Tuesday, August 4th, 1964, should have been another sleepy summer day in the humid District of Columbia.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was awakened as usual by 7:00 AM and eating breakfast by 7:05.…
His daily schedule got underway at 8:01 with a quick call to his Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman. Then it was off for a “working breakfast” at 8:05 with his Legislative Leaders (Speaker McCormack, Senators Smathers and Mansfield, and Congressmen Boggs and Albert) and his aides (Larry O’Brien, Walter Jenkins, Bill Moyers, George Reedy, and Jack Valenti).
In the middle of the breakfast, at 9:12, the President was summoned to take a call from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – Two US Navy Warships, the “Maddox” and the “C Turner Joy” were under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin from North Vietnamese aircraft and PT boats, and retaliatory actions were being planned.
At 9:34 LBJ returned to his office with Hale Boggs and Carl Albert. He picked up the phone and started making and taking calls. At 9:41 he called Jack Valenti. At 9:43 he took another call from McNamara. Another call to Jack Valenti. Larry O’Brien and Bill Moyers joined the group. At 10:20 AM he called Congressman Phil Landrum.
The calls stopped briefly at 10:25 when Major General R.G. MacDonnell of the Army Corps of Engineers stopped in for seven minutes. Then at 10:34, S K Patil, the Railway Minister of India, entered with MacGeorge Bundy and a translator. Patil presented a letter from his Prime Minister, had his picture taken with LBJ, and was out by 10:39.
At 10:40 the President’s Secretary called to remind him to call Mr. Sweeterman. “OK, Never mind” was the President’s response, so Congressman George Mahon came in to meet with the President until 11:30, during which time LBJ talked to McNamara (twice), Budget Director Gordon, Senator Anderson, Speaker McCormick, Walter Jenkins, Jack Valenti, and the Governor of West Virginia.
He made 11 more phone calls before 12:35 when he headed for the Cabinet Room. A National Security Council meeting had been scheduled to discuss the situation in Cyprus. Bobby Kennedy, CIA Director McCone, Robert McNamara, Cyrus Vance, General Curtis LeMay, Dean Rusk, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and Phil Talbott were among the men that sat around the big table. The agenda had now changed; the topic was now Viet Nam.
At 1:06 PM President Johnson excused himself so that he could meet with 26 visiting doctors representing the National Medical Association.
Thirty minutes later, he headed back to the Executive Mansion for lunch with Secretary Rusk, McNamara, CIA Director McCone, McGeorge Bundy, and Cyrus Vance.
At 2:35 he joined Mrs. Johnson’s tea group (three couples visiting from Texas with their Washington in-laws and various small children), and then took a few minutes to send letters and flowers to an ailing Senator and a Senator’s daughter.
After tea with Lady Bird, he made six more phone calls, and then sent three nominations to the Senate for approval (two Federal Judges and an Attorney General for the Oregon District). By 3:35, he was able to head upstairs with Senator Russell to make more phone calls.
At 5:45 Rear Admiral Arthur Graila, who was about to take the South Atlantic fleet on a Latin American cruise, stopped by with two photographers for a quick handshake and a picture – He was out by 5:47. At 5:54 Thomas Vail, the young publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer got the same treatment.
At 6:15 the President instructed the telephone operator to call Barry Goldwater at Balboa Bay Club in California “at 6:40, no 6:37”. He had an important message to convey to his Republican opponent and it was urgent that they talk.
At 6:16, the National Security Council reconvened. At 6:38, a message was sent in – Barry Goldwater was on a boat and it might take 20 minutes to reach him – Should they reach him by air? The President replied in the affirmative.
By 6:45 LBJ was back in the Cabinet Room with the Legislative Leaders. At 8:01 Cartha Daloach, Assistant Director of the FBI, interrupted the meeting with another call. He informed the President that the bodies of three young Civil Rights workers (Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney) had just been found in a shallow grave in Mississippi.
The President huddled in his office with McNamara, Rusk and Bundy, and made a few more calls, including one to Mrs. Johnson at 8:35. At 8:47, a message arrived that Goldwater knew he was trying to reach him, but the marine radio keeps cutting in and out.
Now LBJ needed to reach the Governor of Mississippi. At 9:23 PM he got the message that Governor Johnson was also out on a boat. A patrol boat was dispatched to retrieve him. The President then made a call to the Governor of New Jersey, and one to his daughter, Linda Bird Johnson. He finally got through to Mississippi Governor at 9:35, and at 10:06 also connected with Goldwater.
By 10:28 he was able to retire to the Mansion for dinner with Mrs. Johnson, bringing along McGeorge Bundy and Jack Valenti, and then back to the office at 11:20.
Finally, at 11:34 PM, LBJ headed to the Fish Room. 16-1/2 hours after he had started his day, the bright lights came on, and Lyndon Johnson looked straight into the national network television cameras. It had been a long, long day, but he still needed to talk to directly to the American people:
“My fellow Americans:
As President and Commander in Chief, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action . . .”