A Confirmed Cold Warrior?

Lyndon Johnson


The Decision to Escalate in Vietnam

James C. Schneider

Associate Professor of History

The University of Texas at San Antonio

The Forth Triennial

Vietnam Symposium

Texas Tech University

Lubbock Texas

April 11-13, 2002

            Recently two important books have renewed the debate among scholars over the causes of the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War.  They are, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, by David Kaiser.  While differing in focus, each book emphasizes the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson in resolving to commit massive American forces to the conflict in Southeast Asia.  Both Logevall and Kaiser portray Johnson as a ‘hawk,' in the parlance of the period, a confirmed Cold Warrior who refused to consider seriously either the possibility of an alternative policy to escalation or the bleak odds against a successful outcome, should Americans assume primary responsibility for fighting the war.  In this paper I propose to examine the question of Johnson's attitudes toward the situation in Vietnam, and the attractiveness of options open to the United States.  The basis for this examination will be the most important source of new evidence that has become available to historians in recent years—the tapes Johnson made of telephone conversations he conducted while in the White House.  While the tapes do not point without ambiguity to any single interpretation of Johnson's outlook, or his role the in the decision-making process, I will argue that on balance they reveal a president who was a reluctant interventionist, bedeviled by considerable misgivings over the course of action he came to pursue. [1]

            David Kaiser, a professor at the Naval War College, presents a causal model far more sophisticated than a simple “devil theory” of U.S. involvement, with LBJ acting as Lucifer. American Tragedy presents perhaps the most thorough examination of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia during the Kennedy and early Johnson administrations to be found in any single volume.  Kaiser begins with a summary chapter on U.S. policy under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his focus is, as the title indicates, on the two subsequent Democratic presidents. He rightly devotes ample attention to the situation in Laos, the dominant problem JFK faced in Southeast Asia at the outset of his administration, and explores at length the relationship between the Laotian tangle and the growing prominence of Vietnam.  His book concludes in July 1965, when Johnson announced that the First Air Calvary Division was being sent to Vietnam as part of an overall augmentation of American forces to a level 125,000 men—with more to follow if needed.  What that action the Rubicon had been crossed, the war was being extensively Americanized, and (in Kaiser's concluding words) “. . . a whole era of American history was over.” [2]

            The causal model Kaiser presents is complex and multi-faceted, but ultimately it hinges on the role and attitudes of Lyndon Johnson.  Kaiser initially stresses the role of the Eisenhower administration in setting the course of American policy. “The Vietnam War,” he states, “occurred largely because of Cold War policies adopted by the State and Defense Departments in 1954-1946 and approved secretly by President Eisenhower—policies that called for a military response to Communist aggression almost anywhere that it might occur, and specifically in Southeast Asia.”  Military planners pressed repeatedly for intervention in the region, as events developed unfavorably from Washington's perspective.  Laos was the main focus of U.S. concern in 1960 and 1961; thereafter attention shifted increasingly to South Vietnam.  In the former instance the U.S. avoided massive military intervention, in Vietnam it subsequently did not.  That distinction is key to Kaiser.  Since he views both the State and the Defense Departments as being wedded to “reflexive proposals for implementing the Eisenhower administration's policies” of anti-communist interventionism, Kaiser explains the difference in outcome by contrasting the attitudes of President's Kennedy and Johnson.  Persistently “ . . .Kennedy resisted the proposals for intervention in both Laos and South Vietnam that reached him, largely because of broader strategic and political questions that the bureaucracy and his cabinet seemed to ignore.”  While acknowledging the major increases in the size and scope of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam during the Kennedy years, Kaiser explains these as compromises between a bureaucracy bent on far larger intervention and a Chief Executive who was determined to help Saigon but who equally “rejected war as a way to do so.”  JFK's reluctance stemmed from several sources.  He judged that an American war in Southeast Asia would command little support at any level—from the U.S. public, the Congress, or America's allies in western Europe.  Kennedy deemed Southeast Asia a poor place for the use of American troops and believed that indigenous peoples and governments were the primary agents of their own security.  Finally, toward the end of his administration, the president had become increasingly interested in improving relations with the Soviet Union. Intervention in Southeast Asia would jeopardize any chance for progress with Moscow. [3]

            Kaiser demonstrates beyond doubt that throughout Kennedy's tenure in the Oval Office he received a stream of proposals from the Pentagon, often supported by the State Department, calling for military action in Laos or Vietnam. Kaiser also shows that Kennedy was skeptical about the prospects of a successful military intervention, particularly of any easy victory through air power. JFK also feared that Beijing would respond in kind to an introduction of U.S. troops.  Most tellingly, he indeed accepted the so-called ‘neutralization' of Laos, an option for which no highly placed American official, including the President, had much enthusiasm.  In doing so, JFK demonstrated a willingness to swallow an undesirable option in order to avoid the even worse prospect of major military intervention in unpromising circumstances. Might he not have done the same when faced with a decisive decision regarding a military commitment in Vietnam? Perhaps so. But as Kaiser acknowledges, Kennedy devoted relatively little attention to Vietnam until mid-1963.  Kennedy could afford to block drastic action there because he never faced a truly critical situation south of the 17th parallel.  However the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, undertaken with the support and encouragement of United States officials, bequeathed his successor a set of circumstances that would force the sort of decision Kennedy avoided. [4]

            The initial impression of Lyndon Johnson given the reader of American Tragedy is of an intelligent and frenetically active leader who was out of his element in the realm of foreign policy.  The contrast with Kennedy's confidence and expertise is emphasized from the first.  For example, Johnson required a memo from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy detailing what he should say about foreign affairs at the first cabinet meeting after Kennedy's death; JFK himself would not have needed such advice.  Of course Kennedy never assumed office amidst a sudden and overwhelming tragedy, one that had possibly been caused by hostile government action.  Furthermore, Johnson had been effectively excluded from key decision-making all through Camelot and JFK, Kaiser admits in passing, had never “institutionalized his policies.”  One could in fact say, rather, that the institutional policies never convinced the chief of the institution. The issue, at bottom, is what represented the ‘real' policy of the Kennedy administration.  Was it Kennedy's personal outlook or his administration's predilections?  Kaiser seems sure it is the former, LBJ was left with the latter. However one decides this question, it is true that Johnson had been more involved in the making of Vietnam policy than in most other areas, and so did not come to the table cold in this realm of policy. [5]

            Kaiser notes, quite accurately, that Johnson is a difficult person to read. So, sensibly, Kaiser makes Johnson's behavior his focus, claiming that Johnson said so many contradictory things to so many different people that his words are unreliable.  Judged by his actions, Kaiser insists, LBJ “did not eagerly seek war in Southeast Asia, but he never questioned the need for the United States to resist the communist threat to South Vietnam by any necessary means (the italics are added.)”  Never did he entertain seriously the possibility of neutralization or withdrawal. Under Johnson, Washington came to decide rapidly on an interventionist policy which Kennedy had successfully avoided for three years. [6]  

            Fredrik Logevall's analysis is simultaneously wider and more narrow than that found in American Tragedy.  Logevall focuses on the topic of a negotiated settlement in Vietnam during the early Johnson administration.  The scope of his research, however, is international. Among the many virtues of Fredrick Logevall's Choosing War is the aptness of its title.  Logevall insists that the real choices presented themselves to American policy-makers in the crucial two years following the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem in August 1963.  Above all, he contends that a negotiated settlement was a real possibility.  While the subject of such a settlement has hardly been ignored by previous scholars, no one has examined the issue as elaborately as Logevall.  His research sheds much light on the views of French, British and Canadian leaders, as well as those in the U.S. and the Vietnams.  Of particular concern for our present discussion is his conclusion that it was primarily U.S. government officials, and President Johnson in particular, who rejected the option of a negotiated settlement.  Furthermore, they did so out of hand; that is, they refused to consider the question seriously and utterly misjudged the prospects of domestic U.S. support for such as course.  As no previous scholar has done, Logevall incorporates the case for negotiations made by such leading American opinion-shapers as columnist Walter Lippmann and The New York Times into a discussion of the international search for a settlement and Washington's categorical rejection of the whole concept. Something akin to the arrangement previously worked out for Laos could have been constructed for Vietnam.  Thus, as his sub-title states, there was, for Logevall at least, a “lost chance for peace” in Vietnam. [7]

            The choice for war was made by Lyndon Johnson.  Logevall does not believe that LBJ made his decision for arbitrary or capricious reasons, of course. But by this account the president ignored so much compelling evidence and advice against escalation that his decision seems almost perverse.  LBJ faced no compelling pressure to intervene from America's allies or from nations neighboring South Vietnam.  Within his own government, skepticism about intervention was by no means confined to Undersecretary of State George Ball.  Many members of the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence bureaucracies “challenged the direction of American policy,” although, Logevall notes, usually “in muted tones.” (376) Key congressional Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, opposed intervention.  The American public knew and cared little about the situation in Southeast Asia; public opinion was plastic rather than a daunting obstacle to the pursuit of negotiations. [8]

