37. Editorial Note

Beginning at 7:24 a.m. on January 31, 1968, President Johnson conferred by telephone with Secretary of Defense McNamara. Among the topics of conversation was the Tet offensive in Vietnam. In response to the President’s request that McNamara evaluate the situation in Vietnam, the following exchange occurred:

McNamara: Well, I think it shows two things, Mr. President. First, that they have more power than some credit them with. I don’t think it’s a last gasp action. I do think that it represents a maximum effort in the sense that they’ve poured out all of their assets and my guess is that we will inflict very heavy losses on them both in terms of personnel and matériel and this will set them back some, but that after they absorb the losses, they will remain a substantial force. I don’t anticipate that we will hit them so hard that they’ll be knocked out for an extended period or forced to drop way back in level of effort against us. I do think that it is such a well-coordinated, such an obviously advance-planned operation that it probably relates to negotiations in some way. I would expect that were they successful here, they would then move forward more forcefully on the negotiation front, thinking that they have a stronger position from which to bargain. I don’t believe they’re going to be successful. I think that in the case we’re going to have the real military engagement, I believe we’ll deal them a heavy defeat. I think in the other areas it’s largely a propaganda effort and publicity effort and I think they’ll gain that way. I imagine our people across the country this morning will feel that they’re much stronger than they had previously anticipated they were, and in that sense I think they gain.

The question in my mind is how to respond to this. Is there anything we could be doing that we’re not doing? I’ve talked to the Chiefs about some kind of reciprocal action in retaliation for their attack on our Embassy or in retaliation for their attack across the country. There just isn’t anything they’ve come up with that is worth a damn. They talk about an area bombing attack over Hanoi. The weather is terrible—you can’t get in there with pinpoint targeting. The only way you could bomb it at all at the present time is area bombing, and I wouldn’t recommend that to you under any circumstances. They just haven’t been able to think of retaliation that means anything. My own feeling is that we ought to depend upon our ability to inflict very heavy casualties on them as our proper response and as the message we give to our people.

President: I think that one thing we ought to do is try to keep Westmoreland in the news out there, twice a day—

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McNamara: Yes, I quite agree. I asked Phil [Goulding] to talk yesterday to our people there and have Westy make—I said once a day, but I’ll make it twice a day. You’re quite right.

President: I think you ought to too. I don’t think they get enough information. I think you’ve become sensitive and we all pulled in. I meet with them once every 2 or 3 months—you meet with them once a month if there’s something big. But if you’ll remember, you used to see them almost daily, and I think it shows the difference, and I think in this campaign year, the other crowd has got two or three committees grinding out things. Their only interest is to find something wrong. People look for something wrong unless you’ve got so much choking them that is happening. (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and McNamara, January 31, 1968, 7:53 a.m., Tape F68.02, PNO 1; transcript prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume)