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Interview with Harry McPherson, 1981

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Summary
Harry McPherson served as Special Counsel to LBJ from 1965 to 1969 and was Johnson’s chief speechwriter from 1966 to 1969. McPherson begins the interview by recalling the conflicted mood at the White House following the Tet Offensive. The optimism found in military cables and official information clashed with televised images showing the nation that the war was resulting in massive loss of human life and that a prisoner could be shot at point-blank range. He also talks about the concerns LBJ had that the Vietnam War might escalate into a world war and that the goal was not to destroy North Vietnam but rather to keep them contained and not overthrow the government in South Vietnam. He ends the interview with a personal sketch of President Johnson, a complex and tragic figure.
Topics
United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States--Foreign relations--China, Electioneering (Political campaigns), Military strategy, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Mass media and the war, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States--Foreign relations--Soviet Union, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Campaigns, Bombing, Aerial Vietnam, Elections, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

Contradictory portrayals of the Vietnam War

Vietnam. SR #2603. Harry McPherson.
Scene four, take one coming up. SR 2603. This is an interview with Mr. McPherson.
Interviewer:
Okay? What were the uh factors that prompted Johnson to begin de-escalating Vietnam and...what impact did the Tet Offensive have, what was the mood of the White House when it broke?
McPherson:
I guess the mood of the White House after the Tet Offensive uh was a mixed one. For the most part, shocked that it could have happened. Shortly thereafter, though, uh running upstream. The news began to come from Saigon, from, in the cables...uh, that the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong had surfaced their assets, as the expression went.
Their secret agents, their people working in the villages had come out and had been uh...killed, eliminated, thousands of them, that while the enemy had shown that he could hit a number of South Vietnamese cities, hard, even after years of bombing, and...of search and destroy missions and all the rest of it, that he could still come out...that...that, that was terribly depressing uh, to me, at any rate.
But the word came back from the embassy that, in fact, it had been a great victory for our side. The, the enemy had lost these assets, the South Vietnamese had shown that they would not crumble totally uh when attacked...
And, uh, so you had two strands running, from the National Security Council staff where Walt Rostow was headquartered. The cables flowed through from the military headquarters and from the Embassy in Saigon saying that we’re, we have survived, the South Vietnamese have survived, the enemy has suffered a terrible defeat, he made a great miscalculation.
From, for the rest of us who were not in the National Security Council Staff, even though we were reading many of those cables uh and going down there for such reassurance as we could get, we were also watching the American television. And American television was showing a different sight, for the American embassy compound invaded uh by Viet Cong. The terrible sight of General Loan raising his revolver to the head of a captured Viet Cong and killing him.
Uh...that...uh, sense of the awfulness, the endlessness of the war, and the, the um, if you’ll pardon what sounds maybe like a naïve expression, the, the uh unethical quality of the war that, the terrible uh quality of the war that, the terrible uh quality that did not recognize if when a man was taken prisoner he was not to be shot at uh point blank range. That...they were awful contradictions, the cables on the one side, the television on the other. It, it was very disturbing.
Interviewer:
Did you get a chance to observe...
Stop.
This is a room tone because we have some odd noises going on outside so we’ll do the room tone first.
McPherson:
Yeah, that would be sensible, it would tell ‘em where the hell...
Interviewer:
Okay? Could you go on and tell us about how you, how Johnson himself reacted as you observed him to all the things you were talking about.
McPherson:
Johnson uh...eh asked for a lot of information from uh his commanders, and uh...from the State Department. Uh...at the same time he uh, he told me to start preparing a speech on Vietnam. I had wanted to include a large Vietnam element in the State of the Union speech, that year, in ’67, ’67. And, he said he wo, he didn’t, he wished not to speak in the State of the Union address about Vietnam very much, but that he would make a major speech.
I felt that he had to address the main contradictions that uh seemed to be...uh to have occurred between American policy and American public opinion, between our war aims and what we were actually achieving as, as demonstrated by the Tet Offensive. And so I began the process of writing a draft speech for the President to give. It was a process that lasted...uh two months.
Interviewer:
But how was he uh...psychologically? How did he react to this thing? Was he shaken by it, uh...and one particular thing, when you mentioned the impact of the media uh...was there anything particularly special let’s say, about seeing Walter Cronkite in a helmet out there and his performance on television.
