Through LBJ's taped phone conversations and his own remembrances, Bill Moyers looks at Johnson's deliberations as he stepped up America's role in Vietnam
. It's fascinating reading, not least for the way the optics of the situation — the symbolism, the signals sent, the perceived loss of face — factored into his decision-making. He's at his most honest with his old friend and mentor Senate Armed Services Chairman, Richard Russell of Georgia.LYNDON B. JOHNSON:
What do you think about this Vietnam thing? What, what, I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.
Frankly, Mr. President, if you were to tell me that I was authorized to settle it as I saw fit, I would respectfully decline and not take it.JOHNSON:
It's a, it's a, it's the damn worst mess I ever saw, and I don't like to brag. I never have been right many times in my life. But I knew we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there. And I don't see how we're going ever to get out without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles [...] I just don't know what to do.JOHNSON:
Well, that's the way that I've been feeling for six months.
It appears our position is deteriorating. And it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less that they're willing to do for themselves [...] It's a hell, a hell of a situation. It's a mess. And it's going to get worse. And I don't know what to do. I don't think that the American people are quite ready for us to send our troops in there to do the fighting. And if it came down to an option of just sending the Americans in there to do the fighting, which will, of course, eventually lead into a ground war and a conventional war with China [...] If it got down to that or just pulling out, I'd get out. But then I don't know. There's undoubtedly some middle ground somewhere [...]JOHNSON:
How important is it to us?
It isn't important a damn bit, with all these new missile systems.JOHNSON:
Well, I guess it's important to us-
From a psychological standpoint.JOHNSON:
I mean, yes, and from the standpoint that we are party to a treaty. And if we don't pay any attention to this treaty, why, I don't guess they think we pay attention to any of them.
Yeah, but we're the only ones paying any attention to it.JOHNSON:
Yeah, I think that's right [...] I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of a lot less.
I know, but you go send a whole lot of our boys out there-JOHNSON:
Yeah, that's right. That's exactly right. That's what I'm talking about. You get a few. We had 35 killed-and we got enough hell over 35-this year [...] The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it, every one of them, even Dirksen.
It's the only issue they got [...] It's a tragic situation. It's just one of those places where you can't win. Anything you do is wrong [...]JOHNSON:
Now, the whole question, as I see it, do we, is it more dangerous for us to let things go as they're going now, deteriorating every day-
I don't think we can let it go, Mr. President, indefinitely.JOHNSON:
Then it would be for us to move in?
We either got to move in or move out. I -JOHNSON:
That's about what it is.
You can make a tremendous case for moving out [...]JOHNSON:
Well, they'd impeach a President though that would run out, wouldn't they? I just don't believe that-outside Morse, everybody I talk to says you got to go in, including Hickenlooper, including all the Republicans none of them disagreed with him yesterday when he made the statement "we have to stand." And I don't know how in the hell you're gonna get out unless they tell you to get out.
If we had a man running the government over there that told us to get out, we could sure-get out.JOHNSON:
That's right, but you can't do that
Of course you'd look pretty good, I guess, going in there with all the troops and sending them all in there, but I tell you it'll be the most expensive venture this country ever went into.JOHNSON:
I just haven't got the nerve to do it, and I don't see any other way out of it.
It's one of these things where "heads I win, tails you lose."
I'm confronted with-I don't believe the American people ever want me to run. If I lose it, I think that they'll say I've lost, I've pulled in. At the same time, I don't want to commit us to a war. And I'm in a hell of a shape. I can't do-I just don't know.
We're just like the damn cow over a fence out there in Vietnam.JOHNSON:
That's right and Laos. And I've got a study being made now by the experts which I want you to come over some night and have a drink and see, of how important the two of them are, whether Malaysia will necessarily go and India will go and how much it'll hurt our prestige if we just got out and let some conference fail or something.
I know all those arguments. JOHNSON:
But they say that, well a fellow like A.W. Moursund said to me last night, -damn, there's not anything that'll destroy you as quick as pulling out, pulling up stakes and running, that America wants by God, prestige and power. And they don't want-I said, yeah, but I don't want to-I don't want to kill these folks. He said, I don't give a damn. He said, I didn't want to kill 'em in Korea, but said, if you don't stand up for America, there's nothing that a fellow in Johnson City-or Georgia or any other place-they'll forgive you for everything except being weak.
Well there's a lot in that. There's a whole lot in that.JOHNSON:
Goldwater and all of 'em raising hell about go on, let's hot pursuit. Let's go in and bomb them [...]
It'd take a half million men. They'd be bogged down in there for ten years. And oh hell no.JOHNSON:
We never did clean Korea up yet.
No it ain't clean yet. We're right where we started [...] I didn't ever want to get messed up down there. I do not agree with those brain trusters who say that this thing has got tremendous strategic and economic value and that we'll lose everything in Southeast, in Asia if we lose Vietnam. I don't think that's true. But I think as a practical matter, we're in there and I don't know how the hell you can tell the American people you're coming out. There's just no way to do it. They'll think that you've just been whipped, you've been ruined, you're scared. And, it'd be disastrous.JOHNSON:
I think that I've got to say that, we're-I didn't get you in here, but we're in here by treaty and our national honor's at stake. And if this treaty's no good, none of 'em are any good. Therefore we've-we're there. And being there, we've got to conduct ourselves like men. That's number one. Number two, in our own revolution, we wanted freedom and we naturally looked with other people, with sympathy with other people who want freedom and if you'll leave 'em alone and give 'em freedom, we'll get out tomorrow.