October 3, 1960 -one of the most fateful days in the lives of Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy defeated Johnson's bid for the Democratic nomination and went on to run for the presidency. Johnson received the consolation prize and was Kennedy's running mate in the bid to take the White House. The odd collusion produced the winning ticket as Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States and Lyndon Johnson his Vice President.
Lyndon Johnson didn't leave any memoirs about the stressful relationship he shared with Kennedy while he was Vice President. Kennedy planned to write his when he retired... Regardless, the secrecy and deceit that Johnson and cohorts maintained and promoted in the deliberate effort to mask the truth betrayed the inevitable tension produced by two personalities as different as Johnson and Kennedy. Ted Sorensen, White House adviser and Special Council to the President (1961-64) aptly described the stark contrast in the following terms: "It is hard to imagine a man more different from Kennedy than Lyndon Johnson. His success in the ways of Capitol Hill had made him cunning where JFK was candid, secretive instead of open, preferring the process of manoeuvre to the substance of decision."1 As Kennedy's term progressed, he "grew more and more concerned about what would happen if LBJ ever became President."2
It is therefore not surprising that Kennedy and Johnson drifted further and further apart as the Kennedy administration progressed. In particular, Johnson retreated behind a wall of silence while Kennedy became more and more convinced that secrecy discouraged freedom, damaged credibility and challenged democratic ideals. Seeking to apply the belief that freedom and peace demanded accommodation rather than confrontation, Kennedy began to forge a foreign policy that challenged the impending lunacy of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of paranoid zealots, the openness that Kennedy encouraged was lunacy and it was violently opposed. The Cold War had defined an unchallengeable course of action that was aggressively maintained by destroying anybody who opposed it.
At the start of his Administration, Kennedy rode the ideological Cold War tide and blindly approved what has been often branded the ill-timed and ill-planned invasion of Cuba. In actual fact, the hopeless plan to launch a successful invasion through a band of Cuban revolutionary exiles, was neither ill-fated, nor ill-planned, it was a grotesque miscalculation. Zealots within Kennedy's administration had sought to coax the President into declaring an all-out military assault on Cuba and had deliberately lied to President Kennedy who had made it clear that the Bay of Pigs operation "must be carried through without any combat action by the USA military forces".
Kennedy rejected the ploy to be drawn into a war against Cuba. In fact, CIA Director Allan Dulles conceded the manipulative effort to commit Kennedy to war over Cuba when he said:
We felt that when the chips were down -when the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail.3
Thankfully, the plan to provoke a Cuban invasion failed because that would have led to nuclear war with Russia. Kennedy refused to let the "enterprise" dictate policy and Allan Dulles was promptly fired. And so, while the President accepted responsibility for the botched invasion plan, historians have neglected to adequately credit Kennedy for derailing a nuclear war.
Ironically, the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, the most often cited embarrassment of the Kennedy administration, is often used to promote the claim that Kennedy was a reckless Cold Warrior, when in fact, he was assassinated because he refused to accept the mindless commitment of American combat troops in Vietnam.
Kennedy despised the secrecy and the deception of Cold War politics and challenged all extreme points of view. Those who dismiss the sharp contrast between the openness that Kennedy sought to promote and the secretive deceptions that Johnson routinely practised, misrepresent history.
Unlike Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was a defiant character who resented every authority except his own, and the manipulative, artful dodger routinely masterminded schemes in total secrecy in order to pre-empt thoughtful opposition. The behind-the-scenes operator who pulled strings to consolidate power was clearly anything but a conciliatory negotiator of the Kennedy substance and style. Even as a young man, Johnson mirrored the character traits that guided his political career in Washington. The hunger for power, the extreme defiance and the drive to use and manipulate everyone around him were lifelong traits which dictated the phenomenal achievements as well as the phenomenal blunders of Lyndon Johnson.
The dominant will of Lyndon Johnson was always a triumphant force. When he graduated from high school, he defiantly rejected a parental life-long wish to have a son attend college and traded the opportunity to receive an education for a year of odd jobs -he picked fruit, washed dishes, waited on tables and worked on a road gang driving bulldozers. In the end, it was the toil of paving heat-drenched Texas county highways for a dollar a day, that prompted Lyndon Johnson to attend San Marcos College in 1927.
At San Marcos, campus politics were exclusively controlled by an "in crowd" of athletes known as the Black Stars. Johnson tried to join the Black Stars but he was rejected. Widely known as "the biggest liar on campus" and having earned the nick-name "Bullshit Johnson", the future President was not exactly in a position to open doors on the strength of his credibility.
Nevertheless, Johnson came to dominate the political climate at San Marcos and he cultivated the opportunity through a rival, political group, the White Stars. When they were formed, Johnson promptly set his sights on the effort to join the new, less popular organization, but like the Black Stars, the White Stars also rejected "O1 Bull."
Following rejection, Johnson befriended three quiet country boys who thought that he was entertaining, and after repeatedly submitting his name for nomination, the White Stars finally granted him membership. Members began to feel sorry for him, and according to the co-founder; "What difference did it make? I mean the White Stars weren't supposed to be any big deal." To most, the White Stars were just another opportunity to meet girls. But to Lyndon Johnson, the secretive organization was a vehicle which satisfied his drive for power. Indeed before long, Johnson singlehandedly turned the otherwise obscure organization, the White Stars, into the dominant political force on campus. The success of White Star political candidates was essentially due to the determination and the tireless campaigning of Lyndon Johnson, whose "greatest forte was to look a man in the eye and do a convincing job of selling him his viewpoint. In one-on-one salesmanship, Lyndon was the best."
