241. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara 1

McNamara: The second problem2 is we’re flat on our ass with any reaction plan. There’s just no question about it. And I’ve got to accept that as a problem and be prepared to justify our position. And these are the two major matters that I’ve got the lawyers working on. I will, as you suggest, get Cy[rus Vance] further this morning to look at the detail. He’s gonna be here at least through noon, because I think he said he’s lunching with you or the group today. In any case, I fully agree with you on this. Now, as to time—how we do it and when—Buzz Wheeler and I are scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning3 at 10 o’clock on the 1969 Defense Program and Budget. And my guess is we won’t even get a word out of our mouths before they say, “The hell with that. We want to talk Pueblo.” So I have had in mind that I would have to be prepared by Thursday morning. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of calling Russell4 today and asking him, without suggesting that the Pueblo would come up, asking him how we would like to handle the start of the hearing Thursday, because I’m sure they’ll want to talk Khe Sanh and Pueblo and only incidentally ’69. And I thought Buzz and I should be prepared for both Southeast Asia and Pueblo in great detail by Thursday morning.

President: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. [Here follows discussion of the situation in Vietnam and of arrangements for a meeting among President Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs later that day.]

McNamara: You might talk about Khe Sanh without digging too deeply into the Pueblo, because they themselves [the Joint Chiefs], frankly, don’t know all I know about the Pueblo yet.

President: Who’s responsible for this then, the Navy? Who gives them the assignment?

McNamara: Well, let me just tell you as little as I know now, which isn’t all the story by any means. The proposal initiated with the [Page 555] Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet around the, I think it was the 17th of December, if I recall the date correctly. Then it went into—and he, he listed what he wanted to do.

President: Is that the fella—who is that? Where’s he stationed?

McNamara: He’s stationed in Honolulu, but, in turn, that came up from a lower level to him, and I haven’t got the lower—at least I haven’t seen the lower level papers yet.5 Then he gave it to Admiral Sharp, and Admiral Sharp turned it into the Chiefs around the 23rd of December, and the Chiefs reviewed it. These things are handled on a relatively routine basis.6 They reviewed it, and then it became part of what’s called the Monthly Schedule of Reconnaissance Activities,7 and that then went, between the 23rd of December and I would guess the end of the month—I haven’t the exact date yet—to the 303 Committee, on which sits the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Nitze, Dick Helms, Walt Rostow, I think Nick—I’m not—a State Department representative, in any case. The 303 Committee has to approve [Page 556] every one of these actions, and it approved this one.8 So, I, myself, I feel personally responsible for the mission, because either my deputy or I approves every one of these things. So it was approved properly,9 but it was a poorly conceived mission. That’s my conclusion. Now this part of it I haven’t gone all over it with the Chiefs yet, because some of this I got yesterday, and I was in here but they weren’t. I will, of course go over the whole thing and I’ll go over the whole paper with the Chiefs before Buzz and I have to testify.

President: Well, I would sure get my best explanation, because—Now what’s the [The tape ends abruptly at this point.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and McNamara, January 29, 1968, 8:41 a.m., Tape F68.01, PNO 4. Secret. This transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. A fragment of McNamara’s comments prior to this point—“I dare you approach. That’s one problem.”—was recorded during the phone conversation.
  3. February 1.
  4. Senator Richard Russell, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
  5. According to a retrospective study of the seizure of the Pueblo, the ship’s operational plan originated from the staff of Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson, Commander, Naval Forces Japan, under whose authority the ship, being assigned permanently to Yokosuka, fell. Johnson “personally made the initial determination that risk would be minimal since Pueblo would be operating in international waters during the entire operation.” After approving the proposed mission, Johnson forwarded it to Admiral John J. Hyland of CINCPACFLT, who, in turn, approved and submitted it to Admiral Sharp, CINCPAC. Sharp also approved and sent the proposal to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 23, 1967. When doing so, Sharp adopted Admiral Johnson’s view that risk to the ship and mission would be minimal. (National Security Agency, The Capture of the USS Pueblo and Its Effect on SIGINT Operations, United States Cryptologic History, Special Series, Crisis Collection, Vol. 7, 1992, pp. 29 and 33–34)
  6. Before the JCS could take any action and before the proposal could be sent further, however, the mission required approval of the Joint Reconnaissance Center Staff, consisting of a representative from each branch of the military, the DIA, the NSA, the Department of State, and the Secretary of Defense. Neither the JRC nor JCS reviews altered the initial minimal risk assessment associated with the mission. (Ibid., pp. 33–34)
  7. The JRC prepared for submission to the JCS the monthly schedule on or about the 23d of each month. It was in book form and contained broad information about all missions scheduled for the coming month. On Wednesday, December 27, the JCS received the monthly schedule for operations slated for January 1968, as did each branch of the Armed Forces, the DIA, NSA, CIA, and Department of State. Rather than discuss the monthly schedule at a routinely held, formal Friday meeting, each Chief approved release of the schedule by his Operations Deputy. After their own meeting, the Operations Deputies on Friday, December 29, the schedule was given to and approved by Nitze. (Ibid., pp. 34–35)
  8. The 303 Committee also granted civilian approval for the monthly schedule on December 29, noting that the mission held the possibility that the ship would encounter difficulties and potentially serious harassment. (Ibid., p. 36) NSA analysts also notified the JRC and JCS on December 29 of the potential for provocation by the North Koreans, mentioning as well that they had no evidence to suggest such harassment would occur outside the 12-mile territorial boundary. (Ibid., pp. 37–39 and 177–178)
  9. Given the holiday season and the absence of key officials from Washington, deputies and substitutes handled much of the review and approval process. (Ibid., pp. 34–39)