LBJ’s Decision to Commit Troops to Vietnam in 1965
Telephone conversations between President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara (1)
Conversation of 21 June 1965 (12:15 p.m.)
Johnson: I think that in time it’s going to be like the Yale
professor (2) said—that it’s going to be difficult for us to very long
prosecute effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions
that we have here, particularly the potential divisions. And it’s really
had me concerned for a month, and I’m very depressed about it ‘cause I
see no program from either [the Department of] Defense or State that gives
me much hope of doing anything except just prayin’ and gasping to hold
on during the monsoon [season] and hope they’ll quit. I don’t believe
they ever goin’ to quit. I don’t see how, that we have any way of
either a plan for victory militarily or diplomatically. And I think
that’s something that you and Dean [Rusk, the Secretary of State] got to
sit down and try to see if there’s any people that we have in those departments
that can give us any program or plan or hope; or if not, we got to see
if we have you go out there or somebody else go out there and take one
good look at it and say to these new people, “Now, you’ve changed your
government about the last time and this is it.” Call the Buddhists
and the Catholics and the generals and everybody together and say, “We’re
going to do our best.” And be sure they’re willing to let new troops
come in and be sure they’re not gonna resent us. “If not, why ya’ll
can run over us and have a government of your own choosing. But we
just can’t take these changes all the time.” That’s the Russell plan
(3) Russell thinks we ought to take one of these changes [in
the South Vietnamese government] to get out of there. I don’t think
we can get out of there with our treaty like it is and with what all we’ve
said. And I think it would just lose us face in the world, and I
shudder to think what all of ‘em would say.
Conversation of 14 July 1965 (6:15 p.m.)
Johnson: We know ourselves, in our own conscience, that
when we asked for this [Tonkin Gulf] resolution we had no intention of
committin’ this many ground troops.
Johnson: And we’re doing so now and we know it’s goin’ to be
bad, and the question is do we just want to do it out on a limb by ourselves.
I don’t know whether those men have ever thought, in making their calculations,
(1) whether we can win with the kind of training we have and the kind of
power, and (2) I don’t know whether they’ve taken into their calculations
whether we can have a united support here at home.
McNamara: I think, Mr. President, that, two thoughts on it: first,
if we do go as far as my paper suggested—sending numbers of men out there—we
ought to call up [the military] reserves. You have authority to do
that without additional legislation, but I doubt that you would want to
use it. Almost surely, if we called up reserves, you would want to
go to the Congress to get additional authority. This would be a vehicle
for drawing together support. Now, you’d say, “Well, yes, but it
also might lead to extended debate and divisive statements.” I think
we could avoid that. I really think if we were to go to the Clarks
and McGoverns and the Churches (4) and say to them, “Now, this is our situation:
We cannot win with our existing commitment. We must increase it if
we are going to win in this limited term we define, this limited way we
define ‘win.’ It requires additional troops. Along with that
approach, we are embarking upon or continuing this political initiative
to probe for a willingness [in Hanoi] to negotiate a reasonable settlement
here. And we ask your support under these circumstances.” I
think you’d get it from them under those circumstances. And that’s
a vehicle by which you both get the authority to call up the reserves and
also tie them into the whole program.
Johnson: Well, that makes sense.
McNamara: I don’t know that you want to go that far.
And I’m not pressing you to. It’s my judgment you should. But
my judgment may be in error here. In any event, in these papers that
you have we did try to show you the whole spectrum of thought amongst us.
Johnson: Does Rusk generally agree with you?
McNamara: Yes. I think he would say “yes.”
He very definitely does. He’s a hard-liner on this in the sense that
he doesn’t want to give up South Vietnam under any circumstances, even
if it means going to general war. Now, he doesn’t think we ought
to go to general war; he thinks we ought to try to avoid it. But
if that’s what’s required to hold South Vietnam, he would go to general
(1) From a tape copy of the original, secretly recorded conversations,
which were declassified in April 1995 by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library,
(2) Staunton Lynd, a historian at Yale University who opposed the war.
(3) Richard Russell, Democratic senator from Georgia, influential conservative
chair of the armed forces committee, and former Johnson mentor in the Senate.
He counseled Johnson against committing U.S. forces to a ground war in
(4) These were Democratic senators doubtful about sending more troops