Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 March 1964


Transcript

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

See the daily introduction for 1964-03-02  [from the Norton edition]

In this call, Johnson articulated a view of his policy options regarding Vietnam, unleashing a series of monologues about the domino theory, South Vietnamese society, and the value of bolstering the military capacity of Vietnamese anti-Communists. The President was particularly troubled by press reaction to the strong statements about Vietnam that he made at UCLA ten days earlier.

Johnson revealed the domestic political considerations that shaped his assessment of U.S. actions in Vietnam. He kept an eye on the activities of the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, whose dark horse candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination had suddenly grown much more plausible. Polls in New Hampshire showed the ambassador running a close third behind Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, a potentially stunning showing for a write-in candidate.[note 3] Washington Post, 25 February 1964. Johnson feared that unless the administration established a written record of doing everything possible to accommodate the embassy in Saigon, Lodge or another Republican could use that recalcitrance in the fall campaign.

President Johnson

Bob, how are we doing?

Robert McNamara

Oh, fine, I think, Mr. President. I thought your press conference was terrific on Saturday.

President Johnson

Well . . .

McNamara

Came over damn well.

President Johnson

We’ve got another one on Wednesday, one of these quickie ones. So you find us some stuff over there.

McNamara

I’ll do everything I can. I thought I’d hold one Thursday before I leave [for Vietnam]. I’m going to have to do it either then or at the plane side. I might as well control it over here.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm. What’s new—anything?

McNamara

No, I think we’re coming along reasonably well. We’ve had really quite an underground battle here on missile dependability—[Barry] Goldwater’s charge—and the Air Force has been, as I think I mentioned to you briefly, feeding it, I think, surreptitiously, both because it supports their desire for a manned bomber and also because I think there’s a substantial number up there that are pro-Goldwater.[note 4] In late January the Arizona senator and presidential candidate, citing classified information that he could not publicly reveal, had alleged that the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had prevented the Air Force from sufficiently testing U.S. ICBMs, thus calling into question their reliability. The Pentagon had issued a vigorous denial.

But I think we’ve got it reasonably well under control, and I’m having issued today a very strong statement of Paul Nitze, secretary of the Navy, concurred in by Admiral [David] McDonald, saying in effect that it doesn’t make any difference whether the Air Force’s bombers or missiles are reliable, that the Navy can win the war alone—and documenting it.[note 5] McDonald was chief of naval operations. It doesn’t say it [in] quite that language, but the theme of it is that, and I think that we can—

President Johnson

Won’t that start a fight between them?

McNamara

[chuckling] Well, that’s what I’d rather like to do. [Johnson chuckles too] I think that divide and conquer is a pretty good rule in this situation. To be quite frank, I’ve tried to do that in the last couple of weeks, and it’s coming along pretty well. And I think we’ve got Goldwater dampened down for the minute on attacking us.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm. I want you to dictate to me a memorandum, a couple of pages . . . [with] four-letter words and short sentences, and several paragraphs, so I can read it and study it and commit it to memory, not for the purpose of using it now. I’m not going to give out your figures on 20,000 [Vietcong] killed last year compared to 5 [000 South Vietnamese troops],[note 6] Johnson was not referring to U.S. deaths in 1964, which numbered slightly over 100. The United States did not have over 5,000 deaths in one year until 1966. but on the situation in Vietnam, the Vietnam picture, if you had to put it in 600 words or maybe 1,000 words if you have to go that long, but just like you talk.[note 7] McNamara outlined four “alternative courses of action.” He argued that withdrawal would create a “ripple effect” that would endanger Thailand and Malaysia and contended that neutralization would produce the same results. If it sent in U.S. troops, the United States “may well” get “bogged down in a long war against numerically superior North Vietnamese and ChiCom [Chinese Communist] forces.” He proposed therefore to continue the U.S. role of “training and logistical support.” See “Memorandum Prepared in the Department of Defense,” 2 March 1964, FRUS, 1964—1968: Vietnam, 1964, ed. Edward C. Keefer and Charles S. Sampson (Washington, DC: GPO, 1992), 1:119—20. William Bundy had been working on a draft of a similar memo that became the basis of McNamara’s 16 March report. “Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) to the President,” 16 March 1964, FRUS, 1964—1968, 1:153—61.

I’d like for you to say that there are several courses that could be followed. We could send our own divisions in there and our own Marines in there, and they could start attacking the Vietcong, and the results that would likely flow from that.

McNamara

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

We could come out of there and say we’re willing to neutralize and let them neutralize South Vietnam and let the Commies take North Vietnam, and as soon as we get out, they could swallow up South Vietnam, and that would go.

