By Max Holland and Tara Marie Egan
Writing in August 2007 about the major candidates’ credentials, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum concluded that it’s questionable whether foreign policy experience is essential for anyone aspiring to the presidency. Exhibit A in her argument was Harry Truman, and Exhibit B was Lyndon Johnson.
. . . it’s far from obvious that any specific kind of experience has ever helped a president make good calls. . . . Lyndon B. Johnson had held national office for years before becoming president, but he still couldn’t cope with Vietnam.
Applebaum’s implication was that Johnson did not absorb the right lessons while serving as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, even though one of the greatest teaching tools of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, occurred during President Kennedy’s watch 45 years ago.
But what if Johnson was not permitted to learn the right lessons, which would have had to begin with an accurate understanding of what had happened? What if Johnson was purposely denied important knowledge? What if Johnson thought he had drawn the right lessons, but actually was trying to replicate a manufactured illusion?
The most reliable guide to Johnson’s innermost thoughts is the secret tape recordings that he made as president. While sketchy on the subject of the missile crisis—there are only a few references on the tapes over a period of years—enough can be gleaned from them to confirm that Johnson was never privy to the true history of the missile crisis. False history led to mistaken lessons, including a belief in the efficacy of calibrated force, which helped prevent Johnson from seriously entertaining the concessions necessary for a negotiated political solution to the Vietnam War, the supreme crisis of his presidency.
The conscious exclusion of Johnson from the truth goes far beyond the superficially parallel situation that occurred when Harry Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt. In that case, Truman’s ignorance of the Manhattan Project, and of the mounting problems with the Soviet Union, was not at all purposeful. Roosevelt’s conduct of foreign policy was shambolic by nature, and excluding Truman from important knowledge was not calculated. Anyone who had been vice president under FDR would have been excluded.
By contrast—and what is especially striking about Johnson’s case—is that not only was LBJ
deliberately shut out as vice president, but the tape recordings show that he was still in
the dark years after he became president, when he was presumably entitled, and urgently
needed, to understand the knowable truth behind Kennedy’s spectacular success. Top presidential advisers, of course, are generally loath to share the secrets of one
administration with another administration, even of the same political party. But in this
case, an additional and powerful reason for keeping Johnson ignorant was the shadow cast by
Robert F. Kennedy over the entire Johnson presidency. Men who had stayed on to serve LBJ as
they had served JFK—Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy—were already regarded, by the
late president’s brother, as insufficiently loyal. Had one of them shared JFK’s biggest
secret with Johnson, the leaker surely would have been fingered and his indiscretion
regarded as unpardonable.
Circles within Circles
Out of the 12 regular members of the fabled ExComm, four were not privy to the secret codicil that helped end the October 1962 missile crisis, namely, the explicit guarantee that America’s Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be quietly removed following a Soviet withdrawal of offensive missiles from Cuba. The ExComm members denied this knowledge were General Maxwell Taylor, C. Douglas Dillon, John McCone, and Lyndon Johnson.
President Kennedy presumably excluded Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because the chiefs had expressed unwavering opposition to any linkage between the missiles, surreptitiously emplaced in Cuba, and the Jupiters, openly sited in Turkey. Treasury Secretary Dillon was also denied knowledge of the settlement terms, probably because he was a prominent Republican (Dillon had served as under secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration) who had argued vigorously against a deal involving the Jupiters.
John McCone was a Republican, too. But not even the fact that he was director of central intelligence (DCI) and energetically supported withdrawal of the obsolete Jupiters, if it facilitated getting the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, was sufficient for his admittance into the president’s inner circle. McCone’s exclusion was the height of irony. Yet since President Kennedy was intent on keeping every Republican, from Dwight Eisenhower on down, in the dark about the true terms of the missile crisis settlement, he could hardly confide in McCone, who regularly briefed the former president on national security matters.
