Friday, Aug 28, 2009

President Lyndon Baines Johnson talks to Senator Richard Russell, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a secretly taped phone conversation (released by the LBJ Library), May 27, 1964, (

Russell: Pretty good, how are you Mr. President?

Johnson: Oh, I've gots lots of trouble... what do you think about this Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.


Russell: It's the damn worst mess I ever saw. I don't like to brag-- I never have been right many times in my life, but I knew we was gonna get in this sort of mess when we went in there, and I don't see how we're ever gonna get out without fighting a major war with Chinese and all of them down there in those rice patties. I just don't see it. I just don't know what to do.

Johnson: That's the way I've been feelin for 6 months.

Russell: Our position is deteriorating, and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they're willing to do for themselves. It's just a sad situation.


It's a hell of a situation. It's a mess. And it's gonna get worse and I don't know what to do. I don't think the American people really are quite ready to send our troops in there to do the fightin'. If it came down to an option of just sendin' Americans in there to do the fightin' which will of course eventuate into a ground war...If it got down to that I'd just pull them out. I'd get out. But then I don't know.


Johnson: How important to us is it?

Russell: It isn't important to us a damn bit... from a psychological standpoint, but..

Johnson: I mean yes, and from the standpoint that we are party to a treaty and if we don't pay to attention to this treaty well then why pay attention to any of 'em.

Russell: Yeah, but we're the only one paying any attention to it... I think there's some 12 or 14 other countries as party to this treaty.

Johnson: Yeah, there are 14.

Russell: Other than the question of our worry and saving face.. that's the reason I said I don't think that anybody would expect us to stay in there.


Johnson: I would say that it pretty well adds up to them [McNamara, etc.] now that we've got to show some power and some force... We haven't got much choice. We are treaty bound and we're there, and this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others, and we've just got to prepare for the worst...

I don't think the American people are for it... I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of a lot less.


Johnson: The Republicans are gonna make a political issue out of it.


Russell: It's a tragic situation. It's just one of those places where you can't win. Everything you do is wrong.


It frightens me because it's my country involved over there.


The peculiar physical configuration of Korea made extensive guerrilla fighting impossible, but that's not true over in Laos and Cambodia, and Vietnam.


Johnson: Now, the whole question as I see it: is it more dangerous for us to let things go as they're going now -- deteriorating every day.. than it would be for us to move in.

Russell: We either got to move in or move out.

Johnson: That's about what it is.

Russell: You can make a tremendous case for moving out... It would be more consistent with the attitude of the American people and their general reactions than to go in.


Johnson: Nixon and Rockefeller and Goldwater all sayin' let's move and let's go in in the North.


Russell: We never could actually interdict all their lines of communication in Korea, although we had absolute control of the seas and the air. And we never did stop 'em. And you ain't gonna stop these people either.

Johnson: Well they'd impeach the president if he'd run out, wouldn't they?

Russell: Well, I don't think they would.

Johnson: Outside of Morris, everybody I talk to says you've got to go in... None of them disagreed with him yesterday when he made the statement that we had to stand.


Russell: Of course you'd look pretty good I guess goin' in there with all the troops and sendin' them all in there but I tell you, it'll be the most expensive venture this country ever went in to.

Johnson: I've got an old Seargant that works for me... and he's got six children. And I just put him up as the United States Army and Airforce and Navy every time I think about makin' this decision, and think about sending that father and his six kids. And what the hell are we gonna get out of his gunnin', and it just makes the chills run up my back... and I haven't got the nerve to do it and I don't see any other way out of it.

Russell: It doesn't make much sense to do it. It's one of these things where heads I win, tails you lose... It's a terrific quandry that we're in over there. We're just in the quicksands up to our neck.

Just 10 weeks after the above conversation, The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was signed on August 7, 1964:

The joint resolution “to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia” passed on August 7, with only two Senators (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening) dissenting, and became the subject of great political controversy in the course of the undeclared war that followed.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” As a result, President Johnson, and later President Nixon, relied on the resolution as the legal basis for their military policies in Vietnam.

As public resistance to the war heightened, the resolution was repealed by Congress in January 1971.