McNamara and Johnson discuss the situation in Vietnam (1964)

In February 1964 Lyndon Johnson, then president for just a few weeks, spoke to defence secretary Robert McNamara regarding the situation in Vietnam. Johnson urged McNamara not to discuss a possible US withdrawal from Vietnam:

Johnson: “Hello, Bob?”

McNamara: “Yes, Mr. President.”

Johnson: “I hate to modify your speech any because it’s been a good one, but I just wonder if we should find two minutes in there for Vietnam?”

McNamara: “Yeah, the problem is what to say about it.”

Johnson: “I’ll tell you what I would say about it. I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out of there, the dominoes would fall, and that part of the world would go to the Communists. We could send our marines in there, and we could get tied down in a Third World War or another Korean action. Nobody really understands what it is out there. They’re asking questions and saying why don’t we do more. Well, I think this: you can have more war or you can have more appeasement. But we don’t want more of either. Our purpose is to train these people [the South Vietnamese] and our training’s going good.”

McNamara: “All right, sir, I’ll…”

Johnson: “I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the President [Kennedy] thought otherwise and I just sat silent.”

McNamara: “The problem is?”

Johnson: “Then come the questions: how in the hell does McNamara think, when he’s losing a war, [that] he can pull men out of there?”

Later, in June 1964, McNamara again advised Johnson that the situation in South Vietnam was deteriorating:

McNamara: “If you went to the CIA and said ‘How is the situation today in South Vietnam?’ I think they would say it’s worse. You see it in the desertion rate, you see it in the morale. You see it in the difficulty to recruit people. You see it in the gradual loss of population control.

Many of us in private would say that things are not good, they’ve gotten worse. Now while we say this in private and not public, there are facts available that find their way in the press. If we’re going to stay in there, if we’re going to go up the escalating chain, we’re going to have to educate the people, Mr. President. We haven’t done so yet. I’m not sure now is exactly the right time.”

Johnson: “No. And I think it you start doing it they’re going to be hollering ‘You’re a warmonger’.

McNamara: I completely agree with you.”