Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 21 March 1964


Transcript

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

See the daily introduction for 1964-03-21  [from the Norton edition]

Robert McNamara

Hello?

President Johnson

Bob?

McNamara

Bob McNamara, Mr. President.

President Johnson

How are you getting along?

McNamara

Very well, sir. I called to say that, you may remember, Dean Rusk and you and I talked briefly about the need for a Vietnam speech. We’ve prepared such a speech, and Dean and I have discussed the desirability of my giving it next Thursday night. I have to make a speech here in Washington at that time.[note 2] McNamara was scheduled to speak at the James Forrestal memorial dinner on 26 March, an occasion honoring the former Dillon Read executive, outspoken New Dealer, and defense secretary who had committed suicide in May 1949. I sent a draft over to your office last night to Mike Forrestal, who was going to give it to you.[note 3] Mike Forrestal, the son of the late James Forrestal, was an assistant to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

President Johnson

He hasn’t given it to me. I’ll get it from him and read it over the weekend. I think it’s good. I think, if you could, that you ought to go up and sit down with [Ernest] Gruening and [Wayne] Morse.[note 4] Eleven days earlier, Gruening had delivered the first full-length Senate speech against Vietnam, urging President Johnson to withdraw American forces from “this bloody and wanton stalemate.” Morse had followed up with a similar address the next week. Ironically, while Johnson was urging McNamara to pacify the two Vietnam critics, Rusk, in the 19 March Salt Lake City speech he mentioned to Johnson above, had denounced “those who would quit the struggle by letting down our defenses, by gutting our foreign aid programs.” State Department sources privately suggested that the speech was aimed at Morse and Gruening, the former of whom responded by declaring, “If McCarthyism is the new public relations program of the State Department, the most helpful quitting the Secretary of State could do would be to just quit being Secretary of State.” New York Times, 20 March 1964; “Morse Rebukes Rusk,” New York Times, 21 March 1964.

McNamara

Well, I think I should, and I think—

President Johnson

What I’d do is ask [Mike] Mansfield.[note 5] Mike Mansfield was a Democratic U.S. senator from Montana and the Senate majority leader. Just say, “Now, I don’t want to debate. I don’t want to argue. I don’t want to convince anybody, but I would like for them to know my viewpoint. And I’m going to make this speech, and the President asked me to ask you if you’d get Morse and Gruening in your office and let me visit with them a little bit about it.”

McNamara

Very good. I’ll do that. I have got to make this speech Thursday night, and I’ll do that before I do it Thursday.

President Johnson

I’ll get it over the weekend. Are you going to be at home over the weekend?

McNamara

Yes, sir, I will. I think I can take a lot of the heat off of you—

President Johnson

Yeah.

McNamara

—on this Vietnam issue, Mr. President. There’s just a lot of misunderstanding on it in this country.

President Johnson

Uh-huh . . . uh-huh.

McNamara

And that’s the real purpose for it. And it’s—

President Johnson

Now, what are we going to do? Are we going to do more of the same, except we’re going to firm it up and strengthen it, and what else?

McNamara

Well, it’s really a—

President Johnson

What is a one-sentence statement of what our policy is out there?

McNamara

Our policy is to help [Nguyen] Khanh—[note 6] One of three military leaders who carried out the late 1963 coup d’etat against the South Vietnamese government ofNgo Dien Diem, General Nguyen Khanh was the leader of the new South Vietnamese government established by a second coup on 30 January 1964, an action Khanh described as necessary to prevent the ruling junta under General Duong Van Minh from imposing a “neutralist” policy in their government’s war against Communist Vietcong guerrillas. Neil Sheehan, “Military Junta Ousted in South Viet-Nam Coup,” Washington Post, 30 January 1964.

President Johnson

Yeah?

McNamara

—provide the physical security and the economic and social progress for his people that he needs in order to gain their support.

President Johnson

All right, well, that’s what we’ve been doing.

McNamara

Well, we haven’t done it very effectively, and neither have they.

President Johnson

Why aren’t the Russians as interested in this as we are? Why aren’t the French and the English? Why do they want the Commies to take over all of Southeast Asia?

McNamara

Well, I think the French are obviously pursuing their own national aims, and they think that we’re going to lose out there anyhow, and they might as well advance their national strength and prestige while we’re losing.

President Johnson

It looks like to me that the Russians would be more interested in saving Vietnam than we are.

McNamara

You can’t be sure what their position is. I think we—

President Johnson

Doesn’t it seem logical to you? If they’re in the war with them and they’ve got a civil war going on between 800 million Chinese and the Russians, why do they want to see the Chinese Communists envelop Southeast Asia?

