[Complete text of the original ebook published by the University of Virginia Press, ISBN 978-0-8139-3851-6. Copyright 2015 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. All rights reserved.]
“Every time we have gotten near the culmination of our dreams, the war bells have rung,” Lyndon Johnson lamented in mid-July 1965. “If we have to fight, I’ll do that. But I don’t want . . . to be known as a War President.”1 LBJ’s words came at the time of his greatest triumph as president—the passage of landmark Great Society legislation—and as he faced with foreboding a decision to Americanize the war in Vietnam. Throughout the seven weeks in which he made the 1965 troop decision, the war and the Great Society were closely connected.2 And they remained so thereafter. As he feared, the war he took on so reluctantly undermined his dreams for continuing reform at home. And the way he went to war in July 1965—using a low-key approach he hoped would preserve his Great Society goals—all but assured a bloody stalemate in Vietnam.
The story of the troop decision has been told often and well. Yet most of this work was done before a remarkable—and indispensable—source became available. In the sizable hands of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the telephone became a formidable instrument of presidential power. It was used to extract information from advisers, legislators, and journalists, sell them on programs and policies, cajole and wheedle, and squelch potential opposition. Johnson relied heavily on it. Many of his conversations were taped, and these recordings offer invaluable insights into his moods, thoughts, policy predilections, and modus operandi. This short work draws on records of phone conversations, supplemented by other documents, to explore the crucial events of June and July 1965 leading up to his fateful decision to increase the American troop presence in Vietnam. The phone conversations do not yield any major surprises or challenge conventional wisdom. They do provide an intimate, richly textured portrait of the president’s mental disposition and train of thought during these momentous weeks. They show a chief executive tormented by anxiety, certain of what he must do but profoundly skeptical of success; a seasoned and skillful political operator struggling to build support for policies he himself was uneasy about; and a prickly and thin-skinned leader, obsessed by the press and his rival, New York senator Robert Kennedy, angry with rising criticism but unsure exactly how to counter it. Above all, they reveal a beleaguered chief executive determined to do what he viewed as necessary to protect America’s international prestige by upholding the nation’s imperiled position in Vietnam, but in a way that would minimize threats to his cherished Great Society programs.
Branded a warmonger and baby killer by antiwar extremists and an all too timid and yet much too intrusive commander in chief by Vietnam war hawks, LBJ has enjoyed surprisingly gentle treatment at the hands of scholars. Even writers who deplore the war have given him some benefit of the doubt for taking the nation into it. He inherited a long-standing commitment to and an intractable problem in Vietnam, it is argued. Like his predecessors, he was beholden to the unthinking and virulent anticommunism that gripped U.S. policymakers during the heyday of the Cold War and was trammeled by bloated estimates of the nation’s global interests and the fears that the “loss” of South Vietnam, as with the fall of China to the Communists in 1949, would have disastrous political consequences at home. In this context, many writers have insisted that LBJ had little choice but to escalate the war in 1964–65.3 Some are more critical of the secretive, deceitful way he handled the decision than of what he actually did.
In recent years, scholars have modified and directly challenged this view. Friendly observers insist that LBJ’s decisions for war were motivated not simply by Cold War exigencies but also by his determination to promote American democratic ideals in places like South Vietnam.4 Others, more critically, claim that Johnson in reality had considerable leeway in dealing with Vietnam. Had he opted for peace in the summer of 1965 and applied his exceptional political skills to its achievement, he could have gained broad support in Congress, in the country, and with major allies. Instead, in this view, he chose war, largely for reasons of domestic politics and personal credibility. In this regard, some writers compare him unfavorably with what they believe JFK would have done had he lived.5
Few would question that by June 1965, Johnson faced an imposing challenge in Vietnam. The Second Indochina War (to become known in the United States as the Vietnam War) had begun in the late 1950s when those Viet Minh who had remained in the South following the 1954 Geneva Conference launched an insurgency in response to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s refusal to participate in the elections called for by Geneva and his efforts to forcibly extinguish all opposition to his rule. At first with misgivings, North Vietnam backed the Vietcong rebels by sending men and supplies. JFK responded to the surging revolt in 1961 by significantly expanding U.S. military aid to South Vietnam, increasing the number of military advisers, and secretly authorizing Americans to take part in combat. The overthrow and assassination of Diem in November 1963 by dissident South Vietnamese army officers, with U.S. blessings, complicated an already messy situation. In late 1963, Hanoi increased aid to the insurgents as part of a go-for-broke strategy to win a decisive victory that would presumably force a U.S. withdrawal. Shortly after the assassination of Kennedy on November 22, the Johnson administration declared that the “central objective” of U.S. policy must be to help South Vietnam defeat the “externally directed and supported communist conspiracy.”6
Both sides escalated the war in 1964–65. The overthrow of Diem brought political chaos rather than stability to South Vietnam, coup following coup in what one LBJ adviser called “government by turnstile.” Buddhists and Catholics fought in the streets of Saigon. Even as North Vietnam prepared regular units to enter the conflict, the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) proved incapable of handling the insurgents. Campaigning for election in his own right in 1964, LBJ responded cautiously. In August, in retaliation for alleged attacks by North Vietnamese gunboats on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, he ordered air strikes against North Vietnamese naval installations and secured congressional approval of a blank check authorization to “take all necessary measures” to repel attacks on U.S. forces and “prevent further aggression.” Following a one-sided electoral victory, his administration reaffirmed its commitment to preserving an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam and crafted the outlines of a strategy calling for the bombing of North Vietnam and the deployment of additional U.S. forces. Responding to Vietcong attacks on a U.S. base at Pleiku in February 1965, the administration launched air strikes that soon evolved into the sustained, systematic bombing of North Vietnam. This campaign, dubbed Rolling Thunder, aimed to reassure a wobbly Saigon government, limit North Vietnamese infiltration, and demonstrate to Hanoi America’s determination to defend South Vietnam. In early March, the president ordered the landing of 3,500 U.S. Marines at Da Nang to defend U.S. air bases against enemy attack. A month later, he approved the deployment of two additional Marine battalions to Vietnam and agreed to a change of mission from base security to active combat. To avoid interference with the flood of Great Society legislation then moving through Congress, the president kept the mission change secret from all but a handful of top advisers. In response to critics at home and abroad, Johnson in April and May mounted a major peace initiative accompanied by an extended bombing pause.
