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330. Notes of a Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara1

McNamara: It’ll be dangerous if the paradrop is carried out, but it’ll be dangerous if it isn’t and under the circumstances, the danger of carrying it out is less than the danger of not carrying it out.

Johnson: Well now you’ve got this feedback all over town, I think from the same source that claims that every man in State is against it. Oh hell, the Secretary came in and from Harriman down to the bottom one, they thought it [unintelligible], everybody thought it was terrible.

McNamara: Well I thought—

Johnson: And that Rusk came in and said that he rather thought it ought to be done and that everybody around the table—but they’re going around town peddling this kind of stuff. I just had a fellow come into me. I haven’t called anyone else. The next man I’m going to call is Rusk, but I’m not going to tell him I’ve discussed it with folks, but I don’t like for him to be [unintelligible].

McNamara: I don’t think it’s fair to do that, Mr. President, because I am just positive that Harriman was in favor of this. At least he led me to believe he was and Harriman’s taken a pretty firm line on the Congo situation. For example, it was he over the objections of another group at State who pressed for a reconnaissance plane to fly over Stanleyville or at least ten or fifteen miles off the center of Stanleyville so we could get back photographs of the area, and this because we said if they wanted a U.S. military operation over there we couldn’t possibly carry it out unless we had some photographs of the area and knew what we were dropping into or knew what we were sending troops into. So much over the objections of others at State, Harriman strongly urged that this be done and Dean approved it, which we did. I think this is only to illustrate that he’s been a very firm individual and it was my understanding that this Belgian paradrop operation evolved out of his talks in Belgium, although it didn’t come up at that particular time. It came about as a result of his conversations and if Spaak was in favor of it, and therefore from my point of view, State was proposing it and we went along with it because I valued Dean’s judgment on this issue. Dean has been very much concerned about the lives of the Americans in Stanleyville and his—his—.

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Johnson: I think we’ve got to be. I think that flag’s got to go to that person, and we’ve got to stand up and not let the Afro-Asians run over us. And I just took that position when these folks talked to me about it, and I said I’m just damn tired of a bunch of folks like this, and they’ve got a right to kill American people and we haven’t even got a right to furnish a plane to try to get them out and so forth. But the State Department group is putting out some bad stuff and their thing that’s coming to my desk is that all of them are against this from Harriman down except Rusk, and he came into me late and they ran under the table but—.

McNamara: Well Rusk is definitely in favor of this. There’s no doubt about that, but I’m perfectly willing to stand with him and be known as being in favor of it in the press. I know he’s very much concerned about the lives of these people. He has proposed policies that I would not have proposed in order to save their lives. [gap]—but in any case that was his proposal and I supported him on it. And I think this only indicates that he’s taken a damn firm hard line in trying to preserve the lives of these people and he strongly believes that this paradrop will act in the course of that objective and I’m strongly in favor of supporting him therefore.

Johnson: Now when you—, when it’s leaked though and they have advance notice, does that change—

McNamara: Well I noticed the leaks and I saw some cables referring to them today. I don’t think it does. It’s just terribly hard to evaluate the psychology of these rebels. I don’t know whether you noticed a cable that came in here about a week ago but it told of one of the rebel leaders in Stanleyville going up to the former mayor of the city and taking a knife out and slitting him down the front, reaching in and picking out his kidney and eating it when the man was alive. Now, I don’t know how you deal with people like that. I don’t know how you interpret what they’ll do if we fly an airplane over there or if we drop some paratroopers. I talked to General [Tecuma (sp?)], who is currently head of the Standing Group here in Washington and who was formerly General Wheeler’s counterpart in the Belgian army, and he personally has carried out operations in the Belgian Congo. And he says he thinks the rebels are more affected by a show of power such as a drop of Belgian paratroopers and would be less likely to kill the Americans under those circumstances than they will be if we appear weak. And so I’m taking his view plus Dean Rusk’s, but I can’t guarantee it’s a proper interpretation of their psychology.

[Omitted here is discussion of another subject.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and Secretary McNamara, November 17, 1964, evidently already underway when the recording began. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.