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President Johnson's conversation with Senator Richard Russell.
May 27, 1964. 10:55 a.m.

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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 fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don't see it. I just don't know what to do.

LBJ: Well, that's the way that I've been feeling for 6 months

RR: It appears that our position is deteriorating and it looks like the more that we try to do for them, the less that they're willing to do themselves. It's just a sad situation. There's no sense of responsibility there on the part of the leaders. It's all just through generations or even centuries, they've just thought about the individual and glorified the individual; and that's the only utilization of power is just to glorify the individual and not to save the state--or to try to help other people. And they just can't shed themselves of that complex. It's a helluva situation. It's a mess. And it's going to get worse. And I don't know how what to do, if-- I don't think that the American people are quite ready for us to send our troops in there to do the fighting. If it came down to a option of just sending the Americans in there to do the fighting-- which we'll eventually end in a ground war, and a conventional war, and we'd do them a favor every time we killed a coolee. And when one of our people got killed it would be a loss to us. And if it got down to that, of just pulling out, I'd get out. But then I don't know. But, because undoubtedly some middle ground somewhere and if I were to get out--I'd get the same crowd that got rid of Diem to get in there, and tell them they wished the hell that we would get out. Then that would give us a good excuse for getting out. I see no terminal date or anything

LBJ: How important is that to us?

RR: It isn't important a damn bit. But all of this new missile stuff.

LBJ: Well, I guess that it's important to us from-

RR: Well, yes from the psychological standpoint -

LBJ: Well, yes from the standpoint that we're party to a treaty, and if we don't pay any attention to this treaty I don't guess they'll think we're going to pay any attention to any of them.

RR: Yeah, but we're the only ones that are paying attention to it.

LBJ: Yeah, I think that's right.

RR: You see other people are just as bound to that treaty as we are-

LBJ: Well, just because everybody else-

RR: I think that there are 12 or 14 other countries-

LBJ: That's right, there are l4.

RR: Don't know much about foreign policy, but it seems to me that there were several of them-

LBJ: There are l4.

RR: --parties to it. And other than questioning our word, and saving face that's the reason that I said that I don't think anybody would question us for not staying in there. Some old freebooter down in there, I've forgotten his name, I haven't heard about him lately, but he's still there, sort of a hell raiser. And he don't know exactly what he wants, but I think he's the most dangerous thing to the present regime; and I think that if he were to take over, he'd ask us to get out. And of course, if he did, I wouldn't doubt our theory of standing by the determination of the people. I don't think--see how we can say that we're not going to go. If he's in charge of the government. The thing that's going to be a headache to anybody that tries to fool with it. Now you've got all the brains in the country, Mr. President, you better get a hold of them. I don't know what to do about this. I saw it all coming on, but that don't do any good now. That's water over the dam and under the bridge. And we're there and-

LBJ: Well, you've got-

RR: And McNamara over there, he's, he was up here yesterday testifying before the Committee, I didn't want to have him up here, but Mr. Howard Cannon and some of them wanting to have him up here. So I sat up here at 8:30, before I started these Appropriation Hearings and he's got rather-- he's been kicked around so that I'm not sure that he's objective as he ought to be, in surveying the conditions out there. He's like he's sort of like the -that it goes up to him personally and see that the thing goes through -- he's a can-do fellow, but I'm not too sure that he understand the history and background of those people out there, as fully as he should. But even from his picture, the damn thing ain't getting any better. And it's getting worse and you're putting more and more in there. And it's taking more and more people to help than we can give them. I don't know sir-- you better get some brains from somewhere to line up this thing. Because I don't know what to do with it.

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, that 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 have avoided that for a few days and 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 -You got a few, we had 35 killed--

RR: More than that have been killed in Atlanta Georgia in automobile accidents.

LBJ: Yeah, maybe 83 went down in a crash in a 707, but one day, that doesn't make any difference

RR: That's the way these folks understand, they don't understand anything over there

LBJ: The Re publicans are going to make a political issue out of it everyone of them, even Dirksen

RR: It's the only issue that they've got.

LBJ: I talked to Dirksen the other day Friday and he suggested that I have 3 of Armed Services and 3 from Appropriations and 3 from Foreign Relations-- all from Foreign Relations. And I invited them. And yesterday before they came, he gave out a big statement that we had to get us a program and go out after them. And Haganlooper came over and said that we just had to stand and show our force and put our men in there and let come what may come and nobody disagreed with him. And Mansfield, just he just wants to pull up and get out; and Morris wants to get out; and Greening wants to get out and that's about where it stops. I don't know.

