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Interview with McGeorge Bundy

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Summary
McGeorge Bundy, brother of William Bundy, served as National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1966. Here he discusses the Vietnam war under both Presidents, specifically addressing the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and the attack on Pleiku Airbase while he was in Vietnam. He also recounts events around the 1965 decision to increase American troops in Vietnam, and a 1968 meeting of the “Wise Men” where Johnson called in former administration officials for their advice on troop levels and bombing strategies.
Topics
United States--History--1945-, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Offensive (Military science), Tonkin Gulf Incidents, 1964, Escalation (Military science), Cold War, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, United States--History, Military--20th century, Bombing, Aerial--Vietnam, Insurgency, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, National security--United States, United States--Foreign relations--1961-1963, United States--Foreign relations--1969-1974, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, Vietnam--Politics and government, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

Vietnam in the Kennedy Administration

VIETNAM
McGeorge Bundy
Sound Roll 42626
Interviewer:
How important was Vietnam to the Kennedy Administration?
Bundy:
Well, Vietnam, really more accurately, Laos, was almost after Berlin the top problem at the beginning of the Kennedy Administration in '61, foreign problem. And then uh, after the Laos agreements of '62 and the new efforts that were being made in South Vietnam, it became quite a lot less important in terms of urgency, at least.
But uh, after turmoil began in Saigon in '63, summer of '63 it becomes uh, more important than ever to President Kennedy, and it may have been the thing that he had to work on the hardest in the foreign field, excepting the test ban, in the last months of his life.
Interviewer:
How would you assess the US responsibility for the Diem coup, and the assassination of Diem and his brother, and how did it change and deepen... How did the coup and the assassination change or deepen the American commitment to Vietnam?
Bundy:
The uh, Kennedy Administration gave up hope about the Diem brothers, at least if the two of them were to, Diem and Nhu his brother, uh at least if the two of them were to remain in power, somewhere in the summer and early fall of uh '63, and it's hard to be precise about that, even now, I think. And was responsible certainly uh, for uh, permitting, agreeing in the very strong conclusion of Ambassador Lodge uh, that uh, we ought not to stand in the way of uh, change of government and should let that be known and certainly that position had a great deal to do with the fact that a coup occurred.
The assassination of Diem and Nhu came as a great shock to the President and I think he uh, greatly regretted that uh, stronger action had not been taken to make clear in advance that that was certainly no part of any American desire or intention.
Did the uh... there's... an interesting question whether the assassination or the coup or the combination and the uh, element of American encouragement in that uh deepened the American commitment. I don't think that it had that effect uh, in President Kennedy's own mind, or would have had that effect so far as I can guess on his decisions if he had lived.

L.B.J.'s initial actions regarding Vietnam

Interviewer:
How did Lyndon Johnson perceive his inheritance from the Kennedy Administration? Could you describe his meeting with Henry Cabot Lodge on the 24th of November, two days after President Kennedy was assassinated? Also, what was President Johnson's attitude towards the coup? What what did he feel about Diem coup?
Bundy:
My first uh, knowledge of uh, Lyndon Johnson's views, as president, on Vietnam came I think about a couple of days after the assassination. Ambassador Lodge came back uh, right after the assassination. The President was very eager to see him and a meeting was arranged.
The uh, President wanted that meeting, it seemed to me from the way he conducted it, mainly for the purpose of making it very clear that he thought uh, it was of very high importance to maintain a very firm position in support of South Vietnam, that he himself uh, was most unenthusiastic about the coup, that uh, uh he wanted to convey to Ambassador...
Interviewer:
Excuse me- go ahead.
Bundy:
...that he wanted to convey to Ambassador Lodge this sense of determination, and in a way a, his view that greater determination uh, if anything would be the hallmark of the new administration, and that in particular, he was uh, not of the view that we should be uh, unnecessarily picky and choosy about anyone who showed real capacity to govern in Saigon.
Interviewer:
And yet uh, would you say that there was a, that during 1964 there was a kind of caution on Lyndon Johnson's part about becoming involved in Vietnam, a hesitation as he went in. At that stage did you think he began to look at Vietnam as a major challenge or did that arrive later?
Bundy:
I think uh, uh it is uh, right to think of Lyndon Johnson as having treated Vietnam with, the whole Vietnam issue, with great care uh, and wariness in 1964. Uh, really for two reasons, uh, one was the great uncertainty and uh, lack of clarity in the political situation in Vietnam and the other was that uh, he was uh, not at all eager to have to make uh, large decisions perhaps with military elements in them during an American election year.
At the same time he was aware of the painful fact that the information from Vietnam, from all sources, showed a uh, situation that was getting worse and worse from the point of view of the long term survival of the non-Communist society in South Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Do you consider that the (cough) sending of Maxwell Taylor and General Westmoreland to Vietnam, did that represent a form of escalation, were we sending in the first team now?
Bundy:
I think that when uh, the President sent uh General Taylor to replace Ambassador Lodge and General Westmoreland to relieve General Harkins uh, he was uh, consciously trying to send the uh, ablest individuals he could find for the two senior positions in Saigon and uh, I don't think I would call that escalation, I would call it simply recognition that the Vietnamese hot spot was now the place where you most needed the best people you could find.
Interviewer:
Now in June of 1964, hrmpf, Johnson authorizes contingency plans for bombing the North. Uh, was there pressure from the military for these plans, or were they routine contingency plans?
Bundy:
There is nearly always uh, a process of wanting contingency plans made in the military. Uh, I think there was some sense of increasing urgency in the uh, certainly in the, among the uh, chiefs in the joint staff, uh, quite understandably because of the deteriorating situation in straight military terms as they saw it uh, in Vietnam.
The President's authorization of contingency planning was ah a certainly not in his view a preliminary decision to go ahead with whatever plan emerged or any kind of authorization of expectations that he would. Uh, presidents and Lyndon Johnson was really no exception on this point, or uh, very rapidly learned the difference between a contingency plan and an authorized act.

