LBJ and the Descent into War

By Michael Beschloss
April 2019 • Vietnam Magazine

‘I do not have a parachute’

By the time Lyndon B. Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the United States had already made a significant commitment to South Vietnam’s struggle against communist forces. Military advisers were first sent to Vietnam in 1950 by President Harry S. Truman, and their numbers grew during the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy, but no combat troops were there when Johnson came into office. On Aug. 2, 1964, three small North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin (a second attack was alleged on Aug. 4 but did not occur). Johnson ordered airstrikes against North Vietnam, and Congress on Aug. 7 passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president to use “all necessary measures” to deal with the North Vietnamese threat. In November, Johnson soundly defeated Republican Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. Throughout the fall, the president’s team debated the proper course of action in Vietnam, but when Johnson began his new term in January 1965, there were still no U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. That would soon change, as historian Michael Beschloss describes in rich detail in his book Presidents of War.


In his inaugural address, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1965, Johnson said not a word about Vietnam. The president spoke exclusively of domestic affairs, for he planned to make fundamental changes in American life—with his War on Poverty, voting guarantees for all Americans, Medicare, aid to education, and other initiatives—that would install the architect of the Great Society in the record books.

Three days after being sworn in, at 2:26 a.m. on Saturday, Johnson was hurried by ambulance from the White House to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Lady Bird feared that he had suffered another heart attack. She stated in her diary that she “just patted him and sat down and held his hand. It could have been a frightening day. It was a day I had expected and thought about.” Without telling him, she bought a black dress, in case she needed one for her husband’s funeral.

When Johnson returned to the White House after three days at Bethesda, Lady Bird wrote that he was feeling “washed out” and “depressed.” Eight days after his collapse, she recorded that “Lyndon spent most of the day in bed,” and “for a man of his temperament, it means you have time to worry.” She told her diary, “It’s sort of a slough of despond. . . . The obstacles indeed are no shadows. They are real substance—Vietnam, the biggest.”

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the Viet Cong attacked a U.S. Army barracks in Pleiku, killing eight Americans. That evening, Johnson called House Speaker John McCormack, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other advisers to the Cabinet Room and told them he would order retaliatory airstrikes against three North Vietnamese targets. Johnson explained he had “kept the shotgun over the mantel and the bullets in the basement for a long time now,” but now they had to act because “cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.” He contended that the United States could have avoided both world wars “if we had been courageous in the early stages.”

Sen. Richard Russell, left, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, told Johnson in early March 1965, just before the Marines landed in Vietnam, “I don’t know how to back up now.” (AP Photo/Charles Gorry)

Then, on Wednesday morning, Feb. 10, McGeorge “Mac” Bundy, the president’s national security adviser, called Johnson to report that the Viet Cong had attacked a U.S. aircraft maintenance barracks in Qui Nhon. Twenty-three Americans were killed, the most of any single incident yet in Vietnam. Bundy noted that the North had recently attacked train facilities; therefore the United States and South Vietnam could together retaliate against a northern railroad, “an extremely easy target.” Johnson asked that Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, be told to notify captains on aircraft carriers to begin “loading their stuff, and let’s pick the targets.” Eager to bring in Congress, Johnson called McCormack and said, “We’ve got to meet right quick on targets.”

The president knew the gravity of the step he was taking. He went to see Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “I’m not temperamentally equipped to be commander in chief,” he told Humphrey. “I’m too sentimental to give the orders.” On Friday, Johnson’s directive was executed.

Seeking reassurance and hoping to thwart Republican opposition, Johnson called Eisenhower at his winter home in Palm Desert, California: “I don’t want to put it up like we are in deep trouble, because I don’t think it’s reached that point,” but “you could be more comforting to me now than anybody I know.” He asked, “Why don’t you come stay all night with me?” During his White House visit, Eisenhower advised Johnson that if it took eight American divisions, in a “campaign of pressure,” to protect South Vietnam from a communist takeover, “so be it.” Should China or the Soviets threaten to intervene, “we should pass the word back to them to take care, lest dire results occur to them.” Eisenhower was suggesting a reprise of the hints of nuclear attack that he had quietly dropped in his effort to obtain a Korean armistice. He told Johnson that the “greatest danger” now would be if China concluded “that we will go just so far and no further” in pursuing the Vietnam War. The former president described how he had conveyed his nuclear threat to the Chinese in 1953 through “three channels.” Johnson asked how he might convey a similar warning to the Chinese. Eisenhower suggested using the Pakistani president, Mohammed Ayub Khan, “a very fine man,” whom he knew from his own time in office.

Johnson asked Eisenhower what he should do if Chinese forces crossed the border into Vietnam. Eisenhower advised him to “hit them at once with air” and “use any weapons required”—including tactical nuclear weapons. He complained that during the Korean War the Chinese believed that Truman had made “a gentleman’s agreement” not to cross the Yalu River or use nuclear arms. In Vietnam, “we should let it be known that we are not bound by such restrictions,” he said.

