109. Editorial Note
From 6:47 p.m. to 9:22 p.m. on March 6, 1968, President Johnson discussed Vietnam with Senators J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, John Sparkman, George Aiken, and Bourke Hickenlooper. The group discussed Secretary of State Rusk’s forthcoming appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on the war as well as the ongoing Senate debate over the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In response to comments by Fulbright that the resolution was null and void due to the possible decision being made to send over 200,000 troops to Vietnam, the President endeavored to explain why he had introduced such a resolution to Congress in 1964 and how it related to his current policy decision:
“I sent up the resolution on Southeast Asia because I told the Security Council members that I was not going to commit troops or get into any compromising position with these folks unless I had the approval of Congress. I had a thorough study and review of the law and precedent in this area. My legal advisors told me how many times we had gone into an area without the consent of Congress and without a declaration of war. I told them that I did not want to follow that procedure. Then I had a resolution drafted copying as nearly as possible President Eisenhower’s Formosa resolution and Middle East resolution. This draft resolution was taken to the Foreign Affairs Committee and [Page 341] the Armed Services Committee. I also reviewed it with Congressional leadership.
“I don’t care about resolutions but this is the only way I know how to try to get a formal expression from Congress of their views. It was not designed to bind them because I don’t consider the Tonkin Gulf resolution binding on any man up there. If any man doesn’t think what we are doing is right, he has an obligation to say so. And there’s not a man in the Senate who is unwilling to dissent.
“The question is how we can minimize our problems and make this job easier and mine easier. Also how can we make them more effective. I know full well that all of you are my friends and all of you want to help the President. I also know that you do have differences. Your intentions and your good judgment and your experience are well known to me. I have never doubted them. I know that each of you would be there if I were in deep trouble. I have always sought the advice and counsel of Congress. I have never taken any position on foreign policy in the Senate that I didn’t talk to Mansfield and Fulbright. We have to work together without leaking our meetings and conversations to the newspapers.
“We have no commitments on extra troops. We have 500,000 odd out there. They want extra troops now. But we are looking at the entire picture. We are looking at our situation with regard to men and equipment. The South Vietnamese are drafting their 19-year-olds now and they have given us assurance they will draft 18-year-olds. They are cleaning up their Army and improving it. We must avoid being dangerously weak here at home. We have 6 divisions in reserve. The Joint Chiefs have wanted to call up the Reserves for some time. I have tried to avoid going on a war and war-controls basis. Calling the Reserves is the first step that reaches into every home. In addition, the Reserves have their problems. They do not have the best equipment. However, if we need to call up large numbers, we are going to have to call in some Reserves. We are exploring every avenue open.
“Fulbright was right when he said Vietnam has poisoned the whole world. Everything goes back to it. But the bombings make it more difficult for North Vietnam and help us to protect the DMZ.”
During the course of the meeting, Fulbright responded:
“I do not want to give a false impression. I don’t have the slightest idea how to run the war and I have never given you advice on it. The war has a psychological impact as well as a financial impact. What I am trying to do is create a climate which I think would make it much easier for you to stop the war short of victory. I may be making a mistake but I cannot see the future of this war. It is not worthwhile, what we are paying for it. I do not think there is a good way to stop it. I don’t want [Page 342] to argue the details. I am trying to make my own position clear. I hope to create a sense that reconciles this country as best I can to settlement here that may not be palatable under other circumstances. I can’t see anything that can be accomplished by military means that will cost lives and dollars and disrupt our political relations with Russia and other countries. I do not think it is going to be a victory like we had in World Wars I and II. I don’t want to run the war. I just want to state my position.”
Fulbright later added:
“I just think this war is a disaster. I think that we are going down the drain if we continue with it. This is their country. They live there. They are poor and don’t have much to lose. We have a lot to lose. I think that this was originally a miscalculation and we have to admit that it was. That country has no industry, has no obligation, has no balance of payments, has no gold, and none of these problems. We are involved in a little country that isn’t worried. We are beating ourselves for nothing. In my opinion we are playing the Communist game. We just ought to get out of that country any way we can.”
The full record of the meeting is in the Johnson Library, Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room, March 6, 1968, 6:47 p.m. to 9:22 p.m.