When political tact and aggressive campaigning was not enough, Johnson created elaborate plots to defeat meritorious political rivals like Medie Kyle, "a voracious reader, and a brilliant student who received in reality the A's that Johnson only said he received..."
Legitimate tactics did not survive behind-the-scenes manipulations that targeted and destroyed Johnson's political opponents. When fellow student Medie Kyle threatened Johnson's political aspirations, Johnson simply created a regulation that disqualified Kyle's candidacy, and he had worked behind Kyle's back so secretively that his involvement was not even suspected. Indeed Johnson cheerfully greeted him on campus and sustained the impression that he and Kyle were the best of friends, concealing the fact that he was responsible for disqualifying his candidacy. As long as the fact that Lyndon Johnson had deliberately disqualified a worthy political opponent was not publicly promoted, it did not appear to matter. The only real concern was Johnson's well developed ability to maintain secrecy -the factor which was absolutely instrumental to his capacity to develop political influence. Obsessive and secretive to the point where even some of his close allies did not always know what he was doing, Lyndon Johnson was ultimately a master of leak-proof conspiracies, and by the time he graduated from college he had snatched all political power away from the best-qualified candidates and had created a political clique which was entirely under his control.4
Under the directorship of Lyndon Johnson, White Star candidates won election after election, and despite repeated victories, even the fact that there existed a political organization called the White Stars was not known outside the group. Indeed, White Star membership was so secretive that: "No three White Stars could ever be seen talking together on campus, for example; should three find themselves together, meaningful glances would indicate which one should leave. White Star meetings, previously held down at the creek or in members' rooms in their boardinghouses, were now, at Johnson's suggestion, moved to the two-story Hofheinz Hotel, where, Johnson pointed out, no passerby could peep through the windows."5 The phenomenal secrecy and deception was so absolute that it was "constitutionally" maintained through ingenious laws which provided members the ability to lie with a straight face. The by-law that provided Johnson's White Stars the capacity to lie with a straight face stated that "immediately upon being asked if he is a member of the [White Stars] group, the member is -upon the very asking of the question -automatically expelled, so that he can answer 'No', -he will be readmitted at the next meeting."6
Schooled in secrecy and deception and consumed by a ruthless drive to dominate political affairs, the unchallengeable will of Lyndon Johnson invariably triumphed. Robert A. Caro, Johnson's biographer, aptly exposes the dangerous scope of Johnson's obsession to exercise power when he indicates that it was "so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself -or to anyone else -could stand before it." Johnson's peers certainly substantiate Caro's indictment. According to the observations of those who knew him best, "Lyndon was always the string-puller behind the scenes. He found those he could use, and used them, and those he couldn't, he worked behind the scenes to put them down." 7 Peer-assessment verdicts were practically unanimous in the assertion that Johnson was "the type of character who was snaky all the time. He got power by things you or I wouldn't stoop to".8 In retrospect, even the violent allusion that Lyndon Johnson was the type of person who would "cut your throat to get what he wanted", does not appear to be an exaggeration.9 Johnson's capacity to be cruel and vulgar is too well documented to ignore, and the most striking thing about the negative assessments is that Lyndon Johnson himself evidently endorsed the violent spirit they promoted. In 1970, two years after leaving the White House, Johnson returned to San Marcos where he and four of his former professors reminisced. Johnson's particular reflection concerned the San Marcos political exploits that he had orchestrated and according to the former President of the United States: "It was my first real big dictat -Hitlerized operation, and I broke their back good. And it stayed broke for a good long time."10 Had a tape recorder not been running to inadvertently record the fact that San Marcos politicking was merely the first of a series of "big dictats", one would be more inclined to underestimate the profound ruthlessness that Johnson and his thirst to exercise power was capable of. But in the light of his propensity to operate on the level of what he called a "big dictat" or a "Hitlerized operation," it is simply ignorant to dispute the horrific, unavoidable consequences of the Johnsonian method of operation. In his own words, Johnson's first "big dictat" was a "pretty vicious operation for a while. They lost everything I could have them lose."11 The recording obviously reflected a rare slip of Johnson's disciplined tongue, but the message is very loud and clear -Johnson's determination to exercise power was so absolutely relentless that he never allowed normal democratic restraints to get in the way of his will. Moreover, the rare, candid portrait of Lyndon Johnson cannot be dismissed as the mere rumblings of jealous or ignorant political rivals because it is his own words which describe his capacity to be ruthless, cruel, dictatorial and brutal. While it is difficult to make sense out of his political career because Johnson always imposed an obsessive degree of secrecy, the nature of the manipulations he engaged were so glaringly bold and obvious that they establish a definite, identifiable pattern, -Johnson always engaged schemes which satisfied his obsessive need to dominate. In college, Johnson secretively targeted deserving candidates like Medie Kyle. In Washington, it was the Kennedys who stood between him and his political ambitions and in 1964, when Robert Kennedy refused to withdraw his candidacy for the vice presidency, an impromptu regulation effectively disqualified every cabinet member. By excluding all cabinet members from consideration for the vice presidency, Johnson effectively got rid of Kennedy and blunted criticism (through plausible denial) of the fact that the only target of his sweeping announcement was Robert Kennedy. To be sure, a presidential candidate has every right to choose his own running mate, but the paranoia and insecurity reflected by the obsession to manipulative the entire process in order to target a single individual, reflects Johnson's capacity and propensity to abuse rather than to exercise power.
