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Advisor McGeorge Bundy and LBJ - photo: NARA

On May 20, 1964, Johnson talked with McGeorge Bundy, his national security advisor, about the apparent need for U.S. troops to get more involved helping the South Vietnamese fight ground battles.

Listen to excerpt

President Johnson: Uh, we just can't have pure Americans going in and doing all the fighting.

McGeorge Bundy: You can't. You can't.

LBJ: Gotta have some Vietnamese to go with 'em. But I kinda had the impression that we hadn't been as active in the guerrilla warfare on the ground as we were in the air.

MB: I think this is right, Mr. President. I don't think we do have enough people with a guerrilla and counter-guerrilla mentality in that process. And that means Special Forces. That means really saying to Westmoreland very loud and very clear that that's the kind of war it is - not napalm from the air, but being in there stiffening the troops.

In recent decades, critics of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy deplored what they saw as his single-mindedly hawkish approach to the war, a perspective that the calls with McNamara and Bundy would seem to enforce. But Michael Hunt says when LBJ's telephone tapes were released in the 1990s, the view of Johnson's thinking grew more complicated. "One of the reasons why the tapes for me are such a revelationů[is that] rather than kind of a dumb cowboy, or a mindless cold warrior, you get in these tapes someone who really understands the issues and is wrestling with them," Hunt says.

On May 27, 1964, Johnson called his trusted friend Senator Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Listen to excerpt

Richard Russell: - Pretty good. How are you Mr. President?

President Johnson: Oh, I'm - got lots of troubles. I want to see what you -

RR: Well, we all have those -

LBJ: - What do you think about this Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.

RR: Frankly, Mr. President, if you were to tell me that I was authorized to settle it as I saw fit, I would respectfully decline and not take it. It's uh - the damn worst mess I ever saw and I don't like to brag, I never have been right many times in my life, but I knew we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there. And I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it without getting in a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles.

LBJ: Well I spend all my days with Rusk and McNamara and Bundy and Harriman and Vance and all those folks that are dealing with it and I would say that it pretty well adds up to them now, that we've got to show some power and some force. And that they do not believe, they kinda like MacArthur in Korea, they don't believe that the Chinese communists will come into this thing, but they don't know and nobody can really be sure, but their feeling is that they won't. And, in any event, that we haven't got much choice, we are treaty-bound, that we're there, that this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others, and that we've just got to prepare for the worst. Now, I don't think that the American people are for it. I don't agree with Morse and all he says but...

RR: No, neither do I, but -

LBJ: It doesn't look to me -

RR: - He's voicing the sentiment of a hell of a lot of people.

LBJ: I'm afraid that's right, I'm afraid that's right. I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of a lot less.

RR: Yeah, I know, but you go to sending a whole lot of our boys out there -

LBJ: Yeah, that's right - that's exactly right. That's what I'm talking about - I've got a little old sergeant that works for me over at the house and he got six children. And I just put him up as the United States Army, Air Force, and Navy every time I think about making this decision and think about sending that father of those six kids in there. And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it? And it just makes the chills run up my back.

RR: It does me. I just can't see it -

LBJ: I just haven't got the nerve to do it, and I don't see any other way out.

RR: - Isn't any sense to it. It's one of these things where "heads I win, tails you lose."

LBJ: Well, think about it and I'll talk to you again. I hate to bother you, but I -

RR: I wish I could help you. God knows I do 'cause it's a terrific quandary that we're in over there. We're just in the quicksands up to our very necks and I just don't know what the hell is the best way to do about it.

LBJ: I love you and I'll be calling you.

RR: I'll see you sir.

Read the full transcript

While Johnson appears to be very doubtful about sending more American soldiers to Vietnam, historian Robert Dallek says his conversation with Russell deserves a measure of skepticism. When Johnson solicited advice, even from close friends like Richard Russell, he sometimes exaggerated how much he shared their views in order to win their confidence or test out ideas. Senator Russell was deeply reluctant to send more U.S. troops to Vietnam and Johnson knew it. "You can't trust these words of doubt as the full measure of what he was thinking in Vietnam," Dallek says.


Next: part 3