Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 10 June 1965


Transcript

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

A brief office conversation precedes the call, only fragments of which can be made out. The operator connects the call.
Robert McNamara

The [Joint] Chiefs [of Staff] met for two hours this afternoon on the question of additions to Vietnam. And they discussed two plans, essentially, the [William C.] Westmoreland plan and the other one, the [Maxwell D.] Taylor–McNamara plan, and they came out unanimously in favor of the Westmoreland plan. And that's largely on the basis the commander says he needs it; we believe in supporting the commanders. The reason for my call is to tell you this and to suggest that at tomorrow's meeting, you might simply want to hear the pros and cons of the matter and just leave it undecided. And then after it appears you've given it ample thought, send your decision down.

President Johnson

All right. Had you ever . . . had we given any thought to letting [Andrew J.] Goodpaster present these things to [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, too, and getting his ideas?

McNamara

Well, I hadn't thought of doing it before you'd had an opportunity to really discuss it thoroughly yourself. But I—we could—

President Johnson

I mean before we came down with a decision.

McNamara

No, sir, I hadn't.

President Johnson

What would be your reaction to it? Turn it over in your mind. He has a combination of pretty good experience in both fields. And I believe he has a commitment out there, and I don't see that he's overeager. [McNamara acknowledges.] Look[s] like that he's emphasizing the economic and the morale and the other things pretty strongly, and looks to me like they're playing on him pretty strong on the television. Do you watch television?

McNamara

I see it sometimes. I usually miss the early evening shows and morning—I'm here at the time—so I haven't seen that. I see the later evening shows.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] I want to make them get you one of these sets in your office where you can turn them all three on and for your desk.[note 2] Johnson had a cabinet in the Oval Office that housed three television sets so that he could have all three networks on simultaneously.

McNamara

That's what I'm going to do.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Six-thirty until 7:00. Get communications to bring you up one.

McNamara

I'll do that.

President Johnson

Put them in there. And then you can watch anything that's—

McNamara

There is a little danger here, Mr. President. Eisenhower is a great one to accept and support the commander's recommendations. And when he gets a firm recommendation like this, he might endorse it. But let me think about it and if the—if [Earle G.] Bus Wheeler presents the plan tomorrow . . .

President Johnson

Do you—did you—has anyone given them the disadvantages of the division's location and the danger of entrapment, and so forth?

McNamara

They—yes, and therefore, they've modified the plan. They don't want to put the division up there initially. They keep it down on the coast at Qui Nhon, which is the, in effect, the coastal entry point for that central highland region. This is what Admiral [U. S. Grant] Sharp believes also.

President Johnson

Well, then, it gets down to a question of numbers, then.

McNamara

That's right.

President Johnson

You're talking about one division.

McNamara

That's right, that's exact—you're talking about, really, eight brigades instead of—well, it's five more brigades, in any event.

President Johnson

Well, now, on companies and platoons and battalions and brigades and—none of them mean anything to me because there are so many different numbers and different ones. A battalion of South Vietnamese is different [from] a battalion of ours. Now, what—how many men? We're talking about 18,000 men in a division?

McNamara

Well, I said a brigade; it's battalions we're talking about. He—Westmoreland recommended 10 additional battalions over and above the 13 you've already authorized, which would have a strength of something on the order of 45,000 men. I would recommend 5 battalions with a strength of about 25,000 men. So we're talking about—

President Johnson

Twenty-thousand people.

McNamara

—a difference of 20,000 people. But they're all combat people and it's quite a difference in risk, in my opinion. But really, this is the difference, and this is a hard one to argue out with the Chiefs, you see. Because at the back of my mind, I have a very definite limitation on commitment in mind, and I don't think the Chiefs do. In fact, I know they don't.

President Johnson

Mmm. Do you think that this is just the next step with them, up the ladder?

McNamara

Yes. Well, they hope they don't have to go any further [President Johnson acknowledges] but Westmoreland outlines in his cable the step beyond it, and he doesn't say that's the last.[note 3] General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, cabled CINCPAC Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp on 7 June requesting an immediate infusion of 41,000 combat troops, to be followed by an additional 52,000 U.S. forces. H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 290. See also “Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” 7 June 1965, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Vietnam, 1964-1968: Vietnam, January–June 1965 (hereafter FRUS), ed. David C. Humphrey, Ronald D. Landa, and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996), 2:733-36.