Finally, John Kennedy also decided, quite deliberately, to shut out Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat and the second-highest officeholder in the land. There was a tinge of irony in Johnson’s exclusion, too. Like any consummate politician, Johnson valued one quality—loyalty—above all else, and since he expected it, he gave it in return. Though bitterly disappointed at the meager responsibilities given him by the Kennedy White House, Johnson had been a team player since January 1961. In word, deed, and appearance, he had been completely loyal, airing all of his private differences over policy (and he had some) with the president alone, and dutifully following the president’s lead in any group larger than the two of them.
Hardened Washington columnists, some of whom had known Johnson for decades, were keenly aware of the indignities and humiliations he suffered as vice president. Johnson was the uncouth Texan who simply didn’t fit, ridiculed behind his back as “Uncle Cornpone” for his accent and manner. Yet LBJ amazed these columnists with his self-discipline, for he refused to be a source of political dirt or information about the administration’s internal machinations. Still, not even LBJ’s repeated demonstrations of fidelity had been sufficient to overcome the Kennedys’ distrust of Johnson, and in Robert Kennedy’s case, intense and ineradicable dislike.
In the days following the discovery of the Soviet missiles on October 15, Johnson had played an ambiguous, even contradictory, role at the ExComm meetings—that is, when he chose to speak at all, which was not often. When JFK specifically solicited Johnson’s opinion on October 16, the first day of deliberations, the vice president expressed the view that the offensive elements of the Soviet buildup were intolerable for domestic political reasons. The administration simply had to remove the threat, by force if necessary, and regardless of whether America’s allies approved.
As the ExComm’s discussions turned to the crucial question of whether to impose a blockade or take more violent action, however, LBJ went missing in action, albeit through no fault of his own. The impending off-year election meant Johnson had been booked to make a long campaign swing. Because the administration did not want to signal Moscow that its missiles had been sighted in Cuba, it was decided to keep LBJ on the political hustings as if nothing were untoward.
On the evening of Sunday, October 21, when Johnson finally made it back to Washington, the president directed DCI McCone to brief the vice president on everything that had transpired, including the controversial decision to impose a blockade. Johnson initially expressed disagreement with the policy that had been developed in his absence. As McCone recorded in his memo of their conversation,
The thrust of the vice president’s thinking was that he favored an unannounced strike rather than the agreed plan which involved blockade . . . . He expressed displeasure at “telegraphing our punch” and also commented the blockade would be ineffective because we in effect are “locking the barn after the horse was gone.”
But McCone had also briefed Dwight Eisenhower that morning, and when the DCI informed Johnson that the former president opposed a surprise attack, and was willing to accept the military handicap that came with imposition of a blockade, Johnson reluctantly changed his position to favor the quarantine. Few people exercised as much influence on Johnson’s judgment as Eisenhower did when it came to matters of national security.
Once the crisis became public on October 22, Johnson attended every ExComm session thereafter, though his return hardly seemed to matter. Johnson may have been sticking to his “general policy of never speaking unless the president asked [him],” and behaving as he thought a vice president should—which was to agree in public with whatever the president decided, or at least mimic his leanings. Still, when JFK specifically asked Johnson for his opinion, LBJ chose to remain silent and withdrawn. Befitting his shrunken status, and discomfort with all the “Harvards” in JFK’s inner circle, LBJ repeatedly declined to offer a strong opinion during several meetings, particularly when the president was in attendance. As one ExComm participant later noted, “I attended two of those ExComm meetings when Johnson was there, and, to tell you the truth, I can’t even remember what he said, or if he spoke at all.”
Johnson only began to assert himself during the critical ExComm meeting on Saturday, October 27, which began at 4 PM and lasted for more than three hours. Just after the ExComm heard the unsettling news that a U-2 had been downed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, Johnson insinuated that unless there was a firm response, the public would soon perceive the administration as backing away from the strong position enunciated in President Kennedy’s October 22 speech to the nation. (This observation instantly evoked a testy response from Johnson’s nemesis, Robert Kennedy). Moments later, however, Johnson gently chided those who immediately wanted to take out a SAM site in retaliation, calling them “war hawks.”
Overall, LBJ seemed to favor a negotiated solution to the crisis, though he also came down on both sides of the key issue of linkage. At one point he criticized Robert McNamara’s stiff opposition to a missile swap, arguing that the Jupiter missiles were “not worth a damn” anyway. Minutes later, LBJ likened an outright trade to appeasement, asserting that it would be tantamount to dismantling the containment edifice Washington had painstakingly built over the past 15 years.
