View Full Version : LBJ's Viet Words Return to Haunt Him

09-18-02, 11:52 AM
By Robert Scheer
Published March 25, 1997 in the Los Angeles Times

Ain't America great? Where else could you mail-order the privately recorded tapes of a former president's top secret phone conversations for a mere $ 282 charged to your Visa card and catch him in the act of lying to the nation?

Publicly, Lyndon Baines Johnson told the American people that the United States had to defend its vital interests in Vietnam and Laos. But in private conversations with his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, the president made it clear that America's interests were not threatened by events in Indochina and asked rhetorically: "What the hell is Vietnam worth to me, what is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?"

Johnson recorded many of his phone conversations, which were to be kept secret for 50 years. But in response to lawsuits stemming from inquiries into the Kennedy assassination, the Johnson Presidential Library has been slowly releasing the tapes. The latest batch, covering conversations in the spring of 1964, reveals the mind-set of a leader about to launch his nation on one of its most disastrous military adventures without believing that it had any worthwhile purpose or possible favorable outcome:

"I stayed awake last night thinking about this thing," he told Bundy in a phone conversation on May 27, 1964, "and the more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell . . . . It looks to me like we're getting into another Korea, it just worries the hell out of me, I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we're committed. . . . I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out, and its just the biggest damn mess."

Yet, despite his seeing no value in the war, Johnson soon ordered a massive escalation of the conflict that left 58,000 Americans and more than a million mostly civilian Vietnamese dead and his own nation divided as it had not been since the Civil War.

Why did Johnson commit to such a disastrous course? He clearly did not share the hubris of his advisors, led by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (who later recanted), that the war could be won. Nor could those advisors convince him that winning a war against one of the poorest nations on earth mattered to U.S. security.

But he did agree that the status quo in Vietnam was untenable; the choice was withdrawal or escalation. And he chose the latter because to do otherwise would endanger his chances for victory in the election that fall. "The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it," warned Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, the president's longtime political confidant. "It's the only issue that they've got," Johnson replied.

In particular, Johnson was concerned that Henry Cabot Lodge,

the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, would return to take a place on the GOP ticket, probably as the vice presidential candidate, and use weakness on Vietnam against Johnson. "Now, one of our big problems, the biggest, between us, and I don't want this repeated to anybody, is Lodge," Johnson told Russell. "He ain't worth a damn . . . and he can't work with anybody . . . so it's just a helluva mess."

Russell agreed, adding that in dealing with the Vietnamese, Lodge "thinks he's dealing with barbarian tribes out there and that he's the emperor and he's going to tell them what to do, and there's no doubt that, in my mind, that he had old Diem killed out there himself." Of the killing of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, Johnson responded, "That was a tragic mistake." But he didn't dare remove Lodge because "he'd be back home campaigning against us on this issue every day."

So in the end, Johnson sent half a million troops to Vietnam and carpet-bombed the country with more explosives than were used during World War II because he wanted to deprive the Republicans of their one issue and feared even Congress would turn against him if he withdrew: "Well, they'd impeach a president that would run out, wouldn't they?" he asked Russell. Johnson won a landslide victory in 1964. But four years later, he retreated ignominiously from politics, yet another casualty of the war's escalation. All his early dire predictions proved true.

"Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" For years, unrepentant critics of the antiwar movement have singled out that chant to demonstrate that the movement was mean-spirited, infantile and anti-American. But kids got killed in Indochina, and they still do, from landmines planted by our government 30 years ago, which today surface in the rice paddies to be stumbled upon by innocent children. These deaths are a reminder of the young Americans and the far larger number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were sacrificed on the altar of political ambition.
Copyright 1999 Robert Scheer