Following are excerpts from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s Journals of 1966 and 1967.

January 21 [1966]

I have been meaning for some time to put down the substance of the evening of January 6 when I assembled Carl Kaysen, Dick Goodwin, and Ken Galbraith for a dinner at 3132 O Street with [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara.

The subject was, of course, Vietnam. Bob combined frankness about issues with discretion about personalities in his usual fashion. But it became evident that he was strongly in favor of the pause in the bombing of North Vietnam and had advocated it ever since he had felt the military equilibrium had been restored in the autumn. One gathered that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk had opposed the idea, but that the President was eventually won over.

McNamara said, as he had before, that he did not regard a military solution as possible. The military advantages of the bombing, he seemed to feel, were marginal and were outweighed by the political disadvantages. The infiltration rate had increased steadily (fourfold?) since the bombing had started. He seemed skeptical about the value of enlarging our ground forces. At the 8:1 ratio, we could put in 80,000 men, the North Vietnamese could put in 10,000, and we would all be even again. He seemed deeply oppressed and concerned at the prospect of indefinite escalation. Our impression was that he feared the resumption of bombing might well put us on the slippery slide. When I asked whether the North Vietnamese had increased their commitment in response to or independently of American action, he said flatly the first.

He defined his objective in South Vietnam as “withdrawal with honor.” The establishment of a neutralist government in Saigon would meet that standard. When we asked whether there was a South Vietnamese Souvanna Phouma [the prime minister of Laos, who governed on a platform of national reconciliation], he said he thought there was: [Phan Huy] Quat. One gathered that he might even be prepared to consider Viet Cong participation in such a government—presumably on the Laos model (implying that the Viet Cong, like the Pathet Lao, would turn against a genuinely neutralist regime).

In times past, I have always thought that Bob lacked a political ear—that he had little instinct for the political and diplomatic dimensions of the problem. We were all deeply impressed by his apparent evolution. He obviously now has a clear and free grasp of the intangible factors in the Vietnam situation and is determined to prevent the conflict from billowing up into nuclear war with China. Evidently the secretary of defense and the secretary of state have exchanged roles—with McNamara asserting the political and diplomatic interests of the government and Rusk defending the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

March 11

I have been meaning for some time to put down some notes about Vietnam. Things have got much worse since January. Probably the critical mistake, the point of no return, was, as George Ball insists, the decision to send in combat units in March 1965. The pause and the peace offensive, however, held out the hope, if not of a change of policy, at least of a halt in the momentum of enlargement. I do not doubt that LBJ seriously hoped for success in Vietnam. I am sure that the last thing he wants is a large war in Asia; among other things, he cannot have forgotten what the Korean War did to the fortunes of the Democratic Party a dozen years ago. Then, toward the end of January, he decided to end the pause and resume bombing. The essential reasons for this, so far as I could find out, were psychological and political rather than military.

The resumption encouraged insurrectionary sentiments in the Senate. For a long time, the pro-negotiation senators had refrained from public criticism of the administration on the ground that this would freeze LBJ in hawk-like policies. After resumption, they began to despair of the value of private letters and meetings and decided—[J. William] Fulbright especially—to bring their opposition into the open.

Bobby Kennedy has become increasingly disturbed but reluctant to seem to lead a revolt against LBJ. He has been thinking about the processes of negotiation and reached the conclusion that the sticking-point was the role of the Viet Cong. When this point did not emerge in the hearings, he decided to make it himself. There followed ten days of confused controversy. His first statement was not as precise as his later ones (especially on Face the Nation, February 27); but what he said consistently was that, if we meant business on negotiation, we had to persuade Hanoi and the Viet Cong that we were asking them to come to the conference table for some other reason than to demand their surrender; this meant that we had to assure the Viet Cong a seat as an independent body; that, if the negotiations resulted in an interim government with Viet Cong participation, we would accept that; and if free elections resulted in a coalition regime, we would accept that too. Bobby’s point was that, if we were not going to exterminate the Viet Cong, we had to indicate that, if they laid down their arms and took part in a supervised free election, they would have a say in the future political life of Vietnam.


On Sunday morning before Face the Nation Fred Dutton and I went out to Hickory Hill to run through possible questions. By this time, Rusk had said that Viet Cong participation in the talks was not an “insurmountable problem,” [Press Secretary] Bill Moyers had said we would not exclude Viet Cong participation in an interim government, and everyone (except the Vice President) had said that we would abide by the results of a free election, even presumably if it brought the Viet Cong to power.

