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Tapes reveal how LBJ and RFK 'sold' escalation in Vietnam

lbj

February 21, 1997
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EDT

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- On the 9th of June, 1964, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called President Lyndon B. Johnson to talk about South Vietnam.

The United States already had about 16,000 military personnel in the small, Southeast Asian country, most of them described as "advisors."

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  • But it was clear that it would take more than 16,000 Americans to stop the Viet Cong guerrillas, who were proving to be increasingly troublesome and destructive.

    Adding to the concern was the ineffectiveness of the South Vietnamese Army. Troubled by poor leadership and low morale, the South Vietnamese showed little enthusiasm for taking on the Viet Cong.

    It was evident that President Johnson would have to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam or risk losing the country altogether. More important, he would have to decide how to sell that escalation to Congress and the public.

    In the following conversation from tapes released by the National Archives and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Johnson and Kennedy discuss how best to sell the idea of sending American soldiers to fight in a place few had ever heard of.

    The question was LBJ's authority to escalate

    rfk

    Kennedy begins by saying he is worried about asking Congress for a resolution authorizing the president to take offensive military action in Vietnam.

    RFK: "About four or five days ago, we went through the plan for Vietnam and I had some serious questions about it."

    LBJ: "And the question as to whether you ought to try is a difficult one, and I don't know how you can conduct much offensive without some authority."

    RFK: "Yeah."

    lbj phone

    LBJ: "We had the United Nations behind us, but we had a very divided country, and a lot of hell, and we finally really lost-- the Democrats did -- on the Korea thing."

    RFK: "Yeah, that's right."

    LBJ: "I am fearful that if we move without any authority of the Congress, that the resentment would be pretty widespread and it would involve a lot of people who normally would be with us, if we asked for the authority. On the other hand, I would shudder to think if they debated it for a long period of time, and they're likely to do that. So neither choice is very good."

    icon (368K/34 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    'They'll start asking...what's going to happen'

    RFK: "Yeah. I think that they'll start asking -- it seems likely that they'll start asking somebody to spell out exactly what's going to happen. And if we drop bombs there and then they retaliate, will we eventually bomb Hanoi and all that kind of business. And what the answers are to that, to those questions, are so difficult to give."

    LBJ: "But, if you take the other route, then they ask you by what authority, what executive order do you declare war?"

    icon (280K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    rfk with head down RFK: "The other -- well, I guess you really don't need, from their explanation at least, and I haven't looked into it -- but it's not essential, it's not necessary constitutionally. But the alternative to that, especially if that's going to be very harmful -- the alternative, of course, is for you and Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rusk, at the appropriate time, to start bringing in the labor leaders and the business leaders and the congressional leaders and talk with them on, you know, sort of, as if it was a National Security Council meeting and that you are briefing them, and this is what we have to do at this time, and that if you have to take any further steps that you'll inform them, and that you'll keep them advised, and bring in some of the newspapers and bring in some of the television people."

    LBJ worried about divisions at home

    LBJ: "And I think probably talk to the country about why we are there, and how we're there, and what we've confronted there, and what we may do before you submit a resolution, because I don't... I have doubts about what would happen to it right now."

    RFK: "That's what I think."

    LBJ: "I think they'd just talk and develop a big divided type here at home."

    RFK: "That's what I think, and then some people would say we're not doing enough and the others would say it's too much."

    icon (268K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    vietnam Two days after this call, Kennedy wrote Johnson offering to serve as ambassador to Vietnam but the President declined saying he feared for Kennedy's safety.

    Four years later, with the nation divided over Vietnam, Johnson chose not to seek re-election and Robert Kennedy ran for President, seeking an end to the war.

    Correspondent Alan Duke contributed to this report.
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