School alumnus William Jenner who chose to retire.

Hartke served in the United States Senate for 12 years, from 1959 to 1977. He had a liberal voting record, supporting Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also supported student loan programs, improved veterans benefits, Head Start, increased access to kidney dialysis, and safety enhancements to automobiles, including the installation of seat belts.

Hartke became an early outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, resulting in a fallout with President Lyndon Johnson after having initially established a strong working relationship with Johnson when he was the Senate Majority Leader. His opposition to the war was not popular in Indiana and he was narrowly reelected in 1970. In 1976, he lost his seat to Indianapolis mayor Richard Lugar.

After he left the Senate, Hartke chose to stay in the Washington D.C. area to practice law. He died on July 27, 2003 in Falls Church, Virginia. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Keywords

United States Senate, Civil Rights, Vietnam War, Indiana Politicians, Indiana Senators, Maurer Alumni


Lyndon Johnson Was a White Supremacist

For decades, President Lyndon Baines Johnson has been hailed as a civil rights hero because he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. To his credit, LBJ also helped several other Civil Rights era bills become law.

However, what if as he was signing these bills into law, LBJ was also spewing vile racist rhetoric against those in his inner circle? What if he also held minorities, in general, in contempt? What if, in his own words, he callously derided African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and several other minority groups throughout his life?

The unvarnished truth is that LBJ was unquestionably a white supremacist. As for his legislative record in terms of supporting civil rights legislation late in his political career, you can judge his reasons and motivations. The point of this piece is to simply expose the truth about LBJ’s racism.

As documented by LBJ biographer Robert Caro in Master of the Senate, LBJ used the n-word constantly in casual conservation and while conducting official government business, even in Senate staff meetings and cloakrooms. Before ascending to the presidency after the assassination of President Kennedy, LBJ—then a Democratic senator from Texas—referred to the 1957 Civil Rights Act as “the ni**** bill” on countless occasions.

During the 1940s, LBJ consistently voted against civil rights legislation. In 1945 and 1946, LBJ—then a U.S. Representative—voted against anti-lynching bills, anti-poll tax bills, and fair employment (anti-discrimination) bills. LBJ also opposed public school desegregation, as well as integration in general.

In other words, during his stint as a U.S. Congressman for a dozen years, LBJ opposed civil rights legislation and upheld the Jim Crow status quo.

Throughout the 1940s, LBJ lobbed insults at a variety of minority groups. In a 1942 diary entry written while he was crossing the Pacific during WWII, LBJ wrote, “Natives very much like Negroes. Work only enough to eat.” Later, he wrote about a violent incident involving black servicemen. He described the episode as, “Negro problem—no hard liquor as order Lieutenant … Negroes and constables knife threat.”

When it came to his interactions with Mexicans, LBJ told his ranch hand, “I don’t think Mexicans do much work unless there’s a white man with them, so from now on I want a white man with every group.”

LBJ also told journalist Tom Wicker in 1964, “I know these Latin Americans. I grew up with Mexicans. They’ll come right into your backyard and take it over if you let them. And the next day they’ll be right up on your porch, barefoot and weighing one hundred and thirty pounds and they’ll take that, too. But if you say to ’em right at the start, ‘Hold on, just wait a minute,’ they’ll know they’re dealing with somebody who’ll stand up. And after that you can get along fine.”

And what did LBJ think about Asians? Well, in a 1947 speech, he said the United States must not surrender to “the barbaric hordes of godless men in Eurasia.” Around this time, he also routinely referred to Asians as “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves,” “sneaky yellow dwarves,” and “godless yellow dwarves.”

As if his public insults and race baiting were not enough to expose LBJ’s real beliefs, his interactions with minorities in his inner circle leaves little doubt that the man was an ardent white supremacist.

For instance, LBJ’s relationship with his black chauffeur provides insight. His chauffeur, a man by the name of Robert Parker, recalled that LBJ once asked him if he would prefer his real name as opposed to “boy,” “ni*****,” or “chief.” Parker responded that he would prefer to be called by his given name. LBJ responded, “As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, ni****, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.”

When LBJ appointed the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, he remarked, “when I appoint a ni**** to the bench, I want everybody to know he’s a ni****.”

LBJ also reauthorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr., who he called a “hypocritical preacher.”

Aside from his nasty comments about minorities and his opposition to early civil rights legislation, LBJ also took fun in terrorizing black gas station attendants. On many occasions, LBJ would put a snake in his trunk, stop at a gas station, and demand the black gas station attendant open his trunk. Of course, the unaware attendant was terrified to find a live snake in the trunk. Meanwhile, LBJ thought it was all a great joke. On one occasion, this “prank” backfired when a gas station attendant threatened LBJ with a tire iron.

For all his flaws, LBJ was a shrewd politician. He worked hard to craft his image as a pioneer of racial equality, but only when he felt it would be politically beneficial. But this narrative is far from accurate, as the quotes above illustrate clearly.

Although there is much more I could say about LBJ, I’ll leave you with one last quote, perhaps LBJ’s most despicable and telling comment: After passing a spate of civil rights bills, LBJ told two governors, “I’ll have those ni***** voting Democratic for the next 200 years” while on Air Force One.


The Shrinking of Lyndon Johnson

A few minutes after he signed the Civil Rights Acton July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Hubert Humphrey, who had led the fight for its passage in the Senate, with a copy of his signing speech. On it, the president wrote, “without whom it couldn’t have happened.”

Johnson wasn’t one to share credit easily, but he understood a simple fact about Washington: Humphrey—and the dozens of other people who made the bill happen—would be relegated to a footnote, and history would give credit to the man who signed it. And he was right. Three days later, The New York Times credited Johnson as “the man who pushed [the bill] through Congress.”

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the impression that Johnson single-handedly drove his forces in the Senate, manipulating his opponents with flawless ease, has only grown with time. In the latest volume of his acclaimed Johnson biography , 2012’s The Passage of Power, Robert Caro largely parrots Johnson’s own account of the period: “It was a struggle,” he writes, “whose strategy and day-by-day tactics were laid out and directed by him.” And the play All the Way, which opened last fall with “Breaking Bad”’s Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, likewise portrays the president as the omniscient political manipulator.

But this is mostly myth. Johnson had many legislative achievements during his pres­idency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection. The real work was performed by a long list of senators and representatives, their staffers, and a dream team of Department of Justice men who included Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Burke Marshall—not to mention civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.

Correcting the record isn’t just a matter of historical rebalancing. Fifty years later, pundits, enemies, and even fellow Democrats criticize Barack Obama for not being more of an arm-twisting, hard-nosed partisan like Johnson. (According to a recent New Yorker profile of Obama, Caro even felt it necessary to explain to the president at a White House dinner that his book “wasn’t an unspoken attack on you.”) But on what many consider his most famous piece of legislation, Johnson was at best a supporting player. The question is, does that indict Johnson, or does it point to something more fundamental about how we judge our political leaders—and how American politics actually works?

One reason Johnson gets credit for the bill’s success is his legendary ability to wheedle and threaten and beg to get what he wanted, the so-called Johnson treatment. But in the case of the Civil Rights bill, Johnson’s strong-arm tactics misfired. When he took office in November 1963, the bill was stuck in the House Rules Committee, which approves legislation before it goes to the floor and which was run by the arch-segregationist Howard Smith of Virginia. Johnson demanded that the Democrats issue a discharge petition, in which a majority of House members can force the committee to release a bill. But the petition was a lost cause, and, in the end, quiet bipartisan negotiations, not Oval Office big-footing, got the bill out of Smith’s clutches.

The president was equally out of touch with the Senate. During the run-up to the filibuster, he demanded that Mike Mansfield, Johnson’s successor as majority leader, “get out the cots”—that is, force the Senate into 24-hour sessions as a way of wearing down the senescent Southern Democrats. But Mansfield, a quiet, pipe-smoking ex-Marine, respectful of Senate tradition and deferential to each senator’s independence, did all he could to keep the president at a remove from his chamber. When a visiting group of rabbis urged Mansfield to follow the president’s advice, the majority leader replied bluntly: “When Johnson was majority leader, he ran things the way he wanted them. Now I am majority leader and will run things the way I want them.” The cots did not come out.

Believers in Johnson as the bill’s primary mover often point to marching orders he handed down to Humphrey during the filibuster. After Humphrey went on “Meet the Press” on March 8, 1964, to praise Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader who held the key to dozens of fence-sitting votes, Johnson gave him a congratulatory call. “Boy, that was right,” he said, and he encouraged the senator to do more of the same. “You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”

It’s a great quote. But it’s cheerleading, not strategizing. And if getting close to Dirksen was a new idea for Johnson, he was the last of the bill’s supporters to discover it: John F. Kennedy and his staff began courting Dirksen before they even introduced the bill in June 1963.

Even Humphrey, a Johnson partisan, conceded in a memo written shortly after the filibuster ended that the president did not play much of a role on the bill: “We did give him regular reports on the progress of civil rights over at the Tuesday morning breakfasts. But the president was not put on the spot. He was not enlisted in the battle particularly. I understand he did contact some of the senators, but not at our insistence.”

The impact of that senatorial outreach was minimal. Johnson won over just one vote for cloture: Carl Hayden of Arizona. And Hayden, who was pro-civil-rights but supported filibustering on principle, merely agreed to absent himself during the cloture vote. Johnson failed to swing a single Southern Democrat, despite the fact that several, including J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee, were considered possible converts.

Perceptive journalists picked up on this. “As majority leader, the president was all muscle and scant conversation. In the present impasse, the criticism is freely heard that the reverse is true,” wrote the columnist Doris Fleeson in The Washington Star on April 22, 1964.

Not that Johnson didn’t try. On April 10, he called West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who caucused with the Southern Democrats against civil rights. “You’re with me! You’ve got to be with me,” he implored.

But Byrd was unmoved: “No, my convictions are against the bill.” Johnson tried a different tack. It was, after all, an election year. “It’s going to be rougher if I don’t pass that bill.”

“Yes it will. Are y’all going to beat it?” the president asked, referring to the Southern Democrats.

“I hope to hell we beat it,” Byrd said.

Soon after, Johnson hung up in dismay.

Johnson did make two considerable contributions to the bill’s success. In The Passage of Power, Caro documents at length how the president labored successfully to get Senator Harry Byrd, the Finance Committee chairman, to release the administration’s $11.5 billion tax-cut bill in time to clear the Senate before the filibuster. As Caro argues (and Johnson believed), had Byrd kept the tax cut back, the Southerners could possibly have used it as a hostage to force a compromise on the Civil Rights bill.

But Johnson’s most important contribution was symbolic. His speeches, from the first time he addressed a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, are filled with demands that Congress pass a strong Civil Rights bill. It took courage, in an election year, to put the full weight of the presidency behind such a controversial measure. Johnson was also hedging his bets, though. When asked at a press conference five months later whether the bill was moving fast enough, he said, “That is a matter for the Senate to determine.” Even as he supported the bill, Johnson didn’t want to catch the blame if Humphrey and his team failed.

