Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Address on U.S. Policy in Vietnam Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Tennessee State Legislature.

March 15, 1967

Lieutenant Governor Gorrell, Speaker Cummings, Governor Ellington, distinguished members of the legislature, and my friends:

It is always a very special privilege and pleasure for me to visit Tennessee.

For a Texan, it is like homecoming, because much of the courage and the hard work that went into the building of the Southwest came from the hills and the fields of Tennessee. It strengthened the sinews of thousands of men--at the Alamo, at San Jacinto, and at the homes of our pioneer people.

This morning, I visited the Hermitage, the historic home of Andrew Jackson. Two centuries have passed since that most American of all Americans was born. The world has changed a great deal since his day. But the qualities which sustain men and nations in positions of leadership have not changed.

In our time, as in Andrew Jackson's, freedom has its price.

In our time, as in his, history conspires to test the American will.

In our time, as in Jackson's time, courage and vision, and the willingness to sacrifice, will sustain the cause of freedom.

This generation of Americans is making its imprint on history. It is making it in the fierce hills and the sweltering jungles of Vietnam. I think most of our citizens have-after a very penetrating debate which is our democratic heritage--reached a common understanding on the meaning and on the objectives of that struggle.

Before I discuss the specific questions that remain at issue, I should like to review the points of widespread agreement.

It was 2 years ago that we were forced to choose, forced to make a decision between major commitments in defense of South Vietnam or retreat--the evacuation of more than 25,000 of our troops, the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam in the face of subversion and external assault.

Andrew Jackson would never have been surprised at the choice we made.

We chose a course in keeping with American tradition, in keeping with the foreign policy of at least three administrations, with the expressed will of the Congress of the United States, with our solemn obligations under the Southeast Asian Treaty, and with the interest of 16 million South Vietnamese who had no wish to live under Communist domination.

As our commitment in Vietnam required more men and more equipment, some voices were raised in opposition. The administration was urged to disengage, to find an excuse to abandon the effort.

These cries came despite growing evidence that the defense of Vietnam held the key to the political and economic future of free Asia. The stakes of the struggle grew corresponding!y.

It became clear that if we were prepared to stay the course in Vietnam, we could help to lay the cornerstone for a diverse and independent Asia, full of promise and resolute in the cause of peaceful economic development for her long-suffering peoples.

But if we faltered, the forces of chaos would scent victory and decades of strife and aggression would stretch endlessly before us.

The choice was clear. We would stay the course. And we shall stay the course.

I think most Americans support this fundamental decision. Most of us remember the fearful cost of ignoring aggression. Most of us have cast aside the illusion that we can live in an affluent fortress while the world slides into chaos.

I think we have all reached broad agreement on our basic objectives in Vietnam.

First, an honorable peace, that will leave the people of South Vietnam free to fashion their own political and economic institutions without fear of terror or intimidation from the North.

Second, a Southeast Asia in which all countries--including a peaceful North Vietnam-apply their scarce resources to the real problems of their people: combating hunger, ignorance, and disease.

I have said many, many times, that nothing would give us greater pleasure than to invest our own resources in the constructive works of peace rather than in the futile destruction of war.

Third, a concrete demonstration that aggression across international frontiers or demarcation lines is no longer an acceptable means of 'political change.

There is also, ! think, a general agreement among Americans on the things that we do not want in Vietnam.

We do not want permanent bases. We will begin with the withdrawal of our troops on a reasonable schedule whenever reciprocal concessions are forthcoming from our adversary.

We do not seek to impose our political beliefs upon South Vietnam. Our Republic rests upon a brisk commerce in ideas. We will be happy to see free competition in the intellectual marketplace whenever North Vietnam is willing to shift the conflict from the battlefield to the ballot box.

So, these are the broad principles on which most Americans agree.

On a less general level, however, the events and frustrations of these past few difficult weeks have inspired a number of questions about our Vietnam policy in the minds and hearts of a good many of our citizens. Today, here in this historic chamber, I want to deal with some of those questions that figure most prominently in. the press and in some of the letters which reach a President's desk.