McPherson:
I’m sure there was. This was about, I’m sure that, that the entire uh period between the Tet Offensive and Johnson’s withdrawal, his announcement of withdrawal on March 31, 1968, was as uh...stormy a time within him as ever there was in his life. Because of the contradictions in information coming in, because of his sense, that I believe was very genuine, that political support was eroding rapidly.
Uh...and this is something that he had thought might happen. Back in 1965 when Johnson had a tremendous...uh mandate from the election of ’64 he got through a huge amount of the Great Society programs in 1965 and finally uh struck out when he tried to get home rule for the District of Columbia.
He was criticized by some for trying to do too much and he said well, a President’s really only got one year, no matter what kind of a mandate he has. One year in which he can try to get his program through and the second year, even people in his party are trying to put some distance between himself and, between the President and themselves, because he’ll have made mistakes and they don’t want to be tarred with them.
He said—this was ’65 now—he said, if this war goes on another year, they’ll all be pushing away from me. He was talking about...pushing away from him in the ’66 elections. Of course, by 1966 we were simply in deeper with another several hundred thousand men.
Uh, the Democrats suffered a big election defeat in 1966 in the mid-term election. The public opinion polls were down very sharply. The confidence in the President, the sense of, uh that he could master both the government and the economy uh and this war uh, those polls were slipping. So it had, it’s bound to have been a terrible time for him.
Interviewer:
Did the, did the Cronkite appearance in particular have any effect on him, that you recall?
McPherson:
I don’t know whether the Cronkite appearance had that effect.
Interviewer:
I’m sorry.
End of the roll.

Lyndon Johnson Decides to Quit

Vietnam. McPherson. SR #2604.
Pix #608. Scene 4. Take 3’s coming up.
7 ½ IPS, 60 cycles, 24 frames. Here’s a tone at minus 8.
Interviewer:
Could you ah...okay?
Wide again.
Go ahead.
Can you recall or describe the conversation you had with Clark Clifford soon after he became Secretary of Defense?
McPherson:
In late February of 1968, about a month after Tet President Johnson, ah, accepted Robert McNamara’s request to resign, ah...from the Defense Department, secretary-ship. And he appointed Clark Clifford as Secretary of Defense.
Two things about this: McNamara had been...ah, perhaps the strongest proponent of the kind of war that the United States had waged in Vietnam, the war of movement, ah...the highly skilled war with lots of helicopters and, ah, lots of sudden swift strikes, air power, and so on.
He believed in ’64, ’65 that we could contain, ah, the North Vietnamese and continued to believe that by ’68, early ’68. So, all of the stories in Washington had it. Ah, he had been deeply...ah, became deeply troubled in his, his ah...in those beliefs and in his, ah, administration of the Defense Department.
He was very close to Bob Kennedy as a personal friend. And I think that began to really set up terrific tensions within him. Clifford, on the other hand, was a great veteran, of Washington, ah...presidential administration. He had been President Truman’s council, he had been a council to...President Kennedy.
He had, when he came into the Johnson White House as a private citizen, he was welcomed as if he were a person already of high rank in government. Johnson sent him to the Pacific in ’67 to speak to the leaders of the so-called troop contributing nations—Australia, for example. And he came back, and he had the...duty to report that those countries simply didn’t want to send any more troops to Vietnam, which caused him a great deal of concern, as well as the rest of us, because after all, we were supposed to be out there for not only for the United States foreign policy, but for...the sake of the nations and the region.
And if they didn’t feel that they could put additional troops in, it seemed to vitiate that. Clifford came in. We had a luncheon at Secretary Rusk’s offices in the State Department on about the 28th of February. McNamara was to leave within a day or two.
He began to speak in very emotional terms of the bombing campaign. He talked of, ah, the familiar figure that we had dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than we dropped on all of Europe in WWII. And his voice broke, and there were tears in his eyes speaking of the futility, ah, the crushing futility of that air campaign.
The rest of us sat there, ah, I for one, with my mouth open, hearing the secretary of defense...speak that way of the campaign that he had ultimate responsibility for. Ah, was...pretty shocking. I’d...I’d been sending memoranda for a long time complaining about the bombing program, but I was merely a...a lawyer for President Johnson in the White House and not a defense official. Here was the Secretary of Defense speaking that way.
Interviewer:
I must stop because the battery is gone.
Tone.
McPherson:
I spoke sympathetically to Secretary McNamara, and...and I agreed with much of what he said at the luncheon. When I got back to the White House I had a call from the new-secretary-to-be. He had already been at the Pentagon for a couple of weeks having the generals tell him about, ah, whether or not we could win the war.
