The Vietnam War Transcript Trump Needs to Read

Roundup
tags: Vietnam War, Trump, Lyndon B Johnson, Senator Richard Russell



Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

... It’s the transcript of the telephone call between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell, the publicly hawkish chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The date is May 27, 1964—before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to a congressional resolution giving LBJ a free hand in Vietnam; before the bombing of the North; before the introduction of U.S. combat troops. Some 15,000 “advisers” were in Vietnam, and a succession of generals was taking and then losing political power. While General William Westmoreland and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were issuing upbeat reports on progress, the men on the ground were telling increasingly skeptical journalists that things were looking dire. Like Trump, Johnson was a novice when it came to foreign affairs, and it showed in his questions to Russell.

“What do you think about this Vietnam thing?” Johnson begins. “I’d like to hear you talk a little bit.”

“Well, frankly, Mr. President,” Russell answers, “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 going 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.”

“Well, that’s the way I have been feeling for six months,” Johnson says. “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,” Russell replies—expressing a view that grew to be a core conclusion of Americans in Vietnam.

“It is a mess,” Russell continues, “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.”

And then, not for the last time in the conversation, Russell says: “If I was going to get out, I’d get the same crowd that got rid of old Diem [the Vietnamese prime minister who was overthrown and assassinated in 1963] 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.”

Then LBJ asks the key question: “How important is it to us?” 

“It isn’t important a damn bit for all this new missile stuff,” Russell says—meaning that with strategic missiles like the ones the Soviet Union was developing, holding one patch of ground has little if any military significance.

“I guess it is important,” the president says.

“From a psychological standpoint,” says Russell.

But the senator then goes further.

“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. 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 ahold 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.”

The talk moves to the pressure LBJ feels from his advisers to remain in South Vietnam, and to the demands from Republicans for escalation. The fear of a Chinese intervention—as happened in Korea—is on both of their minds; memories of Republican attacks on the Truman administration for “losing China” and for the Korean stalemate, gnawed at LBJ, who feared the political consequences of withdrawal.

“Well, they’d impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?” he asks.

“I don’t think they would,” Russell assures him.

“I don’t know how in hell you’re going to get out, unless they [the South Vietnamese government] tell you to get out,” Russell says. Exiting the conflict would be politically feasible, he adds, only if a new head of the country “were to get and say, ‘Now, you damn Yankees get out of here, I’m running the government now.’”

“Wouldn’t that pretty well fix us in the eyes of the world and make us look mighty bad?” Johnson asks.

“Well, I don’t know, we don’t look too good right now,” Russell replies, adding, “going in there with all the troops, sending them all in there, I’ll tell you it'll be the most expensive adventure this country ever went into.” 

LBJ does not disagree.As the call ends, the president strikes a mournful note. ...





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