Lyndon Johnson on War & Peace



Secretary of Defense called Vietnam "a terrible mistake"

Robert McNamara, who was President Johnson's Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, wrote in his memoirs that the war was a "terrible mistake." More than 59,000 Americans dead, and 2 million Vietnamese, plus countless other devastated American lives, and it was all "a terrible mistake." McNamara also mentioned that he, and others who planned and directed that war, had no knowledge or understanding of the religion, language philosophy, or character of the people of Vietnam--and no one to teach them, even if they wanted to learn.

There is an inestimable human tragedy stuck to this nation as a result of that war, a significant aspect of which is the ever-more-frayed bond of trust between the American people and our government.

The Vietnam War Memorial is a uniquely powerful place because it is emotionally true. It doesn't lie. It pictures the war as a huge black gash across our landscape, which it is. It helps us grieve for who we were as a nation before that war so wounded us.

Source: Healing the Soul of America, by Marianne Williamson, p.101 , Jul 24, 2018

OpEd: Military escalation in Vietnam was Johnson's undoing

While the nation became deeply involved in Vietnam, racial tension sharpened at home, culminating in widespread urban race riots between 1965 and 1968. It was the policy of military escalation in Vietnam that proved to be Johnson's undoing as president. It deflected attention from domestic concerns, resulted in sharp inflation, and prompted rising criticism, especially among young, draft-aged people. Escalation also failed to win the war. The drawn-out struggle made Johnson even more secretive and hypersensitive to criticism. His usually sure political instincts were failing.

The N.H. primary of 1968, in which the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing, revealed the dwindling of Johnson's support. Some of Johnson's closest advisors now counseled de-escalation in Vietnam. Confronted by mounting opposition, Johnson made two surprise announcements: he would stop the bombing in most of North Vietnam and seek a negotiated end to the war, and he would not run for reelection.

Source: Grolier Encyclopedia article on LBJ , Nov 8, 2016

We are in Vietnam to fight for freedom, like in WWII

[On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced a major increase in US troop commitments to the Vietnam War. His words were later published as a pamphlet entitled "Why We Are in Vietnam."]

Why must young Americans toil and suffer and sometimes die in such a remote and distant place? The answer, like the war itself, is not an easy one, but it echoes clearly from the painful lessons of half a century. Three times in my lifetime, in two World Wars and in Korea, Americans have gone to far lands to fight for freedom. We have learned at a terrible and a brutal cost that retreat does not bring safety and weakness does not bring peace.

It is this lesson that has brought us to Viet-Nam. There are great stakes in the balance. Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian communism. If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American protection.

Source: Grolier Encyclopedia article on LBJ , Nov 8, 2016

Must fight in Vietnam to keep promise from three presidents

If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise, or in American protection. We are in Viet-Nam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American Nation. Three Presidents-- President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and your present President--over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant nation.

Strengthened by that promise, the people of South Viet-Nam have fought for many long years. Thousands of them have died. We just cannot now dishonor our word, or abandon our commitment, or leave those who believed in us and who trusted us to the terror and repression and murder that would follow.

This, then, is why we are in Viet-Nam. We must have the courage to resist, or we will see it all, all that we have built, all of our dreams for freedom--all, all will be swept away on the flood of conquest. So, too, this shall not happen. We will stand in Viet-Nam. .

Source: Grolier Encyclopedia article on LBJ , Nov 8, 2016

1966: Sought support for Vietnam War from Pres. Eisenhower

Lyndon Johnson never sounded particularly pleased with decisions that got the country more deeply involved in Vietnam, perhaps because he had solemnly promised not to make them. But having told untruths and having committed so many Americans to the war, Johnson was eager for the support of General Eisenhower, who felt pulled in several directions: aversion to an Asian war, concern over the consequences of a victory by the Communist North, and what he felt was a duty to support his commander in chief. Johnson became a regular caller.

Ike was still beloved; and when it came to questions of war and peace, no one spoke with more authority. So it was something of a surprise when the former president at a press conference in October 1966 said, "I'd take any action to win" in Vietnam [meaning that] the US needed to end the war quickly because otherwise "it will grow in costs, both in money and lives, and the nation's morale will be lowered."