It is not possible to understand the substance behind the power that Johnson exercised unless one carefully examines his common propensity to deceive. Even in college, Johnson essentially operated on the level of a covert, intelligence operative, and in the absence of a careful analysis which acknowledges orchestrated deceptions, Johnson's entire life does not even make sense. How, for example, does one explain the fact that Johnson was, at once, the most detested individual, as well as the most influential political force at San Marcos? In retrospect, the answer is clear. Lyndon Johnson was a master propagandist and manipulator who imposed a level of secrecy which was so absolute that he was able to use the framework of a political democracy to execute what he termed his "Hitlerized operations". In the end, he demonstrated the extraordinary capacity to promote the exact opposite of what an open democracy like the United States publicly tolerates. Unlike Kennedy who valued the spirit of Jeffersonian democracy; the idea of equality, freedom, and most of all, the conviction that the people's control over the government was supreme, Johnson valued the triumph of the "big dictat". Politically, Johnson survived because he enlisted "all his energy and all his cunning in a lifelong attempt to obscure not only the true facts of his rise to power and his use of power but even of his youth, he succeeded well."12
Johnson carried his obsessive commitment to secrecy to Washington, where the huge credibility gap between his public declarations and his private dealings are also glaringly obvious. Under the scope of analysis, the very same "Bullshit Johnson" as he was called during his college days, actually occupied the White House. It is certainly impossible to determine anything substantive from the public posturing of Lyndon Johnson. The man was such a deliberate fraud artist that a public gesture or comment was frequently nothing more than a calculated ploy to deceive or to further the interest of his "big dictats". When, for example, Johnson publicly promoted the impression that the relationship between himself and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was strictly formal and professional, he masked the fact that the alliance between Hoover and Johnson was so close that Johnson in fact relied upon J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover and Johnson were longtime Washington neighbours, close personal friends, and criminal co-conspirators who evaded criminal prosecution through the capacity to impose secrecy and to abuse power. When Johnson left the White House, he told Nixon that Hoover was the only person that he could entirely trust and rely upon, and he was certainly not referring to the official duties of the Director of the FBI. Johnson used Hoover for such unofficial tasks as spying on his enemies and upon those who opposed the Vietnam war, and the covert relationship between Hoover and Johnson had all the earmarks of the "police state" environment that they created, developed and sustained.
Johnson predictably cultivated the impression that a close alliance between him and Hoover did not exist. At the same time, Washington insiders were clearly aware of the fact that not a day went by without a direct communication from Johnson to Hoover's FBI. Like the secret relationship between Johnson and the White Stars that dominated political activity at San Marcos but were unknown outside the group, the close working relationship between Johnson and Hoover was not publicly betrayed. Indeed, Johnson's book Vantage Point does not even acknowledge Hoover, aside from two very brief mentions that reflects the formal relationship between the Director of the FBI and the President of the United States. Despite the excessive secrecy, the covert relationship between Johnson and Hoover was very close and substantial enough to occupy several unwritten manuscripts.
As Senate Majority Leader in 1954, nobody manoeuvred bills through the Senate more efficiently than Lyndon Johnson. An expert at promoting consensus through a barrage of dictatorial gimmicks that discouraged debate, Johnson operated on the assumption that his will was divine and he was the King. Dissent disturbed Johnson's sense of control and the slightest strife or criticism was fiercely challenged until the "threat" was contained. He always demanded consensus and if deliberation or debate did not always secure it, political ploy did. One of the tactics that Johnson had mastered was his tendency to get Senators to agree to a bill before taking a vote. Such "unanimous consent agreements", as they were called, sustained the comfort level of a man who was evidently so pathologically obsessed with the need to forge consensus that he characteristically nipped dissent in the bud. As Johnson came to expect "unanimous consent agreements", he became increasingly intolerant towards any Senator who defied his will and he literally forged (as in forgery) unanimous consent agreements without even bothering to solicit prior consent.13 The occasional Senator who opposed what was essentially a phoney unanimous consent agreement was more apt to go along with anything that Johnson recommended rather than to develop the necessary will to defy the relentless convictions and expectations of Lyndon Johnson. Faced with opposition, Johnson simply isolated and bombarded each and every dissenter with an angry soliloquy that made the non-conformists feel downright treasonous and more often than not, unanimous consent agreements, forged or otherwise, were ultimately endorsed.
Johnson was the sort of politician who mounted an assault upon democratic ideals through tactics which essentially confused the difference between the exercise and the abuse of power. Johnson created a political climate where debates grew shorter and less important, and particularly divisive issues demanded greater tact, not greater thought or more debate. The intimidating tactics that Johnson deployed were deliberate, political manoeuvres that perverted the democratic process. Indeed, the dictatorial Johnsonian assault refused to wane until every single remnant of opposition was successfully obliterated. Armed with an impressive barrage of "back breaking" ploys that discouraged thoughtful debate, Johnson routinely exploited his unrivalled capacity to manage consensus. In The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Path to Power, Robert A. Caro describes how Johnson manipulated the Senate through late night sessions or periods of lull, followed by a frenetic burst of activity, and through an entire arsenal of manipulative tactics that successfully made the men that Johnson sought to influence more pliable and easier to exploit. Even the simple fact that a tired Senator was far more willing to go along with his suggestions at midnight than in the day when issues were normally debated, was a staple part of the Johnsonian "dissent control" arsenal.
