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Interview with Horace W. Busby, 1981

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Summary
Horace Busby, Special Assistant to President Johnson, discusses Johnson’s presidency and his decision not to run for re-election in 1968. He describes Johnson’s 1961 trip to Vietnam as Vice President, and recounts his reactions as President to the Pueblo Incident and the Tet Offensive. In addition, Busby reflects on Johnson’s character and his style as a leader.
Topics
United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Escalation (Military science), Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Presidents--United States--Messages, Tet Offensive, 1968, Pueblo (Ship), Presidents--United States--Election, United States--History--1945-, Political consultants, Presidents--Staff, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
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Transcript

Urging L.B.J. not to run for re-election in 1968

Horace Busby
This is camera roll #611 coming up. Scene 5.
Take one.
Speed. Mike. Beep.
Interviewer:
Mr. Busby, in March of 1968 the President had asked you to draft the statement saying that he would not seek re-election, because you had urged him not to at various times before that. Why had you urged him? Or did you urge him not to seek re-election?
Busby:
I had urged the President beginning in December of 1967 not to run again. Because I felt that he had accomplished his, the purposes of his program, the purposes that he had spent most of his life committed to - civil rights, education legislation, and medicare for the elderly. That had been the basis of my feeling that he had completed what he was put on earth to do, and it was that he did not need to run for another term.
Ah, at the time of the...at the end of March, ah, at the time of the...actual speech, my urgings then were based on something that happened at that time, in that he had drafted the, ah, made the proposal to, ah, prepared the proposal to, ah, for the cease-fire hoping to end the war. I was unaware of that until the day before he was to speak.
And when I read the speech, which he sent to me that contained the bombing halt, ah, proposal in it, I felt very strongly at that point that if he was to make that, ah, proposal, and it would be credible to the world, he had to take it entirely out of the political context of the primaries that were then occurring. There was the Wisconsin Primary on Tuesday after the Sunday on which he was to deliver that message. And there had been the New Hampshire Primary before that. And I felt that the only way he could make his proposal to Vietnam, to North Vietnam, credible was at the price of his own political life.
Interviewer:
Did you have the feeling that he shared that?
Busby:
I think he, ah, I think he recognized that. And, ah, he was, he was focused much more in that period on the effort to get peace in Vietnam than he was on anything political. He was not really giving attention to politics, although he was, ah the odds-on favorite to be both the nominee and to be president. Be re-elected president to a second term.
Interviewer:
What, what would have been the risk if he had made that speech and then continued with politics as usual?
Busby:
If he had made the speech and had not, ah, withdrawn, had not announced his withdrawal, the effects would almost surely have been that on Tuesday, the...the Wisconsin Primary would have occurred - he was not campaigning. I don't recall even that he was on the, well, he was on the ballot under Wisconsin law, he had to be. But was making no campaign effort at all.
Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was also on the ballot, would have, would have won, ah, the Wisconsin Democratic Primary. Well, the appearance to the world would be, and the appearance to the country, that he had made the offer to halt the bombing in Vietnam, effectively bringing the war to an end. Ah, in an effort to influence Wisconsin.
And by Tuesday the whole thing would have been washed out. And I felt that that would leave enormous credibility gap for anything else that he might try, ah, internationally. And I think it would have, ah, it would have appeared to be, even though I...might not, would have known otherwise, it would appear to be a very shoddy piece of politics to, ah...change a nation's course...ah, to be the first president to try to...halt bombing to end the war, and presumptively would have left the presumption that he did all of it simply for personal political reasons which was not the case.

Appraisal of L.B.J.'s accomplishments

Interviewer:
But you felt he had done - this is going over some of the earlier question - you felt he had done all he could? Was that why you were interested in...
Busby:
Not all he could. He was a very effective president, and passed more legislation, I suppose, in the same period of time that anyone...ah, because he had also been a very effective leader of Congress, which he is the only such leader of Congress to have become, ever to have become president.
But, from the time I first knew him, which was, ah, in the late '40's, and even before that he had...he had proceeded on a pretty determined course wanting to bring an end to the civil, to the racial, ah...dilemma, the, the, the legal segregation in the country, wanting to ah...to get the federal government involved in support of education, which was one of his favorite themes, and then providing medical care for the aged, and some of the conservation measures he had.
He had accomplished the things that he had spent his whole life devoted to. Or his whole political life. And, ah, I felt that, ah, he simply did not...need to be president again for any reason other than perhaps to keep somebody else out of the job, and that's not a, in my view of things that’s not an adequate reason.

