26. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara1

[Here follow brief opening comments.]

LBJ: Whatʼs your thinking these days. I havenʼt talked to you. Whatʼs happening to our pause? What are our Generals saying?

RSM: I sat with George Ball and Mac Bundy late Saturday2 to consider whatʼs happening on the pause and I think we agreed that we still arenʼt sure and that there are a number of leads that we should follow up so that by the end of this week weʼd be in a position to make some kind of a recommendation to you. We should go back to Rangoon and have our Ambassador there approach that Consul and say, “Three or four weeks ago I gave you a note to send to your government. I havenʼt heard. When will I get an answer?” We should go to Kohler in Moscow and say, “Shastri told us Kosygin said you should contact the North Vietnamese. What does he tell you?” We should go through Rapacki in Poland and say, “You promised to go to North Vietnam. We havenʼt heard a word from you.” And, follow each one of these hot leads or warm leads so that by the end of the week we can tell you that weʼve checked them off and thereʼs nothing more to expect from them.

I think that thereʼs a feeling in some parts of State, particularly George [Ball], that we shouldnʼt resume bombing at the end of Tet. Of course, over here among the Chiefs, thereʼs a feeling that we should have resumed before this. I think, my own feeling is, and I think Cyʼs [Vance] as well, that we were well advised to continue to pause through Tet in order to allow an ample period of time to elapse for North Vietnam to respond to any one of these several lines of contact and to establish firmly in the minds of our own public and in the minds of the international public that we gave a reasonable time for them to respond. And that reasonable time, in my incline, will elapse with the end of Tet. I think youʼll get some criticism if you resume bombing at that point, but unless something develops between now and then I would certainly urge that you do so. Thatʼs a week from today or a day or two later.

I had just gotten the memo you had Jack Valenti send me from Arthur Goldberg.3 I was just reading it. Iʼll be prepared to comment on it to you later today.

[Page 75]

LBJ: Iʼm rather amazed at the minimum amount of hell-raising thatʼs come forth on the pause. Arenʼt you?

RSM: Not really. I think that the Republicans read the same poll the rest of us did that showed the wives and mothers of this country donʼt want war. And theyʼre just scared as hell to come out and say, “He should have started bombing last week.” And I noticed Jerry Ford, this morning and yesterday, was very, very careful on this point simply showing the support you have for it in this country.

LBJ: Do you get anything in your cables from Westmoreland or any of his people?

RSM: Yes. Itʼs clear they would like to see it resumed as promptly as possible, although theyʼre being very quiet and very well disciplined, I think. I talked to a number of members of the press in the last week and over the weekend including yesterday, and theyʼre just not getting any bitching, as far as I can tell, from the military either here or in South Vietnam about the extension of the pause.

LBJ: Jack Sutherland told me that he had been to lunch with a General last Friday. Heʼs US News and World Report. I havenʼt seen it this week. Said he was raising hell and said we were throwing the war away. I didnʼt ask him what—

RSM: Iʼm sure there are many that feel that, Mr. President, but Iʼve noticed very, very little reflection of that view in the press attributed to military personnel.

LBJ: Well, do you think then weʼre going to have a sentiment that will support our resumption if everybody feels this way about it?

RSM: I think so, Mr. President, particularly among the great majority of the people in this country. I think youʼll find some foreign leaders will criticize you if you resume bombing on, letʼs just say the 26th as an illustration. I think Nasser will feel that it would have been wiser to continue the pause. I think probably Aiken and Mansfield and Church and McGovern certainly will feel that way. But I think the great majority of the people in the country will believe that you gave them a reasonable time, over a month, and there was no movement at all on their part.

As a matter of fact, the intelligence information that we get back doesnʼt indicate that theyʼre even thinking of moving at this point. We havenʼt yet had any reflection of Shelepinʼs visit from Moscow and that might throw a somewhat different light on the statement I just made. But no other intelligence source that Iʼve seen indicates that Hanoi is even considering that—moving toward negotiation in order to lead us to extend the pause. I keep thinking they will give some indication of that. It would just seem smart bargaining on their part to do so. They could get a continuation of the pause with very, very little action. Even if they came [Page 76] in with some questions, weʼd almost be forced to extend it. But I havenʼt seen any evidence that theyʼll move in that direction.

I was so concerned about it that I had brought over here, Friday or Saturday,4 the leading British authority on North Vietnam, a man named Honey, Professor Honey,5 and he has been following them for years and years and years and we have found him useful in the past, and I talked to him Saturday, as did Cy, and his own analysis was that the balance of power in Hanoi and among the Politburo there is such that itʼs in the hands of what Iʼd call hard-liners. And particularly itʼs in the hands of the First Secretary of the Communist Party, a man named Le Duan, who was in command in the South in 1954 at the time of the Geneva Accords and who always felt that Ho Chi Minh made a serious tactical error at that time. He had the war won. He let himself be negotiated out of it at Geneva. And who today, therefore, is putting considerable pressure on Ho Chi Minh and others to ensure continuing a war that he thinks they either are winning or can win. But in any event, whether thatʼs a proper interpretation or not, and Iʼm not prepared to say it is, I donʼt see the signs of movement toward negotiation by them, as much as I have been looking for them and as much as Iʼd like to see them.

