Echoes in Iraq: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, 1964

By: Greg Mitchell

Links between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, once mocked, have slowly gained traction as the current war entered its third, and then fourth, and now fifth year.
Among the unearthed telephone calls between President Lyndon Johnson and various aide and advisers was one dating from the early months of the U.S. “surge” in Vietnam.

It took place on May 27, 1964, and featured President Johnson talking with his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy. At one point Johnson admits: “It’s damn easy to get into a war, but if it’s going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.”

Later in the conversation, LBJ orders a meeting with influential columnist Walter Lippmann, who has an intriguing idea for saving face in the conflict. Johnson states: “I’d like to hear Walter [Lippmann] and McNamara debate.”

Excerpts from the transcript follow. (Hat tip: TalkingPointsMemo.com.)
*

Johnson: I will tell you the more, I just stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, and the more that I think of it I don’t know what in the hell, it looks like to me that we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed. I believe the Chinese Communists are coming into it. I don’t think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.

Bundy: It is an awful mess.

Johnson: And we just got to think about it. I’m looking at this Sergeant of mine this morning and he’s got 6 little old kids over there, and he’s getting out my things, and bringing me in my night reading, and all that kind of stuff, and I just thought about ordering all those kids in there. And what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country? We’ve got a treaty but hell, everybody else has got a treaty out there, and they’re not doing a thing about it.

Bundy: Yeah, yeah.

Johnson: Of course, if you start running from the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

Bundy: Yeah, that’s the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us. That’s the dilemma, that’s exactly the dilemma.

Johnson: But everybody that I talk to that’s got any sense now they just says Oh, my God, please give us thought. Of course I was reading Mansfield’s stuff this morning, and it is just Milquetoast as it can be. He’s got no spine at all.

Bundy: Yeah.

Johnson: But this is a terrible thing that we’re getting ready to do.

Bundy: Mr. President, I just figure it is really the only big decision in one sense, this is the one that we have to either reach up and get it, or we let it go by. And I’m not telling you today what I’d do in your position. I just think that the most that we have to do with it is pray with it for another while.

Johnson: Anybody else that we got that can advise with, that might have any judgement on this question, that might be fresh, that might have some new approach? Would Bradley be any good? Would Clay be any good?

Bundy: No, Bradley would be no good. I do not think Clay would add….

Johnson: Well, you wouldn’t have a Corporals’ Guard would you?

Bundy: I just don’t know, I just don’t know. If that’s true, then I’m not sure that we’re the country to do this job.

Johnson: I don’t think that it’s just Morse and Russell, and Gruening, I think it’s . . .

Bundy: I know it isn’t. I know it Mr. President, it is 90% of the people that don’t want any part of it.

Johnson: Did you see the poll this morning? 65% of them don’t know anything about it, and of those that do, the majority think that we’re mishandling it. But they don’t know what to do, that Gallup.

Bundy: Yeah, yeah.

Johnson: It’s damn easy to get into a war, but if it’s going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.

Bundy: Very easy. I’m very sensitive to the fact that the people who are having trouble with the intransigent problem find it very easy to come and say to the President of the United States, go and be tough.

Johnson: What does Lippmann think that you ought to do?

Bundy: Well, I’m going to talk with him at greater length, but what he really thinks is that you should provide a diplomatic structure within which the thing can go under the control of Hanoi, and walk away from it. I don’t think that’s an unfair statement, but I will ask him.

Johnson: You mean that he thinks that Hanoi ought to take South Vietnam?

Bundy: Yes sir, diplomatically.

Johnson: Uh, huh.

Bundy: Maybe by calling it a neutralization and removing American force and letting it slip away the way that Laos did, would if we didn’t do anything, and will if we don’t do anything. We would guarantee the neutrality in some sort of a treaty that we would write. I think, I’m sorry, I’m not sure that I’m the best person to describe Lippmann’s views, because I don’t agree with them.

Johnson: Who, who, who, who has he been talking to besides you? Has he talked to Rusk on any of this? Has he talked to McNamara?

Bundy: He’s talked to George Ball. And he’s talked to, I don’t think that he’s talked to Rusk, and I don’t think he’s talked to McNamara.

Johnson: Wouldn’t it be good for he and McNamara to sit down?

Bundy: I think that it would be very good, but I don’t think, I think, I had planned to have lunch with Walter on Monday, because I couldn’t find a workable time before for that, but I can do it sooner, if you’d like me to.

Johnson: I wish you would.

Bundy: I will.

Johnson: I’d try to get his ideas a little more concrete before I leave here. And I’d like to have him talk to McNamara. I might, I might just have the three of you in this afternoon sometime.

Bundy: All right.

Johnson: Walter, McNamara and him [Ball?]. I’d like to hear Walter [Lippmann] and McNamara debate.

***

According to the President’s Daily Diary, the President met with McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Ball, and Lippmann from 4:30 p.m. to approximately 5 p.m. Ball wrote Rusk an account of the meeting, noting that Lippmann “made his usual argument for neutralization.” Ball reported that when he pressed, Lippmann admitted that he assumed Southeast Asia was “destined inevitably to become a zone of Chinese Communist control” and the best U.S. course was to slow that expansionism and “make it less brutal.”

Ball did not think the President “bought Lippmann’s thesis,” but Johnson was impressed with Lippmann’s view that the United States was losing the battle of international public relations. After the President left, the group debated Southeast Asia and Vietnam for another hour. (Letter from Ball to Rusk, May 31; Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Vietnam (Ball’s Memos))




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