Clifford said, ah..."I noticed you this afternoon at the State Department, and it seems to me you and I are on the same side. And I think we should form a partnership. You should be the partner in the White House and I’ll be the partner in the Pentagon. You tell me what goes on over there, the chiefs appear and I’ll tell you what happens over here, and together we’ll get this country and our President out of this mess."
Without his having to say so, getting us out of this mess did not mean putting in another two or three hundred thousand men in order to beat North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, it meant to begin the process of de-escalation, as it was called—of disengagement of the United States. I was exhilarated.
Interviewer:
As you recall, what impact did the New Hampshire primary have on Lyndon Johnson, and also the upcoming Wisconsin Primary?
McPherson:
In mid '6, mid March of 1968, ah...Joe Califano, another assistant to President Johnson and I, had lunch with him one day in the Rose Garden. It was the middle of March, and he said, “I think I’m not going to run again.” And we both treated that with...something, ah, certainly with disbelief.
Not quite scorn – you don’t want to express scorn to the President of the United States when he says things like that. But he said, “Why should I run again?” And I said, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t because the job is terribly hard, and I think the kind of problems that you’ve got are virtually insoluble, but you have to run again?” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, because among other reasons you’re the only fella who can get anything through Congress, and we need a lot of legislation – none of these people knows anything about doing that.”
And he said, “No, you’re quite wrong about that. They’ll all have a better time next year than I would if I’m re-elected. They’ll have a honeymoon. Congress and I won’t have a honeymoon. Congress and I are like an old man and woman who’ve known each other too long, and have yelled at each other and begged from each other, and we know they just won’t give me that year. So give me another reason.” And I couldn’t think of one.
About that time another aide came in to ask Johnson something about his schedule, and Califano and I left, and we went back. And I said to Joe, “Whew. I’m glad that didn’t go on, ‘cause I couldn’t think of any other reasons.” But still, you didn’t think it would happen. Ah, it was the first time I’d ever heard President Johnson speak that way...the way that I would have felt had I been he.
The defeat in New Hampshire came about...it wasn’t a defeat – excuse me, let me back up. In the New Hampshire Primary President Johnson...got the most votes of any Democrat. But the fact that Eugene McCarthy got forty-two percent of the votes, was a considerable shock to the political system.
Johnson had a curious, ambivalent relationship to that primary. He would not authorize people to do the things that they said were necessary in order to win the primary in a big way. He seemed in some curious way...to want to win it, but not to want to win it. In some way to, ah, to want the approval of the country and to have the country say, “Now, you’ve served your time.” Very strange that he went at it in that way...half way.
Interviewer:
I'd just ask you to jump ahead for a moment. But...did he look forward to the Wisconsin Primary with pessimism?
McPherson:
Oh, I, I think he looked forward to the Wisconsin Primary with real pessimism if you assume that he wanted to run. He says now in his memoirs that he had decided back in 1964 not to run again. Ah...I thought he had, had his polls been better, had there been still some juice in the lemon, what he might have gotten out of Congress, and the kind of leadership he might have shown the country, and the support he might have gotten he would have been glad to run again, I thought.
Interviewer:
Could you, ah, recall that meeting that took place in...
Ah we got ten feet left.
Let me get just a very wide shot.
Camera Roll #609 coming up. And we're on take five. Mr. McPherson.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Could you recall that lunch that took place on March 23rd or March 22nd in the White House?
McPherson:
By mid-March I had written about five drafts of the speech, and I was beginning to meet, with some regularity, with the President, Secretary of State, Defense, and others, talking over what was going on in Vietnam, and what we ought to be saying. At this point the speech had, ah, in it, elements about the economy, about some troop increases, enough at least to refill the...missing gaps in our lines in Vietnam.
And uh, on about a week before the President was to make that speech I went to a luncheon in the White House...with Secretary Rusk, Clifford, General Wheeler the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Johnson, Secretary Fowler of the Treasury. And the question was put to Dean Rusk...what would happen if we stopped the bombing altogether?
And you know by this time we had had half a dozen bombing pauses, conditional pauses. What would happen if we stopped it altogether? Rusk said that outside of the problems this would give us with our South Vietnamese friends, he thought that the North Vietnamese would say that if there were any condition whatever attached to...ah a bombing cessation, that it would have no effect whatever.