President Johnson

Well, I don't guess anybody knows, but—

McNamara

I don't think anybody knows. That's right. But I'm inclined to think that unless we really are willing to go to a full [unclear] land war, we've got to slow down here and try to halt, at some point, the ground troop commitment.

President Johnson

[Pauses.] You got a date tonight?

McNamara

Yes, I promised Max I'd go out and see Didi and Max.[note 4] McNamara is presumably referring to Maxwell Taylor's wife, Lydia, using a nickname that sounds like Didi.

President Johnson

Do you have anymore on him—your feeling there? It looks like to me the more I think about, it the more [chuckling] I want him to stay.

McNamara

For how long would you think?

President Johnson

Certainly till we get these forces moved in.

McNamara

Yeah. I think there's some merit to that, Mr. President. I think I'd try to give him a tentative date, say two months beyond July 1.

President Johnson

I didn't read you the paragraph, but they just said by all means, the fellow that I was reading the letters from today, that my plan oughtn't to go through. From the man I was reading [unclear]

McNamara

Yeah, yeah, I did. Which one?

President Johnson

Just says that they—well, the exchanged.[note 5] During the previous week, Johnson had two telephone conversations and received two memoranda from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. The specific memorandum he refers to below is “Memorandum From Senator Mike Mansfield to President Johnson,” 9 June 1965, FRUS, 2:741-44.

McNamara

Oh, oh, the other one, yeah.

President Johnson

And he said we ought to have Alex Johnson; we haven't got anybody else. Just says that they have no confidence and don't like him [Henry Cabot Lodge] and so on and so forth.[note 6] Mansfield had written: "As for the question of Taylor's replacement, as I told you, Lodge's name may set off an immediate and hostile debate of the whole situation in the Senate. You have got U. Alexis Johnson out there already. He has played a major role and has had a major responsibility in this situation for years. It would seem to me that if we are going to continue on the course of getting in deeper he is the logical man to continue with it." Ibid. Now, that's—probably accounts for [George] Aiken's [R–Vermont] attitude.

McNamara

Yeah, yeah. I'm surprised, though. I would have thought [Mike] Mansfield [D–Montana]

President Johnson

I would have thought Aiken would, too.

McNamara

Well, Aiken is just absolutely irrational. I don't—

President Johnson

Well, I know, but he's a . . .

McNamara

He’s very Republican and—

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Yes, but he wants to—he wants the flexibility and he doesn't want the hard-nosed military.

McNamara

Yeah, yeah. You're right. I don't understand it. Well, I would think you could say to Max, "Would you stay a couple months, roughly the first of September?" By that time, we'll have this troop matter behind us.

President Johnson

[Pauses.] One other thing I want to—I've got to see [James “Scotty”] Reston in the morning. He is very concerned about the narrowing of the basic decisions in government. Now, our old friends are feeding some stuff out where it's been too concentrated. In a matter of a decision like this, this morning, [McGeorge] Mac [Bundy] says that the decisions or recommendations are made by these same people, the field people, the Joint Chiefs, the McNamaras, and the [Cy] Vances, and the [Dean] Rusks, and the [George] Balls, and the Bill Bundys, and the Mac Bundys, and the President. That they've been making this type of decision all along. Now, do you have any people in your outfit that are contributing anyway or feel that they've made decisions that they're not in on now?

McNamara

No, I don't think so, Mr. President. [John] McNaughton contributes to this, of course. And the Chiefs meet fully. They don't all appear before you, but their representatives do.

President Johnson

How does it vary from the decisions you've been making [for] four years?

McNamara

Well, I don't think it does. And this is what I would—

President Johnson

That's what Bundy says.

