Minutes of a White House Meeting, Summer 1967

The following record of a meeting yel to be held is printed here to advance public understanding of the great issues of our time. Mr. Thomson, who now teaches history at Harvard, writes this projection out of a background of experience in the White House and Department of Stale during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

Mr. Breslau opened the meeting with a commentary on the latest reports from Vietnam. In general, he felt, the events of the previous day were a wholesome and not unexpected phase in South Vietnam’s growth toward political maturity and economic viability. The fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong meant that the enemy was now confronted with a challenge of unprecedented proportions for which it was totally unprepared: the administration of a major city. If we could dump rice and airlift pigs at Hué and Danang, he was pretty sure that the other side would soon cave. He cautioned, however, that this was merely a hunch. “It is not the kind of smell you can hang your hat on.”

Mr. Homer said that Mr. Breslau was full of crap; Mr. Breslau had never understood Vietnam and should stop trying. Things were very, very bad, but they would get infinitely worse if we dumped rice and pigs.

Mr. Breslau suggested that we move around the table rapidly so that we could all get back to work. Did Mr. Ulan have business to raise?

(The white telephone rang, and Mr. Breslau answered it. It was a test ring.)

Mr. Ulan said that he had spent the previous day with the German financial mission, and of course could not go into detail, but might shorthand some of the considerations which involved, on the one hand, a reading of what the electoral situation would be after Braunschweig (which was itself quite sticky), and on the other hand, a close calculation of the odds if we didn’t (or, conversely, if they didn’t), and on the third hand, a pretty shrewd look at the long-term consequences of any action at all when you factor out the balance of payments curve.

Mr. Breslau commented that the Germans were a fascinating bunch. He hoped that Mr. Ulan had taken a good hard look at the real numbers involved. He had always felt that numbers were important. Mr. Ulan said yes.

Mr. Rentner hoped that Mr. Breslau wouldn’t mind his reporting to the staff the President’s deep pleasure and pride in Mr. Breslau’s performance the previous Sunday on the What’s My Line? show. The President’s regard for Mr. Breslau and the entire staff had never been higher. The President was also very pleased with the new Harris poll, due out on Monday, which indicated that 86 percent of the people approved his recently announced decision to make foreign policy decisions on the basis of Harris poll findings.

Mr. Brown said that the reports of imminent mass starvation in India were more serious than we had expected; a presidential decision might be required this week.

Mr. Rentner said that it would take a good three weeks to set up and test-run a Harris poll on that kind of question.

Mr. Breslau said he hoped the Indians would take a good hard look at the development of chemical fertilizers. He asked Mr. Brown to ride herd on this one.

Mr. Homer noted that neither Mr. Breslau nor Mr. Brown knew a goddamn thing about Indian agriculture.

Colonel Black explained the previous night’s raids on North Vietnam. We had knocked out 78 percent of North Vietnam’s petroleum reserves; since we had knocked out 86 percent three days ago, and 92 percent last week, we were doing exceptionally well.

Mr. Breslau asked about the weather over North Vietnam. His Air Force experience in World War II had taught him, he said, the importance of weather.

Colonel Black said that it didn’t look good for the next few days.

Mr. Breslau said this was too bad since some people might think we were having a pause.

Mr. Ulan wondered if maybe it wasn’t time for another pause.

Mr. Breslau said that a pause was clearly out of the question now that the 12,000 student leaders and 3 million housewives had once again called for a pause. The President did not like to be crowded, especially now that Hanoi was hurting.

Mr. Ulan wondered if Hanoi was really hurting.

Mr. Breslau suggested that we move along since he had another meeting coming up.

Mr. Blue reported the execution by the new Brazilian government of all the nation’s university rectors.

Mr. Breslau commented that the new government had, nonetheless, really done its homework in the economic field; the overall curve was very promising.

Mr. White reported that the Rhodesia thing might come unstuck over the weekend. The Zambians were wobbly and could use some massaging. The President might call in their ambassador and pump up his tires.

Mr. Breslau said we should probably lie low on this until the new task force report on Africa was completed. In any event, the President didn’t like to be crowded by foreigners. Perhaps the Potomac River Sequoia cruise for black African ambassadors would take care of the problem.

Mr. Homer said that if the African Sequoia trip was anything like the Middle Eastern one, we were due to lose another thirty countries and 200 million people. The Turkish ambassador had had to sit through the film A President’s Country seven times now and was requesting transfer to another post.

Mr. Rentner expressed doubt that such reactions were widespread. The President was very fond of that film. Furthermore, USIA audience surveys in Korea, Taiwan, and South Vietnam had shown overwhelmingly favorable response to it.

Mr. Gray said that the interagency nuclear desalinization package was moving forward and might go for a decision this week if we could get the AEC, the ICC, the IFC, AID, State, DOD, BOB, and NASA aboard. Agriculture, he added, was playing it cool and might need a needle.

Mr. Breslau asked Mr. Gray to ride herd on this one. He hoped that they would take a good hard look at the real numbers involved.

Mr. Breslau announced that the ban on having NSC staff members talk to the press was causing some serious problems since the press had decided that the staff was no longer significant. The President would now like all staff members to talk to the press as much as possible, stressing the significance of the staff. They must be careful, however, to avoid talking substance to the press.

Mr. Rentner agreed that this was a good move and the staff should increase its visibility. He added that staff members should scrupulously avoid contacts, however, with Joseph Kraft, Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippmann, Max Frankel, Douglas Kiker, the New York Times people, and the Washington Post people. These contacts would be handled by Mr. Breslau and himself.

Mr. Rose said that he was quite worried about the public relations aspect of the fall of Saigon.

Mr. Breslau said he thought we could live with that one. He was very much reminded, he added, of one of his favorite scenes from HellZapoppin’. What fascinated him more than Saigon was the reported purge of the assistant managing editor of the Hankow People’s Daily; in writing his book on Communist China in 1953, he had concluded that the assistant managing editors of riverport newspapers were often the key indicators of policy shifts. Did Mr. Gold have a comment?

Mr. Gold said he would certainly look into this.

Mr. Breslau said that he had received Mr. Green’s long study of the Vatican’s relations with San Marino; he only wished the entire staff could read it. Mr. Green said thank you.

Mr. Homer noted that neither Mr. Breslau nor Mr. Green knew a goddamn thing about Italian politics.

(The white telephone rang, and Mr. Breslau answered it. It was Mrs. Breslau. The meeting was adjourned.)