Meeting Between the President and His Advisors Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of all the discussion around America's role in the escalating conflict in Vietnam, perhaps none was more crucial to the issue of war and peace than the meeting President Lyndon Baines Johnson held with his advisors in the summer of 1965. The culmination of months, if not years, of debate and hand-wringing, this single, fateful meeting was the final confirmation of full-scale military intervention. Caught between two camps—the doves, represented by Undersecretary of State George Ball, and the hawks, represented by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—Johnson, facing the real prospect of abandoning his ambitious domestic agenda, had to decide to either withdraw from Southeast Asia and risk the loss of American prestige, or commit to war and risk a prolonged and bloody quagmire. The arguments laid out in the meeting document the false assumptions and tragic misconceptions held by American war planners harking back to the Eisenhower administration. These arguments also provide a prescient warning as to what lay ahead.

Summary Overview

Of all the discussion around America's role in the escalating conflict in Vietnam, perhaps none was more crucial to the issue of war and peace than the meeting President Lyndon Baines Johnson held with his advisors in the summer of 1965. The culmination of months, if not years, of debate and hand-wringing, this single, fateful meeting was the final confirmation of full-scale military intervention. Caught between two camps—the doves, represented by Undersecretary of State George Ball, and the hawks, represented by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—Johnson, facing the real prospect of abandoning his ambitious domestic agenda, had to decide to either withdraw from Southeast Asia and risk the loss of American prestige, or commit to war and risk a prolonged and bloody quagmire. The arguments laid out in the meeting document the false assumptions and tragic misconceptions held by American war planners harking back to the Eisenhower administration. These arguments also provide a prescient warning as to what lay ahead.

Defining Moment

The United States first became interested in the small Southeast Asian country of Vietnam, after the defeat and ousting of French colonial forces in the years following World War II. Fearful of the growing power of North Vietnamese communists, American administrations, beginning with Truman and continuing under Eisenhower and Kennedy, had made commitments to keep South Vietnam free. In the case of South Vietnam, “free” was a relative term, as one despotic regime after another ruled over the country with an iron fist. As the population of the south became increasingly sympathetic to the north, tensions turned into open conflict, until they finally boiled over in the early 1960s. By 1965, it was clear that the government of South Vietnam was barely able to stand on its own, and it fell to Lyndon Baines Johnson to make a seismic decision: to either abandon South Vietnam to communist forces, or commit American military forces to a potentially long and costly war.

Representing the two sides of the debate were Undersecretary of State George Ball and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Ball, a life-long diplomat, had been arguing against intervention in Vietnam since the moment John F. Kennedy sent the first 16,000 military “advisors” into the country, famously, and prophetically, warning the president that if the United States were to begin sending troops into Vietnam it would only be a matter of time before the number would top 300,000. Under Johnson, Ball continued to lobby against American involvement, outlining his dire and, in hindsight, accurate warnings of disaster, culminating in a memo he sent to Johnson in February 1965. McNamara—previously one of Ford Motor Company's ten “Whiz Kids” and the corporation's youngest president—was resolutely in favor of American military intervention in Vietnam. A champion of using statistical analysis to make warfare more efficient and considered to be the chief architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara pushed for full-scale commitment, arguing that the conflict in Southeast Asia was crucial to America's long term international security interests. In fact, McNamara was so hawkish that he occasionally withheld crucial information from President Johnson, as he did in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of August 1964, which led directly to both American military attacks against North Vietnamese forces and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which effectively gave Johnson Congressional approval to launch a war in Vietnam.

The debate between Ball and McNamara came to a head in the summer of 1965, when Johnson— struggling to pass key provisions of his Great Society domestic agenda through Congress and facing an ever more tenuous situation in Vietnam—had to decide between full military commitment and complete withdraw.

Author Biography

George W. Ball was born in Iowa in 1909. Having grown up just north of Chicago, he received a law degree from Northwestern University and eventually became an aide to Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956. After serving in an administrative role during World War II, helping to manage Roosevelt's Lend Lease program, he joined the State Department, where he served as undersecretary for economic and agricultural affairs under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In 1968, he briefly served as American ambassador to the United Nations. He died in 1994.

Robert S. McNamara was born in California in 1916. After attending the University of California at Berkeley, he went on to get an MBA from Harvard Business School. During World War II, he worked under Major General Curtis LeMay in the Office of Statistical Control, analyzing the effectiveness of Allied bombing on enemy cities. After the war, McNamara joined the Ford Motor Company, eventually rising to become the youngest CEO in the company's history, and, in 1960, was made secretary of defense, first under Kennedy and then under Johnson. Considered the architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara eventually resigned his post as the war soon proved unwinnable. In 1968, he was appointed to the World Bank, where he served as president until 1981. He died in 2009.