McNamara

I'd be inclined to ask Reston, "Who is it that you, Reston, think's left out?" I don't know who's left out. I'll tell you two, maybe. One, is the Office of Emergency Management director, and I don't see what the hell he can contribute to it. But he—

President Johnson

Well, he'll be in here tomorrow. [Unclear]

McNamara

That's right. He will be; that's right. But he is a statutory member of the NSC. And the other one is the USIA director. And, frankly, I don't think they ought to be deciding whether we're at war or going to war.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] They're deployments. They will decide on what our policy is when we want to participate. But this is—

McNamara

This is a military deployment.

President Johnson

And they—I don't—

McNamara

But apart from those two, I don't know who it is that's left out.

President Johnson

Well, in our small groups, as I remember, our Executive Committee amounted to seven in the Cuban [missile] crisis, and I don't see that there are any people in the departments or any career people that are left out.[note 7] The group that became the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) initially met as an ad hoc group during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The number of members fluctuated, but it was designed to be a smaller group than the full National Security Council.

McNamara

Well, I think at times Chip Bohlen or Tommy Thompson were present, but—[note 8] Charles "Chip" Bohlen and Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson were senior diplomats and former U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union.

President Johnson

Well, isn't he there—Tommy's here quite often now.

McNamara

Well, he's here quite often now. An important point now is that George Ball and Dean [Rusk] talk to him beforehand and bring his views into the decision. So I don't see that's any different, either.

President Johnson

He seems to be a man of impeccable integrity, though, and honor. I don't believe he'd be contributing to this.[note 9] By "contributing to this," Johnson is referring to complaints that the President was not consulting with as wide a group of advisers as some thought he should.

McNamara

Oh, no. I don't—oh, I'm sure—

President Johnson

Some of them are contributing to it, though.

McNamara

No, no.

President Johnson

Some of them are saying this to Scotty. He went in and gave a big round to George Ball, I understand, earlier today. And . . .

McNamara

Well, I'd just ask him who he thinks ought to be [unclear]

President Johnson

The only one I know that might not be is the [chuckling] Attorney General.

McNamara

I'm sure that's quite an appropriate [unclear].

President Johnson

And he's not my brother.[note 10] During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy had included his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, as part of the group that became the ExComm, even though the Attorney General was not a formal member of the National Security Council.

McNamara

That's right. [Laughs heartily.]

President Johnson

[Laughs.] So . . . but if there's anybody in your shop that you think ought to be, I—you know you're at liberty to bring over who you want to.

McNamara

No, there isn't anybody I think ought to be, and I don't think there's anyone over here who thinks he should be.

President Johnson

Do you know anybody that knows anything any other place [unclear]?

McNamara

No. No, I certainly don't.

President Johnson

In the Dominican Republic we've had the Balls, and we've had the [Thomas] Manns, and we've had the . . . [Edwin] Martins. [Chuckles.] I think it might be overadvised, but not under.

OK, I . . . is Taylor going up to see the committee in the morning?[note 11] Taylor was scheduled to meet with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the next morning.

McNamara

Tomorrow morning. Yes, 9[:00] and 10:00.

President Johnson

You or Rusk either going with him? I guess you're not.

McNamara

No. No, we're not.

President Johnson

What is he going to tell them?

McNamara

An appraisal of where we stand, what's happened, what the strength buildup of the VC [Vietcong] is, what the outlook for the so-called monsoon season is.

President Johnson

I think that the line he ought to take is something he touched on a little bit this morning, but we kind of shied away from: that there has been a constant buildup and the buildup came really before . . .

McNamara

Before the bombing.

President Johnson

Before the bombing.

McNamara

Absolutely.

President Johnson

But we have not been able to stop them from moving ferries and we have not been able to deter them completely, and we may have made it more difficult. But they keep coming in, and when they keep coming, you've got to do something about it.

You can't—if you've got a football team that's got four or five substitute teams and they go to putting them on the ground, then you've got to have some substitutes, too. And that's what he's just got to have unless he is to tuck tail and run. And he doesn't know anybody wants to tuck tail and run. He doesn't want to photograph all of his shots, but very frankly, he doesn't want to wipe out these civilian people, and he doesn't even want to change their government; that's not what he's there for. He's just there to preserve this one. But he doesn't want to tuck tail and run. And if they're going to keep putting their stack in and moving new chips into the pot, we've either got to do one of two things: we've got to tuck tail and run, or we've got to have somebody that can at least go out there and tell us that the Indians are coming and protect us and wake our boys up! Now, then I think that puts them in the position of either tucking tail and running or giving us what we need.

