"I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. ... I just went on 'Meet the Press' and I said ... that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election and, if elected, after the election and if you felt ... that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it, that I felt Saigon should come to the conference table. ...
"I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government's attitude, there's absolutely no credibility as far as I'm concerned."
Armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, "I'm very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here's the history of it. I didn't want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened."
Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28 when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: "Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn't say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn't."
"Huh, no," Nixon responded. "My God, I would never do anything to encourage ... Saigon not to come to the table. ... Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can't have a peace."
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted, including going to Paris himself if that would help. "We've got to get this goddamn war off the plate," Nixon continued. "The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me."
Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced. "You just see that your people don't tell the South Vietnamese that they're going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference," the President said.
Still professing his innocence, Nixon told Johnson, "The main thing that we want to have is a good, strong personal understanding. After all, I trust you on this and I've told everybody that."
"You just see that your people that are talking to these folks make clear your position," Johnson said.
According to some reports, Nixon was gleeful after the conversation ended, believing he had tamped down Johnson's suspicions. However, privately, the savvy Johnson didn't believe Nixon's protestations of innocence.
What to Do?
On Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks. The Monitor's Washington bureau was finally checking out Deepe's story.
The FBI bugging of the South Vietnamese embassy picked up a conversation involving journalist Saville Davis of the Monitor's Washington bureau, seeking a comment from Ambassador Bui Diem about "a story received from a [Monitor] correspondent in Saigon." Rostow relayed the FBI report to Johnson who was still at his Texas ranch.
The "eyes only" cable reported:
"Davis said that the dispatch from Saigon contains the elements of a major scandal which also involves the Vietnamese ambassador and which will affect presidential candidate Richard Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it. He speculated that should the story be published, it will create a great deal of excitement."
Davis also approached the White House for comment about Deepe's draft article. The Monitor's inquiry gave President Johnson one more chance to bring to light the Nixon campaign's gambit before Election Day, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.
So, Johnson consulted with Walt Rostow, Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.
"Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I'm wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected," Clifford said. "It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country's interests."