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.
On December 1, 2009, President Obama addressed the nation on the issue of troop levels for the war in Afghanistan, announcing that he was sending around 30,000 more troops Afghanistan, a move that amounts to a significant escalation of the U.S. military presence in the region.
Sending troops into harm's way is arguably the most difficult decision a president confronts. The White House tapes of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon capture remarkably intimate and candid behind-the-scenes views of presidents agonizing over this decision in another war fought in distant lands for complex geo-political reasons.
Johnson had given a speech at UCLA that accused the Vietnamese of engaging in a "deeply dangerous game" in Southeast Asia. Reaction had not been favorable. Internationally, the U.S.S.R. warned the United States against extending the war to North Vietnam. Domestically, Mansfield∇ reiterated his public and private calls for a negotiated settlement leading to the neutralization of Southeast Asia in the face of a widespread popular impression that the United States was preparing to begin a psychological campaign against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). In further fallout from the perceived stiffening of policy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Roger Hilsman announced his resignation. Although the stated reason was a desire to return to academia, the New York Daily News claimed that Hilsman departed under pressure because of his approach to Vietnam policy, a assertion that Hilsman's memoirs confirmed.
In this discussion with McNamara, Johnson seemed to backtrack from both his public and private statements on Vietnam and to reconsider the wisdom of escalation. In the process, he displayed a level of assertiveness on an issue where heretofore he had deferred to his advisers or avoided discussing the broad outlines of policy. The major issue here was Johnson's criticism of the announced withdrawal of 1,000 troops from South Vietnam, a move that many commentators cite as evidence that President Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Southeast Asia.
The immediate reason for the call concerned the shaping of remarks for this night's congressional reception at the White House.
The newspaper baron John Knight was a regular target of Johnson's lobbying efforts, which paid their reward in the fall, when all Knight Ridder papers endorsed Johnson's reelection.
Foreign policy dominated this call after Knight mentioned a column he had written about the situation in Panama, as the Panamanians had made impassioned charges that the United States had engaged in aggression in January and called for the Organization of American States (OAS∇) to investigate under the authority of the Rio Treaty. The two men then turned, at Johnson's request, to an even more challenging situation: Vietnam. Johnson offered Knight his assessment of his current options, none of which was good. This clip picks up at the beginning of the Vietnam discussion
At the end of a long conversation with Senator Richard Russell about the senator's upcoming recuperative holiday in Puerto Rico -- Russell had been hospitalized in February -- Johnson reveals his pessimism about the increasing difficulty of achieving U.S. objectives in Vietnam.
Following the Battle of Ap Bac in early January 1963, in which South Vietnamese troops and U.S. military advisers came under heavy attack, Army Chief of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler led a fact-finding mission to Vietnam to assess the situation. Three days after he returned to the United States, Wheeler briefed the president on the state of the press and the U.S. advisory mission in Vietnam. In the process, he gave President Kennedy a series of recommendations for improving South Vietnam's military capabilities in its war against the Communist-dominated National Liberation Front, or Vietcong.
President Kennedy met with his senior military advisors immediatly preceding their departure on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. The Wheeler Mission, named for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, had been proposed by the Joint Chiefs the previous week following the Battle of Ap Bac, the first major confrontation between South Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. The ensuing Wheeler Report would be the third such review that Kennedy would receive in the span of a month. In late December, Sen. Mike Mansfield∇ (D-MT) had toured Indochina and provided Kennedy with a pessimistic account of progress in the war. The State Department's Roger Hilsman and White House aide Michael Forrestal had also visited South Vietnam and had criticized the military's preference for engaging the Vietcong with conventional tactics.
The extent of the Kennedy administration's advance knowledge or even participation in the November 1, 1963, coup in South Vietnam and assassination of president Ngo Dinh Diem∇ has been a hotly debated political and historical issue for many years. In this conversation, Presidnet Johnson offers his own interpretation of events to Senator Eugene McCarthy
In the days prior to this telephone call, McCarthy had been widely quoted in the press for his criticism of the recent resumption of bombing. In this call, Johnson tried to convince McCarthy to tone down his criticism and had offered a special briefing from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor, reason that, "I thought that if you had the information I had, that you might be assuaged somewhat, and relieved somewhat, and at least, maybe you could suggest a better alternative or something else."
On January 2, 1963, South Vietnamese troops and their U.S. military advisers engaged Vietcong forces in what became known as the Battle of Ap Bac. Three U.S. soldiers died in the skirmish, which received extensive coverage in the American press. Several of those accounts were critical of the South Vietnamese performance, generating searching editorials on the status of the U.S. military advisory effort. Less than a week after the engagement in South Vietnam, President Kennedy invited legislative leaders to the White House to hear a briefing on the campaign from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara∇. During the course of his report, McNamara would propose that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Earle G. Wheeler tour South Vietnam to conduct a more intensive study of the war.
President Johnson and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, discuss the problems in South Vietnam.
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.
In this discussion with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara∇, President Johnson seemed to backtrack from both his public and private statements on Vietnam and to reconsider the wisdom of escalation. In the process, he displayed a level of assertiveness on an issue where heretofore he had deferred to his advisers or avoided discussing the broad outlines of policy. The major issue here was Johnson's criticism of the announced withdrawal of 1,000 troops from South Vietnam, a move that many commentators cite as evidence that President Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Southeast Asia.