Castro was dining with French journalist Jean Daniel when he learned of Kennedy’s assassination. Three times he exclaimed, “This is bad news!” the previous day he had told Daniel that Kennedy might prove to be the United States’ greatest president. Now everything had changed. He predicted, “You watch and see. I know them, they will try to put the blame on us for this thing.” Learning that news reports were labeling Oswald a “pro-Castro Marxist” heightened his concerns. He asked Daniel what Johnson thought of the Bay of Pigs and “What authority does he exercise over the CIA?”
When Khrushchev heard the news he broke down and cried. An embassy official told White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, “He just wandered around his office for several days, like he was in a daze.” He visited the U.S. embassy to sign the condolence book and sent Deputy Soviet Premier Anastas Mikoyan to personally represent him at the funeral. Trembling badly, Mikoyan approached Jacqueline Kennedy on the receiving line. Deeply moved, she took his hands in hers. There are two accounts of what she said. She remembered saying, “Please tell Mr. Chairman President that I know he and my husband worked together for a peaceful worked, and now you must carry on my husband’s work.” Dean Rusk reported hearing her say, “My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you.” Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev that though he and her husband were “adversaries,” they “were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up.”
Lyndon Johnson was worlds apart from his fallen predecessor in every imaginable way. He was born in Stonewall, Texas, in 1908; his parents were teachers. His father also served five terms in the Texas House of Representatives. After graduating from Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Lyndon worked his way up in Texas politics and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937 and the Senate in 1948. He thrived as Senate majority leader, where the “Johnson treatment” became the stuff of legends. Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak noted that it “could last ten minutes or four hours…whenever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. … It ran the gamut of human emotions. … Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken.” He was egotistical, overbearing, insecure, and extremely course, taking pleasure inviting associates into the bathroom so he conducted conversations while sitting on the toilet. Not a deep foreign policy thinker, he was a dedicated anti-Communist. He liked to say, “If you let a bully come in your front yard, he’ll be on your porch the next day and the day after that he’ll rape your wife in your own bed.”
Johnson wasted no time affirming that he was “not going to lose Vietnam.” Yet his real commitment was not to fighting faraway wars but to carrying out social reforms at home. “I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children…who helped to feed the hungry…who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.” Averell Harriman believed that if it hadn’t been for Vietnam, “he’d have been the greatest president ever.” Sadly, he never came close.
On his second day in office, Johnson assured his advisors of his resolve to aggressively defend U.S. interests in Vietnam. CIA Director John McCone immediately realized that Johnson was rejecting Kennedy’s “emphasis on social reforms [in Vietnam]; he has very little tolerance with our spending so much time being ‘do-gooder.’” Nor did Johnson support Kennedy’s plan to have troops out of Vietnam by 1965. Yet he initially had no intention of sending in U.S. combat troops or bombing North Vietnam in an election year. But the unpopular, repressive, and corrupt U.S.-backed government continued to lose more ground to the National Liberation Front.
Four days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273, signaling that the United States would be taking a more hands-on approach to Vietnam. Earlier drafts of NSAM 273 had clearly limited covert actions against the North to South Vietnamese forces. NSAM273 left the door open to covert action by U.S. forces as well.
From the start, Johnson made the fatal mistake of believing fanciful assessments of how well the war was going instead of sober accounts of the faltering military and political campaigns. When CIA Director McCone tried to warn Johnson that conditions in South Vietnam were much worse than Johnson realized, Johnson slammed the door in his face. McCone was no longer welcome in the Oval Office and was reduced to communicating via written reports that the president might or might not read.
Johnson initially questioned the importance of persevering in Vietnam. He confronted McGeorge Bundy in May 1964, asking, “What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” Johnson himself had offered one answer in a 1954 newsletter, telling constituents that “Indochina is a rich prize” with its tine and manganese deposits. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had a more capacious view: “He who holds or has influence in Vietnam can affect the future of the Philippines and Formosa to the east, and Malaysia and Indonesia with their rubber, ore, and tin to the south. Vietnam thus does not exist in a geographical vacuum – from it large storehouses of wealth and population can be influenced and undermined.” Arthur Tunnell of the Saigon office of Investors Overseas Service predicted, “After the war, there is going to be a big future for American businessmen here.” Charles Murphy wrote in Fortune, “Acre for acre the region in which Vietnam currently forms the dramatic foreground is as rich as any land on the face of the earth.” Senator Gale McGee described Southeast Asia as “the last major resource area outside the control of any of the major powers on the globe.” He admitted that “the conditions of the Vietnamese people” were “secondary.”
Johnson also feared the political consequences of losing the war. He had a recurring nightmare about what would happen if he vacillated or lost:
There would be Robert Kennedy…telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. … That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. … Every night when I fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting and running toward me: “Coward! Traitor! Weakling!”
Johnson endorsed McNamara’s strategy of graduated pressure on the North. The Joint Chiefs bristled under the constraints.
In August 1964, Johnson and McNamara used a fabricated incident in the Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse t escalate the war. McNamara and other administration officials testified that the alleged attacks on U.S. destroyers had been “deliberate and unprovoked.” The American press parroted that line.
Johnson still ran as the peace candidate in 1964, thoroughly thrashing the even more hawkish Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who threatened to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. During the campaign, Johnson assured voters, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” The public overwhelmingly agreed. In a January 1965 survey of eighty-three senators, only seven favored bombing the North or deploying combat troops to the South. Vice President Hubert Humphrey urged Johnson not to escalate the war. Johnson responded by freezing Humphrey out of subsequent policy-making sessions, excluding him from National Security Council meetings for a year despite the fact that the vice president was, by law, a member of the NSC.
