Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell, Washington, May 27, 1964, 10:55 p.m.

Source: U.S., Department of State, Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-1968, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia; Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 52

(Original Source: Johnson Library, Recording and Transcripts, Telephone Conversation between the President and Russell, Tape F64.27, Side B PNO 121 and F 64.28, Side A PNO 1. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume)

Senator Russell: Pretty Good. How are you Mr. President?

President Johnson: Oh, I've got lots of trouble. I want to see what you . . .

Russell: Well, we all have those.

Johnson: What do you think about this Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.

Russell: Well, frankly, Mr. President, if you were to tell me that I was authorized to settle as I saw fit, I would respectfully decline to undertake it. It's the damn worse mess that I ever saw, and I don't like to brag and I never have been right many times in my life, but I knew that we were gone to get into this sort of mess when we went in there. And I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don't see it. I just don't know what to do.

Johnson: Well, that's the way I have been feeling for six months.

Russell: Our position is deteriorating and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they are willing to do for themselves. It's just a sad situation. There is no sense of responsibility there on the part of any of their leaders apparently. It is all just through generations or even centuries that they have just thought about the individual and glorified the individual. That's the only utilization of power, just to glorify the individual and not to save the state or help other people. And they just can't shed themselves of that complex. It's a hell of a situation. It is a mess, and it's going to get worse, and I don't know how or what to do. I don't think the American people are quite ready for us to send our troops in there to do the fighting. If it came down to an option of just sending the Americans in there to do the fighting, which will, of course, eventually end in a ground war and a conventional war with China, and we do them a favor every time we kill a coolie, whereas when one of our people got killed it would be a loss to us, and if it got down to that--of just pulling out--I'd get out. But then I don't know. There is undoubtedly some middle ground somewhere. If I was going to get out, I'd get the same crowd that got rid of old Diem to get rid of these people and to get some fellow in there that said we wish to hell we would get out. That would give us a good excuse for getting out. I see no terminal date, boy oh boy, any part of that in there.

Johnson: How important is it to us?

Russell: It isn't important a damn bit for all this new missile stuff.

Johnson: I guess it is important.

Russell: From a psychological standpoint.

Johnson: I mean, yes, and from the standpoint that we are a party to a treaty. And if we don't pay any attention to this treaty I don't guess that they think paying attention to any of them.

Russell: Yeah, but we are the only ones paying attention to it.

Johnson: Yeah, I think that is right.

Russell: You see the other people are just as bound to that treaty as we are.

Johnson: Yes, that's right.

Russell: I think there are some twelve or fourteen other countries.

Johnson: That's right. Yeah, there are fourteen of them.

Russell: I don't know much about the foreign policy but it seems to me that there were several of them that were parties to it. And other than the question of our word and saving face, that's the reason that I said that I don't think that anybody would expect us to stay in there. Some old freebooter down in there, I've forgotten his name, I haven't heard about him lately, but he is still there, sort of a hellraiser and he don't know exactly what he wants, but I think he is the most dangerous thing to the present regime. I think that if he were to take over, he would ask us to get out. And, of course, if he did, with our theory of standing by self-determination of people, I don't think how we could say we not going to go if he is in charge of the government. It's going to be a headache to anybody that tries to fool with it. You've got all the brains in the country, Mr. President, you better get a hold of them. I don't know what to do about this. I saw it all coming on, but that don't do any good now, that's water over the dam and under the bridge. And we are there.

Johnson: Well, you've got. . .

Russell: Well, you got McNamara over there. He was up here yesterday testifying before the committee. I didn't want to have him up here, but Howard Cannon and some of them wanted to have him up here. So I set up the hearing for 8:30 before I started the Appropriations hearings. He's got, well, rather kicked around so I'm not sure he is objective as he ought to be in surveying the conditions out there. He feels like it is sort of up to him personally to see that the thing goes through, and he's a can-do-fellow, but I'm not too sure that he understands the history and background of those people out there as fully as he should. But even from his picture, the damn thing ain't getting any better, it is just getting worse, putting more and more in there and it's taking more and more away from the people we're trying to help, that we give them. I don't know, you better get some brains from somewhere to apply to this thing up. Because I don't know what to do with it.