Despite U.S. escalation, South Vietnam by the summer of 1965 appeared on the verge of collapse. Hanoi flatly rejected U.S. peace proposals and set forth terms unacceptable to Washington. Following a bewildering series of coups and countercoups, a military junta headed by Vice Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and ARVN general Nguyen Van Thieu took power in Saigon. Customarily arrayed in a flight suit with a bright purple scarf and a pearl-handled revolver dangling from his hip, the colorful, mustachioed Ky looked like a character out of a comic opera. His favorable comments about Adolph Hitler provoked consternation in Washington. The Ky-Thieu directorate “seemed to all of us the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel,” a top State Department official later recalled.7 In the meantime, insurgent forces, now boosted by North Vietnamese regulars, mauled hapless ARVN units at Binh Gia in May and later mounted a series of attacks across northern South Vietnam. With the ARVN suffering heavy casualties and soldiers “deserting just like flies,” in Johnson’s words, South Vietnamese armed forces seemed on the verge of disintegration. On June 7, General William C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), urgently requested that Washington more than double the number of existing troops in country and grant him authority to take the war to the enemy. He closed with a somber warning that more troops might subsequently be needed.8
In making one of the most important decisions of his presidency, Johnson relied heavily on Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. On taking office, LBJ had inherited Kennedy’s advisers and advisory process. Preferring small, intimate gatherings of top officials, he increasingly leaned on McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, collectively labeled by journalists the “awesome foursome.” Bundy played a key role in the post-Pleiku escalation, but in May the former Harvard dean had committed an unforgivable sin by defying the president’s wishes and agreeing to a television debate with the antiwar scholar Hans Morgenthau. In the June–July deliberations, his role focused more on procedure than substance. Johnson especially liked his fellow southerner, Rusk—“hard-working, bright, and loyal as a beagle,” in his admiring words.9 The secretary’s unswerving insistence on the importance of upholding international commitments likely reinforced the president’s own views during the summer of 1965. His concern about provoking the Soviets and Chinese with rash moves in Vietnam gave LBJ a rationale—and perhaps another reason—to act as he did. But Rusk generally deferred to McNamara on military matters. LBJ talked frequently, at length, and quite candidly with the secretary of defense about how to proceed during these critical weeks. But he ultimately rejected some of McNamara’s more important proposals, such as mobilization of the reserves. He also relied on Democratic Senate leaders Richard Russell of Georgia and Mike Mansfield of Montana as sounding boards and conduits of influence with their congressional colleagues. Interestingly, he also talked with former president and U.S. Army general Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he flatteringly called “the best chief of staff I’ve got,” for military advice and to cover his flank with the Republican opposition.10
From the outset of the summer 1965 crisis, Johnson and McNamara recognized that they had reached a point of no return in the war, a Vietnamese Rubicon. The secretary of defense would later recall Westmoreland’s June 7 “bombshell” cable as the most disturbing he received during his time at the Pentagon. “We are in a hell of a mess,” he told his staff. South Vietnam’s army was crumbling, its government perpetually in turmoil. “We were forced to make a decision,” McNamara later observed. “We could no longer postpone a choice about which path to take.”11 Johnson similarly lamented that his administration had reached a place where it must “get in or get out,” a mantra he would repeat often during these weeks. He perceived that the United States would have to take over from the South Vietnamese the burden of the fighting, resulting in vastly increased U.S. casualties and greater public awareness. The president came to a hard realization “about which he was clearer than anyone,” then staffer Bill Moyers later remembered, that this was a “road from which there was no turning back.”12 Going to war in Vietnam could mean the end of his hopes for domestic reform; it could even destroy his presidency. When the decision was made, LBJ seemed certain of its significance. “Doesn’t it mean that if we follow his [Westmoreland’s] requests we are in a new war?,” he asked McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 22. “Isn’t this going off the diving board?”—questions to which, presumably, he knew the answers.13
In his phone conversations during these seven weeks of often intense deliberations, the president evinced not a word of optimism. He was brutally realistic in perceiving that escalation could acquire a momentum of its own, one request from the military likely leading to another—and then another. “I’m no military man at all,” he told Mansfield, “but . . . if they get 150[000 GI’s] and then they’ll have to have another 150, and then they’ll have to have another 150.”14 McNamara responded affirmatively when Johnson asked if Westmoreland’s request was “just the next step . . . up the ladder.” The secretary of defense on June 10 expressed to his boss a need, “unless we really are willing to go to a full potential land war,” to “slow down here” and “at some point [put a] halt” to the increase in ground troops.15
Nor did LBJ have any illusions about the prospects in Vietnam. He told McNamara in June that “not a damn human thinks that 50,000 or 100,000 or [. . .] 150,000 troops are going to end that war.” “We’re trying to hold what we got. And we’re losing at the rate we’re going.” He asked the secretary of defense on July 2 whether, if the United States did everything it could, “can we really have any assurance that we can win . . . can the Vietcong [still] come in and tear us up and continue this thing indefinitely and never really bring it to an end?”16 He questioned whether his administration could wage war successfully, in view of the growing divisions at home. He conceded to Eisenhower the same day that even if Westmoreland’s requests were met, “We don’t know whether we can beat them with that or not.”17 “I don’t believe they’re ever going to quit,” he told McNamara. He frequently bemoaned the absence of any military or diplomatic plan that offered “much hope of doing anything except just praying and gasping to hold on during the monsoon and hope they’ll quit.”18 On one occasion, he plaintively asked McNamara about building a barrier across the seventeenth parallel to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into the South. The secretary responded that it was “absolutely not” feasible, “just impossible,” given the rugged jungle terrain (an ironic response, in view of McNamara’s later avid support for constructing an electronic barrier to divide the two Vietnams, which became known as the McNamara line). The tape of this conversation contains a distinctly audible presidential sigh.19
