111. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell1
President: Scoop Jackson called down and talked to my man Califano and said he had been talking to you and he was very worried about something Fulbright was doing and he thought that I ought to see a group headed by you and him and a couple of other fellows, Symington, I think, and Stennis. I called Jackson back.2 I was at lunch. He called Mansfield. I spent 3 hours with Fulbright last night—with Fulbright and Mansfield and Bourke Hickenlooper and George Aiken and John Sparkman.3
Russell: Well, you didn’t do much of a Johnson sales job on him evidently.
President: No, he’s got problems, Dick, that man has. He has got problems. And I listened to everything they had to say from 6:30 to 9:25 and just nobody present except those five and me.
President: Mansfield and Fulbright and Sparkman, Hickenlooper and Aiken.
Russell: Well, they all are of a different mind about this thing.
President: They’re all of the same mind except Fulbright and he didn’t show much. I was real worried about Fulbright. I said, “Senator, now let’s play President awhile. What would you do if you were President? What would you like to do?” Well, he said, “I would like to negotiate.” I said, “Well, I would too.” He said, “Why don’t you negotiate?” I said, “Because they won’t negotiate.” He said, “Well, there must be some way to make them negotiate.” I said, “Well, you tell me—you write me and you tell me how to do it. I don’t know how to do it.” Well, he said, “It just goes to show.” He said, “By God, I never did want to be in this.” I said, “I didn’t want to be in it.” He said, “Well, I didn’t say you got in it. I know they were there when you came in, but—.” And it was that way for 2 or 3 hours. And we got to Sparkman and Sparkman said, “I don’t like it. I don’t want it. I wish we didn’t have it. [Page 345] But I don’t know what I can recommend that we do, Mr. President.” I got to Hickenlooper, and Hickenlooper said, “Well, I will just say this. I don’t want this to be a committee to conduct the war” and said, “I don’t know what we can get by Morse and Fulbright debating back at Rusk on televisions all over the world in the middle of a critical period.” He said, “I don’t want this to be a Civil War committee. We can’t conduct the war.” Fulbright said, “Now, look here, Bourke, I don’t want it to be a Civil War committee either.” They got into a little argument and I just sat there and listened to it. Mansfield said, “Well, I wanted to confer with you and now we announce this.” I said, “No. I want to meet with some of the House people and I’m meeting with all of the House chairmen this afternoon and then I want to meet with some of the Armed Services people and Appropriations people and there is not anything I know to announce. If I say I saw two or three Senators, well, the other twenty that I didn’t see object. So unless we want a lot of publicity, let’s try to talk this thing out. I will take any suggestions you want to make and say we will consider them. Mr. Mansfield, any time you want to bring any groups of Senators to me, you can see me the day that you call. You just call and I will make the plans.” Fulbright said, “Well, we think that you are the complete captive of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” and said that I was saying to Dick Russell—he implied as he went everything he said you agreed with. He never did say that, but that was the implication.
Russell: Well, did he call my name?
President: Oh, yes, two or three times. He would say, “Now, Dick Russell and I see alike on this” and then he wound up by saying—
Russell: It must have been some very minor thing.
President: It was—just enough like an old cow, if you ever milked in the country days, you’ve been too long away from the milk pail, but just as you get the bucket full, she dragged her tail through the top of it and leaves a little streak. That is the way he dragged your name through it.
Russell: And usually she would slap hell out of you with the tail too.
President: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Hit you right in the face with it. But anyway—he has no plan or program. I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I want to run us out of this war. You are a complete captive of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is what they say.” And I said, “Well now, Senator, that is a little bit unfair. I am not a captive of anybody. I am listening to you Senators. I have talked to more Senators today than I have generals and I have to listen to the best advice that is available to me and consider it.”
Russell: My complaint is the other side. You haven’t paid enough attention to them.[Page 346]
Russell: He’s made a hell of a mean speech and Bobby Kennedy made a meaner one and Nelson4 has been raising hell for about 10 minutes. And John Tower made a very strong statement on the other side. He started off with the assumption that you were getting ready to call up 200,000 men to send out there. Of course, I hadn’t heard anything about that. I know that you ought to call up some and you need some reserves mighty bad because we haven’t got anything left in this country at all except two brigades of the 82d [Airborne Division]. But he had you sending 200,000 more out there. He said he had rumors and reports that that is what you were getting ready to do—send 200,000 out there.