Johnson: Well, I spend all my days with Rusk and McNamara and Bundy and Harriman and Vance, and all those folks that are dealing with it and I would say that it pretty well adds up to them now that we have got show some power and some force and that they do not--they are kind of like MacArthur in Korea--they don't believe that the Chinese Communists will come into this thing. But they don't know, and nobody can really be sure, but their feeling is that they won't, and in any event, we haven't got much choice. That we are treaty bound, that we are there, this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others, and that we have just got to prepare for the worst. Now I have avoided that for a few days. I don't think the American people are for it. I don't agree with Morse and all that he says, but . . .

Russell: Neither do I, but he is voicing the sentiment of a hell of a lot of people.

Johnson: I'm afraid that's right. I'm afraid that's right. I don't think the people of this country know much about Vietnam, and I don't think that they care a hell of a lot less.

Russell: Yeah, I know, but you go sending a whole lot of our boys out there they'll care something about it.

Johnson: Yeah, that's exactly right. That's what I'm talking about. You get a few killed. We had 35 killed. Hell, we got enough of them killed--over 35 this year.

Russell: There is more than that been killed in Atlanta, Georgia, in automobile accidents.

Johnson: Yeah, that's right, and 83 went down in one crash on a 707 in one day, but that doesn't make any difference.

Russell: That's the way these folks under stand it, they don't understand that thing over there now.

Johnson: The Republicans going to make a political issue out of it, every one of them, even Dirksen.

Russell: It's the only issue they've got.

Johnson: I talked to Dirksen the other day, Friday, and he suggested that I have three of Armed Services, three from Appropriations, and all of them from Foreign Relations down. So I told him all right and invited them. And yesterday before they came he gave out a big statement that we had to get us a program and go after them. And Hickenlooper said that they just had to stand and show our force and put our men in there and let come what may come, and nobody disagreed with him. Now Mansfield, he just wants to pull up and get out, and Morse wants to get out, and Gruening wants to get out. And that's about where it stops. I don't know.

Russell: And there's others here that want to get out, but they haven't said much about it, but Frank Church told me two or three times that he doesn't want to make a speech on it, but he just wished to God that we could get out of there. I don't know whether he has told you that or not?

Johnson: No, I haven't talked to him.

Russell: But I just use that as an illustration cause he has mentioned it to me more than once.

Johnson: Who are the best people that we have, that you know of, to talk about this thing? I don't want to do anything on the basis of just the information that I have got now.

Russell: I don't know who, Mr. President. Ah.

Johnson: I talked to Eisenhower a little bit.

Russell: I think that the people that you have named have all formed a hard opinion on it, I think.

Johnson: Rusk has tried to pull back, he has tried to hold back on everything, but he has about come to the conclusion now that Laos is crumbling and Vietnam is wobbly.

Russell: Laos, Laos, hell, it ain't worth a damn! They've been talking about all these battles down there, and I tried to get the best information I could from the CIA and from Defense both about all this fierce fighting on the Plain of Jars and all, and the highest estimate to the casualties is 150. That Laotian thing is absolutely impossible, it's a whole lot worse than Vietnam. There are some of these Vietnamese after they beat them over the head they will go in there and fight, but Laos is an impossible situation. That's just a rathole there. I don't know, but before I took any drastic action, I think I would get somebody like old Omar Bradley and one or two, perhaps senior people who had had government experience, not necessarily the military. If he wasn't scared to death of McNamara, this fellow Adams who is the head of Strike [Strike Command] would be a top flight man to send out there with them. Let them go out there, fool around for a few days and smell the air and get the atmosphere, and then come back in a few days and tell you what they think, cause they are new in it and would not have a great many preconceived ideas in approaching it.

Johnson: One of our big problems there, Dick, the biggest, between us and I don't want this repeated to anybody, is Lodge.

Russell: I know it.

