69. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara1

McNamara: We’ve just had a message from Westmoreland2 that’s quite different from the interpretation we were placing on the message last night.3 He states categorically he wants six battalions immediately. I just wanted you to know this. The Chiefs are meeting now. We’ll of course be back sometime later today. My view hasn’t changed a bit from what it was last night. I think it’d be a mistake to call up the reserves and plan on permanent augmentation of our forces out there above the planned 525. I do think, given this kind of a message, we ought to place six battalions either out in Vietnam or along the shores, in a sense, as an emergency supplement to meet a contingency and do it damn fast. But I think to go to the Congress for legislation to call up the reserves to plan on permanent augmentation to take over further the job of the South Vietnamese would be in error. In any event, that isn’t the reason for my call. The reason for my call is simply to alert you that we had this message that just came in.

President: Yeah, Bob. I didn’t quite understand. I felt like I was in the ring yesterday with a boxer and I didn’t know who I was boxing. I was—I was about to agree with the thought that you had expressed. That is what I was trying to adjust to yesterday and the day before.

McNamara: Yes.

President: And then it seemed like we moved from our position—I mean, you did. I never have felt that we ought to go with this whole thing that you outlined at this stage. We might be called to even do that and more if the situation required it.

McNamara: That’s right, that’s right.

President: But I thought that if we would in effect—if you could do with him what you had done on the 525, where you’ve got a greater proportion of combat troops than supply troops and where you reduce the total numbers a good deal, and where you didn’t have to bust up the 82d [Airborne Division] and send it out, that that [Page 187] was an alternative that we ought to try to find. Now I gather that when you all re-interpreted the message that you didn’t think that was justified. That’s still the viewpoint I have. Between the Chiefs of Staff, I did not share the approach that Buzz had the day before. I did more or less look favorably, although I hadn’t hardened, and concluded—as you could see last night, I went along. But on the alternative that you were attempting to evolve—now, that’s where I would like to come out if we could. So, A—I don’t have a position of deserting my commander in time of war. B—I don’t have a position of deserting my home folks and acting imprudently or getting involved where I can’t pull out. I did like the LST idea for several reasons. I didn’t have the feeling, they may be right, but I did like the Okinawa idea. I thought that you wouldn’t have all the uproar if they were in Okinawa even for a short time and they’d be close in an emergency, but it ought to be treated more or less as an emergency instead of a regular permanent operation.

McNamara: Well, Mr. President, I think that’s the plan that we ought to try to push through. I’aposm going to have great difficulty on it because the Chiefs and the Marines don’t want to send these Marine battalions. They’re—in my opinion, they’re available for an emergency assignment. I actually had with me last night, and I didn’t want to bring it up because there was so much opposition among the Chiefs to it. I have a full paper on this, as I told you I would have, and I strongly believe it can be done. In any event, the purpose of the morning call is to tell you that Westy’s come in for an immediate requirement for six. We’ll get to work on it. I’ll try and work it out the way on Friday4 I told you the way I thought it should be worked out.

President: Does he give any more justification? Does he have any alarming—

McNamara: Yeah, yeah. Well, I wouldn’t say alarming, but I’ll read you a couple of lines here. [McNamara read portions of telegram MAC 1975.] So, that’s the essence of it. Now, on this question of replacing military with civilians, you asked me on Friday or Saturday to look into that civilian contractor situation—Saturday, I guess you asked about it.5 I did. I cleared with Buzz Wheeler this morning and I sent to Westmoreland a cable suggesting to him that he replace certain of his construction battalions outside of the I Corps area with civilians. I said I’ve got $50 million in a contingency allowance that I’m making available to him for this purpose and encouraged him to use as many civilians under those civilian contractors [Page 188] as he wants. We can replace one construction battalion—one military construction battalion—a month with a thousand civilians at a cost of $750,000 a month. So I urged him to go as far as he wanted to in that way. We went down from 50,000 construction civilians to about 17,000, just about what you told me on Saturday. So I think we can do more than we have in that area. But based on what he says here, and I’ve only read you a portion of the cable, Mr. President, I’m inclined to believe that as Commander in Chief you can’t very well deny him these six battalions at this time. But neither do I think that we ought to obtain them by calling up the reserves and going to Congress for legislation. So I’ll try to work something out on that basis. I’m sure the Chiefs will not immediately accept that kind of alternative.

President: Well, we’ll meet on it, I guess, this afternoon.6 You’ll meet this morning, won’t you?

McNamara: That’s right, we will, Mr. President.

President: Okay. Bye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and McNamara, February 12, 1968, 8:29 a.m., Tape F68.02, Side A, PNO 4. No classification marking. Prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. Document 68.
  3. See Document 67.
  4. February 9.
  5. See Document 65.
  6. See Document 70.