An hour after Bobby, Hubert [Humphrey] went on the air on Issues and Answers. We all watched it before lunch at Hickory Hill (except Bobby, who was so irritated and upset by Hubert’s performance that, after a few minutes, he went silently away). It was a new and different Hubert—hard-faced, except for some unctuous smiles, and uncharacteristically coarse in his language. His trouble, I fear, is that he cannot say something publicly without deeply believing it privately; and when, as now, he has no choice in his public utterances, he whips up a fervency of private belief. I fear also that Max Kampelman or someone has persuaded him that this is the issue on which he can knock out RFK. His sense of splitting with the liberal community, a probable feeling of guilt over the positions he is taking—all this has made him self-righteous and irascible.

The effect of Bobby’s intervention, I think, was to make the administration think concretely about the meaning of negotiation—and, having thought about it, they did not like it. Or, to put it more exactly, having thought about it in the context of the military optimism now sweeping Washington, they feel it would be a great mistake. One has the impression that very little would embarrass the administration now more than a peace overture from Hanoi. The military have the bit between their teeth and are confident that they can “win” the war—i.e., that they can force a retreat of the regular Hanoi forces back over the 17th parallel and a dissolution of the Viet Cong. If they are right, LBJ may still pull himself out of this. But if they are wrong—and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are almost always wrong in their military predictions—then we are committed to a steady enlargement of the war; for, if one thing does not break the resistance, the pressure will increase to do something more—to bomb large population centers, harbors, the industrial complex, to strike along the Chinese border, until we force China into the war.

March 13

Last night the Gridiron [Club dinner]: Russell Long, a great success; John Lindsay, a flop (including surprising and stupid indulgence in blue material). The show contained a vicious attack on Fulbright and ended with a hymn of reverence to Rusk; after which Rusk was introduced and received a standing ovation. Along with Herblock [the Washington Post cartoonist] and perhaps 10 percent of the audience, I stayed seated. Afterward, at the Cowles party, President Lyndon B. Johnson came over and grasped my hand. After a moment of chat, he said, “Well, Arthur, I noticed that you had a little trouble with your chair when there was that ovation with Dean.” Then he turned to Chalmers Roberts of the Post, who was standing nearby, and said, “Don’t print anything about that. It is very important to maintain the unity of the Democratic Party—from Rusk to Schlesinger.” He seemed entirely cordial—but how characteristic that he should have peered out over the audience during the ovation and beadily noted who was remaining seated.

July 28

The big issue, of course, has been Vietnam. I would say that this period has marked, if not a change in Lyndon Johnson, at least a change in my own perception of him. I had thought until rather recently that the tendency toward a widening of the war represented a triumph of his advisers over his instincts—that the last thing he wanted was American involvement in a ground war in Asia, or, even less, a war with China, and that his dearest hope was a negotiated solution making possible American withdrawal. If this was once his mood, I fear it is so no longer. He would seem to have turned a corner toward the systematic enlargement of the war. Why? I cannot resist the feeling that domestic politics—his precipitous decline in the public opinion polls—constitute a major factor. He once told Dick Goodwin that there was far more chauvinism in the United States than easterners understood, and it now looks as if a course of playing the war to the hilt has recommended itself to him as the best way of reversing the polls and bringing about Democratic gains in November. There may be other, deeper pressures working on him. Dick has hinted that he may have a streak of personal cowardice (as demonstrated in his panic after the murder in Dallas), which may force him into public virility in order to prove something about himself (in the sense that a war hero, like JFK, felt no need to prove himself by invading Cuba after the Bay of Pigs or the missile crisis).


In any case, whatever the motive, LBJ now seems to have committed himself to pressing the war à l’outrance. He seems to have accepted the Rusk thesis that this is Munich all over again, that the issue is democratic resistance to Chinese aggression, and that, if we don’t hold the line in Vietnam, we are condemned to “wars of national liberation” all through the underdeveloped world. And he now seems to have become a hard-liner. At the time of the Johns Hopkins speech in April 1965, LBJ seemed to be clearly on the side of negotiation. He instructed Dick to make negotiation a central theme of the speech; and the White House upheld negotiation against Rusk’s complaint that it would upset the government in Saigon (McNamara told Dick that the speech was fine and that he should not change a word of it). As late as December 1965, LBJ acquiesced in McNamara’s plea for a suspension of the bombing of North Vietnam. But that mood appears to have faded away.