Historical Document

President: What has happened in recent past that requires this decision on my part? What are the alternatives? Also, I want more discussions on what we expect to flow from this decision. Discuss in detail.

Have we wrung every single soldier out of every country we can? Who else can help? Are we the sole defenders of freedom in the world? Have we done all we can in this direction? The reasons for the call up? The results we can expect? What are the alternatives? We must make no snap judgments. We must consider carefully all our options.

We know we can tell SVN “we're coming home.” Is that the option we should take? What flows from that.

The negotiations, the pause, all the other approaches—have all been explored. It makes us look weak—with cup in hand. We have tried.

Let's look at all our options so that every man at this table understands fully the total picture.

McNamara: This is our position a year ago (shows President a map of the country with legends). Estimated by country team that VC controls 25%—SVN 50%—rest in white area, VC in red areas.

VC tactics are terror, and sniping.

President: Looks dangerous to put US forces in those red areas.

McNamara: You're right. We're placing our people with their backs to the sea—for protection. Our mission would be to seek out the VC in large scale units.

Wheeler: Big problem in Vietnam is good combat intelligence. The VC is a creature of habit. By continuing to probe we think we can make headway.

Ball: Isn't it possible that the VC will do what they did against the French—stay away from confrontation and not accommodate us?

Wheeler: Yes, but by constantly harassing them, they will have to fight somewhere.

McNamara: If VC doesn't fight in large units, it will give ARVN a chance to re-secure hostile areas.

We don't know what VC tactics will be when VC is confronted by 175,000 Americans.

Raborn: We agree—by 1965, we expect NVN will increase their forces. They will attempt to gain a substantial victory before our build-up is complete.

President: Is anyone of the opinion we should not do what the memo says—If so, I'd like to hear from them.

Ball: I can foresee a perilous voyage—very dangerous—great apprehensions that we can win under these conditions. But, let me be clear, if the decision is to go ahead, I'm committed.

President: But is there another course in the national interest that is better than the McNamara course? We know it's dangerous and perilous. But can it be avoided?

Ball: There is no course that will allow us to cut our losses. If we get bogged down, our cost might be substantially greater. The pressures to create a larger war would be irresistible. Qualifications I have are not due to the fact that I think we are in a bad moral position.

President: What other road can I go?

Ball: Take what precautions we can—take losses—let their government fall apart—negotiate—probable take over by Communists. This is disagreeable, I know.

President: Can we make a case for this—discuss it fully?

Ball: We have discussed it. I have had my day in court.

President: I don't think we have made a full commitment. You have pointed out the danger, but you haven't proposed an alternative course. We haven't always been right. We have no mortgage on victory.

I feel we have very little alternative to what we are doing.

I want another meeting before we take this action. We should look at all other courses carefully. Right now I feel it would be more dangerous for us to lose this now, than endanger a greater number of troops.

Rusk: What we have done since 1954–61 has not been good enough. We should have probably committed ourselves heavier in 1961.

Rowan: What bothers me most is the weakness of the Ky government. Unless we put the screws on the Ky government, 175,000 men will do us no good.

Lodge: There is no tradition of a national government in Saigon. There are no roots in the country. Not until there is tranquility can you have any stability. I don't think we ought to take this government seriously. There is no one who can do anything. We have to do what we think we ought to do regardless of what the Saigon government does.

As we move ahead on a new phase—it gives us the right and duty to do certain things with or without the government's approval.

President: George, do you think we have another course?

Ball: I would not recommend that you follow McNamara's course.

President: Are you able to outline your doubts—and offer another course of action? I think it is desirable to hear you out—and determine if your suggestions are sound and ready to be followed.

Ball: Yes. I think I can present to you the least bad of two courses. What I would present is a course that is costly, but can be limited to short term costs.

President: Then, let's meet at 2:30 this afternoon to discuss Ball's proposals. Now let Bob tell us why we need to risk those 600,000 lives.

(McNamara and Wheeler outlined the reasons for more troops.) 75,000 now just enough to protect bases—it will let us lose slowly instead of rapidly. The extra men will stabilize the situation and improve it. It will give ARVN breathing room. We limit it to another 100,000 because VN can't absorb any more. There is no major risk of catastrophe.

President: But you will lose greater number of men.

Wheeler: The more men we have the greater the likelihood of smaller losses.

President: What makes you think if we put in 100,000 men Ho Chi Minh won't put in another 100,000?

Wheeler: This means greater bodies of men—which will allow us to cream them.

