Lyndon Johnson and Birch Bayh on 15 June 1965


Transcript

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

Birch Bayh

Hello?

President Johnson

Hi, Birch.

Bayh

Mr. President, how are you, sir?

President Johnson

Good.

Bayh

A quick thought for you, sir, if I may. I had a rather lengthy discussion with Governor [Roger D.] Branigan.[note 1] Roger D. Branigan was the governor of Indiana. And do you remember sometime ago, when I was down there on another matter, we had a little conversation on the Vietnamese situation, and you suggested at that time that it might be helpful for some of us to speak out and to give it some thought? I did. Would it be helpful to have a midwestern governor join in this business?

President Johnson

Yes, yes.

Bayh

He's talked to both of our state university presidents who were in town today, and I intend to follow this up with Purdue and Indiana to see if maybe there isn't some way we can start a countervailing student movement contrary to this crazy "teach-in" thing.[note 2] "Teach-ins" on Vietnam had become popular on college campuses during the spring of 1965. The first had taken place in late March at the University of Michigan, spreading to the rest of the country and attracting thousands of participants. A National Teach-In, held in Washington, D.C., took place on 15 May, and was televised to as many as 100,000 viewers. Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America's Hearts and Minds (Lanham, MD: Scholarly Resources, 2002), 22–23. I didn't want to muddy the water on this. I think Roger would go along—

President Johnson

I think it would be absolutely excellent. I think we've got to. What they've done—the—we don't want to say it, because it makes us look like McCarthys, and we detest him so much.[note 3] President Johnson was sensitive to the charge that in criticizing individuals for speaking out against administration policies in Vietnam, he would be inviting comparisons to the late, discredited senator Joseph R. McCarthy [R–Wisconsin], whose anti-Communist crusade in the 1950s was widely condemned. But what they have done throughout the world, they're winning the propaganda war against us. And they're also winning the other war against us because they're winning the propaganda one. We have spent half of our time explaining what we're trying to do, and so on and so forth. And they've got Harold Wilson on the ropes, and they've got the prime minister of Canada dodging and ducking.[note 4] Harold Wilson was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970, and from 1974 to 1976. Lester B. Pearson was prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968.

Now, none of us want to do what the Joint Chiefs of Staff say you ought to do to win, and that's go in and bomb the hell out of them. And I'm holding them up and refusing to do that. On the other hand, if we walked out of there, we would bust every treaty we got and 44 nations would say that the United States couldn't be depended on for anything, whether it's Tokyo or Berlin, or NATO, or any of the rest of them—SEATO, CENTO.[note 5] The acronym SEATO stands for Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The acronym CENTO stands for Central Treaty Organization. So we can't walk out and we can't walk in, so to speak, with heavy bombs and atomic weapons, and stuff like that. And we're trying to deter them and wear them out without losing a lot of people. Now, we've lost 400, but we've lost 160,000 casualties since World War II in Korea, and in Greece, and Iran, and Turkey, and all over the world. So 400 compared to 160,000 is not bad, relatively speaking.

So, if we can't go in, we can't go out, then what can we do? We can't just sit there. The only pressure that we're putting on them is bombing their bridges and their ammunition dumps. And we've knocked out 20 percent of their ammunition. We've knocked out all their bridges. And they can't have many more buildups, and we're killing a good many of their people. This buildup that we got to face between now and the monsoon season was built up before we started our bombing in February. But I just held off as long, and long, and long as I could, because I knew the people would raise hell. I knew it didn't look good and it didn't have a peace image, and so on and so forth.

But it has done what we thought it ought to do, primarily three things. It has deterred them. It's hard as hell for them to get anymore men down there. They have to load up a truck. They have to get their supplies. They get to a bridge and the damn bridge is out. So then they got to go down and get a ferry and go over on the ferry and unload their boat. Their truck is too heavy, and then take it by pieces and get on the other side. Then they get in another and they go four miles and they get to another bridge that's out. That's the first thing. [Bayh attempts to interject.] So the second thing is, we're requiring a hell of a lot of people to be rebuilding this stuff. Soon as they get rebuilt, we knock it out again. And their economy is having trouble keeping these things restored. They try to get them in shape, and we just let them get right up to where they're about to finish, and then we take them out again. The third thing is, it's got them all scared to death, and they stay in and hide, and then they get in their caves and do everything they can for civil defense, and they can't produce as much.