L.B.J.'s withdrawal from the election

Interviewer:
Now, I believe it was a day before the speech, the day of the speech, he got you over there in the family quarters to review what you had written, and so on. Did you have a feeling that...that other people agreed with what you were saying, or did you have you sequestered away so that other people wouldn't be aware of what you were doing? Was everybody in agreement that this was a good thing?
Busby:
No. There was virtually no agreement with the ah, with the proposal by anyone else at the White House, staff or family. Ah...I answered your question wrong.
Interviewer:
No, that's okay.
Busby:
There was no agreement...at the White House from anyone else that I know of that he should do this. Ah...he in turn, and he was, he was reporting that to me, he was telling me, he said, "No one, they're all against you." Against me, as though it were my decision. And, ah, he told me once, he said, "Don't, you shouldn't go over to the West Wing and walk downstairs in front of anyone (chuckle).
What he was doing, I found out later, was that he was going around talking to his assistants on his staff and to other people and saying, um...I...he always called me "Buzz," he said, "Buzz is proposing that I give up the...that I quit tonight - that I give up the job." And, ah, he wasn't saying what he was thinking. And so then, of course, their response was directed at me. But, ah, that's what friends of presidents are for, I suppose.
Interviewer:
Did you have a feeling that he had made up his mind at some point earlier or during that day, or...? Let's put it this way, when he went on television did you know if he was going to use that final section?
Busby:
I was not absolutely certain that he would use it. Ah., toward the end of the day, on Sunday...he spoke at 9 o'clock on Sunday night. Ah, from eight o'clock forward it appeared likely, most likely, that he would use it. Although, there was a, ah, a considerable effort being mounted in the family quarters of the White House, led by his young daughter, Luci, who did not want him to do it. And her basis for not wanting him to withdraw was that she, this would be the first election in which she would be old enough to vote, and she wanted to vote for her father.
But, ah, there were others arguing against it. And had it been broadcast around, had he discussed it with political leaders, Democratic Party leaders, Congressional leaders, they would all have been opposed to him doing that. I mean, after all, in 1964 he had...won the largest, ah, popular vote victory ever for a president, which record still stands. And political...his political allies and political, some members of the same political party, would certainly not want a man who'd done that to be off the ballot in '64. But those political considerations of that sort just couldn't enter into this decision.
Interviewer:
Now, earlier in there in January, didn't he call you into the bedroom and ask you to draft something for the State of the Union? Tell us that in terms of a brief story, and why you urged him not to do it at this time.
Busby:
In, in January of 1968, after a rather long stay over the holidays at his ranch in Texas, during which stay he had a visit from Levi Eshkol of Israel. And, ah, perhaps some other foreign leaders.
He returned to Washington on Sunday afternoon before he was to deliver, I believe on Tuesday night, the State of the Union Message. And he called me at my residence and asked me to come to the White House to, ah, help him with the State, ostensibly, to help him with the State of the Union Message.
When I got there, ah...he said (chuckle), in a rather characteristic way, he said, "You don't think I got you down here to work on the State of the Union, did you?" He said, "I've made up my mind." He said, "I can't be president, I can't have peace and be president, too." And, so then he set off on a lengthy session in...
End of audio portion on tape.
VIETNAM
Busby
SMO #2606
Tape 1. Side 1
Horace Busby
On Roll 2606...it goes with pix 06.12,
Vietnam P885, 4/24/81- Tone at minus 8
Tone. Coming up. Mark it. Let me just... ah...mark it.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Mr. Busby, in January of '68, the President called you into his, his, his bedroom to tell us what he...what he did and what was on his mind.
Busby:
He was um...on Sunday afternoon, and ah he was supposed to be working on his State of the Union message, and it was very much on his mind, but he was not working on that, he was...the bedroom, the presidential bed in the presidential bedroom is a, a canopy bed, and ah it was ah, the room was darkened - it was a dark day already - and he had only one light on. He had memoranda, opinion polls, many things spread around...about him, and he was on the bed in his pajamas.
And when I, shortly, shortly after I had entered, he said, "I've made up my mind - I can't be president and have peace, too." And ah, ah his intent and what he'd called me there to do was to write a, as he kept describing it, a one page statement, which he would read before the Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night, after he had delivered the State of the Union message, in which he wanted to say he was not going to seek re-election.
Ah...over the course of the evening - of course, this was, it was a very short time, about less than 48 hours before he was to speak to Congress - I kept trying to write what he had asked me to write, but I had questions about...the decision, about the action. And ah, I finally, I wrote something which, of course, was never used, but I wrote something for him, but I attached to it a memorandum of my own, saying that this was very, very early in the year, and ah, he was speaking on approximately January the 20th and it meant that the country would go twelve months without a, with a lame duck president.
And ah, I was not sure that this was ah, was wise. And ah, told him in the memorandum that I had questions abo-questions about that, the wisdom of withdrawing so early, and ah, for whatever reason, he did not use the statement that he had.
Interviewer:
What, what risks did you see in...in him withdrawing a, a year early?
Busby:
That it would be ah...it, it left too much exposure ah, internationally...
Interviewer:
Could you begin that with, with what the problem was and the risk was?
Busby:
Oh, I saw, I saw risks...ah perhaps imaginary, but I think ahm, there was a practical judgment that if he, if the President were to...announce his withdrawal twelve full months before he, the end of his term, that it was an invitation for mischief - quite serious mischief, perhaps - internationally. It would, it, it, it gave up a certain amount of control, ah authority, rather, for the office, domestically, in a period that was unstable already.
Ah, it effectively removed him from, as a, as a strong influence on Congress, ah or on the whole governing system of the country. And ah not it's, it just is my perception, having learned what I knew about the Presidency through long association with him, that you should not have someone in the White House um for twelve months who has already said that that he's effectively out of office, a lame duck.