President: What are the chances of more NVN men coming?

Wheeler: 50–50 chance. He would be foolhardy to put 1/4 of his forces in SVN. It would expose him too greatly in NVN.

President: (to Raborn) Do you have people in NVN?

Raborn: Not enough. We think it is reliable.

President: Can't we improve intelligence in NVN?

Raborn: We have a task force working on this.

1:00 pm—Meeting adjourned until 2:30 pm. - fn4

Resume same meeting at 2:45 pm

Ball: We can't win. Long protracted. The most we can hope for is messy conclusion. There remains a great danger of intrusion by Chicoms.

Problem of long war in US:

Korean experience was galling one. Correlation between Korean casualties and public opinion (Ball showed Pres. a chart) showed support stabilized at 50%. As casualties increase, pressure to strike at jugular of the NVN will become very great.

World opinion. If we could win in a year's time—win decisively—world opinion would be alright. However, if long and protracted we will suffer because a great power cannot beat guerrillas.

National politics. Every great captain in history is not afraid to make a tactical withdrawal if conditions are unfavorable to him. The enemy cannot even be seen; he is indigenous to the country.

Have serious doubt if an army of westerners can fight orientals in Asian jungle and succeed.

President: This is important—can westerners, in absence of intelligence, successfully fight orientals in jungle rice-paddies? I want McNamara and Wheeler to seriously ponder this question.

Ball: I think we have all underestimated the seriousness of this situation. Like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case. I think a long protracted war will disclose our weakness, not our strength.

The least harmful way to cut losses in SVN is to let the government decide it doesn't want us to stay there. Therefore, put such proposals to SVN government that they can't accept, then it would move into a neutralist position—and I have no illusions that after we were asked to leave, SVN would be under Hanoi control.

What about Thailand? It would be our main problem. Thailand has proven a good ally so far—though history shows it has never been a staunch ally. If we wanted to make a stand in Thailand, we might be able to make it.

Another problem would be South Korea. We have two divisions there now. There would be a problem with Taiwan, but as long as Generalissimo is there, they have no place to go. Indonesia is a problem—insofar as Malaysia. There we might have to help the British in military way. Japan thinks we are propping up a lifeless government and are on a sticky wicket. Between long war and cutting our losses, the Japanese would go for the latter…

President: Wouldn't all those countries say Uncle Sam is a paper tiger—wouldn't we lose credibility breaking the word of three presidents—if we set it up as you proposed. It would seem to be an irreparable blow. But, I gather you don't think so.

Ball: The worse blow would be that the mightiest power in the world is unable to defeat guerrillas.

President: Then you are not basically troubled by what the world would say about pulling out?

Ball: If we were actively helping a country with a stable, viable government, it would be a vastly different story. Western Europeans look at us as if we got ourselves into an imprudent fashion [situation].

President: But I believe that these people are trying to fight. They're like Republicans who try to stay in power, but don't stay there long.

(aside—amid laughter—“excuse me, Cabot”)

Ball: Thiêu spoke the other day and said the Communists would win the election.

President: I don't believe that. Does anyone believe that?

(There was no agreement from anyone—McNamara, Lodge, B. Bundy, Unger—all said they didn't believe it.)

McNamara: Ky will fall soon. He is weak. We can't have elections until there is physical security, and even then there will be no elections because as Cabot said, there is no democratic tradition. (Wheeler agreed about Ky—but said Thiêu impressed him)

President: Two basic troublings:

That Westerners can ever win in Asia.

Don't see how you can fight a war under direction of other people whose government changes every month.

Now go ahead, George, and make your other points.

Ball: The cost, as well as our Western European allies, is not relevant to their situation. What they are concerned about is their own security—troops in Berlin have real meaning, none in VN.

President: Are you saying pulling out of Korea would be akin to pulling out of Vietnam?

Bundy: It is not analogous. We had a status quo in Korea. It would not be that way in Vietnam.

Ball: We will pay a higher cost in Vietnam.

This is a decision one makes against an alternative.

On one hand—long protracted war, costly, NVN is digging in for long term. This is their life and driving force. Chinese are taking long term view—ordering blood plasma from Japan.

On the other hand—short-term losses. On balance, come out ahead of McNamara plan. Distasteful on either hand.

Bundy: Two important questions to be raised—I agree with the main thrust of McNamara. It is the function of my staff to argue both sides.

To Ball's argument: The difficulty in adopting it now would be a radical switch without evidence that it should be done. It goes in the face of all we have said and done.

His whole analytical argument gives no weight to loss suffered by other side. A great many elements in his argument are correct.

