Lyndon Johnson and J. William Fulbright on 2 December 1963


Transcript

Edited by Robert David Johnson and David Shreve, with Ashley Havard High and Patricia Dunn

See the daily introduction for 1963-12-02  [from the Norton edition]

The man Johnson had dubbed “my secretary of state” had begun his public career in academia, parlaying a Rhodes Scholarship into the presidency of the University of Arkansas. Both experiences gave J. William Fulbright a fundamentally internationalist outlook, which he carried to Washington following his election to the House of Representatives in 1942 and to the Senate two years later. Fulbright quickly earned a reputation as the upper chamber’s most consistent champion of international cultural cooperation and the concept of internationalism in general. His career, meanwhile, blossomed under the tutelage of his fellow southerner, Lyndon Johnson, then majority leader, who engineered the resignation of the aged and ineffective Theodore Green (D-Rhode Island) as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and his replacement with Fulbright.[note 3] Randall Bennett Woods, Fulbright: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 210–335.

As chair, the Arkansas senator attempted to restore some of the influence the Foreign Relations Committee had lost in the postwar era, especially to Richard Russell’s Armed Services Committee. In general, he touted a less-militarized foreign policy that would balance means and ends and implement programs such as economic aid as an alternative method of waging the Cold War. Fulbright also viewed his role as educating the American people about international affairs, and he attempted to steer the discussion of foreign policy away from excessive moralism and passion and toward a recognition that the United States needed to carry out the myriad responsibilities of a world power.[note 4] The most complete contemporary expression of Fulbright’s views on these points came in his address “Old Myths and New Realities,” delivered on 25 March 1964. See J. W. Fulbright, Old Myths and New Realities and Other Commentaries (New York: Random House, 1964).

This viewpoint, in turn, might have made Fulbright a logical skeptic of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But, like most members of the 88th Congress, the Arkansas senator kept private his reservations about the rapidly expanding U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia, where Johnson had inherited a sharply deteriorating situation. Although the 1954 Geneva Agreements had envisioned a unified Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration, which did not sign the accords, undertook an aggressive campaign to prop up the non-Communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. To shore up the weak government in the south, the United States established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and lavished Diem with financial and military assistance. For a brief period in the mid- and late-1950s, these policies successfully bolstered Diem’s position. But the South Vietnamese ruler’s autocratic ways and the determination of Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese government to reunify the country paved the way for warfare in the south, which intensified after the creation of the National Liberation Front in 1960.[note 5] David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Formed officially in December 1960 by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the National Liberation Front represented the political, and increasingly military, arm of the party in South Vietnam. Their partisans came to be known as Viet Cong.

For the Kennedy administration, South Vietnam loomed as a potential testing ground for its self-proclaimed national security doctrine of flexible response, and the administration dramatically escalated the U.S. commitment in the area. By the end of 1962, the United States had 9,000 “advisers” stationed in South Vietnam. But, despite the illusion of success during the second Eisenhower administration, the political situation only continued to destabilize. In May 1963, widespread protests organized by Buddhists broke out against Diem’s regime; the government’s corresponding crackdown sowed doubts in official Washington that Diem would ever be able to win the hearts and minds of his people, a necessary prerequisite, administration policymakers believed, to victory over native Vietnamese Communists. Encouraged in Washington by Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman and in Saigon by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge—the man, ironically, that Kennedy had defeated to win election to the Senate for the first time—a group of dissident generals toppled Diem’s regime in November and assassinated the overthrown president and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.[note 6] Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 15–67. This was the unstable and uncertain, and in some ways untenable, situation that Johnson faced upon his elevation to the presidency.

President Johnson

Bill?

J. William Fulbright

Yes.

President Johnson

You got anything to talk to me about?

Fulbright

What?

President Johnson

You got anything to talk to me about?

Fulbright

Yes, all sorts of things. What do you have in mind?

President Johnson

Well, just anything you want to talk to me about. I want to talk to you.