The Pueblo Incident and the Tet Offensive

Interviewer:
And then the Pueblo incident came along?
Busby:
Yes, within just a few days after he passed the State of the Union mark ah after President Johnson had the the ah Koreans, the North Koreans seized, on the high seas, our intelligence ship, the Pueblo, and took the ship and the crew hostage, and ah this had a very strong effect upon the country, upon the Congress.
Now, President Johnson's reaction to the hostage taking was to work very hard here to keep ah keep down any um...demands for retaliation or ah...any, any, any other attacks upon on on North Koreans, his reasoning being that if you, that through your rhetoric here, you could kill the hostages. And so he did not talk about that, himself, very much and, uh, Congress did not, and ah, the hostages were released in eleven months.
But immediate, again, within a matter of two or three weeks after the Pueblo was taken, the um...beginning of the Tet Offensive in ah South Vietnam resulted the first day in the seizure, the taking of our embassy in Saigon, so those two events really did unsettle the country, and I was grateful myself ah, that he had not made that statement, uh in January.
Interviewer:
But when you, when you um, urged him on March 30th not to...to attach the resignation, if you will, ah part to the, to the bombing halt speech - it was because of the bombing halt; it didn't have anything to do with Tet.
Busby:
No, it had ah, there was no ah connection between his March 31st withdrawal and ah, the events in Southeast Asia - the w-, the war events. The connection, as I saw it, was entirely between the effort he was making, which was without precedent in American presidential history to end a war by, in fact, ending the attack upon the enemy's territory. And ah, that was an unprecedented step, and it required ah, I felt ah, a high order of ah, accompanying action to make it credible.

L.B.J.'s trip to South Vietnam in 1961

Interviewer:
Now, in 1961 you went went to Southeast Asia w—w—w—with the President then the Vice President. What message did he br—bring back? I'm interested in, in the feeling that people didn't want American boys to come over there and also that, that Diem was, you know, nobody could replace Diem.
Busby:
In 1961, in the...in May of that year, after the Bay of Pigs episode in Cuba, President Kennedy asked Vice President Johnson to go to South Vietnam, because there were reports there ah, that the South Vietnamese were greatly upset by the conduct of the United States in regard to the Bay of Pigs and the fact that we did not follow through the landing and things of that sort. The trip was broadened subsequently, on the basis of other reports from other of our embassy outposts, to include the Philippines, ah Taiwan, ah Thailand, Pakistan and ah, India.
In all these points, not just, it began in Saigon with his, when he, where he met with President Diem, but in all those countries, the leaders who, of our, that were friendly to us were very unsettled about the conduct of the United States at the Bay of Pigs, the new administration, and they did not feel that ah, their feeling was that a great power, such as the United States, does not, is not tentative towards somebody who's established ah, a hostile stronghold 90 miles offshore, and the purpose of this trip was to, to be reassuring to them.
Interviewer:
But wha—wha—what message did he bring back?
Busby:
The message that he brought back from his...the message that Vice President Johnson brought back from his uh, trip to Southeast Asia in 1961 was unanimous. Ah, among the leaders of the country he visited that they did not want a, a presence of foreign military uh, troops of any sort in their countries. They were ah...or, or in on, on the continent. They were fresh out from under colonial military rule and ah, at each stop, including Saigon this was the message, and it was in the report that Vice President Johnson presented to President Kennedy.
Interviewer:
Did...was there also a ah did he also have feelings that, that Diem was a good leader and that there wasn't anybody to replace him?
Busby:
On his ah...three days in, three or four days in South Vietnam in 1961 ah, President, Vice President Johnson talked several times in the palace there with ah, President Diem of South Vietnam. Ah, there was a great deal of criticism of Diem among ah, American State Department people and, and others. There was also a great deal of support for him among American military.
Um, President Johnson's assessment of the situation, just from his, what he saw was that Diem had done ah, a good job against strong odds, great odds - odds of culture and history and all else - at organizing a government and a country. Ah and, and making things run. But what he saw behind that, from talks with other people, was that there was not a, there was not a chain of command, there was not anybody behind Diem - and this was Vice President Johnson's view - who could do the same sort of job in organizing and conducting the affairs of South Vietnam.
Interviewer:
So when Johnson became President and Diem was gone, he inherited...he inherited this mess.
Busby:
Yes, only ah, about twenty days before Lyndon Johnson became President in ah, November of 1963, Diem ah, was killed in um, Saigon, and so he began...Lyndon Johnson began his Presidency with what he, with the situation there that he most feared.
Interviewer:
But...how did he feel about that? Uh, uh, we...we're out of film now, but I'm just...
Busby:
Well...
Interviewer:
Di—di—did he ever say, my God, that's...
Busby:
That's correct...