The Tonkin Gulf Incident and Resolution

Interviewer:
Let's go on to the Tonkin Gulf (cough) Resolution uh, could you describe how the resolution which later became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was first seen and what its evolution was? And why did President Johnson feel he needed the resolution?
(Keep it separate questions)
Bundy:
Ask it again then, would you?
Interviewer:
Could you describe how, hrmf, the resolution that later became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was initially conceived and how it was drafted and and eventually became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution?
Bundy:
Well, it was already very clear in 1964 and if you...
Interviewer:
Okay.
You can't ask for a short answer if you have three questions.
Tone.
Camera Roll 647
CLAP STICKS
Okay. Mark it.
Interviewer:
Okay. Uh, speaking of the resolution that would later become the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, how was it first conceived and drafted, and what was its evolution during the spring and summer of 1964?
Bundy:
Well, it was obvious uh, that uh, the situation in Vietnam was far from stable in 1964 and that there, if in fact the United States was going to uh carry out its declared intent to uh, do its best to prevent uh, a Communist overrun of South Vietnam, uh, there would be at least hard choices to make, and there might be a choice for uh, stronger action.
Uh, by that time there was a pretty well established tradition of uh, supporting congressional action, seeking supporting congressional action and usually in fact getting it, in cases that might require that kind of use of force. That happened in the Middle East Resolution uh, and in resolutions about Cuba and so it was really quite natural that people watching this unfolding situation should begin to think that uh, it might be important to go for a resolution uh, of support from the congress for position of readiness to take further actions.
Interviewer:
Was the Tonkin... when it became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, was it in fact a resolution in search of an incident, or as, as you said was this just a normal planning operation?
Bundy:
I think it was a normal planning operation, the choice that uh the resolution would be put forward in the context of Tonkin Gulf, was a very presidential choice. I remember learning about it uh, from President Johnson, and in that same conversation when I raised questions about whether we were sure that we wanted to ask for this rather broad resolution in the context of these quite specific events, the president made it clear that he had already made his decision and uh, was determined to present the resolution for action.
I formed the impression that he had consulted on the Hill and found that there would be support for the resolution, and in his view tactically this was a good time to put it forward.
Interviewer:
Looking ahead, and the way the President used the resolution later as kind of a blank check that he kept pulling out of his pocket, could you comment on that, do you think it became (cough) a rather tattered piece of paper after a while?
Bundy:
The President proved to be entirely right, of course, about whether there would be public support and congressional support for the resolution which the administration called the Southeast Asia Resolution, but which has become generally known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, at the time. And it served the purpose of August 1964 I think very clearly to show that an attack upon American vessels on high seas uh, whatever the surrounding or mitigating circumstances would call for reaction, and that reaction would have widespread support and that further action might be taken, not specified terms and conditions not stated.
Uh, I don't think myself that that's the important set of questions about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. I think the important questions arise from ah its use as a general ah, justification for whatever later decisions ah, the president might make. I think in other words that ah, it's not the Southeast Asia resolution that is ah, primarily at issue, but the fact that ah, a resolution passed in the con, in one context became used as a, was used as a general justification for very much larger actions in a way that was, I think uh, almost bound to uh, give pain unless the action could be short and uh, easy and successful.
And of course uh, the larger involvement of the United States was none of those things.
Interviewer:
Let me just touch on the Tonkin Gulf incident itself. The Communists were now saying (cough) that the Maddox was in their territorial waters and that there was only one incident. Uh, what in fact, from your information what happened?
Bundy:
I think the uh Tonkin Gulf episodes, both of them did in fact occur, and did occur on the high seas. Uh, the initial observation or contact may have occurred inside a twelve-mile area, although certainly outside a three-mile area. The uh, government of Hanoi had never made a formal change in its uh territorial limits, as I understand it, uh which were three miles in the days of the French. They later made a formal assertion of a twelve mile claim, but had not done so at the time of the episode.
Again, I don't think myself that uh, the uh, exact area uh, or the exact technical status of the ships is the most important point. The most important and really genuinely surprising fact was that uh, North Vietnamese torpedo boats pursued an American destroyer to a point more than 20 miles offshore and made uh, an attack on such an American vessel. That was very surprising to us.
Interviewer:
(cough) Could you touch on the possibility that Hanoi might have thought that the Maddox and the Turner Joy were supporting the South Vietnamese covert operations being run against those coastal towns?
Bundy:
There has of course been argument over whether uh, the South Vietnamese could have reached the conclusion that the American destroyer, or destroyers.
Interviewer:
Sorry, it was the North Vietnamese.
Bundy:
Excuse me, there has of course been argument over uh, the question whether the North Vietnamese could have supposed that Maddox and Turner Joy were participating in uh, South Vietnamese raids, that uh, uh certainly had some American knowledge and uh, covert support. I'm inclined to the view that that's not likely but it's not impossible.
It would still not make it less surprising that they would pursue and attack on the high seas. The uh, strong and and widespread feeling I think in the government was that uh, the attack of August 2nd, and the night attack of August 4th which the government did believe happened, and I believe happened, showed a level of aggressiveness that was surprising.
Interviewer:
But Lyndon... (cough) Lyndon Johnson, at the time, used the phrase, "unprovoked aggression." In retrospect do you think that was a fair phrase?
Bundy:
Well, I don't think I want to second guess all the uh, uh language that uh, Lyndon Johnson used uh, while he was president.