Source: Ike and Dick, by Jeffrey Frank, p.274 , Nov 5, 2013

Awarded Silver Star after only 13 minutes in WWII combat

In 1947 there were scores of men in Congress with celebrated war records, and some of those records wouldn't stand close scrutiny. Lyndon Johnson, who constantly wore his Silver Star pin in his lapel, was given to regaling Washington dinner parties with stories of his encounters with Japanese Zeroes, although his only brush with combat had been to fly as an observer on a single mission, during which he was in action for a total of 13 minutes, after which he left the combat zone on the next plan home. Exaggeration was a staple of the politician's stock-in-trade; understanding that, congressmen discounted stories about wartime heroism.
Source: Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, p. 28 , May 1, 2012

1967-68: LBJ's advisers concluded that doves were right

In late 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the chief architect of Vietnam war strategy in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, privately concluded that the doves were right, and he resigned his office. Johnson, still determined to bring the war to a successful conclusion, chose as McNamara's successor Clark Clifford.

But Clifford quickly turned against the war as well and began maneuvering to steer Johnson toward a speech (delivered on March 31) in which he announced a partial halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, as well as (it turned out) his own withdrawal from his race for a 2nd term. In the wake of the Vietnamese Communists' spectacular Tet offensive in Feb. 1968, the post-WWII moderate-to-liberal foreign policy elite, shifted en masse from hawkish to dovish. Elite support for the Vietnam war had disintegrated in a matter of months. Officials who had been lifelong hawks suddenly became agonized, articulate doves. Those who did not change found themselves marginalized.

Source: The Case for Polarized Politics, by Jeff Bell, p.136-7 , Mar 6, 2012

1964 Tonkin Gulf attack never happened as stated

The official line was that, in August 1964, the North Vietnamese twice attacked U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. That was the incident that led to Congress passing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and President Johnson's dramatic buildup of our forces. As it turns out, according to top secret documents finally released by the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2005, the second attack never happened. Somebody skewed the data to make it look that way.

As far back as 1972, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was pushing the NSA to release what its files contained on the Gulf of Tonkin. They stonewalled, even as late as 2004 when FOIA request pushed for it. According to the New York Times, high-level officials at the NSA were "fearful that [declassification] might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq." Really?

Source: 63 Documents, by Gov. Jesse Ventura, p. 51 , Apr 4, 2011

1965: requested additional $700M for Vietnam War

When it came to the Vietnam War, the Republican Party was in something of a quandary--and Johnson knew it. Republicans in Congress were likely to be the last ones to counsel retreat in the face of Communist aggression. I too was sympathetic to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' expressed aims in Vietnam--to check Communist expansion--as were most Americans in the early years of the war.

But I started to have concerns in May 1965, when a Vietnam War appropriation bill came before the House, and President Johnson urgently requested an additional $700 million for the Department of Defense. The vote turned into a proxy fight between supporters and opponents of the war. In the end, I voted for the appropriations.

It was clear that the war in Vietnam had become the single most important issue facing the country.

Source: Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld, p. 97 , Feb 8, 2011

Vietnam war cost $500B and 50,000 US lives

Enthused over the Green Berets, JFK dispatched them to Vietnam where the US was supporting the restoration of the French colonial empire. Another politician, Lyndon Johnson, carried that war to its final consequences. In that inglorious adventure, more than 50,000 soldiers lost their lives, the US squandered no less than $500 billion when the value of the dollar in gold fell 20 times, killed millions of Vietnamese and expanded the solidarity with that poor Third World country. Conscripts had to be replaced with professional soldiers, separating the people from military training and thus weakening the nation.
Source: Obama and the Empire, by Fidel Castro, p. 55 , Apr 15, 2009

