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

McNamara: There’s several hundred junks, allegedly up around 900, that have been observed there. Of the 900, let’s say a hundred or so are fairly substantial junks that may be carrying—roughly a hundred feet long, that size. The Chiefs are very disturbed about it. CINCPAC has recommended resumption of aerial bombardment and naval fire in what they call the Sea Dragon area, which runs from the 17th parallel up to the 19th parallel, roughly 120 miles in there, which in the past has been authorized for naval fire and of course air bombardment. [Page 107]The Chiefs say that these movements are unique, that they have not been observed in these quantities before, either night or day, and that it’s quite clear that the North Vietnamese are achieving significant advantages and gains by this action, and therefore they should be authorized immediately, during the remainder of Tet, to engage in fire.

I just wanted you to be informed on this. I think that it’s almost impossible for us to accept this recommendation and act on it, but conceivably later today you should give the Chiefs, or Buzz [Wheeler] at least, an opportunity to talk to you about this in the presence of Dean [Rusk] and myself, probably. The counter to the Chiefs’ argument, of course, is that this is what you would expect them to do, that there’s no question but what they pay a price for movements outside of the Tet period because of our air strikes, and it’s perfectly natural for them to try to move during the Tet period when they don’t pay that price. And, furthermore, the movements involved appear to be over a rather limited area, roughly 50 miles of coastline from one river estuary to another river estuary, and if they moved as much as the Chiefs say they are moving, it still isn’t of great significance in the overall battle of the South. Beyond all that, you’re engaged in a very delicate set of relationships here between the Pope and Kosygin and Wilson and the American people and the international community, and it’d almost be impossible for you for this reason to, and with as little problem as this, to authorize such fire and obvious breaking of the truce. But it is a serious problem—relationships with military commanders, and I wanted you to be informed of it. I’ll try to take care of it during the day.

President: All right. I expect we ought to have a meeting and talk to them about it. Is there anything in the agreement that would preclude this?

McNamara: No, no, it didn’t …

President: When you make the agreement, do you anticipate [it]?

McNamara: Well, the answer is yes, I anticipate it, and the Chiefs, when they, in the first place, they were opposed to the truce to start with, you’ll recall. Secondly, they’ve said that if we had it, we ought to have authority to fire in the event if the North was doing anything that was disadvantageous to us, whether it was technically a violation of the truce or not. I would say that this is not technically a violation of the truce. It is disadvantageous to us in the sense that they’re moving without cost to themselves. So, it was anticipated, and the Chiefs initially wanted to act as they’re now recommending. The counter to their position is that we’re doing exactly the same thing. We’re reinforcing our forces just as North Vietnam is reinforcing theirs, and in the remaining period of the truce, 2 or 3 days, this just can’t penalize us in any important way. But it isn’t easy to sell that to the military commanders.

President: Have you had a meeting with them?

[Page 108]

McNamara: I’ve just met with Buzz. I haven’t met with the other Chiefs.

President: Did you sell him?

McNamara: No. No. But that’s just the first meeting. And he’s a good, loyal individual and he’ll take the orders that he’s given. But I’m not—I don’t—I doubt very much we can sell him in the sense of full agreement that we shouldn’t go ahead. But why don’t we let the day pass, and later in the day if it still seems serious, I’ll give you a call, and we can try to set up a meeting.2

President: Okay, Bob.

McNamara: Bye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recordings of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and McNamara, February 9, 1967, 8:29 a.m., Tape F67.05, Side A, PNO 4. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. The President, McNamara, Rusk, Katzenbach, Vance, and Bundy met with Wheeler that afternoon from 1:12 p.m. to 2:07 p.m. No record of the meeting has been found, but apparently a decision was made against resumption. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)