McNamara

Well, how long are you going to see him? About 15, 20 minutes? [Unclear.]

President Johnson

I'd just drive that home to him because—and then I would just say, "Now, I know the president is troubled [by] this and I am, and Westmoreland is, and all the Joint Chiefs are, the Secretary is. But we're all of the opinion that if they're going to put in their stack, which they're doing—they're moving them in and have been—we can't counter that with words, or with conversation, or with hopes it won't come to pass. They're there and they've got a pistol at our temple. And we've got to react, and the only way we can react is to put a pistol at their temple! Now, we don't want to do it, and we know that with two pistols at temple, one of them is liable to go off. But it doesn't seem that we're ready to tuck tail and run. Now, if there is any feeling—if anybody, that we ought to do that, they ought to tell him!

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

That's the way I'd put them.

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

And just tuck tail and run. And by the time they got around to it, I'd say there are only about three things that we have done. First, we waited as long to bomb as a human could and still hold a government. Second, we've made every diplomatic initiative and overture that we know to make. If anybody's got anymore—we've made all we know and a good many that we didn't believe in. But we haven't got anymore, so . . . that—we've done that. That's number two.

Now, number three, we're—we think they've got to have their head out. They got a head on their beer and they got to go through this monsoon season. Now, we don't believe that we ought to ask us to leave these 50,000 boys there without some help. And, if you do, that's the attitude, well, that's one we ought to take into consideration. But . . . what they want to do. They just got the living hell scared out of them. And on—have to act on this resolution. And I’m afraid it's not going to scare them enough, because I think that he came down with two memos in an hour. And one page of them was, "Oh my God, don't send any resolution up here." And they don't want to vote against doing it. They just want to talk and whine about it; that's what they want to do.

McNamara

Well, Aiken, once you said that—

President Johnson

Oh, yes, he said that. And of course this fellow has breakfast with him every morning. So he went in yesterday morning and told him what I'd said to him, and I just checked it back to him. I said, "Now, I'm damned if I know what the New York Times wants to do. And I don't know what you want to do. But I do know what I want to do. I don't want to do anything that doesn't represent the reasonable unanimity of this country. We ought to have these things settled with the water's edge and then when we go the other way, we ought to be one nation united. Now, I'm willing to let you write the ticket if you'll write it. I thought you wrote it with the SEATO treaty.[note 12] The acronym SEATO stands for Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. I thought you wrote it when you approved the policies done, the appropriations and the actions. But if you've got another policy and you want to tuck tail and run, I'll submit it to you. And then you can do it. Or, if you prefer, you've got—you can just pass a joint resolution. I don't even sign it, just send it down. That's what we provided for so you could always have a power of expression. But until you conclude that, I would hope that you go here."

So that jarred him. But it hasn't jarred him enough on our side to keep him from whining. He ran to Aiken first; they have breakfast. And Aiken comes out and gets in the debate as soon as they open up and says that "Johnson's going to put us on the spot! And get his own—get off the hook himself." Did you read that?

McNamara

Yeah. Oh, sure, I did.

President Johnson

[Chuckles.] And I . . . of course, I would like to do that, but I don't think I'm doing that in submitting it. I think I'm just getting—making more trouble for myself. But I don't want to let them know it, and I think that—did you notice how quick [Richard] Russell [D–Georgia] got away from us?

McNamara

Yeah. Oh, I sure did. [Chuckles.]

President Johnson

Yeah. And so I think that's what we've got to do, and I think Taylor's got—say "Now, he has the power to do this, and the authority to do that, and I see a lot of suggestions here. And here's the resolution. It says, 'to deter aggression.' Now, if there's anyone that doesn't believe we ought to be doing—in order to do that I've got to have these men! Now, if there's anyone who thinks we oughtn't to, he ought to introduce a resolution." Repeal it, then we don't—we can't go on and have authority. I think it would be disastrous to the country, and I'd object to it as a citizen, but the Congress is the policymaking branch of the government and they got a right to pass on it. If you want to, just get you [to] introduce a resolution and pass it and you get a majority. But that's not what they want.

