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Doubts plagued LBJ on Vietnam early in the war

Johnson February 15, 1997
Web posted at: 9:35 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Alan Duke

(CNN) -- In public, President Lyndon Johnson never wavered in his support for the U.S. military's role in Vietnam.

But tapes recently released by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library indicate the tough-talking Texan harbored doubts about the escalation of the war as early as 1964.

Consider a half-hour talk between Johnson and U.S. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in May 1964. Russell, one of Johnson's political mentors, describes the precarious situation of South Vietnam as "the damnedest worst mess that I ever saw ... I do not see how we are ever going to get out of it without getting in a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles."

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russell Johnson said he had felt the same way for six months, and told Russell his top advisers were telling him the United States had no choice but to show power and force in Vietnam. If not, Johnson said, South Vietnam would collapse, leading to a domino effect with other countries falling under Communist rule.

"I don't think people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less," said Johnson.

"I know if you go to sending a whole lot of our boys out there you'll find something else," Russell said.

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  • "Yeah, that's right," Johnson said, expressing concern about 35 Americans killed so far that year in Vietnam.

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    "I don't think we can let it go, Mr. President, indefinitely," Russell said. "We've either got to move in or move out."

    "That's about what it is," Johnson said.

    Johnson expressed concern about the political implications, in an election year, if he pulled the United States out of Vietnam. "Well, they would impeach a president that would run out, wouldn't they?"

    Johnson But then Johnson thought about an Army sergeant, a father of six, who worked for him. "And I just put him up as the United States Army and Air Force and Navy every time I think about making this decision ... it just makes the chills run up my back."

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    "I haven't got the nerve to do it, and I don't see any other way out of it," Johnson said.

    "It doesn't make sense to do it," Russell said. "It's one of these things where heads I win, tails you lose."


    When Johnson and Russell spoke, there were less than 16,000 Americans in Vietnam. Two months later, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Congress passed a resolution giving the president authority to take "all necessary measures" to defend South Vietnam.

    Eventually, 300,000 Americans were wounded in Vietnam and more than 58,000 were killed.


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