The fact is, no single person made the bill happen. And while this lesson is particularly true for the Civil Rights Act, it is also true for the history of American lawmaking in general. When we talk about landmark actions by the federal government, we tend to let the respective president take the credit (or blame). We recall that it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, even though dozens of congressmen wrote and supported the laws that pushed him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The Affordable Care Act is labeled “Obamacare” by its detractors and supporters, even though Obama consciously let Congress take the lead on crafting the bill.

But reducing a law’s history to the actions of a single person obscures the complexities and compromises that define it and its lessons for future lawmakers. This year we will hear a lot about the Civil Rights Act as one of Johnson’s signature accomplishments. If we leave it at that, we will miss much of what the bill’s story has to tell us—about how to achieve bipartisan cooperation, about the role of social activism in policy-making, and about the limits of the executive branch when it comes to crafting landmark legislation.

On the evening of June 19, 1964, a few hours after the Senate voted to pass the Civil Rights Act, Humphrey strode out onto the eastern steps of the Capitol, where he found several hundred civil rights well-wishers. “Freedom!” they shouted. “You gave us justice, senator.” Humphrey beamed. President Johnson was nowhere in sight.

Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act.


Edited by Kent B. Germany, Nicole Hemmer, and Ken Hughes, with Kieran K. Matthews and Marc J. Selverstone

In this lengthy conversation with Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen [R–Illinois], President Johnson reviewed his efforts to achieve a cease-fire in Vietnam as a means of moving the warring parties toward peace talks. In the course of that review, which included those developments that led Johnson to impose a total bombing halt on North Vietnam, the President informed Dirksen that the Republican presidential campaign of Richard M. “Dick” Nixon had been courting South Vietnamese officials in an effort to discourage Saigon from moving toward the conference table. The announcement of such talks, the GOP feared, would give Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey Jr. a vital bounce in the final week of the election campaign. Johnson encouraged Dirksen to see that the Nixon organization cease and desist.

Senator [Everett M.] Dirksen [R–Illinois] . [note 1] Everett M. Dirksen was a U.S. senator [R–Illinois] from January 1951 until his death in September 1969, and Senate Minority Leader from January 1959 to September 1969.

All right. Put Senator Dirksen on. I’m ready.

I’m in a meeting. Tell him I’m in a meeting [operator acknowledges] , but I want to talk. I missed him when I was [in the] [National] Security Council.

Yeah. Are you in a meeting?

Yes, but go ahead. I can hear.

Well, it’s the usual thing. What is the situation?

Everett, we have said to . . . First of all, now, I cannot tell you this if it’s going to be quoted, ‘cause I can’t tell the candidates and I can’t tell anybody else. I haven’t talked to a human. I want to comply with it and trust, but I sure don’t want it told to a human.

I give you my solemn word.

All right. The situation is this: Since September of last year, we have told Hanoi that we would stop the bombing. We’re anxious to stop it when they would engage in—these are the key words—prompt, productive discussions that they would not take advantage of. [note 2] On 29 September 1967, President Johnson had described in broad terms his conditions for stopping U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. “As we have told Hanoi time and time and time again, the heart of the matter is really this: The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of the bombing cessation or limitation.” See “Address on Vietnam Before the National Legislative Conference, San Antonio, Texas,” 29 September 1967, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970).

That is September. March 31st, I came to the conclusion that no living man could run for office and be a candidate and have them all shooting at him, and keep this war out of politics, and get peace, so I concluded [Dirksen acknowledges] that I should not run, because I’d just prolong the war by doing it. So I said then, “We’re stopping the bombing in 90 percent [of North Vietnam] . We will stop it in the rest if there can be any indication that it will not cost us additional lives.” [note 3] See “The President’s Address to the Nation Announcing Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam and Reporting His Decision Not to Seek Reelection,” 31 March 1968, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970). [Snorts and coughs.]

We got just a lot of procrastination up until October. During October, they started asking questions: What did I mean by prompt? And what did I mean by productive? Now, the facts of life are that they tried two offensives in May and August, and they got very severe setbacks. The facts are that they’ve had 35 [000] , 40,000 leave the country to refit.

The facts are that they’re not doing at all well, but [snorts] they can continue to supply what they need for a very long time. But in October, we started getting these nibbles: What did the President mean? What did he—he said that he had to have prompt and productive and not take advantage. We said that we would consider productive—the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] had to be present. They said they were just generals, and stooges, and satellites, and Johnson put them in office, and that they would never sit down with those traitors. We said, “You’ve got to sit down with them before we can ever work out the future. We can’t settle the future of South Vietnam without them being present. We’re not going to pull a [Adolf] Hitler- [A. Neville] Chamberlain deal.” [note 4] Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and the leader of the Nazi Party. A. Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940.

They said, well, they’d never do it. So on October the 7th or 11th, I’ve forgotten, they said, “Well, now, what else? Is that all the President wants? If we would sit down with the GVN, what would he do?" Now, they made no commitment. They didn’t indicate they’d accept it they just asked the question. But, you know, in trading, when a fellow said, “How much would you take for that horse?,” why, you kind of think that means something.

So we followed it up and said, “No, we don’t want to limit ourselves. We—the GVN’s got to be present, and we’ve got to have productive discussions, and we think they could be productive if they were present. But we can’t have a Panmunjom and say, ‘Well, we’ll do that, but we’ll meet a year from now.’” [note 5] The President refers to the Korean village where the armistice between North and South Korea was signed in 1953 following two years of talks.

It’s got to be a prompt meeting—a week, two weeks, three weeks, something like that. So they said, “Well, if we could work everything out, we could meet the next day.” [Snorts.] So we came back to them and said that “if you will let the GVN come in and will meet the next day, we would like to take that up with our government.” [Coughs.] They said, “Well, what else do you want? Is that all? You’ll write off that?" And [W. Averell] Harriman said, “No. [note 6] W. Averell Harriman was U.S. assistant secretary of state for far eastern and Pacific affairs from 1961 to 1963 U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs from 1963 to 1965 and ambassador-at-large and chief U.S. delegate to the Paris Peace Talks under President Lyndon B. Johnson. These are facts of life, and we know you’re not going to sell out and engage in reciprocity. And that you’re not going to accept conditions your pride and your Asiatic face will not let you do that. You’ve got to save face we understand that. But we could not sit at a conference table if you were shelling the cities.” In other words, if I were talking to Dirksen in my living room, and then my son was raping his wife, he’d have to get up and leave, and quit trading, and run and protect her. “So we just could not sit there if you were shelling the cities, nor could we sit there and have a productive discussion if you were abusing the DMZ.”

So they said, “Well, that’s reciprocity, and we’re not going to pay any attention to it.” [Snorts.] And they—about that time, [Richard M. “Dick”] Nixon made some little statement about we handled the war wrong, and then Hubert [H. Humphrey Jr.] said that he was going to stop the bombing without any comma or semicolon, just period. [note 7] Richard M. “Dick” Nixon was a U.S. representative [R–California] from January 1947 to December 1950 a U.S. senator [R–California] from January 1951 to January 1953 vice president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961 Republican nominee for president in 1960 Republican candidate for governor of California in 1962 and president of the United States from January 1969 until his resignation on 9 August 1974. Hubert H. Humphrey Jr. was the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota, from July 1945 to November 1948 a U.S. senator [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1949 to December 1964 and January 1971 to January 1978 Senate Majority Whip from January 1961 to December 1964 vice president of the United States from January 1965 to January 1969 and the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1968. Speaking before United Press International editors, Republican presidential nominee Nixon said that as president, he might accept settlement terms that Johnson could not. “We might be able to agree to much more then than we can do now,” Nixon said. E. M. 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. Vice President Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, had called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in a nationally televised campaign speech on 30 September 1968 and repeated the call two weeks later at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, adding, “I said period, not comma or semicolon.” John W. Finney, “Humphrey Taunts Nixon as ‘Chicken,’” New York Times, 16 October 1968. And then [McGeorge] Mac Bundy made a fool speech, where he said we ought to stop it for nothing and pull our troops out. [note 8] McGeorge “Mac” Bundy was dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University from 1953 to 1961, and special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs from 1961 to 1966. Bundy, who was national security adviser when Johnson first deployed U.S. combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, had made a speech at DePauw University on 12 October 1968, calling for the steady and systematic withdrawal of U.S. forces even in the absence of a truce. The speech broke Bundy’s long silence on the war, dating back to his resignation from the White House. Homer Bigart, “Bundy Proposes Troop Reduction and Bombing Halt Former White House Aide Alters Stand on Vietnam Policy He Helped Make Defends ‘65 Decisions But He Says ‘Burden’ Must Be Lifted ‘From Our Lives’ Beginning Next Year,” New York Times, 13 October 1968.

So they picked up and went to Hanoi, and they stayed in Hanoi two weeks, from October the 15th through right about now—October 11th, I guess. They come back now, and all this time we have been working with everybody we knew. The governments cannot be named, because it’s life and death to them they may be invaded. But the Eastern Europeans have been helpful, the Indians have been helpful, the Soviets have been helpful, the French have been helpful. We’ve had them all in, and we have talked to some of them nearly every day. And we’ve told them the clock was ticking and [snorts] that they could settle this in 30 days they did in 1954 in 30 days. But that our constitutional processes did not change. We would have a new president, but [Michael J. “Mike”] Mansfield [D–Montana] and Dirksen would still be leaders, and [Richard B. “Dick”] Russell [Jr.] [D–Georgia] would still be chairman of the committee, and [J. William] Fulbright [D–Arkansas] would likely be chairman, and those men would carry on. [note 9] Michael J. “Mike” Mansfield was a U.S. senator [D–Montana] from January 1953 to January 1977, and Senate Majority Leader from January 1961 to January 1977. Richard B. “Dick” Russell Jr. was a U.S. senator [D–Georgia] from January 1933 to January 1971 chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee from January 1951 to January 1953 and January 1955 to January 1969 and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee from January 1969 to January 1971. J. William “Bill” Fulbright was a U.S. senator [D–Arkansas] from January 1945 to December 1974, and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 1959 to December 1974. And all of our Joint Chiefs would be the same. So they needn’t to play—even if Humphrey was elected, they’re not going to get any better deal. Even if Nixon, they’re not going to get any better deal. Now, this is for your information only.

We get to the point where it looks like that we might get the GVN in the meeting, and they understand thoroughly that they will bust up the meeting. We don’t even come back here. [Creighton W.] Abrams is authorized with the rules of engagement to retaliate himself if they shoot across the DMZ— [note 10] Gen. Creighton W. Abrams was assistant deputy chief of staff and director of operations at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 1962 to 1963 deputy commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) from May 1967 to June 1968 and commander of MACV from June 1968 to June 1972.

—by launching bombers immediately. And we’ve told them all that. Told the Russians, told everybody else. [Snorts and coughs.] Now, if that gets in the paper, the deal’s off. So that’s why you cannot say this to anybody that’s going to get it in the paper [Dirksen acknowledges] , because these folks are the most sensitive people in the world. But we have said this, and about that time, some of Mr. Nixon’s people come in and tell both sides. Now, I have information about who you had a glass of beer with last night. You don’t know it, but I do. And you have ways and means—

You have ways and means. You get my point though, don’t you?

You have ways and means of knowing what’s going on in the country. What—we know what [Nguyen Van] Thiệu says when he talks out in Vietnam, and we know what happens here. [note 11] Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was president of South Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1975. The Central Intelligence Agency had bugged the office of President Thiệu, and the National Security Agency had intercepted cables to Saigon from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C. And some of Mr. Nixon’s people are getting a little bit unbalanced and frightened and like Hubert did when he said, “no comma, no period,” or like [McGeorge] Bundy did. About the time you called me last week, they started going in to the South Vietnamese embassy and also sending some word to Hanoi, which has prolonged this thing a good deal.

The net of it, and it’s despicable, and if it were made public I think it would rock the nation, but the net of it was that if they just hold out a little bit longer, that he’s a lot more sympathetic, and he can kind of—they can do better business with him than they can with their present president. And in Hanoi, they’ve been saying that “well, if you won’t settle this thing, I’m not bound by all these things, so I’m not—I haven’t had this record, and I can make a little better deal with you there.”

Now, I rather doubt Nixon has done any of this, but there’s no question but what folks for him are doing it. And very frankly, we’re reading some of the things that are happening. [Snorts.] So as a consequence, while Thiệu and all of our allies are ready to go on a bombing cease-fire—cessation, it just may be temporary. We may be back on it in the next day if they don’t follow these two things—if they violate the DMZ or if they shell the cities. We could stop the killing out there. We could get everything we’ve asked for, the GVN there. But they’ve got this question, this new formula put in there—namely, wait on Nixon. And they’re killing 4 [00] or 500 every day waiting on Nixon. Now, these folks, I doubt, are authorized to speak for Nixon, but they’re going in there and they range all the way from very attractive women to old-line China lobbyists. [note 12] As the President will make clear later in this conversation, he is referring to Anna C. Chennault, the top woman fundraiser for the Republicans that year. Chennault was part of the China Lobby, a name used for Chinese Nationalists and American politicians and activists who blamed the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist revolution on the Truman administration. And some people pretty close to him in the business world. [Snorts.]

I was shocked when I looked at the reports, see? And I’ve got them and . . . so forth. Now, Thiệu has—that’s had a little effect on Thiệu. He has signed on to this back as early as October, that this is what we ought to do, as have all the allied governments. As have the French, and as have the Russians, and the thing that busted it up is that Hanoi hadn’t, and all of our people.

Now, I told Dick Nixon, and George [C.] Wallace [Jr.] , and Hubert Humphrey [snorts] that we had to have prompt and productive discussions. [note 13] George C. Wallace Jr. was governor of Alabama from January 1963 to January 1967, January 1971 to January 1979, and January 1983 to January 1987 and a third-party candidate in the 1968 U.S. presidential election. In order to be productive, the GVN had to be present. In order to be prompt, it ought to be in a matter of weeks, not two or three years. And that they wouldn’t take advantage of—that meant that they just wouldn’t be blowing up our house while we were trying to eat dinner. They wouldn’t be hitting the DMZ and the cities. Now, if they do hit the GVN and the cities, we would have to just come back to bombing the next day.

Now, then, the facts are that, as of now, the monsoon has started up there and bombing ain’t worth a damn and not going to be for 90 days in the North. So without telling them, we might quit anyway if we had nothing in return, because we need to do it in Laos where it’s drying up and where they can really increase their traffic. And we need to do it in South Vietnam where they’re trying to mount an offensive on Saigon. [note 14] The President refers to bombing the Hồ Chí Minh Trail through Laos, which Hanoi used to infiltrate soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam, and also to bombing Communist forces massed in South Vietnam. So I called in all the Joint Chiefs and all of them recommended that we stop, and that we take this GVN presence. [Blows nose.] I called in General [William W.] Momyer, who’s been in charge of air force, because I knew I’d have this [Curtis E.] LeMay on my hands, and Momyer’s been in charge of it in Vietnam. [note 15] Lt. Gen. William W. Momyer was director of operational requirements at U.S. Air Force Headquarters from October 1961 to February 1964 assistant deputy chief of staff for U.S. Air Force programs and requirements from February to August 1964 commander of Air Training Command from August 1964 to July 1966 and deputy commander for air operations, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and commander of the Seventh Air Force from July 1966 to August 1968. Curtis E. LeMay was a general in the Air Force Air Force chief of staff from June 1961 to January 1965 and a candidate for vice president as the running mate of independent candidate George C. Wallace Jr. in 1968. [Snorts.] He operates from Thailand. He’s down at Langley. And he explained to me that it wouldn’t do any good where I’m bombing now, and if I could get anything out of it, I ought to do it and move it over to the other places.

Now, we can’t say we’re going to move it over, ‘cause it’ll look like that we’re not giving them anything and we’re not sincere. That we’re given up bombing the North, but we’re going to spread more bombs on the South. [Snorts.] But he told me that that was it. Every civilian and every military man we have talked to, and [Andrew J.] Andy Goodpaster, particularly, is very strong. [note 16] Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster was White House staff secretary from October 1954 to January 1961 NATO supreme allied commander in Europe from July 1969 to December 1974 and commander in chief of the U.S. European Command from May 1969 to December 1974. But I decided that I had to talk to Abrams before I reached any conclusion. [Coughs.] He had sent me a cable and said he would do it without the cities and without the DMZ if they’d just let the GVN be present, because, in effect, he’s going to do it anyway.

And he said, “Psychologically, the GVN being present will really wreck the Vietcong, because it’ll mean that their supporters, the Soviet and the Hanoi, have really recognized them or they wouldn’t let them come in the meeting.” Well, that’s what our folks think. I don’t know. We’re going to let the NLF [National Liberation Front] come in the meeting, so we’re not recognizing them, but they think psychologically this will really do them up in the South and [William C.] Westmoreland, and Abrams, and Momyer think they’ve had them whipped since September. [note 17] Gen. William C. Westmoreland, often referred to as “Westy,” was commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) from 1964 to 1968, and chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1972.

They think they’re whipped. So Abrams came in at 2:30 yesterday morning, or day before yesterday morning, and he drove 24 hours straight time, and he stayed here till four o’clock, and he was just as strong as horseradish, and said that this ought to be done. We took this, and I went back to Paris and asked Paris how many times they told them that they had to respect the cities and respect the DMZ. And they counted up, and they came back: They had told them 12 times. Now, they’ve never agreed to it, because they will not agree to reciprocity. [Dirksen acknowledges.] But they know that if they don’t do it, that Abrams—they’d trigger Abrams’s reaction. So it’s just on-again, off-again—just a matter of hours, the bombing will be resumed.

So then we went back to the Soviet and said we don’t want to deceive anybody. [Snorts.] This is close to the election. It’s a very delicate period. I have told Nixon, and Wallace, and Humphrey all the same thing that I’m telling you now. Nixon said, “Do you have to have all three of them?” And I said, “No, I really don’t have to have any if I thought that—I have said if they do nearly any little thing, I would stop the bombing, but I’d like to have all three. And I’m going to try to get all three.” Well, in effect, that’s what we’re likely to get.

So I went back to the Russians and said, “Now, we don’t want to be deceitful, and if we should stop the bombing, the meeting’s got to be prompt, the DMZ’s got to be respected, and the shelling the cities has got to stop. And we know you can’t guarantee it, but we want you to be damn sure that you know it, because the moment we stop—if you start any of this, you’re going to get hit with interest, and we’re going to double the force.” And Abrams is—doesn’t even come to Washington. He can do it automatically. [Snorts.]

“Now, we—I, Lyndon Johnson—have grave doubts that they will stop shelling the cities or the DMZ, because if they do, they just admit they’ve lost South Vietnam.” So that went to Mr. [Alexei] Kosygin, and he came back and he said, [coughs] “The doubts the President has are unjustified.” [note 18] Alexei Kosygin was chair of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union from October 1964 to October 1980. That he thinks they want peace. So then we went to the Indians, and the Indians came back about the same thing.

Now, that’s where we are. We are now talking to our folks here, and talking about the rules of engagement, and what Abrams would do if we stop the bombing, and if they should hit Saigon. And we’re trying to conclude that. And we’re going to try to have [Cyrus R. “Cy”] Vance go back and talk to them again, and be sure that they don’t misunderstand any of the language, be sure they’re willing to let the GVN come in the room. [note 19] Cyrus R. “Cy” Vance was secretary of the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1963 U.S. deputy secretary of defense from 1964 to 1967 special representative of the president to Cyprus in 1967 and to Korea in 1968 and U.S. negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Of course, a Communist agreement ain’t worth a dime. They might walk out. But you’re going to have to sometime test it, and [Clark M.] Clifford says and [Earle G.] Bus Wheeler said you’ve got to test their faith. [note 20] Clark M. Clifford was a Washington lawyer an adviser to presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1961 to 1968 chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from April 1963 to February 1968 and U.S. secretary of defense from March 1968 to January 1969. Gen. Earle G. “Bus” Wheeler was chief of staff of the U.S. Army from October 1962 to July 1964, and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1964 to July 1970. They may not mean it. But that’s about where it is.

Now, no decision has been reached, no order has been issued. It takes about 12 hours from the time we make a decision until we issue the order. The meeting—no meeting could take place before the election. The meeting would have to take place after the election, but it’s my feeling that I ought to, the first minute I can, stop the killing if I can. I’m not—can’t justify saying that I quit the race for the presidency to get peace and put peace before politics, and then let some son of a bitch like [Maxwell L. “Max”] Rafferty [Jr.] out here in Los Angeles say, “Well, Johnson’s playing politics.” [note 21] Maxwell L. “Max” Rafferty Jr. was the California state superintendent of public instruction from 1963 and 1971 California’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1968 and dean of education at Troy University from 1971 to 1981. Rafferty had said U.S. negotiators in Paris “aren’t negotiating they’re just horsing around.” Richard Bergholz, “Peace Envoys Horsing Around, Rafferty Says,” Los Angeles Times, 25 October 1968. Or I thought Dick’s statement was ugly the other day, that he had been told that I was a thief, and a son of a bitch, and so forth, but he knew my mother, and she really wasn’t a bitch. [note 22] On 25 October 1968, Nixon made the following statement to reporters: “I am told that officials in the administration have been driving very hard for an agreement on a bombing halt, accompanied possibly by a cease-fire, in the immediate future. I have since learned these reports are true. I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical, last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Mr. Humphrey. This I do not believe.” Robert B. Semple Jr., “Nixon Denounces Welfare Inequity, Calls for National Standards—Repudiates Criticism of Johnson Peace Efforts,” New York Times, 26 October 1968. I mean, you set up a statement like that and then deny it, it’s not very good [Dirksen acknowledges] , because he knows better, and that hurt my feelings. You damn Republicans get mean when you get in politics, and I think it’s cost him a lot of votes. I think he’s losing the last few days because of that statement. I’ve played it clean. I’ve talked to [Dwight D.] Eisenhower about it. [note 23] Dwight D. Eisenhower was a five-star general of the U.S. Army governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany from May 1945 to November 1945 chief of staff of the U.S. Army from November 1945 to February 1948 Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from April 1951 to May 1952 president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953 and president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961. I made Wheeler brief him. I’ve told Nixon every bit as much, if not more, than Humphrey knows. I’ve given Humphrey not one thing. And up to now, Nixon and the Republicans have supported me just as well as the Democrats and a hell of a lot better than [Eugene J. “Gene”] McCarthy [DFL–Minnesota] , and [J. William “Bill”] Fulbright [D–Arkansas] , and the rest of them. [note 24] Eugene J. “Gene” McCarthy was a U.S. representative [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1949 to January 1959, and a U.S. senator [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1959 to January 1971. J. William “Bill” Fulbright was a U.S. senator [D–Arkansas] from January 1945 to December 1974, and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 1959 to December 1974.