Several times during these weeks, Johnson admitted to being “very depressed.”20 Moyers once found him lying in bed with the covers almost over his head, claiming to feel like he was in a Louisiana swamp “that’s pulling me down.” Moyers and speechwriter Richard Goodwin also noticed in the president’s behavior wild mood swings. At times he seemed upbeat and confident, but on other occasions he appeared to suffer from “pronounced, prolonged depressions. He would just go within himself, just disappear—morose, self-pitying, angry. . . . He was a tormented man.” The two aides were sufficiently concerned that each consulted a psychiatrist about their boss’s behavior.21
From the beginning, instinctively, LBJ sought a middle way that would give Westmoreland much of what he needed without risking a major escalation of the war. He and McNamara agreed that it made no sense to “go in” on a “half-assed basis.” “Well, I think you’d get wrecked doing that,” Johnson averred, and McNamara recalled the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco when the United States failed because it “went in with too little force.”22 In another conversation with McNamara, the president mixed football and poker metaphors. “If you’ve got a football team that’s got four or five substitute teams and they go to putting them on the ground, then you’ve got to have some substitutes, too. And that’s what he’s [Westmoreland’s] just got to have unless he is to tuck tail and run.” The enemy was putting in “their stack,” he continued, and “we can’t counter that with words or with conversation, or with hopes it won’t come to pass. They’re there and they’ve got a pistol at our temple. And we’ve got to react, and the only way we can react is to put a pistol at their temple.” “Now, we don’t say that putting these people in we’re going to win. But we say, ‘If you don’t put them in, you’re going to lose substantially what you have.’” This “is more of a holding action and a hope that through the monsoon they’ll change their mind. . . . Instead of being rash, we’re trying to be prudent.”23 “So we can’t walk out and we can’t walk in, so to speak, with heavy bombs and atomic weapons, and stuff like that. And we’re trying to deter them and wear them out without losing a lot of people,” he told Indiana Democratic senator Birch Bayh. The next ninety days would be “real rough,” he added. “We hope that at the end of that period, we’ll wear them down some.”24
Despite his pessimism, LBJ seems to have given no thought to seeking a way out of Vietnam. His rhetoric was laced with allusions to manliness; he equated compromise and withdrawal with cowardice and weakness. “Tuck tail and run,” “come running home with his tail between his legs,” and “pull down the flag” were phrases he frequently used and applied disparagingly to anyone who wanted to do less than hold the line in Vietnam. When McNamara warned of the “very heavy risk” of escalation, the president responded that it was not as great a risk as that of “walking out.”25
He reserved his strongest words of derision for the burgeoning antiwar movement, a phenomenon he expressed disdain for and never came to grips with. He heaped scorn on the protestors—“beatniks,” he called them, and “a bunch of kooks” who were undermining support for the war at home and even helping to turn trusted allies like Britain and Canada against the United States.26 He lumped them together under the rubric “left-wing groups,” and even claimed that they were controlled by “the Communists.” “[FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover’s got people after them all the time,” he told Bayh. “What they’ve done . . . we don’t want to say it because it makes us look like McCarthys, and we detest him so much. . . . But what they have done throughout the world, they’re winning the propaganda war against us . . . we have to spend half of our time explaining what we’re trying to do. . . . They’re stirring up this agitation. . . . The Chinese got their folks working. The Russians got their folks working. This Russian ambassador [Anatoly Dobrynin]—hell, he’s talking to all our senators! And after he has lunch with one of our senators, it takes me two weeks to get the fellow to where he doesn’t think I’m a warmonger again!”27 In a subsequent conversation with Eisenhower, LBJ claimed that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s willingness to fight as long as necessary derived from the antiwar opposition in the United States.28
Johnson reserved special contempt for critics of his war policies within the government. He branded the congressional doves “sob sisters” and “whiners” who offered no alternatives but vague demands to negotiate. State Department critics were a “bunch of sissy fellows” (this to Hoover).29 “I’ve felt that [George W.] Ball was a good man,” he confided to Rusk of his undersecretary of state, “and I believe he’s been loyal to me. . . . I rather like his willingness to be a little independent [on the war] and say to me, ‘Now, wait a minute, I want to give you the devil’s side of it.’” But he did not take seriously Ball’s proposal that the United States cut its losses and get out of Vietnam. And he admitted to Rusk that he would like to move Ball from the State Department to the United Nations and replace him with veteran Democratic politico Clark Clifford.30
At a time when the South Vietnamese government remained fragile, Johnson could not so easily dismiss the commonsense suggestion of Russell, his old Senate mentor and close friend, to use the rampant instability in Saigon as an excuse to get out. But neither did he seriously consider it. The closest he came to endorsing an exit strategy was a comment to the dovish Mansfield that “if . . . [the Vietcong] just keep on and keep on and keep on and we can’t get a government that we can support, and we can’t get a strategy that’ll win, and we can’t get enough people to protect it, looks like ultimately that [peace talks] might be forced upon us.” Would that be the “worst thing” that could happen to us?, the president asked—presumably a rhetorical question. That may indeed have been his worst-case scenario. Or he may have been telling Mansfield what he thought the senator wanted to hear, a practice he often indulged in.31
