80. Notes of Meeting1


Secretary McNamara discussed his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Tonkin Gulf incident.2 “So far it's a draw.”

Clark Clifford: [blank in the source text]

Secretary McNamara: Yes. This is highly classified.

Secretary Rusk: Why has Fulbright not let your statement out?

Secretary McNamara: It is obvious he wanted to get out his side first.

Secretary Rusk: If he does, will you go with your release?

Secretary McNamara: Yes. It is a can of worms. They will try to cloud the issue.

The President: Who took the lead in opposing and defending you?

Secretary McNamara: Senator Lausche was on our side. Senator Morse was doing the most damage, trying to prove we provoked the incident. Senator McCarthy was nasty personally. Senator Cooper was decent. Senator Mundt did not find the opening he wanted. Sparkman was marginally helpful. So was Senator Mansfield and Senator Hickenlooper on one occasion.3

The President: How long do you expect it to go on?

Secretary McNamara: All day. Senator Morse said it may go on through tomorrow, but I am going to try to cut it off today.

The President: I suppose you have a better case on the fact the attack occurred than on the charge that we did provoke the attack.

Secretary McNamara: I have a good case that there was an attack. They think we responded too soon.

(At 12:23, Secretary McNamara received a call from Phil Goulding. Goulding said Senator McCarthy had already made a statement about[Page 223] Secretary McNamara's testimony before the committee. In light of this, Secretary McNamara said to go ahead and issue his statement.)4

Secretary McNamara said McCarthy went out and told the press that one of the U.S. vessels penetrated North Vietnamese waters. “He just did not listen. That is exactly what I thought would happen.”

Clark Clifford: Would the President like to report on his visit with President Eisenhower?

The President: I enjoyed the trip very much. I intend to get away from here Wednesday afternoon and spend the weekend in Texas.5

We first went to Fort Bragg with General Johnson and General Walt. I made a brief speech and stood at an aircraft while the men loaded aboard.

I told them that there were 500,000 of their buddies in Vietnam and that General Westmoreland had asked for their help. I said if they had been out there and needed help, I know they would have wanted us to respond when we were asked.

Those boys expressed no sentiment, but it was obvious to me that none of them was happy to be going. It was a very serious moment to be going. The whole trip was great. Everybody knew what to do. There were no complaints.

General Seitz, Commander of the 82nd Airborne said to me, “This is the proudest moment of my entire life.”

About 50% of the men down there were Negroes. I understand they volunteered because of the high morale in the Airborne and the extra pay.6

From there we went to El Toro and spoke to the men inside the hangar. After a three-minute talk I walked down rows of men. I told myself—I am at heart a sentimental guy at times like those—that I sure regret having to send those men. One soldier really melted me and [Page 224]brought me to my knees. I asked a boy from Ohio if he had been to Vietnam before. He said yes, he had been there four times. I asked him if he had a family. He said yes, sir, he had a little baby boy born yesterday. There wasn't a tear in his eye. No bitterness showed in his face. But I can assure you I sure stopped asking any men questions for awhile. I saw them load the plane. The people moved with precision. I went inside the plane. There were 94 men in there, all in place. I talked to them a few minutes and then saw the plane take off. That's a rather rough feeling.7

From there I went to see men on the Carrier. They are going back to Yankee Station. I met many of the men on the ship. Ninety-five percent of them think we should be doing more in Vietnam. They said they would not mind giving their lives but they were a little more war-like and kept saying, “It's not cost effective to fight the war like this.”

I had 25 men in for breakfast. All they knew was that they had a job and they wanted to do it well. They wanted to keep the pilots and the equipment in the air and in good shape. They lost one plane with a flame out and each of them felt a very personal loss of the three men. I would be glad to have any of them looking after my plane. They made a good impression.

I remember one thing about the trip in particular. When I was speaking to the 82nd Airborne I came to a line in my speech when I said, “You are the Airborne.” A roar came up from the crowd unlike anything I have ever heard before with “All the way, sir.” They like the prestige of the Airborne.

