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LBJ tapes on Marshall, Vietnam revealing

Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson

AUSTIN, Texas — Lyndon B. Johnson showed his intensity over Vietnam War negotiations and calculated the public response to his nomination of the first black justice for the Supreme Court in 1967 telephone recordings released Tuesday.

The late president's rough demeanor and sometimes salty language emerge in the conversations with Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other Johnson appointees and public figures.

Talking with McNamara about Vietnam peace attempts, Johnson suggested hitting one negotiator with a first round of arguments before coming back with more.

"You be thinking all these things that we stuff up his bottom good and let him dilate before we shoot him the second one," Johnson said.

His gentler side appears when he invites the Rev. Billy Graham to a White House lunch to talk about his recent trip to Vietnam and as he wishes good health to former President Dwight Eisenhower after briefing Eisenhower about a summit with Soviet Chairman Alexsei Kosygin at Glassboro, N.J.

The LBJ Library and Museum made public about 30 hours of taped conversations Tuesday covering the entire year of 1967, when the Vietnam War raged, anti-war protesters made their voices heard on the home front and Johnson's policies often met with disapproval in Congress.

On June 13, 1967, as he planned to announce his nomination of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice, Johnson sounded confident in his selection but curious about how it would be received.

"What will the papers say about the appointment?" Johnson asked Clark.

Clark said Marshall was a "natural choice." He predicted a mostly favorable response and said any criticism would likely come because Marshall "hasn't changed his behavior to suit other people."

The Supreme Court seat Marshall was selected for was being vacated by Clark's father, Tom Clark, also a former attorney general.

Johnson wondered whether Marshall would be tough enough in his crime rulings. At one point in the recordings, Johnson mimics Marshall, saying Marshall assured him, "I'm a Tom Clark crime man."

In another conversation with McNamara, Johnson spoke of his frustrations with peace negotiations by Kosygin and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but said there was a need to show the administration's efforts to make peace.

"Let's just play this one for the record," Johnson said.

In a conversation with Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in March 1967, Johnson derided Sen. Robert F. Kennedy for a speech suggesting that the United States halt its bombing of the North Vietnamese.

"We just finished doing that. I don't know where the hell he was," Johnson said of Kennedy.

Johnson also talked of secret letters he had been sending through back channels to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and his offer to halt bombing if the North Vietnamese would stop their forward movement.

"I want to keep that channel open. I'm writing back and forth to him," Johnson said of the messages, which have been documented.

LBJ Library senior archivist Regina Greenwell said 1967 was in some respects a hopeful year for Johnson because the South Vietnamese government appeared to be stabilizing and peace attempts were in the works.

"Of course, ultimately, it doesn't materialize," Greenwell said. "Throughout, you hear the president is caught between two competing groups — hawks and doves, and he is trying to tread this middle ground."

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