With Korea on his mind, Johnson also called Truman in Independence, Missouri. “I’m having hell!” Paternally, the 80-year-old former president asked him, “What’s the trouble?” Johnson replied, “A little bit with Indochina. I’m doing the best I can. My problem is kind of like what you had in Korea.” Johnson added, “I think when they go in and kill your boys, you’ve got to hit back. And I’m not trying to spread the war, and I’m not trying—” Truman broke in, “You bet you have! You bust them in the nose every time you get a chance, and they understand that language better than any other kind.” Objecting to the airstrikes, two Democratic senators, George McGovern of South Dakota and Frank Church of Idaho, publicly asked Johnson to negotiate. Furious, the president told Bundy that the two senators “ought to be told” what “hurts us most is not the hitting our compound” but “these goddamned speeches that the communists blow up, that show that we are about to pull out.” McGovern went to see Johnson, who warned him that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was a tool of the Chinese. The senator, who had taught history at Dakota Wesleyan University, rejoined that the Chinese had been struggling against the Vietnamese for a thousand years. By McGovern’s later account, the president told him, “Goddamn it, George, you and [Arkansas Democratic Sen. J. William] Fulbright and all you history teachers down there—I haven’t got time to f–k around with history. I’ve got boys on the line out there.”

Johnson told his old friend Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader from Illinois, that the North Vietnamese “can’t come bomb us, kill our people and expect us to go in a cave.” To the president’s delight, Dirksen replied that his only mistake had been not to have attacked the North hard enough. Invoking the appeasement of prewar Nazi Germany at a conference in Munich, as well as the domino theory, Johnson replied, “We know, from Munich on, that when you give, the dictators feed on raw meat. If they take South Vietnam, they take Indonesia, they take Burma, they come right on back to the Philippines.”

Johnson was outraged to find that his vice president wished to get out of Vietnam. Humphrey wrote him that “involvement in a full scale war” would not “make sense to the majority of the American people.” He conceded that it was “always hard to cut losses,” but for the newly elected president, “1965 is the year of minimum political risk.” As Humphrey later recalled, his letter made Johnson so angry that the president threw him into political “limbo.”

Johnson tried to expand his struggle against the North by stealth. When the U.S. Embassy in Saigon confirmed, in late February, that the United States had used B-57 and F-100 jet bombers for the first time against the Viet Cong, Johnson complained to Secretary of State Dean Rusk that this news looked “desperate and dramatic” and that “all of TV” was heralding “an entirely new policy.”

That month, the president had quietly approved McNamara’s proposed Operation Rolling Thunder, a gradual, sustained bombing campaign intended to ratchet up pressure against the North. But in a telephone call to McNamara on Friday morning, Feb. 26, he spoke these bone-chilling words: “Now we’re off to bombing these people. We’re over that hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.” No earlier chief executive had pushed Americans into a major war with such initial pessimism.

On Monday, March 1, Johnson told McNamara to unleash Rolling Thunder without public announcement.  But that same day, The New York Times reported that the “highest” U.S. officials in Saigon were confiding that Johnson had “decided to open a continuing, limited air war.” Furious at the leak, Johnson snapped, “Am I wrong in saying that this appears to be almost traitorous?” He added that it was “not good to say that we’ve got a plan to bomb this specific area before we’re bombing it. Because, Christ, I guess every anti-aircraft and everything they can get is alerted.”

The next day, Rolling Thunder began, with more than a hundred U.S. aircraft striking a munitions depot and navy base. During the following three years, Rolling Thunder would unload more bombs on the North than struck all of Europe during World War II. As if to make up for the private helplessness he seemed to feel about the war, Johnson made sure that he scrutinized the aerial forays, boasting, “They can’t hit an outhouse without my permission!”

Poignantly, the president stayed up late into the night hoping for assurance that his “boys” had returned safely, saying later, “I want to be called every time somebody dies.” After the first mission, a Situation Room duty officer called him very early on Tuesday, March 2, to report that two planes were probably missing. Johnson asked, “What’s it look like—our two pilots lost?” He was told that rescue efforts were “underway,” and, later, that six U.S. aircraft had been shot down, but five of the pilots had survived.

By Friday, Johnson was pondering Westmoreland’s request for 3,500 Marines to protect U.S. flyers and air bases in South Vietnam, which Rusk, McNamara and the Joint Chiefs had approved. The president told Bundy, “Now, the Marines! I haven’t made that decision. I’m still worried about it.”

The next day, Johnson told Democratic Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, “I guess we’ve got no choice, but it scares the death out of me. I think everybody’s going to think, ‘We’re landing the Marines—we’re off to battle.’” He predicted that the North would “get them in a fight, just sure as hell. They’re not going to run. Then you’re tied down.” Russell replied, “We’ve gone so damn far, Mr. President, it scares the life out of me, but I don’t know how to back up now.” Johnson said, “That is exactly right. We’re getting in worse.” Morosely, the president confided, “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” He added: “The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare, the more people you make mad, the more embassies you get—” Russell said, “It’s the worst mess I ever saw in my life.” Johnson exclaimed, “If they’d say I ‘inherited,’ I’ll be lucky. But they’ll all say I created it!”