Insurgency leading up to American reprisal

Interviewer:
Let's go on to these uh, incidents — the Bien Hoa (cough) airfield incident and the Brinks incident. Could you go back and recall the situation at the time, this is the end of '64 when (cough) there was a plan for bombing, that in a sense, could have gone forward at these particular instances. Why didn't they take place at the time that they did?
Bundy:
As I recall the uh, problem of uh, whether or not to reply to uh, specific uh, attacks on uh, American installations in South Vietnam, by uh, perhaps by air action against the North, uh, it was very much a a question that was being pushed forward for decision. There were people who thought it urgent to reply to these attacks and others who were more cautious and the president had naturally kept the decision in his own hands.
I think that it was there were two episodes toward the end of 1964 where I think he decided not to uh, take action for essentially uh, uh special reasons. One of them was an attack uh, that occurred just before the election, and an action taken right on the eve of election might have magnified effect one way or another that made it an inappropriate moment for serious choice. And another one occurred just at Christmas Eve as I recollect it. And again uh, there are all sorts of reasons for not using force uh near Christmas.
Interviewer:
This takes us up to (cough) Pleiku and your visit to Vietnam in early February. Could you describe uh, you know, as having gone through that particular incident, uh and uh, what actually happened and what was your reaction - your mood - as you went through the experience?
Bundy:
Well, the attack on the uh, Pleiku airfield and installation uh, occurred...
(Some direction here inaudible)
Tone.
END SR 2626
VIETNAM
McGEORGE BUNDY
SR 2627
T885 Side 2
Interviewer:
Why was the the (cough) why was the bombing postponed, or not... wouldn't take place and the Communists attacked the airfield, at Bien Hoa.
Bundy:
The Bien Hoa attack brought strong recommendations from the field that there should be a uh, some kind of reply. That attack occurred uh, just before the election, and although I don't recall hearing the president explain his decision not to act in terms of the election, I feel quite confident that uh, he uh, would have thought that taking an action uh, as large as this and in terms of its public impact on the eve of the election would be a mistake.
Interviewer:
How about (cough) the trigger when the B-Brinks bachelor officers' quarters was attacked?
Bundy:
The Brinks attack came just before Christmas. And again without the president uh, saying so, at least to me in so many words, I don't think it's hard to believe that he would have thought that Christmas was not a good time for a decision of this sort.
Interviewer:
Now before you went to Vietnam - you went to Vietnam in early February of 1965 - uh (cough) how did you view the situation even before you went? Did you believe there was a need to escalate the war, what was your feeling at that state?
Bundy:
1964 had been a bad year in terms of uh, the progress and lack of progress made in South Vietnam by non-Communist, anti-Communist forces and uh, as uh, uh the election smoke cleared away, and the president got ready to address the things on his agenda for 1965 it seemed to me that uh, it was important to uh, bring to his attention that uh, the situation in Vietnam was uh, almost sure to require hard choices in 1965.
Either the United States would decide to do quite a lot more without my knowing or being prepared to give any view with any confidence as to what that more would be, or we could expect uh the non-Communist society to be overrun.
Interviewer:
Now you went out there in early February (cough). What was your experience? The Pleiku incident took place.
Bundy:
I uh, went there uh to Saigon uh, with uh, a whole team of people representing the agencies principally interested, and while we were there the attack on the Pleiku airfield installation occurred, and uh, we were in Saigon at the time and naturally there was an immediate gathering of uh, both the visiting team and the ambassador and the commander at uh, military headquarters, as I recollect it.
And we found our friends in Washington on the wire, and uh, they wanted our recommendation. Uh, it took us a little while to concert a view which was that this episode did call for a reply. Uh, I formed the strong impression that uh that was very clearly the sentiment on the other end of the wire, as I recollect it, I was talking principally with uh, Cy Vance who was then the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and uh, I was talking not just for myself, but for everyone in that Saigon headquarters, and he was asking on behalf of the National Security Council, in the end on behalf of the President.
We gave him a recommendation, which as I understood it was the one that they were uh, quite independently strongly moving toward, and then they decided, or there were decisions on military channels as to just exactly which targets would be struck. I don't recall having any part in that.
Interviewer:
Had you (cough) visited wounded in the hospital and uh do you... looking back do you feel that (cough) your recommendation, there was a there was a certain amount of emotion in your recommendation that moved Lyndon Johnson?
Bundy:
That's one of the things that's in a lot of books, and it's a lot of nonsense. Because we didn't go to the hospital until afterwards, and I really don't think a question and answer on that tells very much unless you really want it.
