Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks in Detroit at the Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

August 19, 1968

Commander Scerra, General Westmoreland, Reverend Varner, Congressman and Mrs. Teague, Governor Docking, Mayor Cavanagh, my beloved friend Bill Driver, ladies and gentlemen:

Tonight, as we meet here to honor American veterans, I want to first of all thank you for your kindness to me and to my family. As we assemble here tonight, one of the great veterans of our time is waging one of the greatest struggles of his life.

The hearts and the hopes of all of us in this room--and of all our people across the entire United States--go out at this moment to our beloved President, Dwight David Eisenhower.

President Eisenhower's life is witness to a firm conviction. He believed that democracy can only survive by accepting freedom as a responsibility. He believed that the first responsibility of a democratic people is to unite in defense of freedom whenever and wherever it is threatened.

He fought for freedom on the battlefield. And when he led his Nation at home, he sought through all the years to bind us together with a single overriding purpose-the preservation of freedom.

I am very proud to say tonight that I spent some of the most rewarding days of my public life working closely with President Eisenhower to draw the line against division and against disunity.

As Majority Leader of the Senate--and as a member of another political party--I worked with him because I shared his faith that responsible Americans must always-always--place the Nation's cause above any partisan or petty personal interest.

So, tonight, as the prayers of this Nation go out for President Eisenhower, let us honor him with the strength of our resolve. Let us show that we are one people--committed to the cause for which he has dedicated his entire life.

Ladies and gentlemen, I should like to ask each of you now to stand and to join me in a moment of silent prayer for this great beloved American.1

More than a century ago, President Abraham Lincoln looked beyond a terrible war to the day when peace would come, and high among the country's obligations, he saw this imperative, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle."

Through other wars, and through troubled days, President Lincoln's words have endured as the rock of our commitment.

To no group does America owe more than it owes to the men who have borne arms in defense of America and in defense of their fellow man--some of whom could not always be there with you--and in defense of freedom.

From Valley Forge to the jungles of Vietnam, you knew and they knew what they were fighting for--and that knowledge became a well-spring of dedication and courage.

Nothing can ever quite adequately express the gratitude that all of us should owe to our veterans. But one thing is certain: Those who have been injured and disabled in the line of duty have a right to all the help that their Government can give them to live useful and productive lives.

So, tonight, I am signing here into law a measure in your presence, and I think it is a historic moment. This measure will provide service-disabled veterans with the help that they are entitled to and with the help that they need.

--Compensation for 115,000 totally disabled veterans will be increased by $100 a month. Very soon, monthly rates will now range from $400 to $700.

--Almost 2 million veterans whose disabilities are less than total will receive an 8 percent increase. This bill provides much more, though, than just financial stability for a disabled veteran. It offers him new hope--and it offers him new help--in his fight to resume a normal life.

This bill reaffirms our gratitude to those who have sacrificed so much for freedom. It represents our pledge that they will never be forsaken and they will never be forgotten.

I want to express my personal thanks to Administrator Driver, the Veterans Administrator than whom there has never been a better one; to that very able Chairman, Congressman Olin Teague, who made this measure possible; and also to that man who spoke to you today and who honors us always when he is in our presence, that great and gallant and unequalled courageous leader, General Westmoreland, the present Chief of Staff.

I came here tonight because I wanted to say a few words about Vietnam.

We are in the midst, as you may have judged, of a national political campaign. And I think it is altogether proper that there should be a great deal of discussion and speculation about a war in which more than 500,000 of our young men are at this moment, tonight, deeply engaged. These things are quite clear:

--Those more than half a million American men are not out in Southeast Asia as Republicans or Democrats or American Party or fourth party members. They are out there as American sons fighting to protect the vital interests of America, as those interests have been determined by more than one President and by more than one Congress.

--Until January 20, 1969, until another President takes the oath with those closing words, "So help me God," I bear the responsibility of the Presidency, and of the executive policy of this Nation towards Vietnam--a policy that has been fashioned over many years on a bipartisan basis, by several Presidents and by several American Congresses.

The interests of the Nation and the interests of peace are not advanced by ambiguity at any time about that policy.

Therefore, I am not going to speak in ambiguous terms and I am going to lay out a few fundamentals for you and for the rest of the Nation here tonight.