Rolling Thunder: 655,000 tons of bombs from B-52 air strikes

After every B-52 strike, 20 or 30 local citizens would turn themselves in as enemy sympathizers to the nearest US or ARVN troops or Saigon government authority in hopes of receiving shelter from future bombardments. It was this same terror of the unscheduled US bombing raids that brought refugees to Saigon by the 1000s over the course of the war, turning that once beautiful city of 500,000 into a teeming slum of 3.5 million displaced Vietnamese. Between March 2, 1965 and October 31, 1968, then President Johnson "ended" it, the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign flew more than 350,000 missions over North Vietnam, dropping 655,000 tons of bombs. In 1968 alone, American bombers made 172,000 sorties over North Vietnam and another 136,000 over Laos.
Source: Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley, p. 228 , Jan 6, 2004

1967: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

Although hundreds of North Vietnamese bridges had been blown up in Rolling Thunder, nearly all of them had already been rebuilt. The US Army boasted about eliminating 3/4 of Vietnam's oil reserves, but this success appeared to have no impact; months later, there was still no gasoline shortage in Hanoi. And as the US dropped its bombs day after day, it seemed to John Kerry that the North Vietnamese's resolve only intensified. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" grew louder.
Source: Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley, p. 75-6 , Jan 6, 2004

1965-1968: Operation Rolling Thunder air campaign

The Johnson administration did employ the limited use of air power over the North in the spring of 1965--a campaign known as Rolling Thunder. This air campaign lasted until late 1968, by which time John McCain was a prisoner of war. In devising Rolling Thunder, however, the administration provided a host of bombing restrictions in the air campaign: the war was directed, not from the theater of operations, but from Washington.

American pilots encountered relatively little resistance from Soviet-made North Vietnamese jets, which were typically used as a decoy to lure the superior American pilots into traps. The real enemy was the North Vietnamese Soviet-built air defense systems, operating on Soviet doctrine, staffed with Soviet weapons, often armed by Chinese and North Koreans, and reckoned to be among the best in the world at the time.

Source: John McCain: An Essay, by John Karaagac, p. 80-82 , Sep 20, 2000

1965: Vietnam bombing pause to encourage peace talks

In 1965, JBL turned his mind toward some dramatic move in Vietnam. He was convinced that if the war could be brought to a conference table, with the fighting either stopped or greatly diminished, there would be a chance to find some solution. He hungered for peace talks, and they eluded him because the other side believed it was to their advantage not to talk. So he probed and searched for some special means. During this period of reflection the idea of a long, sustained bombing pause began to surface.
Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.220-221 , Dec 1, 1976

Convince the Viet Cong we cannot be defeated by power

At 12:30 P.M. on Wednesday, July 28, 1965, the president informed the nation of what the nation intended to do:

"We intend to convince the Communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms of by superior power. I have ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately.

"These steps, like our actions in the past, are carefully measured to do what must be done to bring an end to aggression and a peaceful settlement. We do not want an expanding struggle with consequences that no one can foresee. Nor will we bluster or bully or flaunt our power.

"But we will not surrender. And we will not retreat."

Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.356-358 , Dec 1, 1976

1968: no run for re-election so Vietnam peace might work

It was the Vietnam War that cut the arteries of the LBJ administration. A stupefied nation listened as President Johnson, on March 31, 1968, announced he would not be a candidate for re-election. Only a handful really believed that LBJ would give up the power of the White House for any reason other than defeat at the polls.

He was absolutely convinced that he must display any notions within the North Vietnamese leadership that he was using the peace talks as a political ploy. If he called for peace talks, and in the same breath foreswore renomination, Hanoi would have sufficient reason to believe that his pleas for peace were earnest and not politically motivated. Thus, it was that both war and peace were at the heart of the Johnson decision to give up the presidency.

The war, however, was too near, too fiery, to ignore. And so having done what he could, right or wrong, he decided he would no longer be president.

Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.367-369 , Dec 1, 1976

Balance Vietnam fighting without USA versus risking WWIII

There was risk going in further in Vietnam, but what of the larger and even more crippling risk of total US incredibility in Asia? How do we justify all that was said and done by four presidents, if we suddenly shifted gears and left the South Vietnamese alone to fend for themselves?

Every piece of evidence placed before the participants in all the meetings on Vietnam made it inescapable that no decision other than the one taken would be approved. The final decisions taken in 1965 on Vietnam were right and sensible. Then a number of subsequent decisions, obviously, flowed automatically.

