53. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the Presidentʼs Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1

[Here follows discussion of the Seaborn mission to Hanoi and plans for Ambassador Stevenson to meet with the President.]

Johnson: I will tell you the more, I just stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, and the more that I think of it I donʼt know what in the hell, it looks like to me that weʼre getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I donʼt see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once weʼre committed. I believe the Chinese Communists are coming into it. I donʼt think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I donʼt think itʼs worth fighting for and I donʼt think we can get out. And itʼs just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.

Bundy: It is an awful mess.

Johnson: And we just got to think about it. Iʼm looking at this Sergeant of mine this morning and heʼs got 6 little old kids over there, and heʼs getting out my things, and bringing me in my night reading, and all that kind of stuff, and I just thought about ordering all those kids in there. And what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country? Weʼve got a treaty but hell, everybody else has got a treaty out there, and theyʼre not doing a thing about it.

Bundy: Yeah, yeah.

Johnson: Of course, if you start running from the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

Bundy: Yeah, thatʼs the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us. Thatʼs the dilemma, thatʼs exactly the dilemma.

Johnson: But everybody that I talk to thatʼs got any sense now they just says Oh, my God, please give us thought. Of course I was reading Mansfieldʼs stuff this morning, and it is just Milquetoast as it can be. Heʼs got no spine at all.

Bundy: Yeah.

Johnson: But this is a terrible thing that weʼre getting ready to do.

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Bundy: Mr. President, I just think it figure it is really the only big decision in one sense, this is the one that we have to either reach up and get it, or we let it go by. And Iʼm not telling you today what Iʼd do in your position. I just think that the most that we have to do with it is pray with it for another while.

Johnson: Anybody else that we got that can advise with, that might have any judgement on this question, that might be fresh, that might have some new approach. Would Bradley be any good? Would Clay be any good?

Bundy: No, Bradley would be no good. I do not think Clay would add. I think youʼre constantly searching, if I understand you correctly, for some means of stiffening this thing that does not have this escalating aspect to it, and Iʼve been up and down this with Bob McNamara, and I have up and down it again with Mike Forrestal. And I think that there are some marginal things that we can do, … but I think, also, Mr. President, you can do, what I think Kennedy did at least once which is to make the threat without having made your own internal decision that you would actually carry it through. Now I think that the risk in that is that we have, at least, it seemed to do it about once or twice before. And thereʼs another dilemma in here, which is the difficulty your own people have in. Iʼm not talking about Dean Rusk or Bob McNamara or me, but people who are at second removed, who just find it very hard to be firm, if theyʼre not absolutely clear what your decision is. And yet you must safeguard that decision and keep your …

Johnson: What does Bill think that we ought to do?

Bundy: Heʼs in favor of touching things up, but you ought to talk to him about it. Iʼve got an extremely good memorandum from Forrestal 2 that Iʼm just getting ready for you that shows what he thinks about it.

Johnson: What does he think?

Bundy: He thinks that we ought to be ready to move a little bit, a little bit. And mainly the Vietnamese. On the other hand, a readiness to do more. He believes really thatʼs the best way of galvanizing the South, that if they feel that we are prepared to take a little action against the center of this infection, that thatʼs the best way …

Johnson: What action do we take, though?

Bundy: Well, I think that we really do need to do some target fodder work, Mr. President, that shows precisely what we do and donʼt mean here. The main object is to kill as few people as possible, while creating an environment in which the incentive to react is as low as possible. But I canʼt say to you that this is a small matter. Thereʼs one other thing that [Page 137] Iʼve thought about, Iʼve only just thought overnight, and itʼs on this same matter of saying to a guy, you go to Korea, or you go to Vietnam, and you fight in the rice paddies. I would love to know what happened if we were to say in this same speech, and from now on, nobody goes on this task who doesnʼt volunteer. I think that we might turn around the atmosphere of our own people out there, if it were a volunteer enterprise. I suspect that the Joints Chiefs wonʼt agree to that, but Iʼd like to know what would happen. If we really dramatized this as Americans against terror and Americans keeping their commitment, and Americans who have only peace as their object, and only Americans who want to go have to go, you might change the temper of it some.