Following the election, Johnson began a steady process of escalation. In December 1964, UN Secretary-General U Thant alerted Dean Rusk to Hanoi’s willingness to begin secret negotiations. But the United States ignored his entreaty, prompting Thant to declare in late February:
I am sure the great American people, if only they knew the true facts and background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary. And that the political and diplomatic methods of discussions and negotiations alone can create conditions which will enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world. As you know, in times of war and of hostilities, the first casualty is truth.
Johnson wasn’t interested in peaceful solutions. In March, he told George Bell that he would “get sick and leave town” before he listened to any more peace proposals from Thant and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Meanwhile, the United States sharply expanded the “free-fire zones,” in which anything that moved was considered a legitimate target. The U.S. arsenal of acceptable weapons included napalm, cluster bombs, and white phosphorus, which burned from the skin straight through to the bone, causing horrific and painful deaths.
That such tactics had failed to slow the NLF’s steady gains in the countryside was becoming more obvious by the day. Johnson, who had been resisting pressure to bomb the North, finally relented. But first the United States needed a pretext for escalation. It decided to manufacture one. The CIA did what it could to “prove” that North Vietnam was instigating the southern insurgency. Twenty-five-year CIA agent Ralph McGehee exposed the effort to mislead the public: “the agency took tons of Communist-made weapons out of its warehouses, loaded them on a Vietnamese coastal vessel, faked a firefight, and then called in Western reporters…to ‘prove’ North Vietnamese aid to the Viet Cong.” The State Department followed up with a white paper devoting seven pages of this phony “evidence.” On February 7, 1965, the NLF attacked a U.S. helicopter base Pleiku, killing eight and wounding a hundred U.S. troops. From Saigon, Bundy told Johnson and his advisors that Hanoi had “thrown down the gauntlet.” But Bundy admitted to David Halberstam that Pleiku was really no different from other episodes. “Pleikus are like streetcars,” as he put it.
Johnson initiated a new, and more brutal, phase of the war. He began Rolling Thunder, an ongoing bombing campaign against the North.
Despite the intensification of violence, U.S. prospects remained bleak. In early April, as McCone stepped down as head of the CIA, he told Johnson that the road he was heading down was one of pure folly: “We will find ourselves mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win, and from which we will have extreme difficulty extracting ourselves.”
But Johnson dismissed intelligence reports that didn’t conform to what he wanted to hear. He later commented, “Let me tell you about these intelligence guys. When I was growing up in Texas, we had a cow names Bessie. I’d get her in a stanchion, seat myself and squeeze out a pail of fresh milk. One day, I’d worked hard and gotten a full pail of milk, but I wasn’t paying attention and old Bessie swung here shit-smeared tail through that bucket of milk. Now, you know, that’s what these intelligence guys do. You work hard and get a good program or policy going, and they swing a shit-smeared tail through it.”
The Joint Chiefs continued to pressure Johnson for a very large troop commitment and an expanded bombing campaign. In April, Johnson sent another 40,000 troops, bringing the total to 75,000. He understood full well that once the United States committed to sending combat troops, the initial deployment would be just the tip of the iceberg. In June, he asked General Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, how many troops would be required to win. Wheeler replied, “If you intend to drive the last Vietcong out of Vietnam it will take seven hundred, eight hundred thousand, a million men and about seven years.”
McNamara began signaling Hanoi that the United States would even consider using nuclear weapons. An international uproar ensued, forcing McNamara to qualify his statements. Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko wasn’t satisfied. As he put it:
The American militarists do not preclude the possible use of nuclear weapons in South Viet-Nam. See the statement made today by Mr. McNamara…when he said that only in the present situation there is no military need for the use of nuclear weapons. This means that the United States means that situations may arise in Viet-Nam where provision had been made for resorting to these weapons of mass destruction. The United States has gone so far it its desire to stifle the National Liberation Movement that it is ready to threaten mankind with nuclear war.
He reminded delegates to the UN Disarmament Commission that this would not be the first time the United States had resorted to such measure: “The United States is not adverse to utilizing…nuclear warheads against the people of an Asian country as they have done once before, covering themselves with indelible shame for centuries to come.” He also condemned U.S. use of chemical warfare against the Viet Cong, warning that future generations would “shudder on remembering” this “crime, an act of lawlessness, a most cruel violation of the laws of international policy and trampling of elementary moral principles.”
In May 1965, a new government – the fifth since the overthrow of Diem a year and a half earlier – seized power, headed by Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and General Nguyen Van Thieu. Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy later commented that the new regime “seemed to all of us the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel.” Ky’s commitment to democratic ideal was tenuous, at best. He commented, “People ask me who my heroes are. I have only one: Hitler.” He displayed his understanding of democracy when commenting prior to the 1967 elections that if the person elected “is a Communist or he is a Neutralist, I am going to fight him militarily. In any democratic country you have the right to disagree with the views of others.” But even Ky admitted to the New York Times’ James Reston in 1965 that the Communists were “closer to the people’s yearning for social justice and an independent life,” as Reston put it, than his own government was. Former military advisor John Paul Vann, who had returned to work on the pacification program, concurred:
There is a revolution going on in this country – and the principles, goals, and desires of the other side are much closer to what Americans believe in than those of GVN. … I am convinced that, even though the NLF is Communist-dominated,…the great majority of the people supporting it are doing so because it is their only hope of change and improve their living conditions and opportunities. If I were a lad of eighteen faced with the same choice – whether to support the GVN or the NLF – and a member of a rural community, I would surely choose the NLF.
Faced with a crumbling political situation, Johnson and his advisors again decided to increase the number of troops. Meeting on July 22, they estimated long-term troop requirements at between 500,000 and 600,000, assuming the Chinese did not become involved. If the Chinese entered the conflict, an additional 300,000 would be required. In the short-run, they agreed, 100,000 would be needed by the end of the year and another 100,000 in January 1966, just to halt the slide and prevent defeat. They were relieved that the president would finally have to level with the American people about the country’s commitment to a major war. Johnson addressed the nation on July 28. He announced an immediate troop increase of 50,000, raising the total in the country to 125,000. Because an unspecified number of additional forces would be needed later, he was raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 to 35,000 per month, but he decided against calling up the reserves.
Congress applauded Johnson’s restraint, taking comfort in the moderate troop commitment. At the Pentagon, however, both civilians and military advisors were shocked by Johnson’s decision to deliberately mislead the American people about the reality of the situation in Vietnam and the commitment the United States was making to a major war destined to last for years. Joint Chiefs Chairman Wheeler later explained, “We felt that it would be desirable to have a reserve call-up in order to make sure that the people of the U.S. knew that we were in a war and not engaged at some two-penny military adventure.”
No one was angrier than Army Chief of Staff General Harold Johnson. Johnson put on his best dress uniform and set off to see the president. In the car ride over, he unpinned the stars from his shoulders. But before seeing the president he had a change of heart and pinned them back on – a decision he later regretted. He told on colleague, “I should have gone to see the president. I should have taken off my stars. I should have resigned. It was the worst, the most immoral decision I’ve ever made.”
From there on, troop deployments steadily escalated. Meanwhile, the NLF continued to make gains throughout the country.
Not everyone supported sending combat troops. Clark Clifford tried repeatedly to convince Johnson and McNamara not to commit more troops, a position shared, at least privately, by Hubert Humphrey, Chester Bowles, William Bundy, George Ball, John Kenneth Galbraith, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, NSC official Chester Cooper, White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Adam Yarmolinsky.
Johnson chose catastrophe over capitulation. But he did so gradually instead of all-out, as the Joint Chiefs wanted. Major Charles Cooper, an aide to Admiral David McDonald, the chief of naval operations, accompanied McDonald to a meeting of the Joint Chiefs in November 1965 at which General Wheeler expressed “serious misgivings” about the direction of the war and urged the use of “overwhelming naval and air power,” including mining Haiphong harbor, blockading the North Vietnamese coastline, and bombing the North, including Hanoi. The other chiefs assured Johnson that they endorsed Chairman Wheeler’s proposal. Cooper recalled Johnson’s response:
Johnson exploded. … He just started screaming these obscenities. … It was something like: “You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit – your ‘military wisdom.’” He insulted each of them individually. “You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III?” He called them shitheads and pompous assholes and the used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp. He really degraded them and cursed at them. Then he stopped and went back to a calm voice. … “Imagine that you’re me – that you’re the president of the United States – and five incompetents came into your office and try to talk you into starting World War II. … What would you do?” General Wheeler said: I can’t do it, Mr. President. … It’s got to be your decision and yours alone.” … Johnson erupted again. “The risk is just too high. How can you fucking assholes ignore what China might do? You have just contaminated my office, you filthy shitheads. Get the hell out of here right now.”
I know memories are usually dimmed by time,” Cooper assured his interviewer, “but not this one. My memory of Lyndon Johnson on that day is crystal clear.”
The United States gradually increased its bombing of the North, expanding the list of targets to heighten pressure on Hanoi. Responding to his advisors’ concerns about provoking China, Johnson believed this gradual approach would limit the possibility of Chinese entry into the war. He reasoned that
the slow escalation of the air war in the North and the increasing pressure on Ho Chi Minh was seduction, not rape. If China should suddenly react to slow escalation, as a woman might react to attempted seduction, by threatening to retaliate (a slap in the face, to continue the metaphor), the United States would have plenty of time to ease off the bombing. On the other hand, if the United States were to unleash an all-out total assault on the North – rape, rather than seduction – there could be no turning back, and Chinese reaction might be instant and total.
When Senator George McGovern warned that the bombing might provoke strong responses by both the Chinese and North Vietnamese, Johnson responded, “I’m watching that very closely. I’m going up her leg an inch at a time. … I’ll get to the snatch before they know what’s happening.”
U.S. bombing sparked protests around the world. In March 1965, students and faculty held an all-night teach-in at the University of Michigan. The following month, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., at which an astounding 25,000 people showed up.
Convinced that Communist governments were behind the nascent antiwar movement, the CIA began a massive surveillance and information-gathering effort against antiwar activists. Johnson demanded the CIA uncover proof of Communist involvement. The CIA’s illegal domestic surveillance operation, code-named Chaos, was run by a newly created Special Operations Group. It lasted almost seven years, compiling a computer index of 300,000 citizens and organizations and extensive files on 7,200 individuals. Johnson nevertheless berated CIA Director Richard Helms for failing to prove Communist involvement.
Among the FBI’s principle target was Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who labeled the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Top administration officials, including McNamara, began voicing their own doubts. In August 1966, McNamara asked the CIA for an estimate of enemy forces and had his aide Leslie Gelb oversee the compiling of the top-secret history of the war since 1954 that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. When McNamara later began reading the report, he told a friend, “You know they could hang people for what’s in there.” He conveyed his growing doubts to the president and, in August 1967, provoked Johnson’s ire by telling a Senate committee that bombing the North would not bring Hanoi to the negotiating table. Johnson would not stand insubordination. “I don’t want loyalty. I want loyalty,” he said of one aide. “I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket.” In November, Johnson announced that McNamara had been appointed to head the World Bank. The news came as a surprise to the now former secretary of defense.
By that point, most of the old Kennedy team was gone, as Johnson’s foreign policy had moved sharply to the right. Robert Kennedy had left long before. McGeorge Bundy departed in 1966 to head the Ford Foundation. The comparatively colorless Dean Rusk, however, perservered. Johnson let Rusk play a much bigger role than he had under Kennedy, but Johnson had low regard for the State Department bureaucracy. He told J. Edgar Hoover that State officials were “a bunch of sissy fellows” who were “not worth a damn.” Rusk regularly offered his resignation, including in the summer of 1967, when he informed he informed Johnson that his daughter was marrying a black man. But he stuck with Johnson to the bitter end, never wavering in his support for the war.
Although Rusk may have met Johnson’s standards of loyalty, growing numbers of Americans had had enough of vicious war and its distorting impact on American society. Black America was in a state of near rebellion. Rioting, which had rocked U.S. cities for several years, shattered Americans’ quiescence in the summer of 1967. Twenty-five major riots, lasting two days or more, and thirty minor ones erupted. Fires burned and blood flowed in the streets. Police and national guard troops killed twenty-six African Americans in Newark and forty-three in Detroit.
The campuses were also abuzz with activism. Incipient student radicalism was enflamed by the February 1967 expose of rampant and illegal CIA infiltration and financing of seemingly liberal organizations at home as well as abroad. Ramparts magazine set things into motion by revealing that the CIA had been funding the National Student Association. The New York Times and the Washington Post exposed other groups as Agency fronts. These and other publications disclosed that the CIA had been funneling money to anti-Communist professors, journalists, aid workers, missionaries, labor leaders, and civil rights activists who did the Agency’s dirty work. Among the discredited organizations were the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Ford Foundation, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty. The public outcry was intense. Walter Lippmann noted that to the American people, the CIA’s covert activities had “begun to smell like a backed-up cesspool.”
The Ramparts expose sent shivers down the spine of intelligence officials, who feared that other CIA operations would be blown. Under the leadership of James Angleton, who headed the agency’s counterintelligence operations from 1954 to 1974, the CIA had been actively involved in creating and using foreign policy forces, security forces, and counterterrorism units in numerous countries. Angleton’s obsession with a menacing Soviet Union, bent upon domination, conquest, and infiltration was revealed in an internal CIA history that was declassified in 2007. The Overseas Internal Security Program, as it was called, had trained 771,217 military and police officers in twenty-five countries and helped create the secret police in Cambodia, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, and Thailand. Many had received training at the School of the Americas in Panama, including future death squad leaders in Honduras and El Salvador. Robert Amory, the CIA intelligence chief under Eisenhower and Kennedy, worried that the operations of their “Gestapo-type tactics put the agency on dangerous ground.”
In April 1967, hundreds of thousands rallied against the war in New York City, as U.S. troop levels approached 525,000. The Vietnamese assault on Khe Sanh began in late January 1968, with an enormous rocket and missile attack. The United States responded with the heaviest air raids in the history of warfare. B-52s dropped 100,000 tones of bombs, rockets, and explosives on the enemy positions. One NLF leader described the terror of a B-52 attack:
From a kilometer away, the sonic roar of the B-52 explosions tore eardrums, leaving many of the jungle dwellers permanently deaf. From a kilometer, the shock waves knocked their victims senseless. Any hit within half a kilometer would collapse the walls of an unreinforced bunker, burying alive the people cowering inside. Seen up close, the bomb craters were gigantic – thirty feet across and nearly as deep. … The first few times I experienced a B-52 attack it seems…that I had been caught in the Apocalypse. The terror was complete. One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out.
While the seventy-seven-day siege was just getting under way and all eyes were fixed on Khe Sanh, the NLF unleashed the Tet Offensive, catching the United States completely off guard. The NLF suffered huge losses. Though a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and NLF, the Tet Offensive was a political victory for Hanoi and its southern allies. The mood in Washington and Saigon changed from optimism to despair. The falsely propagated belief that victory was at hand was dealt a severe blow as Americans saw that the war was far from over and perhaps not winnable under any circumstances.
Controversy erupted again over the United States’ consideration of using nuclear weapons at Khe Sanh. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used his toast at a White House dinner to inveigh against such an imprudent policy. He was blunter in his appearance on Face the Nation: “Any attempt to escalate this war will be most dangerous. … As for the proposal to use tactical nuclear weapons, this would be sheer lunacy. It would not only be disastrous to America’s position, it would run a very, very great risk of escalation for the world.”
Johnson succeeded in curbing the speculation. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, later regretted that nuclear weapons had not been used. He wrote in his memoirs, “If Washington officials were so intent on ‘sending a message’ to Hanoi, surely small tactical nuclear weapons would be a way to tell Hanoi something.”
Meanwhile, as popular opposition to the war exploded, Hoover’s FBI did everything it could to disrupt the antiwar movement for years. Hundreds of FBI agents infiltrated antiwar and New Left organizations. In 1968, FBI activities escalated with the deliberate inclusion of New Left groups in the FBI’s ongoing COINTELPRO program. The Church Committee reported on the FBI’s use of friendly news sources throughout the media. In 1965, the FBI had twenty-five media assets in the Chicago area and twenty-eight in New Haven. The CIA maintained its own stable of media assets. FBI and CIA flacks went to great lengths to mobilize support for the war wile marginalizing the war’s critics and impugning their patriotism.
