Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 17 June 1965


Transcript

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

The House Appropriations Committee had just approved a $45.2 billion defense appropriation to begin 1 July. Despite minor alterations to the administration's proposed budget and a slight reduction of $60.6 million, the committee authorized all of the main components. The committee also pointed out that the Defense Department was accumulating a "staggering total" of unspent funds on the order of $30.5 billion. In a special dissenting addendum to the committee's report, three Republican members—Glenard Lipscomb of California, Melvin Laird of Wisconsin, and William Minshall of Ohio—called the administration's request inadequate and criticized the administration for not requesting for more to "back up and support" U.S. forces in South Vietnam, arguing that "we are financing today's war in Vietnam with guidelines that are at least 18 months old." The previous day, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had announced a reinforcement of American military strength in South Vietnam by sending six more combat battalions (about 8,000 combat troops) along with support troops (about 13,000 troops), bringing the total military force in South Vietnam to around 70,000 to 75,000 troops.[note 1] Ted Sell, "$45 Billion Defense Bill OKd by Unit," Los Angeles Times, 18 June 1965; "Defense Appropriations Totaling $45,188,244,000 Voted by House Panel," Wall Street Journal, 18 June 1965; John W. Finney, "U.S. Adding 21,000 to Vietnam Force, M'Namara Says," New York Times, 17 June 1965.

The news ticker tape is audible in the background.
President Johnson

[reading] —"the budget, but more importantly, the actual operations of the conflict itself. Events in the past week, we believe, bear out this concern. Although prepared for the announcement, the GOP complaints were pointed up by [the] Secretary of Defense yesterday that U.S. troops would be bolstered by 21,000. The committee majority, while recognizing the inevitable need for more funds to finance stepped-up fighting, said there was no urgency about the extra money. It said the Defense Department has a staggering total on hand for various uses [that] could be diverted. In general, the bill gave President Johnson about what he asked. Scattered cuts were mostly offset by scattered increases, the latter including 133 million [dollars]," and so on. Now, what do I say about that when I'm asked?

Robert McNamara

Well, in the first place, I haven't yet fully read it. I just walked in the office from these foreign correspondents when I saw it on my desk.

President Johnson

It's UPI 120.[note 2] Johnson was referencing a report number from United Press International.

McNamara

But I've got the bill and the report, which just came out this morning, on my desk. And I don't think, Mr. President, any defense bill, in recent years, has ever gone through the Appropriations Committee with as little change. It's absolutely fantastic. We even got STEP approved.[note 3] STEP, the Special Training and Enlistment Program, was an initiative for military volunteers who could not meet the Army's standard mental and physical entrance requirements. In the final version of the bill, the committee reduced the administration's requested $21.7 million for STEP by $6.5 million on the basis that the start of the program was delayed. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1965, vol. 21 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1966), p.175.

President Johnson

Yeah, but they say that you ought to have more.

McNamara

Well, the answer is: "We don't need more."

President Johnson

Well, they say you've got more men going out.

McNamara

I answered—yes, but we don't have more men than we'd planned for in the budget. The number of men we have is the number of men we planned for in the budget. We had to feed the men, house them, equip them. We have to do it whether in the United States or in South Vietnam. To the extent that they consume more in South Vietnam than was planned for—their consumption in the budget—we may before the end of the fiscal year have to ask for a supplement. We don't need it now; we have ample funds to provide whatever they are consuming. We [unclear]

President Johnson

[reading from the dissenting addendum] "In line with the President's decision to escalate the war."

McNamara

Well, I don't know that you've made any decision to escalate the war. In any case, this question came up at my press conference yesterday, and I answered it there, not in relation to the Republican [criticism] of today because they hadn't made their statement yesterday. But the question frequently comes up: "Do we need more in the budget for '66?" And the answer is: "Not now; we may later, depending upon what happens in the next 13 months. We can't estimate what that'll be at this time. We have emergency provisions under the law that allow us to expend in excess of the amounts appropriated if we need it. And we will utilize those emergency provisions if and when required."