Now, we hope by that war of nerves over a period of several months, that they'll finally say, "Well, let's talk." As it is now, they spit in our face. When I gave them the [bombing] pause and told them I wouldn't do anything for a week if they talked, they just spit in our face.[note 6] In May, in the midst of the Mayflower bombing pause, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had noted that "Hanoi spit in our face." "Notes of a Meeting,” 16 May 1965, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Vietnam, January–June 1965 (hereafter FRUS, ed. David C. Humphrey, Ronald D. Landa, and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996), 2:666. They wouldn't even open the letter telling them that.[note 7] "Memorandum From the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson," 13 May 1965, ibid., 651. And they're arrogant as hell, and I don't blame them. I defeated [Barry] Goldwater [R–Arizona] [by] 15 million; now, why would I want to give Goldwater half my Cabinet? They're winning—why would they want to talk? They—all the talk would do is get them to give up something they're going to win.

Bayh

Well, after your conversation down there I made a speech. And every place I go in Indiana, I make sure that we tell this story, because I found that the people, they're with you. And the thing that gripes me, and the thing that I think the governor can be helpful with us and then these university people, is that these so-called intellectuals, the people that are supposed to have all the brains, are the ones that are clear out in left field that don't—they just can't conceive of what you have to do there.

President Johnson

That's right. That's right.

Bayh

Now, we [unclear]

President Johnson

Now, I said to them yesterday, a group of intellectuals: “What would you have me do that I'm not doing? And what am I doing that you would have me stop?” Well, they thought. Scotty Reston was one of them, Alistair Cooke of the Manchester Guardian was another one, and several people.[note 8] James "Scotty" Reston was a columnist for the New York Times. And they said, "Well, stop your bombing." And I said, “OK.” Now, you want a political solution. The only way you can get a political solution, as contrast with a military solution, is to have some pressure on them. Now, the only pressure I've got is the bombing. I don't instigate any incidents. They go and kill us, but we don't—they're gone before we can even get waked up for bury[ing] our dead. They run in and make a raid and they're gone. So, the only thing I'm doing is bombing. Now, if you ask me to stop it, what have I got? What pressure? What can I—what have I got to offer them?"

Bayh

What did they say?

President Johnson

They say, “Well, nothing. I guess that's right. I just guess you got to keep that up. But we don't like it." I said, "I don't like it. I don't even like being out there. I don't like it. Now, what else?" "Well," they said, "we think maybe you ought to get some extry countries to give some people outside the United Nations. We know you tried the United Nations last August." And the United Nations said, "All right, we'll come in here and talk about them shooting at our ships out there in the Tonkin Gulf." So they ordered the North Vietnamese to come in there in last August up to the Security Council. And the North Vietnamese said, "Fuck you." That's exactly what they said. Now, we weren't about to. You've got no jurisdiction.

So [Ernest] Gruening [D–Alaska] gets up today and makes a big speech. Says, "By God, we ought to go to the United Nations." Well, we've gone to the United Nations. We have asked them to take charge of it. We submitted it to them. But the other side said, "Screw you." China doesn't belong to the United Nations. And the United Nations said they'd be willing to help, but Hanoi said, “Screw you!” So we can't do anything with that.

And I said on the other countries, I got 36 of them out there. I'm getting everything I can. I've sent [Henry Cabot] Lodge to see them all. I've sent [Dean] Rusk to see them all. I've sent [George] Ball to see them all. I've sent [Robert] McNamara. Every country that's got a hundred troops, I've asked them to send them. But I've got 2,000 coming through the Philippines. I've got 20,000 coming out of [South] Korea. I've got 1,200 from Australia. But [the] British got 70,000 in Malaysia. They can't put any in there. They're overtaxed now. The French won't; they got hell whipped out of them. The [West] Germans are putting in money, and we can't take people out of Germany because we had five divisions over there protecting them. That's why we can't take too many out of [South] Korea because we've got two divisions protecting them. And doesn't do any good to rob Peter to pay Paul. “Well,” they said, "I guess that's right." But they didn't know that! Here's Scotty Reston and Alistair Cooke. But there it is.

No, the answer to your question is yes, it's wonderful. And the answer to your question is, I wish that you'd just take a lead on foreign policy; you don't have to be on the [Senate Foreign Relations] Committee.[note 9] Bayh was serving on the Judiciary Committee and the Public Works Committee. Eighty-five percent of the people of this country are for what we're doing in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, and the polls, those show it. I just finished a poll in New York State. I ran 73 percent in New York in the November election. Today, I would defeat [Nelson] Rockefeller 89–11. Today, I would defeat [George] Romney 78–22. And I'd defeat [Richard] Nixon 79–21. And—

Bayh

Of course, [unclear]

President Johnson

—I beat the Republicans more than they've ever [been] beaten before. And 85 percent approve my position on these things; 5 or 6 don't know, and 8 or 10 are against it. But they're the ones that are raising hell.

