March 2, 1964
President Johnson and Robert McNamara, 11:00 AM
President Johnson: I want you to dictate to me a memorandum of a couple of pages, four-letter words and short sentences, several paragraphs, so I can read it and study it and commit it to memory. Not for the purpose of using it, now-I'm not going to give out your figures on 20,000 [Vietnamese] killed last year, compared to 5 [thousand]-on the situation in Vietnam, the Vietnam picture. If you had to put it in 600 words, or maybe 1000 words, if you have to go that long, just like you talk.
I'd like for you to say there are several courses that could be followed: we could send our own divisions in there, and our own Marines in there, and start attacking the Viet Cong, and the results that would likely flow from that.
We could come out of there, say we're willing to neutralize, let them neutralize South Vietnam, and let the communists take North Vietnam, and as soon as we get out, they could swallow up South Vietnam, and that would go.
We could pull out and say, "The hell with you. We're going to have Fortress America. We're going home." And that would mean-here's what would happen in Thailand, here's what would happen in the Philippines; come on back and get us back to Honolulu.
Or, we could say this is a Vietnamese war. They've got 200,000 men. They're untrained. We've got to bring their morale up. They have nothing really to fight for because of the type of government they've had. We can put in socially conscious people and try to get them to improve their own government, and what the people get out of their own government. We can train them how to fight, and 200,000 will ultimately be able to take care of these 25,000 [Viet Cong].
And that, after considering all of these [options], it seems that the latter offers the best alternative for America to follow. Now, if the latter has failed, then we have to make another decision.
President Johnson: Now, they're all saying that following our [Johnson's] speech in Los Angeles, where we [Johnson] said this is a very dangerous period-
Robert McNamara: Mr. President, can I interrupt you? Who put the line in? I'm curious.
President Johnson: [pauses] I don't know. I would say [National Security Advisor McGeorge] Bundy. "Deeply dangerous game." But I don't see anything wrong with it, even yet. I think it is deeply dangerous when anybody starts aggression.
Now, that was not where it started at all. I blew my top here for a whole damned week. I jumped on you and jumped on Rusk both why you were saying, out in Saigon, that you were invading North Vietnam, even if you were going to invade it. Now, I know how [Policy Planning Staff director Walt] Rostow-how he feels. And I know how you all feel.
But they came back a week before we said it's a deeply dangerous game. This stuff is pouring out by reams. And the first story said that "military officials in Saigon"-it came from Saigon. I talked to you about it, and you said that wasn't correct. So I jumped on Rusk about it, and Rusk comes back and points out the story itself said "military officials." That's where it came from. Now, the story came from Saigon that we're getting ready to do this. And a lot of people in Saigon, they tell me, said that they got it from the State Department here-that Rostow had a propaganda move on to really invade North Vietnam, and always had had it.
I don't know enough about the inner workings of these two departments, but I know that this thing has been going on for ten days, or a week, before we got it, and I can get the clippings and show 'em where they were full of it.
But now they want to hang it on a little higher person and say that I indicated that we were going to invade Vietnam, or that we were going to hit the Chinese, or that we were going to bomb Moscow. Now, I didn't do any such thing. I said that this is deeply dangerous-and it is deeply dangerous! It's dangerous for any nation to start aggression, and start enveloping, a neutral, freedom-loving people. And I think it was dangerous to 20,000 of them [Vietnamese] that got killed there last year.
President Johnson: Do you think it's a mistake to explain what I'm saying now about Vietnam, and what we're faced with?
McNamara: Well, I do think, Mr. President, that it would be wise for you to say as little as possible. The frank answer is we don't know what's going on out there. The signs I see coming through the cables are disturbing signs-poor morale in Vietnamese forces, poor morale in the armed forces, disunity, a tremendous amount of coup planning against [Nguyen] Khanh. About what you'd expect in a situation that's had-
President Johnson: Then why don't we take some pretty offensive steps pretty quickly, then? Why don't we commend Khanh on his operation and try to prop him up? Why don't we raise the salary of their soldiers to improve that morale instead of waiting a long time? Why don't we do some of these things that are inclined to bolster them?
McNamara: Well, I'm not sure that they-
President Johnson: And I was rather encouraged by Lodge's cable of yesterday in which he [Khanh] said that he showed more efficiency than either one of them [his predecessors as South Vietnamese rulers].
McNamara: That's right. I agree with you.
President Johnson: But I don't know why his 200,000 [troops] are not showing some results and we keep saying that everything is bad and looks blue.
McNamara: Well, this is the question, Mr. President. We've not seen the results yet. Maybe they'll come, but it's a very uncertain period. Khanh is behaving properly; there's no doubt.
President Johnson: Why don't we send Lodge a wire back in reply to the one he sent yesterday that we heartily agree with him: they ought to clear out an area and get some results, and to please tell Khanh that we think this is absolutely essential to our continued morale here, or our continued support or something?
McNamara: Sure, we'll do that.