Monday, 11 April 2022 03:55

CNN’s Apologia for LBJ, Part Two

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Jim DiEugenio completes his review of this disappointing and less-than-candid four-part series about Johnson and his presidency, LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy, by reviewing the details of Johnson’s entrance into Vietnam and his escalation of the war that ultimately led to the fragmentation of the Democratic Party and a descent into militarism from which the nation has yet to recover.

see Part 1

Early on in Joe Califano’s book, he writes the following about LBJ and Vietnam: “He certainly thought he was doing what John Kennedy would have done…” (p. 28). Califano’s book was published in 1991. The best one can say about that statement is that, even for that time, it was ill informed, because even back then, there was evidence that this was not even close to being the case. For example, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers had written that Johnson had actually broken with what JFK was doing. As they stated, Kennedy was going to withdraw a thousand advisors before the end of 1963. (The authors here were referring to Kennedy’s NSAM 263 without naming it.) Kennedy then told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to announce this to the press in October of 1963. (Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, p. 17) Based on the paper trail in the Pentagon Papers, Peter Scott also wrote about this withdrawal plan. (Government by Gunplay, edited by Sidney Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian, pp. 152–187)

CNN more or less adapts the Califano stance for this all-important issue. Why is it so important? If one is trying to salvage Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, it is imperative to somehow show that his radical escalation of the Vietnam War was really not his idea. There are two underlying reasons for doing this. First, Johnson’s escalation was not one of degree—it was an escalation in kind. LBJ would end up sending 500,000 combat troops into Vietnam. On the day Kennedy was killed, there were none there; only advisors. (The program tries to alchemize this by saying Kennedy had 16,00 troops in theater—utterly wrong.) Secondly, LBJ began Operation Rolling Thunder, the largest air bombing campaign since World War II, over both parts of the country. Even Califano admits that these American strikes extended to targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong and close to the Chinese border. (Califano, p. 293) Kennedy never did anything like this—let alone to the extent of bomb tonnage that Johnson dropped.

So what does the film do to relieve this heavy cross on Johnson’s back? To anyone who knows what really happened, it attempts something kind of shocking. Through Andrew Young, the film tries to say that, in December of 1964, it was McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk who were trying to convince Johnson to go to war in Vietnam. How on earth the film makers from Bat Bridge Entertainment got Young—usually a smart guy in public—to say this is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes. How they ignored all the evidence declassified by the Assassination Records Review Board which contradicts it, is even more mystifying. Let me explain why.


Two of the most important pieces of evidence in Oliver Stone’s documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass concern the Vietnam War. Back in December of 1997, the Assassination Records Review Board declassified the records of the May 1963, SecDef meeting in Hawaii. These were regular meetings held by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the progress of the war. Representatives of branches of the American government stationed in Saigon, for example CIA, Pentagon, and State, were in attendance. Those May 1963 documents were so direct and powerful that they convinced the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer that, at the time of his death, Kennedy was getting out of Vietnam. (Probe Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 3, p. 19) They showed that McNamara had given the order to begin a withdrawal program previously. And at this meeting various parties were submitting these schedules. To which McNamara replied: they were too slow. This supplied powerful corroboration for what O’Donnell, Powers, Scott and John Newman had written about—Newman in the 1992 edition of his breakthrough book JFK and Vietnam.

The other important piece of evidence in this regard is a taped phone call that President Johnson had with McNamara on February 20, 1964:

LBJ: I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just silently.

RSN: The problem is—

LBJ: Then come the questions: how in the hell does McNamara think, when he’s losing a war, he can pull men out of there?

That tape is played loud and clear in the film, which has been out since November of last year, but Stone could have gone even further in this regard. Because in another phone call on March 2, 1964, Johnson tried to convince McNamara to revise his prior statements about withdrawing from Vietnam. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 310) Further, in a January 1965 phone call, Johnson has learned that some of Kennedy’s hires now felt the new president was trying to shift the blame for the escalation of the war from himself to his dead predecessor, which was quite a logical deduction. (ibid, p. 306)

After his attempt to turn around McNamara on the war, Johnson set up an interagency committee headed by State Department employee William Sullivan. That committee was to plan the possible expansion of the war. (Eugene Windchy, Tonkin Gulf, p. 309) In six weeks, Sullivan concluded that nothing but direct intervention by America would stop the eventual triumph of the Viet Cong. (Joseph Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty, pp. 77­–88).

In light of that conclusion, there is a telling point to be made about the choice of Sullivan to lead this committee. In October of 1963, Sullivan was one of the strongest opponents of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, Second Edition, p. 410) To put it mildly, Johnson likely knew the result he was going to get from Sullivan.

Taken as a whole, what this accumulation of evidence shows is not just that Johnson reversed Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam, but he knew he was reversing it and then tried to camouflage that reversal. It also indicates that Johnson’s intent in this regard was established fairly early. The usual point of no return is considered to be the signing of NSAM 288 in March of 1964. That document mapped out a large-scale air war over North Vietnam, which Johnson invited the Joint Chiefs to design for him. (Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War, p. 129) As one commentator wrote about it: “Henceforth the United States would be committed not merely to advising the Saigon government, but to maintaining it.” (ibid) At that time, Max Frankel of the New York Times wrote that the administration had now rejected “all thought of a graceful withdrawal.” (March 21, 1964) As Gordon Goldstein has noted, Johnson was now working hand in glove with the Joint Chiefs on these future plans. (Lessons in Disaster, pp. 108–09)

This last is another marked difference with Kennedy. As former undersecretary Roger Hilsman wrote to the New York Times, JFK did not want any member of the Joint Chiefs to even visit South Vietnam, so the idea of him inviting them into the Oval Office to plan a massive air war there was simply a non-starter. (Letter of January 20, 1992) In other words, what Kennedy did not do for three years, Johnson did in three months.