Or we could pull out and say the hell with you, we’re going to have Fortress America; we’re going home. And that would mean that . . . here’s what would happen in Thailand, and here’s what would happen in the Philippines. And come on back and get us back to Honolulu.

Or we can say this is a Vietnamese war, and they’ve got 200,000 men, and they’re untrained, and we’ve got to bring their morale up. They have nothing really to fight for because of the type of government they’ve had. We can put in socially conscious people and try to get them to improve their own government, and what the people get out of their own government, and we can train them how to fight, and 200,000 ultimately will be able to take care of these 25,000 [Vietcong forces].

And that after considering all of these, it seems that the latter offers the best alternative for America to follow. Now, if the latter has failed, then we have to make another decision. But at this point it has not failed, and in the last month X number of Vietcong were killed, and X number of South Vietnamese. Last year 20,000 [Vietcong] killed, to 5,000 [South Vietnamese]. While we have lost a total of 100 people, in one day in Korea, we lost 1,000, or whatever it is. And that, after all, this is it.

Now, I’m talking to people every day that are asking this question.

McNamara

[softly] Yeah.

President Johnson

And I’ve got to have some kind of a summarized, logical, factual analysis of it. And I believe that you can give it to me better than anybody else because you’ve been out there [to Vietnam] three times—or four, whatever it’s been—and I assume that you think that the course we’re following is the one that’s least dangerous and least expensive at the moment, or we . . . you’d be advocating another one pretty strong.

Now, you may advocate another one after you come back. If you don’t, why, maybe we’re wasting money on your going out there. But I would like to have for this period, when everybody’s asking me, something in my own words, [where] I can say, “Well, here are the alternative[s].”

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

“And here’s our theory, and here’s what we’re basing it on. Now, we don’t say that we’ll win. We don’t know; we’re doing the best we can. We think we ought to have them trained.”

Now, why’d you say you’d send 1,000 home? I’d put a sentence in—that because they’d completed their mission. And the illustration is that several hundred of them were working as military police, and they trained military police, so we didn’t need to keep them there.

Why’d McNamara say they were coming back in ’65?[note 8] Two weeks before, on 18 February, McNamara had told the House Armed Services Committee that he “continued to be hopeful that we will be able to complete the training responsibilities” of U.S. military personnel and “gradually withdraw them over the period between now and the end of 1965.” New York Times, 19 February 1964. Because when you say you’re going to give a man a high school education, he’s in the tenth grade, and you’ve got two years to do it, you can train him in two years. That doesn’t mean that everybody comes back, but that means your training ought to be in pretty good shape by that time.

Now, there may be other problems. But that’s what’s said and not anything inconsistent, except with people who know nothing about it.

But now, this morning . . . Well, now, here’s a summary: [reading] “Senator [Hugh] Scott said about the war in Vietnam yesterday,” said, “The war, which we can neither win, lose, nor drop, is evidence of an instability of ideas, a floating series of judgments, or a policy of nervous conciliation, which is extremely disturbing.”

There’s one of a hundred senators that says that, and that’s front page of the Baltimore Sun.

[reading] “Senator [Jacob] Javits called on the State Department to issue a White Paper documenting the necessity for the U.S. to stay in South Vietnam”—Detroit [Free] Press. “Senator [Clifford] Case says we can hardly be worse than we have been doing lately, hoping we’d find other alternatives than the two mentioned: either going in and fighting with American troops, or pulling out entirely”—Washington Post. Erwin Canham, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, said, “The President’s press conference was placid and calm and non-informative. Answers did not suggest that he was preparing the American people for the worst, and warned that public opinion is not prepared for a big Vietnam commitment, such as the ’62 Cuban showdown [or] on Korea.” Alexander Kendrick, ABC, says, “The answer cannot be delayed much longer,” and he warned, “Psychologically, we’re approaching the Yalu River again, where Chinese and possibly Russian intervention must be expected.”[note 9] This was a reference to Douglas MacArthur’s handling of the Korean War, in which the movement of U.S. troops close to the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea, triggered the intervention of Chinese troops in the conflict.

Now, they’re all saying that following our speech in Los Angeles, where we said that this is a very dangerous business—[note 10] Johnson had said that “those engaged in external direction and supply would do well to be reminded that this type of aggression is a deeply dangerous game.” Though most of the speech focused on domestic issues, in which he promised to fight against unemployment and civil rights, the Vietnam comment drew the headlines. The Washington Post blared, president johnson warns reds on viet war tactics. Washington Post, 22 February 1964.