He said, “I’m afraid that is a nonstarter.” And he seemed genuinely distressed by that fact. I went back to my...fifth, sixth or seventh draft of this speech – it was like being an engineer running an erector set to put this speech together and send it out to everybody. And it just occurred to me to send Johnson a memorandum that said, “Why don’t we just stop the bombing north of the 20th parallel.” That was about...oh, that was at the top of the Demilitarized Zone.
It would mean we’d still be bombing three degrees of North Vietnam, but would not be bombing Hanoi, Hai Phong or any of the main industrial areas – urban areas. Why don’t we do that and then say we’ve sent our emissaries to Rangoon and Vienna, and we’ll await you there, and we’ll stop it altogether. We’ll quit bombing everything, including the Demilitarized Zone, if you will not send troops down through it – if you can guarantee us that you won’t use that bombing cessation to jump us in...South Vietnam.
I sent it off with no real hopes for it. That afternoon, late, I got word that Johnson wanted other copies of it, and I was very excited, because he had obviously given his copy to somebody. And then at, ah, one of the most...ah, interesting meetings that I ever attended in my life, several days later, three or four days before the speech that President Johnson made, I mentioned having said it to Secretary Rusk. He said, “Yes, we sent that out to Saigon – that idea out, and they said they could live with it.” So I felt pretty excited...
On, about three days before the speech...still very dissatisfied with the speech, but doing the best I could – the speech at this point three days before March 31st was still an effort at a Churchillian Speech – it was a strong “we will be in there, we will be fighting, they will not drive us out, we will save Vietnam” speech. There was a meeting in Secretary Rusk’s office. Rusk, Clifford, Bill Bundy, the Assistant Secretary for the Far East; Rostow, and me.
Clifford said, “The speech is a disaster. The speech is a signal for more of the same.” He said, “I have talked to people, men of affairs, throughout the country about this war consistently...for the last...several years. They once supported it, because they’re inclined to support whatever the President of the United States believes is essential to do. But they’ve now withdrawn their support. They believe it is a morass, and that the United States must begin to get out. This speech tells them there will be more of the same. We must change the speech.”
Interviewer:
Did you then begin to write the new speech? And could you tell us about that conversation you had with Lyndon Johnson on the night of March 31st?
McPherson:
The really, the really surprising thing was that Rusk and Rostow did not fight Clifford on that, but began to, ah, speak as if...“Alright, let’s...what do we have to put in line to write a different kind of speech?” I went back and wrote a different speech – a very different speech. One that said that we are going to begin, we will stop the bombing and we will only put in a modest increase in troops.
And I sent it in marked Speech 1A...the President had before him maybe the tenth or twelfth or fourteenth draft of the old line of speeches. Then he had 1A, the alternate. The next morning he called me and said, “I don’t like what you say there on page three.” And I looked very quickly to see which one he was talking about. And it was 1A. So he was on the alternate speech – he was on the speech that called for de-escalation. We met all day Saturday before that Sunday with Johnson, all day long...
At the very end of the meeting...I had cut off the peroration, the ending of the speech, which was a kind of McPherson effort to write Churchillian. It had been on every draft of every speech from the beginning. Clifford called me just before we met on that Saturday and said, “You know that peroration doesn’t belong there anymore. The speech has changed. You can’t make the kind of speech we’ve now got and then end it with the sort of ‘we will fight them in the...lanes and the villages and the beaches’ language that is in that peroration.” So I just cut it off.
I didn’t have time to write a new one. Johnson asked me, “Where was it? I like that.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t like it, it doesn’t really fit with the speech. I’ll go upstairs and write a new one. And I’ll make it short because the speech is already a very long one.” He said, “You don’t need to worry about time. I may have a little ending of my own.” And he walked out of the room leaving me and Clifford.
I turned around to Clifford and said, ‘Good Lord, is he going to say ‘sayonara’, is he going to quit?” And Clifford looked at me as if I were out of my mind. Here was Clark Clifford, very prosperous Washington lawyer who had just left his law practice one month before to be Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense – obviously inconceivable to him that Lyndon Johnson could decide to quit.
The next day, Sunday, I came to the White House and worked on the speech, to make sure it was put on the teleprompter right. And I heard that the President and a former aide, Horace Busby, were over in the mansion writing something. I figured, “Okay. That’s what it is.” About five in the afternoon I got back to my office and Johnson called me, and asked me what I thought about the speech that he was about to deliver in two or three hours. And I said I thought it was pretty good – I was really proud and glad that we had turned, changed the speech.
He said, “I’ve got an ending.” I said, “I’ve heard that.” He said, “Do you know what’s in it?” I said, “I think so.” He said, “What do you think about it?” And I said, “I’m very sorry, Mr. President.” And he said, “Okay. So long partner.”
