150. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell1

Russell: Hello?

President: Dick, I was giving some thought to some decisions here and I wanted to see if you thought they were all right.

Russell: Yes sir, Mr. President.

President: I understand—I think I talked to you about it, but I wasn’t sure, I have had so much on my mind. McNamara on the 18th of January recommended to me and said we should decide it in February—the continuance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He recommended and Clifford recommends that I continue Wheeler for a year, or at least until my term expires in January. What would be your reaction to that?

Russell: I think that is all right, Mr. President.

President: They tell me I’ll have to have legislation.

Russell: Is that right?

President: Mmm-hmm.

Russell: Well, I wasn’t sure of that. I think we can get it passed. I don’t know. I don’t know any reason why we shouldn’t. How long do you want it for?

President: Just a year.

Russell: Uh-huh, yes sir. I don’t think there would be any trouble about that.

President: Now the next thing is—

Russell: When does his term expire?

President: July. They wanted it announced in February. I haven’t done it because they were trying to remove Westmoreland and they were making an attack on him and they were hitting Abrams and the Commies were given a big ride and I had intended to move Westmoreland out and Abrams in. Some of them had suggested I go down and get some new fresh man—that was kind of the dovish group. But Wheeler thinks very strongly, as does Clifford—he is not very experienced and his judgment is not as good as yours—as does McNamara, that Abrams would be the better man to replace Westmoreland.

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Russell: Well, I think so too.

President: That would be their recommendation.

Russell: Yes sir. I think he’s the best man I can think of at the moment. I don’t know a better man in the Army.

President: They said there would be two or three they would consider, but they would put him first call. Buzz does—he said he would consider Abrams, he would consider Palmer, he would consider Goodpaster. Goodpaster has had a heart attack, but we are thinking of making him Vice Chief to Westmoreland.

Russell: Well, I don’t think I’d pull Abrams out of there without giving him a whack at it if I was going to bring Westmoreland in.

President: Well, that is what I think we would do. The way it would go—would go—Wheeler would be continued for a year. Westmoreland would come out. He would replace [General Harold] Johnson whose term expires and who wants to retire. Goodpaster would step up to Vice Chief and we would have a new man for Honolulu, but the services would nominate him and he wants to retire, and his term is up in April. But we thought we—

Russell: Sharp?

President: Yes. His term is up in April and he wants to retire. He’s got some business thing he wants to go with. We thought we would try to ask him to stay on until this took place in July, if he would, and we would put either Ryan of the Air Force or Admiral Clarey of the Navy.2 They would be the service nominees for the post at Honolulu. We won’t have to decide that and that is the Secretary’s decision, but I just wanted you to know our thinking.

Russell: All right, sir. I appreciate it.

President: Do you think there would be any reaction that I was demoting Westmoreland and that he’d been a failure? George Christian says he thinks there would; Abe Fortas said he doesn’t think much, but Buzz says—

Russell: There would be some among people that don’t like Westmoreland undoubtedly, Mr. President.

President: Buzz thinks that it is such an honorary job to be Chief of Staff and Eisenhower and [former General of the Army John] Pershing and all of them had it, and that it wouldn’t bear much weight.

Russell: Nobody in the services would think so. There’s a lot of people who don’t think anything about it. If Steve Young were to make a [Page 449] speech, well they would say they must have been right about it. But you are not going to please all of them anyhow. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s a great distinction. I would think that Westmoreland would be glad to get out and get to be a Chief of Staff.

President: He wants to very much. He thinks he has been there longer than he wanted to stay. His wife does and Buzz thinks it is time.

Russell: Well, I don’t see how anybody could be critical of that unless they just wanted to be anyhow.

President: Now Bobby [Kennedy] is storming these states and those governors and switching them and switching the bosses all over the country and a pretty blitz ruthless operation and says if you don’t do this I will defeat you and he is doing it with the candidates for the Senate and things of that kind. Ribicoff kind of backed away from an endorsement yesterday.

Russell: I was amazed. I saw it on television.

President: Well, they started this riot business two years ago on television saying if they didn’t do something they were going to take the cities and they were encouraging it and Bobby has been hiring Martin Luther King and raising money for him for two years. We have been watching it. They are doing that a good deal. They are going to beat hell out of us in Wisconsin, as you could imagine, from the type of votes you have there. They do the same thing in California.