Following Tet, Westmorland requested another 206,000 troops. Johnson asked Clark Clifford, who was about to replace McNamara as secretary of defense on March 1, to chair a task force reviewing the situation. He assumed that the reliably hawkish senior advisor would support further escalation, but Clifford balked and called together a bipartisan group of “Wise Men.” Following two days of meetings by those elder statesmen, Dean Acheson summed up the consensus view that the country could “no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and must begin to disengage.” Taken by surprise, Johnson was furious. “Everybody is recommending surrender,” he complained.
In the aftermath of Tet, Johnson’s popularity plummeted. On March 31, he announced that he was not running for reelection. The war had taken another casualty. Johnson would be far from its last.
Vietnam was not the only place where U.S. policy in the 1960s was a disaster. Former Time magazine correspondent and Newsweek editor John Gerassi described the crushing poverty in Peru, which typified conditions throughout Latin America:
more than half the people live outside the money economy altogether. … Of the other half, 80 percent earn $53 a year, while 100 families own 90 percent of the native…wealth. … Of this total, 80 percent is in the hands of just 30 families. Meanwhile, 65 percent of the population is illiterate and 45 percent has never seen a doctor. In Lima, the capital, whose colonial mansions enveloped by ornate wooden balconies help make it one of the most beautiful cities in the world, half of the 1.3 inhabitants live in rat-infested slums. One, called El Monton, is built around, over, and in the city dump. There, when I visited it, naked children, some too young to know how to walk, competed with pigs for a few bits of food scraps accidentally discarded by the garbage men. … Peruvians…outside the money economy…chew…coca leaves to still hunger pains, and average 500 calories a day. Where there is grass, the Peruvian Andes Indian eats it – and also the sheep he kills when it gets so hungry that it begins tearing another sheep’s wool off for its food. The peons who work the land of the whites average one sol (4 cents) a day, and not only labor from sunup to sundown but must also furnish servants for the master’s hacienda or Lima house.
As unrest surfaced throughout the continent, policy makers in the United States feared the prospect of more Castro-style revolutions and called for increased training for Latin American militaries and police forces. Brazil was one such case. A longtime U.S. ally, Brazil was perhaps the most strategically significant country in Latin America. It was the fifth largest country in the world – it 75 million people occupied an area larger than the continental United States – and it was rich in resources. In August 1961, Brazil’s president stepped down, handing the reins of power to democratically elected Vice President Joao Goulart. Goulart pushed for economic and land reform, extension of democratic rights, and legalization of the Communist Party. The United States began planning for his ouster.
The United States implemented a series of measures to destabilize the government and precipitate a right-wing military takeover. The Wall Street Journal greased the skids, calling Goulart a “desperately devious, totally ambitious figure whose aim is to seize permanent power and run a fascist state.” In June 1963, the United States cut off all aid to the central government but increased aid to the military. The Alliance for Progress offered funds to individual states whose governors opposed Goulart. A National Intelligence Estimate the following month reported that “under Goulart, Communists and their sympathizers had achieved…influence over Brazilian policy. … This could lead ultimately to the establishment of an extreme leftist regime with a strongly anti-US character.”
Johnson met with CIA Director McCone on November 25, 1963, and made it clear that his Latin American policy, much like his Vietnam policy, would differ sharply from Kennedy’s. In December, he appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Mann as coordinator for Latin America. Under Mann, the United States abandoned all pretense of promoting reform. Mann thought that Latin America’s military leaders were “a pretty decent group of people.” He considered military aid a wiser investment than economic aid, and U.S. policy reflected his priorities. On March 18, at a closed session of the State Department, he unveiled the “Mann Doctrine” to all U.S. ambassadors and chiefs of aid missions in Latin American. He announced that Latin American countries would now be judged on how they promoted U.S. interests, not those of their own people. And the United States would no longer discriminate against right-wing dictators or governments that came to power through military coups. The United States would aggressively protect the $9 billion in U.S. investments in Latin America. Whereas Kennedy had claimed to promote democracy, Johnson would simply support anticommunism.
In 1964, the United States demanded that Goulart impose austerity on his suffering citizens. Goulart instead offered a program of land reform and control of foreign capital. He also recognized Cuba. The United States cut off aid in an attempt to destabilize the economy. Inflation skyrocketed. Goulart seized U.S. properties. U.S. Embassy officials prodded right-wing Brazilian officers to overthrown Goulart. On March 27, Ambassador Lincoln Gordon urged top officials, including McCone, Rusk, and McNamara, to back Army Chief of Staff General Humberto Castelo Branco and “help avert a major disaster…which might make Brazil the Chile of the 1960s.” The CIA went to work behind the scenes.
When the government fell, Gordon cabled Washington reporting that the generals carried out a “democratic rebellion,” which was “a great victory for the free world.” It had prevented a “total loss…of all South American Republics” and improved the climate for “private investments.” Johnson wired his “warmest good wishes” to the new head of state and applauded him for solving the problem “within the framework of constitutional democracy and without civil strife.” Mann said to Johnson, “I hope you’re as happy about Brazil as I am.” “I am,” Johnson assured him. Later that day, Rusk told the NSC and congressional leaders that the “United States did not engineer the revolt. It was an entirely indigenous effort.”
Within days, the new government declared a state of siege, limited the National Congress’s powers, and empowered the president to deny citizenship rights to anyone deemed a national security threat. This was quickly applied to three presidents, two Supreme Federal Court justices, six state governors, fifty-five members of the National Congress, and three hundred other politically active individuals. On April 11, General Castelo Branco took power. Johnson told Bundy that he wanted to send Castelo Branco a warm message on his inauguration. Bundy cautioned him about the repressive measures already being implemented. Johnson replied, “I know it. But I don’t give a damn. I think that…some people…need to be locked up here and there too.” The new regime arrested more than 50,000 people in the first month alone. Over the next few years, enormous sums flowed into Brazil from USAID, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and U.S. corporations. From 1964 to 1966, Brazil received almost half of all USAID funds. A repressive military regime would rule for the next twenty years, backed by U.S. dollars. Brazil would have the largest gap between rich and poor on the earth. But the Brazilian dictators would again be counted among the closest U.S. allies, ever ready to intervene militarily to quash progressive movements in other Latin American nations.
