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In his memoirs, Richard Nixon, then a US Senator, wrote: “The most serious charge that can be brought against the Johnson administration is that it lost the war in Vietnam.” However, this charge was totally false, for it was Johnson’s decision that led to the loss of the war.

According to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recently released memoir, as a young Congressman from Illinois in 1966 he strongly challenged President Lyndon Johnson’s strategy in Vietnam at a briefing with the president in February 1966. “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 Known and Unknown. “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 concession to the enemy—some were even beginning talk of withdrawal—and those on the right who supported a more decisive military effort.”

Rumsfeld’s Challenge to Johnson on the Vietnam War

While Rumsfeld’s account of events leading to the Iraq War during his tenure in the George W. Bush administration is drawing heat for accuracy, he backs up his claims concerning his warnings on Vietnam with a copy of a memo he wrote after his White House briefing, in which, he wrote, the “Vice President supposedly chaired…but with the almost continuous assistance and interruption of the President. The President was up and down like a yo-yo all morning long. 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.”

In the memo he dictated the day after the briefing, Rumsfeld describes his question to the vice president on why the North Vietnamese were “not convinced of our national will.” Rumsfeld wrote: “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….’ 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.’”

Later Rumsfeld observed: “The last 20 minutes of LBJ’s performance were defensive and emotional, and at points, I felt embarrassment for him.…He repeatedly said, ‘I want to be able to say I’ve tried everything.’ Note he didn’t say, I’ve tried everything because I want peace.…This type of slip, if it was a slip, is but one of the numerous instances that his comments were phrased in terms of the political situation and where blame would fall and how he would defend himself, and how he would attack anyone who attacked him.”

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