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LISTEN: The Next Step Up the Ladder

July 28 marks an anniversary that is not well known but which looms large in American history. On that day in 1965, Lyndon Johnson appeared on television to deliver his famous “Why We Are in Vietnam” speech, as he announced to the American public that he would be committing more American troops to that war-torn region. This massive escalation—General Westmoreland requested 150,000 additional troops—represents the “Americanization” of the war and is seen by most historians as the turning point in America’s involvement in a country that would help define, tragically, an entire era.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of these events, we are presenting a special essay by George Herring, one of the great chroniclers of the Vietnam War. Published in a special ebook-only format, The War Bells Have Rung: The LBJ Tapes and the Americanization of the Vietnam War reveals that LBJ, like many of his eventual critics, saw the war as a doomed enterprise. And yet, he felt he had no choice but to pursue it. Using recordings of the president’s private phone calls from that fateful summer, Herring shares the fascinating behind-the-scenes drama of LBJ’s decision.

On June 8, only three days after Westmoreland’s request for more troops, LBJ was attempting to take a nap. The reader won’t be shocked to hear that LBJ failed to succeed. And so he turned to something he knew so well—working the phones. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had recently urged the president to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Vietnam; Johnson called him now to discuss the troop escalation that they both knew would mean no such thing. This compelling conversation, like most of Johnson’s important conversations as president, was recorded and may be listened to here. Here is part of the transcript:

President Johnson: . . . I haven't talked to a human. I'm over here in bed. I just tried to take a nap, get going on my second day and I couldn't. I just decided I'd call you.

But I think I'll say to the Congress that General [Dwight] Eisenhower thought we ought to go in here and do here what we, in effect, did in Greece and Turkey, and so forth. And the Congress thought that we ought to have the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and we passed it, 82–1.  And President [John F.] Kennedy thought we ought to do this and he sent these people in here. And I have thought that we ought to stay there. But all of my military people tell me, and my economic people, that we cannot do this to the extent of the commitment we have now. It's got to be materially increased and the outcome is not really predictable at the moment. I don't think I'd use that language, but I would say something, that unless we have further augmentation, we cannot be secure. Our 75,000 men are going to be in great danger unless they have 75,000 more. My judgment is—and I'm no military man at all, but I study it every day and every night, and I read the cables. I look back over what's happened in the last two years, or the last four, really, and if they get 150[000], they'll have to have another 150[000], and then they'll have to have another 150[000]. So the big question then is: What does the Congress want to do about it, under these circumstances? I get . . . I know that—I know what the military wants to do. I really know what I think Rusk and McNamara want to do, and Bundy. But I'm not sure—and I think I know what the country wants to do now—but I'm not sure that they'll want to do that six months from now.

Mansfield: Right.

President Johnson: And I want you to give me your best thinking on it and see how we ought to handle it. If we handle it at all, what we ought to do. [Mansfield acknowledges.] If you—

Mansfield: Since our last conversation I've been doing some thinking.

President Johnson: Yeah.

Mansfield: And doing some writing, and I'm just . . .  Next time I see you, I'll give it to you or send it down to you.

President Johnson: All right.

Mansfield: I’m afraid I'm just as worried as you are [unclear].

As Herring notes, LBJ "was brutally realistic in perceiving that escalation could acquire a momentum of its own, one request from the military likely leading to another—and then another." Nonetheless, once he had made his decision to take the plunge and give the military what it requested, he would have to sell the idea to the American people. It is interesting to see Johnson mention Eisenhower's and Kennedy's involvement in Vietnam in this conversation, as he would invoke both of them in his eventual television speech.

When LBJ asked his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara if the request for more troops was "just the next step. . . . up the ladder," McNamara responded in the affirmative. History would prove him right.

The War Bells Have Rung, a specially priced essay-length ebook including links to audio files of LBJ's private tapes, will be published on July 28. Available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

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