Now, we're reading the Communist bulletins. Their orders go out to do it. This Du Bois youth thing, it's doing all these colleges and they got a sit-in tomorrow. They're all led by Communist people. [J. Edgar] Hoover's got people after them all the time.[note 10] The Du Bois clubs were founded in 1964, taking their name from W. E. B. Du Bois, the black intellectual and civil rights advocate who had joined the Communist Party of the USA in 1961. Hoover regarded the Du Bois clubs as Communist organizations and warned of their increasing presence on college campuses. “Hoover Cites Rise in FBI Rights Work,” New York Times, 4 January 1965. But if I get out and go talking about the Communists, they say "Oh, he's a McCarthy. Everybody disagrees with him; he calls them Communists." But that's what they're doing. And they're stirring up this agitation. They got old man [Cyrus S.] Eaton.[note 11] Cyrus S. Eaton was an American industrialist. In May 1965, he had taken a two-week trip to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, during which he had met with a number of senior Soviet and Eastern European officials, including Soviet premier Aleksi Kosygin. Upon his return, Eaton reported in public speeches that the Soviet and Eastern European leaders were sharply critical of Johnson and U.S. foreign policy. David R. Jones, "Eaton Described Kosygin Warning," New York Times, 28 May 1965; Peter Grose, "Russia's Vietnam Policy Risks U.S. Confrontation," New York Times, 30 May 1965. He goes over and comes back. And the Chinese got their folks working. The Russians got their folks working. This Russian ambassador, hell, he's talking to all of our senators.[note 12] The Soviet ambassador to the United States was Anatoly Dobrynin. And after he has lunch with one of our senators, it takes me two weeks to get the fellow to where he doesn't think I'm a warmonger again.

Bayh

That's ridiculous.

President Johnson

But that's what they do. Well—

Bayh

They're using this propaganda for our own senators against us.

President Johnson

Oh, yeah. They—what they do is they get one speech by [Wayne] Morse [D–Oregon], they take it and print it in leaflets, drop it out to all of our people. Then they come back and say that the country is so divided. And I see in here this morning, some article—I've forgotten where it was—said 85 percent of the senators in the United States Senate were really undercover against Johnson's position. I believe 85 percent of them are for it!

Bayh

[Unclear.]

President Johnson

But the alternatives: Do I want to go in [like] [Curtis E.] LeMay and bomb Peking [Beijing]. If I do, I'll get 35, 40 divisions the next morning.[note 13] By “35, 40 divisions,” Johnson was reflecting the long-held view that provoking China would leave U.S.-led forces confronting overwhelming numbers of Chinese troops. I can't do that. Do I want to get out like Morse? No. Do I want to just sit there and get hit like I did for several months? I don't think I ought to ask an American boy to get shot at and not shoot back. So then, what do I do? Well, I tell them to defend themselves, and now they got to have more manpower. And we've got to put men in there, because they're not going to do anything except build up their forces and try to run us out during the monsoon season. And that's until September the 15th, so it's going to be real rough for the next 90 days. We hope that at the end of that period, we'll wear them down some. But there's no assurance. They hope they can wear us out, and I really believe they'll last longer than we do. One of their boys gets down in a rut and he stays there for two days without water, food, or anything and never moves, awaiting to ambush somebody. Now, [an] American, he stays there about 20 minutes and, goddamn, he's got to get him a cigarette.

Bayh

That's right. [President Johnson snorts.] Who could he talk to? I told him I didn't think he ought to say anything until I had a nice talk with McGeorge Bundy.

President Johnson

He's excellent—if he's here, he's the one they ought to talk to. If not, somebody in his office. Just tell them that I said talk to him in his office, somebody that's there. He may be out debating. He does a lot of that.[note 14] President Johnson was taking a swipe at Bundy, who had incurred Johnson's wrath by accepting an invitation to appear at the National Teach-In on 15 May, only to have Johnson cancel the appearance and send him to the Dominican Republic instead. On 21 June, however, Bundy would debate political scientist Hans Morgenthau, angering Johnson to the point that he considered firing Bundy. But I'll have somebody notify Bundy's office to get right on it.

Bayh

All right, sir.

President Johnson

Thank you, my friend.

Bayh

Yeah.

President Johnson

Give your sweet wife my—give your sweet wife my love.

Bayh

Thank you, sir.

President Johnson

Bye. I want to get with you sometime. We'll go down to the boat some night.

Bayh

Sounds like fun.

President Johnson

All right.

Bayh

Thank you.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Birch Bayh on 15 June 1965,” Conversation WH6506-03-8135, 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/4001128