RR: And there's others, but haven't said much about it. But Frank Church has told me 2 or 3 times, that he didn't want to make a speech on it, but he just wants to get out of there .I don't know whether he's told you that or not. He just wishes to God that we would get out of there

LBJ: No, I haven't talked to him.

RR: Well, I just used that as an illustration, cause he' s mentioned that to me more than once.

LBJ: Who are the best people that we have, that you know of to talk about this thing? I don't want to do anything on the basis on just the information that I've got now.

RR: I don't who, Mr. President.

LBJ: I've talked to Eisenhower a little bit

RR: I think .I think that the people that you have named, have all formed a hard opinion on it. . I think --

LBJ: No, Rusk has tried to pull back, he's tried to hold back on everything. But he's about to come to the conclusion now, that Vietnam is wobbly. And Laos is crumbling.

RR: Laos, Laos. Hell it ain't worth a damn. They've been talking about all these battles down there; and I tried to get the best information that I could--from CIA and from Defense both. On all the BS fighting on the plains of --and the highest casualty is 150. That Laotian thing is absolutely impossible then. It's a whole lot worse than Vietnam. There are some of these Vietnamese-- after they beat them over the head-- they will go in there and fight. But Laos is an impossible situation. It's just a rathole. I don't know-- if before I took any drastic action, I think that I would get somebody like old Omar Bradley and one or two, perhaps -senior people that have had government experience--not necessarily military. If he wasn't scared to death of McNamara, this fellow Adams, who is head of Strike -its top flight man--that I would send out there with them. Then let them go out there and fool around and smell the air, and get the atmosphere, and then come back here and tell you what they think. Cause they, they, they are new in it and would not have a many great preconceived ideas in approaching it.

LBJ: Now, one of our big problems, the biggest, this is between us, and I don't want this repeated to anybody, is Lodge--

RR: I know it.

LBJ: He ain't worth a damn.

RR: Why, of course.

LBJ: And he can't work with anybody. He won't let anybody else work. He -- we get the best USIA man to put on the all radios and try to get them to be loyal to the government, and to be fighting and quit deserting-

RR: He improvised that, didn't he?

LBJ: And he calls in USIA, and says 'I handle the newspapers and magazines, radio myself, so to hell with you.' So that knocks that guy out. So then we send out the best CIA man that we've got, and he said, 'I handle the intelligence, to hell with you.' Then he wants a new Deputy Chief of Mission, so we get him to give us names, and we pick one of those, the beat that we've got-- send him out to run the damn war, and he gets to where he won't speak to Deputy Chief of Mission. Then we get General Harkins out there, we thought that he was a pretty good man, and then he can't work with him. So then we send Westmoreland out, and it's just a helluva mess. You can't do anything with Lodge and that's where McNamara gets so frustrated. They go out and get agreements and issues his orders, and sends his stuff in there, and then Lodge just takes charge of it himself and he's not a take-charge man and it gets stacked up there.

RR: He never has followed anything through to conclusion, since I've known him, and I've I him for 20 odd years. He never has. I went out with him in '43 around the world, we were the only committee that went out during the war. And we went over there, and he's a bright fellow, intelligent fellow. But he's just not a man that persists, and he thinks that he's dealing with barbarian tribes out there, and that he's the emperor and he's going to tell them what to do. And there's no doubt that, in my mind, that he had old Dean killed out there, him, so he could-

LBJ: That was a tragic mistake-

RR: Oh, it was awful-

LBJ: And we've lost every-

RR: You've got to get someone with-- more pliant than Lodge to do what he does right quick. He's living up on cloud nine. It's a bad mistake-- I don't know --probably the best thing that you could do would be to ask Lodge, doesn't he think that it's about time that he comes home.

LBJ: Well, he'd be back home campaigning against us, on this issue every day.