I suppose that the illusion of a military victory lies behind LBJ’s decision to widen the war—this, plus the feeling that widening the war will enable him to pursue the domestic strategy of rallying the country around the flag. The notion that victory is possible—which McNamara has always denied in the private talks I have had with him over the past two years—comes, I imagine, from the sheer momentum generated by the size and power of the American military presence in Vietnam. The idea of military victory, at whatever cost in obliteration of the country, has begun to overwhelm the political purposes which brought us into the area in the first instance. The problem now is how to restrain the pursuit of military victory before it leads us into war with China.

Dick’s argument is that the only thing likely to reach Johnson is vigorous political opposition; and we have discussed the possible formation of a committee against the widening of the war as a means of rallying the resistance.

We discussed this with RFK at dinner in New York on July 20. Bobby suffers from a sense of bafflement. He listened carefully while we outlined our thoughts, but he had, or at least offered, a skepticism about a mass [antiwar] movement. Such a movement, he said, would have to tie itself to an issue or to a man. The issue of widening the war, he said, was too complicated and ambiguous. LBJ could always justify each specific step of intensification on the ground that it was necessary to save the lives of American troops and that it would shorten the war.

As for tying it to a man—here he paused, for the polls have clearly demonstrated that he is the appointed and expected leader of the opposition (polls in California, Iowa, and other states have shown that Democratic voters prefer him as president to LBJ, and that the electorate as a whole would go for him against any Republican). Dick then made the point that, the more the anti-widening of the war movement seemed a RFK movement, the less likely it would be that LBJ would respond to it. In other words, RFK’s appearance as head or beneficiary of the movement would only confirm LBJ in his present course. Bobby again listened carefully but withheld comment.

I discussed much of this obliquely with Averell [Harriman] at dinner at George Stevens’s on July 22. Everyone has his weaknesses, and Averell’s is the desire to be near power—compounded in the present case by the passion to be the negotiator in the case of Vietnam discussions, a hope held out to him more than a year ago by the President. I think that he sees the Vietnam negotiation as the climax of his public career and, to keep himself eligible for this, he is prepared to make all sorts of compromises (though, of course, Rusk would die rather than let Averell do it). This means that, like Hubert, he defends the administration line on public occasions. But, unlike Hubert, he does not altogether believe his own defense.

The conversation was resumed over the weekend of July 24, which I spent at Ken Galbraith’s in Newfane, Vermont, with George McGovern and Seymour Harris. But now I had begun to think for the first time of the possibility of RFK’s going for the nomination in 1968. Of course, this is a long time away—and two years would give LBJ plenty of opportunity for all the escalation he seeks and needs. But, assuming he follows the present course without getting into a nuclear war with China, there might be just the possibility of reversing all historical precedent and rejecting the nomination of an incumbent president.

George said that he would be all for it; adding that he thought that LBJ had a “great yellow streak” and might conceivably be bluffed out of trying for renomination, citing his health and the 22nd Amendment as reasons for not running again. This is all remote and unlikely, but a month ago none of us would have thought it worth a moment’s consideration.

“Fear always runs the State Department,” Averell said. “They always follow what they are most afraid of. When Bobby was attorney general, they were most afraid of him. Now they are afraid of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the White House.” He expressed the deepest anxiety about the people around the President who were urging the intensification of the war. As he left the Stevenses’, I told him that I was spending the weekend with Galbraith, McGovern, and Harris [in Vermont]. He said, “What are you up to?” I said, “We are planning a coup d’etat.” As he and Marie disappeared into the darkness, he waved his hand and said, “Count me in.”

I find McNamara especially puzzling, as does RFK. When he talks to us, he dismisses the military value of bombing the north, asserts the importance of limiting the war, denies the possibility of a military victory, and looks wistfully to the neutralization of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of American troops. Nothing seems to alarm him more than the prospect of provoking a war with China. Yet publicly he is the spokesman for the widening of the war; and it is hard to believe that he urges his private views on the President with the force that he does with his old friends of Kennedy years.

