AUSTIN, Texas - In the final months of his administration, President Lyndon B. 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 yesterday show.
"This is treason," Johnson said, referring to people close to Nixon, during a conversation with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. The Democratic president never accused the Republican who would succeed him of treason, but said, "If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well that's going to be his responsibility."
Nixon spoke with Johnson in another recorded phone conversation in November 1968 and tried to assure him that he supported Johnson's efforts to bring South Vietnam to a Paris peace conference with North Vietnam. He said he would do whatever Johnson wanted him to do to help before or after the election.
"I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this," Nixon said. "We've got to get them to Paris, or we can't have a peace."
Johnson agreed. Johnson had cited news articles and private information he'd been given that he said made him think Nixon's associates were trying to persuade the South Vietnamese government not to join the peace talks until after the election. Progress on peace in Vietnam before the November election presumably would have given Hubert Humphrey - the Democratic presidential nominee and Johnson's vice president - a boost with voters.
Allegations of Nixon's influence in the peace conference have been reported before, but the tapes provide a look at how Johnson handled the issue behind the scenes, said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor and expert on the presidency at the University of Texas in Austin.
"I think what's new here is the way Johnson characterizes it as 'treason' in his private conversations," Buchanan said. He said he suspected the follow-up conversation between Johnson and Nixon was not really a debate on the matter, but a formal exchange in which both men said what would be expected of them.
The approximately 42 hours of telephone recordings released yesterday 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 yesterday made them available for the first time to the public and researchers.
Johnson, who died in 1973, originally instructed a former aide that his recorded phone calls were to be kept sealed until 50 years after his death. But in the 1990s, then-library director Harry Middleton decided to make them public and got Lady Bird Johnson to agree. Since then, historians, students and others have heard for themselves Johnson's sometimes abrasive personality and his persuasion powers known as "the Johnson treatment."