            How then to explain decision to commit American forces?  Logevall acknowledges the influence of structural factors, chiefly those of a Cold War ideology, but he candidly states that he attaches “more explanatory power to the short-term and personal factors in that decision” [i.e. to intervene] “than to long-term and impersonal ones.” Virtually all western leaders subscribed to the “Munich analogy,” he says, and rejected ‘appeasement.' Because these leaders differed over whether or not the analogy applied to Vietnam, the power of the analogy explains little.  The Korean War was also a major factor in the minds of American policy makers, but here they did not agree about what its lessons were. Logevall ascribes even less influence to economic factors, which he notes (and I will second) are strikingly absent from discussions over Vietnam policy.  The key issue, says Logevall, was U.S. credibility.  Nothing could be less original than that observation, but Logevall gives it a significant new reading.  The issue was not U.S. credibility, that is, an international recognition of the nation's willingness to keep its commitments and incur costs while persevering in its chosen policies. Instead, the issue involved Lyndon Johnson's personal concern for his own historical reputation.  One thinks here of a phrase of Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, who vowed not to be the first U.S. president to lose a foreign war.  That determination impelled Johnson as well, according to Logevall.  Concern over the Great Society influenced the conduct of U. S. intervention, but not its fundamental direction.  LBJ was not even focused on the fortunes of his party.  Rather it was his own standing before the bar of history that mattered most.  At once deeply insecure and driven by a powerful sense of machismo, Johnson compulsively personalized all public issues.  Coupled with his intolerance of dissent and obsession with secrecy, these impulses led to a circumscribed decision-making process in which only Rusk, McNamara and McGeorge Bundy had any real access to the president.  And, as Logevall notes, “[a]cess . . . did not equal influence.” [9]   (389-395)

            Taken together, the interpretations of Kaiser and Logevall thus place enormous emphasis on the role of Lyndon Johnson in the decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.  It is of course not necessary to subscribe in full to their interpretations, as I do not, to grant the importance of coming to as full an understanding as possible of Johnson's thinking on Vietnam during those crucial months in 1963, 1964 and the first half of 1965.  Yet as any scholar knows who has examined the immense collection of materials at the Johnson Presidential Library, LBJ himself is the Scarlet Pimpernel of his administration—his presence is everywhere but he is nowhere to be found.  That is to say, direct written evidence of Johnson's words and thoughts is astonishingly scant among the voluminous record housed in Austin.

            Consequently it was all the more exciting when the news circulated in 1992 that the Johnson family had agreed to a request by Harry Middleton, a former Johnson speechwriter who until very recently has served as Director of the Library, to release most the voluminous tape recordings made by LBJ in the Oval Office.  Done secretly, the tapes promised a direct entry into the innermost circles of the president's world.  Here Johnson was to be found in abundance.  While not all tapes have been released, some 4% being withheld for purposes of discretion toward persons still living or for national security, the tapes represent a resource that is unparalleled—unless the guardians of the Nixon tapes are more forthcoming, or are more fully overcome, than at present seems likely. [10]

