An Exceptional Alliance: Johnson, Eisenhower, and the Vietnam War
“I’m going to lean on you in the days ahead.”
President Johnson to former President Eisenhower, August 18, 1965
President Johnson, like Kennedy before him, demonstrated impressive political savvy by including Eisenhower’s advice in determining policy. Johnson forged a strong bi-partisan relationship with his predecessor, appealing to Eisenhower both as a friend and a sage. Receptive to the Republican General’s counsel on foreign policy, Johnson often communicated with Eisenhower in person at the White House or over the telephone. While the two Presidents differed in war strategy, Johnson still sought Eisenhower’s opinions and benefited from the General’s reservoir of experience and wisdom. And with the Vietnam War becoming more and more difficult, Johnson could use all the good advice he could get.
On August 18, 1965, President Johnson asked his Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, to respond to criticism from the press about a public letter Eisenhower had written on the topic of aid to South Vietnam. In publicly discussing the letter, Johnson ran afoul of the press corps, who acused Johnson of twisting Eisenhower's words. The White House presented a vehement defense of the General and the President’s analogous policy lines on Southeast Asia. Moyers also highlighted the bi-partisan relationship and warm friendship between the two Presidents. Deflecting Eisenhower’s own concern about inadvertently creating political contention, the President chose to read the press statement to Eisenhower over the phone on August 18th.
Citation #8555, WH6508.05. LBJ Library
President Johnson: They want to get us in a fight, and they're not gonna do it, as far as I'm here. They came in this morning and said that you said that one time when I referred to some letter that you had written expressing our views on helping people to help themselves that that didn't include military [aid] and therefore I was kind of trying to play it shady or something.
President Johnson: And I asked Bill Moyer[s], and I just told him to reply to it this way, and he did. Because I know how you feel about your country, and I know how I do. And the only body I like as much as I do you is your brother. [Unclear interjection from Eisenhower.] And here's what he [the reporter] says--
President Johnson: Says: "Bill, there seems to be a difference developing between the President [and] Mr. Eisenhower about the nature of our commitments."
Here’s what Moyers says further: “The President has quoted Mr. Eisenhower as a historical indication of the commitment of assistance by the Eisenhower administration which is the kind of commitment that the Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration believes is necessary to preserve peace.
The President was not in the executive branch of the government [and] was not responsible for the policies that preceded his coming into office. But he does assume, and the only man who assumes ultimate responsibility for our present policy in Vietnam is the present President. He believes very firmly, as President and commander-in-chief that responsibility for our policy there is his.
On a slightly different note, the President personally has had the highest regard for President Eisenhower’s advice. Has considered, since he assumed office on November 22, 63, President Eisenhower has been a tower of strength to him personally, a very helpful advisor on more than one occasion. That he, the President, does not intend that any division come between himself and President Eisenhower. And in fact, so far as the White House is concerned, and employees of the White House are concerned, anyone who tries to provoke a reflection on General Eisenhower will definitely not be around here very long. [Eisenhower laughs] The President sees no division between himself and the former President Eisenhower. And I repeat, and he doesn't consider any effort by anyone else to get General Eisenhower to provoke such a division as serving the national interest." [Johnson laughs]
By framing his defense in effusive language, Johnson was speaking on two levels. Addressing conservatives, he was tempering their criticism by aligning his administration with Eisenhower’s foreign policy. Johnson was also speaking directly to the General, rewarding him for his support and political advice. Sympathizing with Johnson’s unfavorable position regarding the war in Vietnam, Eisenhower reminded his friend of the inevitability of discontent when acting in the international arena:
Citation #8555, WH6508.05. LBJ Library
Eisenhower: Well, I'll tell you, I think you're doing all right.
President Johnson: We're doing the best we—
Eisenhower: You know what [General George] Marshall once said to me? “Well,” he said, “General”--we'd just won a big victory, and he never did say a compliments right to a man's face. But he said, “Well, so far you're not doing too badly.”
Eisenhower: Well, so I wouldn’t let them worry me, Mr. President.
President Johnson: They’re not. They’re not. They’re not.
Eisenhower: After all, you know, no-one in the international field can be popular everywhere.
President Johnson: I know.
Eisenhower: There's always a lot of people going [who] know all the answers. And I had my share of it, I assure you.
President Johnson: Well-
Eisenhower: So, I told them yesterday, I said one reason that I support the bipartisan approach and so gladly will give of my experience for the President whenever he wants it, whatever counsel I can, is because I learned the hard way how difficult it is trying to keep this kind of …
President Johnson: Yes, it sure is.
Eisenhower: But if you read the New York Times some back there about 1955, well, by golly, I'll tell you.
President Johnson: If you hadn't been born in Texas and hadn't had Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, old Bill Knowland might have run over all of us.
Eisenhower: No, not Knowland. He had his limitations.