Russell: Well, I am not as sure about California. I don’t know anything about Wisconsin.

President: You know the LaFollettes, don’t you?

Russell: Yes sir.

President: Well, it’s still there. Pretty deep, they tell me—the boys we have had there. They’re against any war—like Henry Reuss, Gaylord Nelson, and stuff like that.

Russell: Well, Nelson has been mighty tender-footed here lately. He has quieted down a lot after he got to running.

President: Well, there’s been a great shift of sentiment, unless I am misinformed from what I see in the wires and letters. Just nearly everybody since he got in and started speaking to these student groups around the country just think we played hell and that we ought to get out right quick. It is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

Russell: Well, I don’t think everybody does by a whole lot.

President: No, but I think there has been a good shift of sentiment is what I am saying.

Russell: Oh.

President: I think since the Tet offensive, then followed by McCarthy’s New Hampshire victory, then followed by Bobby’s play, and then followed [Page 450] by their 18 speeches up there and our general re-survey trying to determine what to do and all the leaks.3 [Two lines excised from the tape by the Johnson Library under the donor’s deed of gift.]

Russell: Well, some of them, that little coterie that McNamara had in there.

President: Yes, they are.

Russell: They are a big minority.

President: Among the civilians though. The leading civilians that he had are practically—practically all want us to surrender.

Russell: There is no doubt about that. But there aren’t more than 12 or 15 of them.

President: That is right. But they are running it.

Russell: Yes, that’s right.

President: You take Nitze. Refused to testify on the MAP bill on the military assistance. Just said he didn’t believe in the policy. Did not think we ought to be in Vietnam. Just wouldn’t do it. Just insubordinate. Wrote me a letter.4

Russell: Well, I would have got him out of there the next day.

President: Well, I would, but Clifford said he just can’t do it so quickly by himself. Enthoven is very much the same way. Steadman is the same way. He doesn’t really know about his Service Secretaries, but Warnke is the same way.

Russell: Well, Clifford ought to know some good men he could bring in there.

President: Well, there are, but it is a question of just how fast you disrupt them until he can kind of get his feet on the ground and know who is who and what Department they are running. Do you have pretty good confidence in Ignatius and in Resor and in Brown?

Russell: Well, I think those three are all right.

President: You think they would be loyal?

Russell: Yes, I do.

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President: Do you think I ought to do any specific thing that you can think of in the Bobby picture that I’m not doing?

Russell: No sir, I don’t know of anything. I don’t think he is as bad as you apparently think it looks. He started up a big hoorah. But you can go to a place like the University of Alabama or the University of Kansas where you’ve got six or eight hundred people in the crowd [and] you can make it sound like the whole thing has gone crazy. But when a girl gets up and apologizes like that girl did to Freeman up there and the crowd gives her a standing ovation, now nobody arranged that. That is more a determination of how a crowd feels—all the heckling and booing that were posted over the building.

President: Thank you so much. When are you coming back?

Russell: I am coming back tomorrow.

President: I want to talk to you. As soon as you get in, I want you to rest a little bit and then come over here and have dinner or something because I’ve to talk to you about these troops.

Russell: All right, sir. I will get in sometime tomorrow about noon.

President: Thank you. You try to have dinner with me sometime tomorrow evening.

Russell: I’ll try to do that.5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Russell, March 22, 1968, 4:49 p.m., Tape F6803.02, PNO 8. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared specifically for this volume in the Office of the Historian.
  2. Pacific Air Force Commander General John D. Ryan and Admiral Bernard A. Clarey.
  3. Reference is to the 18 Congressmen who signed the March 4 statement calling for greater efforts by the administration to secure negotiations.
  4. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee at first had requested that Clifford testify on Vietnam, but he demurred due to his short time in office. According to his autobiography, Nitze refused to testify in Clifford’s place because he disagreed with the Task Force’s recommendations, and he even offered to resign instead of appearing before the Committee. Nitze believed that his refusal was responsible for his exclusion thereafter from the remaining Tuesday Luncheons with the President. See Paul Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the Center of Decision, A Memoir (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), pp. 277–279.
  5. The President did not dine with Russell the next day. He did receive a telephone call from Russell at 8:41 p.m. on March 24. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No record of the conversation has been found.