Blogs > HNN > LBJ Tapes: Two reavealing exchanges

Mar 2, 2007 1:06 pm

LBJ Tapes: Two reavealing exchanges

As I mentioned the other day I have been listening to the LBJ tapes.

Twice in the course of a week LBJ in the summer of '64 is heard complaining about leaks. Now this isn't surprising. All presidents have complained about leaks, starting with George Washington. But the two leaks LBJ is concerned about tugged me in two directions. I wish one leak had been ignored by the media and that the other had made frontpage news. History might have turned out differently.

Both leaks involved Vietnam. Both occurred during the week of the Tonkin Gulf incident.

The first leak came from the National Security Council. Somebody--we still don't know who--leaked word that there had been a second attack in the Tonkin Gulf. This forced LBJ's hand. Once it was leaked he felt compelled given the realities of American politics--this was an election year after all--that he had to respond with force. Prudently, he had ignored the first attack on the assumption it simply may have been the result of the action of a local North Vietnamese commander rather than the aggressive act of enemy leaders. But a second attack couldn't be ignored once it hit the papers. The Republicans would charge him with weakness if he didn't respond. Douglas Dillon, a Republican holdover from the Kennedy cabinet, told LBJ that a military response was essential. It's possible, Beschloss speculates, that LBJ also worried that Bobby Kennedy would charge him with weakness. (Kennedy and Dillon were close friends.)

We now know there probably hadn't been a second attack. And at the time LBJ was unsure himself whether there was one or not. He confided to friends he thought those navy boys were probably shooting at flying fish. But once news of that second attack appeared it was impossible for LBJ to interject a note of caution. What might have been nothing more than flying fish now became a casus belli. LBJ thereupon ordered the Pentagon to launch an all-out attack on North Vietnamese ports and facilities.

The second leak occurred the same week. After word of the second"attack" appeared in the news Hubert Humphrey in a morning television interview was asked why the North Vietnamese were taking action against the United States. Humphrey candidly and accurately responded that the United States had been conducting covert operations in the Tonkin Gulf aimed at the North Vietnamese. Until then this had been largely secret.

When LBJ heard about Humphrey's interview he was furious. Humphrey was revealing this information as if he had got it on his own rather than through a confidential briefing. LBJ told one of Humphrey's friends that if the senator couldn't keep his mouth shut his chance of being named vice president was nil.

Unfortunately, too little was made of the Humphrey leak and too much was made of the other one. Americans concluded that we had been attacked for no reason and therefore had to counterattack. Thus was the scene set for the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

We are still living with the consequences.

I don't mean to imply that war might have been averted. South Vietnam was collapsing. LBJ didn't want to be accused of losing Vietnam the way we had supposedly lost China. So he would proibably have taken us into war anyway, somehow, someway. All the same it's important to remember these two leaks. One was a turning point in Vietnam. The other wasn't but could have been. The mind reels at the might-have-beens. Suppose Humphrey's leak had become more generally known. Perhaps it would have given Americans a more balanced view of what was actually taking place in Vietnam. Perhaps .... ah well, a fellow can dream, can't he?

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Ralph M. Hitchens - 3/16/2007

Humphrey's leaked information was not only "largely secret" at the time, it remained so for quite a few years, if I am not mistaken. Wasn't it only in the 1990s that historians published accounts, based on declassified information, about the US-sponsored South Vietnamese commando operations against North Vietnam? I had only recently read about them (probably in Ed Moise's book) when I was shocked to hear, in Beschloss's book on tape, Humphrey's voice calmly disclosing what we now know to have taken place. Why, oh why, was this accidental disclosure never followed up by the press corps at the time?