Johnson: Well, you wouldnʼt have a Corporalsʼ Guard would you?

Bundy: I just donʼt know, I just donʼt know. If thatʼs true, then Iʼm not sure that weʼre the country to do this job.

Johnson: I donʼt think that itʼs just Morse and Russell, and Gruening, I think itʼs …

Bundy: I know it isnʼt. I know it Mr. President, it is 90% of the people that donʼt want any part of it.

Johnson: Did you see the poll this morning? 65% of them donʼt know anything about it, and of those that do, the majority think that weʼre mishandling it. But they donʼt know what to do, that Gallup.

Bundy: Yeah, yeah.

Johnson: Itʼs damn easy to get into a war, but if itʼs going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.

Bundy: Very easy. Iʼm very sensitive to the fact that the people who are having trouble with the intransigent problem find it very easy to come and say to the President of the United States, go and be tough.

Johnson: What does Lippmann think that you ought to do?

Bundy: Well, Iʼm going to talk with him at greater length, but what he really thinks is that you should provide a diplomatic structure within which the thing can go under the control of Hanoi, and walk away from it. I donʼt think thatʼs an unfair statement, but I will ask him.

Johnson: You mean that he thinks that Hanoi ought to take South Vietnam?

Bundy: Yes sir, diplomatically.

Johnson: Uh, huh.

Bundy: Maybe by calling it a neutralization and removing American force and letting it slip away the way that Laos did, would if we didnʼt do anything, and will if we donʼt do anything. We would guarantee the neutrality in some sort of a treaty that we would write. I think, Iʼm sorry, Iʼm not sure that Iʼm the best person to describe Lippmannʼs views, because I donʼt agree with them.

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Johnson: Who, who, who, who has he been talking to besides you? Has he talked to Rusk on any of this? Has he talked to McNamara?

Bundy: Heʼs talked to George Ball. And heʼs talked to, I donʼt think that heʼs talked to Rusk, and I donʼt think heʼs talked to McNamara.

Johnson: Wouldnʼt it be good for he and McNamara to sit down?

Bundy: I think that it would be very good, but I donʼt think, I think, I had planned to have lunch with Walter on Monday, because I couldnʼt find a workable time before for that, but I can do it sooner, if youʼd like me to.

Johnson: I wish you would.

Bundy: I will.

Johnson: Iʼd try to get his ideas a little more concrete before I leave here. And Iʼd like to have him talk to McNamara. I might, I might just have the three of you in this afternoon sometime.

Bundy: All right.

Johnson: Walter, McNamara and him [Ball?]. Iʼd like to hear Walter and McNamara debate.

Bundy: Debate it?3

Johnson: Yeah.

[Here follows discussion of a possible time that afternoon for the President to meet with McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Ball, and Walter Lippmann.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a telephone conversation between the President and McGeorge Bundy, Tape 64.28 PNO 111. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. Apparent reference to a memorandum from Forrestal to Bundy, May 26, printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 178.
  3. According to the Presidentʼs Daily Diary, the President met with McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Ball, and Lippmann from 4:30 p.m. to approximately 5 p.m. (Johnson Library) Ball wrote Rusk an account of the meeting, noting that Lippmann “made his usual argument for neutralization.” Ball reported that when he pressed, Lippmann admitted that he assumed Southeast Asia was “destined inevitably to become a zone of Chinese Communist control” and the best U.S. course was to slow that expansionism and “make it less brutal.” Ball did not think the President “bought Lippmannʼs thesis,” but Johnson was impressed with Lippmannʼs view that the United States was losing the battle of international public relations. After the President left, the group debated Southeast Asia and Vietnam for another hour. (Letter from Ball to Rusk, May 31; Department of State, Ball Files: Lot 74 D 272, Vietnam (Ballʼs Memos))