Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 6 August 1964


Transcript

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

Robert McNamara

Hello?

President Johnson

Yeah?

McNamara

Mr. President, I mentioned to you briefly the other day that [George] Mahon wanted to hold a hearing tomorrow on Vietnam. He's being pressed to do this by Jerry Ford and [William E.] Minshall and the other Republican members. I thought perhaps we should have John McCone brief them and try to keep Defense out of this and avoid any partisan probing here. But I didn't want to suggest this to Mahon without your knowledge and approval.

President Johnson

Yeah, I think that's all right. I don't know how much he talks. I thought he went a little—pretty far the other day in discussing all we were doing, but I guess that's all right.[note 1] During the National Security Council meeting on the evening of 4 August, McCone stated his belief that the North Vietnamese forces in the Tonkin Gulf were "acting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands." In doing so, he contradicted Secretary Rusk, who earlier in the meeting had characterized the North Vietnamese aggression as an "unprovoked attack." "Summary Notes of the 538th Meeting of the National Security Council," 4 August 1964, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964–1968: Vietnam 1964, ed. Edward C. Keefer and Charles S. Sampson (Washington, DC: GPO, 1992), 1:611. Rusk, McNamara, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler had also told senators on 3 August that the initial North Vietnamese assault on the USS Maddox was "entirely unprovoked." Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 348.

McNamara

Well, I did, too. I thought he went too far that time. But I think in this case he can—

President Johnson

Looked like he was insisting on bringing it in, too.

McNamara

Well, I noticed that. I was very surprised, as a matter of fact.

President Johnson

And I see [Hubert] Humphrey's out saying it on television.[note 2] For more on the Humphrey leak, see Conversation WH6408-09-4775 and WH6408-09-4777, 4778. And that's how he explains it when they all say, "Well"—like U Thant just said to me—"How in the world do you reckon these folks are sending their PT boats [McNamara acknowledges] out to shoot at us?" Humphrey said, "Well, I'll tell you why. Because they thought we were launching …"

McNamara

Yeah. I had a hell of a time with [Wayne] Morse this morning on that exact point. I think I finally shut him up. He insisted that our PT—that our destroyers were there to back up—

President Johnson

He said that on television last night. [McNamara attempts to interject.] He said we were launching our PT boats from the destroyers.

McNamara

Yeah, well, I just absolutely denied it, and I insisted the record be made clear of this. And I jut got back from the House and the Senate [unclear]

President Johnson

How'd you get along over there?

McNamara

—which [unclear] went very well, I think. The vote in the Senate Committee, as you probably know, was 16 to 1, and the vote in the House Committee was—there were … was unanimous, except for 2 "present."

President Johnson

Who wa[s]

McNamara

Oh, the Iowa congressman, you know—

President Johnson

[Harold] Gross?[note 3] Harold R. Gross was an Republican representative from Iowa.

McNamara

Gross, and is it Devinski [Edward J. Derwinski], or … [note 4] Edward J. Derwinski was a Republican representative from Illinois. I've got the wrong name, but it's another Republican. Gross and the other Republican—

President Johnson

Voted "present."

McNamara

—voted both "present." And the other—

President Johnson

What was their theory? They couldn't go along with the resolution, but didn't know what to do? Or what?

McNamara

Well, yes, I think that was their theory. And the reason they took that position was that they didn't want a no-win policy and another Korea. This was the attitude. And Wayne Hays was the one who first initiated that idea. He said he didn't know that he could go along with it if it was going to lead to another Korea and a no-win policy. And then Gross picked it up, and then there were several others that took the same line. But when the vote came in, of course, Hays fell in line and voted in favor of the resolution. But on the whole, I think the hearings were very satisfactory. There was just near-unanimous support for … not only for everything you've done—there was unanimous support for that—but near-unanimous support for everything you may do in the future. And generally a blank check authorization for further action. With the exception of this no-win group, and there was—there were a few in the … one or two in the Senate, and several in the House committee.

President Johnson

Who, besides Morse?

McNamara

[Strom] Thurmond.[note 5] J. Strom Thurmond was a Republican senator from South Carolina. Well, Morse was opposed to it for one reason, Thurmond for another. We have Thurmond, who was on the no-win line.

President Johnson

Yeah … yeah, yeah. But I was talking about who else opposed this besides Morse. Morse and Thurmond?

McNamara

Only … Morse was the only one who voted against it. Thurmond did not oppose; he just wanted to see stronger action. He opposed the current policy in South Vietnam. He insisted we ought to strike the North, that [Nguyen] Khanh wanted us to do so; [Ngo Dinh] Diem wanted us to do so.[note 6] General Nguyen Khanh was the prime minister of South Vietnam; in mid-July 1964, he publicly called for taking the war to North Vietnam. See Conversation WH6407-10-4281. Ngo Dinh Diem was the former president of South Vietnam, murdered in the coup that toppled him from power in early November 1963. Of course, we rebutted that; Diem never proposed any such thing.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm. OK. Yes, I would do that. [Unclear]

McNamara

I'll call Mahon and try to arrange it.

President Johnson

And tell him that he ought to get it down after we get this resolution through, and not—oughtn't to be holding hearings until we get that through, because everybody is working day and night on that, talking to people with connection with it in the House and the Senate [McNamara acknowledges] and the executive, and meeting over here and deciding what to do, and just say anytime you take … why don't you schedule it sometime next week?

McNamara

Yeah, exactly, because tomorrow is going to be the crucial day of voting. It won't come up for vote today in the House.

President Johnson

Yeah. OK.

McNamara

Fine. Thanks.

President Johnson

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 6 August 1964,” Conversation WH6408-08-4773, 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/4002549