Fulbright

Well, I don’t want to bother you, but if you’ve got a minute.

President Johnson

You don’t bother me. I always feel a little better after I talk to you. I learn something.

Fulbright

[Chuckles.] I wish that were so. Well, one thing I want to talk to you about is—the immediate thing brewing—is the [John F. Kennedy] cultural center matter. I sent Mike [Mansfield] a memorandum out that he should bring to you this morning.

President Johnson

I think he’s got it in his hand.

Fulbright

Oh. I had talked to Stephen, and I imagine you know all I know about it.[note 7] Stephen Smith, the late President’s brother-in-law, was coordinating the family’s input on matters relating to the cultural center. Washington Post, 5 December 1963. I talked to Feldman.[note 8] Myer Feldman was White House counsel. I talked to Pat McNamara, who’s chairman of the committee, and we’re just kind of pushing it along.[note 9] McNamara, the Michigan senator, chaired the Senate Public Works Committee. I hope the time is right—

President Johnson

I think what you ought to do is take this bill that . . . Has he talked to you about the matching [funds] thing?

Fulbright

Yes.

President Johnson

I think that’s the one that’ll do it. I’d take that as an amendment to your bill, and see what you can do with it. I told Larry O’Brien to check out those committee members, so we would make a tribute to him [Kennedy] and not a . . . running-out on him.

Fulbright

Well, I talked to Pat about the general idea and I told Mike [Feldman] today, that, of course, anything you-all wanted in the way of an amendment, it was under way, and he needn’t substitute.

President Johnson

That’s right.

Fulbright

Whatever was agreed on that you wanted done.

President Johnson

All right.

Fulbright

Matching up to a maximum of 25 million [dollars] is what I understood you wanted.

President Johnson

Yeah. What I think we ought to do is be very careful that we do not let some people think that we’re using his name to raid the Treasury to do something for the District of Columbia that they otherwise wouldn’t do. I told Larry O’Brien to check it out with the authorizing committee—McNamara and Buckley—and check it out with the Appropriations Committee, and then see what we could stand and how far they’d go, and then let’s go.[note 10] Charles Buckley was chair of the House Public Works Subcommittee and boss of the Bronx Democratic Party. But he hasn’t given me a report. I’ll ask him that in the morning.

I want you to come in and see me in the next two or three days. How are you getting along on foreign aid?

Fulbright

Well, you know, our conference was interrupted [by the Kennedy assassination], but we were doing all right, and then we resume tomorrow afternoon. It’ll come out about 360 [million dollars].

President Johnson

That’s good.

Fulbright

And there’s two important amendments I wanted you to have a look at: Yugoslavia—

President Johnson

Yeah. Yeah.

Fulbright

—and the population control.[note 11] Senator Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska), who had earned an M.D. from Harvard Medical School but never practiced, had championed the idea of using foreign aid to promote population control since arriving in the Senate in 1959.

President Johnson

Yeah. Yeah.

Fulbright

I told you, the way we talked about the population control preliminarily, the only one of the House members—all Senate members are all right—the only one who could block it. I think they’ll come around on that.

And not a word was said about that, I may say, in the debate. Nobody— there were 63 amendments and not a one of them was related to it. I think, though, that they all are reconciled that this is the wise thing to do. It’s really unusual . . .

President Johnson

All right. I’ll have Larry O’Brien keep in touch with you about the cultural center, depending on what he hears. You keep in touch with us, and let me know what happens on your conference on your foreign aid, and let me know anything else that I need to know. If I don’t hear from you I’ll know that you’ve got everything taken good care of for me. [Chuckles.]

Fulbright

Well, I think that conference committee report is going to come out. There are about three things on it.

President Johnson

Yeah . . . That’s good.

Fulbright

The damage was done by Morse in the Senate.[note 12] Along with Gruening, Wayne Morse (D-Oregon) had led what one magazine described as the “foreign aid revolt” of 1963, in which the upper chamber slashed over one-third of President Kennedy’s proposed foreign aid budget.