Many Americans are confused by the barrage of information about military engagements. They long for the capsule summary which has kept tabs on our previous wars, a line on the map that divides friend from foe.

Precisely what, they ask, is our military situation, and what are the prospects of victory?

The first answer is that Vietnam is aggression in a new guise, as far removed from trench warfare as the rifle from the longbow. This is a war of infiltration, of subversion, of ambush. Pitched battles are very rare, and even more rarely are they decisive.

Today, more than 1 million men from the Republic of Vietnam and its six allies are engaged in the order of battle.

Despite continuing increases in North Vietnam infiltration, this strengthening of allied forces in 1966, under the brilliant leadership of General Westmoreland, was instrumental in reversing the whole course of this war.

--We estimate that 55,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong were killed in 1966, compared with 35,000 the previous year. Many more were wounded, and more than 20,000 defected.

--By contrast, 9,500 South Vietnamese, more than 5,000 Americans, and 600 from other allied forces were killed in action.

--The Vietnamese Army achieved a 1966 average of two weapons captured from the Vietcong to every one lost, a dramatic turn around from the previous 2 years.

--Allied forces have made several successful sweeps through territories that were formerly considered Vietcong sanctuaries only a short time ago. These operations not only cost the enemy large numbers of men and weapons, but are very damaging to his morale.

Well, what does all of this mean? Will the North Vietnamese change their tactics? Will there be less infiltration of main units? Will there be more of guerrilla warfare?

The actual truth is we just don't know. What we do know is that General Westmoreland's strategy is producing results, that our military situation has substantially improved, that our military success has permitted the groundwork to be laid for a pacification program which is the long-run key to an independent South Vietnam.

Since February 1965, our military operations have included selective bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. Our purposes are three:

--To back our fighting men by denying the enemy a sanctuary;

--To exact a penalty against North Vietnam for her flagrant violations of the Geneva accords of 1954 and 1962;

--To limit the flow, or to substantially increase the cost of infiltration of men and material from North Vietnam.

All of our intelligence confirms that we have been successful.

Yet, some of our people object strongly to this aspect of our policy. Must we bomb, many people ask. Does it do any military good? Is it consistent with America's limited objectives? Is it an inhuman act that is aimed at civilians?

On the question of military utility, I can only report the firm belief of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency, General Westmoreland and our commanders in the field, and all the courses of information and advice available to the Commander in Chief and that is that the bombing is causing serious disruption and is bringing about added burdens to the North Vietnamese infiltration effort.

We know, for example, that half a million people are kept busy just repairing damage to bridges, roads, railroads, and other strategic facilities, and in air and coastal defense and repair of powerplants.

I also want to say categorically that it is not the position of the American Government that the bombing will be decisive in getting Hanoi to abandon aggression. It has, however, created very serious problems for them. The best indication of how substantial is the fact that they are working so hard every day with all their friends throughout the world to try to get us to stop.

The bombing is entirely consistent with America's limited objectives in South Vietnam. The strength of Communist main force units in the South is clearly based on their infiltration from the North. So I think it is simply unfair to our American soldiers, sailors, and marines, and our Vietnamese allies to ask them to face increased enemy personnel and firepower without making an effort to try to reduce that infiltration.

Now as to bombing civilians, I would simply say that we are making an effort that is unprecedented in the history of warfare to be sure that we do not. It is our policy to bomb military targets only.

We have never deliberately bombed cities, nor attacked any target with the purpose of inflicting civilian casualties.

We hasten to add, however, that we recognize, and we regret, that some people, even after warning, are living and working in the vicinity of military targets and they have suffered.

We are also too aware that men and machines are not infallible and that some mistakes do occur.

But our record on this account is, in my opinion, highly defensible.

Look for a moment at the record of the other side.

Any civilian casualties that result from our operations are inadvertent, in stark contrast to the calculated Vietcong policy of systematic terror.

Tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians have been killed, tortured, and kidnaped by the Vietcong. There is no doubt about the deliberate nature of the Vietcong program. One need only note the frequency with which Vietcong victims are village leaders, teachers, health workers, and others who are trying to carry out constructive programs for their people.

Yet, the deeds of the Vietcong go largely unnoted in the public debate. It is this moral double bookkeeping which makes us get sometimes very weary of our critics.

But there is another question that we should answer: Why don't we stop bombing

to make it easier to begin negotiations? The answer is a simple one:

--We stopped for 5 days and 20 hours in May 1965. Representatives of Hanoi simply returned our message in a plain envelope.

--We stopped bombing for 36 days and 15 hot:rs in December 1965 and January 1966. Hanoi only replied: "A political settlement of the Vietnam problem can be envisaged only when the United States Government has accepted the four-point stand of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, has proved this by actual deeds, has stopped unconditionally and for good its air raids and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."

--And only last month we stopped bombing for 5 days and 18 hours, after many prior weeks in which we had communicated to them several possible routes to peace, any one of which America was prepared to take. Their response, as you know, delivered to His Holiness the Pope, was this: The United States "must put an end to their aggression in Vietnam, end unconditionally and definitively the bombing and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, withdraw from South Vietnam all American and satellite troops, recognize the South Vietnamese National Front for Liberation, and let the Vietnamese people settle themselves their own affairs." That is where we stand today.

They have three times rejected a bombing pause as a means to open the way to ending the war and going to the negotiating table.

The tragedy of South Vietnam is not limited to casualty lists.

There is much tragedy in the story of a nation at war for nearly a generation. It is the story of economic stagnation. It is the story of a generation of young men--the flower of the labor force--pressed into military service by one side or the other.

No one denies that the survival of South Vietnam is heavily dependent upon early economic progress.

My most recent and my most hopeful report of progress in this area came from an old friend of Tennessee, of the Tennessee Valley Authority--David Lilienthal, who recently went as my representative to Vietnam to begin to work with the Vietnamese people on economic planning for that area.

He reported--and with some surprise, I might add--that he discovered an extraordinary air of confidence among the farmers, and the village leaders, and the trade unionists, and the industrialists. He concluded that their economic behavior suggests and I quote him, "that they think that they know how this is all going to come out."

Mr. Lilienthal also said that the South Vietnamese were among the hardest working people that he had seen in developing countries around the world, that "to have been through 20 years of war and still have this amount of 'zip' almost ensures their long-term economic development."

Mr. Lilienthal will be going with me to Guam Saturday night to talk with our new leaders about the plans that he will try to institute there.

Our AID programs are supporting the drive toward this sound economy.

But none of these economic accomplishments will be decisive by itself. And no economic achievement can substitute for a strong and free political structure.

We cannot build such a structure--because only the Vietnamese can do that.

And I think they are building it. As I am talking to you here, a freely elected Constituent Assembly in Saigon is now wrestling with the last details of a new constitution, one which will bring the Republic of Vietnam to full membership among the democratic nations of the world.

We expect that constitution to be completed this month.

In the midst of war, they have been building for peace and justice. That is a remarkable accomplishment in the annals of mankind.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who has served us with such great distinction, is coming to the end of his second distinguished tour of duty in Saigon.

To replace him, I am drafting as our Ambassador to the Government of Vietnam, Mr. Ellsworth Bunker--able and devoted, full of wisdom and experience acquired on five continents over many years.

As his Deputy, I am nominating and recalling from Pakistan, Mr. Eugene Locke, our young and very vigorous Ambassador to Pakistan.

To drive forward with a sense of urgency in our work in pacification, I am sending

the President's Special Assistant, Mr. Robert Komer.

To strengthen General Westmoreland in the intense operations that he will be conducting in the months ahead, I am assigning to him additional topflight military personnel, the best that this country has been able to produce.