Interviewer:
Why do you think he waited...
Scene 4. Take six coming up.
Tone.
Interviewer:
Tell us about these concerns about Johnson that this whole thing might explode into a great world war.
McPherson:
Johnson’s greatest fear, as he once put it, was that an American pilot was going to...miss his target in Hanoi or Hai Phong Harbor and put a bomb down the smoke stack of a Russian freighter with the Russian Minister on board, and that pilot would be from Johnson City, Texas.
He was, he was extremely disturbed that we might provoke the Russians, or earlier the Chinese, into coming to the aid of Vietnam. And that was one of the...that was one of the tremendous dilemmas he had throughout the war when a great many Americans wanted the United States to go ahead and finish it off.
And he kept saying that our goal was not even to overthrow or change the government of North Vietnam – it was simply to keep them from overrunning South Vietnam, and also it was to keep the Russians at bay, so that they did not escalate someplace in the rest of the world in response to our devastating North Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Could you tell us, go back and tell us some more about how these stresses and strains developed between Clark Clifford and the President.
McPherson:
The President, it’s really vital to remember by everybody who looks at the Vietnam War period, the President was not a simple-minded war monger. He was not a fellow who had decided back in 1964 or ’65 that, “Hooray, let’s go out and beat the Vietnamese.” He was quite aware at the time the decision was made to put in American troops that it was a terrific gamble. He did it because he thought the alternative of not going in to support South Vietnam was worse on our world-wide commitments. So it was, he had doubts throughout the entire period that I knew him in the White House, and he expressed them often. He felt it and...
Interviewer:
We're out if film.
Camera Roll #610. End of the reel.

The Private Pain of Lyndon B. Johnson

Vietnam. McPherson. SR #2605.
Vietnam T885, 7 ½ IPS, 60 seconds, 24 frames. Camera Roll #610.
Interviewer:
Okay, you want to just continue that narrative – you were talking about developing tensions...
McPherson:
So, throughout this period of his presidency, Johnson was not that kind of two-gun absolutely confident leader. He tried to sound like it, because the alternative of sounding as if he had profound doubts would have been totally unacceptable in an American President. How he could have said that to the mothers, who were sending their boys overseas, that he had such doubts – obviously he could not have done that.
Clark Clifford’s enormous contribution to the de-escalation of the American effort in Vietnam came about because of his rigorous examination in the people, in the – generals in the Pentagon. He was extremely persuasive with the President in showing him the consequences of the situation we were in – the fix we were in.
Ah...I say persuasive, persuasive because Clark Clifford is a man of real standing in the community. Johnson had his own grasp of the dilemma he was in. What he was being told by Clifford was, with the forces we have in there right now we can’t achieve the goal that we want. And what Johnson knew in his own guts was that he could not put in the forces – could not increase the forces to do that job because he lacked the political backing to do it.
For Lyndon Johnson, I believe, probably still the most important thing in 1968, as it had been ever since he came to Congress in 1937, was what does Congress think? What can I get out of Congress? What kind of support? They represent the nation. They speak for the nation. And Congress simply would not give him the tools willingly to escalate our commitment in forces – they wouldn’t adopt the economic program – Johnson is justly criticized for not increasing taxes to pay for the war, and therefore contributing to inflation. But Congress was no more willing to do that than he was. Just as, backward.
But the, throughout ’68 there were terrific tensions between Johnson and Clifford, as Clifford was constantly pushing for further evidence of de-escalation, ultimately a complete bombing halt.
And Johnson was damned if he was going to see us tuck tail and leave Vietnam with the job still undone. There were fundamental contradictions. He knew that he didn’t have the political backing to achieve his goals. But at the same time he would not turn loose of it. He wouldn’t quit, he wouldn’t lose.

A Portrait of Lyndon Johnson

McPherson:
And he went into the political campaign, in which Hubert Humphrey ran against Nixon, with a determination that the Democratic Administration and its candidate Humphrey should stand for the cause that we had been involved in and had advanced for the last four years.
As Humphrey’s people were telling him to get out, Johnson’s, to get away from Johnson and his policies, Johnson’s people were, and Johnson himself particularly, were furious at every variation, every deviation by Humphrey.
Interviewer:
What was that, the incident played by Mrs. Chennault and Bui Diem? Could you recall that?