            As invaluable as they are, the taped conversations present problems of more than simply a technical nature. First, these are conversations between two people.  They are not discussions among several officials or advisors, aimed at airing differences or pursuing a question to some logical resolution. They are, by their nature, fragmentary measures of opinion.  Second, there is the issue of reliability.  The conversations of those with whom Johnson spoke are as unguarded as any could be.  People may or may not have been candid with the president, but they were in all probability as honest in those telephone conversations as they were at any other time when speaking with Johnson.  However, LBJ knew he was speaking for the record.  Whatever purposes he may have had for the tapes, beyond their utility in compiling his memoirs, will remain a matter of speculation unless some further information comes to light.  But one need not subscribe to so dark a view of Johnson's character as that held by biographer Robert Caro to conclude that it would be rash indeed to take all the president's comments at face value.  Instances of LBJ manipulating those around him, including his closest and most devoted supporters, are too numerous and too well documented to leave much doubt that these conversations represented tools for Johnson.  There are more than a few blatant instances in which Johnson simply lied to someone over the phone.  Then too, Johnson shared a trait of his presidential mentor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in that both men exhibited a penchant for telling people what they thought they wanted to hear.  But if using the tapes requires a cautious skepticism, it does not merit cynicism.  Certain imperatives of leadership--the need for information, the necessity of moving matters forward and, not least, the sheer press of events—meant that no one could simply use all that presidential time to manipulate the record for the eyes of posterity.  It strains credulity past the breaking point to believe that nothing significant that Johnson said on tape was sincere.  The task becomes to identify what seems likely to be ‘wheat' from what represents ‘chaff.'  Necessarily this is a matter of judgement, and therefore of contention.  For all their interest and value, the tapes resolve no fundamental issue conclusively.  But it seems reasonable to assume that Johnson was likely to talk with relative candor to certain folks. There were officials who at that time he trusted and whose opinions he respected, at least with regard to the issues at hand—Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Senator Richard Russell for example.  If we focus on his conversations with such figures, then we can go some distance toward understanding his position.  Also, portions of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson's diaries have been made public.  While she seems not to have been a sounding board for his ideas about policy, he trusted her more than anyone else with disclosures about his anxieties and moods.  Taken together with other information available, the tapes provide the best source we are likely to have about the way Johnson considered the situation he faced in Southeast Asia.


            The strongest impression one gets from the tapes may be at the same time the most important and the most frustrating—they convey no single impression of Johnson's attitudes toward Vietnam.  There is abundant evidence that he believed deeply in the validity of the containment doctrine and the necessity of applying it in Southeast Asia. Negotiating the neutralization of South Vietnam never seemed to be an acceptable option. So there are very real grounds for the views of Kaiser and Logevall about LBJ.  But the tapes do not by any means indicate a man who is simply a confirmed Cold Warrior, inhibited perhaps by the perceived need to pose as a peace candidate so as to win the maximum possible vote1964 election before unleashing the military.  On balance, the tapes show instead a reluctant interventionist, as aware of the uncertainties and liabilities of involvement as he is unwilling to accept the outcome of a negotiated withdrawal.  The tapes show a president whose preferred course of action would be a very limited action, that would bolster the government in Saigon and convince the leaders in Hanoi to withdraw support for the revolution south of the 17th parallel. 

            That Lyndon Johnson believed in the need to contain communism and to do so in South Vietnam is attested to frequently in the tapes.  A particularly interesting example comes fairly early in his presidency, in the course of a conversation on May 27, 1964, with Senator Richard Russell, the Georgia Democrat who was Johnson's chief mentor in the Senate.  Russell and Johnson were by then bitter opponents on civil rights issues, but their private conversations remained warm and evidenced a mutual respect and affection that shines through in Johnson's tone, among other indications.  LBJ knew from direct experience that Russell had been a longstanding opponent of American military involvement on the Asian mainland.  Russell had reminded him during a conversation in December 1963 how the Georgian had advised Eisenhower against getting entangled in Southeast Asian affairs back in 1954.  Johnson telephoned Russell on May 27, 1964, and engaged in an unusually lengthy conversation.  Well knowing Russell's aversion to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Johnson cautiously tried to lead his friend to the conclusion that no alternative to some form of continued commitment existed.  Russell was a tough sell, calling Vietnam “. . . the damn worst mess I ever saw” and voicing his fear that it would lead to major war with China.  Johnson responded by alleging that he had feared that prospect for six months.  Russell believed that the situation was deteriorating, but that the American public were not “quite ready” to send in combat troops.  Ultimately, Russell said, he would favor an American pullout, although he judged that point had yet to be reached.  He mused that the way to accomplish a withdrawal was to have the government in Saigon request one.  At this point Johnson asked about the strategic importance of Vietnam, only to hear Russell say that it lacked strategic value in an era of intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons.  Then Johnson subtly pressed his case.  Was not Vietnam important ‘psychologically?'  Russell agreed that it was. While neither man elaborated on their understanding of this term, it seems safe to conclude that they meant that a victory for the National Liberation Front would encourage communists elsewhere and discourage America's friends.  Johnson quickly followed up by noting the importance of keeping treaty commitments to Washington's international reputation for credibility.  Russell would have none of this argument, noting derisively that since no other nation was observing the SEATO treaty he doubted anyone would fault the U.S. for failing to adhere to it.  He added that in recent congressional testimony McNamara had not impressed him as knowing much about the history and culture of Southeast Asian peoples.  By this point Johnson seemed to realize that he was not going to win Russell's agreement that the danger of backing down in Vietnam was simply too great, and he guided the discussion off into the domestic politics of Vietnam. [11]