President: It’s very much rumors like this nuclear attack the other day. We haven’t made a decision. We don’t really know what we’re going to do. We do know that, as I asked General Wheeler to go out and brief you when you were at the hospital, I have asked him to get everybody’s opinions on what we ought to have and most of the Armed Services people have thought for some time we ought to replenish our strategic reserve. It is getting pretty low and you have thought so more than anybody else and they have had the feeling—pretty generally agreed by Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs—that we ought to call up some reserves and perhaps, as I told you when I went home the other day before I went down to Georgia and that trip, that we ought to call up these units and ask for permission to call up selected specialists and the authority we need and probably extend the terms of enlistment—authority to do that and you said, “Well, we can’t do that, unless you call up the reserves.”
Russell: I am not in favor of that, Mr. President, I want to make it perfectly clear, until we get up some of these fellows that haven’t served at all.
President: I understand that and I don’t plan to put the first first but that those are the things that are being considered. Now, how much of that would ever go to South Vietnam, if any, has not been determined. We do not know. Clifford is of the impression and feeling that we oughtn’t to decide at this moment, that we ought to go ahead and make our decision on filling out the strategic reserve—we had twelve divisions, I believe, and it is now down to about six now—and that he thinks that is an invitation to weakness to the rest of the world and that we ought to call up these folks, but we ought to be sure that we are prepared for them and have something for them to do and know exactly what we are doing and we are studying all of those things now. They even suggested that he might want to go out and have some conversations with the [Page 347] allied leaders, particularly with the Vietnamese, to see how they are coming with their 19-year old drafts, and the 18—
Russell: Well, that has been brought up a half dozen times on the floor—calling up our boys at 18 and not calling up theirs until they are 20 or 21.
President: Well, that is not true. The average of ours is 20.4 and it was 20.9 last year. They are calling their 19s now and they will call their 18s in June. And if we called up the same proportion of our population, we would have between 9 and 10 million instead of the 3, so that is not a very—
Russell: Well, I don’t hardly know how to reply to all of this because it is so damn general and deals with suppositions of which I have no knowledge at all. I want to say something but damn if I can see any place to put my teeth into other than to build up a straw man. Then you go calling up reserves—that would make me look silly.
President: Well, I think you ought to say that first the Committee of the Congress and the reservists themselves have been urging that they be called up because we have a strategic reserve—twelve divisions when we got into this thing and it is down to six and they ought to be called up. Now, the President has had the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to talk to you about it, the President has talked to the other chairmen [sic] about it, you believe the President has talked to a good many Senators, and if any Senator wants to talk to the President about it you are sure the President will be glad to hear his views. There has been no President that has ever consulted so much with the Senate as the present President. Now, so far as the Senate running the war, this is something else.
Russell: No, of course, the Senate cannot do that.
President: That’s what Hickenlooper said last night and made a very effective statement and it had an effect on both Fulbright and Mansfield. In fact, Fulbright got a little irritated by it. Now, I asked them not to say that they met with me, and I just—but I think it is very improper to indicate that nobody has consulted when he came down and spent 3 hours.
Russell: He indicates that the Congress has been kept in damn complete ignorance and he went on and said that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense just lied to him on this Tonkin Gulf Resolution when they testified.5
President: Yes, he says that all the time. He interprets when McNamara said they were not in territorial waters. At the same time McNamara said that, they claimed—[Page 348]
Russell: Well, this letter the crew wrote, you know. But I didn’t see anything so damn bad about that. If I were out there I would want out too.
President: Well, Fulbright is just trying to justify his position of not wanting to be for the war and being an ass in voting for Tonkin Gulf. That’s all—that’s what he’s trying to do. But I think you all ought to say—you and Jackson and the rest of you—that the President has talked to you—talked to you more than he ought to sometimes. He had the Joint Chairman and the Joint Chiefs come to see you last week before last and called you last week himself and he has asked for your advice on the reserves from time to time and the Congress has been urging, and the reserve organizations too, that they be called up for a long, long time. We did have twelve divisions and now we are down to four and a half and one and a half—about a total of six.
Russell: We haven’t got six on active duty, have we, Mr. President?
President: They told me they had about six available in the strategic reserve—four and a half plus one and a half.
Russell: Well, these boys that are selling flour and silk today and going to call them up tomorrow—I just can’t believe they are as good as they think they are.