President Johnson: Yeah sure. Yeah sure. Yeah sure.
Eisenhower: Well, I just wanted to tell you that I was very . . . while I say . . . what I think that the reasons given are very cogent and they're ones that probably that can't be talked about, at least at this time, not all of them. But I can still honestly can say that as I see it now nothing else could have been done.
President Johnson: Well, I appreciate it very much and I appreciate your calling me, and I'm going to lean on you in the days ahead.
Eisenhower: Well, as I say, pay no attention to these darn people.
A week later, in response to a question during a press conference regarding the increasingly strident partisanship on the Vietnam issue, Johnson himself reiterated the value he saw in his Republican predecessor: “The President with whom I counsel often and who has had the greatest experience in not only political and diplomatic matters, but in matters of a military nature, President Eisenhower, has been a tower of strength to me, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Secretary of Defense, and to the leaders of the Congress.”
Less than a week after that, on August 27, 1965 (incidentally, on LBJ's birthday), Johnson again called Eisenhower to discuss the Vietnam situation, specifically the programs to win over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Eisenhower had just recently been visited and briefed by Director of Central Intelligence Admiral William Raborn.
Eisenhower had been an early champion of so-called psychological warfare, employing it in the North Africa campaign in the Second World War and later making it an important part of his administration's foreign policy efforts to confront the Soviet Union. In the 1960s the CIA∇ and the Department of Defense had taken some lessons from those earlier experiences and were using radio broadcasts, leaflets, and a strategically designed “black letter campaign” aimed to implicate Northern communist leaders in treason or to elaborate upon themes of American benevolence already in circulation
During their phone conversation on August 27, Eisenhower endorsed Johnson’s policy as “just wonderful,” extending his approval of using the political techniques of manipulating images and rhetoric during war time. Johnson credited Eisenhower with the inspiration for the program, a move designed partly to flatter, but more importantly to associate Eisenhower in a concrete way with the efforts in Vietnam.
Citation #8660, WH6508.12. LBJ Library
Eisenhower: Admiral Raborn was just here.
President Johnson: Yes.
Eisenhower: And of all the things he had to tell me, one thing that I wanted to tell you that I applaud is your support of these programs they’ve developed out there in Southeast Asia for propaganda, you might say indoctrination and protection of people in their rights and against the invading troops. I think that’s [unclear]. He tells me that you’ve allowed to have, 40 million [dollars] I think it was in Vietnam—
President Johnson: Yeah, yeah.
Eisenhower: Something in Laos.
President Johnson: Yeah.
Eisenhower: All of that—I think that money is the finest money that you've just allocated that I can think of. Just wonderful.
President Johnson: Well, I’m so glad to hear it. I've also tried to pursue more, and if you ever have the time—I don't want to bother you or pester you—you've given all you deserve to give—but I want the new group in there, USIA, that we have tried to reform by taking the Kennedy people out—
President Johnson: And putting in others. I got one [from] General Sarnoff and different ones. I want you to see them and I have repeated to them as near as I could what you just said to me and McNamara at the Cabinet Room that day.
President Johnson: And they have gone up and they are putting in extra transmitters they’re putting in. They’re actually going to put a television station on the air where the people out there can know of the work that their own soldiers are doing and can applaud it.
Eisenhower: Yeah, I think we’re going to need to get the instruments outside the—
President Johnson: Well, they’re just going to put them up in the villages—put a big screen in ‘em. And Japan I think is going to contribute the television sets.
President Johnson: So it all comes out of your feeling that if we don’t get the morale of the people, we can’t ever win anything.
Eisenhower: That is correct.
The Bombing Pause, (December 25, 1965-January 31, 1966)
In an effort to provide space for negotiations during the Vietnam War, Johnson ordered a cessation of air strikes against North Vietnam on December 25, 1965. After one month of failed attempts to use diplomacy to promote peace, President Johnson voiced his intentions to former President Eisenhower to proceed with offensive attacks against the North. In a telephone conversation recorded on January 25, 1966, Johnson insisted upon the impossibility of extending the bombing pause without progress in negotiations. Evoking the criticism of Senators Wayne Morse (Oregon) and J. William Fulbright∇ (Arkansas) regarding his policy decisions in Southeast Asia, the President turned to Eisenhower for counsel. The General responded by labeling Johnson’s critics “overeducated Senators.”
Citation #9533, WH6601.10. LBJ Library
President Johnson: We’re going to have to make a decision, go ahead in the next few days, and . . . We’ve got our friend Fulbright, and some of ‘em are doing a lot of snorting—Morse—but I’m not going to let ‘em deter me. But I just wanted you to know that they are creating some problems. And it looks like they’re almost saying to Hanoi, “If you fellows will just hang on a little bit longer, why, maybe [there is] some chance for you.”
