Many remember the Vietnam War as the first time the horrors of combat were brought home through their television screens. Now, another piece of national history is being broadcast on the Internet.
Listeners all over the world can now hear President Lyndon B. Johnson's distress over sending more U.S. troops to Vietnam in three conversations that took place on May 27, 1964--a year before he ordered a military buildup in the country.
"The more I think about this, I don't know what in the hell...Looks to me like we're getting into another Korea," Johnson tells his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. "It just worries the hell out of me...I don't think it's worth fighting for."
Under normal circumstances, the tapes and transcriptions are publicly available but hard to come by unless one lives near Washington and has enough cash to make copies. With the Net, however, it only takes one person to broadcast the otherwise buried information worldwide.
The Johnson site was launched a little more than a week ago by Jerry Goldman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, who has also made 500 Supreme Court decisions on constitutional cases available online. Of those, 100 cases include audio links to oral arguments and the justices' announced decisions. He also put Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats and other material on the Web.
Goldman mines the National Archive in Washington to find the hundreds of hours of tape he puts on the Net. The Supreme Court tapes are released each fall by the court, the others more sporadically.
It costs him about $60 a case to duplicate the tapes, digitize them, and put them online. He puts them on the Net for free, but pays his expenses with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, and resources from the university and law firm of Mayer, Brown, and Platt.
The Johnson site and others are part of a bigger project Goldman is working on with Kenneth Janda and Jeffrey Berry, his coauthors of The Challenge of Democracy: Government in America, to put politically related audio and eventually video clips on the Web for the academic community and the general public.
The professor is part of the generation that watched many young friends leave for Vietnam and never return. He said the first time he heard the tapes, he felt chills.
"I can remember all Johnson's major addresses, the protests, the body counts...It all comes back when you hear him talking about the senselessness of sending people to die over there."
Ultimately, Johnson sent more troops, but the tapes let people hear the expressions of confusion and fear over the decision. Released on February 14, the tapes capture conversations between Johnson and Bundy, his close friend Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, and U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.
In the tapes, Johnson is not persuaded that he should beef up the numbers of soldiers in Vietnam, though he believes that the public would favor his decision to do so. He is also worried that Congress would run him out of office if he chooses to withdraw U.S. forces.
"These are riveting experiences," Goldman said. "Hearing Johnson makes it real."