Donald Rumsfeld Challenged LBJ On Vietnam War, New Documents Show
WASHINGTON -- Donald Rumsfeld will be remembered as the architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but as a fledgling member of Congress, the future two-time defense secretary challenged President Lyndon Johnson's strategy in Vietnam nearly four decades earlier, according to Rumsfeld's new memoir and supporting documents from the time obtained by HuffPost.
"With only a small number of U.S. military advisers on the ground, the Vietnam War had not been an issue in my first campaign for Congress in 1962," Rumsfeld wrote in his memoir, "Known And Unknown," which is scheduled to be released Tuesday. "After Johnson became president and the American war effort expanded, I was willing to support a more robust military campaign in Vietnam, as were many others in Congress. But it was becoming difficult to support the administration, since their policy was increasingly unclear. The President seemed to vacillate between the left flank of his party, which wanted concessions to the enemy--some were even beginning to talk of withdrawal--and those on the right who supported a more decisive military effort."
Rumsfeld's memory of his early skepticism of Vietnam could chalked up to a convenient revision, but the three-term congressman from Illinois saved a memo from the time that backs up his memory.
Then-Rep. Rumsfeld arrived for a White House briefing one snowy Friday in 1966 and dictated the memo an hour after the meeting. In the memo, he describes an animated President Johnson. "The President was up and down like a yo-yo all morning long," according to the memo. "He gives the impression of a man sitting on the lid of a volcano, and he keeps erupting. He made at least three direct jabs at Senator Robert Kennedy's speech (without using Kennedy's name) concerning dealing with the Viet Cong."
The meeting's main event was to be a briefing by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had just returned from Southeast Asia. But, Rumsfeld said, Johnson dominated the meeting. The case Johnson, Humphrey and his other advisers made was straightforward: The Viet Cong had not given up, despite heavy casualties, because they were convinced they could wait out the United States.
Rumsfeld asked the type of question that penetrates the thin shield of obfuscation protecting war policies from critical examination.
According to the contemporaneous memo: "I asked a question, which was almost exactly as follows: "Congressman John Young of Texas asked the question, Why, in view of all of the power, the airplanes, the bombing, the manpower, the billions of dollars, have not the Viet Cong quit? Vice President Humphrey's answer to Congressman Young was that they were not convinced that we won't pull out. They are not convinced they are going to lose. Later, Secretary Rusk said the same thing, basically that the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, think they will win. They believe the U.S. will fold up like France did. My question is, Why are they not convinced of our national will? In what ways have we failed to convince them of this determination, and what is being done, or can be done, to convince them?""
More than four decades later, Vice President Joe Biden posed a similarly devastating question regarding a different war, as recounted in a Newsweek profile.
Joe Biden had a question. During a long Sunday meeting with President Obama and top national-security advisers on Sept. 13, the VP interjected, "Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?" Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. "And how much will we spend on Pakistan?" Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. "Well, by my calculations that's a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we're spending in Pakistan, we're spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?"
The answer to Rumsfeld's question was an obvious one: The United States was doing nothing -- and could do nothing -- to convince the Viet Cong that it would stay long enough to win. The U.S. policy response that naturally flows from that realization would be a withdrawal of troops, something Johnson was not prepared to advocate.
The war would drag on another nine years at a cost of tens of thousands of American lives and millions of Vietnamese. But the writing was on the wall of the White House's East Room in the exchange between Johnson and Rumsfeld, as recounted in Rumsfeld's memo:
Before Humphrey could answer, President Johnson popped up and pointing his finger, yelled, I'll tell you what will convince them--more of the same like we've given them. I said, "Like the bombing pause?" He said, "For the past 30 days we've stepped up bombings, 20,000 casualties," and so on and so on, he described the damage that the U.S. is inflicting on the Viet Cong and the tons of bombs the U.S. is dropping. I then said, "Well, Mr. President, if we have been doing this since the conclusion of the pause, is there any hint or indication that we are, in fact, being successful in convincing them? Is this message getting through?" And he said, "No, there isn't."
A separate document shows Rumsfeld questioning the timing of Johnson's announcement of an attack on North Vietnam and the scope of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the conflict in Vietnam and was later shown to have been based on lies.
"President Johnson went to the people on television, Tuesday, August 6, at 11:45 PM and it was not until an hour and one-half later that American planes attacked their targets in North Vietnam. This means that the President, in his haste to go on television before the American people went to bed, telegraphed our attack by 1 1/2 hours, giving the enemy an opportunity to be at least better prepared than they otherwise would have been," Rumsfeld wrote in another memo. "In view of the fact that the Americans were killed in action, there is no question but that this was an irresponsible act on the part of the President."
Rumsfeld went on to note that the warning of the attack "could conceivably develop into a rather significant campaign issue."