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280. Notes of the Leadership Meeting, White House1

President: I want to counsel with you. It is dangerous to have the leaders come here. The reporters see they are coming and they go back and report all over the Hill. Some of our boys are floating around in the water. The facts we would like to present to you are to be held in the closest confidence and are to be kept in this room until announced.

Halleck: I did not tell a damn person.

President: I know no one did, but it is on both tickers anyway. We have to be very careful. Please don’t discuss what goes on in this room. I have asked Secretary McNamara to brief you and it would be unjustifiable to refer to it at all.

McNamara: The first indication we had of another attack on the destroyers, the Maddox and Turner Joy, was received at 7:30 A.M. today.

President: I asked the Secretary of State to give us a report on the political situation.

Rusk: For months and months we have been trying to get to them a signal, etc. This was a serious decision to attack our vessels on the high seas. It was planned to take place forty to sixty miles away from port on the high seas. We should not look on anything as accidental and they look for us to come back in a relevant fashion. At the source of the trouble we would run the great risk that they would misinterpret what the positions are in South East Asia. We must make it quite clear that we are resolved not to overlook the threat that is posed to our forces. We would propose to call for the Security Council and also report to our Allies.

President: The Security Council of the United Nations.

Rusk: We would make it clear as we can that we are not going to run out of South East Asia, but that we have no national ambitions nor either in a war to the north. They made the choice themselves. They will have some doubts there if it comes to choice, but if we go back in a limited fashion, there would still be a showing that we want to limit the escalation. We have not had time to consult our Allies.

President: I would like to ask Mr. McCone to give us his estimate of enemy action—what their responses would be.

[Page 616]

Russell: Mr. McCone, I notice you did not mention the submarine. Does anybody know what kind of anti-submarine warfare there is in that area?

McCone: We discussed that today. Our forces there have ample forces to take care of it. We expect to move close to the China Seas.

McNamara: They can be there before any submarines can. The carriers can take of themselves.

President: We do not seriously anticipate that.

Russell: It would more likely be through the air.

Rusk: They can disguise their air power by pretending they are Viet Namese.

Russell: The submarine can come nearer disguising itself.

Hickenlooper. Do I understand the reasoning behind your analysis on one phase is that if we do not do something here then the Communist forces will be in a position to deal from strength in any proposed settlement? If we do react, it may put us in a position to deal from strength.

Russell: That is part of the problem. It is possible we would be giving up the right to sail through the Gulf. If we did that, psychologically our prestige possibly would be seriously affected in Hanoi and other places. They might come to the wrong conclusion about what we are willing to do, which would be much more serious.

Hickenlooper: They attacked and we will deal from here on out and we are trying to counteract.

Rusk: We are trying to get across two points: (1) leave your neighbors alone and (2) If you don’t, we will have to get busy.

Hickenlooper: May I ask if there is a comparison between Cuba and this? Cuba was a bold and dangerous operation as far as Washington is concerned. No one knows what would have happened had we not reacted. Is it possible this follows the same route? If we don’t react, what kind of position does it put us in with the North Viet Namese?

Rusk: What the Russians learned in Cuba could have an influence on the entire world.

Speaker: There is no question but what it is an act of war-an attack on American vessels. Deliberate from our angle. In the lives of Nations you must take calculated risks. If we don’t take some action, what would flow from it? Inaction may be more important than action.

Bolton: Ammunition available to the ship was not powerful enough to do the job.

McNamara: We have the most modern ammunition available anywhere.

Saltonstall: The Secretary said they are going to protest to the Security Council tomorrow.

Rusk: I will get the notes for you on this issue.

[Page 617]

Saltonstall: If you ask for action and did not get. it, wouldn’t you be in a weak position?

Rusk: Our preliminary thought is that we are in a stronger position to make it if we do not ask the Security Council.

Aiken: Get Mr. McCone to give us a report on the Chinese.

McNamara: I do not think they will join in any physical reaction and I do not think that there will be any other reaction.

Halleck: Could they think that they could withdraw from the Bay to ease tension?

President: Maybe you would want to consider that General Taylor follow the instrument. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone over it all. General Wheeler is here. I would like for him to report on the recommendations of General Taylor in Viet Nam. (General Wheeler then explained the recommendations.)

Rusk: We do expect to be in contact with the co-chairmen of the 1954 settlement. We want to get the main hand in disengagement and try to keep it under control.

Russell: Are you sure you have enough stuff to do this job? We don’t want to do it half way.

McNamara: We have two carriers and definitely enough power to do the job. We do propose to use bombers.

Russell: You will have to make more than one strike. How many sorties do we have planned?

McNamara: We have issued orders for only a single night’s action. These orders are already in being.

Russell: Is it daytime over there?

McNamara: Our attacks will be in daylight hours.

Russell: I hope you will keep going until they get the last one of them. We had a Formosan type resolution in the Middle East. It was taken before the positive action—or subsequent to the positive action.

President: I think they were taken before this debate was critical of Korea. Felt they would come and see the seriousness of the situation. If I recall, ____2 speech would have said he had supported it.

Halleck: That is tantamount to a declaration of war.

Speaker: I think the fleet was pretty well in preparation. All plans were made.

Hickenlooper: It seems to me there should be no desire to have a confrontation. There should be no doubt as to whether the President should have the right to order the Armed Forces into action. Should not have to quarrel for weeks as to whether he had the authority or not. It is my own personal feeling that it is up to the President to [Page 618]prepare the kind and type of resolution he believes would be proper. It is up to Congress to say whether they will pass it or not. I have no doubt in my mind that concrete action would be taken.

President: I had that feeling but felt I wanted the advice of each of you and wanted to consult with you. We felt we should move with the action recommended by the Joint Chiefs, but I wanted to get the Congressional concurrence. I think it would be very damaging to ask for it and not get it.

(Rusk then discussed Laos and Cambodia)

Russell: Does that include Burma?

Rusk: We considered specifying certain countries but felt we could not do this without getting into problems.

Saltonstall: The only comment I have is this: How far does it go and where does it go from there.

President: We thought there were two decisions to make after we were attacked yesterday and today and nine torpedoes were shot at our destroyers 40 miles on the high seas. We had to answer that attack. There are four bases. There have been many discussions and recommendations by people in the country that we go into the northern area and not allow them to murder us from bases of safety. These boats came from these bases and have been shooting at American ships. I think I know what the reaction would be if we tucked our tails. I thought I should get the Security Council and get the Leadership and after the orders are executed I would plan to make a statement something like this. (The President then read the proposed statement.)3

Saltonstall: Three times in that little statement you use the word “limited.” Why not use the word “determined” and let the limitations speak for themselves. If you will use the “limited” maybe we won’t go any further. Turned for the time being.

President: That is why we use it. We want them to know we are not going to take it lying down, but we are not going to destroy their cities. We hope we can prepare them for the course we will follow.

Saltonstall: I agree with what you are doing. If you put it in, someone will pick it up.

Bolton: I would do it. Keep them a little bit in the dark on what we are doing.

Rusk: I think there is some advantage in not leaving it in but that we are using this as a pretext for a larger war. With the time factors involved I have not had a chance to discuss this with all the governments that will have to be consulted. We can cut down the emphasis.

[Page 619]

Hickenlooper: I agree that the word limited should not be used three times. I wonder if the connotation is that we are limited at this time.

President: We say our response for the moment will be limited. I suppose if you look at the paragraph phrase it could include Burma, but we don’t consider Burma would be involved.

Humphrey: Better get a little task force to put the fine points to it.

Saltonstall: Just ask the Secretary to show me that paragraph again. Doesn’t ask any other Nations to join us at all. We would have to go alone. Other Nations could say-go to it.

Rusk: We can’t tie ourselves to what they could do.

Halleck: We thought you ought to consider the words and phrases.

President: We will probably make some changes in it. Maybe we will say “desirable” action. I don’t ask you to draft the message or any bill we want. We have taken the resolutions you have had in the past. I don’t think any resolution is necessary, but I think it is a lot better to have it in the light of what we did in Korea.

Speaker: I think Congress has a responsibility and should show a united front to the world.

Halleck: The President knows there is no partisanship among us. Are we getting fouled up here on something we could put off? There was never any hesitation when we had the deal about Cuba. I was the first to speak up and say-Mr. President, count me in.

President: I would hope we could pretty well work out a resolution which is good with a minimum of doctoring. I wanted to see if you felt it was the wise thing to do.

Hickenlooper: I think the resolution is appropriate and proper, but I doubt you should mention the resolution in your remarks this evening.

President: I did not plan to mention it tonight.

Fulbright: Are they expected to urge these provocations?

Rusk: Maybe you have seen some of the broadcasts. They are highly inaccurate. They have not talked about what did happen but what did not happen. Actions of that sort are a low level minimum we have to take seriously.

Fulbright: What bases do you plan to destroy—Haiphong?

McNamara: No, we will not destroy any in the Haiphong area.

Aiken: You spoke of airplanes. Do you conclude they are airplanes? Viet Nam has no combat aircraft. Communist China will move combat aircraft in shortly.

Russell: There are some Chinese here [there?]—perhaps in the nearby area.

McCone: There are four bases in North Viet Nam.

[Page 620]

Russell: Aren’t there some in ____4 Island?

McNamara: Two of them.

Mansfield: When the call came I looked at the ticker and I suppose you want us to be frank. I don’t know how much good it will do. I would point out as far as the Island of Kinon is concerned, it is fortified. There is a sharp question between this and Cuba, Russia, and the United States. In this instance, Russia is remote. China is not involved directly. May be getting all involved with a minor third rate state. Then what is to come in response, if not Korea for China? The Communists won’t be faced down. A lot of lives to mow them down.

President: Do you give me a formula?

Mansfield: Two, make them isolated acts of terror. Three, the United Nations, four, call on 54 countries to consider it a matter of urgency.

Rusk: Principal problem, however, is that China has not committed itself. It would be wonderful if she could get them to pull away. Cuba is quite different in a number of respects. If we concentrate in a limited fashion on the source of the attack, it gives the other side a chance to pull away.

Mansfield: In North Viet Nam there are jet airfields. In addition, have you considered actions that might happen in Formosa.

Russell: What purpose do we have for drawing China into this? I am sure you will give some thought to it. If we have to fight them, we will whip them. But I would like to know [if?] you have come to some assumption.

Rusk: Some Chinese were planning to come in in any event. The general reaction to mounting pressures and to impress the seriousness of their whole attitude.

Fulbright: The point the Secretary has made is that the provocation is important. It could go on for several days. I think you ought to leave it in for the moment.

Dirksen: If I had it to do I would put our references to the word “limited” in deep freeze. It connotes we would be like sitting ducks. We should make it clear we would meet every enemy threat. I have one other observation—at 3 P.M., three of the most responsible reporters say we got word out of the Pentagon. They could tell me six particular shots were involved. They knew much more about it than I did. Maybe there is some whispering going on.

McNamara: I heard the same story and have some idea of where it came from. I am sure you understand what we told you last night5 has to be kept [secret?] because the North Viet Namese could use the boats and their defenses could be alerted.

[Page 621]

Halleck: If we are going to have it, it has to be overwhelming. (He indicated a desire to hear from the Speaker and the Majority Leader.)

President: I have told you what I want from you.

Fulbright: I will support it.

Mansfield: It will go before the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Saltonstall: I hope you make the United Nations a little more effective.

Russell: I share that hope.

Halleck: I think it will pass overwhelmingly as far as I am concerned. I have made my position here clear in all cases.

Aiken: By the time you send it up there won’t be anything for us to do but support you.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Meeting Notes File, August 4, 1964. No classification marking. Drafted by Walter Jenkins of the President’s Staff. Attached to the source text were two notes dated August 24 and 25 concerning its drafting. One of these reads: “Put that on my desk—I’ll need it every day. LBJ:JRJ 8/27/67.” In addition to the participants, Senator Kuchel and Representatives Vinson and Morgan were present. A 3–1/2–page summary of the meeting is ibid.
  2. As on the source text.
  3. Not found. For text of the statement as delivered at 11:36 p.m., see Document 286.
  4. As on the source text.
  5. Regarding the briefings by Rusk and McNamara on August 3, see Document 269.