            Other instances of LBJ's belief in traditional Cold War tenets are less intricate and subtle.   In a February 1965 call to Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen, Johnson discussed a recent conversation he had had with former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Communists, Ike had assured him, do not keep their word.  Johnson added his own opinion “[t]hat we know, from Munich on, that when you give, the dictators feed on raw meat.”  Almost exactly one year earlier, LBJ had conferred with McNamara about modifying the wording McNamara had submitted for an upcoming presidential speech.  Ought they not include a brief discussion about the situation in Vietnam, Johnson had asked? Perhaps so, the Defense Secretary agreed, but “the problem is what to say about it.”  Johnson proposed beginning with a statement that the United States had a commitment to Vietnamese freedom.  He then continued, “Now we could pull out of there.  The dominoes would fall, and part of the world would go to the communists.” America had made no commitment to fight in Vietnam, but “ . . . you can have more war or you can have more appeasement.”  LBJ also suggested weaving in language about previous successes against communist expansionism in Greece, Turkey and central Europe as a way of engendering support for administration policy.  McNamara agreed to Johnson's formulation and promised to draft language for the Miami address.  Two months later the president approached the crisis in the Dominican Republic from a similar perspective.  Talking with Abe Fortas, perhaps the most trusted of all Johnson's advisors at that time, LBJ speculated that the unrest on the Caribbean island  “ . . . may be part of a whole communistic pattern tied in with Vietnam” in the sense that communists believed the U.S. was trying to disengage from Southeast Asia and perhaps from other commitments around the globe.  Intelligence reports, Johnson claimed, detected evidence of such views in “Hanoi, Peking, Moscow, the East European countries . . .”, in short the entire communist bloc. [12]

            Nowhere does Johnson's adherence to Cold War precepts emerge more strongly than in his attitude toward a negotiated neutralization of South Vietnam.  Without exception, Johnson and his senior advisors rejected this course out of hand.  Nor do the tapes provide any direct evidence that they reached this position after a serious scrutiny of the merits of neutralization relative to the other available alternatives.  This lack of serious consideration looms all the larger because the administration was so gloomy about the overall situation in Vietnam.  In February 1964, a plainly unenthusiastic Johnson conferred with McGeorge Bundy immediately prior to a meeting with the New York Times. Bundy stressed the importance of impressing the paper's representatives with Johnson's desire to work for peace in Vietnam.  The President asked about possible neutralization and then agreed with Bundy's position that the only formula for neutralization that Washington could accept would require North Vietnam to become non-aligned. Since there was no prospect of this happening, neutralization was simply a formula for the communists to exploit.  As Bundy stated, “You cannot neutralize the bottom half [i.e. South Vietnam] with the top half waiting to eat it up . . . .”   In June 1964, amidst a period of continuing political instability in Saigon and with the war going badly, Johnson commented to McNamara that “[t]he greatest danger we face now is losing Khanh [General Nguyen Khanh, then the head of the South Vietnamese government] and being asked to get out.” Six months later the administration faced a renewed bid for negotiations.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk called the White House to discuss how to respond to overtures by U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Rusk suggested, and Johnson agreed without comment, that a U.S. representative at the U.N. be instructed to tell the Secretary General that Washington saw no evidence that “. . . Hanoi or Peiping is interested in discussing a peaceful settlement in Vietnam on a realistic basis.”  Furthermore, said Rusk, Thant should be told that “[t]here is no possibility of negotiations . . . .that would leave South Vietnam the victim of aggression . . . .” Johnson's only suggestion was to adopt a somewhat more affirmative tone by stating that the U.S. was pledged to leave Southeast Asia as soon as South Vietnam was left alone.  When American allies continued to urge Washington to explore the possibility of negotiations, LBJ became exasperated.  McNamara voiced his opinion that perhaps a somewhat more flexible attitude toward talks would help bolster international support for the U.S. position.  “Well my reaction is, it ain't a damn bit of use [in] going out and bombing all morning,” Johnson barked, “and telling them [i.e. Hanoi] all afternoon you didn't mean it and you want to talk at a conference table.” [13]

