On the morning of May 27, 1964, a little more than two months before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution sailed through the House and Senate, allowing the White House the military authority to do what was needed in Southeast Asia, President Lyndon B. Johnson made two phone calls.
The first, which phone logs show he made at 10:55, was with Senator Richard B. Russell, the Georgia Democrat who headed the Armed Services Committee. “What do you think about this Vietnam thing?” Johnson asked the senator, a longtime friend and mentor. “I’d like to hear you talk a little.”
“Frankly, Mr. President,” Russell replied, “if you were to tell me that I was authorized to settle it as I saw fit, I would respectfully decline to undertake it. It’s the damned worst mess I ever saw.”
Less than a half-hour later, at 11:24, Johnson called McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser. “I’ll tell you, the more — I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing — the more I think of it … it looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea,” he said in a voice of foreboding. “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess.”
The president continued, “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country? … It’s damn easy to get in a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.”
These two calls, placed less than a half-hour apart, say everything there is to say about the crisis that would soon shroud Johnson’s presidency. The question is, how did a president who understood all of this — and who had people around him to make sure he didn’t forget — nevertheless lead the country into a disastrous war?
Johnson had, to be fair, inherited a mess. After the French left Vietnam in 1954 and the country was partitioned, Dwight D. Eisenhower and, after him, John F. Kennedy sent billions in aid and advisers to support the South Vietnamese government under Ngo Dinh Diem. His weak regime needed the money to ward off the Communist insurgency of the Vietcong, a guerrilla force aided by the north’s Ho Chi Minh, who had designs to reunify Vietnam. It was an outcome the Americans couldn’t accept: According to the so-called domino theory, a Communist victory in Vietnam would inevitably snowball across the region.
And yet Vietnam remained a trouble spot that continued to fester. With the tacit backing of the Kennedy administration, a military coup occurred on Nov. 1, 1963, resulting in Diem’s assassination.
It was a move about which Johnson had deep misgivings. “I don’t believe assassination is ever justified,” he said later. “They were ruthless people. Ho Chi Minh was. But I mean it was ruthless of the United States government, with our boasted list of freedoms, to condone assassination because you don’t approve of a political philosophy.” Still, after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson dived into Vietnam immediately. “Those first few days,” he remembered, “Vietnam was on top of the agenda, before the visiting heads of state got home from the funeral.”
His willingness can be explained partly by the man, and partly by his times. Unlike his Democratic Cold War predecessors, Harry S. Truman and Kennedy, Johnson was not so much a student of history as he was of human nature. There he paid attention, picking up on the weaknesses and frailties of those around him in the corridors of power the way a dog senses fear, often exploiting them for political advantage.
Since arriving in Washington in 1934, Johnson had drawn lessons from the world-changing mistakes made by heads of state, especially those that he believed stemmed from weakness. During Johnson’s first term as a congressman, in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain appeased Hitler in the belief that he was offering his countrymen “peace for our time,” while instead allowing for the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the unchecked invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II.