I almost froze in my Captain's quarters aboard the Constellation. I turned the electric blanket up to 9. About 3 o'clock, and every hour after, I went to the door and saw this big hulk of a Marine. I kept telling him, “I am freezing.” He kept saying, “yes, sir.” But he never moved.8

[Page 225]

General Wheeler: I'll bet he had orders not to move and nobody telling him to move, even including you, was going to affect his orders.

The President: Well, I quit trying at 6 o'clock. I said, go get Rostow. We had breakfast and then met with all of the men. I can say to you Secretaries and Generals, that even Senator Fulbright couldn't find anything wrong with those men and that operation. It makes me feel sorry that we worry about creature comforts with these men who go back three and four times and who fly 25 hours straight into combat.

The crew was the proudest. They have the major responsibility for getting the men safely to Vietnam.

After the Constellation, we returned to see President Eisenhower and to get his judgment.9 I think he has been mistreated by history and by misinterpretation.

He said that he did not intend to play politics with Rusk and McNamara. He said it is a mistake to second guess the people who [Page 226]know the information. He spoke glowingly of General Wheeler and General Westmoreland and General Goodpaster. He said he saw no justification for the criticism of General Westmoreland. He said he remembered in another war when people sat on the sidelines and said there was a better way, but he preferred to leave that to the judgment of the men who had the better information.

He said there were two people he had most respect for. Who would you think they are?

Secretary Rusk: General Marshall?

General Wheeler: Churchill?

Director Helms: General MacArthur?

The President: It was Marshall and Churchill. He told me some stories about General Marshall. He said that Marshall was an impersonal man. He brought Ike up from Fort Sam to handle operations. He ordered General Eisenhower to draft the invasion order and plan. Ike said he guesses he was a little vain and a little cocky and he went to General Marshall and said, “I hope the General knows that I have spent many hours on this plan and that it is O.K.” General Marshall told him “Eisenhower, I hope it is too. You may be the one called upon to execute it.”

In addition, Eisenhower said that Churchill wanted to go into battle. Eisenhower told Churchill he did not think it was wise to go into battle because of the additional security that must be provided. When Churchill told the King, the King also said he wanted to go. As far as Churchill was concerned, that ended it. He didn't go.

General Eisenhower said that Westmoreland carries more responsibility than any General in the history of this country. He said we should give him everything he needs and then let him fight the war.

I asked him how many allies he had under his command during World War II. He said, including U.S. and allied troops, he had about five million.

I told him General Westmoreland had 500,000 men, so how could he say that Westmoreland had the greatest responsibility of any American general?

He said it was a different kind of war and General Westmoreland doesn't know who the enemy is and there is not any clearly defined front.

Ike said, I am a mean Republican, but I am not going to be partisan on the war.

Then General Eisenhower was asked how he got legislation passed when he was President. He said he told the visitor that he had a Speaker [Page 227]from Texas and a Majority Leader from Texas, both Democrats. He said his leader was Knowland of California.10

He said he could call in Mr. Sam11 and me and say why a certain piece of legislation was best for the country and that the two of us would do it if it were in the best interest of the country. He said this was often not the case with his own party.

General Eisenhower said that we had always done what we thought was best for the country, particularly when he called on us. He intended to do the same thing now.

He called me and told me of a rough wire he received from three scientists who told him I planned to drop the nuclear bomb. I told him I had talked to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense and that no one had recommended nuclear weapons in the last four years.

Now, what do we do with this trip of General Wheeler's?

Secretary Rusk: Can we keep this trip very quiet until Buzz gets there? I am worried about what they might do to the airport if they knew he were coming.

The President: We talk too much anyway. Ike said it is criminal to announce the location of men or units or headquarters. He said the press can talk about the way in which the war is being directed but that it is wrong to say anything about when or where or how it is being fought.

Ike said we should get the other government to restrict coverage and that he never would have said that we were sending 10,500 men. He said he would think General Giap would just love to have that information.

General Wheeler: I will leave tomorrow night and return on Tuesday the 27th.

The President: What should we do while Buzz is out there?

Secretary McNamara: There is nothing we need to do that we haven't done. We should wait until Buzz comes back.