President Johnson

Now, [George] McGovern says that "the war has taken a very dangerous new turn with the commitment of large land forces to a combat mission. These guerrillas have lived 20 years off the countryside. They have fought largely with captured weapons. Their strength is they're part of the people, the terrain which they fight. And how long will it take for some people to realize that bombing Hanoi or Peking will have little or no effect on the guerrilla forces fighting a thousand miles away in the jungle."

McNamara

Well, if bombing won't have any effect and the added men are undesirable, what in the hell do we do? Get out? I just spent two and half hours with the foreign correspondents from France, Italy, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Israel. And when I finished, I took a half an hour to go around the table and say, "All right, now, I've told you my views; you tell me your views." And there wasn't a single one of them there that when pressed had any program other than the one we're following. The Frenchman was the only one who had any real criticism, and he said we weren't taking account of the experience of Frenchmen in South Vietnam. That's the only thing he had to say to it.

President Johnson

Well, are we?

McNamara

Well, hell, I think we are, Mr. President. But it's a tiny thing in any case. I know whenever I went out there, I always talked to the French consul, and I know Max [Taylor] does. But he says the rubber planters and the teachers—

President Johnson

[reading] "Senators said instead of continuing bombing we [should be] taking advantage of forthcoming Afro-Asian conference—we should, in Algiers—to encourage discussions with the Vietcong leaders."[note 4] A conference of the nonaligned countries was scheduled to convene in Algiers on 29 June. The conference was heavily backed by China but was ultimately delayed until November. Hendrick Smith, "Algiers Parley Delay Seen as Stunning Blow to China," New York Times, 28 June 1965.

McNamara

Now, this is a new tack. First, well, you didn't say what the objective was, then we wouldn't tell them what the strategy was, then we should've stopped bombing and had the pause, and then we should have been ready for negotiations. And now the theme is that the whole problem is we haven't talked to the Vietcong. This is becoming more and more the dominant theme and criticism, and I think we're going to have to answer that.

President Johnson

And how are we?

McNamara

Well, this is a problem for State to deal with, but I think the answer is that they are a creature of the North Vietnamese. And the North Vietnamese, as their parent, are the ones that we're trying to deal with to get their wayward child to stop what he's doing.

President Johnson

Would you say it's just like asking the Vietcong and Vietnam to negotiate with Mississippi?

McNamara

Yeah. I think so.

President Johnson

[Laughs.]

McNamara

[laughing] I think it's a reasonable analogy.

President Johnson

OK, good-bye.

McNamara

[with President Johnson acknowledging] Well, Mr. President, one other thing I just want to tell you. I—unless you see some reason not to—I'm planning to have dinner with Jackie [Kennedy] tonight in New York. I can do something on that front. But I can't on Bobby [Robert Kennedy]. I confess to failure on the latter, but I have been able to do a little on the other.

President Johnson

I sure hope so.

McNamara

Yeah, I think so. And I think I can. And there's a lot of—

President Johnson

If you've got any other good things—she'll only tell you something confidentially—I wish you would put it in after your second drink when you think that you have some influence.

McNamara

OK.

President Johnson

I would sure urge her to keep Dick Goodwin down here to help us. I think they're getting some encouragement to move him away, and we need him more than we need nearly anybody except you. He's very—they're very close in there, and …

McNamara

Yeah, that's right.

President Johnson

He's in and out of there, and … so forth.

McNamara

I'll do that. By the way—

President Johnson

You're aware of—you know that they—she has some influence with him.

McNamara

I know that. Yeah.

President Johnson

Yeah.

McNamara

Yeah, I do know that, and I will.

By the way, I did tell these foreign newsmen of the poll. I didn't tell them figures, but I did tell them the ratios. And I told them that I knew how popular your policies were in this country, but even I was surprised at these very high figures that were coming in from foreign polls. I think we can do—we'll use more and more of that.[note 5] The following day, the White House disclosed the results of a poll that indicated that despite growing criticism of the administration's Vietnam policies, President Johnson's personal approval was about 70 percent. "Poll Finds Johnson Popular with 70% of Nation," New York Times, 18 June 1965.

President Johnson

Thank you.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 17 June 1965,” Conversation WH6506-04-8147, 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/4002505