Interviewer:
When you got back to Washington...
Bundy:
We went up, uh... What happened was that Westy went up to look at the hospital, and I went to look at Pleiku and then we visited a field hospital, or the nearest hospital on the way back. But I don't think that had anything to do with our recommendation. Because our, you know recommendation for immediate reply had already been made. So, there's no way of knowing that.
Interviewer:
When you got back to Washington (cough) you told the President that (cough) - I'm quoting - at the very best the struggle in Vietnam would be long, and you advised this be made to both Americans and Vietnamese. Why did you feel at this stage you had to tell this to the President, uh, and do you recall what his reaction was, and is this the point at which you felt that he should have (cough) come forward and to explain to the public what costs of the, all of it would be?
Bundy:
Now is one where you've asked me a question it's very hard to respond without taking it as a question. I don't know quite how to do this.
Interviewer:
Alright, let's... alright let’s go back and could you reconstruct your conversation with the President.
Bundy:
Oh, that's... you would like me to comment to the question of my view that at best it would be long, and I'd communicated that to the President, and what about his view. One of the things that was quite apparent from uh, our uh, visit to Saigon and discussions with people who were closer to the situation than we in Washington had been, was that at the very best this was going to be a long struggle.
And uh, in the report that I made to the President when I got back, uh I made that point, and I think I tried to underline uh, the further point that it would be very important to make it clear uh, both in South Vietnam and to the American public, that this would be a long hard business at best. And uh, if you look line by line of what the President said in uh, 1965 you will I think find that he uh, said that, and said it more than once, certainly said it in his Baltimore speech.
But if you ask the wider and deeper and in a way more important question whether he used the pulpit of the presidency to drive that point home in that year I would have to say I, I don't think he did. And I think it was a mistake, I thought so at the time, and uh, it was one of the points on which uh, he simply didn't agree with me.
Interviewer:
Given the experience (cough) of bombing during the Second World War, (cough) uh, did you believe that bombing the north could be decisive? What did you think you could accomplish?
Bundy:
My own view of bombing of the north was uh, in a sense never the majority view. Uh, I believed in a policy of uh, what I think we then called sustained reprisal, in which the level of bombing would be very, quite explicitly related to the level of Communist activity in the south.
Uh, a particular motive that seemed important to me was that we were in a position that we had been for a long time uh, of uh, believing, at least I believed, that the decisive variable in this contest was the level of effort, and uh, self-defense that could be mounted by the South Vietnamese.
That their effort and our effort to spur them on uh, might be, and could be strengthened if they were to understand that uh, we were not saying that uh, their ultimate opponent - which was I believe then and now the uh, government in Hanoi - was operating from uh, a totally protected sanctuary. That attacks against the North in short hand uh would both strengthen morale in the South and strengthen our case for pressing for greater effort by the South.
Interviewer:
Now, in the (cough) in spring of 1964 we send Marines to Da Nang, we put the 173d Airborne in Bien Hoa - essentially to defend the air bases, and this is part of the (cough) bombing of the north at that stage did you see it in those terms, or did did did you see it at that time...
We have ten feet left, so...
Huh?
We have ten feet left, so...
He wants to get a room tone.
Tone.
Camera Roll 648
Camera Roll 649
Interviewer:
Let me get a watch on. Everybody quiet.
CLAPSTICK
Interviewer:
Go ahead, just pick it up.
Bundy:
The uh, bombing of uh, as it stood in 1965 uh, was recommended by uh, different people for different reasons. My own reason for uh, supporting it was uh, that it did seem to me that uh, it would certainly have some effect uh, on North Vietnamese and that we ought to be able in some measure to interrupt uh, their uh, supply lines.
But the more immediate reason was that one of the real blocks to an improvement in South Vietnamese morale and performance that we thought we saw there in February visit, was the very strong feeling that uh, it was wrong and unfair, and unjust and a sign of American lack of will and determination that there should be no action taken against the primary source of the troubles of the South Vietnamese uh, government, namely the uh, government in Hanoi.
So it was for immediate morale reasons and uh, also to give a feeling that there would not be uh, any such uh general immunity to people in Hanoi that I supported the bombing in February.
Interviewer:
Do you think bombing worked?
Bundy:
Well, in a measure that it would have been worse without it, I do think. But of course it uh, created a major international political problem uh, in part because of the uh, uh difficulties of doing it precisely and the difficulties of explaining it. Uh, but it was one element in a course of action taken in 1965 which certainly prevented uh, early defeat.

