Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 25 February 1964


Transcript

Edited by Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany, with Ashley Havard High and Patricia Dunn

See the daily introduction for 1964-02-25  [from the Norton edition]

This morning the Senate Armed Services Committee had gone along with its House counterpart and approved $52 million for development of a new manned bomber to replace the B-52. But the President had other international matters on his mind, as he made clear to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The international and domestic reaction to his speech at UCLA—especially the passage in which he accused the Vietnamese of engaging in a “deeply dangerous game” in Southeast Asia—had not been favorable. Internationally, the Soviet Union warned the United States against extending the war to North Vietnam. Domestically, Mansfield reiterated his public and private calls for a negotiated settlement leading to the neutralization of Southeast Asia in the face of a widespread popular impression that the United States was preparing to begin a psychological campaign against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). In further fallout from the perceived stiffening of policy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Roger Hilsman announced his resignation. Although the stated reason was a desire to return to academia, the New York Daily News claimed that Hilsman was departing under pressure because of his approach to Vietnam policy, an assertion that Hilsman’s memoirs confirmed.[note 3] New York Daily News, 26 February 1964; Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (New York: Dell, 1961), pp. 534—36.

In this discussion with McNamara, Johnson seemed to backtrack from both his public and private statements on Vietnam and to reconsider the wisdom of escalation. In the process, he displayed a level of assertiveness on an issue where heretofore he had deferred to his advisers or avoided discussing the broad outlines of policy. The immediate reason for the call concerned the shaping of remarks for this night’s congressional reception at the White House.

Before the call, a few seconds of office conversation is recorded, with Johnson saying that he had “talked to him on Martin on that.” McNamara is then announced
President Johnson

Bob?

Robert McNamara

Yes, Mr. President.

President Johnson

I hate to modify your speech any because it’s been a good one, but I just wonder if we shouldn’t tonight still give our relative strengths and still give a very brief summary. I wouldn’t go into the antidefense and—

McNamara

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson

—stuff. But a very brief summary of what you’ve cut in the budget, and I’d go into that a good deal. But you could . . . say that we’re not . . . I . . . They asked for 10 billion [dollars] more than we gave them, so whenever anybody says that we have . . . giving something to everybody, why, we gave them 10 million less than they . . . a billion less than they’d like to use. But find two minutes in there for Vietnam.

McNamara

[Pauses.] Yeah, the problem is what to say about it.

President Johnson

All right—I’ll tell you what I would say about it. [Unclear comment by McNamara] I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. Now, we could pull out of there, the dominoes would fall, and that part of the world would go to the Communists. We could send our Marines in there, and we could get tied down in a third world war or another Korean action.

The other alternative is to advise them and hope that they stand up and fight. Now, we think that by training them and advising them, that by training them in the period of three years, we can have them trained. And we removed some there who were guarding establishments that didn’t need to be guarded anymore, were absolutely no need. We’d put in 10,000 more if they could be useful and could . . . if we needed them for the training. But this 1,000 we didn’t need because they were guarding whatever they’re guarding [McNamara acknowledges], and that’s why we pulled them out.

Now, we estimate that with the 15,000 we’ve got left, that all the rest of this year and a large part of next year, that we can just train anybody in that period of time, and for that reason, we’ve said that we can reduce that number after they’re trained. [McNamara acknowledges.] Now, this nation has made no commitment to go in there to fight as yet. We’re in there to train them and advise them. And that’s what we’re doing.

Nobody really understands what it is out there. They don’t know, and they’re getting to where they’re confused, and they’re asking questions, and they’re saying why don’t we do more. Well, I think this: You can have more war or you can have more appeasement. But we don’t want more of either. And it’s their war, and it’s their men, and we’re willing to train them.

And we have found that over a period of time that we kept the Communists from spreading. We did it in Greece and Turkey [in 1947] with the Truman Doctrine, by sending them men. We did it in Western Europe by NATO [in 1949]. We’ve done it there by advice. We haven’t done it by going out and dropping bombs, and we haven’t done it by going out and sending men to fight, and we’re not . . . we have no such commitment there.

But we do have a commitment to help the Vietnamese defend themselves, and we’re there for training, and that’s what we’re doing. And they say the war is not going good. Well, there are days when we win; there are days when we lose. But our purpose is to train these people, and our training is going good, and we’re trying to train them.