McPherson:
Close to the election it was deemed critical for Humphrey that Johnson should order the bombing stopped in Vietnam, not just down to the 20th parallel, but altogether in order to make the peace process possible – the North Vietnamese would say that you’ve got to stop it altogether, if we’re really going to get into serious talks. To do that, to stop the bombing in Johnson’s mind required the assent of the South Vietnamese leaders. You can stop it because we can handle it down here – handle the fighting in South Vietnam – even with the bombing gone.
About a week or so before the election there was evidence that some representatives, ah, of the Nixon Camp, had spoken to some representatives of the South Vietnamese here in Washington to suggest to them that they deny assent to that bombing halt. The theory being that you’ll get along much better with Nixon as the President; if you don’t give your assent and the bombing is not stopped, then the peace process does not go forward, and Humphrey loses.
Interviewer:
You don’t want to mention any names.
McPherson:
...and Johnson got Nixon...
Interviewer:
One more time...Johnson.
McPherson:
Johnson got Nixon, Humphrey and George Wallace on a conference call. The only person he was really speaking to was Nixon. But he spoke to them all, since this would be simply a message from the President to the three candidates, that we want to be sure that nobody does anything that will interrupt the, ah, the very sensitive efforts that we are currently making with the Vietnamese, and in our effort to get to serious talks.
The message certainly did get through. Ah, Mrs. Chennault, Anna Chennault, of “Flying Tiger” fame was the person who was said to have gone to the South Vietnamese Ambassador here and carried that message, and that was the response. Finally, two or three days before the election, General Creighton Abrams, Military Commander, flew incognito to Washington to report to the President, that in his judgment he could do his military job without bombing. He arrived in the White House at about two in the morning. We were all sitting around the cabinet room waiting for him.
Johnson grilled him. “Tell me definitely that you can do that without danger to our troops.” Then having that assurance from Creighton Abrams, the word went to Ambassador Bunker to go see the Vietnamese leaders and tell them the same thing. Bunker couldn’t get to see them. They dodged him for days. And so it was finally only...two or three days before the election that Johnson stopped the bombing altogether, when it was thought by many people to have been too late to help Humphrey.
Interviewer:
I wasn’t clear about what Anna Chennault’s role was.
McPherson:
She went to the South Vietnamese...
Interviewer:
Wide. Go ahead.
McPherson:
The ah, what I believe happened a week or so before the election was that Mrs. Chennault, Anna Chennault, the widow of the Flying Tiger, Claire Chennault, went to the South Vietnamese and spoke on behalf of, or at least as a partisan of, ah, the Nixon Campaign. And urged them, ah, to stand fast against any bombing cessation on the theory that...a bombing cessation would cause the talks with the North Vietnamese to get going in Paris and would help Humphrey.
And Chennault’s view apparently was, that the argument she made to the South Vietnamese was, “You’ll be a lot better off under Nixon. Therefore, go slow. Withhold your assent when they ask you to agree to a bombing halt.”
Interviewer:
Give us ten seconds for room tone.
Let’s run out the reel, and maybe you can just tell us about Johnson as a man. What made hi tick? What kind of a...still rolling...guy he was. Use a bunch of adjectives. We want to do a little bouquet on the complexity of the man, the various...
Okay, we’re rolling film, go ahead.
McPherson:
Johnson, you’re ok? Lyndon Johnson was, of course, one of the great legislative leaders of American history. He was one of the most successful presidents when it came to delaying with Congress and getting a domestic program through in American history. It’s his tragedy to have been involved as a leader of the United States in a war of such, ah, terrible uncertainties, of such divided loyalties within this country – a limited war.
There is a real question, I think, as to whether democracy can fight a limited war. Lyndon Johnson’s predecessors, in talking about, ah, Roosevelt and others who had led this nation into war, had had at least the benefit of a united nation with a single goal – to defeat the enemy and to run him over – to take his capital. That was not the goal in Vietnam, and it was his terrible fate to suffer through as leader—that, and the country’s terrible fate to go through it with him.
Interviewer:
What was he like as a person? I mean, there are a million Lyndon Johnson anecdotes. One of the aspects of it, which is fascinating, is the way he personalized everything.
McPherson:
Yeah. Lyndon Johnson was a vehement, dominant, brilliant man – not intellectually brilliant in the sense of having a vast store of reading and knowledge about world history, certainly not the historian that Harry Truman was.
[Honk]
McPherson:
But brilliant in sheer wit, in sheer intellectual mental horsepower. The smartest man I ever saw.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Enter the timecode: