Lyndon Johnson and George Mahon on 5 May 1965


Transcript

Edited by David G. Coleman and Marc J. Selverstone, with Kieran Matthews

President Johnson places a call to Representative George Mahon [D–Texas], urging him to lobby for the administration's $700 million supplemental aid request for military assistance to Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. The House of Representatives would pass the legislation later that day by a vote of 408–7.
President Johnson

[speaking aside before conversation with Mahon begins] [Unclear] different than you expected. No doubt [Ernest] Gruening [D–Alaska] and maybe a dozen or so more. [Unclear.]

Yes?

White House Operator

Congressman Mahon, line 0.

President Johnson

George, [Mahon acknowledges as President Johnson picks up the receiver] in presenting this bill today, I thought I better go over two or three points with you that—

George Mahon

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson

First of all, we don't need this bill at all. We're not asking for it for a vote of confidence; we're not asking for it even in support of our efforts. We, in view of the increased demand, have to have ammunition. We have to have extry ordinance.[note 2] President Johnson appears to say “extry,” a slang variant of “extra.” We have to have extra fuel. We have to have the extras provided in this bill—maintenance—because helicopters are flying 90,000 hours instead of 30[000].

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

We have funds, as you know better than anybody else, in 510 we could transfer.[note 3] President Johnson is likely referring to section 510 of the Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 1965, which states that "No part of any appropriation contained in this Act shall be available until expended unless expressly so provided elsewhere in this or some other appropriation Act." United States at Large, Containing the Concurrent Resolutions Enacted During the Second Sessions of the Eighty-Eighth Congress of the United States of America, 1964, and Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and Proclamations, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1965), Public Law 88446, 19 August 1964, 78:476.

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

But to do that without telling the Congress in such a huge amount, I thought might make them feel that "well, he's just kind of ignoring us," and so on and so forth. So I said to the leadership, "I'll use it under my transfer authority or I'll send a new message, whichever you think's better." And it was pretty generally agreed that if you were real honest and frank and candid you'd say, "Here's what we need and I'm going to ask for this additional. You give it to us and I'll use my transfer if it's an emergency." [Mahon acknowledges.] And you're not here some time—

Mahon

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson

—but since you're sitting up there and you can hear it, it seems to me it'd be better for you to examine it and make us justified, and so forth. So that is the first reason.

Mahon

I think that's good.

President Johnson

Now, the second thing for your background, and I think this is extremely important: Mr. [Rómulo] Betancourt is here and he was—said last evening, that he has now, through his own private sources, confirmed what happened down there [the Dominican Republic] and that this is not any plaything and not an ordinary fight of politicians—that it's—has a good deal of outside influences.[note 4] Rómulo Betancourt was the former president of Venezuela. At the time of the Dominican intervention, he was a member of the Venezuelan senate. He's satisfied—

Mahon

He's in Santo Domingo?

President Johnson

Yeah. And I'm hoping that Betancourt will be interviewed today and be questioned pretty closely and see if he won't get on the record for that, because I think that would be very important to us. Now, number three: Mrs. [Juan] Bosch is here. And we have developed that she didn't know—they didn't even know there was going to be a revolution. That this Colonel [Francisco] Caamaño and the [Elias Wessín y] Wessíns are two military dictatorships fighting each other in a big war and they just use Bosch—he didn't even know they was going to do it.

Mahon

Uh-huh.

President Johnson

They brought his name in so he'd be a nice poet and a sweet liberal and a good human being, and kind of put him up in the front. And as soon as they got going, they dropped him like a hot potato.

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, the Latin liberals, like [Luis] Muñoz Marin, and Betancourt, and the others, are coming around to that.[note 5] Luis Muñoz Marin was the former governor of Puerto Rico. At the time of the Dominican intervention, he was a member of the Puerto Rican Senate. But this is not just any peasant uprising against the government; this is a question of some folks trying to do a job and Caamaño, the colonel, using Bosch kind of as a front to have two military dictators fighting each other. I thought that that—just having knowledge of that would be of some value to you. Now, of course we're pursuing it carefully.

Mahon

Yes.