But he got into politics then when this goddamn [Melvin R.] Mel Laird [R–Wisconsin] , he told them the other day that [Joseph A.] Joe Califano [Jr.] and them were shoving me. [note 25] Melvin R. “Mel” Laird was a U.S. representative [R–Wisconsin] from January 1953 to January 1969 chair of the House Republican Conference from January 1965 to January 1969 U.S. secretary of defense from January 1969 to January 1973 and White House domestic affairs adviser from May 1973 to January 1974. Joseph A. “Joe” Califano Jr. was special assistant to the president from July 1965 to January 1969. “Behind the scenes, according to UPI, Nixon aides said the principal pressure for a dramatic peace development in the immediate future came from Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford Cyrus Vance, one of the two chief U.S. negotiators in Paris Joseph Califano, special assistant to the President, and George W. Ball, who resigned as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to become a foreign policy adviser to the Humphrey campaign.” Peter H. Silberman, “Nixon Reports Cease-Fire Hint,” Washington Post, 26 October 1968. Well, now, Joe Califano can’t spell Vietnam. He’s never been in one meeting with me. But that’s what he put out. Now, the men that I rely on are Bus Wheeler, General Westmoreland, Admiral [Thomas H.] Moorer, General [John P.] McConnell, the chief of staff, the general that’s head of the Marine corps, General Momyer, who’s down at Langley and been in charge of air, General Abrams, Ambassador [Ellsworth F.] Bunker, and Dean Rusk. [note 26] Adm. Thomas H. Moorer was chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1970 to June 1974. General John P. McConnell was chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to Argentina from March 1951 to March 1952 U.S. ambassador to Italy from May 1952 to April 1953 U.S. ambassador to India from November 1956 to March 1961 U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States from 1964 to 1965 U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973 and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and 1967. Dean Rusk was U.S. secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. I don’t pay much attention to any—even the subordinates over in any other place.

Now, I’ve been at this five years and if I’d have wanted to sell my country out, I’d have sold it out five months ago and gone on and run for president and got this war behind us and been overwhelmingly elected. But I’m a conscientious, earnest fellow trying to do a job, and I’m going to do it and if I can get peace at four o’clock this afternoon, I’m damn sure going to get it, come hell or high water, and woe be unto the guy that says you ought to keep on killing. But I really think it’s a little dirty pool for Dick’s people to be messing with the South Vietnamese ambassador and carrying messages around to both of them. And I don’t think the people would approve of it if it were known.

So that’s why I’m afraid to talk. Now, when I make a decision, and we’re meeting again this afternoon, and we met all morning this morning, and we’re out there, and it’s 5:30 in Saigon now, and we’re waiting probably [until] 6:30 [snorts] , 6:00 to see what answers they’ll give. We had to wait until Abrams got back home. He left, and he had to fly 24 hours, so he got in there at three o’clock, straight through. [Coughs.] When we do, the first thing I’m going to do is call you. If it’s five minutes from now, or five hours, or five days, and I never know. I’ve thought a hundred times in the last month it’d be in five hours. But nobody knows when you’re dealing with eight countries, with all the folks in Paris, with all the folks in Saigon and here. But I’m going to call you and Mike Mansfield on the phone. I’m going to tell you exactly what I’ve told you now. I can’t add a damn thing to it.

That if we stop the bombing, they’re going to agree the GVN will come to the conference table promptly and productively, and we’ll stay stopped if they don’t hit the cities, and if they don’t go across the DMZ. If they do, we’ll be right back at it, and Abrams got his orders when he was here the other day.

Now, we’ll just test their faith. I don’t see that it’ll make any difference in the political campaign, ‘cause first of all, the conference won’t happen till it’s over with. [Dirksen acknowledges.] I think I’d be glad to say that all the candidates have cooperated with me, and we ought to have one voice in foreign affairs. And while they’ve criticized my conduct of the war, they have never told the enemy that he’d get a better deal. But this last few days, Dick is just getting a little bit shaky, and he’s pissing on the fire a little.

Now, you ought to guide him just a little bit, because they’re not running against me I’m not going to be here. You’re going to be my senator, and you’re going to represent me, and do whatever I want done. I’m going to be down at [ unclear ] . [note 27] President Johnson may have said “Pedernales.” But he oughtn’t to go back to that old kill tactics, see.


Edited by Kent B. Germany, Nicole Hemmer, and Ken Hughes, with Kieran K. Matthews and Marc J. Selverstone

In this lengthy conversation with Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen [R–Illinois], President Johnson reviewed his efforts to achieve a cease-fire in Vietnam as a means of moving the warring parties toward peace talks. In the course of that review, which included those developments that led Johnson to impose a total bombing halt on North Vietnam, the President informed Dirksen that the Republican presidential campaign of Richard M. “Dick” Nixon had been courting South Vietnamese officials in an effort to discourage Saigon from moving toward the conference table. The announcement of such talks, the GOP feared, would give Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey Jr. a vital bounce in the final week of the election campaign. Johnson encouraged Dirksen to see that the Nixon organization cease and desist.

Senator [Everett M.] Dirksen [R–Illinois] . [note 1] Everett M. Dirksen was a U.S. senator [R–Illinois] from January 1951 until his death in September 1969, and Senate Minority Leader from January 1959 to September 1969.

All right. Put Senator Dirksen on. I’m ready.

I’m in a meeting. Tell him I’m in a meeting [operator acknowledges] , but I want to talk. I missed him when I was [in the] [National] Security Council.

Yeah. Are you in a meeting?

Yes, but go ahead. I can hear.

Well, it’s the usual thing. What is the situation?

Everett, we have said to . . . First of all, now, I cannot tell you this if it’s going to be quoted, ‘cause I can’t tell the candidates and I can’t tell anybody else. I haven’t talked to a human. I want to comply with it and trust, but I sure don’t want it told to a human.

I give you my solemn word.

All right. The situation is this: Since September of last year, we have told Hanoi that we would stop the bombing. We’re anxious to stop it when they would engage in—these are the key words—prompt, productive discussions that they would not take advantage of. [note 2] On 29 September 1967, President Johnson had described in broad terms his conditions for stopping U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. “As we have told Hanoi time and time and time again, the heart of the matter is really this: The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of the bombing cessation or limitation.” See “Address on Vietnam Before the National Legislative Conference, San Antonio, Texas,” 29 September 1967, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970).

That is September. March 31st, I came to the conclusion that no living man could run for office and be a candidate and have them all shooting at him, and keep this war out of politics, and get peace, so I concluded [Dirksen acknowledges] that I should not run, because I’d just prolong the war by doing it. So I said then, “We’re stopping the bombing in 90 percent [of North Vietnam] . We will stop it in the rest if there can be any indication that it will not cost us additional lives.” [note 3] See “The President’s Address to the Nation Announcing Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam and Reporting His Decision Not to Seek Reelection,” 31 March 1968, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1970). [Snorts and coughs.]

We got just a lot of procrastination up until October. During October, they started asking questions: What did I mean by prompt? And what did I mean by productive? Now, the facts of life are that they tried two offensives in May and August, and they got very severe setbacks. The facts are that they’ve had 35 [000] , 40,000 leave the country to refit.

The facts are that they’re not doing at all well, but [snorts] they can continue to supply what they need for a very long time. But in October, we started getting these nibbles: What did the President mean? What did he—he said that he had to have prompt and productive and not take advantage. We said that we would consider productive—the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] had to be present. They said they were just generals, and stooges, and satellites, and Johnson put them in office, and that they would never sit down with those traitors. We said, “You’ve got to sit down with them before we can ever work out the future. We can’t settle the future of South Vietnam without them being present. We’re not going to pull a [Adolf] Hitler- [A. Neville] Chamberlain deal.” [note 4] Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and the leader of the Nazi Party. A. Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940.

They said, well, they’d never do it. So on October the 7th or 11th, I’ve forgotten, they said, “Well, now, what else? Is that all the President wants? If we would sit down with the GVN, what would he do?" Now, they made no commitment. They didn’t indicate they’d accept it they just asked the question. But, you know, in trading, when a fellow said, “How much would you take for that horse?,” why, you kind of think that means something.

So we followed it up and said, “No, we don’t want to limit ourselves. We—the GVN’s got to be present, and we’ve got to have productive discussions, and we think they could be productive if they were present. But we can’t have a Panmunjom and say, ‘Well, we’ll do that, but we’ll meet a year from now.’” [note 5] The President refers to the Korean village where the armistice between North and South Korea was signed in 1953 following two years of talks.

It’s got to be a prompt meeting—a week, two weeks, three weeks, something like that. So they said, “Well, if we could work everything out, we could meet the next day.” [Snorts.] So we came back to them and said that “if you will let the GVN come in and will meet the next day, we would like to take that up with our government.” [Coughs.] They said, “Well, what else do you want? Is that all? You’ll write off that?" And [W. Averell] Harriman said, “No. [note 6] W. Averell Harriman was U.S. assistant secretary of state for far eastern and Pacific affairs from 1961 to 1963 U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs from 1963 to 1965 and ambassador-at-large and chief U.S. delegate to the Paris Peace Talks under President Lyndon B. Johnson. These are facts of life, and we know you’re not going to sell out and engage in reciprocity. And that you’re not going to accept conditions your pride and your Asiatic face will not let you do that. You’ve got to save face we understand that. But we could not sit at a conference table if you were shelling the cities.” In other words, if I were talking to Dirksen in my living room, and then my son was raping his wife, he’d have to get up and leave, and quit trading, and run and protect her. “So we just could not sit there if you were shelling the cities, nor could we sit there and have a productive discussion if you were abusing the DMZ.”

So they said, “Well, that’s reciprocity, and we’re not going to pay any attention to it.” [Snorts.] And they—about that time, [Richard M. “Dick”] Nixon made some little statement about we handled the war wrong, and then Hubert [H. Humphrey Jr.] said that he was going to stop the bombing without any comma or semicolon, just period. [note 7] Richard M. “Dick” Nixon was a U.S. representative [R–California] from January 1947 to December 1950 a U.S. senator [R–California] from January 1951 to January 1953 vice president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961 Republican nominee for president in 1960 Republican candidate for governor of California in 1962 and president of the United States from January 1969 until his resignation on 9 August 1974. Hubert H. Humphrey Jr. was the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota, from July 1945 to November 1948 a U.S. senator [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1949 to December 1964 and January 1971 to January 1978 Senate Majority Whip from January 1961 to December 1964 vice president of the United States from January 1965 to January 1969 and the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1968. Speaking before United Press International editors, Republican presidential nominee Nixon said that as president, he might accept settlement terms that Johnson could not. “We might be able to agree to much more then than we can do now,” Nixon said. E. M. 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. Vice President Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, had called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in a nationally televised campaign speech on 30 September 1968 and repeated the call two weeks later at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, adding, “I said period, not comma or semicolon.” John W. Finney, “Humphrey Taunts Nixon as ‘Chicken,’” New York Times, 16 October 1968. And then [McGeorge] Mac Bundy made a fool speech, where he said we ought to stop it for nothing and pull our troops out. [note 8] McGeorge “Mac” Bundy was dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University from 1953 to 1961, and special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs from 1961 to 1966. Bundy, who was national security adviser when Johnson first deployed U.S. combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, had made a speech at DePauw University on 12 October 1968, calling for the steady and systematic withdrawal of U.S. forces even in the absence of a truce. The speech broke Bundy’s long silence on the war, dating back to his resignation from the White House. Homer Bigart, “Bundy Proposes Troop Reduction and Bombing Halt Former White House Aide Alters Stand on Vietnam Policy He Helped Make Defends ‘65 Decisions But He Says ‘Burden’ Must Be Lifted ‘From Our Lives’ Beginning Next Year,” New York Times, 13 October 1968.