RR: Well, God almighty, he's going to come back --and when the time comes, I'd give him reasons for doing it. He's going to come back. If you bring him back now everybody's going to say, 'Hell, he's coming back because Johnson removed him from out there.' MacArthur, with all his power, couldn't hurt Truman because everybody would have said, 'Well, hell, he's just mad because he got removed.' So maybe it would be better to sympathize with him in it. And you needn't worry. Lodge will be in here in my judgment; he'll be on their ticket in some way. I don't think that they'll nominate him for President but they probably will for Vice President. But whether they do or don't, he'll be here campaigning before that campaign's over. I don't know it maybe I better take that back, things are so hopeless for Republicans and he certainly has got enough political sense to know that and not get his head chopped off. It would be foolish.

LBJ: Has Clay got any judgment on a thing like this?

RR: Yeah, he has, even though, he's inclined to.

LBJ: He's off in another area of the world, mostly isn't he?

RR: I think Clay has--he knows. I'd take his judgment on most anything, if he'd separate himself from his predilections and he doesn't have any out there in that part of the world. He's-- I think people generally, have a good deal of respect for Clay's judgment and there am a great deal of affection and respect for old man Bradley. He's not in his dotage yet. I had him up here the other day getting some advice on some matters, and I found him very alert. And he's so humble, I just don't know, he's could just be a doormat for Lodge out there. But he's an intelligent man-- now Clay wouldn't. He'd stand up to anybody, if he felt that he had any support in higher places. I just don't know. It's a tragic situation. It's just one of those places where you can't win. Anything that you do is wrong.

LBJ: Well, think about it and call me.

RR: All right, sir but I have thought about it and worried about it and prayed about it-

LBJ: I don't believe that we can do anything, that-

RR: I have, religiously. It frightens me, cause it's my country that is involved over there, and if we get into this, on any particular scale, there's no doubt in my mind but that the Chinese will be in there. And then we'll be fighting a damn conventional war against our secondary potential threat, and it'll be a Korea on a much bigger scale. And a worse scale because the peculiar physical configuration of Korea made extensive guerilla fighting over there virtually impossible. If you go from Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam andbring North Vietnam into it too, why it's the damndest place on earth and the French report that they lost 250, 000 and spent a couple of billion of theirs down there and a billion of ours. And just got the hell whipped out of them, and they had the best troops that they had. In fact, they had a division of crack German troopers and they were starving--

LBJ: You don't have any doubt that if we go in there, and get them up against a wall, the Chinese Communist is going to come in?

RR: No doubt at all.

LBJ: That's my judgment, and my people don't think so.

RR: There's no doubt in my mind about it, you'll find Chinese volunteers in there-- as soon--very shortly after we have active combat unit engaged.

LBJ: Now Mac writes me a memo and all he says that we continue support to Vietnam and that's number one; and end to the reflex of pique and face-saving at every essay of DeGaulle. Well, we're not piqued, we just asked DeGaulle to give us a blue print, and he doesn't have it. He just says neutralization. But there again, nobody that wants to agree to neutralization. And we asked him, 'Who would agree to go?' We said, 'We're ready.' And he just says, 'Well, we have to continue to maintain our strength, and get in a position.' But he's got no blue print. Realistic facing of the fact that we are in this situation without reliable military allies. Well, hell, I know that. Four - an exploration of the possibilities of the United Nations or some other arrangements. Well?

RR: Whose, whose is that?

LBJ: This is Mike Mansfield's thing and they won't do a damn thing, even on the Cambodia border. Hell, we can't get a majority vote in the Security Council. 'Our willingness to entertain any reasonable proposals for national conferences.' Well we are ready to confer with anybody anytime, but hell, a conference ain't going to do any good. They're not going to take back and give us territory and behave. We tell them every week--and we tell Khrushchev; we send China and Hanoi --and all of them -every week that we would get out of there and stay out of there if they would quit raiding their neighbors and they just say screw you.

RR: That's right.

LBJ: So the conferences won't do it. Now the whole question as I see it is do we--is it more dangerous for us to let things go as they are going now, deteriorating every day-and I -

RR: I don't think that we can let things go, Mr. President.

LBJ: Then it would be for us to move in-

RR: Well, we've got to either move in or move out. I-

LBJ: That's just about what it is

RR: You can make a tremendous case for moving out, but not for--

LBJ: Well, now Nixon and Rockefeller?

RR: But it would be more consistent with their attitude--the American people and their general reactions--to go in-- they could understand that. But getting out, even after we go in, but getting bogged down with the war with China. That would be a hell a mess, worse than the one now. To some extent. And that's what makes it so difficult; and don't forget that old Ben Miles' went over there and got killed. Old Ben was a great hero, but he got killed.

LBJ: That's right.

RR: And the old man was killed and so, if they start off with that, then they'll get out and then be killed. It's just a helluva come off. I just don't know how much Russia? they just want to cause us a trouble they can, but if there's any truth in their theory, that they are really at odds with China. There really is a cleavage there?

LBJ: They are, but they'd go with them as soon as the fight started. They wouldn't forsake the Communist Chinese-

RR: I'm not talking about that. We might get them to take an active part --in getting those things straightened out.

LBJ: We're doing all we can on that, but she doesn't show any signs of contributing.

RR: Well, they'd be foolish to, from one extent-- we'd just continue to pour money in there and get nothing out of it. We don't even get good will out of it. I just don't know; and I don't know where to go for advice. I just don't know. McNamara is the smartest fellow that any of us know, but he's got so damn--he is opinionated as hell, and he's made up his mind on this-

LBJ: Well, I tell you, Dick, what he's done. I think that he's a pretty flexible fellow. He's gone out there and he's got Kahn to agree that we cannot launch a counter-offensive or hit the North until he gets more stabilized or better set in the South; and he thought that he was buying us time, and that we could get by until November. But these politicians started raising hell, and Scripps Howard is writing these stories. All of the Senators, and Nixon and Rockefeller and Goldwater all saying that let's move and go into the North

RR: That was a devastating piece that Lucas had; but they're just little papers-

LBJ: That's right

RR: And they don't cover much of the country, but if it got out, it would raise a lot of hell.

LBJ: That's right. And they can always get an isolated example of things that McNamara has said, that's not generally true, they they've got too damn many people get killed, every day. And that they are flying the sorties and that they get some results and they're killing thousands of their people but we're losing more. I mean we're losing ground. And he was hoping that we could avoid moving into the North, and thereby provoking the Chinese. Hell, there ain't any way.

RR: Hell, you know that we tried that, from infiltration, guerilla-war standpoint, with disastrous results.

LBJ: Lodge. Nixon, Rockefeller, Goldwater all say move. Eisenhower-

RR: Bombing, and killing women and children-

LBJ: No, they say pick out an oil plant or pick out a refinery. Or something like that. Take selected targets; watch the trails they're coming out of and try to bomb them out of them.

RR: Oh, hell, it ain't worth a hoot. That's just impossible -

LBJ: McNamara said that yesterday that in Korea, LeMay and all of them was going to try and stop all of those tanks. There were 90 of them, and they let all the Air Force on them, and they got one and 89 came on through.

RR: We tried it in Korea, we even got out a lot of old B-29s to increase the bomb load and we just dropped millions and millions of pounds of bombs-- day and night-- we'd knock out the road at night and in the morning -the damn people would be driving all over it. It was true on that railroad over on the north coast--we used the Navy and good 14-inch rifles and knocked down a mountain on it. Shelled it and knocked down these mountains down. And covered the railroad tracks and everybody said, by God, we've got them now and the next morning, the trains were running like the devil right over the tracks. We shot up several million worth of shells thinking that we had got it. We never could actually interdict the lines of communication, although we had absolute control of the sea and the air and we never stop them. And you ain't going to stop these people either.

LBJ: Well, they'd impeach a President that would run out, wouldn't they? I just don't believe that outside of Morse, everybody that I talked to--including Hickenlooper-- including all the Republicans. None of them disagreed with him yesterday when he made the statement that we had to stand. And I don't know how in the hell you're going to get out unless they tell you to get out. We -

RR: We had our man over there running the government that told us to get our we could -

LBJ: That's right, but I don't know how you'd do that -

RR: I don't know if we could get somebody else I can't remember that fellow's name, some sort of a maverick fellow that's got a bit following in Saigon, and all our people all hate him, because he's always against the government. And he's not fighting them and all, but he's a very powerful man in Vietnam and everybody that takes over their government, and gives him the excuse of suppressions. And if he was to get in and say 'You damn Yankees get of here, I'm running this government now.'

LBJ: Well, wouldn't that pretty well fix us though in the eyes of the world? And make us look mighty bad?

RR: Well, I don't know. We don't look too good right now. And of course, you'd look pretty good, I'd guess, going in there with all the troops, but I tell you it'll be the most expensive adventure that this country ever went into-

LBJ: 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.