LBJ: Do you see any signs of dangerous build-up during this period or that weʼve sacrificed much?

RSM: I donʼt, Mr. President. I do see signs of dangerous build-up, but I donʼt think that itʼs a result of the pause nor do I think it would have been prevented if we had not had a pause. But, I do definitely see signs of—

LBJ: You sure want to watch that and be prepared on it because I think thatʼs gonna be a campaign issue.

RSM: Mr. President, Iʼm sure it is. And I think the longer you extend the pause, the more dangerous a campaign issue it becomes.

LBJ: Thatʼs right.

RSM: But I am prepared to say that the action they have taken, which has led to this build-up, was decided upon and originated prior to the start of the pause.

LBJ: What about their defections and their desertions?

RSM: Well, weʼve had an interesting report from a man named Goure,6 who works for the Rand Corporation. And we hired the Rand Corporation to go out there and carry on, over a period of months, an [Page 77] extensive interrogation of Viet Cong prisoners and defectors. And his report shows what I think youʼve heard from other sources. First, that the number of defections has increased substantially, Iʼve forgotten exact figures, but itʼs on the order of 10,000 for 1965 versus 2,000 for 1964. The 10,000, still being a rather low number of defections from a force thatʼs at least two hundred and some odd thousand, 250,000, in total. And these 10,000 may include Viet Cong sympathizers as well as members of that force. So that itʼs not a great number, but itʼs a substantially larger number than in 1964.

Much more important than the number of defectors is the attitude that they reflect of the morale of those who havenʼt defected. They say, for example, that theyʼre ridden with disease. Theyʼre harassed by air. Theyʼre constantly forced to move. They have no sanctuary in which they can rest and recuperate. The bases that they formerly used, with the deep underground tunnels and caves, are under constant attack. They never know when theyʼre safe. They find it difficult to obtain hot food. They find it difficult to move. Theyʼre short of medicines. The rate of incidence of malaria and other diseases, particularly in the Viet Cong in the highlands, appears to run between 24 and 35 percent. And that many of them are discouraged and many who did believe that they were winning or would win now question whether they will. Now I donʼt want to indicate to you the morale is shot. I just want to indicate that the pressure that is being applied to them by air and by constant offensive probing by the government and U.S. forces is beginning to appear in morale.

LBJ: What do you hear from the Kennedy boys on this?

RSM: I havenʼt talked to Teddy. I called him over the holidays to wish him holiday greetings. But, I havenʼt talked to him since he got back. I have talked to Bobby about it. He was very pleased to see the pause started. I think he feels that weʼve got to continue to increase our forces there, but that we ought to carry on efforts toward negotiations or some form of non-military settlement. As do I. I think if we resume the bombing, Mr. President, we ought to continue to carry on a number of these diplomatic moves. You remember the suggestion for the Six Nation meeting that came up in your office when Dean Rusk and George were present one day about a week or ten days ago? Well, that kind of action, it seems to me, ought to be initiated even after we resume bombing, if we do.

LBJ: Will Bobby oppose resuming bombing in light of The New York Times? I assume they will. Theyʼre gonna oppose anything we do, arenʼt they?

RSM: Well, I donʼt know if theyʼll oppose it. I think theyʼll say we didnʼt wait long enough or we didnʼt handle it right during the intervening period. They may oppose it as well. I talked to Scotty Reston, Friday [Page 78] or Saturday. My impression was that he personally would oppose it. While—

LBJ: Oppose the resumption?

RSM: Oppose the resumption.

LBJ: Whatʼs his thinking?

RSM: Well, it just isnʼt militarily effective and therefore by continuing the pause you donʼt suffer a military penalty and you may obtain a political advantage.

LBJ: Thatʼs not correct, though. You think you do suffer a military penalty donʼt you?

RSM: I think you suffer a military penalty in the sense, Mr. President, they can carry on the war in the South at a lower cost to their society. It doesnʼt cost them nearly as much to infiltrate the men and the equipment without our bombing as it does with our bombing. And I am absolutely certain in my own mind, beyond that, that the bombing represents a political pressure which we benefit from. The very fact that weʼre talking about negotiation, the very fact that the Soviets put pressure on them, and other nations of the world have put pressure on them, is a result of our bombing, which pressure would not have been put on them if we hadnʼt had the bombing. The bombing represents something we can give up in return for something theyʼll do at some point. Apparently, this isnʼt the point.

LBJ: Tell me about the women out there, Bob. Iʼm getting some—The Post is starting nagging at me.

RSM: The lack of women?

LBJ: Yeah. In the services. There ainʼt nothing but nurses. Say that you wonʼt let any of the WACs go, or any of the WAVEs go, or any of the rest of them. You reckonʼ we can sprinkle any of them out there?