A portrait of L.B.J.

613...okay, pix roll...Mark it. Tone.
Interviewer:
Mr. Busby, what was the scene on that...final day there, when you walked into the President's bedroom and there were tailors, and valets, and doctors, and so on?
Busby:
The scenes at the White House close in around a President are not oft—oftentimes are not the way a public would perceive it I think. When I arrived at the White House on the morni—morning of March the 31st, ah I entered the Presidential bedroom, which - expecting to find only him there, and it's, it's not a large room - but instead I found a, a real gathering, all of which was related to the Presidential day one way or another.
He was on the phone, standing, and ah, he always had long, long cords on his telephone so he could - wherever he was, and all his life - so he could walk all over the room. So with this long cord he was walking to the center of the room and using his free hand to dive bomb his ah, grandson, who would squeal and fall over, and his mother, Luci would pick him up and set him up for the next ah...approach of his grandfather.
In ah, the far corner of the room, the Presidential valets, who are servicemen, were opening boxes and laying out three new suits that had just arrived from the tailor, and matching them up with the shirts, appropriate shirts and ties for him to select one to use on his broadcast that night. Ah, there were some friends of the President's ah, private friends, who had spent the night at the White House - they were scattered about the room - and to my right when I entered were two military officers, one of them being ah, naval...ah...physician, who was stationed at the White House, and the other one, I assumed, was a physician.
And so, when the President got off the phone, he first went over and picked out the suit he wanted to wear, then he came over to these ah...Navy doctors, and he was on the phone again by then, and ah...President Johnson had on his hands what were called in rural Texas skin cancers ah, which he was always putting something on, or having them cut off, and so, he, while he was talking he held out his hand to the visiting doctor, who immediately adjusted an eyepiece on his glass and bent over, examined it, took a ah, began taking small tools out of his kit and he was scraping this, one of these skin cancers.
The President was ah, talking to someone - I think a Cabinet officer - and he didn't explain what was going on, but about every fifteen seconds he would ah, let go with (laughter)...some loud response to the, to the ah, doctor, scraping on his hand, "Oh, you, you got it then - oohh" (laughter)...and I don't what the other party on the other end of the phone might have been thinking (laughter)...what was wrong with the President. But he was doing all these things simultaneously. He continued to play with the grandson, too, along with ah, all this. But that's ah, that was ah, the scene at the start of this day, immediately after this uh, he had attended to all these things...
Interviewer:
Cut.
[inaudible]...battery.
Take 4's coming up.
Tone
Interviewer:
Ok? Yeah, action. Um, I want to go over one, one more thing again. He, he was concerned about protecting you from while you were drafting this in those final moments. Wh—wh—what did he tell you about? I want to get the, "don't go down the stairs with somebody behind you..."
Busby:
Didn't I have to do that a while ago?
Interviewer:
Yeah, I want to do it again.
Busby:
Oh. The the President ah, had me in the White House, on the second floor, in what's known as the Treaty Room, actually in ancient times or through mos—most of the Presidencies, that's where the President ah, received people who just walked in off the street. Ah but, I was in the Treaty Room, simply because it was the only room on the floor that had a desk on which one could write.
Ah, he had not hidden me away uh, by any means, but ah, the discovery that I was there added a great deal of credibility to the fact that he might be serious about what he was doing, since, over a period of about twenty years, I had written many of his most important speeches. But what it, the way in which he used it, he would go to the West Wing where the executive offices are and begin talking among his assistants ah, saying that I was over there pushing him (laughs) which was preposterous, advocating that he ah, withdraw from the Presidency, and so this caused them to respond to me. I mean against me, and rather heatedly, I understand, in a number of instances, you know, wha-why does he think that?