There was every reason to believe, from the totality of what Johnson said, that he would have genuinely supported Kennedy’s gambit: to make the trade, so long as the Soviets agreed to keep it secret. But when the president convened a rump ExComm session on October 27, after the regular one broke up and just before RFK’s evening meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Johnson was purposefully excluded from the trusted inner circle. Only those present were to know about the explicit assurance and “no one else.” Thus, Johnson was left unaware of the genuine settlement terms which were offered that Saturday night, and hastily accepted by Nikita Khrushchev the next day.
At the time, of course, keeping Johnson at arm’s length was a trifling consideration, one that mostly reflected the White House’s lack of esteem and trust in LBJ. Perhaps it was feared that because Johnson was still very close to Richard B. Russell, his Senate mentor, he might be incapable of “disinforming” the Georgian, who was highly critical of the administration’s handling of Castro’s Cuba. The notion that Johnson would have to contend with the legacy of the missile crisis appeared very unlikely, for LBJ seemed like a relic from a by-gone political age. Johnson himself was practically the only person who believed he might be a viable candidate for the 1968 Democratic nomination. In two months’ time, when The Saturday Evening Post would publish an “exclusive” account of the missile crisis—one that was widely (and correctly) viewed as the administration’s preferred version—LBJ would not be mentioned in the article at all, the only regular member of the ExComm to be so slighted. He had ceased being a person it was important to notice.
In little more than a year, though, LBJ became the first president forced to grapple with JFK’s storied handling of the missile crisis. Because of the ostensibly authoritative Saturday Evening Post article published in December 1962, the crisis had become quickly encrusted with legend and lore, an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation with Moscow that abruptly ended when Khrushchev blinked. According to this Hollywoodized version, Kennedy’s resoluteness, restraint, and controlled escalation of force prompted Moscow to capitulate, and no one demonstrated more wisdom and foresight (aside from the president) than Robert F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, the standard-bearer of liberal Democrats, Adlai Stevenson, was depicted as an appeaser, and Lyndon Johnson, of course, was nowhere to be found. This vigorously propagated image, of “wonderfully coordinated and error-free ‘crisis management,’” was generally swallowed by the media. The president’s 1963 assassination subsequently added the luster of martyrdom to the narrative, making it all the more difficult, if not almost blasphemous, to try to discern the truth.
Learning the Wrong Lessons
As Stanford Professor Barton Bernstein, a leading missile crisis scholar (and member of Washington Decoded’s editorial board), was the first to point out in 1992, the myth of the missile crisis settlement created an enormous burden of expectation for Lyndon Johnson, one that could never be actually met.
What influence, analysts may profitably speculate, did the widespread belief in Kennedy’s great victory in the missile crisis play as President Johnson struggled on, even against the counsel of advisers, for his own triumph in Southeast Asia in 1966-1968? Might he have felt psychologically, and even politically, more free to change policy if he had known, along with his fellow Americans, the truth of the October 1962 secret settlement?
This burden, it must be pointed out, was also one that Johnson was peculiarly—almost uniquely—ill-suited to shoulder, given his deep-seated insecurity and the barely concealed attitude of many Kennedy loyalists, most notably the attorney general. Their view was that Johnson was an undeserving successor, even a usurper, who occupied the White House temporarily, and only because of a terrible accident.
Of course, as he succeeded Kennedy in office, Johnson knew that several elements of Kennedy’s “finest hour” were sheer puffery, if not downright wrong. Having participated in the ExComm meetings, LBJ well knew (as the Kennedy tape recordings underscore) that the deliberations had not been coolly analytical, closely argued, and rational at all times, but rather, “desultory, spastic, and often inchoate,” in Bernstein’s words. LBJ also recognized, undoubtedly, that Adlai Stevenson had been unfairly and maliciously depicted as advocating a “Munich,” when his only sin was that he had dared to be the first adviser to suggest a missile swap. Johnson, lastly, was also cognizant of Operation MONGOOSE, and surely realized the instrumental role that provocative covert action had played in precipitating the crisis. (Under Johnson, in fact, CIA-led efforts to subvert Castro would be all but terminated even as Castro’s efforts to subvert other countries in the hemisphere were ratcheted up).
