287. Memorandum From Vice President Humphrey to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Meeting with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore
  • Wednesday, October 18, 1967

Yesterday morning in a frank exchange with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Lee likened our experience in Vietnam to a long bus ride, from which we had several opportunities to get off, but from which we cannot now debark until the trip is successfully concluded. We could have left the scene in 1956 after the elections of that year; in 1961 because of the generally unfavorable situation; and in 1963 after Diem’s death, by stating that we did not desire to get mixed up with the “generals’ settlement” and therefore withdraw our 25,000 advisers. By 1965, there was no longer a choice, and in 1967 any talk of withdrawal is nonsensical.

“What will happen to you,” he declared. “Who will place any confidence in you?”

The Prime Minister said that the United States had made no commitment to him, and that he was not looking for one. He said, however, that if the United States indulged in a “give-away” or withdrew from Vietnam, there would be fighting in Thailand within one and a half to two years, in Malaysia shortly thereafter, and within three years, “I would be hanging in the public square.”

[Page 637]

Lee stated that he had rejected Communism and defeated it in his country by “ballots and not bullets.” “My God,” he said, “they want to punish me for that!”

The Prime Minister, who was to speak before the National Press Club at noon and before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later in the afternoon, asserted that he could not understand either our Senators or our Press. He asked if the Senators spoke from their hearts or for their constituents, when they declared we should get out of Vietnam. He said the Press was making Vietnam a domestic political issue, and he is reluctant to get involved in the domestic debate on Vietnam.

I explained to him the relative political independence of a U.S. Senator and told him that in my opinion, if the chips were really down, that 80 out of 100 Senators would support our policies in Vietnam. I also assured him that the Press would report what he said as he said it.

I urged him to tell the Senate, the Press Club and his viewers and listeners on his “Meet the Press” appearance, exactly what he had said to me.

Without urging or prompting, Lee summed up his feelings:

“Does America feel that we are human beings? That this part of the world matters? The center of gravity has moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic to the Pacific. You are going to have to take sides. No one wants to be on the losing side. With you, we have a fighting chance. For me, it’s survival.”

Speaking of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, Lee stated that we must convince them that history is not on their side. If they believe this, they will not hold out for a long period of time. Referring again to the necessity for perseverance on the part of the United States in Asia, Lee stated: “If you are wavering, I am going to make some contingency plans.” He added that the Thais, who have a legendary reputation in Asia for anticipating history and switching sides to end up on the winning side, will be the first to make other arrangements and reach some accommodation with North Vietnam or China.

Knowing that U.S. presence in Asia is essential to his own survival, Lee is nevertheless concerned about how one can keep the temperature controlled in the United States on this issue during an election year. He is greatly concerned that the war might widen. Speaking of Secretary McNamara, whom he had met and whom he greatly admires, he stated that “when I have seen him (McNamara) whittled down by the generals, this worries me.”

I assured the Prime Minister that the main general, the Commander-in-Chief, is elected, and he is the man in charge. There is a strong tradition here of civilian supremacy, which once led President Truman to remove General MacArthur at the time of the Korean War. [Page 638]This government is not engaged in trying to obliterate North Vietnam. The President remains open to suggestion and innovations on the question of strategy and tactics. He is determined that every possible restraint will be applied to prevent the war from becoming a major conflagration. He has emphasized this in his talks with foreign leaders, including those with Prime Minister Kosygin at Glassboro.

I told the Prime Minister that there is general agreement here on the importance he attaches to the patience and determination of the United States in meeting its commitment in Asia. This is what has been called into question by critics in Congress, the Press and across the country. It is for that reason that it is so important that a man like Lee Kuan Yew, who is a highly-regarded Asian leader from a non-aligned country, speak frankly to the Congress and to the public on these issues. If the Prime Minister could say to the Congress and on television some of the things he has been telling U.S. officials in Washington this week, this would be immensely helpful.

In response to my inquiry about his recent visit to England and the political situation in Great Britain, he replied that it had been a very dispiriting visit. The pound was in trouble, and the closing of the Suez and the balance of payments were problems of great concern to the Labor Government.

In answer to my question about possible devaluation of the pound, he stated that if the pound were to be devaluated, it would be the end of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and most likely the Labor Government. He said the Labor Party was in a “soul destroying” phase. Wilson was “doing all bad, hurting his own supporters.” “Labor,” he said, was “not winning a chap from the other side.”

“Britain,” he said, “has never been more depressed.” The Labor Party Conference was like “whistling through a cemetery.”

Lee did say, however, that the recent Middle East conflagration may have been the last crisis, and if the pound is not devalued or revalued, that there may be a recovery in the late seventies.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Name File, Vice President, Vol. II. No classification marking. A note on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it.