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President Johnson Seeks Foreign Policy Advice on Vietnam

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson became increasingly preoccupied with U.S. involvement in Vietnam and sought advice from longtime political allies. In this telephone conversation with friend and advisor, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Johnson shares his uncertainty about whether or not to send American troops to fight in Vietnam. In the discussion, Johnson refers to the South East Asian Treat Organization (SEATO) established by the Eisenhower administration in 1954 after the fall of French colonial rule in Vietnam. The treaty bound the United States and several other countries to come to the aid of any Southeast government that was threatened by communist take-over. Russell refers to Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed president of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. Diem failed to win the support of southern Vietnamese and was assassinated on November 2, 1963 by his own generals, who acted with tacit approval from the Kennedy administration.

May 27, 1964 at 10:55pm

Johnson: What do you think about this Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.

Russell: Well, frankly, Mr. President, if you were to tell me that I was authorized to settle as I saw fit, I would respectfully decline to undertake it. It's the damn worse mess that I ever saw, and I don't like to brag and I never have been right many times in my life, but I knew that we were gone to get into this sort of mess when we went in there. And I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles….I just don't know what to do.

Johnson: Well, that's the way I have been feeling for six months.

Russell: Our position is deteriorating and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they are willing to do for themselves. It's just a sad situation. There is no sense of responsibility there on the part of any of their leaders apparently.…It's a hell of a situation. It is a mess, and it's going to get worse, and I don't know how or what to do. I don't think the American people are quite ready for us to send our troops in there to do the fighting. If it came down to an option of just sending the Americans in there to do the fighting, which will, of course, eventually end in a ground war and a conventional war with China, and we do them a favor every time we kill a coolie, whereas when one of our people got killed it would be a loss to us, and if it got down to that--of just pulling out--I'd get out. But then I don't know. There is undoubtedly some middle ground somewhere. If I was going to get out, I'd get the same crowd that got rid of old Diem to get rid of these people and to get some fellow in there that said we wish to hell we would get out. That would give us a good excuse for getting out. I see no terminal date, boy oh boy, any part of that in there.

Johnson: How important is it to us?

Russell: It isn't important a damn bit for all this new missile stuff.

Johnson: I guess it is important.

Russell: From a psychological standpoint.

Johnson: I mean, yes, and from the standpoint that we are a party to [SEATO]. And if we don't pay any attention to this treaty I don't guess that they think paying attention to any of them.

Russell: Yeah, but we are the only ones paying attention to it.

Johnson: Yeah, I think that is right.

Russell: You see the other people are just as bound to that treaty as we are.

Johnson: Yes, that's right.

Russell: I think there are some twelve or fourteen other countries.

Johnson: That's right. Yeah, there are fourteen of them.

Russell: ….And other than the question of our word and saving face…I don't think that anybody would expect us to stay in there…..You've got all the brains in the country, Mr. President, you better get a hold of them.

Johnson: ….Well, I spend all my days with [my advisors]….they don't believe that the Chinese Communists will come into this thing. But they don't know, and nobody can really be sure, but their feeling is that they won't, and in any event, we haven't got much choice. That we are treaty bound, that we are there, this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others, and that we have just got to prepare for the worst.  
…I don't think [Americans] know much about Vietnam, and I [sic] think that they care a hell of a lot less.

Russell: Yeah, I know, but you go sending a whole lot of our boys out there they'll care something about it.

Johnson: ….The Republicans going to make a political issue out of it…

Russell: It's the only issue they've got.


Russell: Well, I don't know, we don't look too good right now. And course, you'd look pretty good, I guess, going in there with all the troops, sending them all in there, but I'll tell you it'll be the most expensive adventure this country ever went into.

Johnson: I've got a little old sergeant that works for me over at the house and he's got six children….I think about sending that father of those six kids in there, and what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it? It just makes the chills run up my back.

Russell: It does me.

Johnson: I haven't the nerve to do it, but I don't see any other way out of it.

Russell: It doesn't make much sense to do it. It's one of these things, heads I win, tails you lose.

Johnson: Well, think about it, and I'll talk to you again. I hate to bother you.

Russell: I feel for you, God knows I do. It's a terrific quandary that we're in over there. We're in the quicksands up to our very neck, and I just don't know what the hell the best way to do about it.

Johnson: I love you, and I'll be calling you.

Russell: I'll see you, sir.

Source | U.S., Department of State, Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-1968, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia; Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 52; online audio and transcript available at Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia,
Creator | Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Russell
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Russell, “President Johnson Seeks Foreign Policy Advice on Vietnam,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 4, 2021,

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