Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara: Mr. President--[unclear] had a flash message from CINCPAC saying "Forces are ready and weather forecast favorable for strikes against targets 48 and [4]9." That's Haiphong and Hanoi POL.1 Wednesday after 1100 hours, which means 1100 H hours, which means 11 P.M. tonight. And I'd like go ahead and issue the authority if it's acceptable to you.

President Johnson: All right.

McNamara: I've talked to "Bus" [Earle Wheeler]. He agrees. 

President Johnson: We got--

McNamara: I haven't talked to anybody else.

President Johnson: That comes quicker than I thought. I was hoping we could do it Friday.

McNamara: Well, it does mean . . . No, you're quite right. I told you yesterday--

President Johnson:
Here's what we've got. We've got three things happening. We've got [George] Ball testifying before [William] Fulbright, Thursday.2 And that's bad. We've got [Charles] de Gaulle leaving Thursday, coming back from Moscow and wrapping up Thursday and leaving Friday morning.3 We've got my going into the Midwest on Thursday.4 Those three events are pretty important. I was going to talk to you about them this morning in connection with Thursday. And that's why I'm just thinking out loud now.

McNamara: Yes.

President Johnson: I just I want to review this. I don't think that we're in much position to say anything to these . . .

May I ask you this, Bob: what do you think . . . You're familiar with the historical battleship Maine.5 Now, what happens to our tanker there if we hit the same proposition? What's going to be their response?

McNamara: I'm not--let me say I'm not absolutely sure that there is any tanker there right at the moment. The first one didn't finish unloading within its alloted time, those seven days, as best we can tell. And it was to leave early in order to let the second one in, the first one leaving without finishing unloading and the second one due in today or last night their time. Now, I'm not absolutely positive there's one there today, but if one is there, the chances of hitting it are small. If we do hit it--

President Johnson: Now, that's where I want to get us both--

McNamara: I think it's really serious. I think it's serious.

President Johnson: Where you're sitting there, let's put you now in their position.

Yeah. I think it's serious, Mr. President, but I think that we have told the Russians just as clearly as if we've put it in writing, that we have done everything possible to avoid antagonizing them in this military conflict. And I think while it would be serious and while we would have a very strong protest, I myself doubt that it would lead to any military action. As a matter of fact, the appraisals are that if we put a--if we mine the harbor and stop Soviet ships from coming in there it won't lead to military action. So if we hit the tanker I doubt that it would lead to military action. I, nonetheless, recognize it as a serious action, and I think we must do everything possible to avoid it.

I think it extremely unlikely that we could plan the operation so that weather and no tanker would coincide. As best we can tell, they're having difficulties moving POL out of Haiphong with the result that it takes longer to unload these vessels than it formerly did, and since they're sending three tankers a month in there, and since under best of circumstances it takes about seven days per tanker, you can see that the month's pretty full. And this third tanker, due in this month, apparently has been diverted to Shanghai because they didn't have enough time to unload at Haiphong. So the possibility of getting a coincidence of good weather and no tanker is damn small.

President Johnson: But you do there's a possibility today?

McNamara: Well, that's what the message says. No, I shouldn't say there's a po--I just don't know for sure that at the minute there's a tanker there. I could find out in a few hours, probably. If there isn't a tanker there today it's just sheer coincidence; it's the fact that the first one's moving out and the second one's moving in. So I don't want to give you the wrong impression. Probabilities are [that] there's a tanker there now.

President Johnson: All right, now, that is 11 our time, tonight?

McNamara: That is 11 P.M. tonight, our time.

President Johnson: Do you think of any other things we ought to do?

No, I don't think so. I think we want--

President Johnson: Did you--what was your--what significance do you give [Dean] Rusk's wire yesterday?

McNamara: I didn't put any particular significance on it.

President Johnson: I thought he was more or less trying to firm things up a little bit.

McNamara: Well, I thought that--

President Johnson: Saying to us to go ahead.

McNamara: Well, I thought so too, but I didn't--he didn't have any real doubts in his mind when he left, as best I could tell. He sort of wished we could put the problem behind us, but he didn't know how to do that, and under the circumstances thought we should go ahead, and I thought that was essentially what the wire said.

President Johnson: I think, now, what we've got to analyze very, very carefully--and we have, but before execute--I think we've got to say, "Do we get enough out of this for the price we're paying?"

McNamara: Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson: Now, you can--the [Vance] Hartke's are all, they're starting their campaign tomorrow on the Senate floor, they're speaking.

    A television can be heard in the background.

McNamara: Yeah. Well, [Walter] Lippmann's got an article this morning in the paper, same thing, on exactly that point.6 And I think the answer is that this is just a minor incident in the war. And it's almost an incident that you can't avoid taking. I don't see how you can go on fighting out there, Mr. President, without doing this today, to be absolutely frank with you. I don't think you can keep the morale of  your troops up. I don't think you can keep the morale of the people in the country who support you up without doing this. We're at about that point.

Now, in addition to that, I myself believe it has military value, although I don't, for the minute, put the weight on it the [Joint] Chiefs [of Staff] do. But I don't put the cost on it that some in State do. I don't put the cost on it that George Ball does, for example. I don't believe any Soviet experts, including Tommy [Llewellyn] Thompson, put the cost on it that George Ball does.

President Johnson:
What do you think we ought to do now with State?

McNamara: Well, assuming you wanted to do this, I'd be inclined to send out the execute order. I don't like to do these on a half-assed basis, and they do need some time to be absolutely sure that they have authority to do it so they take all the necessary precautions and preparations for the mission. So I'd send out the execute order now, if you want to do it. If later in the day you want to cancel, you can always cancel. But it's much easier to send execute now and cancel later than it is to defer a decision and then late in the day send out an execute. So I'd send out the execute now, and then maybe at noontime or even later in the afternoon, talk to George Ball.

But the only thing that needs to be done, I think, that hasn't really been done thoroughly, is to go over our plans for announcing this after it's done. I think that needs further work, and I'd like to get George and Walt [Rostow] and myself, personally, go into that late in the day.

President Johnson:
Yes, I thought about that yesterday and thought we ought to spend some of the time today at lunch. And I think in the light of the editorial this morning that you probably ought to try to see two or three members of that board at, here at the [Washington] Post, maybe [Ben] Bradlee and Kay [Graham]--

McNamara: Yeah. [J.R.] Wiggins.

President Johnson: --and Wiggins.7

McNamara: Yeah.

President Johnson: Those three people.

McNamara: Yeah.

President Johnson:
Because it's a pretty good editorial this morning.

Yeah. Yeah.

President Johnson: Yes, Bob, I would go ahead with this suggestion you make. Then we'll talk before the luncheon.

McNamara: Yeah, then you feel free to cancel later in the day. And we can always do that.

President Johnson:
What I want you to carefully weigh is . . . you gave, just now, when you're talking about your troops and things of that kind, I wish you'd just build two columns for us to let us just look at and think carefully, because we might have a lot of problems in the morning we don't have tonight.

McNamara: Yeah, you're right. You're right.

President Johnson:
We might have them in Berlin. We might have them in lots of places.

McNamara: Yeah.

President Johnson: Now, what is going to flow from this? We know that we'll get some temporary approval, but if things go bad that won't last very long.


President Johnson:
And what do we get out of it, really?


President Johnson:
Things are going reasonably well in the South [Vietnam], aren't they?

 Yes, I think so.

President Johnson:
What are these 6,000 men doing? They're trying to locate the enemy, I see, and they've run them into caves.8


President Johnson: Do you know anything about that?

McNamara: Yeah, and they've--but it's a small--it's just so typical, Mr. President. It's a relatively small enemy force. We think we're taking a heavy toll of them, but it just scares me to see what we're doing there with taking 6,000 U.S. soldiers with God knows how many airplanes and helicopters and firepower and going after a bunch of half-starved beggars in a sm[all]--2,000 at most, and probably less than that. And this is what's going on in the South. And the great danger--and it's not a certainty, but it's a danger we need to look at, is that that they can keep that up almost indefinitely.

President Johnson: Well, I'd say with their manpower resources they have, they can.

McNamara: Yeah, that's the point. The only thing that'll prevent it, Mr. President, is their morale breaking. And if we hurt them enough it isn't so much that they don't have more men as it is that they can't get the men to fight because the men know that once they get assigned to that task their chances of living are small. And I, myself, believe that's the only chance we have of winning this thing. And that's one reason I'm in favor of this [targeting of] POL, because there's no question but what the troops in the South, the VC [Vietcong] and North Vietnamese troops in the South ultimately become aware of what's going on in the North. We see this through the interrogation of the prisoner reports. I've been trying to watch those carefully to see what comes through those. And they know that we're bombing in the North. Now, they know we haven't destroyed the place, so that in a sense our bombing isn't fully effective, but they also know that nobody is protecting North Vietnam, and we just have a free reign. And when we bomb this POL, ultimately, that will become known to the North Vietnamese soldiers and the Vietcong in the South. And this is just one more foundation brick that's knocked away from their support. And when they see they're getting killed in such high rates in the South and they see that supplies are less likely to come down from the North, I think it will just hurt their morale a little bit more. And to me that's the only way to win, because we're not killing enough of them to make it impossible for the North to continue to fight. But we are killing enough to destroy the morale of those people down there if they think this is going to have to go on forever.

President Johnson: All right. Go ahead, Bob.

McNamara: Thanks.

  • 1. The acronym POL stands for petroleum, oil, lubricants, all essential for the operating of modern military equipment. In targeting POL, American military planners hoped to diminish not only the ability of the North Vietnamese to use advanced weaponry but also to impede transport and supply lines.
  • 2. J. William Fulbright was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ball had expressed serious misgivings about the conduct of the war. For a newspaper report on Ball's testimony, see Max Frankel, "Ball Says 'Weakening Morale' in North Vietnam Affected Timing of Raids," New York Times, 1 July 1966, p.11.
  • 3. French President Charles de Gaulle was part-way through a tour of the Soviet bloc that culminated in a visit to Moscow. In addition to discussing various bilateral issues, the French and Soviets called for an end to the Vietnam War on the basis of the 1954 Geneva agreements. Henry Tanner, "Paris and Moscow Plan to Consult on Regular Basis," New York Times, 29 June 1966, p.1.
  • 4. Johnson was scheduled to visit Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa.
  • 5. On 15 February 1898, the U.S.S. Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, sparking the Spanish-American War.
  • 6. Walter Lippmann, "Bigger Bombing," Washington Post, 28 June 1966, p.A21.
  • 7. That morning's Washington Post included an editorial suggesting that the North Vietnamese were not taking negotiations seriously. The Post's editors wrote: "In the absence of evidenced Communist willingness to negotiate or reduce the scope of the war, about all that can be done is to continue to make the aggression as costly as possible. This may or may not mean expanded bombing." Calling for the United States to demonstrate "steadfastness," the editors concluded that "The Communists--and our allies and friends in Asia as well--ought to understand that this country will stick it out as long as necessary to halt the attempted conquest by force and terror." "Talking with Hanoi," Washington Post, 28 June 1966, p.A20. Benjamin C. Bradlee was Managing Editor of the Washington Post; James Russell "J.R." Wiggins was Editor and Executive Vice President of the Washington Post Company; and Katharine "Kay" Graham was President of the Washington Post Company.
  • 8. In one of the largest military operations to that point in the war, a force of about 6,000 U.S. troops were sweeping the coastal hills of South Vietnam's central highlands in an effort to root out  three battalions of North Vietnam troops. "6000 Hunt for Hanoi Battalions," Washington Post, 28 June 1966, p.A1.

Original tape courtesy of LBJ Library. This transcript is a working draft. Please let us know if you find important errors.