Vietnam and the Ghost of Ben Milam
This excerpt from a lengthy conversation between President Johnson and Georgia Senator Richard Russell highlights the serious early concerns about Vietnam prevalent among Johnson and his close advisers. Russell, a longtime Johnson friend and mentor, expressed grave doubts about U.S. involvement, at one point commenting that "it isn't important a damn bit" in response to an LBJ query about the relevance of Vietnam for American interests. In this passage, Russell helped Johnson assess French proposals for regional neutralization in Southeast Asia (supported by Senator Mike Mansfield), as well as the significance of tensions between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Russell also took note of Johnson's reference to Texas hero Ben Milam. A soldier and trader from Kentucky, Ben Milam was a leader of the Texas independence movement in the 1830s. In December 1835, when some leaders of the rebel Texas forces wanted
to delay a planned attack on a Mexican army camped at San Antonio until after the winter, Milam disagreed. Instead, he urged other members of the Texas volunteers to join him in a surprise attack: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” The attack succeeded, but as Russell reminded Johnson later in the conversation, Milam was killed by a sniper’s bullet. With this reminder of Milam’s personal fate, Russell implicitly chided Johnson for his earlier bravado in discussing Mansfield’s support of neutralization.
Date: May 27, 1964
Participants: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Russell
Conversation Number: WH6405.10-3520, 3521
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