This final comment is vintage LBJ of course, but a careful reading of his message suggests that the rejection of negotiations represented more than a dogmatic belief that negotiation per se equaled appeasement and surrender.  In the view of Johnson and his senior advisors, negotiations were impossible in the period from 1963 through 1965 because they threatened to undercut a position that was already desperately weak, but which was not quite hopeless.  There were forces in Saigon willing to continue the struggle and it was imperative, senior officials believed, to do nothing to undercut their position.  All the while the United States would do whatever it could to strengthen the position of anti-communist forces in the South.  In his conversation with McNamara on February 20, 1964, for example, Johnson followed his rejection of a U.S. pullout with a statement that American policy continued to focus on advising the Vietnamese military, mentioning that three more years ought to indicate whether the ARVN could reach a sufficient state of effectiveness. Johnson never rejected the principle of a negotiated settlement. At one point, during the pivotal discussions over how to respond to NLF mortor attacks on the airbase at Pleiku in February 1965, Johnson exploded to Bundy by shouting “. . .God, I want to negotiate more than any man in the world!  I'll guarantee you that [emphasis very much in the original]!”  But, he added later, he did not “know how to negotiate with a fellow [i.e. North Vietnam] who doesn't want to negotiate.” [14]

Johnson saw little prospect for a diplomatic solution in Southeast Asia precisely because he, usually in company with his key advisors, viewed the overall situation there in such bleak terms. Johnson's pessimism regarding the outlook in Vietnam emerges unmistakably in the tapes, running consistently throughout his comments from 1963 through 1965 with speaker after speaker. His long, probing conversation with Richard Russell on May 25, 1964 ended on a growing note of presidential gloom. The president felt certain that Republicans would attack him should he try to withdraw, as they had gone after Harry Truman over China and Korea. Secretary Rusk was telling him “that Laos is crumbling and Vietnam is wobbly . . .”  McNamara had become frustrated with the performance of U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge.  Lodge was deeply implicated in the coup against Diem, which Johnson labeled “a tragic mistake.” Then LBJ summarized his view of the situation. “The whole question, as I see it, is, ‘Is it more dangerous for us to let things go on as they're going now, deteriorating every day . . . than it would be for us to move in?”  He and Russell discussed various contingencies, none of them attractive, before Johnson concluded by saying:

      I have a little old sergeant that works for me over here at the house. And he's 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 the father of those six kids in

there. And what the hell are we going to get out his doing it?  And it just makes the chills run up my back.

                The prospects were poor in part because Johnson came to see the political and military weakness of South Vietnam so clearly in 1964.  In September, near the end of a summer of nearly continual unrest in Saigon, he wondered ruefully to Bundy about the ability of the South Vietnamese government to hold up.  “I mean, if they can't protect themselves, if you have a government that can't protect itself from kids in the streets, what the hell can you do about an invading army?” Amidst the debate over how to respond to the Pleiku attack in February 1965, Johnson confessed to Russell “I guess we've got no choice [but to respond militarily], but it just scares the hell out of me.”  He felt certain the North Vietnamese and the NLF would not back down in the face of the U.S. counteraction. “Then,” Johnson worried, “you're tied down.”  Russell agreed that a tough U.S. response was necessary, despite the danger, whereupon LBJ observed that “a man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere.  But there ain't no daylight in Vietnam, there's not a bit.” Only one day later he expressed his dismay to Lady Bird, in a famous comment that takes on added poignancy when viewed in conjunction with his statement to Russell.  She noted in her diary that over dinner that evening LBJ had vented his frustration over Vietnam, lamenting “I can't get out, and I can't finish it with what I've got, and I don't know what the hell to do.” [15]

            The President's gloom continued through the summer, as he began to commit American ground and air forces to combat in major numbers. Responding to veiled criticism from New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a person guaranteed to trip the explosive Johnson temper, the President complained to McNamara about the poverty of American options in Vietnam. 

                        I'm very depressed about it.  Because I see no program from either Defense

or State that gives me much hope of doing anything, except just praying and grasping

to hold on through the monsoon and hoping they'll [i.e. the North Vietnamese and NLF]


                I don't believe they're ever going to quit.  And I don't see  . . .that we have any .

. . plan for a victory—militarily or diplomatically.