To the counsel of those who urged the president to go all out in bombing the North, mining the harbors of Haiphong, invading Cambodia, the president always knew his course was a cautious one. He hung back from the brink. "Some damn fool will drop some TNT down the smokestack of a Russian freighter, or some plane will get lost and dump its bombs over China, and we're in World War III. I just can't risk it."

Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.360-362 , Dec 1, 1976

Enemy in Vietnam hopes our will to persevere can be broken

Since I reported to you last January:These are all marks of progress. Yet:But our goal is peace--and peace at the earliest possible moment.
Source: Pres. Johnson's 1968 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 17, 1968

North Vietnam wants conquest; we stay to stop aggression

Not too many years ago Vietnam was a peaceful, if troubled, land. In the North was an independent Communist government. In the South a people struggled to build a nation, with the friendly help of the United States.

There were some in South Vietnam who wished to force Communist rule on their own people. But their progress was slight. Their hope of success was dim. Then, little more than 6 years ago, North Vietnam decided on conquest. And from that day to this, soldiers and supplies have moved from North to South in a swelling stream that is swallowing the remnants of revolution in aggression.

As the assault mounted, our choice gradually became clear. We could leave, abandoning South Vietnam to its attackers and to certain conquest, or we could stay and fight beside the people of South Vietnam. We stayed. And we will stay until aggression has stopped. We do not intend to abandon Asia to conquest.

Source: Pres. Johnson's 1966 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 12, 1966

1945: Keep military strong to fulfill moral obligation

The war ended and there swept over the country an understandable but hardly realistic demand to "Bring the boys home!" without delay. Military hardware by the thousands of tons was simply junked overseas.

"We must keep strong!" Johnson said. "We must be strong militarily and productively and morally. We must have military strength to fulfill our moral obligations to the world."

The headlong rush of the American people away from war and thoughts of war could not be checked. Even so, Johnson took the lead in fights to stop the premature closing down of the synthetic rubber industry, to check the sale at junkyard prices of war plants worth many millions of dollars, and to bring about the establishment of a 70-group Air Force in the face of strong opposition.

Source: The Lyndon Johnson Story, by Booth Mooney, p.51- 52 , Jun 1, 1964

1950: Defending South Korea gives noble meaning to freedom

The Communists of North Korea marched southward and Pres. Truman ordered the armed forces of the US to join the UN in the defense of South Korea. Johnson hailed the President's action as necessary and praiseworthy, an action that "gives a new and noble meaning to freedom, gives purpose to our national resolve and determination, and affirms convincingly America's capacity for world leadership."

He pointed out that the forces of the UN were seriously outnumbered. He declared that American military equipment available for the task in Korea "is plainly inadequate in quantity and it is not the right kind."

"We must not act too slowly, too cautiously, with too much consideration for the comfort of those who remain behind. We can no longer sit by and see our strength decimated by delay-defeat-retreat." He urged three immediate steps: development of a long-range global plan of strategy; immediate full mobilization of available manpower; prompt mobilization of the American economy.

Source: The Lyndon Johnson Story, by Booth Mooney, p. 70-71 , Jun 1, 1964

1954: Opposed getting into Vietnam; 1964: we're there now

[At a legislative leaders' meeting with Eisenhower on April 2, 1954, the President asked for discretionary authority to use U.S. air and sea power against Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. LBJ balked, arguing that the French must first grant independence to Vietnam and that the allies of the U.S. must join in the effort. LBJ discusses Vietnam with John Knight, the chair of the Miami Herald: ]

LBJ: What do you think we ought to do in Vietnam?

KNIGHT: I never thought we belonged there. I think President Kennedy thought at one time that we were overcommitted in that area.

LBJ: Well, I opposed it in '54. But we're there now. It really boils down to one of two decisions: getting in or getting out.

KNIGHT: Long-range over there, the odds are certainly against us.

LBJ: Yes, there is no question about that. Anytime you got that many people against you that far from your home base, it's bad.

Source: Taking Charge, by Michael Beschloss, p. 95&213 , Feb 3, 1964

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