The last massive demonstration in Washington, DC, against the Vietnam War took place in May of 1971. The "Mayday Tribe" promised to disrupt the operation of the government by stopping traffic and thus preventing federal employees from getting to work. Police arrested literally thousands of people in dragnets that captured demonstrators and bystanders alike, detaining many in a football field. The charges against many were thrown out as illegal and unconstitutional, but Nixon was pleased. A few days later he had his press secretary tell reporters that Washington would handle similar protests in a similar way. In this May 5, 1971, conversation, Nixon discusses public reaction with House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford∇ (R-Michigan), who would succeed Nixon as president, and Attorney General John Mitchell∇.
During the course of this three minute phone call at 9:52 PM, the Rev. Billy Graham∇ congratulates President Nixon on his speech to the nation and alerts the President to an upcoming op-ed of his own to appear in the New York Times. Graham lays the blame for Vietnam at the feet of President John F. Kennedy and Kennedy's decision to support the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem∇.
In this segment, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara offers President Johnson a mixed review of the military situation in Vietnam. He also recounts for Johnson an unflattering portrait of the South Vietnamese government, provided by Dr. Henry A. Kissinger∇, which appeared that morning in the Washington Post.
This exchange occurred later in the same conversation in which LBJ had read to Eisenhower the statement trying to defuse press reports of a difference of opinion on Vietnam between Johnson and Eisenhower. Sympathizing with Johnson's unfavorable position regarding the war in Vietnam, Eisenhower reassured Johnson that criticism was an inevitable part of foreign policy.
In this conversation, President Johnson speaks with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower about the nature of America's commitment to Southeast Asia. Expressing his support for Johnson, Eisenhower points out that current conditions in Vietnam differ widely from those of 1955, necessitating an expanded U.S. military presence.
In this morning telephone conversation with the secretary of defense, Johnson expresses dismay at recent proposals, prepared by his most senior civilian officials, for U.S. action in Vietnam. Speaking with Secretary McNamara about various options open to the administration, Johnson reflects on the August 1964 Tonkin∇ Gulf Resolution and its implications for an expanded American military commitment.
After some initial pleasantries, President Johnson discusses a bombing operation in Vietnam with House minority leader Gerald R. Ford∇, who takes the opportunity to ask Johnson about the use of American ground troops in the war.
That morning's Washington Post carried a front page story of several members of Congress critical of the Johnson administration's campaign to bomb the North Vietnamese supply lines in Laos. Interviewed for the radio and television program "Issues and Answers" (ABC), the new House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford∇ (R-MI) (who had recently replaced Charles Halleck), criticized the way in which the administration informed Congress of the Laos expansion as coming in a "piecemeal" fashion. "Now that it has been disclosed piecemeal," Ford said, "I think that the Administration has a responsibility to open up, have some discussion about it, perhaps hold some hearings in the House or Senate in order that we are all better informed as to what our course, what our policies are."
Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, was also critical, accusing the administration of following a "foreign policy of concealment in Southeast Asia." Morse claimed that neither he nor other Americans "know what the Administration is doing in Asia, to what it has committed us, what its objectives are, and how much it is risking to achieve them."
["U.S. Bombing in Laos Stirs Debate," Washington Post, January 19, 1965, p.A1.]
Though Johnson awoke on May 27 to the news that Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had died of a heart attack, the bulk of his day would be dominated by the problems of Southeast Asia.
Just prior to 11 a.m., the President placed a call to his friend, mentor, and sometime antagonist, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. In this conversation, Johnson reveals his deeply conflicted thinking on Vietnam, a profound sense of anxiety absent from his public remarks on the subject. The exchange offers an intimate and revealing portrait of Johnson weighing perhaps the most difficult decision he ever had to make.
This excerpt from a lengthy conversation between President Johnson and Georgia Senator Richard Russell highlights the serious early concerns about Vietnam prevalent among Johnson and his close advisers. Russell, a longtime Johnson friend and mentor, expressed grave doubts about U.S. involvement, at one point commenting that "it isn't important a damn bit" in response to an LBJ query about the relevance of Vietnam for American interests. In this passage, Russell helped Johnson assess French proposals for regional neutralization in Southeast Asia (supported by Senator Mike Mansfield∇), as well as the significance of tensions between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Russell also took note of Johnson's reference to Texas hero Ben Milam. A soldier and trader from Kentucky, Ben Milam was a leader of the Texas independence movement in the 1830s. In December 1835, when some leaders of the rebel Texas forces wanted
to delay a planned attack on a Mexican army camped at San Antonio until after the winter, Milam disagreed. Instead, he urged other members of the Texas volunteers to join him in a surprise attack: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” The attack succeeded, but as Russell reminded Johnson later in the conversation, Milam was killed by a sniper’s bullet. With this reminder of Milam’s personal fate, Russell implicitly chided Johnson for his earlier bravado in discussing Mansfield’s support of neutralization.
In this conversation snippet, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara responds to the President's question about a possible replacement for Henry Cabot Lodge∇ as ambassador to South Vietnam. Due to his wife's declining health, Lodge was hinting at his desire to leave his post in Saigon. He departed before the end of the month. Against evident skepticism from Johsnon, McNamara touted Gen. William C. Westmoreland as Lodge's replacement. Johnson largely accepted McNamara's ringing endorsement.
In the wake of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara∇'s recent trip to South Vietnam, Johnson had pressed him to prepare a speech on the subject, as several members of Congress were beginning to suggest that the administration consider a sharp revision of its policy there. Senators Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morese, in particular, had registered pointed criticisms of the nation's Vietnam policy. With nagging questions regarding the principal rationale for U.S. intervention in Indochina and the oddly detached position of other world powers in the ongoing Vietnamese conflict, Johnson urged his defense secretary to provide clarification and, if there was one to be found, a workable defense of the nation's policy.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara passed away on July 6, 2009. He was one of the most frequently recorded participants in the Kennedy and Johnson tapes. Of particular note are discussions recorded during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. Below is a small sampling of the hundreds of recorded conversations that involved or discussed McNamara.
The Nixon Library's June 23, 2009, release of 150 hours of Nixon tapes from January 1973 shed light on a little-known chapter in the history of the Vietnam War. That month, Nixon was desperate to get South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu's agreement to a settlement that National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger∇ had negotiated with North Vietnam. Thieu thought Nixon's settlement terms would lead to a Communist military victory, an assessment Nixon and Kissinger privately shared.
The North Vietnamese accepted Nixon's terms in October 1972, but South Vietnam resisted until January 1973. What made the difference then? The threat of a cutoff in aid to South Vietnam spearheaded by Nixon's conservative congressional supporters.
While Kissinger’s "telcons" (transcripts of the adviser's phone calls made by secretaries) previously showed how Nixon orchestrated the threat through two of his prominent Senate supporters on the war, Barry M. Goldwater∇, R-Arizona, and John C. Stennis, D-Mississippi, the telcons left out some revealing statements, such as this one that Nixon made to Kissinger on Inauguration Day 1973: "I don't know whether the threat goes too far or not, but I'd do any damn thing, that is, or to cut off his [Thieu’s] head if necessary."