So they picked up and went to Hanoi, and they stayed in Hanoi two weeks, from October the 15th through right about now—October 11th, I guess. They come back now, and all this time we have been working with everybody we knew. The governments cannot be named, because it’s life and death to them they may be invaded. But the Eastern Europeans have been helpful, the Indians have been helpful, the Soviets have been helpful, the French have been helpful. We’ve had them all in, and we have talked to some of them nearly every day. And we’ve told them the clock was ticking and [snorts] that they could settle this in 30 days they did in 1954 in 30 days. But that our constitutional processes did not change. We would have a new president, but [Michael J. “Mike”] Mansfield [D–Montana] and Dirksen would still be leaders, and [Richard B. “Dick”] Russell [Jr.] [D–Georgia] would still be chairman of the committee, and [J. William] Fulbright [D–Arkansas] would likely be chairman, and those men would carry on. [note 9] Michael J. “Mike” Mansfield was a U.S. senator [D–Montana] from January 1953 to January 1977, and Senate Majority Leader from January 1961 to January 1977. Richard B. “Dick” Russell Jr. was a U.S. senator [D–Georgia] from January 1933 to January 1971 chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee from January 1951 to January 1953 and January 1955 to January 1969 and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee from January 1969 to January 1971. J. William “Bill” Fulbright was a U.S. senator [D–Arkansas] from January 1945 to December 1974, and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 1959 to December 1974. And all of our Joint Chiefs would be the same. So they needn’t to play—even if Humphrey was elected, they’re not going to get any better deal. Even if Nixon, they’re not going to get any better deal. Now, this is for your information only.

We get to the point where it looks like that we might get the GVN in the meeting, and they understand thoroughly that they will bust up the meeting. We don’t even come back here. [Creighton W.] Abrams is authorized with the rules of engagement to retaliate himself if they shoot across the DMZ— [note 10] Gen. Creighton W. Abrams was assistant deputy chief of staff and director of operations at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 1962 to 1963 deputy commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) from May 1967 to June 1968 and commander of MACV from June 1968 to June 1972.

—by launching bombers immediately. And we’ve told them all that. Told the Russians, told everybody else. [Snorts and coughs.] Now, if that gets in the paper, the deal’s off. So that’s why you cannot say this to anybody that’s going to get it in the paper [Dirksen acknowledges] , because these folks are the most sensitive people in the world. But we have said this, and about that time, some of Mr. Nixon’s people come in and tell both sides. Now, I have information about who you had a glass of beer with last night. You don’t know it, but I do. And you have ways and means—

You have ways and means. You get my point though, don’t you?

You have ways and means of knowing what’s going on in the country. What—we know what [Nguyen Van] Thiệu says when he talks out in Vietnam, and we know what happens here. [note 11] Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was president of South Vietnam from June 1965 to April 1975. The Central Intelligence Agency had bugged the office of President Thiệu, and the National Security Agency had intercepted cables to Saigon from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C. And some of Mr. Nixon’s people are getting a little bit unbalanced and frightened and like Hubert did when he said, “no comma, no period,” or like [McGeorge] Bundy did. About the time you called me last week, they started going in to the South Vietnamese embassy and also sending some word to Hanoi, which has prolonged this thing a good deal.

The net of it, and it’s despicable, and if it were made public I think it would rock the nation, but the net of it was that if they just hold out a little bit longer, that he’s a lot more sympathetic, and he can kind of—they can do better business with him than they can with their present president. And in Hanoi, they’ve been saying that “well, if you won’t settle this thing, I’m not bound by all these things, so I’m not—I haven’t had this record, and I can make a little better deal with you there.”

Now, I rather doubt Nixon has done any of this, but there’s no question but what folks for him are doing it. And very frankly, we’re reading some of the things that are happening. [Snorts.] So as a consequence, while Thiệu and all of our allies are ready to go on a bombing cease-fire—cessation, it just may be temporary. We may be back on it in the next day if they don’t follow these two things—if they violate the DMZ or if they shell the cities. We could stop the killing out there. We could get everything we’ve asked for, the GVN there. But they’ve got this question, this new formula put in there—namely, wait on Nixon. And they’re killing 4 [00] or 500 every day waiting on Nixon. Now, these folks, I doubt, are authorized to speak for Nixon, but they’re going in there and they range all the way from very attractive women to old-line China lobbyists. [note 12] As the President will make clear later in this conversation, he is referring to Anna C. Chennault, the top woman fundraiser for the Republicans that year. Chennault was part of the China Lobby, a name used for Chinese Nationalists and American politicians and activists who blamed the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist revolution on the Truman administration. And some people pretty close to him in the business world. [Snorts.]

I was shocked when I looked at the reports, see? And I’ve got them and . . . so forth. Now, Thiệu has—that’s had a little effect on Thiệu. He has signed on to this back as early as October, that this is what we ought to do, as have all the allied governments. As have the French, and as have the Russians, and the thing that busted it up is that Hanoi hadn’t, and all of our people.

Now, I told Dick Nixon, and George [C.] Wallace [Jr.] , and Hubert Humphrey [snorts] that we had to have prompt and productive discussions. [note 13] George C. Wallace Jr. was governor of Alabama from January 1963 to January 1967, January 1971 to January 1979, and January 1983 to January 1987 and a third-party candidate in the 1968 U.S. presidential election. In order to be productive, the GVN had to be present. In order to be prompt, it ought to be in a matter of weeks, not two or three years. And that they wouldn’t take advantage of—that meant that they just wouldn’t be blowing up our house while we were trying to eat dinner. They wouldn’t be hitting the DMZ and the cities. Now, if they do hit the GVN and the cities, we would have to just come back to bombing the next day.

Now, then, the facts are that, as of now, the monsoon has started up there and bombing ain’t worth a damn and not going to be for 90 days in the North. So without telling them, we might quit anyway if we had nothing in return, because we need to do it in Laos where it’s drying up and where they can really increase their traffic. And we need to do it in South Vietnam where they’re trying to mount an offensive on Saigon. [note 14] The President refers to bombing the Hồ Chí Minh Trail through Laos, which Hanoi used to infiltrate soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam, and also to bombing Communist forces massed in South Vietnam. So I called in all the Joint Chiefs and all of them recommended that we stop, and that we take this GVN presence. [Blows nose.] I called in General [William W.] Momyer, who’s been in charge of air force, because I knew I’d have this [Curtis E.] LeMay on my hands, and Momyer’s been in charge of it in Vietnam. [note 15] Lt. Gen. William W. Momyer was director of operational requirements at U.S. Air Force Headquarters from October 1961 to February 1964 assistant deputy chief of staff for U.S. Air Force programs and requirements from February to August 1964 commander of Air Training Command from August 1964 to July 1966 and deputy commander for air operations, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and commander of the Seventh Air Force from July 1966 to August 1968. Curtis E. LeMay was a general in the Air Force Air Force chief of staff from June 1961 to January 1965 and a candidate for vice president as the running mate of independent candidate George C. Wallace Jr. in 1968. [Snorts.] He operates from Thailand. He’s down at Langley. And he explained to me that it wouldn’t do any good where I’m bombing now, and if I could get anything out of it, I ought to do it and move it over to the other places.

Now, we can’t say we’re going to move it over, ‘cause it’ll look like that we’re not giving them anything and we’re not sincere. That we’re given up bombing the North, but we’re going to spread more bombs on the South. [Snorts.] But he told me that that was it. Every civilian and every military man we have talked to, and [Andrew J.] Andy Goodpaster, particularly, is very strong. [note 16] Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster was White House staff secretary from October 1954 to January 1961 NATO supreme allied commander in Europe from July 1969 to December 1974 and commander in chief of the U.S. European Command from May 1969 to December 1974. But I decided that I had to talk to Abrams before I reached any conclusion. [Coughs.] He had sent me a cable and said he would do it without the cities and without the DMZ if they’d just let the GVN be present, because, in effect, he’s going to do it anyway.

And he said, “Psychologically, the GVN being present will really wreck the Vietcong, because it’ll mean that their supporters, the Soviet and the Hanoi, have really recognized them or they wouldn’t let them come in the meeting.” Well, that’s what our folks think. I don’t know. We’re going to let the NLF [National Liberation Front] come in the meeting, so we’re not recognizing them, but they think psychologically this will really do them up in the South and [William C.] Westmoreland, and Abrams, and Momyer think they’ve had them whipped since September. [note 17] Gen. William C. Westmoreland, often referred to as “Westy,” was commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) from 1964 to 1968, and chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1972.

They think they’re whipped. So Abrams came in at 2:30 yesterday morning, or day before yesterday morning, and he drove 24 hours straight time, and he stayed here till four o’clock, and he was just as strong as horseradish, and said that this ought to be done. We took this, and I went back to Paris and asked Paris how many times they told them that they had to respect the cities and respect the DMZ. And they counted up, and they came back: They had told them 12 times. Now, they’ve never agreed to it, because they will not agree to reciprocity. [Dirksen acknowledges.] But they know that if they don’t do it, that Abrams—they’d trigger Abrams’s reaction. So it’s just on-again, off-again—just a matter of hours, the bombing will be resumed.

So then we went back to the Soviet and said we don’t want to deceive anybody. [Snorts.] This is close to the election. It’s a very delicate period. I have told Nixon, and Wallace, and Humphrey all the same thing that I’m telling you now. Nixon said, “Do you have to have all three of them?” And I said, “No, I really don’t have to have any if I thought that—I have said if they do nearly any little thing, I would stop the bombing, but I’d like to have all three. And I’m going to try to get all three.” Well, in effect, that’s what we’re likely to get.

So I went back to the Russians and said, “Now, we don’t want to be deceitful, and if we should stop the bombing, the meeting’s got to be prompt, the DMZ’s got to be respected, and the shelling the cities has got to stop. And we know you can’t guarantee it, but we want you to be damn sure that you know it, because the moment we stop—if you start any of this, you’re going to get hit with interest, and we’re going to double the force.” And Abrams is—doesn’t even come to Washington. He can do it automatically. [Snorts.]