McNamara

Mr. President, may I interrupt you? Who put the line in? I’m curious as to that.[note 11] In Johnson’s 11:35 a.m. call today, Dean Rusk stated that the phrase was added during a draft done by Ted Sorensen.

President Johnson

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I would assume [McGeorge] Bundy.[note 12] The President’s hunch was correct; indeed, Bundy had fundamentally transformed the speech. The initial drafts produced by the State Department focused on U.S.—Latin American relations, but the national security adviser recommended redoing “the body of the speech in terms of a broad but sharp statement of the President’s foreign policy.” He argued that the basic U.S. objective in world affairs was to protect and strengthen the hope of peace, whether through alliances, by opposing countries like the People’s Republic of China or Cuba that threatened international stability, and “perhaps most of all when we join in the defense of freedom, as in Vietnam.” McGeorge Bundy to Jack Valenti, 17 February 1964, Files of McGeorge Bundy, Box 1, National Security File, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. “Deeply dangerous game.” But I don’t see anything wrong with it, even yet. I think it is deeply dangerous when anybody starts aggression.

Now, that was not where it started at all. I blew my top here for a whole damn week. I jumped on you and jumped on [Dean] Rusk both [as to] why you were saying out in Saigon that you were invading North Vietnam, even if you were going to invade it. Now, I know that [Walt] Rostow . . . how he feels, and I know how we all feel. But they came back a week before we said it’s a “deeply dangerous game,” and this stuff was pouring out by reams. And the first story said that military officials in Saigon—it came from Saigon. I talked to you about it, and you said that that wasn’t correct, so I jumped on Rusk about it, and Rusk comes back and points out the story itself . . . [unclear] military officials. And that’s where it came from.

Now, the story came from Saigon that we’re getting ready to do this. A lot of people in Saigon, they tell me, said that they got it from the State Department here, that Rostow had a propaganda move on to really invade North Vietnam—and always had had it.

Now, I don’t know enough about the inner workings of these two departments, but I know that this thing has gone on ten days or a week before we got it, and I can get the clippings and show them where they were full of it.

But now they want to hang it on a little higher person and say that I indicated that we’re going to invade Vietnam, or that we’re going to hit the Chinese, or that we’re going to bomb Moscow. Now, I didn’t do any such thing. I said that this is deeply dangerous, and it is deeply dangerous. It’s dangerous for any nation to start aggression and start enveloping neutral, freedom-loving people. And I think it was dangerous to 5,000 of them—20,000 of them that got killed there last year! I think you could . . . I think maybe Pierre [Salinger] did get in an argument with somebody and say this is an important sentence, out in California, because they were writing about the sentence that said the Communists . . .

[aside] What was it, Phil Potter?[note 13] Philip Potter was chief White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

[to McNamara] Communist civil war. And they wanted to know what we meant by civil war, and we were talking about the fight that’s going on between the Chinese and the Russians and calling each other ugly names and things like that. We say that is civil war. But they’re trying to transfer this stuff that’s been coming out of Saigon onto this “deeply dangerous” statement. And . . . the . . . the . . . we’re just not doing it. They say that the administration’s putting out all this propaganda itself.

Now, I’d just give anything in the world if we could stop everybody from talking except the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and the President, and that we could clear those things. So, was not this Los Angeles speech cleared with your department?

McNamara

No, I didn’t see it. I—

President Johnson

Well, it was given to Bundy to clear it with everybody.

McNamara

Well, I—

President Johnson

And it should have been.

McNamara

There wasn’t anything in it I would change, so—

President Johnson

All right.

McNamara

—it doesn’t make a difference from that point.

President Johnson

Well, it ought to be. Now, is there anything in the press conference you’d change?

McNamara

No, I thought it was excellent.

President Johnson

Do you think it’s a mistake to explain what I’m saying now about Vietnam and what we’re faced with?

McNamara

Well, I do think, Mr. President, that it would be wise for you to say as little as possible. The frank answer is we don’t know what’s going on out there. The signs I see coming through the cables are disturbing signs: poor morale in Vietnamese forces, poor morale in the armed forces, disunity, tremendous amount of coup planning against [Nguyen] Khanh.[note 14] Khanh himself had just assumed power in a late-January coup, taking over from leaders who had deposed and killed Ngo Dinh Diem only three months earlier in November 1963. See several conversations from 29 to 31 January 1964, Kent B. Germany and Robert David Johnson, eds., The Presidential Recordings, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963—January 1964, vol. 3, January 1964 (New York: Norton, 2005). About what you’d expect in a situation that’s—

President Johnson

Then why don’t we take some—

McNamara

—had three governments in three months.