Walt Rostow has suddenly emerged from a long eclipse and is now established as the Pangloss of the White House, telling the President with great authoritativeness all the things the President wants to hear. Everything, according to Walt, is getting better and better; and I can see him when the bombs begin to fall on Washington, assuring LBJ that the deep-running historic tendencies are on our side, that we are turning the corner in Zambia and Tasmania, and that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I last saw him at dinner at Jane McBaine’s in Washington on June 14. He exuded self-satisfaction with his resurrection and set forth a tedious and misconceived analogy between LBJ and Lincoln, casting the opposition to the war in the role of the Copperheads and saying that, if LBJ only kept up the military momentum, he would be in the clear in another few months.

As for RFK, he has been extremely impressive in these months. He has exposed himself to a series of unpredictable situations—South Africa, Mississippi and Alabama, Vietnam, foreign aid, the Negro revolution—and has not, so far as I can see, set a foot wrong. And he does this primarily, so far as I can see, on his own instincts. His apparatus, like JFK’s, depends, not (as the press assumes) on supernaturally efficient organization—his ideas of organization are exceedingly casual—but on surrounding himself by bright people and then making his own judgments out of a sense of what is right—i.e., faithful to his own character—for him. The Machiavellian myth of RFK—the notion that he is a rigorous and premeditated calculator of chances and opportunities—dies hard. But, in fact, he is a fatalist, who has determined to be the best senator he can and do what he thinks is right, supposing that if by 1971 this commends itself to the party and the nation he will try for the presidency, and, if not, then he could not honestly aspire to it.

August 1

I am not sure that my notes have adequately recorded one interesting development of recent weeks: that is, serious discussion for the first time of RFK’s running for the presidency in 1968. I have not yet broached the topic with him, though I have no doubt that he has it well in mind. But LBJ’s evident commitment to the widening of the war makes the thought of RFK’s candidacy both possible and necessary.

I would imagine the speculation was provoked by the (to me) quite surprising results of various state polls this summer, especially in California and (of all states) Iowa, showing RFK running well ahead of LBJ both in voter preference among Democrats and as matched against various Republican possibilities.

So we have begun to take this seriously. Dick Goodwin, Ken Galbraith, and, what is more important, George McGovern all feel that we must now begin to look quietly to the prospects. George, in spite of his old friendship and deep affection for Hubert, says that he thinks the only hope for the country is the nomination of RFK in ’68. But can this be done? All the historical probabilities, of course, are against it.

But yet, but yet. In 1948 the opposition to Truman’s renomination included most of the northern city bosses. Had Eisenhower agreed to be a [Democratic] candidate, he would probably have beaten Truman in the convention. RFK retains his links to city and state organizations and would probably get their support. He seems to be the only truly popular political figure in the country today. By 1968 more than half the country will be under twenty-five. More than that, a politician who decides to stick by LBJ and oppose RFK is not opposing a single-shot effort. He is opposing not only a man who will be around a long time but a political dynasty. No careful politician will back the aging Johnson against the youthful Kennedys lightly. If the RFK movement continues, there seem other possibilities than an open and damaging fight in the convention.

August 14

Just back from another Hyannis Port weekend. There is nothing pleasanter than these weekends, though I always return with every muscle sore from the incessant exercise. But there is nothing coercive about it: guests can disappear for hours pursuing their own lives, and nobody notices. RFK is really more interested in foreign affairs than anything else, and he was electrified by the news that North Korea has issued a declaration of independence against both Russia and China. No state is more in debt to China than North Korea or geographically more at its mercy; and this action reinforces RFK’s conviction that communism will take increasingly nationalistic forms, especially in the underdeveloped world, and also that, if we had only left North Vietnam alone, it would be defying China too.

At one point in the weekend I came into the living room as he was sitting in a chair, holding his dispatch case in his lap and reading a book. I asked him what he was reading. It was Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. He then showed me the passage he was reading: it was about the quality of life in Periclean Athens, and he mumbled diffidently something to the effect that Edith Hamilton’s description could apply to Washington under JFK (“under President Kennedy,” as he nearly always puts it, even in the most intimate circumstances). Then, almost shyly, he pulled out of the briefcase a copy of a paperback entitled Three Greek Plays—a well-thumbed volume, with pages loose and falling out—and asked me to read two passages from The Trojan Women, one describing the horrors of war, the other the importance of friendship and loyalty. They are both powerful passages and clearly had great meaning for him. He apparently carries these two volumes with him always.

