BILL MOYERS: The other day, I received an email from another journalist, Greg Mitchell who runs the magazine Editor and Publisher. He forwarded me the tape of a conversation between my old boss, Lyndon Johnson, and the White House National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. I'd never heard it before -- although it occurred while I was in the White House 43 years ago.

The year was 1964. The month was May. The President and Bundy were talking before the Gulf of Tonkin Resoluton, that LBJ later used as a green light to escalate, before the campaign against Barry Goldwater in which the President said "We seek no wider war," and before the fatal escalation of troops a year later. When this conversation took place, there were, if memory serves me, sixteen to twenty thousand Americans in Vietnam, only we called them advisers. At the time, the war in Vietnam was only a small dark cloud on the very distant horizon. Here's an excerpt from that conversation:

LBJ; I would tell you...the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this...and the more that I think of it...I don't know what in the hell...we...looks like to me that we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with...once we're committed...

Bundy: Once...

LBJ: I believe that the Chinese communists are coming into it...I don't think we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anyway on that area...I don't think that it's worth fighting for...and I don't think that we can get out...and it's just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.

Bundy: It is an awful mess.

LBJ: And we just got to think about...I'm looking at this sergeant of mine this six little old kids over there...and he's getting out my things...and bringing me in my night reading and all that kind of stuff...and I just thought about ordering...ordering those kids in there...and what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? It's damn easy to get into a war, but it's...going to be harder to ever extricate yourself if you get in...

BILL MOYERS: That was May, 1964. 260 Americans had been killed in Vietnam by then. Eleven years and two presidents later, when U.S. forces pulled out, 58,209 Americans had died, and an estimated 3,000,000 Vietnamese.

Bill Moyers Essay: Listening to History

June 1, 2007

There’s no doubt that technology is changing the way we handle our history. Now conversations — once ephemeral — can be preserved forever, if no one holds down the erase button. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the world of presidential politics. In recent years, recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations have become available to the public.

Historians have been quick to make a new sub-genre out of interpreting these tapes. Columbia University’s Alan Brinkley finds them an incomparable source: “No collection of manuscripts, no after-the-fact oral history, no contemporary account by a journalist will ever have the immediacy or the revelatory power of these conversations.” But the tapes themselves make fascinating listening for anyone and many are available to you now online.

This week Bill Moyers reflects on a conversation between Lyndon Johnson and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that took place in 1964.

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