Johnson was then still reeling from a request by his military commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, for an additional 90,000 troops, a figure that would double the total in country at that time.  McNamara characterized this message as a “bombshell.”  Here emerged the first example the tapes furnish of doubts about American involvement on the part of McNamara.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff supported Westmoreland's request, the Defense Secretary stated, but he and Ambassador Taylor recommended no more than a 20,000-man increase over the immediate future.  There was a substantial difference in risk between the two plans, McNamara advised (without explaining the nature of the risk,) but his additional comments may have struck an even more ominous note with the President.  “…[T]his is a hard one to argue out with the Chiefs,” McNamara said, “ because in the back of my mind I have a very definite limitation on commitment [an apparent reference to the number of U.S. ground troops] in mind (sic.)  I don't think the Chiefs do.  In fact, I know they don't.”  Did this mean, Johnson asked, that the request would be followed by calls for further increases?  McNamara said that it would, although the Chiefs hoped nothing more would prove necessary.  But they backed Westmoreland's refusal to put limits on the level of American commitment. McNamara was unwilling to go this far, suggesting instead that Washington set an upper figure, unless it was prepared to accept having to fight a “full potential land war.” [16]

This conversation is richly suggestive.  It seems evident that even as late as the summer of 1965 the civilian leaders of the American war effort had not embraced the idea of a full commitment to victory in south Vietnam through military means.  Their pessimism over the prospects for success in Vietnam translated into a reluctance to intervene more than was necessary.  If true, this lends credence to the view that Johnson's administration was intervening so as not to lose, rather than with an expectation than success was in the offing.  Only a few weeks before, in an exceptionally rare moment of rueful levity during the Dominican crisis, Bundy had responded to Johnson's query about the state of things by saying, “Why, as for people with two wars they don't want, we're in as good as shape as you can expect.” But Vietnam occasioned no humor whatsoever in the summer of 1965.  When Johnson ultimately called McNamara to approve the increases called for by Westmoreland, his continuing reluctance was as evident in his tone as in his wording.  “I don't see anything to do except give them what they need, Bob, do you?,” was the way LBJ expressed  his approval.  McNamara agreed, and noted that Assistant Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance also approved. But, McNamara added, “ I must tell you that I don't think others in your government are [in agreement.]  Continuing the gloom, he characterized their course as “a very heavy risk” and the recalled the Bay of Pigs fiasco as an illustration. Johnson could hardly have been reassured by the comparison. [17]

                Additional evidence of Johnson's attitudes is provided by his demeanor during the spring and summer of 1965, when he made the crucial serious of decisions that led to the dramatic increase in U.S. involvement.  As early as March, Lady Bird was so worried about his health that she brought in medical experts to assess his condition.  Their report, noting “a heavy load of tension” and what she termed “this fog of depression,” could have come as no surprise.  She was certain that the frustrations and uncertainties associated with Vietnam were imperiling her husband's health. One month later, she confessed to her diary:

                        We talked about the short nights Lyndon has been having for several months.

                He asked to be waked up whenever there was an operation going out.  He won't leave

                it alone.  He said, ‘I want to be called every time somebody dies.  He can't separate

himself from it . . . . In Washington he seldom gets to sleep before two.

The tapes confirm the intensity of his involvement.  By his specific order, Johnson repeatedly was called in the middle of the night with reports on air operations. Against this evidence, the concern he expressed earlier for his White House sergeant with the six children rings much truer than its somewhat mawkish language might imply.  In addition, Johnson at least once expressed doubts about his own suitability as a wartime leader.  In a conversation with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, of all people, LBJ declared, “I'm not temperamentally equipped to be Commander-in-Chief.  I'm too sentimental to give the orders.”  The pronouncement is so uncharacteristic, especially since it was voiced to a man by no means a member of LBJ's inner circle, that it is tempting to dismiss the remark as one of Johnson's periodic pleas for sympathy.  But Lady Bird witnessed the conversation and she was struck by his sincerity.  And he was probably right in his personal assessment. [18]

What then do the tapes suggest about the view of Johnson set forth David Kaiser and Fredrik Logevall?  They provide the strongest support for Logevall's contention that senior American leaders never significantly examined the desirability of a negotiated peace within the context of a range of unpleasant options.  Certainly, the tapes make clear that the options were seen as unpleasant, by Johnson most particularly.  But Logevall's stress on Johnson's concern for his personal historical reputation seems overdrawn.  Johnson was very worried about a political backlash akin to that which overtook Harry Truman as a result of China and Korea.  But the President also believed that a commitment had been made to the anti-communists of the South and that American credibility rested significantly on Washington's willingness to stay the course. And he never rejected the principle of negotiations, insisting rather that the American position was too weak to make any successful outcome possible at that moment.  Nor do the tapes indicate that Johnson was the fulcrum on which his administration turned.  There is almost no indication of significant division between the president and his senior advisors.