Johnson's phenomenal capacity to manipulate made him a commanding Senate Majority Leader, but when he became Kennedy's Vice President, he was relatively powerless and quickly resigned himself to the realization that he would never be able to exercise a satisfying degree of control as long as Kennedy was the President. The vice presidency is an office that does not normally carry a great deal of power, and Johnson, as his role dictated, had to rely entirely on the confidence and discretion of President Kennedy. Before accepting the post, Johnson entertained the hope that, in his own words, "power is where power goes", but the reality was far less attractive and far more confining. Nothing tormented Johnson more than the realization that he was merely a puppet on a string as long as Kennedy was alive. As a matter of fact, Johnson detested his "powerless" stint as the Vice President so profoundly, that in 1968, despite a multitude of problems and disappointments, the most painful episode that the forlorn and dejected Johnson could recall was his service as Vice President. According to Johnson: "No one knows what it is to be President until he is, and no one knows what it is to be Vice President, thank God, until he is. Everyone wants to talk to the President, get his quotes, but you sit there like a bump on a log, trying not to get in the way. You have no authority, no power, no decisions to make, but you have to abide by the decisions another man makes. If your independent, you're disloyal, and if not, you're a stooge or a puppet."14 Remarkably, the President who had needlessly sent 30,000 boys to their graves in Vietnam, was more troubled by the thought of being Kennedy's Vice President than he was about the irresponsible, dictatorial tactics that had sucked America to war in Southeast Asia and had created the biggest foreign policy fiasco in the history of American politics. As long as Johnson exercised power, regardless of the consequences, Johnson was evidently at ease. When he was not in command he was overwhelmed by unbearable turmoil. Power, is obviously what Johnson craved more than anything in the world, and when he didn't publicly command power, it was his nature to seek secret means to advance his will. The delusions of a President who is more disturbed by his political impotence than by the futile sacrifice of 30,000 American lives, reflect the fact that Johnson was ready willing and anxious to sacrifice anyone who stood in the way of his obsession to win the Vietnam war. Johnson angrily defended the unyielding stubbornness which produced the Vietnam fiasco, and in the words of the former, embattled President: "Whatever power I've had, I've used it. I've used it for good. I've tried to use it for human beings."15 Despite all his good intentions however, dictatorial habits patterned after the ignorant campaigns of a propagandist like Adolf Hitler, are more apt to produce consequences which are absolutely repulsive and indefensible.
By the time Johnson became President, he had practically made an exact science out of the politics of propaganda and control. Obsessed by the drive to control the news through press leaks rather than through objective reporting, one of Johnson's first White House tasks was to relentlessly court the press and to make it clear that the success or failure of a reporter was directly linked to the news items that he, President Lyndon Johnson, had the power to make available. Johnson promised to make journalists who covered his Presidency the "best-informed reporters in Washington."16 The attempt to transform the press into his own private army of propagandists was indeed blatant and crude. According to the President: "There's no reason why the members of the White House press corps shouldn't be the best-informed, most-respected, highest-paid reporters in Washington. If you help me, I'll help you. I'll make you all big men in your profession."17
A master at making offers that were difficult to resist, the press often swallowed the bait that Johnson delivered. The disarming Johnson treatment was indeed honed to perfection. Deluded by his good intentions, Johnson vowed to be candid, and wooed the press through the one-on-one salesmanship trademark that saw Johnson lean forward as he spoke in an earnest, accommodating, soft drawl: "You'll know everything I do", Johnson promised. "You'll be as well informed as any member of the Cabinet. There won't be any secrets except where the national security is involved. You'll be able to write everything. Of course".18 Using the so-called national security-motivated justification to excuse every fraud, every manipulation, and every crime, Johnson violated every single democratic principle that the Constitution of the United States is supposed to protect. And in the final analysis, the only security that Johnson protected was his own. In the process, he violated the hopes, the dreams and the very lives of American citizens who did not support the secretive, national security-motivated agenda that dictated the predictable, criminal course of action that Johnson obsessively pursued. If one of the functions of the press is to expose crime and corruption, Lyndon Johnson certainly made a mockery out of that responsibility.
It is difficult to imagine a more relentless, manipulative one-man courtship of the press than the one that Johnson unleashed. Armed with a tailor-made strategy to turn the press corps into an army of official propagandists, Johnson vigorously courted reporters in effort to control the "truth" about his administration. The single-minded obsession to control negative publicity produced a blatant, comprehensive campaign to curry favour from the media. Like their male counterparts, female reporters were vigorously pursued and lavishly flattered by a President who handed out news items like candy is handed out to children at a party. Johnson's message to the female gender: "You're as good as the men reporters, maybe better, and I want your bosses to know it".19 Johnson's obsession to feed the press in order to pre-empt bad publicity was rooted in the formative understanding that he could not have possibly survived the scrutiny of an objective press. When he was in college, an editorial satirizing Lyndon Johnson was typeset and ready to roll until Johnson successfully convinced the Dean to stop the presses, and any copies in print were promptly confiscated.20 In Washington, Johnson took his obsession to control the news a step further: He discouraged substantive, behind-the-scenes probes because he routinely doled out the "news" with customary remarks like: "Nobody has written it, you've got it".21 Johnson shamelessly exploited the power to "make" the news by manipulating the press and the "master string puller" essentially turned the press into his own private vehicle of propaganda. In his own words:
There's only one sure way of getting favourable stories from reporters and that is to keep their daily bread-the information, the stories, the plans, and the details they need for their work-in your hands, so that you can give it out when and to whom you want. Even then nothing's guaranteed, but at least you've got the chance to bargain.22
Like White House Correspondent Frank Cormier, most reporters were willing to give Johnson "the benefit of almost every doubt", but in the hands of Lyndon Johnson, the trust they extended unwittingly made them the propagandists that Johnson desperately needed to survive the truth. Clearly, if Johnson had significantly failed to turn reporters into "official mouthpieces", he would not have been able to boast the claim that those who were writing about his Administration had seen "only a fragment" of what took place.23 But if the press failed to uncover the truth about Lyndon Johnson, history records the deceptive manipulations behind the orchestrated "good press" and exposes the tragic, ugly truth about Lyndon Johnson and the self-proclaimed patriots who came to equate their so-called duty to save America with the need to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. By July of 1965, Johnson was riding high on his capacity to exploit a friendly press and boasted claims like: "I think that there are very few Presidents in the history of this country that have had more support of more publishers and more magazines than the present President". The very next day, on July 14, Johnson repeated the boast in the following terms. "The press helps me. The press is one of the best servants I have".24
In retrospect, the press failed to give credence to that "fragment of his administration" that Lyndon Johnson deliberately and obsessively covered up. A simple narration of the so-called official record reflects absolutely nothing beyond the deliberate, officially sanctioned fraud, confusion and disinformation that Johnson obsessively promoted to keep the truth as obscure as possible. In the final analysis, the genuine truth about the Administration of Lyndon Johnson lies in that "fragment" of history that was deliberately distorted to conceal the horrific facts that invariably lie behind every dictatorial foreign policy course, of the kind that Johnson directed. Clearly, when Lyndon Johnson manipulated the democratic process and ultimately dictated the course of American foreign policy, he created a climate of repression and terror. And in the context of the incredible abuse of power that Johnson practised, John F. Kennedy and every single conscript who died in Vietnam were ultimately victims of Lyndon Johnson's undeclared dictatorship. Deluded by the belief that the rigid foreign policy course of action that he and other ideologues prescribed was absolutely necessary to avert World War III, Johnson had defined a predictable scale of what he called acceptable horrors, and according to the narrow purview that motivated him, the assassination of Kennedy was a key essential element on the road to safeguard the national security of the United States. In particular, Kennedy was seeking a way out of the conflict in Southeast Asia, and as far as Johnson was concerned, that was a lunacy that the United States could simply not tolerate.
Everything about the relationship between Kennedy and Johnson was laced with resentment. Lyndon Johnson even harboured deep resentment over the fact that John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States because he believed that his qualifications were superior to those of the younger John F. Kennedy. To be sure, Johnson was too disciplined a politician to publicly expose the depth of his discontent when Kennedy was President, but the inherent rivalry is absolutely clear. As Vice President, Johnson did as little as possible to advance the legislation that the President struggled to pass through a congress which was less liberal and less progressive than Kennedy was. "At the President's weekly breakfasts for Democratic legislative leaders, Johnson was a sphinx. He seldom offered a suggestion. When asked directly by Kennedy for his opinion on a bill, he answered in monosyllables so low he could scarcely be heard. At meetings of the National Security Council, he often replied to Kennedy's invariable effort to draw him out by saying he didn't have enough information on the subject to contribute to anything".25
Imagine that! The power-hungry Lyndon Johnson refusing to exercise power? Johnson was obviously too disturbed and frustrated by the foreign policy direction that Kennedy was charting and he was certainly smart enough to understand that his divergent point of view did not carry much weight as long as he was not the President of the United States. If Johnson snubbed the opportunity to affect the foreign policy direction of the United States, he did so not because he was not extremely obsessive about the national security but because he was unbearably disturbed over the lack of his capacity to exercise what he viewed to be his duty. In particular, Johnson believed that Kennedy was a foreign policy amateur because he used his power and influence to challenge etched-in-stone assumptions.
The horrific implications behind his uncharacteristic, self-imposed muzzle as Kennedy's Vice President are ascertainable through an essay that Johnson published in 1958 in the University of Texas Quarterly. The essay describes what Lyndon Johnson called his well developed tenets or the inalienable beliefs that defined a fixed, unchallengeable course of American foreign policy. In the words of Johnson's inalienable tenets: "...I believe there is always a national answer to each national problem, and, believing this, I do not believe that there are necessarily two sides to every question".26 In particular, Johnson's tenets were a prescription for past, present and future foreign policy advocacy. As Johnson boldly asserted, "a vital government cannot accept stalemate in any area-foreign or domestic. It must seek the national interest solution, vigorously and courageously and confidently. These tenets are the tenets of my political philosophy. Some who equate personal philosophies with popular dogmas might inquire, endlessly, as to my 'position' on this issue or some other. Philosophies, as I conceive them at least, are not made of answers to issues, but of approaches more enduring and encompassing than that. By these approaches I have set down, I can seek and, I believe, find answers to the issues of 1958 or 1978, as they arise.27 Johnson's foreign policy tenets were specific to the point where they actually identified inappropriate responses and dictated a specific course of action. As Johnson's "decision-made" tenets proclaimed: "An international stalemate with Communism would, I believe, be the greatest waste of American resources and the resources of freedom, even though stalemate produced no war"·28
Johnson's tenets are like the keys that unlock his otherwise perplexing mind. Indeed, Johnson never wavered or abandoned what was essentially his own personal Declaration of Independence. In terms of the conflict in Laos, it is Johnson's tenets that ultimately defined the course he would have taken as President. The neutralized settlement that Kennedy secured violated Johnson's tenets and was therefore not acceptable. Johnson's tenets had determined that war was the only antidote to Communism and every reconciliatory gesture with the Communist world disturbed Lyndon Johnson who, as a matter of tenet, even opposed Kennedy's decision to sell wheat to the Soviet Union and even urged Kennedy to abandon diplomatic relations with the Soviets. And so, if Lyndon Johnson refused to be drawn into the decision-making process, it was not because he did not beg the opportunity to direct policy but because John F. Kennedy consistently contravened the inviolable tenets of Lyndon Johnson. Rigid, "decision-made" tenets defined the foreign policy course that Johnson wanted to help chart as the Vice President, and since Kennedy consistently denied him the opportunity to satisfy his prejudices, the unspoken turmoil between Kennedy and Johnson was certainly extreme enough to trigger a violent confrontation. In particular, Johnson's tenet-defined agenda demanded the vigorous prosecution of the Vietnam war and Kennedy's consistent refusal to commit American ground troops to the conflict, was deemed to be absolutely unacceptable. When Kennedy died, the immediate need to cover up the truth about the assassination tempered the zeal to publicly prosecute the war and Johnson immediately escalated the war through covert operations. By publicly adopting the Kennedy rhetoric about not sending American troops to fight in Southeast Asia and escalating the war in secret, Johnson successfully concealed his obsessive motive to murder Kennedy and promoted the impression that the rigid tenets that demanded the assassination of John F. Kennedy did not even exist. But they did exist, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the course of action which was immediately unleashed with the extraordinary pre-planned efficiency of a pre-meditated murderer as soon as Kennedy was assassinated, conclusively exposes the fact of Johnson's direct involvement in the Kennedy assassination.
