97. Letter From President Johnson to Secretary of State Rusk1

Dear Dean:

Since I may not be in town when you see Ellsworth Bunker, I should like to tell you what I hope will prove possible in Saigon.2

I have decided that the best solution is to give General Westmoreland the over-all task of Ambassador while maintaining his military command. I want you and Bob McNamara to confirm that this is possible without Senate confirmation.

As you know, however, the bringing to life within the next six months of a constitutional government in Saigon is as important to us as the course of military events in the field. I have concluded that there is one American above any other who is qualified to guide this process on behalf of the nation; and I feel, in justice to our fighting men and to the country as a whole, that only our best is justified in the circumstances.

Therefore, I wish you to ask Ellsworth Bunker if he is willing to serve as Ambassador at Large in Saigon, assuming responsibility for our political policy under Westmoreland’s general direction.

We would assign an aircraft to Ellsworth so that he could easily move about the area and return, as necessary, for consultations in Washington.

As you know, I envisage assigning Bob Komer to serve with Westmoreland to drive forward our civil operations in Saigon, in fields other than that assigned to Ellsworth. I would be prepared, if you agree, to strengthen further the political side of the Saigon Embassy by assigning Bill Sullivan to assist Ambassador Bunker in his work.

I am conscious, of course, of the sacrifice I am asking Ellsworth to make at the age of 72. I can only recall that Henry Stimson was almost 73 when he became our greatest Secretary of War, serving for five years. [Page 227] I have in mind that Ellsworth would serve for only a relatively short period and I’m hopeful that, if I assured him I would not ask him to serve as Stimson did until he is 78—at least in Viet Nam—he would do this for our country and for me. I do believe the task of political midwifery ahead is the highest possible challenge to the wisdom, discretion, strength, and tact which Ellsworth embodies uniquely.

I hope your full powers of persuasion will be brought to bear in laying our case before him, and that you and Ellsworth will feel free to come back to me with any refinements you may suggest in this proposal.3


Lyndon B. Johnson
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXVII, Memos (B). No classification marking. Drafted by Rostow.
  2. The leading candidates as successor to Lodge continued, throughout the early spring, to be Ellsworth Bunker, McGeorge Bundy, and Westmoreland. As made clear in a February 14 message to Westmoreland from Wheeler, both he and McNamara supported the selection of Westmoreland as the new Ambassador to South Vietnam since the mission required “a MacArthur-type operation” of coordinated military and political plans. (JCS telegram 1190–67 to Saigon, February 14; Center for Military History, Papers of William C. Westmoreland, #13 History File [I], 27 Jan-25 Mar 67) In a February 27 memorandum to the President, Bundy withdrew his name and argued that, given Bunker’s skills as a diplomat, he should be the top choice. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Walt Rostow, Vietnam—W.W. Rostow)
  3. The President met with Rusk, McNamara, and Rostow that evening from 5:55 to 6:45 p.m., to discuss Westmoreland’s appointment as successor to Lodge. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) While no notes of the meeting have been found, according to Wheeler’s comments to Westmoreland, both Rusk and McNamara now opposed Westmoreland’s selection, particularly in light of Westmoreland’s professed reluctance to give up his military status and rank in order to accept the post. Wheeler stated his preference for McNamara’s recommendation that Westmoreland should remain in a military capacity. (JCS telegram 1637–67 to Saigon, March 3; Center for Military History, Papers of William C. Westmoreland, Message Files) During a March 9 news conference, the President denied that he was considering a replacement for Lodge. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, Book I, p. 104. However, the decision on a successor was made within a week. In a speech before a joint session of the Tennessee State legislature on March 16, Johnson announced Bunker’s appointment as the new Ambassador to South Vietnam, along with Eugene Locke’s selection as the new Deputy Ambassador and Robert Komer’s appointment as the new head of the pacification effort. See ibid., pp. 352–353. The Senate confirmed Bunker’s nomination on April 5. The new Ambassador presented his credentials in Saigon on April 28. Lodge’s recommendations on the process of transition are in telegram 20988 from Saigon, March 22. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. LXVIII)