Johnson: He ain't worth a damn.

Russell: Why, of course.

Johnson: And he can't work with anybody. He won't let anybody else work. We get the best USIA man to put all on all the radios and try to get them to be loyal to the government and to be fighting and quit deserting.

Russell: He thinks he's the emperor out there.

Johnson: And he calls in USIA and says: "I handle the newspapers and the magazines and radio myself, so hell with you." So that knocks that guy out. So then we send out the best CIA man we've got and he says, "I handle intelligence, to hell with you." Then he wants a new Deputy Chief of Mission and we get him to give us some names, and we pick one, the best one we've got, send him out there to run the damn war, and he gets where he [Lodge] won't speak to the Deputy Chief of Mission. Then we get General Harkins out there, we thought he was a pretty good man, and he gets where he can't work with him. So we send Westmoreland out there. It's just a hell of a mess. You can't do anything with Lodge, and that is where McNamara gets so frustrated. They go out and get agreements and issue orders, and sends his stuff in there, and then Lodge takes charge of it himself, and he is not a take-charge man. And he just gets stacked up.

Russell: He never has followed anything through to a conclusion since I've known him, and I've known him for 20 odd years. He never has. I went out with him around the world in '43, the only committee that went out during the war, we went everywhere. And Lodge was on there, he's a bright fellow, intelligent fellow, but he is not a man that persists. And he thinks he is dealing with barbarian tribes out there, and that he's the emperor, and he is going to tell them what to do. And there isn't any doubt in my mind that he had old Diem killed out there, himself, so he could.

Johnson: That was a tragic mistake.

Russell: Oh, it was horrible, awful.

Johnson: And we've lost ever since.

Russell: You have to go get someone that's more pliant than Lodge, that would do exactly as he said right quick. He's living up on cloud nine, it's a bad mistake. I don't know but the best thing you could do is ask Lodge if he don't think it's about time that he coming home?

Johnson: Well, he'd be home campaigning against us on this issue every day.

Russell: Well, God Almighty, he's goin' to come back anyway, when time comes. I'd give him a reason for doing it. He is going to come back. If you bring him back now, everybody going to say, "hell, he's coming back cause Johnson removed him from out there." MacArthur with all his power couldn't hurt Truman because everybody would said, well, hell, he just mad cause he got removed, though millions sympathized with him in it. And you needn't worry. Lodge will be in here, in my judgment, he'll be on that ticket some way. I don't think they'll nominate him for President, but they may put him on there for Vice President. But whether they do or don't, he'll be back here campaigning before that campaign's over. I don't know, I best take that back. This thing is so hopeless for the Republicans. He has certainly got enough critical sense to know that and not get his head chopped off. It would be foolish.

Johnson: Has Clay got any judgment on a thing like this?

Russell: Yeah, he has, even though he inclined . . .

Johnson: He's off in another part of the world, mostly, isn't he.

Russell: I think Clay knows. I'd take his judgment on most anything if he separates himself from his predilections. And he don't have any out there in that part of the world. I think that people generally have a good deal of respect for Clay's judgment too. And there's a great deal of affection and respect for old man Bradley, he's not in his dotage yet by a hell of a lot. I had him up here the other day getting some advice on some matters and I found him very alert. He's so humble, I don't know, he could tend to be a doormat for Lodge out there. But he's an intelligent man. Now Clay wouldn't. Clay would stand up to anybody if he felt he had support from high up places. I just don't know, it's a tragic situation, it's one of those places were you just can't win. Anything you do is wrong.

Johnson: Well, think about it and call me.

Russell: All right, sir. I have thought about it and worried about it and prayed about it.

Johnson: I don't believe that we can do anything that--

Russell: I have religiously because it's something that frightens me cause it's my country that is involved over there and if we get in there on any considerable scale, there is no doubt in my mind that what the Chinese will be in there and we will be fightin' a dang conventional war against our secondary potential threat. And it'll be Korea on a much bigger scale. And on a worse scale because of the peculiar physical configuration of Korea made extensive guerrilla fighting virtually impossible, but that's not true over in there. You go from Laos and Cambodia, into Vietnam, and bring North Vietnam into it too, it's the damnedest mess on earth. The French lost 250,000 men and spent a couple billion of their money and two billion of ours down in there. Just got the hell whipped out of them. And they got the best troops they had. In fact, they had a crack division of German troopers who were serving and the French Foreign Legion went down there.