Eisenhower: I . . . my own advice to Goodpaster, I said I didn’t know what the others thought, but I felt that the behavior of these people after they’ve been given this kind of a chance deserves just a—no prior notice, just go ahead and smack 'em.
President Johnson: Yeah, well, I had a nice meeting with [Everett] Dirksen this morning. And I'm going to see [Bourke] Hickenlooper this afternoon. And I tried to . . . I've got our people out at Pearl—out at Honolulu doing some planning now.
President Johnson: And I’ll have my end of it about in shape about the time they are.
Eisenhower: Right, well, and again, I’d pay no attention to—
President Johnson: Yeah.
Eisenhower: -[these] people as-
President Johnson: I understand.
Eisenhower: -overeducated Senators.
President Johnson: [laughs] I understand. I get great comfort and strength from your friendship and counsel, General.
Six days later, on January 31, 1966, Johnson resumed the bombing raids on North Vietnam. Both Senators, and other war critics, intensified their criticism.
Through 1966 the military and political landscape was flooded with complications. From the first few U.S. military advisers Eisenhower had sent to Vietnam in early 1955 the number of American troops had swelled to over 280,000 by August 1966. Operation Rolling Thunder continued to intensify. Casualties were mounting on both sides. Yet victory seemed no closer.
As the Vietnam debate heated up, Eisenhower seemed to waver between a genuine desire to defer to Johnson’s authority, providing the President with his best advice, and a press-friendly, indirect but critical stance that he attempted to temper with phone calls to his friend at the White House.
The war was not going well, prompting consideration of increasingly drastic measures. Some were calling for Johnson to threaten to use the atomic bomb. In 1953, Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, as part of an effort to coax North Korea and China to agree to an armistice, had signaled that they were considering the use of the atomic bomb. Although historians later concluded that that threat had little meaningful effect in bringing about the Korean armistice, at the time the threat to use the atomic bomb was widely credited with convincing China and North Korea that the United States meant business. As the Vietnam conflict escalated, some called for the United States to reprise that earlier ploy.
On September 30, 1966, in Chicago, Eisenhower himself weighed in publicly on the debate, in comments interpreted in some press quarters as calling for the use of all necessary force in handling Vietnam, which many interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a euphemism for using the atomic bomb. A few days later, on October 3, the Soviets publicly declared that they would provide military and economic aid to the North Vietnamese.
The same day, Eisenhower conferred with Johnson by telephone. During that conversation, Eisenhower defended some statements he had made to a few senators by underscoring the differences between the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Probably attempting to mitigate the effects of the public statement he had made in Chicago on September 30, Eisenhower conceded that the circumstances under which Johnson was operating were different. Eisenhower carefully avoided saying what he would and would not do in the same situation, while reiterating his statement from the Korean War that he had pledged to “use whatever weapons were necessary to win” at the same time as acknowledging that times had changed; specifically, China now had the bomb.
Two weeks from his 76th birthday, Eisenhower's health was deteriorating. He had long battled heart disease, having suffered a heart attack in 1955 while in office and since leaving office had become a frequent visitor to Walter Reed hospital. The call opens with Johnson wishing Eisenhower well in his recovery from recent illness.
Citation #PNO 2, Envelope #2, Belt #5, Tapes SO.01. LBJ Library
Johnson: I saw you on color television the other day, though, and you just looked wonderful. Just like you were coming back from the [Second World] War.
Eisenhower: [laughs] Yeah. I tell you, Mr. President, I didn't want to bother you too much, but I just wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding. I noticed that a Senator the other day questioned why I didn't give you in detail the plan I had for winning the war in Vietnam. And I insisted that I have no plan, that that is the responsibility of the President of the United States and not mine, that whenever my counsel has been asked I have always advocated getting enough to win because our purpose was noble and proper and so on, and I have said that if I were back in the position where I was a few years back I would just play it on the basis of winning, and winning as quick as I could.
Now, the only thing I've ever said that has any—that they can make anything of—and this has to do only with domestic things, I've said—I think that winning the war should be the number one priority problem.
President Johnson: And I agree with it. And I understand it. And you oughtn't to waste one minute of your valuable time, what you've got ahead of you, to ever call me. 'Cause there's nobody in this government that's been more valuable to me and been more comforting to me than you have. And I'm trying to win it just as fast as I can in every way that I know how. And I know that you want to help me. And if I figured there's one little thing you [could] do I'd have Goodpaster over there in five minutes. And I wouldn't pay any more attention to Mansfield∇'s speech than if it hadn't been made, because Mansfield and Fulbright and a good many of them frequently—
Eisenhower: Well, they don't know anything.