Kaiser emphasizes LBJ's inflexible commitment to Cold War verities.  The tapes suggest that this view is also badly overdrawn.  Johnson may certainly be characterized as a Cold Warrior, but if he was a most reluctant Cold War activist in Southeast Asia. In his own mind at least, the commitment had been made before he assumed office, and not even Richard Russell could develop a strategy that allowed him to abandon that commitment.

[1] Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley, 1999); David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge MA, 2000).  The tapes are part of the Oral History collection of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas.  Two highly useful collections of transcripts have been published, edited by Michael Beschloss, that together cover the crucial period in which the administration decided to use American land and air forces on a massive scale in combat.  They are Michael R. Beschloss, ed. Taking Charge: The johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (New York, 1997), which begins on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and extends through the end of August 1964 (thus including the Tonkin Gulf incident) and Michael Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (New York, 2001), with material on the period from September 1964 through the end of August 1965.

[2] Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 483.

[3] Kaiser, American Tragedy,  2-4.  He also includes in his explanatory framework a version of cohort theory found in William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York, 1991).  In my view this theoretical apparatus contributes little to the argument Kaiser is really making, and it will not be a subject of analysis in this paper.

[4] Kaiser, American Tragedy, 113-121 as an example of the case Kaiser makes throughout chapters 2-6.  His case on JFK is summarized on p 212.  While this paper is not centrally concerned with Kennedy's position, it may be worth noting that if JFK indeed rejected the more extreme calls for intervention made by his subordinates, he also kept those advisors in his administration, in whom he continued to believe until the day he died (see ibid. 277) and never flatly ruled out significant escalation.  Kaiser acknowledges that we will never know what Kennedy would have done had he lived, but the author consistently emphasizes JFK's independent toughness of mind and his skepticism about a land war in Asia, so that it seems clear that Kaiser believes would not have endorsed a wholesale commitment of U.S. combat forces.

[5] Kaiser, American Tragedy, 284-88.

[6] Kaiser, American Tragedy, 289.

[7] Logevall, Choosing War, xvi-xxiv.

[8] Logevall, Choosing War, 376-82. The quotation appears on page 376.

LLogevall, Choosing War, 389-395.

[10] Beschloss, Taking Charge, contains a good succinct account of how the tapes came to be made, the decision to release of the tapes and the technological challenges they present.  See pp 547-553.

[11] Beschloss, Taking Charge, Johnson and Russell, December 7, 1963, 94-95; Johnson and Russell, May 27, 1964, 363-365.

[12] Beschloss, Glory,  Johnson and Dirksen, February 17, 1965, 181-183; Beschloss, Taking Charge, Johnson and McNamara, February 20, 1964, 248; Johnson and McNamara, June 10, 1965, 348-353; Johnson to Fortas, April 30, 1965, 299-300

[13] Beschloss, Taking Charge, Johnson and Bundy, February 6, 1964, 226-7; Johnson and McNamara, June 18, 1964; Beschloss, Glory, Johnson and Rusk, February 2, 1965, 191-192; Johnson and McNamara, March 6, 1965, 213-216.

[14] Beschloss, Taking Charge, Johnson and McNamara, February 20, 1964, 248-250.  Beschloss speculates on how seriously Johnson viewed the three-year framework, since at the time LBJ was mindful of the impending American elections and desired to make the situation in Vietnam seem as manageable as possible.  This is the only reference to a three-year period I have found anyone making. Beschloss, Glory, Johnson and Bundy, February 18, 1965, 183-184.

[15] Beschloss, Taking Charge, Johnson and Russell, March 5, 1964, 363-369; Beschloss, Glory, Johnson and Bundy, September 8, 1964, 35-6; Johnson and Russell, March 6, 1965, 210-213; Lady Bird Johnson Diary, March 7, 1965.

[16] Beschloss, Glory, Johnson and NcNamara, June 10, 1965, 348-353.

[17] Beschloss, Glory, Johnson and Bundy, April 29, 1965, 290;  Johnson and McNamara, June 30, 1965, 376-377.

[18] Beschloss, Glory, Lady Bird Johnson Diary, March 13, 1965, 227 and April 18, 1965, 227.  For examples of the night time calls, see Ibid. White House Situation Room, March 2, 1965, 199-200 and May 20, 1965, 336; Lady Bird Johnson Diary, February 11, 1965, 177.

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