Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 July 1965


Transcript

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

President Johnson presided over a critical meeting of his closest advisers at 11 A.M. on Friday, July 2, to discuss the administration's options on Vietnam. On the table were several proposals, ranging widely in their recommendations, from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara,[note 2] "Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson: Program of Expanded Military and Political Moves with Respect to Vietnam," 1 July 1965, U. S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968: Vietnam, June–December 1965 (hereafter FRUS), ed. David C. Humphrey, Edward C. Keefer, and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: 1996) 3:97-104. Secretary of State Dean Rusk,[note 3] "Paper by Secretary of State Rusk: Vietnam," 1 July 1965, ibid., 104-106. Under Secretary of State George W. Ball,[note 4] "Paper by the Undersecretary of State: A Compromise Solution for South Vietnam" (with attachment), ibid., 106-113. and Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs William P. Bundy.[note 5] "Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs: A 'Middle Way' Course of Action in South Vietnam," 1 July 1965, ibid., 113-115 .. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy prepared President Johnson for the meeting with a memo he drafted the previous evening, suggesting that Johnson "would want to listen hard" to George Ball's recommendation to disengage from Vietnam "and then reject his proposal."[note 6] "Memorandum From the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to President Johnson," 1 July 1965, ibid., 117-18. Summing up the July 2 meeting, which lasted for close to two hours, William Bundy notes that Johnson "gave no direct indication what his final decision would be," moving forward instead on both the negotiating and military tracks.[note 7] "Editorial Note," ibid., 118-19.
Recording starts after conversation has begun.
President Johnson

How are you this morning?

Robert McNamara

Very well, sir. Yourself? What—

President Johnson

Well, I'm pretty depressed reading all these proposals. [Music is audible in the background and continues playing for approximately a minute.]

McNamara

Well—

President Johnson

They're tough, aren't they?

McNamara

They are; that's right. But I think we're at a point of fairly tough decisions, Mr. President. There's quite a range of proposals there but we purposely made no effort to compromise any of our views because we wanted you to see the range of view.

President Johnson

Two or three things that I want you to explore: First, assuming we do everything we can to the extent of our resources, can we really have any assurance that we win? I mean, assuming we have all the big bombers [McNamara acknowledges throughout] and all the powerful payloads and everything else. Can three Vietcong come in and tear us up and continue this thing indefinitely, and never really bring it to an end? That's one thing I want to look at. The second thing I want you to look at, really from your people's standpoint and talking to them: Can we really, without getting any further authority from the Congress, have all-out support, or sufficient . . . overwhelming support to work successfully, to fight successfully?

McNamara

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson

In other words, you know the friend you talked to about the [bombing] pause [McNamara acknowledges throughout] and you know the [Mike] Mansfields [D–Montana], and you know the [Joseph] Clarks [D–Pennsylvania], and those men carry a good deal of weight.[note 8] By “friend,” President Johnson is likely referring Sen. Robert F. Kennedy [D–New York]. And this fellow we talked to the other day here at lunch has a good deal of weight; his people have this view normally, but he's got cancer in my judgment. I've never told anybody, but I saw him yesterday coughing several times.[note 9] President Johnson might be referring to Albert Thomas, who died on 15 February 1966.

McNamara

He doesn't look good.

President Johnson

And he went home that very day and he hasn't been back since; had a stomach upset [McNamara acknowledges] and he can't carry on much for us. Then we have to rely on the younger crowd and that's made up of the [George] McGoverns [D–South Dakota] and the Clarks and the other folks. And I don't know. I don't believe that—if you asked them to go in with you, I think you'd have a long debate. And if you don't ask them, I think you'll have a long debate about not having asked them—

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

—with this kind of a commitment. [with McNamara acknowledging] And even though there's some record behind us, we know ourselves, in our own conscience, that when we asked for this resolution, we had no intention of committing this many ground troops.[note 10] President Johnson is referring to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964. And we're doing so now, and we know its going to be bad, and the question [is] "Do we just want to do it out on a limb by ourselves?" I don't know whether those men have ever thought, in making their calculations, (1) whether we can win with the kind of training we have and the kind of power. And (2) I don't know whether they've taken into their calculations whether we can have a united support here at home.