First, our objective in Southeast Asia is peace, and the essentials of what we mean by peace for a long time have been quite clear. And I am going to repeat them briefly:

--reinstall the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel, as the Geneva accords of 1954 require, and let the matter of Vietnamese unity be decided by the people of North Vietnam and the people of South Vietnam in the future;

--remove all foreign forces from Laos and reinstall and make fully effective the Geneva accords of 1962 on Laos;

--withdraw the United States forces from South Vietnam under the circumstances described in the Manila communiqué;

--encourage the people of South Vietnam to exercise their rights of self-determination. It is for them to decide in peace without any coercion of any kind--from anyone--their own political future on a one-man one-vote basis--in a free election-in the spirit of reconciliation reaffirmed by President Thieu at Honolulu. He said there that all can vote in Vietnam, and all can run for office, if they will forsake violence and if they will live by the Constitution. We in the United States agree.

That is what I mean by an honorable peace. I doubt that any American President will take a substantially different view when he bears the burdens of office, and he has available to him all the information that flows to the Commander in Chief, and he is responsible to our people for all of the consequences of all the alternatives that are open to him.

Second, the United States took a major initiative toward peace on March 31. We not only made an offer, but we immediately acted. We took a first dramatic step to deescalate the conflict. I immediately ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam north of the 20th parallel. This excluded from bombing almost 90 percent of the North Vietnamese population and almost 80 percent of the North Vietnamese territory.

I then, that night, in that televised speech to the Nation had this to say, "I cannot in good conscience stop all bombing so long as to do so would immediately and directly endanger the lives of our men and our allies. Whether a complete bombing halt becomes possible in the future will be determined by events."

Thus far Hanoi's response has been:

--to reject every single suggestion made by ourselves or others to deescalate the conflict;

--to proceed since March 31 with the highest level of infiltration that we have observed during the war in Vietnam, the highest level of southward movement of military supplies, and the highest level of preparations for the third major wave of attack in 1968.

I do not know whether or when such a new attack will, in fact, take place. It may have already begun. But I can assure you that we are doing everything that's imaginable and in our power to avoid it.

But I do know that Hanoi has rejected our every offer for prompt deescalation and movement toward peace in favor of their massive military preparations for intensified battle.

So the next move must be theirs. In affairs there is no more basic lesson than it takes two to make a bargain and to make a peace. We have made a reasonable offer and we have taken a major first step. That offer has not been accepted. This administration does not intend to move further until it has good reason to believe that the other side intends seriously to join us in deescalating the war and moving seriously toward peace. We are willing to take chances for peace but we cannot make foolhardy gestures for which your fighting men will pay the price by giving their lives.

So tonight I hope you will ask yourselves: Where would the position of this Nation and its allies be if, having taken a major step toward deescalation and peace already, we responded now to their hostility with still another major unilateral step? If you were in Hanoi would you then deescalate and negotiate? Or would you not demand another unilateral step, until finally the whole foundation of freedom for the nations of Southeast Asia was gone beyond repair?

This President--this administration--will not move down that slippery slope.

This is a time tonight when Americans have to face certain hard questions and they have to keep certain facts clearly before them.

First, are we Americans prepared to say to Hanoi that we are ready to have their men by the thousands and their supplies by the tons pour down through the DMZ against our American sons and our allies without obstruction, whether or not Hanoi takes action to deescalate the conflict? Well, that is what would be involved in an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam.

Second, are we Americans ready to let the Communist forces assemble without any interference around Saigon, Danang, Hue, and other cities and, then and there, deliver their attacks at times and places of their own choice, when it suits their own advantage? Well, that is what would be involved if we should give up our search-and-destroy operations.

Third, let us all remember that it is a long-established policy of the Government of the United States and the Government of Vietnam that the political future of that country should be decided by free elections based on the principle of one-man one-vote. It is the Communists who have refused to even discuss these elections. It is they who seek a solution by bullet rather than by ballot.

Fourth, let us all remember that with the encouragement of the American people, these gallant South Vietnamese have created their own Constitution, have created their own government.

They have voted freely--often at the risk of their own lives--in elections as closely observed as any elections in modern times-in which 60 percent of the total electorate participated.

In that government and closely associated with it in the Vietnam Senate, are candidates who received more than 56 percent of the popular vote in the Vietnam presidential election.

The people of South Vietnam and their government have demonstrated--in action-a willingness and an ability to let the people speak--peacefully--by democratic means. It is not they, but it is the other side, who now tonight must be persuaded that the election process is the road to peace in Vietnam.

I can tell you that I believe peace is going to come--that is, if we are steady and it is going to come, if I have anything to do with it, on honorable terms. I cannot tell you precisely when it will come, but I believe that it will come:

--because I believe military victory is beyond the enemy's grasp;

--because the South Vietnamese are gathering political and military strength and confidence day by day; and finally

--because I believe in America.

However great our anxiety for peace; however great our concern for the war in Vietnam; however great our passionate desire that the killing shall stop, I do not believe that the American people are going to walk away from this struggle unless they can walk away from it on honorable terms.