The reverse situation existed in Peru, where the civilian government, wanting to improve the living conditions of that country’s impoverished citizens, attempted to take control of Peru’s biggest oil company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. The United States cut aid to the government but continued funding the military. Comparing Brazil and Peru, New York Senator Robert Kennedy noted, “What the Alliance for Progress has come down to then is that you can close down newspapers, abolish congress, jail religious opposition…and you’ll get lots of help, but if you fool around with a U.S. oil company, we’ll cut you off without a penny.”
The Dominican Republic posed a different kind of challenge. Upon assuming office, Johnson recognized the military regime that had recently ousted Juan Bosch, who had come to power in a democratic election in December 1962. In 1965, a popular uprising supported by midlevel officers, liberals, and leftists, attempted to restore the constitutional order and return Bosch to power. The uprising began on the new CIA Director William “Red” Raborn’s first day on the job. Johnson had handpicked the retired admiral, a fellow Texan, over the objections of his advisors. A former colleague described the swearing-in ceremony: “After the President had said some kind things about him, and how he’d searched the country over and the only man he could find really capable of running it was ‘Red’ Raborn, there he was with tears trickling down his cheeks and coming off his chin in steady little drops.”
Raborn would last barely a year in the job, but that would be long enough to crush Dominican democracy. He told Johnson, “There is no question in my mind that this is the start of Castro’s expansion.” Johnson asked, “How many Castro terrorists are there?” Eight, Raborn replied, neglecting to mention that the CIA memo reporting that number also stated, “There is no evidence that the Castro regime is directly involved in the current insurrection.” “There ain’t no doubt about this being Castro now,” Johnson told his lawyer Abe Fortas, “…They are moving other places in the hemisphere. It may be part of a whole Communistic pattern tied in with Vietnam.”
McNamara doubted the report’s veracity, but Johnson’s special assistant, Jack Valenti, warned him, “If the Castro-types take over the Dominican Republic, it will be the worst domestic political disaster any Administration could suffer.” Johnson sent in 23,000 U.S. troops, keeping another 10,000 offshore. He addressed the nation: “Communist leaders, many of them trained in Cuba, seeing a chance to increase disorder, to gain a foothold, joined the revolution. They took increasing control, and what began as a popular democratic revolution, committed to democracy and social justice, very shorty…was taken over and really seized and placed into the hands of a band of communist conspirators. … The American nations cannot, must not, and will not permit the establishment of another communist government in the western hemisphere.”
Before the UN Security Council, the Soviet representative assailed the intervention as a “gross violation” of the UN Charter. He deplored the “dirty and shameless” excuse, which “excels the work of Goebbels and his ilk,” and wondered why the United States sends troops to the Dominican Republic “far more freely” than to Alabama, where “the racists hold sway.” One Latin American diplomat charged the United States with reverting to “gunboat diplomacy.”
Bosch decried the United States’ “dirty propaganda” and declared the intervention as immoral as the Soviet invasion of Hungary. “A democratic revolution,” he said, had been “smashed by the leading democracy of the world.” Even after the U.S. military took control of the country, the reformers refused to accept the restoration of the repressive regime. After Bundy’s effort to broker an agreement failed, Johnson sent Fortas to Puerto Rico to pressure Bosch into stepping down. Fortas, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, complained, “The fellow Bosch is a complete Latin poet-hero type and he’s completely devoted to this damn constitution.” It later turned out that among the rebels, fewer than fifty were Communists.
Few nations were more strategically significant than Indonesia. Consisting of a vast archipelago of a half-dozen large and several thousand small islands, it was the most populous Muslin nation and the fifth most populous nation in the world. It also sat astride Southeast Asia’s principle shipping lanes, exporting oil, rubber, tin, and other critical resources. In 1948, George Kennan wrote that “the problem with Indonesia” is “the most crucial issue of the moment in our struggle with the Kremlin. Indonesia is the anchor in that chain of islands stretching from Hokkaido to Sumatra which we should develop as a politico-economic counterforce to communism.” In 1949, Indonesia finally ousted the Dutch colonizers, ending four centuries of Dutch rule, interrupted by Japan’s wartime occupation. Sukarno, a leader of the decolonization movement, assumed the presidency and quickly became a thorn in the United States’ side.
In 1955, Sukarno hosted the leaders of twenty-nine Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations in Bandung at a conference that launched the nonaligned movement. The movement called for neutrality between the two Cold War behemoths, supported decolonization efforts, and encouraged third-world nations to assert greater control over their resources.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles felt particular rancor toward Sukarno for spearheading this effort. In 1955, the CIA’s appropriately nicknamed Health Alteration Committee contemplated assassinating him. “There was planning of such a possibility,” CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell acknowledged. After the conference, Sukarno inched toward the Communist bloc, visiting the Soviet Union and China and purchasing arms from Eastern Europe. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had begun to play a prominent role in Sukarno’s coalition government. The CIA attempted to weaken Sukarno by spreading rumors that he was involved with a beautiful Russian blonde who had him under her control. The CIA planned to release a pornographic film with a couple resembling Sukarno and his seductress. Failing to find a reasonable facsimile, it sent a Sukarno mask to be worn by a port actor, but the film, if made, was never actually released.
With Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA actively supported a coup hatched in late 1957 by rebel officers. CIA pilots supplied the rebels and bombed military and civilian targets. The United States was badly embarrassed in late May when a CIA pilot, Allen Pope, who had been shot down, was presented at a news conference. Years later, Pope remarked, “I enjoyed killing Communists. I liked to kill Communists any way I could get them.” Eisenhower had publicly denied U.S. involvement in the coup attempt, an assurance dutifully echoed by the New York Times.
The coup proved to be as successful as the porn-movie venture. The CIA put out cover stories that its training teams in Indonesia were big-game hunters caught in the uprising and scientists searching for exotic butterflies. Among the casualties of this bungled operation was Frank Wisner, chief of the clandestine service, the Directorate of Plans, at the CIA, who, having already started to become unglued, went completely crazy. Diagnosed with “psychotic mania,” he underwent six months of electroshock therapy and was later reassigned to head the agency’s London office. Sukarno responded to the coup by eliminating most of the opposition political parties and speaking out more forcefully against U.S. foreign policy, especially Vietnam.
Following the failed coup, PKI membership and influence grew by leaps and bounds. Partly in response, Sukarno strengthened Indonesia’s ties to Communist China. The CIA remained committed to overthrowing the Indonesian leader. Bissell lumped Sukarno together with Patrice Lumumba as “two of the worst people in public life…mad dogs…dangerous to the United States.” But President Kennedy forced a reversal of policy. Sukarno visited the White House in 1961, and Robert Kennedy returned the favor with a visit to Indonesia the following year. Meanwhile, President Kennedy helped broker an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands – Indonesia’s former colonizer – that averted a war between the two countries. Prior to Sukarno’s 1961 visit, Kennedy had remarked, according to Roger Hilsman, “when you consider things like the CIA’s support to the 1958 rebellion, Sukarno’s frequently anti-American attitude is understandable.” Sukarno had gotten wind of that comment and appreciated it greatly. He urged the president to visit him in Indonesia, promising him “the grandest reception anyone ever received here.” On November 19, three days before the assassination, Kennedy decided he would visit early the next year.
Johnson again reversed that course. But when he threatened to cut off economic aid to Indonesia, Sukarno chided him, “Don’t publicly treat Sukarno like a spoiled child by refusing him any more candy unless he’s a good boy because Sukarno has no choice but to say ‘to hell with your aid.’” Johnson backed down, fearing that curtailing aid would drive Indonesia into the Communist camp and jeopardize substantial U.S. investments. He decided to wait for a more propitious moment.
In October 1964, two major global developments occurred in rapid-fire succession. On October 16, the world awoke to the news that Nikita Khrushchev had been ousted. His duties were divided between two of his top lieutenants: Leonid Brezhnev would serve as Communist Party chief, and Alexei Kosygin would be premier. The news caught Washington completely off guard. The ouster was a response to the slowing economy and a series of foreign policy failures, including Khrushchev’s recklessness in placing missiles into Cuba and then the humiliation of withdrawing them. He was faulted for putting too much stock in peaceful coexistence with the United States. He ouster was also seen as a concession to the Chinese, who had been demanding his removal as the first step toward repairing relations between the two counties.
The very day the news from Moscow was breaking, the Chinese exploded an atomic bomb at their Lop Nor test site. The test had long been anticipated by U.S. authorities. In fact, Kennedy had several times sounded out the Soviet Union’s willingness to join the United States in a preemptive strike against the Chinese nuclear site. Johnson, too, had resisted the Pentagon’s pressure to act unilaterally, instead sounding out Soviet willingness to launch a joint attack. Rusk had alerted the public to the possibility of a Chinese test just two weeks earlier. But that didn’t cushion the blow when it actually occurred. Experts estimated a yield of 10 to 20 kilotons. Johnson insisted that it would be many years before the Chinese possessed “a stockpile of reliable weapons with effective delivery systems.” But U.S. officials feared that the successful test would enhance Chinese prestige and encourage a more aggressive stance inn Southeast Asia.
China’s gains raised the stakes in Indonesia. By 1965, the 3.5 million-member KPI had become the third largest Communist Party in the world behind the Soviet Union’s and China’s. Thus emboldened, Sukarno repeatedly declared that Indonesia would soon test an atomic bomb, presumably with Chinese assistance. Meanwhile, within Indonesia, activists seized a US Information Agency library, ransacked the U.S. Consulate, and expropriated 160,000 acres of United States Rubber Company plantations and of Caltex, which was owned by the Texas Company and Standard Oil of California. U.S. officials contemplated provoking an incident that would turn the army against the PKI. Ambassador Howard Jones believed that an unsuccessful PKI coup attempt might prove the most effective catalyst. His successor, Marshall Green, arrived in Jakarta in July. His first report to Washington warned, “Sukarno is deliberately promoting Communism’s cause in Indonesia.”
On October 1, 1965 a group of junior military officers, led by the commander of Sukarno’s palace guard, killed six generals whom they accused of plotting a CIA-backed overthrow of Sukarno. But mysteriously, both General Abdul Haris Nasution, the defense minister, and General Suharto, the head of the Army Strategic Reserve, managed to escape. Before the day was out, Suharto led the army in crushing Sukarno’s supporters. Suharto accused the PKI of masterminding the affair. Undersecretary of State George Ball expressed hope that the army might “keep going and clean up the PKI.” Ambassador Green urged military leaders to act forcefully. The United States added as much fuel to the fire as it could, even though it had no evidence that PKI leaders were actually involved.