President Johnson: --say these things. And it's all right for them to tell us how to run a war. And then when you say, “Well, I—I'm not—I don't have the information. I don't want to take the President's duty. And I'm not an armchair general on the sideline.” And I think that's a very proper position. I have told them in the meetings that at times I have asked your judgment and talked to you about various things and every time I have found it to be wise and good and . . . When we could give you the facts and a given situation [and] ask you if you had any recommendations that you'd give them through channels and General Goodpaster brings them back. So don't you pay one bit of attention to anything that says. If there ever was a patriot, you are it. And I'm awfully thankful the good Lord has spared you so you can help me. And I'm going to need all of it I can get. [Unclear interjection by Eisenhower.] And what they're talking about . . . They got mad at Nixon. Nixon got out and said we ought to increase the ground forces 25 percent. And then he said we're getting into a land war—we ought to get in more with bombers and . . . He changes each day or two. And Mansfield got irritated with him. And I don't get irritated any more. I just kind of, like you do—
Eisenhower: [Unclear.] I'll tell you, Mr. President, what bothers me is this: You see, in the Korean War, these people tried this thing, “Now, you said 'so and so' on the Korean War.” I said, “My friends, no two military situations are the same. And no two political situations [are the same]. Here is a war that is the most nasty and unpredictable thing we've ever been in. And it's just as much political as it is military. Therefore, when I said, in Korea, I didn't say I'd use atomic bombs. I said that I would no more be inhibited or limited by the gentleman's agreement that [had] been prevailing at the time I got there. That if we had to bomb the Yalu bridges or going over to the bases in China where this stuff was coming from, I'd do it. And I'd use whatever weapons were necessary to win.” Now, I sent that through three different avenues and we got them—I said, “Unless—this is going to be done unless the armistice is signed.” Well now, the conditions--at that time we had a practical monopoly of all [atomic] bombs. And there was no—the conditions are not the same, that the war is different, and now they're trying to say—they want me to say, “Wouldn't I raise atomic bombs?”
President Johnson: No.
Eisenhower: I said, “Nobody can make such a decision except the President of the United States and I'm not even going to attempt it.
President Johnson: That's right, now, General—
Eisenhower: But I just wanted to point out that I never vary from my stand that this is your responsibility. If I have any ideas that what we should do or could do, I communicate them to you through proper channels—
President Johnson: Oh, I know that.
Eisenhower: And whenever I have to say about—that may sound critical, is merely that I want to win the damn war before I could go to the damn moon or anything else.
President Johnson: General, you never . . . you just hit . . . you’ve said what I think. You told me this; you may have forgotten it. But the first visit you made to my office when I talked to you [about] Vietnam over in the Old Executive Office Building, you told me that you sent word through Dulles through Nehru that you were not going to be bound by any sanctuaries or any weapons, that you were going to do what was best for your country, and you wanted to bring it to an end.
Eisenhower: That's right.
President Johnson: And you didn't get specific or anything. You just said, “Let that word get around.” And Bob Anderson told me that he heard the same thing. And I think it was a proper thing. And they're trying to get you to say that you want to drop an atomic bomb on somebody.
President Johnson: And we know that you don't do anything that's not well thought out.
Eisenhower: They want me to—they wanted me to say that I want to tell you publicly how to run this war. [Johnson laughs] And I said, “I won't do it.”
President Johnson: [laughing] Well, I sure—I need all the help I can get. So you—
Eisenhower: As I say, the President knows that I'm always available.
President Johnson: I know that.
Eisenhower: And I'm just not going to be in the position of dividing the United States at a time when it needs unity.
President Johnson: I know that. You've always shown that. And I told Everett Dirksen this morning. He said he made a little statement this morning and said we've got one blood out there and one flag and one uniform. And I said, “Well, I've been paid a thousand percent.” I said, “Everett, do you remember when I used to have to stand up—and Bill Knowland would go in the back row and attack the President [Eisenhower] and I'd stand up and do it.” And he said, “You sure did.” And I said, “Well, I've been paid a hundred percent dividends for three years now.”
Eisenhower: O.K. Well, I just wanted you, Mr. President, to know that all this damn stuff is just annoying to me.
President Johnson: Well, don't let it—please don't let it do it, because I know how you feel and what you think. And if I ever get annoyed by anything you'll be the first one I talk to. And I never have been, but you've never done anything but help me, sir.
Eisenhower: O.K. Thank you very much.
President Johnson: Bye. My love to Mrs. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower: [Unclear.] Thank you.
By incorporating Eisenhower’s thoughts and recommendations into his decision-making process, Johnson not only made a savvy political move but, for better or worse, he also broadened the spectrum of perspectives open to him in waging an increasingly difficult war.
Maria Petrini was a UVa student researcher with the Presidential Recordings Program from 2005 to 2006. She graduated from the University of Virginia in May 2006. Draft transcripts by Maria Petrini and David Coleman. Original audio and photograph courtesy of LBJ Library.