In the summer of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson faced an agonizing decision. On June 7, General William Westmoreland had come to him with a "bombshell" request to more than double the number of existing troops in Vietnam. LBJ, who wished to be remembered as a great reformer, not as a war president, saw the proposed escalation for what it was—the turning point for American involvement in Vietnam.

This is one of the most discussed chapters in modern presidential history, but George Herring, the acknowledged dean of Vietnam War historians, has found a fascinating new way to tell this story—through the remarkable legacy of LBJ’s taped telephone conversations. Underused until now in exploring Johnson’s decision making in Vietnam, the phone conversations offer intimate, striking, and sometimes poignant insights into this ordeal. Johnson emerges as a fascinating character, obligated to pursue victory in Vietnam but skeptical that it is even possible, the whole while watching his plans for domestic reform threatened. The president walks a fine line between a military he must placate and a Congress whose support he must maintain as he tries to implement his Great Society legislation. The reader can see the flaws in the Cold War sensibility contributing to Johnson’s tragic attempt to hold ground against an enemy with whom he had no leverage.

The cast includes many of the era’s most iconic players, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Westmoreland ("I have a lot riding on you," LBJ tells him—"I hope you don’t pull a MacArthur on me!"), House minority leader Gerald Ford, anti-war advocate Robert Kennedy ("I think you’ve got to sit down and talk to Bobby," LBJ tells McNamara), and former president Eisenhower, a valuable contact in the Republican camp.

A concise, inside look at seven critical weeks in 1965—presented as a Rotunda ebook linking to transcripts and audio files of the original presidential tapes— The War Bells Have Rung offers both student and scholar a vivid and accessible look at a decision on which LBJ’s presidency would pivot and that would change modern American history.

Miller Center Studies on the Presidency is a new series of original works that draw on the Miller Center's scholarly programs to shed light on the American presidency past and present.

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