President Johnson

And some of them indicate that we might be—the administration might be hesitant or doubtful about its policy and some either—

Mahon

Oh.

President Johnson

—Vietnam or there. And that's not the thought at all. I've got a vote of confidence 502–2 on the August thing, which says "prevent any aggression anywhere and protect armed troops anywhere."[note 6] President Johnson is referring to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964, which provided the "blank check" for military operations against Communist forces in Vietnam. I thought, though, this would be a master stroke with the Congress to show them I was frank and candid [Mahon acknowledges], and when I needed something I'd put it right in their belly. And if they didn't want to give it to me, they could say so. And if they did, they could say so.

Mahon

Yes.

Johnson

And if they gave it to me, why, they'd say, "We can trust the guy. Although he's got authority, he didn't write his check. He let us in on it."

Mahon

Yes.

President Johnson

So I want to be sure that you get that picture.

Mahon

Well, I've been a little worried as to just how the best to approach this. Now, handling it before the full committee is no problem at all.

President Johnson

Yeah.

Mahon

But you have to be careful of what you say and not forget the right slant. This will show the approval of the policy, which we are pursuing in Southeast Asia, of course. This is one of the objectives [President Johnson acknowledges] as requested, you see, in your message of yesterday.[note 7] "Special Message to the Congress Requesting Additional Appropriations for Military Needs in Viet-Nam," 4 May 1965, Public Papers of the President: Lyndon Baines Johnson (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966), 1:494-98. But . . . and it's true, also, that this could be handled within the framework of existing appropriations and language. But with Congress in session, why shouldn't we be kept advised and participate in these matters? Because we're supposed to control the purse strings, and so forth.

President Johnson

If I hadn't have been there 30 years on the Hill, I would have just signed the documents that came to me transferring funds under 510.

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

When it came to me, I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Why in the hell don't I tell George Mahon and Carl Hayden [D–Arizona]? Why don't I tell Mendel Rivers [D–South Carolina] and John Stennis [D–Mississippi]? If I don't tell them, three days later they'll be finding out about it and they'll say, “Good God, this man's doing his own appropriating down here and we're right here in session!"

Mahon

Yeah. This is a good—this is a good [unclear].

President Johnson

So I laid my cards on the table. If they want those helicopters to fly, if they want that fuel in them, if they want ammunition in their guns, they can pass that bill. If they don't, they can cut it or reduce it or defeat it. And I'll have to be guided by what they do.

Mahon

Yeah. But, of course, the House—well, the committee was just overly unanimous and cooperative, and I think the House—there'll be a little squawking from fellows like [Harold] Gross [R-Iowa], but in my opinion, very short. And I've asked [John] McCormack [D-Massachusetts] and [Carl] Albert [D-Oklahoma] to say a word. We're going to do it 30 minutes to the side and try to do it in an hour.

President Johnson

That's—

Mahon

I think that's a good deal, you know.

President Johnson

That's excellent.

Mahon

Yeah, you know something that bothers me: with all these terroristic techniques that are developed in the world, I'm afraid that the time is coming—just like this thing in Santo Domingo—they're refining the instruments of terror. They could even blow up the Capitol some day [President Johnson acknowledges] some of these people. This thing is real serious.

President Johnson

It—no question about it. And we've got to meet it and meet it head on. And what we've done is—I said to a group of ambassadors this morning: this thing occurred Saturday. We asked for cease-fire. We met—talked to them Monday, and met with them Tuesday, officially. We said, "Please cease fire; please understand this thing's grave." We met with them Wednesday and they debated Wednesday. Wednesday at 3:00 our ambassador says, "I'm still not going to ask for help because I hope there's some other way.” But their government, their chief of police, their military authorities, their governmental leaders in charge says, "You're on your own. We cannot give you any protection." And they're shooting through the embassy. Now, what does a man do under those circumstances? I did two things: I complied with the unanimous request of the country team and the unanimous recommendation of the departments here. And I sent them troops, announced to the American people what I was doing immediately, just as soon as they get it out of the typewriter. They said it's very rushed. The [television] networks are mad because I didn't give them a day or two's notice on it.

Mahon

Yes.

