167. Editorial Note

In the evening of January 4, 1967, Secretary McNamara telephoned the President. After a brief discussion of details on strategic stockpile sales in the defense budget, the two talked extensively about the ABM problem. When the President asked McNamara what he thought of the meeting with the Joint Chiefs and the former science advisers (see Document 166), McNamara replied:

“Well, the only reason I didn’t give a recommendation when you asked for it, I didn’t want them to hear what I say in view of you might [Page 532] decide differently … I still favor doing nothing as we initially recommended three or four weeks ago, but it would be a helluva political crisis if you did nothing. The forces pushing you to do something are very, very strong indeed. But I myself agree fully with Killian and the science advisers. I don’t think we’ll buy anything worth going ahead. But if we’re to go ahead, then I think the best thing to do is the ‘thin’ system.”

McNamara also mentioned that the President could ask for the views of the contractors who would profit from an ABM deployment. He said that he met with these high–level business executives about 2 weeks earlier, and “without qualifications” they were all opposed to an ABM system against the Soviet Union. When the President asked who these businessmen were, he gave their names. McNamara continued that these contractors were willing to support fully the “thin” system, however, and had worked out its technical capabilities, time schedule, amount of money required, and the protection it would provide against China and for the U.S. offensive systems.

President Johnson said that McNamara seemed to be saying that the full ABM system was “not worth the price,” and McNamara replied, “To be absolutely honest with you, Mr. President, I don’t.” He believed, however, that Congress would “absolutely crucify him and through me you” if he testified against it, as he was prepared to do. But, McNamara continued, “I feel it’s wrong.”

The two discussed the difficulty in advocating a “thin” system, which would be a first step, and according to McNamara the Joint Chiefs would go along with a “thin” system on these terms. But the administration might be pushed, as McNamara put it, toward a heavy system costing $20 or $40 billion “that won’t buy a damn thing.” They also discussed proposing the “thin” system as a “contingency” and going to a full system if an agreement limiting ABMs could not be negotiated with the Soviet Union, but McNamara did not think much of this strategy.

President Johnson then asked, what if the administration started on a “thin” system and then got an agreement with the Soviet Union? “Oh, oh, yes, oh, yes, yes, yes, there’s a real possibility of that, Mr. President,” McNamara responded. He went on to summarize the ThompsonDobrynin talks on ABM systems, and noted that he believed that the Soviets were willing to talk on the issue. Dobrynin had very recently given Thompson “a fair amount of information,” from which McNamara theorized that the Soviets’ ABM system was to protect Moscow “only as a symbol of all Russia, and that this Tallinn system probably is not an ABM system.” Their ABM system might be extended “to Leningrad, Kiev, and a few other major centers,” but the Soviets did not intend it to be “a very widespread deployment.” Thus “it might be fairly simple to negotiate a limitation with them if we were willing to limit to something like Moscow. So I think there is a real possibility here of fruitful discussions.”

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At the end of their conversation, the President remarked, “So what it adds up to is you’re against contingencies and really if you were in my position, you’d do nothing.” “I guess, Mr. President,” McNamara replied, “what I mean to say is that I’d go down fighting, and I’m damn sure I’d go down. [He laughs.] A lot easier for me to say.” The President interjected, “Do you think that’s wiser for us to do?” McNamara responded, “Well, I don’t know, I don’t know;” and he added that if the decision was to do nothing, the administration would have to wage “a tremendous publicity campaign” with editors, scientists, and opinion leaders to win public support.

President Johnson then turned to the budget. He said that Senator Russell wanted to see him before he closed it. McNamara urged him to see Russell before the opening of the next session of Congress. Russell, he warned, “is just going to tear us apart this year. He will probably want to tell you that we ought to go all the way on nuclear power for service ships and increase the bombing of North Vietnam and just a lot of other things. We ought to push ahead on a manned bomber and push ahead on the ABM and push ahead on new air defense and so on.”

When the President asked whether the Joint Chiefs of Staff were “reconciled” to the budget, McNamara responded affirmatively, adding that “there’s no great emotional feeling that they ought to have more.” The Chiefs had had “a good hearing” and the decisions “were not bad.” But the problem was that these were “emotional issues,” and when the Chiefs testified before Congress, they would be told, “surely, you’re a man and not a mouse,” and they would like to add these programs to the defense budget. Put in these terms, the Chiefs would say “yes.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary McNamara, January 4, 1967, 6:40 p.m., Tape F67.01, Side A; transcript prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this Foreign Relations volume)