Now, tell me in a brief summary, before I take too much of your time, the position, as nearly as you can, that our friend took on what happened—our [bombing] pause.[note 13] President Johnson had authorized a bombing pause, code-named Mayflower, which lasted from 12 May through 18 May. Did we do it wrong? We didn't do it the right day? And didn't have last—[note 14] By “our friend,” Johnson is most likely referring to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

McNamara

No, no, no. He didn't rake that over. That's [unclear]

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Did he show any, would you say, appreciation of the fact that we had heeded his suggestion and tried it?

McNamara

That's right. I think that he would say that was wise to have done it. It didn't work, but it was wise to have done. But now the line is, I mean, we haven't explained where we're going, looks as though we have an unlimited liability here that we're accepting, advancing toward world war. We haven't told the people why, they don't understand what we're doing, nobody knows what's going on . . . sleight of hand constantly, and so on. I think that line. So I said to him, "Well, do you think we ought to go to Congress with a resolution? Now, wouldn’t that lead to divisive debate?" "Yeah," he said, "it probably would." Didn't think we ought to do that. I said, "What do you think ought to be done?" "Well, you know, the President ought to go on TV and explain what it is we're doing, how far are we going to go, what's the [unclear]."

President Johnson

I can't do that, can I?

McNamara

No, you can't.

President Johnson

Do you know how far we're going to go?

McNamara

No. No. No.

President Johnson

Or do the Joint Chiefs know? And what human being knows? I would imagine if they wiped out a thousand boys tomorrow, we might go a hell of a lot farther than we'd do if they just wiped out four.

McNamara

Sure, sure. No, I agree. You can't—and there's going to be uncertainty here. It is risky; that's the nature of the problem. I do think there can be more said about how many troops we have, or how many we've decided to have, and what their role will be. This, I think, could be explained, Mr. President, much the way you're talking about Max explaining tomorrow, that there's been this continued Vietcong buildup and we have to respond to it. We're planning to do so.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Well, I wouldn't say that we have to respond. I'd say there's been this constant buildup and we must protect ourselves as best we can. And we think that this is essential protection. Now, this is not a warlord here. This is Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Taylor, and the ambassador people, and General Westmoreland, who has never—who have been out there a good long time and hasn't tried to invade the North. And they think that in the light of the developments, this is essential to protect our people. Now, we don't say that putting these people in we're going to win. But we say, "If you don't put them in, you're going to lose substantially what you have."

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Now, we don't want to promise to do it, but this is more of a holding action and a hope that through the monsoon they'll change their mind and time will play. Instead of being rash, we're trying to be prudent. Now, isn't that really what we're trying to do?

McNamara

Yes, it is.

President Johnson

No—not a damn human thinks that 50,000, or 100,000, or 150,000 are going to end that war.

McNamara

Yeah. That's right.

President Johnson

And we're not getting out, but we're trying to hold what we got. And we're doing a bad—we're doing a . . . we're losing at the rate we're going. And we're getting raised hell. Why, if he had a few facts on how much he's lost, it would be good. I think he could say, "Now, we have tried to be as peaceful as we can, and we've had our bombings limited, and we think they have done this amount of good and helped us with our government and our morale. But the cold hard facts are that we do not have the pacification program in but 1 of the 42," or whatever it is. And that it's in danger all over the place. And we're not—they're taking extra territory. And they killed 600 last week compared to the normal 100 they kill. And now, if we can't endure that without help, and we want to come in there and do everything we can that the Vietnamese are doing so they'll have enough people to resist it. And when they can't resist it and they're overrun, why, we've got to carry them in to help them.

McNamara

Well, I'll talk to Max tonight about it.

President Johnson

OK. See you in the morning.

McNamara

All right.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 10 June 1965,” Conversation WH6506-02-8116-8117, 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/4002500