Johnson's tenets de-mystify all the controversy that surrounds his Administration. Clearly, the pre-planned deception and efficiency of a man who was simply motivated by rigid tenets de-mystifies the contradiction between the secret and the public agenda that Johnson simultaneously pursued. Dominated by the twin obsession to cover up the truth about the Kennedy assassination and to win the Vietnam war, Johnson in fact lived a contradiction -he pretended to adopt the very same agenda [to keep American ground troops out of Vietnam] which had in fact motivated the murder of John F. Kennedy. And so, while Johnson immediately declared his intention to win the Vietnam war and escalated the war effort in secret, he did not commit American ground troops to the conflict until 1965. In retrospect, the urgent need to cover up the truth about the Kennedy assassination forced Johnson to defer his absolute zeal to publicly prosecute the Vietnam war.
Everything that Lyndon Johnson believed in, hoped and lived for, was tied to rigid beliefs which plotted a specific course of action. In terms of the conflict in Vietnam, Johnson's tenets dictated the need to fight, to win the war, and to overcome all political opposition in the process. Hence, Kennedy's assassination was simply the product of the obsessive need to control any political rival who challenged Johnson's inviolable tenets. Elaborate deceptions and the zeal to cover up may have produced mystery, confusion and an official version of "truth", but the consistency of the deliberate muddle ultimately unmasks the fraud. In the mindless, dogmatic, "decision-made" words of Lyndon Johnson: "These tenets, I concede, are simple. They are certainly personal. For these are not tenets I have embraced or adopted but rather, beliefs I have-over 50 years-developed and come to follow from my own experience".29 If Johnson dismissed dire warnings about getting involved in a protracted land war in Southeast Asia and pursued what he called the "single national answer", it is because he blindly followed the dictum of his inviolable tenets. Tragically, that "single national answer" was not attainable when Kennedy was President because he consistently resisted warmongers, thwarted their manipulative efforts to provoke war and planned "unthinkables" like the withdrawal of all American military personnel from Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson absolutely despised the politics of those he called the "radical pull-out boys", and in retrospect, the assassination of the President who was essentially the "leader of the pack", is not at all surprising. Lyndon Johnson was always motivated by a plan of action that sought to satisfy his inviolable tenets, and the clear course of his relentless determination ultimately betrays the tragic, violent path he invariably pursued.
In the last analysis, it is not surprising that Washington could simply not accommodate both Kennedy, who practised a reasoned decision-making process and Johnson, who fiercely advocated the predictable, single-answer, decision-made tenet. Indeed, the personal bias that Johnson codified was so incompatible with any objective-minded decision making process, that Johnson was prescriptively inclined to do the exact opposite of what Kennedy proposed. Kennedy planned to withdraw from Vietnam and he had made it clear that every single American would be home by 1965. Johnson was so emotionally committed to the war in Vietnam that he was even willing to plot the assassination of Kennedy to get his way. When Johnson committed American combat troops to the war in Vietnam, he did exactly what Kennedy was absolutely determined to avoid. If Johnson publicly echoed Kennedy's commitment to avoid a land war in Southeast Asia, he did so not because he actually contemplated restraint but because he was absolutely obsessed by the need to disguise the motivation which had claimed the life of John F. Kennedy. Clearly, despite his public posturing, Lyndon Johnson was always obsessed by the perceived need and determination to win the Vietnam war. John F. Kennedy was not, and the media sensed the obvious contrast.
By the fall of 1963, the media began to report upon the radical political change that Kennedy was moving the government towards and Johnson could not very well publicly reverse the Kennedy record without attracting a whole lot of questions he did not want to deal with. Media reports like the "Out by 1965" article in the New Republic made it clear that Kennedy was re-defining the mindless, self-propelled, anti-Communist, action/reaction escalation policy of the past. According to the "Out by 1965" media report, which defined the obvious reversal of policy:
We detect a radical shift in policy. Or perhaps it is only that in the last few weeks the government of the United States -the whole government -has come to grips with the problem of Vietnam in all its awful complexity, made some firm judgments about what is and what is not possible and on the basis of those judgments has come forth with a long-range policy it expects all agencies of the government -State, Defense, USIA, and CIA -henceforth to support.