We need to make clear this is a somber matter—that it will not be quick—no single action will bring quick victory.

I think it is clear that we are not going to be thrown out.

Ball: My problem is not that we don't get thrown out, but that we get bogged down and don't win.

Bundy: I would sum up: The world, the country, and the VN would have alarming reactions if we got out.

Rusk: If the Communist world finds out we will not pursue our commitment to the end, I don't know where they will stay their hand.

I am more optimistic than some of my colleagues. I don't believe the VC have made large advances among the VN people.

We can't worry about massive casualties when we say we can't find the enemy. I don't see great casualties unless the Chinese come in.

Lodge: There is a greater threat to World War III if we don't go in. Similarity to our indolence at Munich.

I can't be as pessimistic as Ball. We have great seaports in Vietnam. We don't need to fight on roads. We have the sea. Visualize our meeting VC on our own terms. We don't have to spend all our time in the jungles.


ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam, also known as, the army of South Vietnam

Chicoms: a disparaging reference to Chinese communist forces

Ho Chi Minh: the leader of North Vietnam

paper tiger: a person or thing that appears threatening but is not

Saigon: the capital city of South Vietnam

SVN: South Vietnam

VC: Viet Cong, also known as South Vietnamese communist guerillas

Document Analysis

The transcript outlines the debate between George Ball and Robert McNamara on the subject of American intervention in Vietnam. As Lyndon Johnson agonizes over what to do and questions his advisors, he focuses on the memorandum written by McNamara, which pushes for full military commitment. In this way, the various arguments—military, political, and diplomatic—are laid out. What is clear is that George Ball is in the minority. Frustrated, although still passionate, Ball is asked—and once again restates—his case against escalation. Ball makes clear that he would support whatever course Johnson decides on, but states unequivocally that, although pulling out of Vietnam would be fraught with problems, increasing troop levels and committing to the long course of war would be disastrous.

The hawks, such as McNamara and Wheeler, counter that greater troop numbers might actually mean fewer losses. The strategy is to overwhelm the enemy with greater numbers, allowing the South Vietnamese to take the lead. Ball argues that the war would be long and states simply that the United States cannot win a long war. As casualties mount, support for the war would decrease. Eventually, world opinion would turn against the United States, and the Viet Cong, fighting in their home territory, would prevail. A vital factor, as the war drags on, Ball argues, is the loss of regional allies, but even more damaging would be the change in perception of America as a superpower. How would the United States be perceived around the globe, by foe and friend alike, if it was unable to defeat a guerrilla force?

Unfortunately for Ball, and for the country overall, the other men at the meeting, Rusk, Wheeler, Bundy, and Lodge all disparage Ball's warnings. In their view, the United States is already at war in Vietnam. To leave now would be disastrous for both countries, if not the world. That's neither here nor there because how could a small force hiding in the jungle ever defeat the military might of the United States? Besides, as Henry Cabot Lodge, ambassador to Vietnam, says: it is unlikely American troops would ever have to fight in the jungle at all.

Essential Themes

The meeting between Johnson and his advisors in July 1965 represented the last real chance to pull American troops out of Vietnam. As he had done so many times in the weeks and months prior to the meeting, the president questioned those closest to him in an attempt to assuage his fears of disaster in Southeast Asia. The lone voice against war, George Ball, having perhaps a clearer understanding of what lay ahead than anyone else in the government, argued as best as he could against escalation. The war in Vietnam would be a long and bloody struggle, he warned, one that the United States would eventually lose. But the hawks, led by Robert McNamara, were stronger in force. America could not withdraw without losing too much, and only if more troops were committed to the fight, they argued, would victory be assured.

Following the meeting, President Johnson continued to debate and deliberate. Fearful of large numbers of casualties and the collapse of his domestic agenda, and perhaps seeing the reason in Ball's arguments, he stalled. If one strong voice had come out in support of Ball, it is possible that Johnson would have rethought his plans, but faced with increasing pressure from the majority of his advisors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president finally gave in. Troop levels and bombing runs were ramped up. The United States committed fully to the struggle for South Vietnam. And, with every escalation, it became harder and harder to pull out.

In the end, facing ever increasing unpopularity, Johnson decided not to seek a second term. Robert McNamara, realizing too late that the war had turned into a quagmire, left to run the World Bank, eventually even coming out against the war. As for Ball, after the Johnson administration, he largely withdrew from public life. Cast out as a defeatist by a political establishment too embarrassed to admit that he was right, he returned to work as an investment banker, quietly advocating until the end of his life, for a more united, peaceful world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Herring, George. America's Longest War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. Print.
  • McNamara, Robert & Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
  • VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Categories: History