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What Did LBJ Know About the Cuban Missile Crisis? And When Did He Know It?

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.

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.

 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 who were 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, and Treasury Secretary Dillon, a prominent Republican, because they had argued vigorously against such a deal. As for John McCone, another Republican, not even the fact that he was director of central intelligence (DCI) and energetically supported withdrawal of the obsolete Jupiters was sufficient to win him admittance into the inner circle.

Lastly, John Kennedy also decided to shut out Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat and the second-highest officeholder in the land. There was a tinge of irony in LBJ’s exclusion. Like any consummate politician, Johnson valued one quality—loyalty—above all else, and since he expected it, he gave it in return. Still, not even LBJ’s repeated demonstrations of fealty had been sufficient to overcome the Kennedys’ distrust, 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. During 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. 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. 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.

When Johnson finally made it back to Washington on October 21, the president directed DCI McCone to bring the vice president up to speed on the controversial decision to impose a blockade. Johnson initially expressed disagreement with the policy that had been developed. But McCone had also briefed Dwight Eisenhower that morning, and when the DCI informed Johnson that the former president opposed a surprise attack, and accepted the military handicap that came with imposition of a blockade, Johnson reluctantly changed his position.

Johnson attended every ExComm session thereafter, though his return hardly seemed to matter. Johnson only began to assert himself during the critical meeting on Saturday afternoon, October 27. 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.

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 the Soviet ambassador, Johnson was purposefully excluded from the trusted inner circle. Thus, LBJ was left unaware of the genuine settlement terms that were hastily accepted by Nikita Khrushchev the next day.

In little more than a year, LBJ became the first president forced to grapple with JFK’s storied handling of the face-off. Because of an 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 version, Kennedy’s resoluteness, restraint, and controlled escalation of force prompted Moscow to capitulate. 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, 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.

This burden 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, Johnson realized that several elements of Kennedy’s “finest hour” were sheer puffery, if not downright wrong. LBJ well knew that the ExComm deliberations had not been coolly analytical, closely argued, and rational at all times, but rather, “desultory, spastic, and often inchoate,” in Bernstein’s words. Johnson was also cognizant of Operation MONGOOSE, and surely realized the instrumental role that provocative covert action had played in precipitating the crisis.

Yet unbeknownst to Johnson, other elements that he believed were true were, in fact, false. The most critical fact about the 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.

In February 1965, when LBJ stood at the first crossroads with respect to Vietnam, probably no realization about the missile crisis would have been sufficient to overcome his 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 also knew what happened to presidents when a country was “lost” to communism. 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. 

By early 1966, however, 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. 

Being privy to the truth about the missile crisis settlement might not have altered materially Johnson’s decisions about Vietnam. 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. But more knowledge would have indisputably served him better than what he was allowed to know.

                                   ©2007 by Max Holland