163. Editorial Note

In late March 1968 the speech for President Lyndon Johnson’s television address on Vietnam, scheduled for March 31, underwent significant revision. From 11:03 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on March 28, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, and Special Counsel Harry McPherson met to discuss drafts of the speech on which McPherson had been working. When the meeting began, Clifford noted his sense that the leaders of the American business and legal communities no longer supported the war effort. “Whatever the specific reason, these men now feel that we are in a hopeless bog,” he asserted. “The idea of going deeper into the bog strikes them as mad. They want to see us get out of it.” Clifford then proposed that the speech introduce a new element, namely, a halt to the bombing north of the 20th parallel. Notes of the meeting have not been found, but in his memoirs, McPherson described how Clifford’s assertion was received:

“Amazingly, the conversation thereafter was concerned with the mechanics of informing our commanders and allies, and with redrafting the speech—not with whether the country should instead be rallied to sustain the effort. No one argued for a continuation of the bombing around Hanoi, or for committing large numbers of fresh troops. Here were five men, all associated with the war; all of whom had either urged its prosecution, helped to form its strategies, argued its rationale, or written its leader’s speeches; and not one of them spoke out against ‘winding it down’—which would mean, inevitably, accepting a result that was less than satisfactory by the standards they had set for it.” (Harry McPherson, A Political Education (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972), pages 443–436)

The hard-line speech on which McPherson had been working was set aside, and work began on a new alternate draft that emphasized [Page 484] negotiations and de-escalation. In the end, the group decided to give both the hard-line and the de-escalatory drafts to the President. In his memoirs, Clifford related how it was determined which speech the President favored:

“The next morning, shortly after ten o’clock, President Johnson called McPherson to discuss changes in the draft. As Harry began looking through the old draft for places where the President wanted to make changes, he suddenly realized that the President was working on the alternate draft! Suppressing his excitement, he took the President’s changes down one by one, but as soon as their conversation was over, Harry called me. ‘We’ve won,’ he shouted. ‘The President is working from our draft!’” (Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir, pages 519–521)

The original version began: “I speak to you tonight in a time of grave challenge to our country.” The alternate draft read: “Tonight I want to speak to you of the prospects for peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.” The various drafts of the speech are in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, [March 19, 1970, Memo to the President, “Decision to Halt the Bombing”] 1967, 1968, II. The President discussed his reasons for the decision he conveyed in the speech in his memoir The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), pages 423–424.