General Wheeler: General Westmoreland said that the intelligence indicated there might be a major attack tonight on Saigon. As of this morning, nothing of a sizeable nature had happened.

Walt Rostow: It has been quiet up until the time of the meeting.

The President: What about targets? Should we retaliate for these strikes?

[Page 228]

General Wheeler: The weather is terrible except for an occasional day. We can make systems runs on certain targets. I don't want to sound like a broken record, but I still feel the best thing is to squeeze down the circle and then authorize armed reconnaissance.

Secretary McNamara: May I leave? (The Secretary had to return to the Hill where he was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

General Wheeler showed maps of the Haiphong-Hanoi area. The General pointed to high value targets and said that systems runs on these targets should be considered. He recommended reducing the circles around Hanoi and Haiphong to three miles and 1–1/2 miles and permitting armed reconnaissance.

The General pointed out the northeast arm of the railroad and Highway 1–A. In addition, he pointed out the inland port of Hanoi. He said it was an inland port used for barges to bring in supplies.

Secretary Rusk: I would not object to systems runs. There would be a limitation of 15 miles along the China border. I would hit the highway and the railroad.

Walt Rostow: How about a systems run on Hanoi radio headquarters?

General Wheeler: We could hit it. It is part of the Air Defense System in the area.

The President: Go get it. It has been previously authorized anyway.

General Wheeler: May we reduce the circles to 1–1/2 and 3 miles?

The President: Do you have any trouble with that, Dean?

Secretary Rusk: It will get a lot of civilians but I feel less strong about the matter now. Let me look at this and get back to you later.

The President: Take the 15 mile limit.

General Wheeler: How about a systems run on the Hanoi port?

The President: How do you feel about that?

Secretary Rusk: O.K.

Clark Clifford: O.K.

The President: What is a systems run?

Secretary Rusk: It is bad weather bombing.

General Wheeler: It is not as good as visional bombing.

Clark Clifford: Is it safer with a systems run?

General Wheeler: It is somewhat more safe. Planes can go in at night and also in bad weather.

The President: Do you want to send anybody with Wheeler?

Secretary Rusk: I want to send Habib with Wheeler.

[Page 229]

General Wheeler: We have made space for him on the plane.

The President: O.K. What is the enemy up to, Dick?

Director Helms: It is clear the enemy had a poor assessment of what would happen. They thought a political uprising would take place. They did not get it.

Based on the documents, they are now re-evaluating and are much more flexible in their attitude. They are now attacking some cities with mortars and some with troops. Meanwhile, they are not coming out with any real forces for ground attacks. They are busy in the countryside. They have a manpower pool out there to draw on.

What they do in the future depends on what we do.

The President: How did they get the countryside?

Director Helms: All of the ARVN and U.S. forces have come in to protect the cities.

General Wheeler: Not all.

Director Helms: Most. In addition, it appears that the North Vietnamese may not attack Khesanh now. They may wait and try to hold us down and move their troops in along the coast. We have a rough problem at Quang Tri.

General Wheeler: General Westmoreland said the ARVN troops are tired and some have taken rather heavy casualties.