Yet unbeknownst to Johnson, other elements that he believed were true were, in fact, false. The most critical fact about the missile crisis settlement—the reality that Kennedy had claimed toughness, but cut a private deal—was not beyond Johnson’s ken, because such deal-making was hardly foreign to him. Still, he did not know such subterfuge had been employed here. Instead, LBJ labored under the false impression that American power, when expertly applied, could force a Communist leader bent on “nuclear blackmail” to back down and become pragmatic.
What made this false narrative doubly crippling for Johnson were some of his own tendencies. LBJ was an overbearing, controlling personality in the first place, prone to micro-managing a war if he had the misfortune of getting involved in one. The ExComm experience, even though LBJ knew it had not been seamless, probably encouraged President Johnson’s worst instincts (and here, he was undoubtedly aided by McNamara’s technocratic bent). The fact that Johnson kept intact the national security team assembled by Kennedy, so as to prove continuity with JFK’s policies, also exacerbated matters. It has long been known that Johnson was unduly awed by Kennedy’s brainy advisers. LBJ’s unspoken presumption was that the same men who were at Kennedy’s side in October 1962 would surely see Johnson through to a similar, unmitigated victory, regardless of the differences. And if they could not, conversely, that suggested something LBJ did not want to countenance: that the only real difference was in the president who led this assemblage of the best and the brightest. In a similar vein, Johnson may have been too reluctant to buck the counsel of the holdovers even when his gut instinct told him to do so. After all, these were the same men who had guided Kennedy to his spectacular victory.
Of course, had Johnson had a more accurate understanding of the missile crisis’ true history, he still would have had to contend with the false analogies and “lessons” that were rife in public. The explicit and implicit comparisons with his predecessor’s success in Cuba began with the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in the late summer of 1964, and grew in intensity as Vietnam began to overshadow everything else. The inevitable juxtaposition was seldom put as crudely, however, as it was in December 1964. With the situation in Vietnam rapidly deteriorating following President Ngo Dinh Diem’s violent ouster, Washington Post columnist Joseph Alsop, a leading hawk, directly raised the missile crisis analogy. For Lyndon B. Johnson, Alsop wrote,
Vietnam is what the second Cuban crisis was for John F. Kennedy. If Mr. Johnson ducks the challenge, we shall learn by experience about what [it] would have been like if Kennedy had ducked the challenge in October, 1962.
Alsop’s remark sparked outrage in Johnson, whereas if he had been privy to the truth, the column might have been received with a shrug, or a caustic remark about Alsop’s ignorance.
In February 1965, when LBJ stood at the first crossroads with respect to Vietnam—whether to send in ground forces or not—at least one aide, Bill Moyers, suggested to the president that he reconstitute ExComm, or something very much like it. Probably no realization about the missile crisis would have been sufficient, at this juncture, to overcome Johnson’s sense that like all Cold War presidents, his mettle and resolve were being tested by the Communist powers. Occasionally, Johnson articulated his reluctance to commit U.S. troops to a Southeast Asian sinkhole. But he knew what happened to presidents when a country was “lost” to communism—indeed, he feared the person leading the charge against him would be Robert Kennedy, claiming that LBJ had “betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam.” Moreover, because of the way Washington had connived in Diem’s overthrow in November 1963, a decision with which Vice President Johnson had vehemently disagreed, LBJ apparently felt a deep obligation to re-stabilize South Vietnam.
Yet by early 1966, once it was apparent that U.S. power was not having the desired affect, accurate knowledge of the missile crisis end-game might have persuaded Johnson to be more ruthless or cynical in his efforts to achieve a face-saving settlement. The literature on Johnson’s peace feelers suggests that he was not really prepared to concede South Vietnam after a decent interval, unlike his successor in the White House—or as LBJ’s predecessor might have done, had he lived to deal with the consequences of his policy.