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Secretary of State Dean Rusk, LBJ, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara - photo: NARA

In August, 1964, President Johnson used an apparent North Vietnamese attack on U.S. patrol boats off the coast of Vietnam to demand extraordinary new powers from Congress to wage war. Johnson later joked that he loved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - named for the location of the attack - because, like Grandma's nightshirt, it covered everything. In February, 1965, Johnson unleashed American air power against the North Vietnamese. In a February 25 phone call with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Johnson said he wanted to conceal this policy change from the public. As he often did for his aides, LBJ ad-libbed a script for Rusk that downplayed the new bombing campaign.

Listen to excerpt

President Johnson: Now I want to be very careful that we don't show that we are desperate and dramatic and we are changing our policy...

Dean Rusk: Right.

LBJ: All of TV now is trying to say that this is a great escalation and that the B-57s yesterday are an entirely new policy.... Now, when we could deter it with helicopters, we did. When we could deter it with South Vietnamese troops we did. But as they stepped up, and they mounted, and as they became more severe and as they tied down our Ranger companies, we did not change our policy. We changed our equipment.

Read the full transcript

In escalating the war in Vietnam, Robert Dallek says, LBJ operated "by a kind of stealth." Johnson feared a political backlash that might threaten his domestic agenda. So he tried to mask and minimize his Vietnam decisions. "In spring of 1965, what's front and center on his agenda are the Great Society legislative acts -- elementary and secondary education, the Medicare bill, the Voting Rights Act," Dallek Says. "There's so much that he's trying to do in domestic affairs that he doesn't want to distract the country and Congress from that by saying 'look, we're going to war in Vietnam'. So he downplays the idea that we're having any kind of significant expansion of the war and [implies that] whatever we're doing is a kind of reaction."

At the same time, Johnson needed money from Congress for the expanding war. In spring of 1965, he asked for $700 million "to halt communist aggression." On May 4, 1965, Johnson counseled Vice President Hubert Humphrey on how to disarm potential opponents to the Senate bill.

Listen to excerpt

Hubert Humphrey: Uh...Mike and I met with Morse and Ellender. All is well.

President Johnson: It will be right on up then.

HH: Here's the situation. If it comes up today, they can act in the House tomorrow, and we'll act on it on Thursday. We'll have a limitation debate of not more than five hours.

LBJ: Get Hayden to just start hearings as soon as McNamara gets through and then y'all act Thursday. That'll be good.

HH: That's fine sir.

LBJ: Wonderful job, That'll make a great President and a great emperor out of you if you'll just be here and do those things. That just shows you what you can do in 30 minutes. So, let's watch anybody else that might cause trouble. And we got to bear this in mind: to deny or to delay this request means you're not giving a man ammunition he needs for his gun. You're not giving him gas he needs for his helicopter. You got him standing out naked and letting people shoot at him. And we don't want to do that.

HH: Yessir.

LBJ: OK.


Next: part 4