Two hours later, the president told McNamara that “if there’s no alternative,” he could send the Marines to protect the U.S. airmen: “My answer is yes, but my judgment is no.” McNamara pledged to “minimize the announcement,” but warned that it would provoke “a lot of headlines.” Johnson replied, “You’re telling me!”

In April 1965, hoping to avert further dramatic escalation, Johnson publicly offered Ho Chi Minh a billion dollars to develop the Mekong River Delta, so long as  the North Vietnamese leader would guarantee the freedom of the South. But the money was refused. McNamara and Westmoreland that month persuaded Johnson to approve nine new battalions for Vietnam, which would increase U.S. forces there to 82,000.

Johnson asked Congress for $700 million “to meet mounting military requirements in Vietnam.” The House and Senate backed the president, almost unanimously, but newly elected Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York told colleagues on the Senate floor that his yes vote should not be taken as a “blank check” for any “wider war.” Escalation, he warned, could bring “hundreds of thousands of American troops” to Vietnam and “might easily lead to nuclear warfare.” Johnson complained to McNamara, a friend of the senator, that Kennedy was making “little snide remarks” in the Senate cloakroom that the president had “manipulated” Congress on Vietnam. “You’ve just got to sit down and talk to Bobby,” he said.

Some of the Joint Chiefs advised Johnson to bomb Hanoi. The president told congressional friends he had “stalled them off” by warning that this might force China to enter the war. Johnson later reported to Russell that some of the military leaders were “awfully irresponsible. They’ll just scare you. They’re ready to put a million men in right quick.”

On Monday, June 7, Westmoreland wired McNamara from Saigon that he urgently needed 41,000 more combat forces and 52,000 later on, which would mean 175,000 troops in Vietnam. He argued that the United States must abandon its “defensive posture” and “take the war to the enemy,” in which case “even greater forces” may be required. The defense secretary told colleagues, “We’re in a hell of a mess.”

Calling the president, McNamara now said, “Unless we’re really willing to go to a full potential land war, we’ve got to slow down here and try to halt, at some point, the ground troop commitment.” Johnson refused, noting that the North was “putting their stack in, and moving new chips into the pot.” The choice, he said, was either “tuck tail and run” or respond to those who were telling the United States, “The Indians are coming!”

To gauge the attitude of the doves, Johnson called Mansfield, confiding that his “military people” were warning that “our 75,000 men are going to be in great danger unless they have 75,000 more.” But then “they’ll have to have another hundred and fifty. And then they’ll have to have another hundred and fifty.” The majority leader said, “We’ve got too many in there now. . . . Where do you stop?” Johnson replied, “You don’t. . . . To me, it’s shaping up like this, Mike—you either get out or you get in.”

Westmoreland cabled that “short of decision to introduce nuclear weapons against sources and channels of enemy power, I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war.”

The first U.S. combat troops to arrive in Vietnam, a battalion from the 3rd Marine Division, come ashore at a beach north of Da Nang on March 8, 1965. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Johnson predicted to Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, that ultimately the Viet Cong would “last longer than we do” because their soldier was willing to hide out in a “rut” for two days “without water, food or anything, and never moves, waiting to ambush somebody. Now, an American—he stays there about 20 minutes and, God damn, he’s got to get him a cigarette!”

In June, the president told McNamara, “I’m very depressed about it.” He didn’t believe the communist forces were “ever going to quit,” and “I don’t see . . . that we have any . . . plan for a victory—militarily or diplomatically.”

With cold candor, Johnson told McNamara at the start of July: “We know ourselves, in our own conscience, that when we asked for this [Gulf of Tonkin] resolution, we had no intention of committing this many ground troops. We’re doing so now, and we know it’s going to be bad.” That same week, he confided to Lady Bird, “Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.” She told her diary, “When he is pierced, I bleed. It’s a bad time all around.”

On Thursday, July 22, 1965, Johnson made his decision. At 5:30 a.m., agitated in his bed, he turned, woke up Lady Bird, and told her, in torment, “I don’t want to get into a war and I don’t see any way out of it. I’ve got to call up 600,000 boys, make them leave their homes and their families.”

Briefing congressional leaders, Johnson confessed, “We all know that it is a bad situation, and we wish we were 10 years back—or even 10 months back.”

McCormack assured the president that they were “united” behind him, along with “all true Americans.”

Johnson rejected suggestions to announce his big decision before a joint session of Congress or in an Oval Office television address. Instead, at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28, he read a brief statement on Vietnam during a regular East Room press conference. Citing Westmoreland’s request, Johnson announced that he would “raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men, almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent, as requested.

Revealing his ambivalence, Johnson confessed, “This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your president.” But unless the nation stood up against “men who hate and destroy,” then “all of our dreams for freedom—all, all will be swept away on the flood of conquest. So, too, this shall not happen. We shall stand in Vietnam.” During a speech the following week, he gave no hint of his private doubts about the war and told the crowd, “America wins the wars that she undertakes. Make no mistake about it!”

Michael Beschloss has written nine books on presidential history. He is the NBC News presidential historian and a contributor to the PBS NewsHour.

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