Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 April 1964


Transcript

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

See the daily introduction for 1964-04-02  [from the Norton edition]

Robert McNamara

Yes, Mr. President.

President Johnson

I’ve got a bunch of cowmen that are marching in on the West and the South. They say that they’ve got the biggest crop of cows in history. That the drought’s on, and they’re going to be forced to market. That when they do, the price is going to come tumbling down again, and hogs are going to follow them, and we’re going to get beat.

Now, I don’t think any of that’s true, but I’ve got a memo here from the Secretary of Agriculture [Freeman] this morning, and he says: [reading] “The Defense Subsistence Supply Agency has accelerated its buying of boneless beef. This agency’s normal purchase of 30 million pounds per quarter is being increased about 18 million pounds during March to May.” I guess that’s six million pounds a month during that period. And then it goes on into other things about the imports and so forth.

I wish that you’d get somebody in your department to give me a memo on what kind of storage you have and what kind of purchases you are making and what effect it will have. I mean, what . . . how it compares to what you have been doing for this quarter—

McNamara

Yeah, what our [unclear]. Right.

President Johnson

And let’s be sure that we’re doing everything we can.

McNamara

Yeah.

President Johnson

And I’d like it not for the papers, but I’d like it so in talking to one or two of these cattle leaders, that I can get their pulse down a little bit—

McNamara

Sure.

President Johnson

—by showing to them that we’re buying this while it’s real cheap because it’s dropped so damn much and . . .

McNamara

Our problem is twofold: a) the boneless, or the deboning operations are bottlenecked. We’ve got them loaded up to the hilt, I understand, and, secondly, we’ve bought to the point where deterioration is going to set in on the lower grades, the hamburger-type supplies. But I’ll get back into it, Mr. President. We’ll get you a memo on it.

President Johnson

Now, number two, I sure was impressed with this fellow [Andrew] O’Meara.[note 2] Andrew Pick O’Meara was the commanding general of the U.S. Army, Southern Command. Responsible for Army activities in the Caribbean and Central and South America, O’Meara had spoken to the President on the previous afternoon regarding the events in Brazil and U.S. military preparations to provide assistance to the anti-Goulart forces (mostly petroleum, oil, and lubricants supplies).

McNamara

Yes. I’m glad you were. He’s doing a fine job. We’ve really gone all out to set him up down there. We got him his fourth star, and he’s excellent for that command.

President Johnson

Now, we ought to . . . we ought to be giving a good deal of thought too, Bob, if [Henry Cabot] Lodge comes out of there, what we’re going to do.

McNamara

I thought you might like to talk about that at lunch.[note 3] After that day’s National Security Council meeting, set for noon, McNamara and Rusk joined the President for lunch at the Mansion. I have given some thought to it. Dean [Rusk] will be present, and we both—

President Johnson

You got any prospects?

McNamara

Yes.

President Johnson

Who?

McNamara

I think the man on the job out there is the best prospect: [William] Westmoreland.[note 4] In January 1964, Westmoreland had been appointed as the deputy to General Paul Harkins, who had served as the commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, since his appointment in February 1962 by President Kennedy.

President Johnson

To be ambassador?

McNamara

Yes.

President Johnson

[Pauses.] What would you do with [Paul] Harkins?

McNamara

Retire.[note 5] Neil Sheehan noted that, among reporters, Harkins had become an “object ofridicule” and that the hallmarks of his leadership were “fatuous optimism,” an expansive capacity for self-delusion, a lack of curiosity about the war, and a habit of seeing Vietnam only from the air and never from the rice paddies or muck of the countryside. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 282–85.

President Johnson

Well then, who would be the military assistance man?

McNamara

Well, we have a man under Westmoreland, whom we think would be very capable to take command of the military operations.[note 6] Lieutenant General John L. Throckmorton was Westmoreland’s assistant. He was elevated to deputy commander in August.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm.

McNamara

We’ve been looking to this possibility for 90 days now, and I’ve made a series of moves that put us in a position to carry it out if it seems desirable to do so.

President Johnson

[Pauses.] What would you think of someone of the [Lucius] Clay stripe, ten years younger, if you could find him?[note 7] General Lucius Clay, commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces in Europe, military governor of the U.S. zone of occupation in Germany, and director of the 1948 Berlin airlift, had most recently served as President Kennedy’s personal emissary in West Germany (in 1961 and 1962).

McNamara

Well, that’s just what we’ve got: Westmoreland.

President Johnson

Is he that good?

McNamara

He’s the best in the Army for it without question. Now, he may not be good enough, but he’s the best we have without any doubt. And he was sent there specifically for that purpose.