When we sent our negotiating team off to Paris I told them two things:

--first, put aside all considerations of domestic politics;

--second, work for a genuine peace--the peace which is a vital interest of the United States now, and which will serve us well 10 years from now.

I did not take myself out of personal partisan presidential politics on the night of March 31st in order to permit our pursuit of peace to be colored in the slightest degree by domestic political considerations. I want peace in Vietnam. I want it perhaps more than any single living American individual. But the pursuit of peace in this administration is going to be governed by America's abiding interests as we see them.

I do have faith, a faith that strengthened me on March 31st, that when the political campaign is all over, and the man takes up the responsibility of the Presidency--whoever he may be--he will take a similar view.

Right now we are doing all that diplomacy can do to end the war through the talks in Paris. And we shall continue.

We shall try again and again, every conceivable thing that human ingenuity can produce. I shall do everything I possibly can between now and January, every waking moment, to bring an honorable peace to Southeast Asia. I do hope that it can be possible. But if not, I have faith that the next President-faced with the consequences to his own people, and the consequences to the peace of the world--I have faith that he, too, will stand up and insist on an honorable peace.

So these are my views on Vietnam. This is my faith.

But let me add another word about why we came to commit ourselves as a nation in Vietnam and to the security of Southeast Asia.

Almost two-thirds of the men, women, and children on this planet, living in this world, now live in Asia. In the year 2000, that proportion is going to be even higher than two-thirds of the world. It is as certain as the sun rises that in the world of modern technology and communications, the prosperity and the security of your United States will, with the passage of time, be more bound up with the fate of Asia--and not less.

This Nation--not this administration, but this Nation--has three times in the past 30 years reacted when one power or another sought by aggression to enlarge its power in Asia: in 1941 on December 7, in 1950, and then in the present conflict. Our responsibility was recognized in 1954 when the SEATO Treaty was adopted by the United States Senate by a vote of 82 to 1. That treaty was accepted by the United States Senate for one simple reason--because in their hearts and their minds, the Members of the Senate knew that this Nation could not and would not ever stand idly by and see all the countries of Southeast Asia placed under the aggressor's heel. They hoped--and they stated in the speeches on that treaty that they hoped--that that treaty and the warning that it represented would deter aggression.

But the men in Hanoi believed that they commanded a method of aggression that would succeed even in the face of our commitment. They have been supported by others who felt that Hanoi's success would drive the United States out of Asia and leave it open for a takeover.

Well, there is no serious and responsible leader in Asia who does not already know that the struggle now taking place in Vietnam tonight is the hinge on which the fate of Asia will swing--one way or the other-for many years, far into the future. When we insist on an honorable peace in Vietnam, we are insisting on a solution to the struggle which has the promise of permitting the independent nations of Asia to go forward in confidence to build in freedom a life consistent with their own traditions and their own ambitions. We are talking tonight not about 17 million people of South Vietnam, but we are talking about nations which contain hundreds of millions of people.

There are some among us who appear to be searching for a formula which would get us out of Vietnam and Asia, on any terms, leaving the people of South Vietnam and Laos and Thailand--and all the others--to an uncertain fate.

Laos, South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia--pretty soon we could be back to the Philippines--and even back to Honolulu.

I profoundly believe that this course would be disastrous to the interests of the United States. I believe it would be disastrous to the world--now and in the years to come.

On the other hand, I am equally confident that if we have the will to see this through in Vietnam to an honorable peace, the way will be open for better times; for a period of relative tranquillity in which the forces of moderation, of national independence, of freedom and regional cooperation will assert themselves in Asia as they are tonight asserting themselves in other parts of the world-permitting the United States not to return to isolation but to work as a partner with a vital region of the world which will more and more assume responsibility for its own destiny.

Well, that is the ultimate stake in Vietnam--for Americans, for Asians, and for the world.

That is why three different Presidents have taken and have held the position they have taken.

And that is why the American people, in my judgment, are going to hold steady and see it through and not cut and run.

I want the killing in Vietnam to stop--but we cannot stop the killing if North Vietnam insists on sending another 150,000 new aggressors into the South to kill Americans and allies since January the first of this year.

Remember, it takes two to stop the killing. We are ready now, tonight, to stop the bombing when the other side is prepared not just to see our bombing stop and weapons taken from our men, but the other side is willing to stop their aggression as well.

We are ready to stop the war now by stopping the fighting when they are ready to stop the war by stopping the aggression.

We have stopped the bombing already now eight different times. The last time, out of respect to Buddha's birthday. Then, on their own religious birthday--their answer to our stopping the bombing was the Tet offensive when tens of thousands of casualties were suffered by our people. We stopped the bombing again before that, for 37 long days. And what did they stop? Their answer was not to stop aggression, but, General Westmoreland will tell you, they greatly stepped up their aggression while we were stopping the bombing.