LBJ’s response during these weeks to criticism—real and imagined—from the press, Congress, and liberal Democrats exposed the darker side of his character: profoundly insecure, morbidly suspicious, thin-skinned, petty, and self-pitying. He obsessively consumed print and television news, fretted over each word, and raged at people in his government who he believed had leaked information to journalists. He actually kept track of how much time his advisers spent talking to journalists. On one occasion he complained that the New York Times spent more than four hours talking with his people in an effort “to castrate me.” In early June the generally hawkish columnist Joseph Alsop wrote critically of the first use of giant B-52 bombers against Vietcong concentrations in South Vietnam. Describing Alsop to Bundy as “your old friend,” the president told his national security adviser that as “long as you’re associated with me, what you say to him oughtn’t to be anything, except what I think ought to be said to him.”32 Just a day after Westmoreland’s June 7 cable arrived in Washington, State Department spokesperson Robert McCloskey publicly acknowledged the change of mission for U.S. troops in South Vietnam that the White House had worked so hard to keep secret. LBJ railed at “that damned fool” McCloskey and complained that he could not talk to anyone in the State Department without fear of leaks.33 Fantasizing about firing everyone in that department, he added, “I’d rather have a one-eyed farmer as secretary of state than, by God, a fellow that I can’t write a memo to without having it in the front page of the [New York] Times.34 He expressed hope that the appointment of Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg as ambassador to the United Nations—“this Jew thing,” he called it—would take the “New York Times—all this crowd that gives me hell all the time—and disarm them.”35
Criticism from liberal Democrats especially riled him. He complained that historian and former JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “clips us all the time on foreign policy, and I don’t know why.” As president, he was trying to carry out Kennedy’s policies, only to find himself attacked by Kennedy acolytes like Schlesinger. “I see him talking to the senators who are clipping us and cutting us all the time, and I think he’s the fountainhead of some of it.”36 LBJ’s suspicion—even fear—of New York senator Robert Kennedy knew no bounds. Kennedy had just begun to speak out on foreign policy issues during May discussions of a $700 million appropriations bill to fund the administration’s April military intervention in the Dominican Republic and the war in Vietnam. LBJ blamed Kennedy for edging New York senator Jacob Javits and the New York Times into the opposition camp, and repeated news he had received from friendly legislators that Kennedy was “making snide little remarks” in the Senate cloakroom. The president watched Kennedy like a hawk, noted every word he said, and tried to counter him. He worried that some of his own advisers had close connections with RFK—and tried to exploit them. On June 21, he suggested that McNamara “spend some time with your friend, Mr. [Robert] Kennedy. . . . I think that he is functioning in this Vietnam field, Dominican field a little bit overtime with he and some of his stooges very much against us.”37 “I think you’ve got to sit down and talk to Bobby,” the president added nine days later. “And you’ve got to sell the liberal bloc [of senators] on . . . ‘You cannot run out [of] there [Vietnam] and you can’t stay there without [more] people.’ You’ve got to back these men so that he doesn’t get off on a tangent again.” He even blamed Bundy’s defiance in agreeing to debate Morgenthau on Kennedy’s influence.38
If his concern regarding domestic dissent sometimes bordered on paranoia, Johnson’s skepticism about negotiating with North Vietnam was solidly grounded. In a major speech at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, he affirmed that the United States was prepared to enter into “unconditional discussions,” and dangled in front of Hanoi the offer of a billion dollars for economic development in the Mekong River valley, a program, he boasted, “on a scale even to dwarf our TVA.”39 A month later, in part to appease the doves at home, he proclaimed a bombing pause, accompanied by proposals for peace talks. The North Vietnamese response, in LBJ’s words, was “Fuck you.” They just “spit in our face.” The basic problem, he understood quite clearly, was that the enemy was winning the war.40 “Now if we think they’re winning,” he told Mansfield in early June, “you can imagine what they think.”41 “They’re winning,” he repeated to Bayh. All peace talks “would do is get them to give up something they’re going to win.” Placing the issue in the context he understood best, he concluded: “They’re arrogant as hell and I don’t blame them. I defeated [Barry] Goldwater [by] 15 million [votes]. Now why would I want to give Goldwater half my Cabinet? They’re winning and why would they want to talk.” To those who insisted that the United States negotiate with the Vietcong, he responded that the insurgents were controlled by North Vietnam. It would be like trying to negotiate with “woodsmen in the state of Mississippi.”42
Inasmuch as he explained his unwillingness to seek a way out of Vietnam, Johnson repeatedly—indeed, almost ritualistically—did so on the grounds of U.S. credibility. “I don’t think we can get out of there [Vietnam] with our [Southeast Asia Treaty Organization] treaty like it is and with what all we’ve said and I think it would just lose us our face in the world. I just shudder to think what the world and all of them would say.”43 He told Bayh that “if we walked out of there we would bust every treaty we got. Forty-four nations would say that the United States couldn’t be depended on for anything, whether it’s Tokyo or Berlin or NATO or any of the rest of them—SEATO, CENTO.”44 To civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had the temerity to mildly criticize the war while the voting rights act was still moving through Congress, LBJ laid on the full-fledged domino theory. Should Vietnam fall to the Communists, Thailand would be next, then the Philippines, perhaps ultimately even West Germany. “Now, I don’t want to pull down the flag and come home running with my tail between my legs,” he concluded with a grand flourish, “particularly if it’s going to create more problems than I got out there, and it would according to all our best judges.”45 Most of the time, Johnson simply dismissed withdrawal as not an option.