President: I didn’t say they’re good at all. I just said that they said we ought to have twelve and we did have twelve and we’d worn it down to six.
Russell: They’re all reserves. We just have about one and a half that are regulars.
President: That’s right, that’s right.
Russell: Well, I’ll go back in there and make up my mind on it, but I just hate to get up there and go floundering around when I don’t know what the hell I’m getting at. Fulbright doesn’t know what he is talking about and I hate to do the same thing just because he is.
President: I think I would just take the position that any Senator that wants to talk to the President, the President will be glad to talk with him.
Russell: He hasn’t raised the point that you wouldn’t see anybody.
President: Mansfield said—
Russell: He hasn’t said that. He just said he thought we ought to be apprised before you do anything else. That’s what he said.
President: Congress ought to be consulted and hadn’t been.
Russell: I don’t know. I didn’t get the part that they ought to be consulted and hadn’t been.
President: Well, that is what Jackson said.[Page 349]
Russell: Well, he sort of leaves that inference, but he didn’t say that. I was sitting there listening to him myself. He just probably left that inference with those who heard it.
President: Well, now, if you think any of them ought to come down here—I had thought—
Russell: I don’t think any of them want to come. I think if you kept Fulbright right at your elbow all working hours for the next 6 days he would be of the same thing as he is right now and I don’t think you would change him one iota. So I am not urging you to see anybody. All I could say was that Tydings6 came over and asked me if I knew how many reserves were going to be called up and I told him, “No, I didn’t know.” That was all I could tell him.
President: Well, I don’t know either. Tell him the President—
Russell: I told him that.
President: Well, you can just tell him now. The President doesn’t know himself how many he’s going to call.
Russell: I told him that I did not know how many were going to be called up. He’s gone dovish. He got up and said he thought me and Stennis and Symington ought to be apprised and ought to keep being advised about it. But hell, we have already given these people the war plans in advance, which has cost us a whole lot. This has been the most openly fought war that ever has been fought.
President: Say that. Please say that, and say what Eisenhower said to me the other day—that I would have given any amount of money to have known about the enemy what they know about us.
Russell: Of course. We tell them in advance what is going on.
President: And I see now from the intelligence this morning that they are asking for the copies of the film of Rusk and Fulbright debating. They’d like to have it at night for all of the European capitals. This is one that is coming up next week.
Russell: They put them on television?
President: They want to, and Rusk has got to go up on foreign aid. Well, I have asked them not to and now he’s got to go up on foreign aid.
Russell: Well, he doesn’t have to go on television.
Russell: I’ll be damned if I would do it. Just surrendering to them after he has held out and everybody has been sympathizing with him.[Page 350]
President: Well, you see, the Committee voted overwhelmingly eleven to four, but this fellow Mundt7 got in and played a little politics to order him up.
Russell: That is just a little politics, of course. Mundt is a hawk as far as the war is concerned. Well, I’ll go out here and see what the situation is—if they are still talking about it.
President: Thank you, Dick.
- Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Russell, March 7, 1968, 4:10 p.m., Tape F6802.04, PNO 13–14. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian. ↩
- The President called Jackson at 3:44 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) No record of the conversation has been found.↩
- See Document 109.↩
- Senator Gaylord Nelson.↩
- See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 280.↩
- Senator Joseph Tydings.↩
- Senator Karl Mundt.↩
- In a telephone conversation with Rusk the following day, the President discussed the meeting with the Senators and the issues raised in his telephone conversation with Russell. A statement calling for a more intensive effort to secure negotiations by the administration had been issued by 18 Congressional representatives on March 4. Regarding action to counter this and other Congressional criticism, the President stated: “Now I think we have to try first to see if there are any initiatives—political or diplomatic—that we can get in the mill that will cover that front a little bit for us where we are just not static and doing nothing. We ought to see if there is anything possible there. I think the second thing we ought to see is what would be the best legislative approach to this thing before we act on additional troops. We’re going to have to act—we’re going to have to call them up and we don’t want to assume the burden of having an affirmative resolution because they can filibuster it and we can’t get it passed and then that would be a failure and that would fold. So I think we ought to see what we can do. My judgment would be, just guessing, that to get Russell to move to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin with the understanding that if they did repeal it that we would pull in our horns or something and then a motion to table that would lie and then after 4 or 5 days you would cut off debate on that.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, March 8, 1968, 10:35 a.m., Tape F6802.04, PNO 15; transcript prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume)↩