The media outlined Kennedy's commitment to disengagement from Southeast Asia by 1965, -and even more significantly, called the policy reversal a triumph of logic or common sense. Public disclosure of Kennedy's commitment to withdrawal essentially forced Lyndon Johnson to publicly defer his absolute commitment to win the Vietnam war and to pretend that he was just like Kennedy in his determination to avoid sending American boys to fight an Asian war. And so, despite his obsession and commitment to win the Vietnam war, Johnson rarely talked about the crisis in public until 1965 when he cloaked himself in the garb of a peacemaker and waged war in the name of self-defense. The fraud behind the promises that Johnson never intended to keep is absolutely transparent. In 1964, despite his absolute commitment to war-bearing tenets, Johnson campaigned on the Kennedy promise that he was not about to commit American boys to fight an Asian war. It was a promise that Kennedy evidently intended to keep and that Lyndon Johnson fiercely struggled to reverse. It may be fashionable to ignore Kennedy's intentions because he was murdered and denied the opportunity to fulfil them, but it is absolutely not possible to dispute the stark contrast between Kennedy, the objective-minded student of history and Lyndon Johnson, the obsessive, dictatorial propagandist who invariably charted a course of tyranny. It is not possible to ignore the fact that Johnson's delusions prompted him to do whatever was necessary in effort to win the Vietnam war while Kennedy's historical understanding prompted him to be extremely sceptical about the prospect of a militarily dictated solution to the problems in Southeast Asia. It is not possible to ignore the fact that Lyndon Johnson planned to win the Vietnam war while Kennedy planned a military withdrawal. It is not possible to ignore the fact that Johnson wanted in as badly as Kennedy wanted out.
Johnson's "transferable" tenets were timeless and unrestrained. If, for example, Lyndon Johnson had been the President of the United States in 1961, it is safe to assume that he would have gone to war over the political situation in Laos. Johnson's tenets provided no alternative beyond the rigid assertion that war was certainly preferable to the Laotian settlement that Kennedy managed to negotiate. Indeed, save for the fact that Kennedy was the president, the prospect of a war over Laos was essentially a "done deal". "I think you're going to have to send in the troops, and if you do, I will come up from Gettysburg and stand before you and support you," thundered Eisenhower, who advised Kennedy to go to war over Laos. On the eve of Kennedy's inauguration, the aging Chief briefed Kennedy about the need to militarily support the political administration in Laos because the tenuous CIA directed administration was threatened by indigenous efforts to create a coalition government. Right wing efforts to control the Laotians had aroused indigenous neutralists who sided with the Communists, and Eisenhower was gravely disturbed. In 1957, Eisenhower had met with Diem and had personally promised him continued American aid, and having called Vietnam an important Western bulwark against Communism, the aging Chief expected Kennedy to commit American combat troops to save Southeast Asia. Eisenhower also advised Kennedy to go through with the long-planned Bay of Pigs expedition. Kennedy followed up on the Bay of Pigs proposal to overthrow Castro, and the misadventure in Cuba further reinforced his disdain for the sort of mindless, ideologically-motivated military schemes that blindly dictated military escalation in Southeast Asia. The Laos settlement reflected Kennedy's genuine, firm commitment to keep American ground troops out of Southeast Asia and instead of abiding by the old Chief's wishes and sending in the marines, Kennedy made a deal with Khrushev and the neutrality of Laos was protected through a political settlement that saw native communists share authority with moderate neutralists. Having rejected the military advice of his own Joint Chiefs who advocated an American ground troop commitment in Laos, Kennedy sent the clear signal that it was his own independent analysis and judgment, not the military "establishment", that ultimately dictated the deployment of American combat troops. The Joint Chiefs exhausted their influence when they essentially conned Kennedy into endorsing the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion. Since then, an infuriated President Kennedy was convinced that the independent views he solicited were far more reliable than the advice of his own military experts. Indeed, non-military precedents like the Laos settlement were vigorously pursued, and non-military voices like those of Southeast Asian policy expert Michael Forrestal, were seriously acknowledged and never ignored as long as Kennedy was the President of the United States. And so, while Kennedy repeatedly turned down requests to commit combat troops in Southeast Asia and moved American foreign policy away from the hands of Cold War ideologues and into the lap of good judgment and common sense, he incurred the wrath of the ideologically inclined.