The president also expressed profound and at times almost visceral concern with the hawkish proposals advanced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To be sure, he sometimes played on this fear to stoke worry among doves like Mansfield and even skeptics like Russell, and thereby portray himself as the voice of sanity and moderation. “If you’d see what some of the Joint Chiefs are recommending here to me,” he told Indiana senator Vance Hartke, “you’d drop the phone and go see your grandchild.”46 Similarly, he commented to Bayh on June 15: “Now, none of us want to do what the Joint Chiefs of Staff say you ought to do to win—and that’s ‘go in and bomb the hell out of them [North Vietnam].’ And I’m refusing to do that.”47 He told Russell in late July that some of the Joint Chiefs were “awfully irresponsible. . . . They just scare you. They’re ready to put a million men [a substantial exaggeration] in there real quick and all that.” He sometimes accused the military of trying to drag him into World War III.48
LBJ’s oft-expressed fear of military recklessness also reflected a deep civil-military divide that preceded the Vietnam War and persisted throughout his administration. The military leadership of the mid-1960s recoiled from the sort of war that had been fought in Korea—“a stalemate, a frustration of desires—a compromise with principle—an acceptance of that which is unacceptable,” fumed army officer Creighton Abrams, who in 1968 would succeed Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.49 The nation should—indeed, had to—use the weapons at its disposal to achieve victory quickly and decisively.
LBJ and his civilian advisers also remembered the Korean War, especially General Douglas MacArthur’s headlong rush to the Yalu River, the Chinese intervention, and the enormous political cost paid by the Truman administration. On one occasion, the president told Westmoreland point-blank, “General, I have a lot riding on you. I hope you don’t pull a MacArthur on me!”50 The civilians also vividly recalled the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, during which a bellicose military seemed willing to push the nation into nuclear war. They viewed their task as to keep the military under tight rein. During the discussions of June and July, LBJ brought the Joint Chiefs into the picture only after he had decided what to do—and then, merely to secure their acquiescence. He and McNamara imposed sharp limits on the bombing of North Vietnam. These restrictions, and especially the president’s refusal to call up the reserves, would infuriate top military leaders, provoking Army Chief of Staff General Harold Johnson to seriously contemplate resignation in the summer of 1965.51
One of the most pressing questions during these weeks was if—and how—to involve Congress in the troop decision. In particular, Johnson wondered whether he should seek explicit congressional approval, especially if reserve forces were to be called up and the nation mobilized for war, steps recommended by McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. Dealing with Congress was LBJ’s area of expertise, of course, and his White House tapes offer especially intriguing insights into his attitudes toward and efforts to influence his former colleagues.
The president worked the phones overtime to retain congressional support while deciding how to handle the troop request. He talked often and at length with his friends Mansfield and Russell, recognizing that although they were skeptics on Vietnam, they remained key allies. He tried to retain the support of middle-of-the-road Democrats such as Hartke and Bayh by emphasizing his prudence and his determination to keep the war under control. He skillfully implicated Eisenhower in his decisions and used the former president’s backing to retain Republican support and mute potential opposition.
He also artfully worked over House minority leader Gerald Ford of Michigan (who, as president ten years later, would preside over the inglorious end of the Vietnam War). After inquiring about Ford’s injured son, the president on June 17 let him know that Eisenhower supported providing the troops requested by Westmoreland. He justified sending additional troops by affirming that the GI’s already in Vietnam must be able to defend themselves, and he parried Ford’s query on how the troops would be used by vaguely answering, “Only when and if and as necessary to protect our national interest . . . and when [the South Vietnamese] get in trouble, . . . if they’re going to get wiped out, they’ll call us. We’ll come to the rescue” (not at all what Westmoreland had in mind, of course). When Ford warned that if the United States was going to “do more offensively . . . on the ground, then I think we all ought to sit down and talk about it,” Johnson responded, “I fully agree.” He flatly denied McCloskey’s statement that he had authorized offensive operations and assured Ford that he was “on this team.” Ford and Wisconsin Republican Melvin Laird, who loudly opposed sending more ground troops, were at that time vying for power in the House. LBJ suggested half-jokingly that Laird was “off his rocker” and proposed that Ford might “put a muzzle” on him. He also suggested trading the dovish senator Wayne Morse to the Republicans for Laird.52
Johnson was not above political gamesmanship in dealing with Congress. In May 1965, newly elected by a huge margin, with sizable majorities in both Houses, and with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in his pocket, he had all but dared Congress to challenge him on the bill providing $700 million for the Dominican intervention and the war in Vietnam. Afterward, he boasted to the House Appropriations Committee chairman that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave him all the authority he needed to fund the war. But he claimed a “masterstroke” by proving to Congress he could be “frank and candid, and when I needed something, I would put it right in their belly, and if they didn’t want to give it to me, they’d say so.” Congress in turn would trust him because he had let them “in on it.” Of course, he concluded, dragging out the unspeakable option, if Congress didn’t want us to do it, “we can just quit.”53 LBJ was still riding high at this point. GI’s were in harm’s way in the Caribbean and Vietnam, and legislators were not eager to take him on or vote against supporting the troops. The bill passed after brief and perfunctory debate, and by huge majorities in the House and Senate.
At the start of deliberations on the troop request, a still cocky president set out to keep control in his own hands by once again putting Congress on the spot. On June 8, he professed to Mansfield that he didn’t know what to do about Vietnam and asked what Congress wanted to do to provide the troops needed to support those men already there—a clever move, likely, to get the majority leader to toss the ball back to him. By this time, suspicions of Johnson had grown, especially about a possible and unacknowledged change of policy in Vietnam. The words “credibility gap” had become a household phrase. Mansfield warned of the rise in the Senate of a “feeling of apprehension and suspense that is pretty hard to define” and “pretty widespread on both sides,” the result, he added, of “too much of the same thing . . . [the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the May appropriation, and the Johns Hopkins’s offer] one after the other.” With a proposal of this sort, “the roof will blow off this time because those who had been silent might now speak out. I think you’d be in for some trouble that the debate could split right out.” LBJ persisted: “I think you might—you’ve got to have the debate though don’t you?” “If it assumes the proportions I can see it assuming, shouldn’t we say to the Congress, ‘What do you want to do about it?’” Mansfield let the matter drop.54
Scarcely concealing his low regard for some of his former colleagues, the president told McNamara two days later that the senators just got the “living hell scared out of them.” “‘Oh my God,’” he mimicked Mansfield, “‘don’t send any resolution up here.’” The senators didn’t want to vote, he surmised: “They just want to talk and whine about it.” He boasted that he had “chucked it right back” at Mansfield by telling him “I’m willing to let you write the ticket [on a resolution of support].” LBJ confided to McNamara, however, that he would not submit a resolution to Congress. That would simply cause trouble. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the recent appropriations bill gave him the authority he needed. If Congress wanted to “tuck tail and run” (again, the nonoption), it could repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.55
His caution grew in the days ahead. In truth, his May “masterstroke” had backfired, and LBJ himself later admitted that “most of our trouble” came from the appropriations bill he had once boasted of. What he claimed had been candor and building trust on his part, some legislators correctly viewed as manipulation. The administration had insisted that this vote to support troops in the field represented further endorsement of its Vietnam policies, a position some legislators vigorously denied. Critics such as the New York Republican senator Jacob Javits and the New York Times, especially alarmed by the McCloskey statement, now openly demanded a debate and a new resolution for any escalation of the war, something the president by this time wanted no part of.
Johnson and McNamara increasingly recognized, moreover, that the troop decision involved enormously difficult issues, especially if the reserves were to be called up to meet Vietnam and broader manpower needs. In a July 2 conversation, the president admitted privately to the secretary of defense that when they had sent the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to Congress, they “had no intention of committing this many ground troops.” The question, then, was “[Do] we just want to do it out on a limb by ourselves?” McNamara assured his boss that he did not need additional legislation. But, he added, “almost surely, if we called up the reserves, you would want to go to the Congress to get additional authority.” Debate and division could be contained by consulting with the leaders, explaining what was needed to win, “the limited way we define win,” and promising continued efforts to open negotiations. In this way, Congress could be tied into the “whole program.” “Well, that makes sense,” the president tersely—and noncommittally—responded.56 It made sense, perhaps, but for LBJ, ultimately, it was not the way to go.
At some point between July 21 and 28, Johnson finalized a decision to provide General Westmoreland most of the troops the general had originally requested, but on the president’s terms. He delayed a decision for almost six weeks, in part because of the July 4 holiday but also to allow ample time for deliberation—or at least the appearance of deliberation. Delay also permitted passage in Congress of Medicare and voting rights legislation, two essential pieces of the Great Society portfolio. Finally, it provided time for McNamara to travel to Vietnam and make an on-the-scene appraisal.
The secretary’s return in the early morning hours of July 21—“a sheer hell of a day” for the president, Lady Bird Johnson noted in her diary—set off a week of intense discussions and frenzied meetings.57 While McNamara was in Saigon, Westmoreland had upped his request to a total of as many as 275,000 troops to be provided by the end of 1966, a number that would require mobilization of the reserves and cost an estimated $8 billion.58 During this week of countless meetings, the president listened intently to McNamara’s proposals. The secretary’s blunt affirmation that “this is a major change in U.S. policy” must have jarred LBJ’s ears.59 He secured the acquiescence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but recoiled at Marine commandant General Wallace Greene’s estimate that 500,000 troops would be required in Vietnam, heard out the impassioned advocacy of a strategic withdrawal from Ball and Clifford, and listened attentively to Rusk’s plea to uphold America’s international commitments and to present the troop decision in a “low-key” manner, to avoid provoking further escalation on the Communist side. On Friday afternoon, July 23, LBJ left Washington for a weekend of contemplation at the presidential retreat, Camp David, where McNamara and Clifford would join him the next day. After listening to both make their case—Clifford, with uncanny prescience, warned of 500,000 American fighting men in Vietnam and 50,000 killed in action—the president retired to the solitude that is the lot of the decision maker.60
Following Rusk’s recommendations but for his own reasons, LBJ chose to deliberately—and deceptively—play down the significance of a decision whose magnitude he and McNamara had privately acknowledged. He would not call up the reserves. Rather, he would provide Westmoreland with 30,000 to 40,000 troops in each of three different increments, a step that would require only additional draft calls. As to why he acted as he did, we can only speculate. He remembered the political fallout from JFK’s reserve call-up during the Berlin crisis in 1961. He had other Great Society goals he feared would be jeopardized by the war, and this seemingly more modest escalation would enable him to avoid a debate in Congress and a new resolution. He persisted in rationalizing his decision on the basis of protecting U.S. troops in Vietnam. “I can’t run out,” he explained to Mansfield. “I’m not going to run in. I can’t just sit there and let them [U.S. troops] be murdered. So I’ve got to put enough there to hold and protect them.”61 He was somewhat more candid with Eisenhower, explaining that he would provide the troop increase in increments, so that “it doesn’t scare the British and scare the hell out of everybody else that we’re going into a world war. What we are going in with is what every commander says we need to hold what we’ve got so that they can launch some offensives.”62
The president likely had not read scholar Robert Osgood’s classic treatise on limited war, and his decisions appear to have been motivated primarily by domestic politics, but, interestingly and significantly, he justified them in terms of a limited war strategy.63 In two very long and especially fascinating conversations, the first with Russell on Monday, July 26, and the second with Mansfield the next day, he insisted that his low-key approach was designed to prevent further escalation on all sides. He would not ask Congress for additional money, he told Russell, because “we don’t want to blow this thing up.” A reserve call-up would be “too dramatic,” he added. It would alarm the Soviet Union and China. “I think it commits me where I can’t get out, and it puts me out there further than I want to get right at this moment.” The Georgian reminded him that the 1961 reserve call-up had got the Kremlin’s attention and might now send a strong message to North Vietnam and its allies. “Yeah,” LBJ responded, “but it upsets the hell out of them [the North Vietnamese] and they immediately” would start “pressing them for commitments now that they’re not getting from Russia, and I don’t want to force them.” With some difficulty, he finally nudged Russell into agreeing that there should be no joint session of Congress. The announcement would be made on television.64
In the same manner, the president assured Mansfield that he was “taking the soft line of the deal.” He did not want to leave American GI’s “inadequately protected.” “So we have to put enough with them to try to make them as secure as possible.” The civilian leadership was giving the military “what they say they have to have” but doing it “in our own way,” and “not giving them anything to move in any new adventures.” “I’m going [to do] my best to hold this thing in balance just as long as I can [and avoid getting the Russians and Chinese] worked up about it.”65
These two conversations also contain fascinating hints that, in escalating the war, the president may have had in mind bolstering the U.S. military position to make possible negotiations, even a graceful exit from Vietnam. He told Russell that a reserve call-up “commits me where I can’t get out,” but he also promised to seek a “way to get out without saying so.”66 Similarly, he assured Mansfield that he was simply trying to get through the monsoon season (that is, until September). Then he would urge “all those [officials] who really don’t want to be in a land war” in Vietnam to work around the clock to bring in all the experts “and try to find a way to get out.”67 And he would do “everything I can” with this “Jew up at the United Nations [Goldberg] and everywhere in the world, to find a way to get out without saying so.”68 Was the July decision, then, designed to make possible an exit strategy? Or was the president again merely telling his former Senate colleagues what he thought they wanted to hear? It is impossible to say. It is worth noting in this regard, however, that McNamara in the summer of 1965 was definitely thinking in terms of escalation as a way of getting into negotiations.69 And in December, now thoroughly disillusioned with the war that had once borne his name, the secretary of defense would drag his reluctant boss kicking and screaming into another bombing pause and peace effort that would also fail. LBJ most likely hoped in July 1965 that by escalating the war in “our own way,” he might keep control of events in his own hands. In this, he was mistaken.
Thus on July 28, 1965, at a televised press conference scheduled at noon to minimize attention, Lyndon Baines Johnson announced the dispatch of reinforcements to Vietnam. He spoke solemnly of the lessons of the 1930s regarding appeasement, the importance of upholding commitments to allies, and the urgency of containing communism. In the question-and-answer session that followed, he flatly denied any change of policy, although he and McNamara from the start had seen the June and July decisions as a turning point in the war. In taking Americans to war without letting them in on the secret, he succeeded brilliantly—at least in the short term. The public reaction appeared to be one of resignation, even relief. Newsweek magazine noted the absence of “hot tides of national anger” and remarked on the “strange, almost passionless war” the United States was fighting in Vietnam. “There are no songs written about it, and the chances that any will seem remote,” the news magazine opined—a prediction wildly, and tragically, off the mark.70
The Johnson phone conversations offer a very personal glimpse into the mind of the president as he struggled with his decision to Americanize the war in the summer of 1965. They show a man racked by doubt, torn by indecision, unwilling to seek a way out of Vietnam but reluctant to plunge in more deeply. Perhaps, as Fredrik Logevall has argued, the domestic political environment and international system were malleable, and there was a way out if LBJ had chosen it. But the phone records and other documents offer no evidence to indicate that he understood this. His decision not to seek a way out of Vietnam came as much from his gut as from his mind, a deeply ingrained aversion to giving up, quitting, bugging out—whatever it might be called. Perhaps it derived from the code of the West he grew up with in Texas, or the cult of manliness common to most American men of his generation.71 Like most top officials at the time, he seems to have hewed firmly to fostering U.S. credibility, believing that what the United States did in one area of the world could have a powerful impact elsewhere, an idea that continued to drive U.S. policy in Vietnam through the Nixon years and still influences decision makers today.72 He also rejected the more aggressive—and forthright—proposals set forth by the military and backed by McNamara, recognizing that they might get him into the war more deeply than he preferred, and especially that they could threaten the “culmination of his dreams,” the Great Society. He remained stubbornly committed to butter as well as to guns, to saving, as he would later put it, the “woman I really loved,” his domestic programs, while waging that “bitch of a war” on the other side of the world.73 The thought process was idiosyncratic, a clear reflection of the complex personality of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The results were fatally flawed. In escalating the war as he did, LBJ sought to keep hawks and doves at bay. In time, he lost the support of both. He may have deluded himself into believing that the measured approach he took would allow him to control events. In this regard, he might well have heeded the warning of Winston Churchill: once a war begins, its leaders are “no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” Throughout the summer of 1965, he lamented the absence of a strategy for achieving U.S. aims, but he did nothing, then or later, to remedy that deficiency. His wariness of mobilization of the sort urged by McNamara was probably well placed. In the phone conversations of June and July 1965, LBJ seems to have had a reasonably accurate view of the determination of his enemies to persist. It is thus hard to understand his vague hope that a limited show of force might somehow persuade North Vietnam to negotiate on terms acceptable to the United States. He also overestimated his ability to sustain public support at home for a limited war that produced no more than a very costly stalemate. And the stealth and deceit that he used to take his people to war inevitably sparked a backlash when that war failed to produce results. In light of the societal divisions the war produced in the United States and the trauma it inflicted on the nation, LBJ, whatever his accomplishments at home, cannot but be remembered as a war president.
