White House tapes reveal Vietnam’s role in the downfall of Johnson and Nixon–in their own words.
By Blaine Taylor
There is an ancient Roman saying about an eagle shot down by an arrow fletched with its own tail feathers. As two recent books reveal, presidents are apt to be brought down by words from their own tape recorders.
A recently released study of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office reveals that he saw right from the start the inevitable pitfalls into which the Vietnam War would lead the United States and her allies. As editor and commentator Michael R. Beschloss asserts in this superb first volume, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-64 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997, $30), while other presidents taped some of their secret White House conversations, Johnson was the only one to tape them all. What is surprising is the amount of time and concern the new president devoted to the war in this very early period of his presidency.
As a senator from Texas, Johnson had opposed then President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 effort to replace the defeated French in Indochina with a U.S. presence on the ground and in the air without some sort of congressional authorization. Johnson once said he believed that Congress would have “torn his balls off” if he had gone along with Eisenhower’s wishes.
Within his own Democratic Party, Johnson feared that Robert F. Kennedy would emerge as either a presidential or vice presidential rival, and when Kennedy approached him about being ambassador to Saigon with a guarantee of later becoming U.S. secretary of state, Johnson rejected both proposals. RFK ran for and won a Senate seat in New York instead, thus positioning himself for a future contest with LBJ.
On the Republican side of the ledger, in 1964 LBJ was fending off vigorous political attacks from all of his likely GOP opponents–Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater–who argued that the United States should invade North Vietnam. It was a move Johnson never endorsed. The opponent he most feared, however, was the man he believed would be most difficult to beat in a head-to-head presidential contest–Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to Saigon, whom Johnson blamed for the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Desperate for advice on Vietnam, Johnson asked virtually everyone their opinion about invading the North, as these marvelous tape transcriptions amply demonstrate, and he received a variety of responses. For example, on May 27, 1964, LBJ asked Democratic Senator Richard Russell, his confidant in the Senate, “How important is it to us?” The Georgia senator responded, “It isn’t important a damn bit, with all these new missile systems.” “Well, I guess it’s important to us,” Johnson temporized, and Russell added, “From a psychological standpoint.” “I mean, yes…” the president said, “that we are party to a treaty.”
Unsure of what to do, Johnson decided to keep the lid on the war until after the 1964 election saw him safely in power in his own right. He directed that General William C. Westmoreland–whom he described as “the best man we can get”–be told that there would be no napalm dropped from the air and no ground combat other than covert Special Forces operations. Senator Russell accurately predicted to Johnson that within 10 years the U.S. would have half a million men in-country, saying, “We’re just like a damn cow over a fence out there in Vietnam.”
Johnson agreed at the very beginning of his White House tenure, calling Vietnam “the hottest thing we’ve got,” and telling Bobby Kennedy on May 28, 1964, “We’re not ready to have a declaration of war–or war by executive order.” The first option referred to a congressional resolution and the second to the way that President Harry S. Truman had run the Korean War (a method criticized by LBJ at the time).
Thus, as he was running for president in his own right in August 1964, the Vietnam War was “the most potentially dangerous” situation he faced, and most of the country was painfully aware of that fact. Although 90 percent were against a ground war in Asia, 85 percent of Americans backed his actions in the Gulf of Tonkin, as did Congress almost unanimously.
With his witty, knowledgeable and insightful commentary, Beschloss has hit a home run in bringing to light one of the most important historical documents of the last three decades. The Johnson tapes and other secret documents relating to the evolution of the U.S. commitment to Vietnam would contribute to the downfall of the Nixon presidency a decade later.
“You maybe can blackmail Johnson on this stuff,” said H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, first chief of staff to President Richard M. Nixon, on June 17, 1974. At the time, Nixon and Haldeman were discussing a covert break-in at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to secure classified documents that might be in the Brookings safe. “I want it implemented,” said Nixon. “Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
In previous months, former national security official Daniel Ellsberg had leaked what had become known as The Pentagon Papers–secret documents relating to the evolution of the American commitment in the Vietnam War under the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and his successor, LBJ–to The New York Times. To “plug” future leaks to the media, Nixon’s operatives created the infamous “Plumbers” unit that engineered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel. Once discovered, this event caused the Nixon presidency to unravel.
Midway down the path of congressional investigations into that crime, it was revealed that the president had a secret taping system. The fascinating history of what happened afterward to those tapes–and their bearing on the Vietnam War–is discussed at length in an excellent new book, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (The Free Press, New York, 1997, $30), edited and with an introduction and commentary by Stanley I. Kutler, professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin.
President Nixon believed that the blunders of previous Democratic presidents had been hidden because their private papers had been deposited in their various presidential libraries–documents describing the Pearl Harbor debacle of Franklin Roosevelt went to Hyde Park, information about the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem went to the Kennedy library in Boston, and tapes and other material detailing development of the war in Vietnam went to the LBJ library at Austin. Nixon wanted the Vietnam side of the ledger exposed, and he demanded it time and again.
He wanted to declassify all of these previous papers in order “to take the eyes off” what he was trying to do in ending the war, as well as to place the blame on the previous Democrats for what had happened. Nixon asserted on July 6, 1971, that “We’ve got to keep Vietnam as an issue, and we’ve got to pin the whole Johnson-Kennedy papers now on these bastards on the other side….It ruins them….What the hell do you think they would be doing to us?…I’m just pissed off that we didn’t think of it earlier. Here I sat for eight years as Vice President, never getting any secrets, but now we’ve got McGeorge Bundy on a secret list for access….Why do we let those sons of bitches have clearances?”
Abuse of Power also discusses the bombing of Cambodia and its invasion, the Kent State shootings, Howard Hunt’s forged JFK cable on the Diem assassination and Nixon’s frustration in getting the declassification accomplished even after he was thoroughly embroiled in fighting for his political life in May 1973. “I want the Diem and the Bay of Pigs documents totally declassified and I want it done in 48 hours,” he said.
Haldeman’s successor as White House chief of staff, General Alexander Haig, concluded that Watergate was “just like Vietnam, a strange place.” This book shows how the war was inextricably intertwined with the destruction of the Nixon presidency, which foreshadowed the problems experienced in that office by Gerald Ford, as well.