The new military rulers circulated photos of the slain generals, claiming that Communists, particularly Communist women, had tortured and castrated them and gouged out their eyes. The United States helped circulate such charges. Later autopsies showed the claims to complete fabrications. But by then the damage had been done.
Egged on by the new rulers, mobs began attacking PKI members and sympathizers in what the New York Times called “one of the most savage mass slaughters of modern political history.” Islamic extremists functioned as death squads, often parading victims’ heads around on spikes. The Times described one incident: “Nearly 100 Communists, or suspected Communists, were herded into the town’s botanical garden and mowed down with a machine gun…the head that had belonged to the school principal…was stuck on a pole and paraded among the former pupils.” U.S. diplomats later acknowledged providing thousands of names of Communists to the Indonesian army for elimination. The Brits and Aussies added more names. Embassy staffer Robert Martens admitted unrepentantly, “It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot more people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.” Ambassador Green confessed that the United States had much better intelligence as to PKO membership than did the Indonesian army, which relied on U.S. information. Howard Federspiel, the State Department’s Indonesia expert, state, “No one cared, as long as they were Communists, that they were butchered. On one was getting very worked up about it.” U.S. efforts to cultivate close relationships with the Indonesian military were paying off. Perhaps one-third of the Indonesian general staff and almost half of the officer corps had received some training from Americans. McNamara defended U.S. involvement during the ensuing Senate inquiry, assuring listeners that U.S. “aid was well justified,” paying handsome dividends.
The following months saw the massacre of between a half million and a million Communists and other leftists, many by means of U.S. arms. Perhaps a million people were imprisoned, some for decades. McGeorge Bundy told Johnson that the events following October 1 were “a striking vindication of U.S. policy.”
He base decimated, Sukarno was forced out in 1967, replaced by Suharto. American businessmen felt great relief. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta telegrammed Washington in December 1965, “Pressure for removing foreigners from direct control of extractive raw material production has been building for years.” Without the uprising, “removal of foreign oil companies would have been certainty.” Among the foreigners looking for concessions in the aftermath of the slaughter was the right-wing oilman H. L. Hunt. Hunt proclaimed Indonesia the sole bright spot for the United States in the Cold War and called the ouster of Sukarno the “greatest victory for Freedom since the last decisive battle of World War II.” In late 1968, the National Intelligence Estimate for Indonesia reported:
An essential part of the Suharto government’s economic program…has been to welcome foreign capital back to Indonesia. Already about 25 American and European firms have recovered controls of mines, estates, and other enterprises nationalized under Sukarno. In addition, liberal legislation has been enacted to attract new private foreign investment. Tax incentives are offered and the rights of managerial control, repatriation of profits, and compensation in the event of expropriation are, in large measure, guaranteed. The prospects for private foreign investment in extractive industries are fairly good…there is substantial foreign investment in relatively untapped resources of nickel, copper, bauxite, and timber. The most promising industry, from the standpoint of both foreign capital and Indonesian economic growth is oil. Crude production, chiefly from the fields of Caltex 5 in Central Sumatra, now averages 600,000 barrels a day, and daily output will probably exceed one million barrels within the next three years.
In 1968, the CIA acknowledged that “in terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” Ambassador Green told a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that nobody knew the actual death toll: “We merely judge it by the whole villages that have been depopulated.”
Suharto and other military dictators remained in power for decades. Despite the country’s tremendous natural wealth, the average Indonesian stayed mired in poverty. As the New York Times, which had been effusive in its praise for Suharto over the years, reported in 1993, “the average Indonesian earns the equivalent only of $2 or $3 a days and thinks of regular electricity of indoor plumbing as unimaginable luxuries.” U.S. corporations, however, thrived in the post-1965 business-friendly climate that was shaped with the help of U.S. economic advisors and safeguarded by a brutal military that violently repressed the least signs of opposition.
Johnson, stubborn, vain, course, and narrow-sighted, sacrificed his dreams of being a great domestic reformer in order to pursue his anti-Communist obsessions in Vietnam, Indonesia, and elsewhere around the globe. Looking back in 1970, he told historian Doris Kearns that he had faced an impossible choice and ended up sacrificing “the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world.” But, if he hadn’t done so, he explained, he would have been seen as a “coward” and the United States as an “appeaser.” Johnson claimed that he made the choice knowing full well what it meant for him and understanding clearly how previous wars had destroyed the hopes and dreams of prior generations:
Oh, I could see it coming all right. History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers: The Spanish-American War drowned the populist spirit; World War I ended Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom; World War II brought the New Deal to a close. Once the war began, then all those conservatives in Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society…they’d use it to say they were against my programs, not because they were against the poor…but because the war had to come first. First, we had to beat those Godless Communists and then we could worry about the homeless Americans. And the Generals. Oh, they’d love the war, too. It’s hard to be a military hero without a war. Heroes need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic. That’s why I’m suspicious of the military. They’re always so narrow in their appraisal of everything. They see everything in military terms.
When it finally came down to it, Johnson made his choice – a choice whose consequences will always define his legacy and besmirch that of the nation whose forces he commanded. “Losing the Great Society,” he lamented, “was a terrible thought, but not as terrible as the thought of being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists. Nothing could possibly be worse than that.”
Some would say that the United States lost its soul in the jungles of Vietnam. And it would pay a double price in doing so. The war, which the United States would lose ignominiously despite Johnson’s efforts, would also spell the end of the last significant period of social and political reform the United States has seen. Promising both guns and butter, the United States would only deliver on the former. Postwar prosperity would at first slow and then come to a crashing halt.
Next, Chapter 9: NIXON AND KISSINGER – The “Madman” and the “Phsychopath”