The American troop increase

Interviewer:
When the Marines went into Da Nang in the 173rd airborne went to Bien Hoa uh, did you see that as part of the bombing operation or did you see that as the beginning of a combat troop uh, buildup?
Bundy:
I don't think I focused sharply on the question whether reinforcement or uh, introduction of the first uh, combat units uh, for the immediate purpose of protecting airfields was uh, only that or was an inevitable first stage in large scale combat deployments. I think I accepted the judgment that uh they were needed to protect the airfields and that decisions on their uh, wider use uh, could be made uh, as events unfolded.
Interviewer:
Now the decisions (cough) actually to move into to commit additional combat troops were made in July, in those meetings in July, I wonder if you could describe that meeting and, and focus on one particular point as to whether the decisions were made at those meetings, or whether the decisions made before hand and merely ratified at the meeting.
Bundy:
The uh, most important decisions of 1965 were those that were worked out uh, over a period of several weeks uh, in June and July of 1965, and announced by the president toward the end of July. Decisions which led to (hrmpf) as I think he put it, a planned level of deployment uh of some 150-75,000, and a strong prospect which he stated that more would be sent later.
(cough) Now those decisions are obviously presidential and exactly when President Johnson reached his own firm conclusion that he would endorse that level of deployment, I don't believe anybody but Lyndon Johnson will ever know.
Uh, my own impression is that he was reasonably certain in his own mind that he would take this course at the time that he sent uh, Secretary McNamara to meet with Taylor and Westmoreland and uh to see if he could bring back a concerted and agreed recommendation which indeed uh the Secretary of Defense did. I think the President would at that point have strongly expected to uh approve in the main...
Interviewer:
Our battery is low...
Bundy:
Oh.
Interviewer:
Now let me get those dates right and we can put them in.
Tone. Speed. Clapsticks
Bundy:
As McNamara's come back from Vietnam, has the decision been made to make the additional commitment before that week long series of meetings took place and the President announced it on July 28th, and incidentally, I wanted to remind you that he makes that announcement at mid-day.
Bundy:
You want me to say a comment on that?
Interviewer:
Please.
Bundy:
In this same answer?
Interviewer:
Well... it's part of the...
Bundy:
It's really part of the question of uh, how do you reinforce the public support of the Southeast Asia Resolution. that will be another question, I think. I think it's important.
Interviewer:
OK. Go ahead
Bundy:
Uh, the biggest decisions of 1965 are made during the course of uh June and July and they are large scale troop deployment decisions eventually announced by the President on the 28th of July in a rather interesting way. As to when the President really decided that that was what he was going to do, you can get a lot of argument, but my own feeling is that he uh, had pretty much made up his mind, that major ground force reinforcements were going to be necessary to avoid a real defeat in the South which he was pledged to avoid.
Uh, and that when he sent uh, uh Secretary McNamara to uh, talk with uh, Taylor and Westmoreland in the middle of July, he was already pretty well clear in his own mind that he would support any agreed recommendation uh, of about the level that was finally announced. When McNamara did bring back a renewed, an agreed recommendation, there was extended discussion and all the uh uh pros and cons were very carefully reviewed.
But I myself think that the President's sense of his own main direction was already pretty clear in his head and he was simply testing for additional arguments that he might not have thought of in confirming a judgment in his own mind that he had pretty well worked out. The only major change that he made in the recommendations McNamara brought back was that he had decided against a reserve call up.
Interviewer:
Now, as you observed the President... (cough) Now as you observed the President during those meetings, do you recall his mood? I mean was he very gung-ho or was he getting involved regretfully or reluctantly?
Bundy:
I think he was very serious. Uh, there was nothing enjoyable about having to take these larger actions which he had put off, for all sorts of reasons. Uh, and uh, yet I think also he was uh, internally working out the basic argument, testing his own judgment once more, and uh, I think the records of those meetings as one looks back on them show that it was rather more than just a uh, an exercise in uh, theatricals. It was a retesting of a very large decision which none the less I think was already pretty well settled in his own mind.
Interviewer:
And yet his announcement on Ju—July 28th is done in a very low key manner.
Bundy:
The question of making the decision and the question of announcing it and ensuring effective uh, national support for it are really two different things. Uh, the President made the announcement uh, perfectly clearly that there would be 150-75,000 troops, I don't remember the exact numbers, and that more would be sent later. There was no secret about it.