“Now, we—I, Lyndon Johnson—have grave doubts that they will stop shelling the cities or the DMZ, because if they do, they just admit they’ve lost South Vietnam.” So that went to Mr. [Alexei] Kosygin, and he came back and he said, [coughs] “The doubts the President has are unjustified.” [note 18] Alexei Kosygin was chair of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union from October 1964 to October 1980. That he thinks they want peace. So then we went to the Indians, and the Indians came back about the same thing.

Now, that’s where we are. We are now talking to our folks here, and talking about the rules of engagement, and what Abrams would do if we stop the bombing, and if they should hit Saigon. And we’re trying to conclude that. And we’re going to try to have [Cyrus R. “Cy”] Vance go back and talk to them again, and be sure that they don’t misunderstand any of the language, be sure they’re willing to let the GVN come in the room. [note 19] Cyrus R. “Cy” Vance was secretary of the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1963 U.S. deputy secretary of defense from 1964 to 1967 special representative of the president to Cyprus in 1967 and to Korea in 1968 and U.S. negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Of course, a Communist agreement ain’t worth a dime. They might walk out. But you’re going to have to sometime test it, and [Clark M.] Clifford says and [Earle G.] Bus Wheeler said you’ve got to test their faith. [note 20] Clark M. Clifford was a Washington lawyer an adviser to presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1961 to 1968 chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from April 1963 to February 1968 and U.S. secretary of defense from March 1968 to January 1969. Gen. Earle G. “Bus” Wheeler was chief of staff of the U.S. Army from October 1962 to July 1964, and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1964 to July 1970. They may not mean it. But that’s about where it is.

Now, no decision has been reached, no order has been issued. It takes about 12 hours from the time we make a decision until we issue the order. The meeting—no meeting could take place before the election. The meeting would have to take place after the election, but it’s my feeling that I ought to, the first minute I can, stop the killing if I can. I’m not—can’t justify saying that I quit the race for the presidency to get peace and put peace before politics, and then let some son of a bitch like [Maxwell L. “Max”] Rafferty [Jr.] out here in Los Angeles say, “Well, Johnson’s playing politics.” [note 21] Maxwell L. “Max” Rafferty Jr. was the California state superintendent of public instruction from 1963 and 1971 California’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1968 and dean of education at Troy University from 1971 to 1981. Rafferty had said U.S. negotiators in Paris “aren’t negotiating they’re just horsing around.” Richard Bergholz, “Peace Envoys Horsing Around, Rafferty Says,” Los Angeles Times, 25 October 1968. Or I thought Dick’s statement was ugly the other day, that he had been told that I was a thief, and a son of a bitch, and so forth, but he knew my mother, and she really wasn’t a bitch. [note 22] On 25 October 1968, Nixon made the following statement to reporters: “I am told that officials in the administration have been driving very hard for an agreement on a bombing halt, accompanied possibly by a cease-fire, in the immediate future. I have since learned these reports are true. I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical, last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Mr. Humphrey. This I do not believe.” Robert B. Semple Jr., “Nixon Denounces Welfare Inequity, Calls for National Standards—Repudiates Criticism of Johnson Peace Efforts,” New York Times, 26 October 1968. I mean, you set up a statement like that and then deny it, it’s not very good [Dirksen acknowledges] , because he knows better, and that hurt my feelings. You damn Republicans get mean when you get in politics, and I think it’s cost him a lot of votes. I think he’s losing the last few days because of that statement. I’ve played it clean. I’ve talked to [Dwight D.] Eisenhower about it. [note 23] Dwight D. Eisenhower was a five-star general of the U.S. Army governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany from May 1945 to November 1945 chief of staff of the U.S. Army from November 1945 to February 1948 Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from April 1951 to May 1952 president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953 and president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961. I made Wheeler brief him. I’ve told Nixon every bit as much, if not more, than Humphrey knows. I’ve given Humphrey not one thing. And up to now, Nixon and the Republicans have supported me just as well as the Democrats and a hell of a lot better than [Eugene J. “Gene”] McCarthy [DFL–Minnesota] , and [J. William “Bill”] Fulbright [D–Arkansas] , and the rest of them. [note 24] Eugene J. “Gene” McCarthy was a U.S. representative [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1949 to January 1959, and a U.S. senator [DFL–Minnesota] from January 1959 to January 1971. J. William “Bill” Fulbright was a U.S. senator [D–Arkansas] from January 1945 to December 1974, and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 1959 to December 1974.

But he got into politics then when this goddamn [Melvin R.] Mel Laird [R–Wisconsin] , he told them the other day that [Joseph A.] Joe Califano [Jr.] and them were shoving me. [note 25] Melvin R. “Mel” Laird was a U.S. representative [R–Wisconsin] from January 1953 to January 1969 chair of the House Republican Conference from January 1965 to January 1969 U.S. secretary of defense from January 1969 to January 1973 and White House domestic affairs adviser from May 1973 to January 1974. Joseph A. “Joe” Califano Jr. was special assistant to the president from July 1965 to January 1969. “Behind the scenes, according to UPI, Nixon aides said the principal pressure for a dramatic peace development in the immediate future came from Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford Cyrus Vance, one of the two chief U.S. negotiators in Paris Joseph Califano, special assistant to the President, and George W. Ball, who resigned as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to become a foreign policy adviser to the Humphrey campaign.” Peter H. Silberman, “Nixon Reports Cease-Fire Hint,” Washington Post, 26 October 1968. Well, now, Joe Califano can’t spell Vietnam. He’s never been in one meeting with me. But that’s what he put out. Now, the men that I rely on are Bus Wheeler, General Westmoreland, Admiral [Thomas H.] Moorer, General [John P.] McConnell, the chief of staff, the general that’s head of the Marine corps, General Momyer, who’s down at Langley and been in charge of air, General Abrams, Ambassador [Ellsworth F.] Bunker, and Dean Rusk. [note 26] Adm. Thomas H. Moorer was chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1970 to June 1974. General John P. McConnell was chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ellsworth F. Bunker was U.S. ambassador to Argentina from March 1951 to March 1952 U.S. ambassador to Italy from May 1952 to April 1953 U.S. ambassador to India from November 1956 to March 1961 U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States from 1964 to 1965 U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from April 1967 to May 1973 and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and 1967. Dean Rusk was U.S. secretary of state from January 1961 to January 1969. I don’t pay much attention to any—even the subordinates over in any other place.

Now, I’ve been at this five years and if I’d have wanted to sell my country out, I’d have sold it out five months ago and gone on and run for president and got this war behind us and been overwhelmingly elected. But I’m a conscientious, earnest fellow trying to do a job, and I’m going to do it and if I can get peace at four o’clock this afternoon, I’m damn sure going to get it, come hell or high water, and woe be unto the guy that says you ought to keep on killing. But I really think it’s a little dirty pool for Dick’s people to be messing with the South Vietnamese ambassador and carrying messages around to both of them. And I don’t think the people would approve of it if it were known.

So that’s why I’m afraid to talk. Now, when I make a decision, and we’re meeting again this afternoon, and we met all morning this morning, and we’re out there, and it’s 5:30 in Saigon now, and we’re waiting probably [until] 6:30 [snorts] , 6:00 to see what answers they’ll give. We had to wait until Abrams got back home. He left, and he had to fly 24 hours, so he got in there at three o’clock, straight through. [Coughs.] When we do, the first thing I’m going to do is call you. If it’s five minutes from now, or five hours, or five days, and I never know. I’ve thought a hundred times in the last month it’d be in five hours. But nobody knows when you’re dealing with eight countries, with all the folks in Paris, with all the folks in Saigon and here. But I’m going to call you and Mike Mansfield on the phone. I’m going to tell you exactly what I’ve told you now. I can’t add a damn thing to it.

That if we stop the bombing, they’re going to agree the GVN will come to the conference table promptly and productively, and we’ll stay stopped if they don’t hit the cities, and if they don’t go across the DMZ. If they do, we’ll be right back at it, and Abrams got his orders when he was here the other day.

Now, we’ll just test their faith. I don’t see that it’ll make any difference in the political campaign, ‘cause first of all, the conference won’t happen till it’s over with. [Dirksen acknowledges.] I think I’d be glad to say that all the candidates have cooperated with me, and we ought to have one voice in foreign affairs. And while they’ve criticized my conduct of the war, they have never told the enemy that he’d get a better deal. But this last few days, Dick is just getting a little bit shaky, and he’s pissing on the fire a little.

Now, you ought to guide him just a little bit, because they’re not running against me I’m not going to be here. You’re going to be my senator, and you’re going to represent me, and do whatever I want done. I’m going to be down at [ unclear ] . [note 27] President Johnson may have said “Pedernales.” But he oughtn’t to go back to that old kill tactics, see.


Now On Display: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

On July 2, 1964, with Martin Luther King, Jr., directly behind him, President Lyndon Johnson scrawled his signature on a document years in the making—the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation.

The first and the signature pages of the act will be on display at the National Archives Rubenstein Gallery in Washington, DC, until September 17, 2014. These 50-year-old sheets of paper represent years of struggle and society’s journey toward justice.

The most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era, the Civil Right Act finally gave the Federal Government the means to enforce the promises of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The act prohibited discrimination in public places, allowed the integration of public facilities and schools, and forbade discrimination in employment.

But such a landmark congressional enactment was by no means achieved easily. Indeed, developments within the civil rights movement were critical in motivating the bill’s movement through Congress. The push for legislation accelerated in May 1963, when nightly news broadcasts displayed footage of Eugene “Bull” Connor cracking down on demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.

In this atmosphere, President John F. Kennedy demanded a strong civil rights bill in a national address on June 11: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”

Pressure for legislation continued to build when thousands of Americans engaged in the peaceful March on Washington on August 28. Two weeks later, a bomb in Birmingham killed four young African American girls. With civil rights at the forefront of the national consciousness, these and other developments encouraged House Democrats to introduce amendments strengthening the bill.

External pressure made up only one chapter in the story of the bill’s passage, as supporters of the legislation had a battle of their own to wage in Congress. Just five days after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson urged lawmakers “to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.”

Despite the President’s support, the bill encountered significant difficulties in both chambers of Congress. It took a 70-day hearing process for the legislation to clear the House in February 1964.

As soon as the bill entered the Senate, southern senators commenced a 60-day filibuster—the longest continuous debate in Senate history. With the help of Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, supporters softened language concerning government regulation of private organizations and finally won over a bloc of conservative lawmakers.

After clearing the Senate and House, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2. Thanks to public pressure and political maneuvering, the nation finally had a substantive civil rights bill.

This 50th anniversary represents a rare opportunity to see the original Civil Rights Act.

For more information read the Prologue article, “LBJ Champions the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” It explores how President Johnson gave the “Johnson treatment” to powerful members of Congress to get the landmark civil rights legislation passed.


Lyndon B Johnson: The uncivil rights reformer

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man of many contradictions. Personally rude, overbearing and at times politically unscrupulous, he was nevertheless capable of immense personal charm, particularly when he was lobbying and brokering backstage in the Washington corridors of power.

A fiercely proud Texan, who in the course of his rise to power openly backed reactionary and retrograde legislation on race, union labour and protectionism, he was eventually responsible for establishing some of the most important cornerstones of liberal American legislation, the most significant of which was groundbreaking anti-poverty and civil rights legislation, whose effects can still be felt in the United States today.

I was a student at Cambridge during the years of Johnson's presidency. Many people probably only remember him for being the second American president of the 20th-century to have been precipitated into office by the assassination of his predecessor (in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt succeeded President William McKinley, who was gunned down by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in New York).

Like almost everyone else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963. I was cycling down King's Parade on my way to an early evening seminar, when I was flagged down by a fellow student whom I had never really liked. At first I simply refused to believe him. Once I had been convinced that the devastating news was true, my own private version of "shooting the messenger" meant that I could never bear to be in that particular student's company thereafter.

Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in aboard the presidential jet, Air Force One, two hours after Kennedy had been declared dead. In the all-too familiar photograph of him taking the oath (on JFK's own Catholic missal, because no Bible could be found), Jackie Kennedy stands close at his side still wearing the suit stained with her husband's blood, where she had cradled his head in her lap as the motorcade rushed to hospital.

Left-leaning young people all around the globe experienced the death of Kennedy as an almost personal loss, a cruel blow to their idealistic vision of a better, fairer world led by a charismatic, dynamic and progressive US president. As an active member of the Cambridge University Labour Club in those days, I was a sympathetic bystander to the increasingly violent civil rights protests in the US during the mid-Sixties, and deeply involved with fellow Cambridge students in the growing international opposition to the Vietnam War. Over those years, I was involved in numerous anti-war meetings and protests. In 1965, I remember particularly vividly a student march to Downing Street led on our behalf by the distinguished academic and activist Raymond Williams, to hand in to the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson a petition against British involvement in the increased bombing.

I did not attend the much larger demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968, in which violence erupted, close friends were hurt in the crush and Labour Club acquaintances arrested. But this was the period during which I came to believe that if you felt passionately that there were things that needed putting to rights in the world you lived in, then you had to be prepared to take direct action to effect necessary political change. Lyndon Johnson, or "LBJ" as we always referred to him, loomed large among the things that I was convinced needed changing.

Lyndon B Johnson's presidency, then, was overshadowed by two huge historical events – Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam War. The first was entirely beyond his control the second was a foreign policy debacle, responsibility for which can be laid almost entirely at President Johnson's door.

For many of us who grew up in the Sixties, Johnson's decision to escalate the war with North Vietnam was a permanent stain on his own and his administration's judgement. It eventually brought about his political ruin. Those marches and demonstrations against Harold Wilson's British government marked my own political coming of age. At the time, for myself and many thousands of others of the same age in Britain and the United States, Johnson's foreign policy – especially in South-East Asia – represented the blinkered certainties of the old guard against which we felt obliged to struggle for a better, more just and peaceful world.

Today, Lyndon Johnson's record looks very different. It is much more progressive on the domestic side than I was able or inclined to recognise at the time, and it was more lastingly influential in shaping welfare and civil rights legislation. As a result, his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War begins to look like a tragic piece of political bungling that, at the time, overshadowed everything else and turned what might otherwise have been seen as one of the great presidencies of the 20th century into a personal humiliation. More than 100 years after Johnson's birth, his civil rights and anti-poverty legislation is still shaping the American political agenda.

Born in 1908, Lyndon Baines Johnson grew up in poverty on a farm in a small town in Texas. This early experience of physical and economic hardship would colour his political career. "When I was young, poverty was so common we didn't know it had a name," he later recalled. In his teens he watched as the bottom fell out of the cotton market, his family went broke and were forced to sell the family farm. His father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, went on to serve six terms in the state House of Representatives as an "agrarian liberal" and populist, fighting for the rights of farmers and labourers. His son succeeded in leap-frogging local politics and winning a seat in the Washington House of Representatives in 1937, through a mixture of luck, determination and by assiduously courting those in local positions of power, which was to characterise Johnson's political life from then on.

A passionate admirer of Franklin D Roosevelt, Johnson contrived early on in his career to meet the President and leave a lasting impression, closely identifying himself with Roosevelt's "New Deal" programmes for national recovery and regeneration after the Great Depression. To his fellow congressmen, he was a "100 per cent FDR man". With the support of the White House, Johnson threw himself into securing loans and millions of dollars in federal grants for farmers, schools, housing for the poor, roads and public libraries for his Texan constituents. He played a prominent part in the lobbying and dealing that resulted in legislation to build the great dam on the lower Colorado River, bringing cheap power to large areas of the community and transforming the lives of the rural poor. By 1939, Lyndon Johnson was being called "the best New Dealer from Texas" by some on Capitol Hill.

By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1948, however, he had moved strategically to the right, in order to secure the support necessary for a ballot-box win in an increasingly conservative Texas. Running against a popular conservative, temporarily abandoning his support for civil rights and the fight against poverty was a price Johnson was prepared to pay in his determination to reach high office. Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of the Texas Observer newspaper, put his short-term embracing of conservative policies on race and policy entirely down to political opportunism: "Now, what kind of sense does that make to you in terms of who Lyndon really was? None. There's no sense to it except, of course, the absolutely unqualified opportunism of a successful politician of this particular mould. He out-righted the most conservative figure in Texas politics at that time."

Notoriously, in fact, Johnson's success in gaining a Senate seat at this comparatively early stage in his career involved questionable raising and use of campaign funds, and probably last-minute ballot-stuffing to secure a narrow win over his equally unscrupulous rival. As an ironic comment on the outcome of the election and the way it had been won, Johnson was known as "Landslide Lyndon" throughout his first term.

Johnson quickly became known on Capitol Hill for his apparently limitless energy and determination, as an endlessly resourceful networker and lobbyist, and as an indefatigable workaholic. His work habits became legendary. Countless contemporary reports attest to his working 18 to 20 hour days without a significant break, and to the absence of any significant leisure activities in his life. He allegedly never in his entire career read a book all the way through for pleasure, and colleagues invited by him to sporting events testified to the fact that he barely watched the game, instead concentrating on haranguing his guest on the political topic of the moment. He rapidly rose through the Senate, becoming minority leader, and then, after the mid-term elections in 1953, the youngest ever majority leader of the Senate. He was, contemporaries agreed, a consummate politician although some would describe him as a consummate political operator.

"There was no more powerful majority leader in American history," his biographer Robert Dallek writes. "He understood the way the Senate worked. He understood what senators needed and what they wanted. He had biographies on each of them so that he knew what their tastes and intentions and aims and desires and wishes and hopes were." He manipulated this knowledge to ensure that individual senators were promised precisely what they most desired in return for a vote. Or, if he could not be sure of that vote, he would arrange for a strategically timed trip to Europe or an assignment away from Washington. Political commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin, another Johnson biographer, puts it even more strongly. Johnson had the temperament and the personality to master and dominate the Senate: "I think, for Lyndon Johnson's temperament, the Senate could not have been more perfectly suited. He could get up every day and learn what their fears, their desires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then manipulate, dominate, persuade and cajole them. And what really made things work in the Senate were personal relationships and Johnson was just strictly the best at that."

It helped that Johnson was an imposing man at 6ft 4in tall. His way of buttonholing fellow senators and businessmen and persuading them by sheer determination to support a particular measure became known as "the Johnson treatment". As a contemporary recalled it: "It was an incredible blend of badgering, cajolery, reminders of past favours, promises of future favours, predictions of gloom if something doesn't happen. When that man started to work on you, all of a sudden, you just felt that you were standing under a waterfall and the stuff was pouring on you."

He also created for himself and took on as a second skin the persona and trappings of that legendary American figure, the Texas cattle rancher. In his third year in the Senate, he bought a piece of land along the Pedernales river in central Texas, which became the LBJ Ranch. There he was regularly photographed on horseback, lasso in hand, rounding up steers while outfitted in a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. In fact the LBJ ranch was more than a place of relaxation for Johnson – as his wife Lady Bird Johnson explained in many interviews, he almost never actually relaxed. The ranch became part of the figure Johnson created to reinforce his increasingly powerful political position.

Johnson's consummate mastery of the Senate and its complex rules and internal organisation let him drive bills through the legislature in record time it was a reputation he was proud of, and he kept his own running tally of legislative successes. Robert Dallek summarises the approach: "Consent agreements set a time limit on debate drawn-out quorum calls that replaced traditional brief recesses and were suspended when Johnson was ready to have the Senate resume gave him time to cut deals in the cloakroom night sessions and stop and go legislation exhausted senators, discouraged prolonged debate, and promoted back-room agreements as the principal device for passing laws."

In 1957, Johnson steered the first ever civil rights legislation through Congress. It is a typical example of the way he liked to work – ruthlessly brokering compromise with supporters and opponents until he had something both sides would support. Once again, contemporaries were sceptical about Johnson's motivation in driving this milestone legislation through against bitter opposition by representatives of the southern states: "One doesn't know whether he was a liberal or a reactionary. Probably he was neither. He probably was just an extraordinarily skilful parliamentarian who was an opportunist and who sensed the wind and then went in that direction."

Announcing the successful passing of the legislation, Johnson emphasised the careful political balancing act it represented: "A compromise has been negotiated. I am pleased that the Bill was passed. It is a great step forward and a very important and delicate feat." But even if the 1957 law was more symbol than substance, it ensured that effective civil rights legislation was no longer out of reach, and paved the way for Kennedy's reforms in the early Sixties.

Although he could not have recognised or appreciated it at the time, the turning-point in Johnson's career came in 1960, when he agreed to join the Democratic Party ticket for the presidential election as Kennedy's running-mate. Circumstances seemed far from propitious, and Johnson was not at all sure he had made the right political move. He had stood for and lost the presidential nomination, and had been astonished when the youthful newcomer Kennedy took the nomination on the first ballot ("That kid needs a little grey in his hair," he remarked just before the vote). Having lost the presidential nomination, Johnson was reluctant to accept the vice-presidential one, and Kennedy's brother Robert was even more opposed to his having it (there was never any love lost between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy). In the end, it is not entirely clear what tipped the balance. When Kennedy was asked later what the true story of the selection was he replied: "Well, you know, I don't think anybody will ever know."

However it came about, after Kennedy's victory at the polls, Johnson became Vice-President with extreme reluctance, openly describing it as a dead-end job. The charisma of the Kennedy family, with their wealth, clan-allegiance and elite background and education further conspired to push Johnson uncharacteristically into the shadows – where previously the young Kennedy needed to court Johnson as Senate leader, it was now Johnson who had to wait on Kennedy and his "new guard" aides. For their part, the Kennedy administration mistrusted him and made repeated attempts to sideline him. They appreciated the need to avoid alienating him, however. "I can't afford to have my Vice-President, who knows every reporter in Washington, going around saying we're all screwed up, so we're going to keep him happy," Kennedy confided early on to one of his aides. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, there was little sign of Johnson playing a part in the knife-edge decision-making taking place. In summer 1963, when the civil rights march on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech had polarised the nation and convinced Kennedy that new legislation was urgently needed, his Vice-President was hardly in the picture. There was even talk of replacing Johnson on the Democrat ticket in 1964 for Kennedy's second term.

Everything changed with Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963. Five days later, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time as President of the United States. An exceptionally experienced Washington politician, he was acutely aware of the expectations riding on any early moves he made. Not usually a particularly inspiring speaker, he managed on this occasion to strike exactly the right note: "My fellow Americans – all I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time. Today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on in the immortal words and works that he left behind."

In this speech, and in his carefully judged pronouncements in the days that followed, Johnson set an authoritative stamp on his first period as President.

He would see that Kennedy's legislative promises entered the statute book. Continuity was vital to the national interest. "I had to convince everyone everywhere that the country would go forward," Johnson later recalled. "The times cried out for leadership." His biographer Dallek's account sees Johnson's identification with Kennedy's unfinished liberal agenda as a synergy between his most deeply held beliefs, which he could now finally afford to allow to surface, and what the new President saw as a political programme necessary for the stability of the whole nation. Certainly, in pressing forward with Kennedy's domestic reforms, from an $11bn tax cut to kick-start a sluggish economy, to his "War on Poverty", Johnson was comfortably on ground he had occupied when representing the poor and dispossessed as the senator for Texas.

Kennedy's death undoubtedly gave Johnson the opportunity to outdo his predecessor in getting landmark legislation through Congress that otherwise would have failed under the pressure of political partisanship – particularly the North-South split on racial issues. At the time of Kennedy's assassination, his civil rights legislation outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment had stalled in its passage through the House of Representatives, blocked by the chairman of the rules committee, a Democrat from Virginia, who had vowed to impede its progress indefinitely.

In spring 1964, however, taking advantage of the fact that the new Civil Rights Act was specifically seen as a key plank in Kennedy's legislative legacy, Johnson made it his mission to force it through, putting Hubert Humphrey, the man who was to be his running-mate for the 1964 presidential election, in charge of doing so without significant compromise. Success was achieved by a combination of aggressive lobbying, ruthless out-manoeuvring of the considerable remaining opposition, and astute political manipulation of Congressional rules. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson on 2 July 1964. In 1965, he passed a second civil rights bill – the Voting Rights Act — which allowed millions of black citizens to vote for the first time.

In private, Johnson confided to members of his close team that he feared his advocacy for civil rights would permanently alienate the South from the Democrats, and lose him the 1964 presidential election. In fact this turned out to be far from being the case. Helped in part by the Republicans' nomination of the firebrand right-winger Barry Goldwater as their candidate, Johnson swept to victory, finally making good his early, ironic soubriquet of "Landslide Lyndon". He took a larger percentage of the popular vote than any president before him.

But while Johnson was concentrating on the presidential campaign with his attention focused on the domestic agenda, he was failing to factor into his plans the worsening situation in Vietnam. The United States had been sending military advisors to South Vietnam since the early Fifties, as part of their policy of "containment", to stop the spread of communism, in the form of encroachment on South Vietnam from communist-backed North Vietnam. There were already 16,000 advisors there at the time of Kennedy's death. If the Vietnam War was not of Johnson's making, though, its escalation into outright war most certainly was.

Almost at the very moment when the Civil Right Act was passing into law, news arrived that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox responded by firing on the Vietnamese, supported by planes from a neighbouring aircraft carrier, sinking one of their vessels and damaging another. Notified by Robert McNamara that two destroyers were under attack by torpedo boats, Johnson told him that he would give North Vietnam "a real dose". He would, in other words, subject the Vietnamese to the kind of retaliatory bullying that had helped him achieve many political objectives over his years in Congress.

In fact the story of an unprovoked attack on an American ship by the North Vietnamese, exaggerated in order to get authorisation for retaliatory air strikes inside North Vietnam, was probably untrue. It marked the beginning of a "credibility gap" between the Johnson administration's public pronouncements about what was going on in South-east Asia, and the military measures for which he sought Congressional support as a consequence, and the reality of the situation. The beginning of full-scale war against North Vietnam was based, like the invasion of Iraq 40 years later, on exaggerated reports of Vietnamese aggression, and the blurring of the boundaries of permission granted for hostilities against another sovereign state. In the end, Johnson probably took the United States to war without proper authorisation from Congress.

In his conduct of the Vietnam War, Johnson employed all the tactics which continued to serve him so well in the domestic arena, to disastrous effect. After the Gulf of Tonkin offensive, he rallied Congress and the country behind him with a promise not to abandon South Vietnam – a promise on which he could not deliver. In 1965, he agreed to increased air strikes against North Vietnam (the air strikes for which he tried unsuccessfully to get support from the British government), escalating into a sustained bombing campaign designed to gain public support by bombarding the enemy into submission. When it failed to do so, Johnson became increasingly economical with the truth in his public statements, while further increasing America's military involvement and troop commitment. By March 1966, the number of men deployed there had reached 325,000 and, with no sign of an end in sight, let alone a conclusive victory against the alleged communist threat, domestic opposition was steadily rising.

As far as many in my generation were concerned, from spring 1965 onwards, there was no excuse for the bellicose, bullying behaviour of this American president, and the aggressive behaviour of an overbearing, imperialist America. In a mood swing that resonates with the 9/11 attacks in 2001, international sympathy towards the US following the Kennedy Assassination turned, over a shockingly short period, to sustained anger. From the moment the most powerful nation on Earth declared war on a small developing world state in South-east Asia, youthful activists turned their backs on Johnson's reforming domestic agenda, ignoring its human rights milestones, to concentrate their campaigning energies on trying to stop the American juggernaut destroying an entire population in the name of "containment". For us, Johnson's failure in Vietnam became America's failure, just as George W Bush's failure in Iraq has done.

Johnson had politically defined himself as someone who could make a difference to the lives of those unable to speak up for themselves – the poor, the discriminated against, the old. The mounting tide of anger against him, the increasingly large and disorderly demonstrations, wrecked his confidence, leaving him a broken man. On 31 March 1968, he unexpectedly withdrew from the nomination process for the presidency, leaving the contest to Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Three days later, Ho Chi Minh announced that North Vietnam was ready to enter into peace talks (although the war would in fact go on for a further seven years).

Johnson remained in office for 10 more months, a lame-duck President, watching helplessly as social unrest increased right across the United States. On 4 April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, so was Robert Kennedy. In August, police clashed with anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In November, the Republican Richard Nixon was elected President.

The tirelessly active Lyndon B Johnson retired to his ranch and a life of idleness, self-pity and isolation. He let himself go – taking up smoking and drinking again, although he knew his heart-condition made both inadvisable. On 22 January 1973, at the age of 64, he suffered his third heart attack, which this time was fatal. Had he run for another term in 1968 and won that would have been almost exactly the date at which he would have finally left office. Five days later, the Vietnam War ended in a peace treaty, signed in Paris, between America and North Vietnam.

Lyndon B Johnson's reputation today, such as it is, rests upon a number of classic biographies written between 1976 and 1998. Their final assessments of the 36th President of the United States, arrived at as the 20th century was drawing to a close, fall somewhere between apology and regret: apology for Johnson's disastrous involvement of America in a war in South-east Asia that it could not win, with the accompanying enormous loss of life and regret that the fine ambitions and domestic legislative triumphs of the early years of his presidency gave way to the disillusion and disappointment that led up to his decision not to run again in 1968. That view is well captured in an assessment of Lyndon Johnson by a Civil Rights Activist from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in a 1991 PBS TV documentary: "There was something about this man – I mean, he had a pretty shoddy career and he'd done some pretty ruthless and awful things, but he knew poverty and he knew racism. And I really think that he decided that this was the way to assure his place in history. This was the way to really save the nation. And he knew it was not politically expedient, but I think he really knew it was right."

Today our assessment is likely to be somewhat different – less hesitant and more admiring. Johnson was a consummate politician, perfectly attuned to the ways of Capitol Hill, who understood the complex systems underpinning the United States Congress, and how to exploit its rules to achieve clear political goals. His finest work was done behind the scenes and out of sight, in the halls and corridors of the Senate, cajoling and threatening by turns to sway opinions and win crucial votes. The realisation that those tactics were of no conceivable use in foreign policy, especially in South-east Asia, ultimately utterly undermined Johnson's confidence in his own leadership.

Yet his record of getting domestic legislation into statute to help the socially disadvantaged remains impressive. In 1965, building on Roosevelt's social security legislation of the Thirties, Johnson added Medicare – health insurance for those aged 65 and over. His "Great Society" programme produced large amounts of federal funding for public schools, as well as money for urban renewal, crime prevention, and widespread measures to fight poverty. All of which laid the groundwork for socially responsible legislation whose impact can still be felt in the United States today. They were enormously popular at the time they were put in place, and continue to deserve general recognition today as effective and forward-looking measures.

The message we end up taking away from the Johnson presidency is that, while we may rest our hopes on the idealistic presidents, in the end it is the deft political operators, the people who can really deal with Washington in all its complexity, who make policy of lasting importance. In the legislation Johnson undertook to introduce, he based the tactics for achieving his goal on a shrewd assessment of the opposition, key arguments to be countered and won, carefully calculated sums concerning voting numbers and previous voting patterns. When necessary he did not hesitate to amend draft legislation to appease one or more groups of opponents, nor to make promises concerning future legislation, which could be seen as compromising his intended outcomes. Those strategies have earned him the admiration of many political scientists, but send a shudder through the ranks of those who like their heroes to be more idealistic and single-minded.

As we stand on the brink of a new era, in which the first black president of the United States is offering the dream of a brighter, more promising future to millions of Americans, the example of Lyndon B Johnson's presidency should give us all pause for thought. Both Johnson's supporters and detractors acknowledge that it was his formidable political abilities and the way in which he was able to harness the nuances of the political system that meant he could affect significant social change in the United States – even in the face of strong conservative opposition. Yet nobody could truly call Johnson a visionary. Nor was he a man who could fill millions of young Americans with hope as Barack Obama has done. Time alone will allow us to tell how Obama's achievements as President will eventually measure up against those of someone who history must surely judge to have been one of America's greatest political operators.

In his own words

"I want to be the president. who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties."

"The battle against Communism must be joined in South-east Asia with strength and determination to achieve success there – or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defences on our own shores."

"I never trust a man unless I've got his pecker in my pocket."

In others' words

"He hasn't got the depth of mind nor the breadth of vision to carry great responsibility. Johnson is superficial and opportunistic." Dwight Eisenhower

"He tells so many lies that he convinces himself after a while he's telling the truth. He just doesn't recognise truth or falsehood." Robert F Kennedy

"His brilliant leadership on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has earned him a place in the history of civil rights alongside Abraham Lincoln." Edward Kennedy

"People said my language was bad, but Jesus, you should have heard LBJ." Richard M Nixon

His parents didn't give him a name until he was three months old.

It is sometimes pointed out that every member of his immediate family had the same initials: his wife, Lady Bird Johnson and his two daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson. In fact, Lady Bird's real names were Claudia Alta.

He owned two beagles, called Him and Her. In 1964 he caused an outcry when he was photographed picking up Him by his ears.

He was notorious for treating his subordinates badly. According to one (possibly apocryphal) story, a Secret Service agent standing next to him at a urinal once realised, to his horror, that the President was urinating on his leg. "That's all right, son," Johnson allegedly said, "it's my prerogative."

He was an enthusiastically reckless driver, who enjoyed driving guests at 90mph around his Texas ranch in his Lincoln Continental while drinking whiskey from a paper cup. He also had an amphibious car, and liked to frighten passengers by pretending to drive into a lake by accident.