Johnson: You don't have any doubt but if we go in there and get them up against the wall, the Chinese Communists is going to come in?

Russell: No doubt at all.

Johnson: That's my judgment, and my people don't think so.

Russell: There's no doubt in my mind about it. You'll find Chinese volunteers in there as soon as, very shortly, after we have active combat units engaged.

Johnson: Now Mike writes me a memo and all he says is that we continue to support the Vietnamese, and that's number one, and "end to the reflex of pique and face saving of every essay of DeGaulle's." Well, we're not piqued, we just asked DeGaulle to give us a blueprint, and he don't have it, he just says neutralization. But there ain't nobody wants to agree to neutralization. We ask him who would agree to go with old Ben Milam,/2/ we're ready, but he just says, well, we have to continue to maintain our strength and get in a position. But he's got no blueprint. "Three, realistic facing of the fact that we are in this situation without reliable military allies." Well, hell, I know that. "Four, an exploration of the possibility of the United Nations or some other arrangement." Well.

/2/Ben Milam was a hero of the war of Texas independence.

Russell: Who is this?

Johnson: This is Mike Mansfield. They [the United Nations] won't do a damn thing even on the Cambodian border, and hell, we can't get a majority vote in the Security Council. "Our willingness to entertain any reasonable proposals for international conferences." Well, we are ready to confer with anybody, anytime, but, that conferences ain't going to do a damn bit of good. They ain't going to take back and behave. We tell them every week, we tell Khrushchev, send China, Hanoi, and all of them word that we would get out of there and stay out of there if they just quit raiding their neighbors, and they just say, screw you.

Russell: That's right.

Johnson: So the conferences won't do it. Now the whole question as I see it, do we, is it more dangerous for us to let things go as they are going now, deteriorating every day?

Russell: I don't think we can let it go, Mr. President, indefinitely.

Johnson: Than it would be for us to move in?

Russell: Well, either we move in or move out.

Johnson: That's about what it is.

Russell: You can make a tremendous case for moving out, but a good for moving in?

Johnson: Well, now Nixon and Rockefeller.

Russell: But it would be more consistent with their attitude of the American people and their general reactions to go in. They could understand it. But getting out, even after we go in, getting bogged down with the war with China, and it's going to be a hell of a mess, it be worse than the one now to some extent, and that's what makes it so difficult. And don't forget that old Ben Milam was the only man that got killed. Old Ben was a hell of a hero, but he got killed.

Johnson: That's right.

Russell: And old Ben was killed. And so if they start off with Ben Milam, which they ain't going to do with any inside degree, they'll get out and Ben will be killed. It's just a hell of a come on. I don't know, I don't know how much Russia--they want to cause us all the trouble as they can. But, ah, if there is any truth in the theory that they are really at odds with China, and really is a cleavage there?

Johnson: They are, but they would go with them as soon as the fighting started. They wouldn't forsake that China, that Communist bloc.

Russell: I was talking about that. We might get them to take an active part in getting the thing straightened out.

Johnson: We are doing all that we can on that, but she doesn't show any signs of contributing.

Russell: Well, they'd be foolish to one extent because we just continue to pour money in there and get nothing back out of it. We don't even get good will back out of that. I don't know, I don't know where to go for advice, I just don't know where to go for it. McNamara is the smartest fellow any of us know, but he is opinionated as hell and he's made up his mind on this. I don't think it . . .

Johnson: Well, I'll tell you, Dick, what he has done. I think he is a pretty flexible fellow. He has gone out there and got Khanh to agree that we cannot launch a counter offensive or hit the North until he gets more stabilized and better set in the South. And thought he was buying us time and we could get by until November. But these politicians got to raising hell, and Scripps Howard writing these stories, and all the Senators, and Nixon, and Rockefeller, and Goldwater all saying let's move, let's go in the North.