RSM: Frankly, the question of WAVEs and WACs hasnʼt been brought to me, Mr. President. I would oppose it. I think it would just cause a tremendous amount of unrest and trouble. We wonʼt let the wives go out there, of officers or enlisted men or diplomatic personnel. And to introduce WAVEs and WACS, in the first place, they donʼt add anything in the way of efficiency to the operation. In the second place, they require a lot of special quarters and special handling. In the third place, it causes morale problems because of apparent discrimination. The wives in Bangkok are just sore as hell that there are wives of civilian employees and female employees out there. And beyond that, the wives of foreign diplomats allied with us, for example, the Australian diplomats, are allowed in Saigon and they take pictures of young American women in the area and they wonder what their husbands are doing. It seems to me that to send WAVEs and WACs will simply accentuate that problem. [Page 79] And I havenʼt felt any pressure for it. As a matter of fact, none of the serv-ices have even raised the question with me, but Iʼll look into it.

LBJ: No. No, I wouldnʼt stir it up. But, theyʼre raising hell with me and I assume that itʼs coming from, they say, some Major Bonnie somebody at the Air Force, whatever they are, I guess WACs, Air Force, whatever you call ʼem. I asked [indecipherable] told me they didnʼt want them unless they were a nurse; say they got about 250–300 nurses.

RSM: Well, I noticed an article or two a week or so ago about it. I didnʼt follow it up then because I just wanted to let sleeping dogs lie on this thing. But I can do so anytime.

LBJ: No, I think weʼll just let it go. Iʼll tell them. I got a question in a press conference about it, and said they were very distressed, from a lady at The Washington Post. So I just anticipated Iʼd get that. Do you think we ought to have a meeting? Whenʼs Dean coming back? Do you know?

RSM: He should be back tomorrow, I believe. Heʼs stopping in the Philippines yesterday.

LBJ: Are we doing everything we can now with the Philippines and with the Koreans to get them to come in?

RSM: Yes we are, Mr. President.

LBJ: Got any indication theyʼre gonna come?

RSM: Well, the Koreans at least. Thereʼs no question but what the Koreans will come. Itʼs just a matter of price. And they turned in a request for several hundred million, itʼs about $600–$700 million worth of cumshaw that they wanted from us in order to send that division. Both State and we have refused that and have gone back with an instruction to the Ambassador to negotiate the movement of the division in return for what amounts to something on the order of $70 million worth of extra equipment and payments. But Westmoreland didnʼt ask for the division to be landed in South Vietnam until about July. So weʼve got reasonable time to work that out. He wonʼt be ready to have them until then. He does want a brigade by some time in April and thatʼs our first requirement there for him.

In the case of the Philippines, the problemʼs more complicated by the fact that the Presidentʼs just come in. Heʼs trying to get his government organized. Weʼre not making nearly the progress there that we are in the case of Korea. But, in Korea weʼre talking about an additional, maybe, 17,000 men. In the case of the Philippines, weʼre talking about a couple of thousand. So, itʼs much more important that we push on Korea than the Philippines, but we must have some Philippine contribution as well. Theyʼre talking about construction engineers at the moment, military construction engineers.

LBJ: The Germans coming through with anything?

[Page 80]

RSM: Not a damn thing except the hospital ship. The Ambassador came in the other day and asked if the hospital ship was satisfactory as the substitute for combat troops and I told him absolutely not. I donʼt think itʼs going to make any difference to him, having said that. But at least I didnʼt think we ought to give in after the strong efforts you made to get combat units. I told him that you had personally asked the Chancellor for a medical unit and a combat construction battalion, done it twice in my presence, and I saw absolutely no excuse whatsoever for their failure to send it. Well, he didnʼt indicate they would.

[Here follows discussion of base closings, the deferment of authorized military construction funds, and the Springfield Armory.]

LBJ: Iʼm gonna rely on you heavily now in this decision this next week. I think you know where my leanings are and how I feel about it, and except for you, I doubt weʼd have gone on as long as we have gone and Iʼm not sorry for it at all. I want to be patient and understanding and reasonable. On the other hand, I think you know my natural inclinations. You were down there when we made the decision. But I sure do want you to start building your case for a resumption and be able to discuss it before we really make the decision so I get every angle of it.

RSM: Right, right.


  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between Johnson and McNamara, Tape F66.02, Side A, PNOs 1 and 2. No classification marking. The transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. January 15.
  3. Entitled “Viet Nam Prospects,” January 12, it was forwarded to McNamara by Valenti under cover of a January 15 memorandum. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Vietnam Files: FRC 77–0075, Vietnam, 1966)
  4. January 14 or 15.
  5. P.J. Honey, author of Communism in North Vietnam: Its Role in the Sino-Soviet Dispute (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), was a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.
  6. Leon Goure. For a summary of a report later in 1966 by Goure on Viet Cong motivation and morale, see Document 198.