But he didn't make the announcement as I had always assumed he would in a uh, message delivered to the Congress, he took almost the lowest key method of making an announcement short of putting it in a written message. He had a press conference in the middle of the day which is uh, as uh, even I know, is not the choice you make if you are looking for the largest possible public impact. I think it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the President wanted as low-keyed an announcement as he could get and as little uh, energetic public debate as possible.
Interviewer:
Could you be more precise on why (cough) the decision was made to send the additional combat troops? Uh, could you describe what was in fact happening to the South Vietnamese forces...
Interviewer:
Six feet left.
Interviewer:
Oh. Sorry.
Bundy:
I think the uh...
Interviewer:
Hold on. We have to change it.
Bundy:
Oh. You've got rather a short fuse.
END SIDE 2 SR 2627
VIETNAM
T 885
SR 2628
McGeorge Bundy
Clap sticks. One more time. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Referring to the Johns Hopkins speech as unconditional discussions. What did unconditional discussions mean and we think that if the congress had accepted that, the (cough) the continuing commitment uh, of additional troops would have gone on.
Bundy:
The ah, phrase unconditional discussions ah, was ah, ah the President's own choice as to what he would say about ah, the process of communication or negotiation in the Johns Hopkins speech ah, early on in April. It was, of course, not accepted and a very interesting question does arise as to what ah, ah the administration would have done, the Americans would have done, if there had been ah, an agreement of some sort to talk between ah, Hanoi and, and Washington.
I don't think it's easy to say just how President Johnson would have handled ah that situation. I think he would have ah intended that they should be genuinely unconditional and that they should not interrupt any of the actions ah, which, in his view, became necessary later in the spring and early in the summer, unless indeed, the level of action by the ah, North Vietnamese had gone down so that those actions could be not taken or put off. So, that ah, well always have to guess what ah, would have happened if ah, that offer or invitation had not been ah, peremptorily rejected.
Interviewer:
How did you evaluate George Ball's memo which ah opposed this escalation. I want to remind you that on July 1, ‘65 you, you were quoted as saying, "I would listen to George Ball and then reject his theories."
Bundy:
Well, I think ah, ah George Ball ah, played ah, a very important and, and honorable role in these discussions. Ah, my own view of his general position, I'm not able to comment precisely on a specific memorandum, was that ah, he was ah, much more impressive in arguing the difficulties of ah, any form of increased commitment than he was in arguing that an acceptable course of action was available without such commitment. There, he not alone in this difficulty.
Opponents of ah, Johnson's policy on the war ah, all the way through ah, from '65 onward ah, were naturally called on to explain what kind of satisfactory result in South Vietnam they thought could be obtained by other policies. Some would want to escalate and others like Ball would want to do less and to try to get the best available compromise by negotiation. The notion that a compromise that President Johnson could or would have accepted was available in 1965 always seemed to me really quite unpersuasive.
Interviewer:
At the end of 1965 (cough) we had stopped the North Vietnamese communist attempt to cut the country in half. Ah, (cough) did you feel at the time that that was the moment to ah stop escalating troop commitment and begin Vietnamization?
Bundy:
Well, I felt that ah, ah what later came to be called Vietnamization - namely, ah the acceptance and execution of ah increasingly responsible and effective role in the defense of South Vietnam by the South Vietnamese - was absolutely essential to any kind of successful outcome right from the beginning. Ah, way back in ah 1963, President Kennedy had made that point very sharply during the ah, crisis over Diem and Nhu and I agreed with him.
And, ah, I did not feel that ah American troops could ah, change that basic requirement and I hoped very much that ah, we would maintain our emphasis on ah the importance of the role of the South Vietnamese, indeed, made a trip to Saigon with that purpose as ah central to the trip after the Honolulu meeting in early 1966.
I cannot say that I think in the end ah ,the whole set of forces that governed our choices and decisions worked that way through '66 and '67. Just to take one example and without intending to blame any one group more than another, I think it was unfortunate but understandable that as American forces became uh, more and more heavily involved ah, it became the natural thing for able and ambitious ah, younger officers to prefer an American command to an advisory role with the Vietnamese. And yet, in fact, I think the importance of those advisory roles was very great, indeed.
Interviewer:
Did you think then it was a mistake to go in above 200,000 American troops in Vietnam?
Bundy:
I don't know that I can pick a particular number. Ah, or, that the question really was one that I had any important role in, ah, in those last months of '65 and early '66 because by that time ah, my own relation with the president really had changed quite a lot.
Ah, it was, I was not directly involved in that. It was known that I was leaving the government and ah, I can't really say much about those decisions except that such role as I did have was in the area of trying to strengthen the part of the whole effort that was not the directly American military effort.