1 Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 178.
2 See, for instance, Francis M. Bator, “No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection,” Diplomatic History 32 (June 2008): 309–40.
3 See, for example, George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 1st ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979), x, and especially Robert Dallek, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: The Making of a Tragedy,” Diplomatic History 20 (Spring 1996): 147–52. See also Gareth Porter, “Explaining the Vietnam War: Dominant and Contending Paradigms,” in Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, ed. Mark Philip Bradley and Marilyn B. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 69–74.
4 Randall B. Woods, “The Politics of Idealism: Lyndon Johnson, Civil Rights, and Vietnam,” Diplomatic History 31 (January 2007): 7–12, and Fredrik Logevall, “‘There Ain’t No Daylight’: Lyndon Johnson and the Politics of Escalation,” in Bradley and Young, Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars, 103.
5 Logevall, “‘There Ain’t No Daylight,’” 91–108. See also Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 377–78, 441–42, 452–53, and Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2008), 229–48.
6 America’s road to war in Vietnam is charted briefly in George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013), and at greater length in Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
7 Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest War, 168.
8 Lyndon Johnson and Mike Mansfield on 8 June 1965, Conversation WH6506-02-8107-8108-8109, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition (hereafter PRDE), ed. David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Ken Hughes, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). Westmoreland’s June 7 cable is printed in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Vietnam: January–June 1965, ed. David C. Humphrey, Ronald D. Landa, and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996), vol. 2, 733–38.
9 George C. Herring, LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 7–9.
11 Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1995), 187–88.
12 Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964–1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 378.
13 Quoted in VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 195.
21 Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 281–84.
26 Lyndon Johnson and Robert Spivack on 29 April 1965, Conversation WH6504-06-7378, in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 293; Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers on 13 May 1965, Conversation WH6505-11-7659-7660, PRDE.
29 Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 19 May 1965, in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 333.
38 Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 30 June 1965, Conversation WH6506-09-8221, PRDE. McNamara later confided to Johnson regarding his efforts with Kennedy, “I confess to failure.” Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara on 17 June 1965, Conversation WH6506-04-8147, PRDE.
39 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Book 1 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966), 394–99.
46 Lyndon Johnson and Vance Hartke on 27 May 1965, in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 341.
48 Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell on 26 July 1965, Conversation WH6507-08-8399, PRDE. LBJ would change his tune in retirement, telling Nancy Reagan in 1970 and Alexander Haig in 1972 that his greatest regret, especially in 1968, was that he had listened to his more cautious advisers, who warned of starting World War III, instead of taking more forceful action to end the war. John M. Carland, “War, Politics, Diplomacy, and the Presidency: Off the Record Comments by Lyndon B. Johnson in Retirement,” Journal of Military History 72 (October 2008), 1257–63.
49 Quoted in George C. Herring, “Limited War,” in Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stanley Kutler et al. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996), vol. 2, 662.
50 Quoted in Herring, LBJ and Vietnam, 25.
51 Ibid., 36. Retired Marine general Charles Cooper would later write of a November 1965 meeting during which LBJ, using especially foul and abusive language, dressed down the Joint Chiefs of Staff and accused them of trying to get him into World War III. A meeting in this spirit would have been very much in keeping with the civil-military divide of the Vietnam War era. But the president’s daily diary gives no indication that such a meeting took place. And a careful survey of Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department records by agency historians reveals no evidence of such a meeting, producing one of the more intriguing mysteries of the Johnson presidency. Cooper’s story can be found at Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret), “The Day It Became the Longest War,” History News Network, January 20, 2007. historynewsnetwork.org/article/34024. Email, John M. Carland to author, January 2, 2015, reports the efforts of government historians.
57 Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 402.
58 Troop numbers: VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 183; cost: Bundy to LBJ, 7 July 1965, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Vietnam [FRUS]: June–December 1965, ed. David C. Humphrey, Edward C. Keefer, and Louis J. Smith (Washington, DC: GPO, 1996), vol. 3, 207.
59 Notes of Meeting, 22 July 1965, FRUS: June–December 1965, 213.
60 These events are summarized in VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 184–209.
63 Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
69 For McNamara’s thinking at this time, see Edward J. Drea, McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965–1969 (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Historical Office, 2011), 42.
70 Newsweek, 9 August 1965, 17–18.
71 See Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), especially 49–52 and 210–40.
72 See Robert J. McMahon, “Credibility and World Power: Exploring the Psychological Dimension in Postwar American Diplomacy,” Diplomatic History 15 (Fall 1991): 455–72. For an incisive critique of the hoary doctrine of credibility, see Stephen M. Walt, “The Credibility Addiction,” Foreign Policy, January 6, 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/06/the-credibility-addiction-us-iraq-afghanistan-unwinnable-war/.
73 Quoted in Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 251.