McNamara

I think the reason that they can’t take a strong position against the Chinese Communists here is that to do so will lose them the support of Communist parties elsewhere in the world, who think the Soviets are soft on—

President Johnson

I thought they just thought we had an umbrella over them, like de Gaulle does, and thought we’d do it and they didn’t need to do it—

McNamara

No, sir, I don’t think so. I think they are in a very sensitive position for control of Communist parties worldwide, and if they appear to be soft in opposing us in Vietnam, they’ll be charged with that and lose control.

In any event, I’ve tried to prepare a strong statement here of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and what the prospects are.

President Johnson

All right. Right. All right. What can I say to the press? They’re going to come in after a while and just visit with me. [Pauses.] Haven’t you got something startling over in your shop?

McNamara

[Chuckles] No, I was just trying to think. If you want to, you might say that you’ve continued to emphasize, particularly to the Defense Department—which has such a high percentage of the federal budget—the need for increasing our strength and while doing so to reduce costs by increasing efficiency. And that you understand that we will have some further announcements to make on that subject in the next couple of weeks.

It looks as though, Mr. President, we could bring to you a package of base closings, which don’t appear to be too difficult politically, that would bring in savings of something on the order of 60 to 70 million [dollars] a year. And I hope within two weeks to be able to bring that to your attention.

President Johnson

Yeah, I asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff when I talked to them to keep riding herd over and above what you’re doing in your cost-consciousness program, and the Air Force made a report, “Bozo” McKee did, where he’d save a few million here and there.[note 7] General William F. “Bozo” McKee was the Air Force vice chief of staff.

McNamara

Well, it’s just crap. It’s just showmanship.

President Johnson

It doesn’t amount to much, does it?

McNamara

No, but I think we can pick up 60 to 70 million dollars in this set of actions, that are really not—

President Johnson

Where are you closing them?

McNamara

Well, there are a lot of procurement offices scattered all over the country that have anywhere from, say, 100 to 200 people in them. And we can consolidate a lot of these and save about 18 million [dollars] a year there, and this is not difficult politically.

Then we have 14 bases overseas that I think we can close and save some there. Then we’ve got a handful of fairly tough ones in this country, four or five. One is in Ohio, if I remember correctly, and there are a few other places around the country.

President Johnson

Many in Texas?

McNamara

But the overseas—

President Johnson

Got many in Texas?

McNamara

No, sir. I don’t remember any one at this moment.

President Johnson

Got any in Kansas or Iowa or Nebraska?[note 8] The President was referring to three heavily Republican states in the Midwest that happened to send to Washington some of his most outspoken congressional critics.

McNamara

There’s not enough in Kansas, apart from these bomber bases, which we can’t move on at the moment, to do very much with. That’s our problem there. But I’ll bring this list to your attention—

President Johnson

All right.

McNamara

—in a couple of weeks, and I think you’d be safe in saying that you’ve put the pressure on us to do something, and we think we’ll be able to do it, and then announce it in two or three weeks. And that’ll still leave you room to maneuver in whatever we don’t want to do.

President Johnson

I see the Navy is giving out figures about how many they’re going to cost jobs in various places?[note 9] After speaking to Kenneth BeLieu, the assistant secretary of the Navy, Massachusetts Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall had publicized the U.S. Navy estimates of job cuts at several East Coast Navy yards. “Transport News: Cut in Yard Jobs,” New York Times, 20 March 1964. Did you see those?

McNamara

I saw that—in the shipyards. I don’t know how in the hell that got out . . .

President Johnson

I don’t think they ought to do that.

McNamara

No, neither do I. I completely agree with you. I don’t know how it got out, either. I haven’t—

President Johnson

Can you think of anything else?

McNamara

No, sir, I can’t.

President Johnson

OK. I’ll talk to you.

McNamara

Thank you.

Calling back with suggested changes to President Johnson’s Panama statement, Dean Rusk dictated the revisions to Bill Moyers. Before hanging up, Rusk spoke briefly to the President on how to handle the Cuban defectors who had recently hijacked a helicopter to Key West, Florida, and how to address rumors among Washington correspondents that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Averell Harriman had been demoted or cast aside in the Johnson-Rusk State Department.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 21 March 1964,” Tape WH6403.13, Citation #2584, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Toward the Great Society, vol. 5, ed. David Shreve and Robert David Johnson] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/9050117

Originally published in

Lyndon B. Johnson: Toward the Great Society, March 9, 1964–April 13, 1964, ed. David Shreve and Robert David Johnson, vol. 5 of The Presidential Recordings (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).