President Johnson

Why don’t we take some pretty offensive steps pretty quickly then? Why don’t we commend Khanh on his operation and try to prop him up? Why don’t we raise the salary of their soldiers to improve that morale instead of waiting a long time? Why don’t we do some of these things that are inclined to bolster them?

McNamara

Well, I’m not sure that State here—

President Johnson

I sure as hell don’t want to get in the position of [Henry Cabot] Lodge recommended to me . . . the one thing he recommended is “please give us a little more pay for our soldiers,” and we turned him down.

McNamara

Oh, no. We’ve done—that’s—you’re—

President Johnson

We haven’t acted. We said we’re going to wait until you go out there.

McNamara

Well, no, he knows that there’s money for that. There’s no problem on that issue.

President Johnson

Well, then, why don’t we clear it up so that we get him answered? Now, I think that politically—I’m not a military strate-gist—but I think that as long as we’ve got him there, and he makes recommendations, and we act on them, particularly if we act favorably, we’re not in too bad a condition politically.

But I think when he wires us and says, “The only damn thing I want you to do is give them an increase in pay because the morale is terrible,” and we say, “Well, wait.” Then if something happens in between, I think we are caught with our britches down. And I would give some—

McNamara

Well, that pull—that raise has gone through.

President Johnson

No, we told them that we’d wait.

McNamara

No.

President Johnson

By wire.

McNamara

No, I think that the raise has gone through to the soldiers. The Vietnamese people are getting the pay. I think it was . . . the first pay increase, I think, was to be the latter part of February. The question is—and the only question if there’s any waiting at all—is whether AID [Agency for International Development] should increase the payment to the South Vietnamese government to offset the increase.

But—

President Johnson

Well, then, we ought to decide that because . . . You ought to read that wire that he sent us.

McNamara

Yeah, I—

President Johnson

That’s the best wire we got, and I replied back.[note 15] In a cable dated 22 February, Lodge had expressed his concern about Charles de Gaulle’s proposal for a neutralized Southeast Asia and pressed for more aggressive action in carrying the war to the North Vietnamese. Johnson responded that he shared Lodge’s worries about the “futility and danger of empty talk about neutralization” and added that “we must expend every effort and mobilize every resource to get Vietnam strong enough to be independent and feared by any aggressor.” “Message from the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge) to the President,” 22 February 1964, FRUS, 1964—1968, 1:102—04.

McNamara

I remember it.

President Johnson

And we ought to take the—

McNamara

[Unclear.]

President Johnson

—wire that you sent Khanh as soon as he took over for me . . .

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

. . . and then got his reply back, and then let’s check on it again and see what he’s doing.

McNamara

I’ll do that right away.

President Johnson

Let’s make a record on this thing, Bob, so that—

McNamara

Oh, I agree with you on that. As a matter of fact I had had more of those same—

President Johnson

I’d like to have a wire out there to him nearly every day or so on something, either approving what Lodge is recommending or either trying to goose them up to do a little something extra.

McNamara

Mm-hmm.

President Johnson

Now, I’ve been rather impressed from the news reports of this fellow’s social consciousness, his getting out in the villages and talking to the people and offering them something that they claim that the Nhus and Diems never gave them and that this other outfit that took over didn’t have time to give them.[note 16] The reference is to the government of Duong Van Minh, which Khanh’s regime had replaced in a late-January coup. And I was rather encouraged by Lodge’s cable of yesterday in which he said that he [Khanh] showed more efficiency than either one of them.

McNamara

That’s right. And all that I agree with [unclear]—

President Johnson

But I don’t know why his 200,000 [troops] are not showing some results and why we keep saying that everything is bad and looks blue.

McNamara

Well, I . . . this is the question, Mr. President. There isn’t—We’ve not seen the results yet. And maybe they’ll come, but it’s a very uncertain period.

President Johnson

Well . . .

McNamara

Khanh is behaving properly; there’s no doubt.

President Johnson

Why don’t we send Lodge a wire back in reply to the one he sent yesterday that we heartily agree with him they ought to clear out an area and show some results and to please tell Khanh that we think this is absolutely essential to our continued morale here, or our continued support or something?

McNamara

Sure, we’ll do that. We’ve already—

As the conversation continues on the next program number (PNO), there may be an unrecorded segment
President Johnson

And then you get me this other statement on Vietnam, so that when people ask me questions, I have a smattering of information [unclear].

McNamara

Surely.

President Johnson

All right.

McNamara

Very good, Mr. President.

After this intense review of affairs in Vietnam, Johnson made a personal call to the mayor of New York.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 March 1964,” Tape WH6403.01, Citations #2301 and #2302, 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/9040273

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).