President Johnson

You mean, anticipating he might be ambassador someday?

McNamara

Yes, yes.

President Johnson

What would he do? Retire?

McNamara

No, he’d remain on active duty, but he would fill the joint role of—

President Johnson

Well, can you do that?

McNamara

Yes. Yes. Dean and I have talked about it and—

President Johnson

Do you have some military men that are serving as ambassadors still in uniform?

McNamara

No, but in this particular case, they . . . he would take on the ambassador’s role as an extra duty. [Pauses.] Dean and I have discussed it and think—

President Johnson

Well, wouldn’t he have to go to the Senate and be confirmed?

McNamara

I can’t answer the question. I’ll try to get an answer before noontime on it.

President Johnson

[Pauses.] Westmoreland was the guy up that was superintendent of the Academy.[note 8] Westmoreland was the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1960 to 1964.

McNamara

That’s right.

President Johnson

Is he that strong ofa guy?

McNamara

Well, he’s the best we have, without question, and I think he is that strong.

President Johnson

What did you think about Nixon’s criticism of Vietnam this morning?[note 9] On the previous day, Nixon held a two-hour conference in South Vietnam with his 1960 running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge. In a statement issued upon his arrival at the Saigon airport, Nixon criticized past Vietnam policy for its “compromises and improvisations.” Peter Grose, “Nixon Calls on Lodge for a Parley on Politics in U.S.,” New York Times, 2 April 1964.

McNamara

Well, it didn’t look to me to be much of a criticism. I read the New York Times report of it. Seemed to me he was agreeing with our program.[note 10] Though the criticism was somewhat muted, it was also mixed with praise for Secretary McNamara’s “recent statements ofsupport for the war.” Ibid.

President Johnson

The [New York] Herald Tribunes got a headline, “He Criticizes Johnson’s policies,” and—[note 11] “Nixon, in Saigon, Hits Johnson Policy,” New York Herald Tribune, 2 April 1964. “Everything should be done to win the war in South Vietnam,” Nixon declared, as quoted in the Herald Tribune story, “even ifit means carrying the war to the North or bringing in American combat troops.”

McNamara

Well, the Times said quite the opposite. It said that he fully supported what we’d said. He said, of course, we said it too late, and we’ve been vacillating in the past, but if we did what we said we’re going to do, he thought it was fine.

Now, I haven’t actually seen what he said. The Times article is pretty good on it. It’s buried in the back of the paper.[note 12] The story was placed on p. 23.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm. All right. What do you think about Panama now?

McNamara

Well, I think it’s coming along reasonably well. I checked up again on Colombia this morning, and our charge [d’affaires per interim] went in to talk to the foreign minister this morning and reported back that the president of Colombia [Guillermo Leon Valencia] presumably will approve the admission of a survey team within 48 hours.[note 13] Guillermo Leon Valencia was the conservative candidate inaugurated as president of Colombia in 1964. Unofficially given the same duties and powers as ambassadors, charges d’affaires are officially ranked below ambassadors in the fourth class of diplomatic agents and are considered heads of diplomatic missions to which it is not desirable or possible to send a minister of a higher rank. After Fulton Freeman’s departure from the post on 14 March 1964 and before Covey Oliver’s appointment as ambassador to Colombia in August 1964, the United States was represented there by a charge d’affaires per interim. So we’ll follow again tomorrow.

President Johnson

All right.

McNamara

Other than that, I think Panama is getting along fine.

President Johnson

[Pauses] Do you think we’re going to conclude that agreement? The State [Department] tells me that they’re about ready to buy the agreement now.

McNamara

I think so, although, frankly, Mr. President, I haven’t followed it as closely as State has.

President Johnson

Do you think that the timing is bad after Fulbright’s speech for us to come in and affect an agreement?[note 14] Because Fulbright had urged in his recent Senate speech an immediate and magnanimous settling of the crisis with Panama, the President’s concern was that any imminent resumption of diplomatic relations there might be viewed as little more than a capitulation to Fulbright.

McNamara

No . . . no, I don’t think so.

President Johnson

Do you think it helps us any to have an agreement?

McNamara

I do.

President Johnson

Do you think we’ve been too tough on not agreeing?

McNamara

No, no, I don’t at all. But I think if it drags on too long, there will be criticism mounting in our own press. So, I would conclude it, if we—

President Johnson

How many more people have you fired in Cuba?[note 15] In the wake of the water supply showdown with Castro at the Guantánamo Naval Base, President Johnson had recommended the firing of many, if not all, of the Cubans who had traditionally worked menial jobs for the U.S. military there.

