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Tapes show LBJ's doubts about Vietnam

LBJ tense

October 15, 1996
Web posted at: 7:10 p.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Doubt about sending U.S. troops to Vietnam reached all the way into the Oval Office -- and is clearly expressed in President Lyndon Johnson's own voice on newly released audio tapes.

Johnson, who inherited the Vietnam situation from the Kennedy administration, admitted early in his presidency he did not know what to do about Vietnam.

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He demanded simple explanations for what was happening there, according to his recorded telephone calls with then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

LBJ quote

The conversations are included in 80 hours of tapes from early 1964, released last week by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and the National Archives. The tapes include telephone conversations recorded in the Oval Office and elsewhere.

On March 2, 1964, Johnson requested a two-page memo from the defense secretary.

LBJ angry

"Four letter words and short sentences, several paragraphs so I can read it and study it and commit it to memory," the president can be heard requesting.

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Johnson's uncertainty is reflected in his questions. "We're not going to send our troops in there, are we?" he asked Bundy. icon (14 sec./144K AIFF or WAV sound)

Johnson believed the United States had several choices in dealing with Vietnam, including sending in troops to "start attacking the Viet Cong," or withdrawing and leaving South Vietnam to its fate.

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"Or we can say this is the Vietnamese war and they've got 200,000 men, they're untrained, and we've got to bring their morale up.

"We can put in socially conscious people and try to get them to improve their own government.

"After considering all of these, it seems the latter offers the best alternative for America to follow."

While considering what to tell the American people about Vietnam, his defense chief told him to keep quiet.

"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," McNamara is heard telling Johnson.

icon (14 sec./152K AIFF or WAV sound) LBJ presser

Even so, Johnson ultimately decided to commit troops to train the South Vietnamese military and improve their morale.

Critics say that decision cost the lives of 50,000 American troops, and historians agree it was Vietnam which cost Lyndon Johnson the presidency he had worked his entire life to gain.

Correspondent John Holliman contributed to this report.

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