Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 3 August 1964


Transcript

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

This is the first recorded conversation between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara regarding the attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam. The recording begins in the middle of a discussion about whether to invite Jacqueline Kennedy to the Democratic Convention for the evening dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy.

Robert McNamara

—I can absolutely guarantee you about. And that's the one to watch, it seems to me. Now, the rest of this stuff, hell, what can the [unclear] do, and that bunch? They don't have any power.

President Johnson

No, but if—I imagine if they and the principal went to her and said this is it, or—

McNamara

Well, [unclear]—right, but she's leaving day after tomorrow, and she's going to be gone during this critical period. And I hope she'll stay away a little longer than she planned, and that'll keep her out of it. And finally—and furthermore, she just doesn't want to do it.

President Johnson

What would you think about the appropriate person on the committee calling her and asking her to be present and do anything that she'd be willing to do on the—for the memorial evening?

McNamara

I don't know. I just can't answer that.

President Johnson

I don't want her—I don't want to pick—I don't want her to be in the position of saying, well, nobody ever invited her.

McNamara

No. I just can't appraise that. It would be a terrible … emotional experience for her.

President Johnson

Yeah. Well, that'd be up to her to say whether she did or not.

McNamara

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson

But the question is—

McNamara

Should she be asked?

President Johnson

—should she be asked?

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] And I would think that … Think about that, and let's talk about it before the day's over, because I'm fearful that if she weren't asked, she'd say, "Well, they didn't even think enough to ask me to be present."

McNamara

Yeah. Well, it's a good question. I don't know the answer at the moment. I'll call you before the end of the day.

President Johnson

Now, I wonder if you don't think it'd be wise for you and [Dean] Rusk to get Mc—the Speaker and [Mike] Mansfield to call a group of 15, 20 people together from the Armed Services and Foreign Relations [committees], tell them what happened. A good many of them are saying to me—

McNamara

Right. I've been thinking about this myself, and I thought that—

President Johnson

[with McNamara acknowledging] They're going to start an investigation if you don't.[note 1] That afternoon, McNamara, Rusk, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler met with members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, as well as the Senate leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois). According to the New York Times, the meeting was held at the request of Secretary Rusk. Edwin L. Dale, "Johnson Directs Navy to Destroy Any New Raiders," New York Times, 4 August 1964. For accounts of the meeting, see Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. 348–49. And you got [Everett] Dirksen up there, and he's saying you've got to study it further. And say to Mansfield, "Now, the President wants us—you to get the proper people." And we come in, and you say, "They fired at us; we responded immediately. And we took out one of their boats and put the other two running. And we kept—we're putting our boats right there, and we're not running [unclear]."

McNamara

"Our instructions are to destroy … "

President Johnson

That's right.

McNamara

Right. We're going to go—and I think I should also, or we should also, at that time, Mr. President, explain this OPLAN 34A, these covert operations.[note 2] In December 1963, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and the Central Intelligence Agency had devised a series of covert operations against North Vietnam code-named OPLAN 34A. President Johnson approved these operations, which included raids on the North Vietnamese industrial, transportation, and communications infrastructure, in January 1964. See Edwin E. Moïse, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 5–21.

President Johnson

Yeah, yeah.

McNamara

There's no question but what that had bearing on it. And Friday night, as you probably know, we had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands. And we expended, oh, a thousand rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in that same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events.[note 3] The islands in question were Hon Ngu and Hon Me, and the destroyer was the USS Maddox. Moïse, Tonkin Gulf, p. 56.

President Johnson

Well, say that to [Everett] Dirksen—

McNamara

That's what I thought I'd do. And—

President Johnson

—and you notice Dirksen says this morning that we've got to reassess our situation and do something about it.[note 4] Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen remarked that U.S. policy toward Vietnam demanded "a hard look" and described the need for such a review as "a matter of ‘the utmost urgency.'" Robert B. Semple Jr., "Dirksen Presses for Policy Study," New York Times, 3 August 1964.

McNamara

Right … right.

President Johnson

And I'd tell him that we're doing what he's talking about.

McNamara

Well, I was thinking of doing this myself in personal visits, but I think your thought is better. We'll get the group together. Do you want us to do it at the White House, or would you rather do it at State or Defense?

President Johnson

I believe it'd be better to do it up on the Hill.

McNamara

All right.

President Johnson

I believe it'd be better if you'd say to Mansfield, "You call Foreign Relations—

McNamara

Yeah. Very good … good.

President Johnson

—Armed Services," and get the Speaker to do it over at his side.

McNamara

We'll do it.

President Johnson

And just say it's very—I'd tell them awfully quiet, though, so they won't go in and be making a bunch of speeches.

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

Tell Rusk that that's my idea.

McNamara

Yeah. Very good.

President Johnson

And he's in New York, so I don't know whether he's gotten back or not.

McNamara

Well, I just talked to George Ball a few minutes ago. And I'll have George arrange it—or at least I'll tell him that. And then I'll call the Speaker and Mansfield myself.

President Johnson

Now, I wish that you'd give me some guidance on what we ought to say. I want to leave an impression on the background and the people we talk to over here that we're going to be firm as hell, without saying something that's dangerous. Now, what do you think? The people that are calling me up—I just talked to a New York banker; I just talked to a fellow in Texas.[note 5] The New York banker was Robert Anderson, Conversation WH6408-03-4632. According to President Johnson's Daily Diary, Johnson's only other telephone conversations prior to the McNamara call were with Secretary Willard Wirtz at 9:02 A.M., Horace Busby at 9:29 A.M., and Bill Moyers at 10:06 A.M.; both Busby and Moyers were Texans. They all feel that the Navy responded wonderfully, and that's good. But they want to be damn sure I don't pull them out and run, and they want to be damn sure that we're firm. That's what all the country wants, because [Barry] Goldwater's raising so much hell about how he's going to blow them off the moon. And they say that we oughtn't to do anything that the national interest doesn't require. But we sure ought to always leave the impression that if you shoot at us, you're going to get hit.

McNamara

Well, I think you would want to instruct George Reedy this morning, at his news conference, to say that you personally have ordered the Navy to carry on the routine patrol off the coast of North Vietnam, to add an additional destroyer to the one that has been carrying on the patrol, to provide an air CAP [Combat Air Patrol], and to issue instructions to commanders to destroy any force that attacks our force in international waters.

President Johnson

Bob, if you don't mind—

McNamara

I'd say it a different way.[note 6] See Edwin L. Dale, "Johnson Directs Navy to Destroy Any New Raiders," New York Times, 4 August 1964.

President Johnson

If you don't mind, call Walter Jenkins and tell him that you want to dictate this to me—

McNamara

Sure … I'll do it right now.

President Johnson

—to give to my people, or George Reedy, because I'm over at the Mansion with some folks here.[note 7] According to President Johnson's Daily Diary, Johnson had breakfast in bed and met with aide Jack Valenti, beginning at 8:30 A.M. He went to the Oval Office at 11:05 A.M.

McNamara

Yep … yep. I'll do it right now.

President Johnson

OK.

McNamara

Thanks.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 3 August 1964,” Conversation WH6408-03-4633, 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/4002540