McNamara

We haven’t fired any more. We’re holding at the 1,000. We can fire some more if you think necessary.

President Johnson

I would.

McNamara

I don’t really think it’s necessary.

President Johnson

I would. I would let a few more go. I want to be as tough on Cuba as I can.

McNamara

All right . . . all right. We can do it.

President Johnson

I just sure would, and I’d just tighten it down and operate it as frugally as possible and as tight as Dick’s hatband.[note 16] “As tight as Dick’s hatband” is generally thought to have originated as a pejorative reference to the crown worn briefly and in a particularly ill-fitting manner by Richard Cromwell, who succeeded his father, Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector of England for a few months in 1658 and 1659. In much of the rural United States, the expression had somehow come to imply miserliness or frugality instead of incongruity. And let them know that they’ve got some things to lose too, if they get too rough with us.

McNamara

All right. I’ll go ahead and do it.

President Johnson

I wouldn’t be precipitant and impulsive—we haven’t been—we’ve taken time, but at the time we thought we were going to get rid of3,000 in due time. But what did we do? Get rid of1,000 and quit?

McNamara

A thousand, that’s right. A thousand.

President Johnson

And then stop?

McNamara

Then stop. That’s right.

President Johnson

All right. Get rid of some more.

McNamara

All right, sir. We’ll go ahead.

President Johnson

Now of those 1,000, 300-and-some-odd were security cases . . .

McNamara

Yeah, between 200 and 300, which was a distinct plus, and—

President Johnson

5[00] or 600 you didn’t need.

McNamara

That’s right, and we didn’t replace—so that those were two plusses.

President Johnson

Well, I’d try to get rid of another 500.

McNamara

All right, sir. We’ll work on it.

President Johnson

OK. I’ll see you at noon.

McNamara

Yes. Fine.

At 11:40, for a meeting requested the day before by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the President welcomed Eastland and his senatorial colleague from northern Mississippi, John Stennis. Receiving a call from George Reedy just after noon, Johnson concluded his visit with the Mississippians and walked to the Cabinet Room for the scheduled National Security Council meeting. Chatting briefly with Bundy and McNamara in the secretaries’ outer office before entering, the President moved quickly to convene the gathering. He asked Dean Rusk for a survey of the most recent events in Brazil, noted the latest from Vietnam and Panama, and adjourned at 12:35. He walked outside afterward, played briefly with his beagles, and then left for lunch at the Mansion, where he was joined by Secretaries Rusk and McNamara.

Though he received brief telephone calls at the Mansion from Bill Moyers and Secretary of Agriculture Freeman, the lunch and informal discussion with McNamara and Rusk proceeded at a leisurely pace. Not until 2:45 did the President call Walter Jenkins to check on his late-afternoon appointments, after which he returned to the Oval Office and to the Cabinet Room, where he convened a meeting on Alaskan disaster relief.[note 18] In addition to Chairman Clinton Anderson, official members of the Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska were the Secretaries of Defense, Interior, Commerce, Labor, and Health, Education, and Welfare; the administrators of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Emergency Planning; and the chairman of the Federal Power Commission. New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson had arrived in time to preside over this, the first meeting of the newly appointed commission on Alaskan relief, and photographer Cecil Stoughton commemorated the event with a series of photographs taken at 3:35 p.m. at the end of the commission meeting.

Back to the Oval Office with Secretary McNamara afterward, the President stopped briefly to chat with his daughter Lynda. With a copy of William White’s soon-to-be-published manuscript in hand, President Johnson and his eldest daughter surveyed the book’s merits and shortcomings, a discussion that was curtailed quickly by a telephone call from Postmaster General John Gronouski.

A veteran of Democratic Party politics in Wisconsin, Gronouski called to discuss the surprisingly positive reception accorded Alabama Governor George Wallace, then campaigning vigorously in the Badger State for the following week’s Wisconsin presidential primary. GronouskI’s report hinted that, in the wake of President Johnson’s forceful drive for civil rights, the “white backlash” that President Johnson expected in the Deep South appeared to be emerging in other parts of the nation as well. Wallace’s visit on the previous evening to Milwaukee’s predominately Polish south side prompted Democratic State Senator Casimir Kendziorski to predict a heavy vote for Wallace in the following Tuesday’s primary election.[note 19] “Milwaukee Turnout Pleases Wallace,” Washington Post, 3 April 1964.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 2 April 1964,” Tape WH6404.02, Citation #2833, 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/9050228

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).