McNamara

All right, sir. I’ll get—

President Johnson

I don’t know if I’ve said anything there that I shouldn’t say. I wouldn’t do it.

McNamara

No, no. . . . No, I think that—

President Johnson

But I . . . that’s the way you said it to me.

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

And it appealed to me when I say why in the hell—I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the President [Kennedy] thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.[note 5] In September 1963 McNamara had committed to withdrawing 1,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam, a move often cited by those who argue that John Kennedy would not have pursued Lyndon Johnson’s course in Vietnam had he lived. Now, you’ve made them, and when you . . . and I asked you for your explanation, you give me a good explanation: There’s not a damn bit of use of having 1,000 people sitting around guarding something that they don’t need to guard.

McNamara

No question about that, Mr. President. The problem is really beyond [unclear]—

President Johnson

All right, then the question . . . the next question [that] comes is: How in the hell does McNamara think, when he’s losing the war, that he can pull men out of it? Well, McNamara’s not fighting a war. He’s training men [unclear comment by McNamara] to fight a war, and when he gets them through high school, they will have graduated from high school and have 12 grades behind them next year, and he hasn’t taken on any agreement to keep them the rest of their life. He’s just . . . he’s made a commitment to train them to fight. And if he trains them to fight and they won’t fight, he can’t do anything about it. Then he’s got to choose whether he wants to fight, or let them have it.

McNamara

This is the problem exactly. And what I fear is that we’re right at that point.

Well, anyhow, I’ll get this in [unclear].

President Johnson

Now, we’ve got to decide who goes with you because they tell me everybody in town is wanting to go, and I sure wouldn’t haul anybody out there that I just didn’t have to have.

McNamara

Well, I feel exactly that way. I—

President Johnson

But one man I want to suggest—and I’m sure you can cut him right back, right quick, and I won’t hesitate and if you don’t mention him anymore, I’ll just know that you haven’t used him—but from [the] psychological standpoint and from [the] political standpoint, there’s one man that I would have on that plane with me, and that’s [David] Shoup.[note 6] On 1 January 1964, Shoup had retired from his post as commandant of the Marine Corps. Three weeks later Johnson awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal. I’d put a stop to [Mike] Mansfield’s speaking up there every day on it, and Shoup will put a stop to it.[note 7] Mansfield, a former marine, was known for his general support of the Marine Corps.

I’d have Shoup just go out there and sit in on these meetings with [Maxwell] Taylor, as kind of ex officio. He’s out; he hasn’t got anything to do, and he’s got that medal on his breast. And Mansfield is just worshiping the Marines, and the rest of them that are raising hell do the same thing. And then I’d use Shoup to go up and tell these boys some things, and let him—he’s worth a dozen Averell Harrimans to you.[note 8] Since becoming President, Johnson had been increasingly suspicious of Harriman, the wealthy under secretary of state for political affairs, who had a distinguished career of public service dating back to the Roosevelt presidency.

And that’s my judgment, but I’m not any expert on it. I think he’s quiet enough and humble enough that he’s not going to be bossing around and threatening, and he can sit in the back row, and you don’t have to mess with him. But when he gets back here, he can take the McNamara line and sit down with Mansfield and sit down with the rest of them and say, “Now, here’s the story.” And we can get him invited to come and see them. You give a little thought to that.

McNamara

I sure will.

President Johnson

All right.

McNamara

All right, sir. Thank you.

President Johnson

Bye.

Johnson turned from a discussion about the role of the U.S. military in Vietnam to one about improving the prospects for African Americans in the U.S. military. He met with Lee White, his chief aide on civil rights matters, and Gerhard “Gerry” Gesell, the chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces (known as the Gesell Committee). Johnson followed up on that meeting with a call to the federal housing administrator. While he spoke to Robert Weaver, Lady Bird was having a meeting with Walter Jenkins and an adviser about her expenses and her attempts to make a “start toward putting this place on a more Johnsonian basis, that is, a somewhat more economical basis.”[note 10] Lady Bird Johnson, A White House Diary, p. 14.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 25 February 1964,” Tape WH6402.21, Citation #2191, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Toward the Great Society, vol. 4, ed. Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/9040237

Originally published in

Lyndon B. Johnson: Toward the Great Society, February 1, 1964–March 8, 1964, ed. Robert David Johnson and Kent B. Germany, vol. 4 of The Presidential Recordings (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).