Cold War ideologues invariably panicked at the sight of a foreign policy reversal they could neither understand nor accept. Opposed by the commander-in-chief himself, they naturally drifted towards a contemplation of the only plausible solution which was necessary to re-establish the politics of the Cold War -the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With Kennedy out of the way, Lyndon Johnson, who opposed what he perceived to be Kennedy's "radical" views, would once again provide Cold War ideologues the opportunity to dominate American foreign policy. Every effort to coax Kennedy into waging war in Southeast Asia had failed and given the narrow scope of their single minded zeal, it was only a matter of time before they set upon the thought that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was absolutely vital to the realization of their plans. Cold War zealots craved Cold War leadership and Lyndon Johnson, who lived by tenets that refused to recognize neutrality, satisfied the aggressive demand to wage war. In particular, Johnson's emotional commitment to send American combat troops to war in Southeast Asia was certainly not subject to challenge. In 1961, when he returned from a trip to Vietnam, the normally sphinx-like Vice President broke his relative "I don't know enough to contribute" silence to suggest; "We should stop playing cops and robbers... and once again go about winning the (Vietnam) war".31 Johnson's fierce obsession to win the Vietnam war at any cost was so absolute that the mere suggestion of withdrawal as a viable option generated the angry response:
I will not let you take me backward in time on Vietnam. Fifty thousand boys are dead. Nothing we say can change that fact. Your idea that I could have chosen otherwise rests upon complete ignorance. For if I had chosen otherwise, I would have been responsible for starting World War III. In fact, it was the thought of World War III that kept me going every day".32
Having embraced the Cold War delusion that the consequence of the failure to combat Communism in Vietnam was as significant as the refusal to oppose Hitler, Johnson was determined to tolerate what he viewed to be the "lesser" tragedies. One "lesser" tragedy was the sacrifice of fifty thousand Americans soldiers. The other was the sacrifice of President Kennedy who, according to the paranoia that occupied Johnson's mind, threatened to trigger World War III. Johnson was indeed quite specific about his irrational fear. In his own words, "...do you know what it's like to feel responsible for the deaths of men you love? -well, all that horror was acceptable if it prevented the far worse horror of World War III. For that would have meant the end of everything we know."33
The contrast between Kennedy and fierce anti-Communist Cold War zealots was overwhelming. Kennedy was a conciliatory negotiator with a penetrating understanding of history, he was not a Nixon-style ideologue who suggested that historians were communists because they did not share his zeal. As a keen student of history, Kennedy drew strength from the ideals and the time-honoured wisdom of the past, not from the behind-the-scenes manipulations of covert, Cold War operatives. Even as early as 1957, Kennedy had criticized American involvement in Southeast Asia and had indicated that the commitment reflected a futile, unnecessary drain upon American resources. In the words of Senator John F. Kennedy, who addressed the Senate on July 2, 1957:
The United States and other Western allies poured money and material into Indochina in a hopeless attempt to save for the French a land that did not want to be saved, in a war in which the enemy was both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Guided by a genuine understanding of history and a natural aversion to mindless, ideological responses, Kennedy was not burdened by the prescriptive determination to wage war in Southeast Asia. Unlike Johnson, who believed that he could simply shape a historical verdict through manipulating the press, Kennedy observed and respected the judgment of history, he did not seek to pervert or control it through elaborate schemes. In retrospect, the collision determined by the contrasting views of Kennedy and Johnson is so predictable, that one could forecast either the assassination of Kennedy or the resignation of Lyndon Johnson -the survival of both was clearly not possible. In terms of the Vietnam war, Johnson was obsessed by the determination to achieve a military victory while Kennedy was determined to negotiate a political settlement. As Kennedy challenged national security-linked tenets, reactionary, Cold War ideologues predictably panicked over the prospect of failing to militarily challenge Communism. The panic ultimately translated into a violent clash over principle.
Kennedy and paranoid, Cold War zealots who exploited the fear of Communism were natural enemies. Indeed, instead of engaging the Cold War in a militarily provocative manner, Kennedy promoted the ideals that ideologues routinely sidetracked. Even as early as 1960, while still a senator, Kennedy defined his objective-minded, non-ideological views about the national security for an article that appeared in Life Magazine. His focus, unlike the rigid anti-Communist foreign policy "yardstick" that motivated Johnson, promoted the need to oppose all dogma and his target was not solely Communism, but anyone who sidetracked the spirit and the ideals of the American Constitution. In the words of the then Senator John F. Kennedy:
Our national purpose is resident, obviously, in the magnificent principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It also plainly appears in the writings of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, in the words of Jackson and Lincoln, in the works of Emerson and Whitman, in the opinions of Marshall and Holmes, in Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. In common, all of these pulse with a sense of idealistic aspiration, of the struggle for a more perfect Union, of the effort to built the good society as well as the good life here and in the rest of the world. There is, I think, still another way to describe our national purpose. This definition, while almost a literal one, is nevertheless not a narrow one. It is that our national purpose consists of the combined purposefulness of each of us when we are at our moral best: striving, risking choosing, making decisions, engaging in a pursuit of happiness that is strenuous, heroic, exciting and exalted. When we do so as individuals, we make a nation that in Jefferson's words, will always be "in the full tide of successful experiment." Such a definition, because it implies a constant, restless, confident questing, neither precludes nor outmodes, but rather complements, the expression of national purpose set forth in our Declaration, our Constitution, and in the words of our great Presidents, jurists and writers. The purpose they envisioned can, indeed, never be outmoded, because it has never been and can never be fully achieved. It will always be somewhere just out of reach, a challenge to further aspiring, struggling, striving and searching.34
Moreover, Kennedy prophetically said that "we will err tragically if we make competition with the Communists an end in itself", and Johnson ultimately proved the point when his anti-Communist paranoia seriously jeopardized the opportunity to promote what Kennedy had called the "series of ideals" which made the elimination of ignorance, prejudice and hate, and the attainment of peace and disarmament, the predominant values.35 The idealism that Kennedy promoted was scorned by Johnson, Rusk, Hoover and other like-minded ideologues who had declared war on Communism and who were essentially America's "Red Guard" -self-appointed, dictatorial, above the law patriots who routinely concealed the criminal conspiracies they engaged by maintaining secrecy in the name of the national security. Claiming the duty to preserve and protect the Constitution through whatever means necessary, super patriots like Hoover and Johnson were essentially unrestrained criminals who violated the law in the name of the "national security". Unlike the so-called great patriots who perverted American ideals through illegal, covert operations, Kennedy's basic outlook was open, inclusive, and international. Kennedy did not claim moral outrage or assume superiority over independent nations, he encouraged common sense ideals and ideas. In his own words: "It should be said at once that no nation has a corner on striving and aspiring any more than on virtue and compassion. Thus our national purpose finds echo in the minds of men of good intent everywhere."
1 Theodore Sorenson, The Kennedy Legacy, p.114.
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