And the President didn't disclose his own feelings cause he wanted to hear the argument. And ah, he came back several times and told me, he said, "They're all against you," and then once he came back and said, "Don't go over to the West Wing and walk down the stairs in front of anybody" (laughter). But ah, that was the...I have no idea who was saying what, he was just coming back over, saying that. One White House staff person, a woman, wrote a book and said that if she could have gotten to me that night she would have choked me to death (laughter). And I suppose that was the level of incipient violence that he was reporting.
Interviewer:
What was, what kind of a guy was he? What made him tick? Give us some adjectives. Was he insecure or hostile or...?
Busby:
Well, he was...awfully close to having to say of him that he was sort of a one of a kind person. Uh...some books, some authors who have written about him have used phrases like that - that we never saw his kind before and likely we'll never see it again. In the legis—in the realm of the national government, not state government, or city government, realm of the national government, he was as near to a genius as the system has produced. At making it work uh, at, at uh, I'm, I’m talking about the pol—the political process. Uh, he was not, uh, he was imbued with the...philosophies of the thirties, or the objectives of the thirties. In fact, much that he did...
Interviewer:
I don't want to get into policy, just as a man.
Busby:
Well, he was a tumultuous person. Uh, he had, uh, he had many wars going on within himself. He did uh, he knew he was good yet he never thought he was good enough. He had insecurity that often accompanies these men who rise to the top of our system. He, he was, he could, he had a great comic sense uh, a great satirical sense even of himself which he didn’t disclose to very many people. Uh...
Interviewer:
Was he funny?
Busby:
He was very funny.
Interviewer:
Wait. Start again. Was he funny?
Busby:
He was a very funny man, in private. He uh, could not tell, could not speak easily before a big crowd with one liners. That was not his style. But uh, uh when he would sit down to recall an event, a meeting between two men or between himself and someone, he would, you would be rolling around the floor almost, for about thirty minutes. He drew the story out quite, at length, but he, making little satirical comments on the human condition as he went.
And he was stormy, he, he uh, he would scream at people and yell at people, and try to make everybody function. He would often snap his fingers and say, "let's function, let's function, let's function." He never had done enough, and no one around him had done enough, and he, he, he worked long. He worked too much in some respects uh, he was too obsessed with it.
Interviewer:
How did he personalize the war? When pilots would go down, and during the bombing, did he take all this personally?
Busby:
I felt that at the beginning of 1965 when there were some...raids being made off of our carriers on the, on North Vietnam, that watching him every night, he knew what raid was going to be made, he would awaken in his bedroom about two or three o'clock in the morning, or four o'clock, and call the Pentagon room that he was supposed to call and ask if the boys had gotten back. Maybe there were two planes, or four planes, these were not big operations. And by the time staff had gotten around him at eight or nine in the morning, if he knew one of the planes were not back, it, it would cast a pall on his mood. Uh...
Interviewer:
He agonized over it?
Busby:
Yes, at one level, it was commendable, I think, that he had that personal concern for the men at another level, I often pondered whether a Commander in Chief can be that close to...can personalize a battle that, that intensely and that closely, and still seek, and still keep his perspective. Because it doesn't reduce down to those...individuals.
Interviewer:
How did he feel in '65 when the troops were committed? Were you with him then?
Busby:
Oh yes. He uh, when the commitment began, it never was...the commitment of troops to Vietnam which eventually grew to around 500,000, I believe, came slowly. It was not just a one day announcement that we're going to do what we eventually did. There was hope on his part, always, and he was often told this by his advisors, that he would send another thousand men, or two thousand men and that may be enough, and it will all stop.
His advisors were, in '65, were very optimistic about small commitment of strength resulting in a big dividend in terms of shortening the war. I don't think he was optimistic. He saw the war uh, he saw what ultimately came in public reaction here, he saw earlier than his advisors and feared, wanted to avoid, and I think he was skeptical about the courses of action that he took, or, that we were taking collectively as a government.
Interviewer:
I think we got it. We got it? Yeah. Room tone.
END SIDE 1 SND #2606
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