President Johnson

And immediately notified [the Organization of] American States and said, "Please get in here and let's decide it." Since then, I've asked them, "Please get us a cease-fire that’ll work. Please get us some troops that’ll work. [Mahon acknowledges throughout.] Please get us a commission that’ll tell us what to do." We don't want to do any of those things. But we're not going to be like mothers sitting there with all of our children being lined up and shot! And at 5:00, we were told they were marching 100 policemen down the street to put them against the wall to shoot them. If they're doing that to their people, what would they be doing to ours?

Mahon

That's right.

President Johnson

Now, as it is, they'll say, "Well, you ought to have done so and so. As I look back you ought to [have] called a meeting of the United Nations, or the OAS [Organization of American States] and had them debate for a while longer.” If I had done that and 100 had been killed, they'd say, "Why didn't the idiot take precautions and then call the meeting?" [Mahon acknowledges.] So either way you go, you got it and—but the point is this: we haven't killed anybody and they haven't killed a single civilian up to now. And we have saved—they had 1,500 to 2,000 Dominicans in the streets smelling dead.

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

But there['s] not an American, because we surrounded them, we put our people around them, we put—cut off the zone, and we have not lost an American life as of yet. Now, the snipers picked off six of our Marines from top of buildings. But we weren't killing Dominicans. We were there protecting Americans and 36 other countries. And we haven't lost a life [Mahon acknowledges], which is the most phenomenal thing that you ever heard of.

Mahon

That's right.

President Johnson

And I told [Robert] McNamara after the order was issued, I said, "Now, let's don't get some wild bully or some captain that'll start shooting up the street when they invade on him. Let's get the best man we got in the United States Army, send him, put him in charge, and tell him to use a cool head. And his job is not to kill anybody, but to keep any of our people from being killed."

Mahon

Yeah.

President Johnson

Now, that's it.

Mahon

That’s right.

President Johnson

And he sent [Bruce] Palmer in 22 minutes.[note 8] General Bruce Palmer Jr. commanded Task Force 12 and U.S. Land Forces during the intervention in the Dominican Republic. From the time I gave the order, Palmer was in an airplane from Andrews [Air Force Base] and he has taken charge and it has . . . they may kill 1,000 this afternoon, but up to now, we haven't lost one and we're bringing them out by the hundreds. We brought out 3[00] or 400 yesterday; we're bringing 3[00] or 400 out now. We got 5,000 to bring out. And the Latin—they tell me the Latin ambassadors themselves are the ones that are most grateful, because they're just getting hell shot out of their embassies!

Mahon

Yes. Yeah. Now, in this thing today, the chief emphasis should be on Southeast Asia, I assume.

President Johnson

Well, yeah, I certainly would. Yes, I'd say on both of them. I'd say that we're trying to—we're using the maximum effort to prevent aggression with the minimum expenditure and the minimum loss of life.

Mahon

Yes.

President Johnson

Now, in the last—since I became president, November 23rd, [1963,] we've killed 26,000 Vietcong.

Mahon

Yes.

President Johnson

But they've infiltrated enough where we estimate they got 40,000 now. But most of our . . . practically everyone we've killed is in South Vietnam where they've invaded, they've aggressed, they've come across this line. And we're having to use a good deal more helicopters, good deal more planes. We've . . . a good deal more fuel, good deal more maintenance. And unless we want to pull out, why, we've got to have the funds to do it with. And we can use them and come back and call you in special session in November or December, or we can get them now while you're here. Or we can, if you don't want us to do it, we can just quit flying them.

Mahon

Yes, yes. Well, I think we'll have a good day and I think we'll handle this thing [unclear]

President Johnson

We'll see whether they believe—we'll see whether they believe in the Executive being frank and candid and open with them. I called every Republican on the committee. I didn't make it a Democratic affair. And I laid it on the line as clear as I knew how and I just wanted you, before you went on the floor, to know it.

Mahon

This is good.

President Johnson

Thank you.

Mahon

Appreciate it.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and George Mahon on 5 May 1965,” Conversation WH6505-05-7582, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Lyndon B. Johnson: Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty, ed. David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4001086