Russell: That was a devastating piece that Lucas had in that little old paper.

Johnson: That's right.

Russell: That paper don't cover much of the country, but if it got out everywhere, that would raise a lot of hell.

Johnson: That's right, and they can always get an isolated example of bad things McNamara says, but that's not generally true that they had too many damn people being killed every day. And that they are flying the sorties and they even get some result and they're killing thousands of their people, but we're losing more, I mean we're losing ground. And he was hoping that we could avoid moving into the North, and thereby provoking the Chinese, for a few months.

Russell: Hell, you know we tried that from an infiltration guerrilla war standpoint with disastrous results.

Johnson: Lodge, Nixon, Rockefeller, Goldwater all say move. Eisenhower--

Russell: Well, and bomb the North, get a whole mess of women and children killed and infuriate everybody?

Johnson: No, no, they say pick out an oil plant or pick out a refinery, or something like that, take selected targets, watch this trail they're coming down, and try to bomb them out when they're coming in

Russell: Oh, hell, it ain't worth it a hoot. That's just impossible.

Johnson: McNamara said yesterday that in Korea LeMay and all of them were going to stop all of those tanks, and there were 90 of them coming through, and they turned the Air Force loose on them and they got one. Eighty-nine came on through.

Russell: We tried it in Korea. We even got out a lot of old B-29s to increase the bombing load, and sent them over there and just dropped millions and millions of pounds of bombs day and night. And in the morning, we'd knock out the road at night, in the morning the damn people be back traveling over it. That's true on that railroad over there on the north coast. We used the Navy with these 14 inch rifles [guns] and knocked a mountain down on it, shelled it, and knocked down this mountain and covered up the railroad tracks. And everybody said, "by God, we've got them now." And in the next morning, the trains were running like the devil right over that track. We shot up several million dollars worth of shells thinking we had closed it. We never could actually interdict all their lines of communication in Korea even though we had absolute control of the seas and the air. And we never did stop them. And you ain't going to stop these people either.

Johnson: Well, they'd impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn't they?

Russell: I don't think they would.

Johnson: I just don't believe that outside of Morse, everybody that I've talked to says that you got to go in, including Hickenlooper, including all the Republicans, nobody disagreed with him yesterday when he made the statement that we had to stand. And I don't know how in hell you're going to get out, unless they tell you to get out.

Russell: If we had a man over there running the government, that we told to get out, we could should do it

Johnson: That's right, but you can't do that.

Russell: I don't know if we could get somebody else. I don't remember that fellow's name, some sort of a maverick, that's got a bit of a following in below Saigon and then all our people hate him because he's always against the government. And he's not fighting them and all, but he's a very powerful man in Vietnam, and everybody who takes over the government gives him as an excuse for their repressions and suppressions. And if he were to get and say, "now you damn Yankees get out of here, I'm running the government now."

Johnson: Wouldn't that pretty well fix us in the eyes of the world and make us look mighty bad?

Russell: Well, I don't know, we don't look too good right now. And course, you'd look pretty good, I guess, going in there with all the troops, sending them all in there, but I'll tell you it'll be the most expensive adventure this country ever went into.

Johnson: I've got a little old sergeant that works for me over at the house and he's got six children. And I just put him up as the United States Army and Air Force and Navy every time I think about making this decision. I think about sending that father of those six kids in there, and what the hell are we going to get out of his doing in? It just makes the chills run up my back.

Russell: It does me.

Johnson: I haven't the nerve to do it, but 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, heads I win, tails you lose.

Johnson: Well, think about it, and I'll talk to you again. I hate to bother you.

Russell: I feel for you, God knows I do. It's a terrific quandary that we're in over there. We're in the quicksands up to our very neck, and I just don't know what the hell the best way to do about it.

Johnson: I love you, and I'll be calling you.

Russell: I'll see you, sir.

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