The Johnson Administration and the Cold War

Interviewer:
Let me just ask you a couple of (cough) larger questions. (cough) As we became more and more involved in, in Vietnam, and I'm asking you to take yourself back to those days of (cough) Kennedy and later Johnson, particularly Johnson Administration. Who was perceived to be the enemy, the aggressor? Was it Hanoi, was it China, was it international Communism? Was, and, if it was the last, was Vietnam the place to make the stand?
Bundy:
Ah, when you ask the question ah, who was the enemy in ah, '63, '64, '65 in the eyes of ah, members of the administration, I think the ah, shape of the precise answer that you get depends a little bit on who you talk to. Ah, my view was that this was centrally a ah, a contest for the future of Vietnam and Indochina. That ah it was not ah a matter of ah, choosing this place to stand against either a ah, southern Peking ah sponsored expansion or a ah, movement by international Communism or broadly international Communism as a unity was no longer a fact of life in the mid-60s.
I thought that we had a ah level of engagement and responsibility for what happened ah, to the ah, ah government and people of South Vietnam with whom we had been associated for ten years ah, that made it improper to give up - which a failure to reinforce would have implied, I think, in ah ah '65 - and that we had that much of an obligation to support them and give them ah, a further chance to survive.
But, I thought of that as important primarily in the context of ah, ah that area and that region rather than the context of the worldwide ah, scene except insofar as a failure to keep ah, a measure of faith with them would have repercussions in other areas.
Interviewer:
Let me get into just a couple of (cough) personal points...
Quick, a minute left.
As a Kennedy appointee, did you feel any discomfort in the Johnson Administration?
Bundy:
I felt no discomfort in the Johnson Administration because I had been in the Kennedy Administration. The president went way out of his way, I think in a quite genuine way, to try to ah, make it clear that people who had worked in the Kennedy Administration were welcome, and indeed, at least at the beginning needed in his administration.
As time went on ah, I became ah, at least for a period ah, very close to President Johnson. I gradually learned to understand him. He was, of course, a very different man. On the specific question of ah, how the war was defended and explained in 1965 we had a difference. He was aware of it. He was quite critical of my view and our relations for a while cooled off a bit ah, but we got to be ah, ah good friends again later. He called me back into the government on another issue in ah '67, the Six-Day War...
Interviewer:
Sorry. We're out of film.

McGeorge Bundy's Impression of L.B.J.

