30. Notes of President Johnson’s Meeting With Congressional Leaders1
The President opened the conference with Congressional leaders by explaining why it had been called. He said that at the very beginning of the Congressional session he wanted to develop procedures which would make it possible for the Administration to think and plan with Congressional leaders. He was ready to be frank and candid in all matters but to do so the discussions must not get into the public domain. Real damage is done to the national interest when information such as that which will be given during the course of the morning meeting, gets into the newspapers. The objective is to make possible an examination of our foreign policy and our defense structure by the Congressional leaders of both parties who are stewards of these policies. We do not separate Democrats and Republicans in Vietnam. He wanted to work with the legislative leaders in understanding, if not agreement, on both sides of the House and Senate. During the Eisenhower Administration the system of consulting Congressional leaders was the best he had ever known. The meetings were not many, perhaps 4 or 5, but President Eisenhower, who had been blunt and frank with Congressional leaders, had asked for their judgments on important problems.
The President said the Chairmen of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee had not been invited to this morning’s meeting because he wished to limit this conference to very few persons. At a later date it will be possible to enlarge the number. Secretary Rusk had already briefed the Congressional committees on foreign policy. Secretary McNamara would be going to the Hill later to spell out our defense posture, part of which had already been made public in the Defense message sent to Congress.
The President said he was available for personal meetings with individual legislative leaders at any time.[Page 64]
Turning to substantive matters, the President said that since the last meeting with Congressional leaders in October2 the Administration had studied the situation in Vietnam intensively. He spoke of his conference with Ambassador Taylor in December.3 Our worst problem continues to be Vietnam which he wrestles with all the time, day and night. The objective today is to put the problem out on the table for all those present. Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara would go into the details later but the basic fact is that we need to have in Saigon a stable government as a base for further actions.
[Here follow comments about various European matters, the Congo situation, relations with Egypt and Indonesia, and Canadian Prime Minister Pearson’s recent visit to the United States.]
Returning to the problem of Vietnam, the President said that he would ask Secretary McNamara to spell out the details of the increased military activity we are carrying on in Southeast Asia but first he wished to discuss the question of U.S. dependents in South Vietnam. He expressed concern that the Viet Cong might attack U.S. citizens in Saigon in the event we carry out air strikes in North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese might react by dropping bombs on Saigon. General Taylor and other U.S. military and civilian officials in South Vietnam are opposed to bringing home our dependents, however, he had thought we should do so for over 14 months.
The President said that because he does not have a “Lincoln Cabinet,” (i.e., one which votes for an action unanimously, only to have the President decide against the action) the decision as to whether to withdraw dependents is still being explored. The President said he was concerned that the communists might take some irrational action which would result in the loss of many American women and children. If that happened, the American people would hold him responsible for not having ordered the dependents returned home earlier.
The President said he believed our relations with other nations should be dealt with on a non-political basis. President Kennedy was fortunate to have had in the Congress Republicans who supported his foreign policy. President Truman had Senator Vandenberg. The Administration has no mortgage on patriotism. The Republicans have ideas we want to know about. Republicans should be in on foreign policy take-offs rather than merely at the time of crash landings. The President said that the responsibility for foreign policy decisions was his but he wanted the views of all. These views would be studied and given full [Page 65]consideration. All of us want to do the right thing in respect to foreign policy and our defense posture. Never in recent history has there been greater willingness to consider these two subjects from the point of view of the national interest rather than party politics.
The President praised CIA Director McCone, adding that he was keeping the Director from leaving government. He praised Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara, noting that the latter had lost over $4 million as a result of his having left industry to run the Department of Defense.
The President said his objective is to try to unite the United States so that in the eyes of the world it is a united country. In his relations with other nations, his objective is to seek to avoid a nuclear holocaust while ensuring the defense of the nation. He appealed to those present to give him their attention, the benefit of their wisdom and their judgment.
The President then asked Secretary Rusk to go into greater detail on major foreign policy problems.
Secretary Rusk said our greatest problem in South Vietnam is political instability. Our over-riding objective is to achieve political unity there. The President interrupted to point out that the leaders of allied and friendly states are hesitant to send aid to South Vietnam because of the political instability there. They fear that they might appear foolish if, after they send aid, the country goes to pieces politically.