So you can be confident that in the months ahead we shall have at work in Saigon the ablest, the wisest, the most tenacious, and the most experienced team that the United States of America can mount.

In view of these decisions and in view of the meetings that will take place this weekend, I thought it wise to invite the leaders of South Vietnam to join us in Guam for a part of our discussions, if it were convenient for them. I am gratified to be informed that they have accepted our invitation.

I should also like for you to know that the representatives of all the countries that are contributing troops in Vietnam will be coming to Washington for April 20 and 21 meetings for a general appraisal of the situation that exists.

Now this brings me to my final point, the peaceful and just world that we all seek.

We have just lived through another flurry of rumors of "peace feelers."

Our years of dealing with this problem have taught us that peace will not come easily.

The problem is a very simple one: It takes two to negotiate at a peace table and Hanoi has just simply refused to consider coming to a peace table.

I don't believe that our own position on peace negotiations can be stated any more clearly than I have stated it many times in the past--or than the distinguished Secretary of State, Mr. Rusk, or Ambassador Goldberg, or any number of other officials have stated it in every forum that we could find.

I do want to repeat to you this afternoon--and through you to the 'people of America--the essentials now, lest there be any doubts.

--United States representatives are ready at any time for discussions of the Vietnam problem or any related matter, with any government or governments, if there is any reason to believe that these discussions will in any way seriously advance the cause of peace.

--We are prepared to go more than halfway and to use any avenue possible to encourage such discussions. And we have done that at every opportunity.

We believe that the Geneva accords of 1954 and 1962 could serve as the central elements of a peaceful settlement. These accords provide, in essence, that both South and North Vietnam should be free from external interference, while at the same time they would be free independently to determine their positions on the question of reunification.

We also stand ready to advance toward a reduction of hostilities, without prior agreement. The road to peace could go from deeds to discussions, or it could start with discussions and go to deeds.

We are ready to take either route. We are ready to move on both of them.

But reciprocity must be the fundamental principle of any reduction in hostilities. The United States cannot and will not reduce its activities unless and until there is some reduction on the other side. To follow any other rule would be to violate the trust that we undertake when we ask a man to risk his life for his country.

We will negotiate a reduction of the bombing whenever the Government of North Vietnam is ready and there are almost innumerable avenues of communication by which the Government of North Vietnam can make their readiness known.

To this date and this hour, there has been no sign of that readiness.

Yet, we must--and we will--keep on trying.

As I speak to you today, Secretary Rusk and our representatives throughout the world are on a constant alert. Hundreds and hundreds of quiet diplomatic conversations, free from the glare of front-page headlines, or of klieg lights, are being held and they will be held on the possibilities of bringing peace to Vietnam.

Governor Averell Harriman, with 25 years of experience of troubleshooting on the most difficult international problems that America has ever had, is carrying out my instructions that every possible lead, however slight it may first appear, from any source, public or private, shall be followed up.

Let me conclude by saying this: I so much wish that it were within my power to assure that all those in Hanoi could hear one simple message--America is committed to the defense of South Vietnam until an honorable peace can be negotiated.

If this one communication gets through and its rational implications are drawn, we should be at the table tomorrow. It would be none too soon for us. Then hundreds of thousands of Americans--as brave as any who ever took the field for their country-could come back home.

And the man who could lead them back is the man that you trained and sent from here, our own beloved, brilliant General "Westy" Westmoreland. As these heroes came back to their homes, millions of Vietnamese could begin to make a decent life for themselves and their families without fear of terrorism, without fear of war, or without fear of Communist enslavement.

That is what we are working and what we are fighting for. We must not--we shall not--and we will not--fail.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:05 p.m. in the House Chamber of the State Capitol at Nashville. In his opening words he referred to Lieutenant Governor Frank C. Gorrell, Speaker James H. Cummings of the State House of Representatives, and Governor Buford Ellington, all of Tennessee.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Address on U.S. Policy in Vietnam Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Tennessee State Legislature. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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