[Omitted here is discussion of the Pueblo crisis.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings. Top Secret. Those present at the meeting were the President, Rusk, McNamara, Clifford, Helms, Wheeler, Rostow, Christian, and Tom Johnson. The meeting was held in the White House. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary) On February 18 the enemy launched a series of “second wave” attacks in three of the Corps Tactical Zones.
  2. See Document 79.
  3. Senators Frank Lausche, Wayne Morse, Sherman Cooper, Karl Mundt, John Sparkman, and Bourke Hickenlooper, respectively.
  4. McNamara's statement reiterated the administration's contention that intelligence reports had indicated that there was a second attack. See The New York Times, February 21, 1968.
  5. During the weekend of February 17–18, President Johnson toured several military installations. On February 21 he left for his Texas ranch and remained there through February 28. (Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary)
  6. The President's first stop during his weekend visit to bases was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the late afternoon of February 17. In remarks to 2,500 members of the Army's 82d Airborne Division who were leaving for Vietnam, he said: “We long to see this bloodshed come to an end. Month after month we sought to find an honorable solution to the struggle that has torn Vietnam for 20 years. The enemy's answer was clear. It is written in the towns and the cities he struck 3 weeks ago—in the homeless thousands who fled the scenes of battle—in the army that he has massed in the North near the DMZ. And our answer—your answer—must be just as clear: unswerving resolution to resist these ruthless attacks, as we have resisted every other.” For full text of these remarks, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pp. 238–239.
  7. At El Toro Marine Corps Base in California, the President spoke to Marine formations and an assembled civilian crowd. Noting that “freedom's defense could not be in better hands,” Johnson praised the men and underscored the importance of their mission in support of the defenders of Khe Sanh. At the conclusion of his speech, Johnson, as he had at Fort Bragg, came out to the tarmac to talk or shake hands with the Marines as they boarded their transport plane. For full text of the President's remarks, see ibid., pp. 240–241.
  8. At a breakfast with 20 of the Constellation's crew, a sailor questioned why his fellow servicemen had to go to war while “peace-niks got away from the draft by rebelling and having demonstrations.” The President replied that “in every war there are always dissenters and this is not something that has happened just in the Viet Nam war and this is not something that happens just about wars. There are always people who are against what is going on in the world. Take, for example, how people are against short skirts.” Johnson also told the sailors that he was proud of them, adding “that it is boys like you that make America a free country.” (Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary) According to notes taken by Tom Johnson, a further exchange occurred: “He asked one boy ‘If you were President what would you do to change things?’ Boy asked ‘What things sir?’ The President said ‘Anything. What goes on that could be corrected?’ Sailor said ‘I would hit them more.’ President explained they would come back at us and there were many more of them than us. Then he was asked about hitting their supply ships. Rostow said they could get their supplies other ways. ‘It is hard to keep the roads and railroad closed. In good weather we do a lot of damage. Then they have the ports of Southern China to use. We could make it more difficult to get supplies, but you would run into trouble with Russia and others by closing the ports. You would make Hanoi more dependent on the Chinese than ever.’ President: ‘We are trying to keep them (meaning Chinese and Russians) actively out of it. If you hit two or three ships in the harbor—it is like slapping me and I would slap back. We don't want a wider war. They have a signed agreement that if they get into a war, the Russians and the Chinese will come to their aid. They have two big brothers that have more weight and people than I have. They are very dangerous. If the whole family jumps upon me—I have all I can say grace over now—that is the reason the Secretaries of Defense and State have to see that what damage we will do them will be in the end not so dangerous. We will do better tomorrow than yesterday, but if we provoke both of them and get them on us, if we have all three actively fighting us—we are trying not to make this a wider war.’” (Ibid., Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings) The full text of the speech given by the President while on the Constellation is in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pp. 241–243.
  9. Johnson flew by helicopter to the home of former President Dwight Eisenhower at Palm Springs. Following a briefing, lunch, and a game of golf with Eisenhower, the President returned to Washington. (Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary) The President's telephone discussion with Eisenhower the next day is ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Eisenhower, February 19, 1968, 12:17 p.m., Tape F68.03, Side A, PNO 2–3. In a discussion with Secretary Rusk on February 19, the President noted: “I spent a long time with Eisenhower. He says, ‘I don't think you all—one criticism I've got of this administration is I think you're right, I think you're doing what you ought to do, I think you got to be there, but I don't think you understand that the longer the war, the more costly it is.’ He said, ‘I'd rather lose 25,000 a day for a few days and get it over with than lose 2,500 a month ad infinitum.’ And I said, ‘Any general would do that,’ and he said, ‘The man that's got the greatest responsibility on his shoulders of any general in the history of this country is Westmoreland.’ But he said, ‘Westmoreland ought to be asking for more men and ought to be doing more than he is. And anybody can look at it and see,’ and he said, ‘I'm afraid that that's your mistake.’ So I would gather that's the Republican line.” (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Rusk, February 19, 1968, 11 a.m., Tape F68.03, Side A, PNO 1; transcript prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume)
  10. Senator William Knowland, Senate majority and minority leader during the 1950s.
  11. Representative Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives, 1940–1961, and Johnson's mentor.