Secretary Rusk continued by saying that Hanoi believes that if it can hold on a little longer it can win South Vietnam for communism because political instability is increasing. The Secretary spelled out the details of the current compromise between the South Vietnamese civilians and the military leaders which has resulted in the formation of a new cabinet. The Secretary made clear that we are keeping the political lines open so that, if there is any interest on the other side, a settlement based on either the 1954 or the 1962 agreement can be negotiated. If the communists will not negotiate with us on a return to the earlier agreements, we are in for a very difficult time in Southeast Asia.
Referring to Laos, Secretary Rusk said that that country provided a thermometer registering what is politically possible in Southeast Asia. Current discussions among the three factions in Laos may possibly lead to a 14-nation conference. If we could settle the difficulties in Laos on the basis of the 1962 agreements, the effect in South Vietnam would be beneficial to us.
[Here follows discussion of Indonesia, West New Guinea, the Congo, Burundi, the Sudan, the Middle East, Germany, and the Alliance for Progress.]
The President then asked Secretary McNamara to discuss the military side of the Vietnamese problem.[Page 66]
Secretary McNamara began by stating that our estimates of Viet Cong strength in South Vietnam were up. In addition, we have evidence that the number of guerrillas being infiltrated from North Vietnam to South Vietnam has increased substantially. From 1959 to date, we estimate that between 19,000 and 34,000 North Vietnamese have crossed into South Vietnam to take part in guerrilla activity below the 17th parallel. The current annual rate of those infiltrating to South Vietnam may be in the neighborhood of 10,000.
At the same time that the Viet Cong strength is increasing, the military strength of South Vietnam is also rising. This is because the number of South Vietnamese recruits has increased even though the number of desertions remains high. Hopefully the South Vietnamese forces will be increased by 87,000 men in 1965.
In reply to a question by Senator Saltonstall, Secretary McNamara said that those who desert from the South Vietnamese army do not join the Viet Cong but simply go back home.
Senator Dirksen, addressing the President, said that a reliable correspondent, Mr. Keyes Beech, Correspondent of the Chicago Daily News, had made certain statements about Vietnam. The President interrupted to challenge Senator Dirksen’s description of Mr. Beech as a reliable correspondent. The President said Mr. Beech had reported last December that General Taylor was returning to Washington threatening to resign unless the President ordered attacks on North Vietnam. The President said General Taylor had flatly denied any such intention and had telephoned the White House from Honolulu to explain that Beech’s report was entirely without foundation.
Secretary McNamara resumed his presentation by saying that in 1964, 17,000 Viet Cong and 7,500 South Vietnamese were killed in the fighting. A total of 245 U.S. personnel had been killed in South Vietnam since 1954.
Senator Saltonstall asked why there was such a disparity between Viet Cong forces and the much larger South Vietnamese forces. Secretary McNamara replied that on the basis of extensive experience we had concluded that a numerical advantage of 10 to 1 is required to win a guerrilla war. We need currently more South Vietnamese troops but not more U.S. forces.
The President said we have decided that more U.S. forces are not needed in South Vietnam short of a decision to go to full-scale war. The ratio is now approximately 5 South Vietnamese to 1 Viet Cong. The war must be fought by the South Vietnamese. We cannot control everything that they do and we have to count on their fighting their war.
Senator Long asked why we do not push into North Vietnam in an attempt to overcome the existing disparity between the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces.[Page 67]
The President intervened to say that he had called the leaders together today not to discuss all the details of our programs but to inform them in general and to work out procedures under which such meetings could take place every few weeks. He again cautioned against leaking to the press information about today’s discussion. He said if reporters learned of the information being made available to the leaders all would be lost.
Senator Long replied that perhaps he should not be told all of the details. He did not want to hear things that he should not know about but he did want some response to his question as to why we did not move against North Vietnam in some way.