President Johnson

Yeah. It looks like to me our administration of this Alliance for Progress is in pretty bad shape. And it looks like to me that the OAS [Organization of American States] is in bad shape. Looks to me like that we need some good leadership in both those fields. I wish you’d think about some real top young fellows that might help us.

Fulbright

Well, now, I didn’t know whether you were ready to talk about next year’s foreign aid bill or not. I want to talk to you about that whenever you have time to talk about it.

President Johnson

Well, I’m not right now, but I want to before long. I want to make a little better study of the thing .[note 13] Johnson, in fact, appointed Under Secretary of State George Ball to develop proposals for reforming the implementation of the foreign aid program. H. W. Brands, The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 11–16.

Fulbright

Yes. I have talked to several people about some ways to avoid this kind of a fight. We’ve got 100 secretaries of state over there now. Every one of them want to sit on the [Foreign Relations] Committee. A major part of that from that kind of attack is surrounding the administration with so many restrictions that they just can’t operate.

President Johnson

Yeah. That’s right. One of the problems is the personnel over there. They’ve got a bunch of vacancies in AID [Agency for International Development]—the assistants. If you know any good administrators, I’d like to know them.

Fulbright

They’re hard to find—you know that.

President Johnson

Yeah.

Fulbright

My God, I can’t even keep a staff. Somebody’s always raiding my staff. I lost another good man. I lost two. I lost my AA [administrative assistant]. They’re all coming in. They pay them more than we pay them.

President Johnson

Well, I would like to take some of them away from you myself.

Fulbright

Christ, I’m just down to the bone. Of course, Marcy is on leave.[note 14] Carl Marcy was the chief of staff of the Foreign Relations Committee. They just hired away Yingling from me and had him—[note 15] Jack Yingling was the chief of staff on the Senate Banking and Currency Committee from 1955 to 1959 and was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff and Fulbright’s personal staff from 1959 to December 1963. An attorney, Yingling left Fulbright’s staff to begin work as a lobbyist for the banking industry.

President Johnson

Who in the hell did that?

Fulbright

The bankers.

President Johnson

Oh, to hell with them.

Fulbright

Christ, they pay them $35,000. We can’t pay them but 16[000].

President Johnson

Well, that’s terrible.

Fulbright

He’s got three children. He just can’t afford the committee.

President Johnson

Is Betty still living with you?

Fulbright

Yeah. Just barely.

President Johnson

Give her my love.

Fulbright

Sure will.

President Johnson

I wish you’d tell me what you think we ought to be doing in Cuba.

Fulbright

I don’t think you ought to stir that up any. I think this election sounds good, from what I heard of it today, in Venezuela.[note 16] This was a reference to the triumph of reformer Raul Leoni in the Venezuelan presidential election, where a record turnout had occurred despite threats from Castroite rebels. Washington Post, 3 December 1963. I think the goddamned thing ought to be let alone, that is the bulk of it. I think if you stir it up, I think it’s going the wrong way for them—

President Johnson

Well, they’re shipping arms all over the damned hemisphere.

Fulbright

That we ought to stop!

President Johnson

All right.

Fulbright

I thought you meant about going into Cuba.

President Johnson

No. I’m not getting ready to . . . any Bay of Pigs deal.

Fulbright

That’s what I thought . . .

President Johnson

No, I’m just asking you what we ought to do to pinch their nuts a bit that we’re not doing.

Fulbright

I think—

President Johnson

Why don’t you give me a one-page memo on what you’d do if you were president about Cuba?

Fulbright

[Laughs.] You mean, exclusive of any direct interference?

President Johnson

No, I mean what you’d do if you were president about Cuba, inclusive or exclusive or anything. Just what you’d do. And get your good brain to working. I’d like to look at it and see.

Fulbright

Well, I better wait until I get this foreign aid out of my hair.

President Johnson

All right. Now, what about Vietnam?[note 17] Johnson also asked Majority Leader Mike Mansfield for advice on this topic in a conversation the evening of 5 December. The Montana senator responded with a thoughtful missive suggesting that U.S. “assumptions” that the war could be won in South Vietnam alone and with “a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam [sic] . . . may be in error.” Mansfield to President Johnson, 7 December 1963, copy in Bundy Memos to the President, Box 1, National Security File, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Fulbright

Well, I just think that is a hell of a situation in there. I . . . involve a lot more talk, but I’ll be goddamned, I think that’s hopeless. That is for what you would call a complete victory. [Unclear] we got this [unclear] man, this fellow, Minh. I’m not really enough aware of the new characteristics of it, but I think the whole general situation is against us as far as a real victory goes.

I think that this idea of some kind of a semineutralized area in which they’ll keep out—by that I mean the Chinese about taking it over, and we’re going to have to draw in our forces—I think is about the best we can hope for.[note 18] The idea of a semineutralized area was put forth by French president Charles de Gaulle, among others. You don’t want to send a whole lot more men in there, I don’t think. I think I’d give this new man [Duong Minh] a chance to see what they can do for a little while. I wouldn’t do anything that you can’t—

President Johnson

Why did you send Lodge out there, for God’s sake?[note 19] Henry Cabot Lodge II was the former Republican senator from Massachusetts, whom Kennedy had named ambassador to Vietnam in 1963.

Fulbright

Huh?

President Johnson

Why did you send Lodge out there, for God’s sake?

Fulbright

[Pauses.] I can’t tell you that. That was a political move.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm.

Fulbright

[Unclear.]

President Johnson

I just think he’s got things screwed up good— that’s what I think.

Fulbright

Well, I think that’s an awful hell of a situation. Some things you can’t do anything about unless you want to go all out, and I don’t believe we want to go all out in that kind of a situation. We had that up about Laos, you remember.[note 20] At the sole transition meeting between Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, the outgoing President recommended that the United States send troops to Laos, where a three-sided civil war had tilted in favor of the Communist Pathet Lao forces. Kennedy, prodded by Averell Harriman, instead opted to pursue negotiation, resulting in the Geneva Accords of 1962, which temporarily neutralized the country. Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 99–101.

President Johnson

Yeah.

Fulbright

Everybody voted against it.

President Johnson

Yes, that’s right.

Fulbright

[Unclear.] I’m glad we haven’t got 30,000 troops in Laos, bogged down in a damn war there. Those damn places are not worth it, in my opinion.

President Johnson

OK, my friend. God bless you and I’ll be talking to you later. Come in and see me when you get a moment.

Fulbright

OK. Well, anytime you have a moment, we’ll get our thoughts together on it. I have been so preoccupied with foreign aid, as you have—

President Johnson

Spend some time on Cuba for me.

Fulbright

OK.

President Johnson

A little bit on Vietnam, too.

Fulbright

Well, they’re complicated—

President Johnson

What would happen if I moved Lodge?

Fulbright

I wouldn’t do it right away.

President Johnson

We’d miss . . . We’d—

Fulbright

I don’t know. You see, I’m not current on the exact situation. But just for political reasons and otherwise . . . I think he was put there partly for that, in order to conciliate the opposition.

President Johnson

Who does he satisfy?

Fulbright

Well, I assume some elements in the Republican Party. There are some of them. I assume that was the reason. I wasn’t consulted about that appointment.

President Johnson

OK, my friend. Good night.

Fulbright

OK.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and J. William Fulbright on 2 December 1963,” Tape K6312.02, PNO 9, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, vol. 2, ed. Robert David Johnson and David Shreve] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/9020029

Originally published in

Lyndon B. Johnson: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963–January 1964, ed. Robert David Johnson and David Shreve, vol. 2 of The Presidential Recordings (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005).