January 4 [1967]

I happened to be in Washington on December 14 when Bill Moyers’s resignation [as LBJ’s press secretary] was announced. I called him at the White House and told him that I had very mixed feelings over his departure: it was fine for him but sad for the country. We talked for a while and he finally said, “You know, Arthur, I would not be leaving if I thought I could do any good by staying.” This is the most desperate commentary I have heard on the state of Johnson’s government.

April 18

Last night Jimmy Wechsler [editor of the New York Post] and I went to Washington for a dinner with Hubert Humphrey.

The Vice President arrived around eight and stayed until 12:30 AM. The talk through dinner was mostly preliminary sparring: politics in Minneapolis; the farm crisis…. Finally I made a small speech, saying that everyone understood that the Vice President of the United States had no choice but to support the policies of the President; that we did not wish to invade his private thoughts; that only one question really mattered—Vietnam—and that perhaps he would like to listen to our doubts and, if he felt so moved, to answer our questions.

In the course of animated and occasionally heated discussion (this last mostly with me; it was my fault and I have no question that I behaved with greater discourtesy than did the Vice President), Hubert generally defended the administration position, but revealed along the way his own preference for the course of slowing down the war. He insisted that LBJ wanted negotiation now; that the Tet truce had met [Alexey] Kosygin’s specifications about halting the bombing, and yet nothing had happened; and that the key paragraph in LBJ’s letter to Ho [Chi Minh] was not the demand for an end to infiltration but the call for counter-proposals.

All this seemed a trifle disingenuous to me; when pressed, Hubert Humphrey would say, “Well, you ask your friend Harold Wilson about that.” He said that he had been striving to make two points within the government: the need for a physical barrier across the northern part of South Vietnam—this idea, he said with pleasure, [Nguyen Cao] Ky is now backing; and movement toward undeclared and reciprocal military de-escalation.

…When asked what the vital US interest was in Vietnam, he lapsed into Ruskese and talked about “militant, aggressive Chinese communism”—a phrase he used repeatedly. He quoted a number of Asian leaders to defend the thesis that they all felt threatened by an expanding China and protected by the American intervention.

At one point he reproached the liberals for having “ended the dialogue” with the administration and therefore thrown the President into the arms of Rusk and Rostow. Someone asked how we could resume the dialogue. He said, “Go and talk with your friends Averell Harriman and Bob McNamara.” He went on to say, “I know that McNamara and Mac Bundy always used to regard me as some sort of clown, but McNamara could play a very important role in this.”

I think I was depressed most of all by the lack of the sense of the concrete human dimension of problems which characterized the old Hubert. Not once in his long discourse on Vietnam did he express any dismay over the human wreckage wrought by the American policy…. This trailing off of humanity is accompanied by an obvious delight in hobnobbing with statesmen—many mentions of the Pope, de Gaulle, [Sarvepalli] Radhakrishnan, etc., etc., etc.

After he left I said that I now saw no choice but to vote Republican in 1968—that this would be the only way to bring the war to an end.

April 27

We are reaching some sort of crisis on Vietnam. LBJ has evidently decided on a quick and brutal escalation of the war. It was clear in February that he did not wish negotiation until the existing military balance could be turned considerably in our favor; and his clear intention now is to bomb North Vietnam until Hanoi is prepared to sue for peace on terms which will meet Rusk’s idea of a satisfactory settlement. More than that, the administration is apparently determined to advance the proposition that dissent is unpatriotic, and has brought General Westmoreland back for this purpose.

The irony is that all of us for years have been defending the presidential prerogative and regarding the Congress as a drag on policy. It is evident now that this delight in a strong presidency was based on the fact that, up to now, all strong presidents in American history have pursued policies of which one has approved. We are now confronted by the anomaly of a strong president using these arguments to pursue a course which, so far as I can see, can lead only to disaster. It is not hard to assert a congressional role; but, given the structure of the American system, it is very hard to see how the Congress can restrain the presidential drive toward the enlargement of the war. Voting against military appropriations is both humanly and politically self-defeating. The only hope is to organize a broad political movement; and even this cannot take effect until, at the very earliest, the 1968 primaries, which may be too late.

This Issue

October 11, 2007