AUSTIN, Texas – In the last months of his administration, President Lyndon Johnson voiced worry over the Vietnam peace talks and stridently suggested that associates of Richard Nixon were attempting to keep South Vietnam away from the table until after the 1968 election, recordings of telephone conversations released Thursday show.
"This is treason," Johnson said, referring to people close to Nixon, during a conversation with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. The Democratic president never accused the Republican who would succeed him of treason, but said, "If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the (peace) conference table, that's going to be his responsibility."
Nixon spoke with Johnson in another recorded phone conversation in November 1968 and tried to assure him that he supported Johnson's efforts to bring South Vietnam to a Paris peace conference with North Vietnam. He said he would do whatever Johnson wanted him to do to help before or after the election.
"I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this," Nixon said. "We've got to get them to Paris, or we can't have a peace."
Johnson agreed. Johnson had cited news articles and private information he'd been given that he said made him think Nixon's associates were trying to persuade the South Vietnamese government not to join the peace talks until after the election. Progress on peace in Vietnam before the November election presumably would have given Hubert Humphrey — the Democratic presidential nominee and Johnson's vice president — a boost with voters.
Allegations of Nixon's influence in the peace conference have been reported before, but the tapes provide a look at how Johnson handled the issue behind the scenes, said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor and expert on the presidency at the University of Texas in Austin.
"I think what's new here is the way Johnson characterizes it as 'treason' in his private conversations," Buchanan said. He said he suspects the follow-up conversation between Johnson and Nixon was not really a debate on the matter, but a formal exchange in which both men are saying what would be expected of them.
The 43 hours of telephone recordings released Thursday cover the period from May 1968 through January 1969, when Johnson left office. The LBJ Library has archived and periodically released groups of the recordings, which were made throughout his presidency. The phone conversations took place at the White House and at the LBJ Ranch in Texas.
The LBJ Library's release of the final recordings Thursday made them available for the first time to the public and researchers.
In one newly released recording, Johnson can be heard expressing his condolences to Sen. Edward Kennedy after the assassination of his brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy, in June 1968.
"Ted, I know what a burden you bear, but your shoulders are broad and you've got lots of people who love you and who want to help you," Johnson told Kennedy. Kennedy's voice is barely audible in the recording, but he can be heard thanking Johnson and telling him "both my parents appreciate" his condolences.