LBJ and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara - photo: NARA
Of all the challenges Lyndon Johnson faced when he became president in 1963, none would hound him more than the question of what to do in Vietnam. LBJ was an expert politician, and he had a vision for a new, New Deal America. But he could not figure out how to win the war in Vietnam, or pull the United States out.
The problem dated back to the 1950s, when President Harry Truman promised to help South Vietnam fight off communist North Vietnam. Johnson shared the Cold War assumption that if Vietnam fell to the communists, other Asian countries would follow.
Beginning in the spring of 1964, Johnson spent hours on the phone seeking advice on the war. The American-backed South Vietnamese appeared to be losing to the North. There were about 33,000 American military personnel in Vietnam, and their official job was to serve as non-combat advisors to the struggling South Vietnamese Army. Historian Michael Hunt says LBJ faced three basic options in Vietnam: escalating the war, continuing with the strategy of limited involvement, or "cutting and running." LBJ's initial choice - like those of Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower before him - was the middle option.
"It seems like not a very sophisticated strategy, but LBJ was doing what every president had done since Truman made the commitment in Vietnam, and that is trying to find some small incremental addition to the equation that would stop the communist advance, and preserve what territory we had," Hunt says. "Like his predecessors, LBJ was very leery of a big policy change, like major use of air power, or putting American troops in."
But Johnson soon decided the middle option wasn't enough. Saigon needed more help. LBJ called Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on April 30, 1964. The president was grasping for a way to beat back the North Vietnamese without sending American soldiers directly into battle.
President Johnson: Bob.
Robert McNamara: Yes, Mr. President
LBJ: I hate to bother you but
RM: No trouble at all-
LBJ: Uh, tell me, I, I saw a little glimmer of hope on Vietnam in some, uh, paper today, uh, where we'd routed some and killed a few and run 'em out or somethin'. Do you have any--are you getting good cables on them at all?
RM: Well, I read that article, Mr. President, the, the uh-
LBJ: [aside]Give me another one of those.
RM: The official battle report wasn't as good as the newspaper report, for once. We got a little, we got a break in the press.
LBJ: Has Carl Rowan gettin' any of his propaganda people out there now?
RM: Yes, I think so and I'm going to check again before I go the end of the week and uh, tell him that I want to talk to Lodge about that while I am there. I'm just sitting here, as a matter of fact now, writing a cable to Lodge that I'll send Monday, telling him if he agrees, I'd like to stop by on my way home and I will cover that subject with him and be sure before I leave that Ralph's people are actually are on the way.
LBJ: Have we got anybody that's got a military mind that can give us some military plans for winning that war?
RM: Well, Buzz Wheeler is going out with me.
LBJ: I know but he went out last time and he just came back with, with planes, that's all he had in mind, wasn't it?
RM: Well we, uh, yes, well he had more than that but he emphasized the planes. And the planes, Max Taylor agrees, are not the answer to the problem. Whether we should have more planes or not is another question, but it's not going to make any difference in the short run, that's certain.
LBJ: Let's get some more of something, my friend, because I'm gonna have a heart attack if you don't get me something. I'm just sitting here every day and uh, this war that I'm winning and I'm not doing much about fightin' it, and uh I'm not doing much about winnin' it, and I just read about it and uh. Let's get somebody that wants to do something besides drop a bomb, but uh, that can go in and take in after these damn fellas and run them back where they belong. It looks like-
RM: Looks like we want to tell Kahn-
[recording interupted- tone indicates that material was removed by National Archives for national security reasons]
LBJ: Well, we need to shoot that guy. We need somebody over there that can give us better plans than we've got, because what we've got is what we've had since '54. We're not getting it done, we're, we're losing so we need something new. It's uh, if you pitch this ol' southpaw every day and you wind up as the Washington Senators and you lose, well uh we'd better go us get us a new pitcher.
RM: I know it-
LBJ: Let's find one. And tell those damn old generals over there to find one for ya, or you gonna go out there yourself...