So, my friends, let's not be hoodwinked. Let's not be misled. In short, our people and their people must understand one thing: We are not going to stop the bombing just to give them a chance to step up their bloodbath. We are not going to stop bombing their trucks or bombing their ammunition or bombing their supply lines while they bomb our cities and while they bomb our headquarters and while they mine South Vietnamese territory and they require our American fighting men to bear the brunt of the increased firepower that the Communists would rain on our men if we did not stop every truck and every bit of the ammunition we could.

On March 31 we stopped 90 percent of the bombing. Have they stopped 90 percent of their infiltration or 80 percent or even 50 percent? No. They didn't stop anything. They increased their infiltration 100 percent. That was their answer to our stopping the bombing.

We are ready tonight and we are ready tomorrow, either on the battlefield or the conference table in Paris, to put into effect any fair and reasonable cease-fire on both sides--but not just one side.

We are not going to trade the safety of American fighting men whose voices are not here to be heard in this election campaign for any Trojan horse. They are going to have a voice in this campaign before it is over.

So tonight, I appeal to all well-intentioned citizens who are demanding that Americans stop the bombing to tell me what they are demanding of Hanoi. I ask each well-intentioned good American to search his conscience when he goes home tonight and ask himself: "Why, oh why do we hear nothing of any demands on Hanoi?"

You can look at that Marine sergeant and say, "Please sacrifice and give up the best implement you have to stop those trucks, and those handgrenades, and those divisions that are coming toward you. I ask you to give up the best weapon you have and lay it down."

And he would look at me with those innocent, boyish eyes and say, "Yes, Mr. President, but what are they going to give up?"

And I say, "That has not been mentioned." I am not going to answer him that way. It is one thing when you are seeking responsibility and it is another thing when you have it.

One day I pray--and I pray every night that it will be soon--the men who bear the brunt of battle are going to come back home. And when they do come they are going to ask an accounting of us for the support that we gave them or that we denied them in the hour of greatest need when we sent them away to protect us and to defend us.

I hope and I pray that we are not going to be found wanting in that judgment.

So long as I am the American Commander in Chief we are not going to be found wanting.

In our great democracy--from the American Revolution to the war in Vietnam-struggles on the battlefield have been accompanied by contention and dissension and a great deal of debate here at home.

But always this great Nation has produced men like yourselves, men who were ready to do their duty; in your case, ready to go abroad, ready to fight for their Nation, ready to give their lives to preserve freedom.

You men who grace this banquet hall tonight did your job, in your time, and you did it in faraway places, in great fear--because no man ever got shot at who wasn't frightened. I know. But you brought home your Nation's flag in honor--and you brought it home unstained. And they are going to do the same in Vietnam.

In time--and I pray that time will be short--these almost 600,000 young men are going to come back and join us. In time the debates and the personalities will pass, and they and the American people will look back on what we have done and, I think, they will look back with the same pride that we feel in our other efforts in the cause of freedom when we have defended it with our blood.

And we all shall know that those who do not come back--your brothers in arms--will not have died in vain.

Every day I read reports of the courage of Americans in battle in Vietnam. Every day I read reports of our civil efforts to help the South Vietnamese build a nation, expand education, plant new rice seeds, strengthen their constitutional government. Every day I read about our men teaching them to read and write and helping to cure the sores and heal the bodies of these unfortunate deprived people.

Behind these military and civilian efforts are, I am here to certify tonight, as fine a generation of young Americans as America in all her history ever produced.

So I hope that you have faith, and I hope you keep the faith. I hope you give us the support that we are going to need so dearly in the trying months ahead.

So tonight I come here to thank you for your honor and for your kindness to my family and to tell you that I am of good heart. Let no one--let no one ever tell you that love of country, that dedication to freedom, that determination for an honorable peace is dead in this land.

1 On July 18, 1968, the President issued proclamation 3859 "Salute to Eisenhower Week." See Item 399.

Note: The President spoke at 8:37 p.m. at Cobo Hall in Detroit. In his opening words he referred to Joseph A. Scerra, Commander in Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Army Chief of Staff, Rev. Robert M. Varner, National Chaplain of the VFW, Representative Olin E. Teague of Texas and Mrs. Teague, Governor Robert B. Docking of Kansas, Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh of Detroit, and Administrator of Veterans Affairs William J. Driver.

For texts of the Declaration of Honolulu, the Manila communiqué, and the President's remarks recorded for broadcast following the Manila Conference, see 1966 volume, this series, Book I, Item 55, and Book II, Items 549 and 553.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks in Detroit at the Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Simple Search of Our Archives