Interviewer:
Ah. Just a couple of...
Okay. This is start of Camera Roll 651. Speed. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Ah. Can you tell us about, speak about Lyndon Johnson as a person, as a man.
Bundy:
He was a very large man in every way. Ah, big, energetic, and when he focused on a subject, he would focus on it with an intensity that I don't ah, think I've ever seen exceeded by anyone. And, of course, capable of very graphic descriptions.
I can give you one that bears to a difference that I had with him over ah, this question of ah, how important it was to emphasize the difficulty and the length and the trial that would be involved in Vietnam even at best, and he listened to me one day, and he ah, finally said I, I think I understand your position young man. You're opinion is that, if you're mother-in-law has only one eye and it's in the middle of her forehead, you want her in the living room all the time. By which he meant that emphasizing the pain was not the best way to carry public support.
Interviewer:
Do you think that (cough) given his background, Texas, did you sense any suspicion ah, of his, did he have any suspicion towards what he might have considered to be the eastern establishment? Did you sense any of that?
Bundy:
When he got ah, angry at ah, anybody...
Interviewer:
Yeah, there's a big truck of... Just wait.
Bundy:
Ha, ha, ha. Lyndon Johnson had ah, both a ah very strong sense of the different regions of the country and the capacity to look at them in both favorable and unfavorable ways. When he ah, ah was in a good mood about ah, ah people from New England ah, he was full of how we were all one country together.
But, I remember one time ah ah when he wanted ah get a hold of ah a variety of people, ah a summer weekend, and he discovered that McNamara was up in Martha's Vineyard and Weisner was up in Martha's Vineyard and Katzenbach was in Martha's Vineyard, he called me up and said, "Would you kindly explain ah, you come from ah New England, why it is that ah, when I've got a lot of serious problems my whole goddamn government is lost in the fog on some female island?"
Interviewer:
(chuckles) What do you think about, how would you describe Lyndon Johnson's concerns about foreign policy: Was it a subject that he was comfortable with or did he see it largely in terms of domestic politics?
Bundy:
Lyndon Johnson ah hadn't spent ah his life...
Interviewer:
Start again.
Bundy:
Sir?
Interviewer:
Would you start again please.
Bundy:
Sure. Ah. President Johnson had not spent his life on problems of international diplomacy, obviously, but he had a long experience of the larger international issues of the period after World War II. He had been closely associated with ah, ah congressional action of all sorts ah, through the ah, Eisenhower years as majority leader and as vice president. While he wasn't ah closely engaged in the day to day business, he was ah pretty fully informed.
Ah, he had a certain, perhaps at the beginning at least, ah lack of assurance about the diplomatic process as such, but he did not have ah, any doubt of his own capacity to grasp basic issues. And, he showed, I think, very considerable understanding of ah, the main forces working on other political leaders, because those are questions of politics and politics was his life, so that he understood a DeGaulle, a Khrushchev ah, I think ah the sticking problem on Vietnam was empire that at least in his time as president and no political resolution ah, ever came in sight, that he could accept.
Interviewer:
If you could make a comparison between, since you spanned two administrations, between Kennedy and Johnson, ah, do you think that, that Johnson being a Texan, being a westerner in a sense, (cough) was more focused on Asia compared to Kennedy who might have been more focused on Europe and the Atlantic Alliance? Is that a fair...?
Bundy:
It's a fair question. I don't think so. So, my answer won't help you very much.
Interviewer:
Any other funny stories?
Bundy:
Ah. I, I've (laughter) I've got some but they have to do with Richard Nixon and, and, Johnson's view of him, they're germane to, somebody else's program. I've got some about Hubert Humphrey and Johnson's view of him but I won't tell those either.
Interviewer:
Ah. I do want to... As you, if you, if you, there is one question that would be interesting though, which takes us into the '60's...
(beep)
Bundy:
I charge overtime. After three hours.
(people chuckle)
Hit em very hard. Clap sticks.

Meeting of the Wise Men, March 1968

Interviewer:
Okay, let's go. This is public television... Could you describe the wise men meeting in March, and what you, in March of '68 (cough) and what went on and what the final recommendations were to the president?
Bundy:
The ah...
Interviewer:
And who were they?
Bundy:
The president was considering... Well, let's take a minute, turn things off and let's get the names and numbers of the players in our heads.
Clap sticks.
Bundy:
So, sometime in March 1968, ah, the president and I daresay on the advice of Clark Clifford, ah, called in a bunch of people who had been in ah, earlier administrations. A collection of over-aged destroyers, ahh been there before, one problem or another and ah, put the situation in front of them. First, in a series of briefings by ah, other officials and then in a discussion in which cabinet officers were present and then in a discussion of just the so-called wise men and the president.
Ah, the question that was presented was in the first instance ah should there be a major reinforcement of the ah, ground forces and related forces in Vietnam, and second, should there be some modification of the policy of bombing North Vietnam. I remember what happened because as it happened ah, ah the rest of the brethren asked me to be a kind of a rapporteur. I'd been a, that kind of person in NSC meetings earlier and I was more or less at the center of gravity of the group and our recommendation ah, on the whole, not without dissent, disagreement, was that ah, there should not be ah, an increase in force levels in South Vietnam and that there should be a modification of the policy of bombing ah, North Vietnam.
Interviewer:
What?
Bundy:
I think we had reached the conclusion that ah additional troops. American troops on the scene were not what was needed in South Vietnam and would be ah, even more divisive than what had gone before in the United States, and that it would be wise by limitation of the bombing in the North to test the readiness of Hanoi for ah negotiations.
Interviewer:
Do you recall the president's reaction to your report?
Bundy:
Ah, the President was not delighted by ah what we had to say. Ah, I think he felt that ah, we had received an unnecessarily gloomily picture of the situation and it's quite possible in the light of what we now know about the whole process of reporting on Tet that he wasn't all wrong.
On the other hand, ah, I think he had himself decided really that he would not do the ground force reinforcement, so it was more our gloominess in a way than our ah, specific recommendations that he may have found troubling.
Interviewer:
You don't recall his ever using the phrase to you like somebody's poisoned the well or... ?
Bundy:
I've seen that in the papers but he didn't say it to us.
We need a little additional wild track outside of the office. You may not... Umm. For the sake of getting something because people are talking and they're not going to quiet down, the rest of the shooting I'm going to record this traffic background. Ahm. Exterior perspective. Ah. Play it at a ah normal room tone level with the highs cut and it will match- for covering purposes. OK. Obviously it's much louder than a normal room tone. Cause the mike is sticking out the window. The ah end of roll. End of shoot with McGeorge Bundy. End of SR #2628.
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