Secretary McNamara responded by summarizing our covert operations in North Vietnam. During the past year we have been carrying out our program by building up the South Vietnamese forces necessary. Some of these forces, having completed their training, are now being used. All are non-U.S. personnel, but all have been trained by our forces. Infiltration teams are being dropped in North Vietnam and attacks from the sea are being launched against the coast of North Vietnam. Semi-covert operations consist of reconnaissance missions in Laos carried out at Souvanna’s request. We have facilitated the carrying out of more than 450 reconnaissance missions over Laos in order to obtain needed information. We have discovered there has been a substantial movement of Pathet Lao forces into the Panhandle of Laos. We have so far lost 4 U.S. aircraft in these operations. The recent bombing of the bridge at Ban Ken in Laos, which we have not officially confirmed, was part of the U.S. armed reconnaissance program. This bombing was carried out by U.S. planes because the bridge was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns. The Laos Air Force was not able to carry out this particular mission with their T-28 planes.
Senator Saltonstall asked whether the objective was to affect the situation in Laos or that in Vietnam. Secretary McNamara said we wanted to affect both situations. The armed reconnaissance affected the power situation in Laos but also affected the infiltration of Viet Cong to South Vietnam.
Secretary McNamara then turned to the problem of withdrawing U.S. dependents from South Vietnam. The U.S. political and military officers in Saigon do not want to send the dependents home. They are concerned about the effect which a withdrawal would have in Southeast Asia as well as the effect on personnel in South Vietnam. The number of U.S. dependents of government personnel totals 1700 plus the dependents of non-U.S. personnel and some other non-governmental U.S. personnel.[Page 68]
Senator Dirksen said he could not understand why we did not bring the dependents home. We are pampering our forces in South Vietnam. Why do we have to send all our civilization to war.
The President said that for 14 months he had agreed with those who want to bring our dependents home, but the officers in Saigon are still opposed.
Congressman Ford said he wanted to reassure the President that he shares the Vandenberg philosophy. His relations with Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara and Director McCone are excellent. This meeting had been extremely helpful and he hoped there would be more such meetings. He believes the opposition party will cooperate with the Administration and will not take positions which are harmful to the national interest. Personally, he agrees with the course of action being followed in South Vietnam. We had to keep our commitment to the South Vietnamese. Referring to the 25,000 to 30,000 persons who had been infiltrated into South Vietnam since 1959, he asked how it would be possible to get a better ratio than 5 to 1 if this infiltration keeps increasing. Should military action be taken to cut down the infiltration? He concluded by repeating his view that the meeting had been wholesome and hoped that frequent and regular meetings of this kind would be held.
[Here follows discussion primarily on Germany, the U.S. defense posture, the Middle East, and China.]
Senator Smathers asked why the U.S. Navy was not being used to halt infiltration by sea from North to South Vietnam. Without associating himself with the information, he summarized the views of some Navy officers to the effect that there are many ways we have not used which could bring about an end of infiltration by sea. Secretary McNamara replied by saying that sea infiltration had almost been completely stopped because of a program we had initiated and were carrying out which makes possible the patrol of all sea area by South Vietnamese forces. All junks moving south are now stopped and searched by South Vietnamese ships. However, some of the land border is under water and although we have made extensive efforts to deal with this problem no solution so far has turned out to be feasible. The seacoasts have been taken care of but much infiltration is still taking place across the water borders.
[Here follows discussion of the Department of Defense research and development program, Soviet nuclear testing, the Kennedy Round tariff agreements, the question of nuclear proliferation, and the state of Sino-Soviet relations.]
The President read parts of a draft press statement which he said he wished to issue at the conclusion of the meeting. He asked whether there [Page 69]were any objections, and hearing none, he authorized the issuance of the statement. A copy of the statement is attached to this record.4
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of McGeorge Bundy, Miscellaneous Meetings, Vol. I. Top Secret. The source text lists January 22 as the date of the meeting, but the President’s Daily Diary (Johnson Library) indicates that the meeting was actually held from 10:07 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on January 21. According to an attached list, the following attended the meeting: Senators Aiken, Dirksen, Kuchel, Long, Mansfield, Saltonstall, and Smathers; Representatives Albert, Arends, Boggs, Ford, Laird, and McCormack; Vice President Humphrey, Rusk, McNamara, and McCone. McGeorge Bundy and Lawrence O’Brien also attended. Horace Busby, Douglass Cater, Bill Moyers, George Reedy, and Jack Valenti attended part of the meeting.↩
- The President met with Congressional leaders on October 19, 1964, from 1:34 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) No substantive record of the meeting has been found.↩
Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 432.↩
- Not printed.↩