McNamara

I think, Mr. President, that . . . two thoughts on it. First, if we do go as far as my paper suggested, sending numbers of men out there, we ought to call up reserves. You have authority to do that without additional legislation, but I doubt that you would want to use it. Almost surely, if we called up reserves, you would want to go to the Congress to get additional authority. This would be a vehicle for drawing together support. Now, you'd say, "Well, yes, but it also might lead to extended debate and divisive statements." I think we could avoid that. I really think if we were to go to the Clarks, and the McGoverns, and the [Frank] Churchs [D–Idaho], and say to them, "Now, this is our situation: we cannot win with our existing commitment. We must increase it if we're going to win in this limited term that we define—in the limited way we define win. It requires additional troops. Along with that approach we are embarking upon, we're continuing this political initiative to probe for a willingness to negotiate a reasonable settlement here. And we ask your support under these circumstances." I think you'd get it from them under those circumstances. And that's a vehicle by which you both get the authority to call up the reserves and also tie them into the whole program.

President Johnson

Well, that makes sense.

McNamara

I don't know that you want to go that far and I'm not pressing you to. It's my judgment you should, but my judgment may be in error here. In any event, in these papers that you have, we did try to show you the whole spectrum of thought amongst us.

President Johnson

Does [Dean] Rusk generally agree with you?

McNamara

Yes, I think he might—he would say, "yes." He very definitely does. he's a hard-liner on this in the sense that he doesn't want to give up South Vietnam under any circumstances, even if it means going to general war. Now, he doesn't think we ought to go to general war. He thinks we ought to try to avoid it. But if that's what's required to hold South Vietnam, he would go to general war. He would say, as a footnote, military commanders always ask for more than they need; for God's sakes, don't take what they request as an absolute, ironclad requirement. I don't disagree with that point. I do think in this situation we're talking about, that this request for 34 U.S. battalions and 10 non-U.S. [battalions]—a total of 44 battalions—comes pretty close to the minimum requirement when you see what's happening out there.[note 11] COMUSMACV General William C. Westmoreland requested the 44 battalions on 7 June 1965. The non-U.S. battalions would be comprised of 9 from South Korea and 1 from Australia-New Zealand. For a discussion of this development, see William C. Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, January–July 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3:277. But I'm perfectly willing to accept that qualifying statement, that everybody asks for more than they want. And we've got [unclear]

President Johnson

When you put these people in and you really do go all out—you call up your reserves [McNamara acknowledges] and everything else—can you do anything to restore your communication, and your railroad, and your road, and everything like that?

McNamara

Yes, yes, yes, I think so. Not immediately, but I think you can. I think that by the end of the year, we ought to have that railroad open, for example, and we ought to have the major highways open. That Route 19 that runs from Qui Nhon up to Pleiku, and the Route 1, which runs along the coast—the railroad running along the coast. The Route 9, which runs up parallel to the 17th parallel, and a number of the other major routes, I would think would be open by the end of the year. The route into Dalat, for example, from Saigon.

President Johnson

Now, what are we doing? Do we have our Seabees[note 12] The Seabees were Construction Battalions from the U.S. Navy. and people—engineers out working on them?

McNamara

We have en—

President Johnson

As they tear them up, do we go in [and] try and repair them?

McNamara

Yes, and the problem is that you can't send an engineering company into an area that isn't secure unless you send combat troops with them, and we just don't have the combat troops to do that. Among the items that we would send out there would be more engineering troops. I've forgotten what number it is on my list, but it's down on that memo that you have, indicating we recognize the need for more engineering troops. But there's no need to send them until we get combat troops to support them or a secure country for them to work in.

President Johnson

Who do you think I ought to talk these plans over with, in arriving at a judgment?

McNamara

Well, frankly, I haven't given thought to it; I should have, but I haven't. Let me think about that and I'll have some ideas later today.

President Johnson

What has happened out there in the last 48 hours? Looks like we killed 6[00], 700 of them.

McNamara

Well, we killed a large number, I'd say, over the last three or four days. It looks to be on the order of, yeah, at least 500.

President Johnson

One of them said 300.

McNamara

That's right. Another said 200 and then there's miscellaneous. But I'm not quite sure over what period that is. That 200 was over a period of at least three days. So I think that . . . well, anyhow, we've killed a lot of them in the last several—

President Johnson

Can they continue losses like that?

McNamara

Well, this is a good question. And this relates to what I suggested to you yesterday, that my own feeling is that of the numbers that are killed by Air Force actions, and the great bulk of these people are killed that way. I would think that 75 percent are probably not from what we'd call the regular or irregular guerrilla force.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] Can we inquire about that and ask them in their account to specify, if they can, the women and children as contrasted with the fighting people?

McNamara

Right, right.

President Johnson

OK.

McNamara

Thank you.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 July 1965,” Conversation WH6507-01-8302, 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/4002517