Make no mistake, this was a key step in Johnson’s escalation. It was the document that would supply the working thesis for future air operations Pierce Arrow—retaliation for the alleged Tonkin Gulf incident—and Flaming Dart—retaliation for the Viet Cong attack at Pleiku—and those would evolve into Rolling Thunder. All of this counters Califano’s excuse for escalation in his book: that somehow the Joint Chiefs pressured LBJ into escalating. (Chapter 2, pp. 50ff) This is made possible by Califano not mentioning or describing NSAM 288, or how that process differed from JFK.

Why do I indicate that LBJ had all but certainly decided on a war against North Vietnam by the spring of 1964? Because one of his objectives was to get the Washington Post in his corner on this decision; so he enlisted their support in advance. In April of 1964, Johnson invited the executives of that paper, plus Kay Graham, the owner, to the White House. In the family dining room, he asked for their support for this planned expansion of the war in Vietnam. (Carol Felsenthal, Power, Privilege, and the Post, p. 234)


If that is not enough to convince the reader that the program and Andrew Young are wrong about the December 1964 date, how about this: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was drafted three months before it was submitted to congress. (Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, p. 27) In other words, in May, one month after Johnson told the Washington Post he wanted their support for a future war, he had an attorney sketch a rough draft of a declaration of war in Vietnam. Like the other steps on the way to intervention, I could not find this event mentioned in either CNN’s film or Califano’s book. It would seem to me to be a quite important revelation as to intent. But let us go a step beyond it: What made Johnson rather certain that the war resolution would be used? Because Johnson’s planning even spoke of a “dramatic event” that could occur to cause the White House to go for a congressional resolution. (Moise, p. 30)

Johnson had approved a covert action plan after Kennedy’s death. General Maxwell Taylor had drawn up designs for fast hit-and-run sea operations against North Vietnam in September of 1963, but that plan was not submitted to McNamara until November 20, 1963. (Newman, p. 385) These attacks were eventually titled OPLAN 34A. Originally, the draft of NSAM 273 limited naval forces to those of the government of South Vietnam. On November 26, 1963, Johnson altered McGeorge Bundy’s draft. When OPLAN 34A was submitted to the White House, it now allowed direct American military attacks against North Vietnam. (Newman, p. 463) As Edwin Moise shows, these PT boat operations owed just about everything to the USA and were completely controlled by Americans. (Moise, pp. 12–17) They likely could not have been done by Saigon alone.

It was the combination of OPLAN 34A with the already-in-practice DeSoto patrols that all but guaranteed an exchange between Hanoi and the Pentagon in the Gulf of Tonkin. The PT boats were designed and equipped with armaments that could be used to attack Hanoi’s military installations near the shore, which they did. The idea was for the OPLAN 34A missions to create a disturbance and then the destroyers in the gulf could theoretically gain some kind of intelligence from the reaction. The problem was that both the boats and the ships violated the territorial waters of North Vietnam. (Moise, pp. 50–51) The PT boats attacked the islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu off the coast of North Vietnam on the night of July 30–31. The latter was 4 kilometers off the coast, the former about 12. Hanoi was claiming their waters ended at 12 miles, therefore both islands would be within their boundaries. When the PT boats retreated, they were within sight of one of the destroyers on a DeSoto mission, the Maddox, which had just entered the gulf. (Moise, p. 56)

Therefore all the elements were in place for a confrontation. On the night of August 2nd, Hanoi sent out three torpedo boats to counter the raiders. They were all severely damaged by American fire and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed. The Maddox endured one bullet hole from a machine gun round. In spite of this engagement, President Johnson continued the patrols and the Navy added a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, to the mission. What made it even worse is that the PT boats attacked another North Vietnamese base on the evening of the 3rd of August. (Moise, p. 97) This is why many, including George Ball of State, considered the missions to be clear provocations. (Moise, p. 100)

Needless to say, the alleged Hanoi attack on the two destroyers on the night of August 4th never really occurred. Yet Johnson used this false reporting to launch the first American air strikes against the north, based on the NSAM 288 target list, and also to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which has been penned three months earlier. (Moise, p. 212) But all of the above is not the worst. The worst is this: Johnson realized the second attack did not occur about one week after he ordered the air strikes. (Moise, p. 210)

In light of all the above, to say that Johnson was being talked into a war by Bundy, McNamara, and Rusk in December is simply hogwash. And to say, as the program does, that Johnson was not a war monger is equally wrong. The total debate time on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was about 8 hours. (Goulden, p. 75) And everyone sent up by the White House to testify for the resolution denied there was any connection between the DeSoto missions and the OPLAN 34A operations—which was false. (Goulden, p. 76)

But there were two grand benefits garnered from the provocations:

  1. LBJ’s approval ratings on the war skyrocketed. As one commentator noted, he had turned his one weakness against GOP candidate Barry Goldwater into a strength.

  2. He got his declaration through. (Goulden, p. 77) The very fact he did the latter undermines what Tom Johnson says about the war: that the SEATO Treaty alone necessitated our involvement.


Califano deals with the case of William Fulbright in one desultory page near the end of his book. (Califano, p. 360) CNN and Bat Bridge do not really deal with him at all. The Arkansas senator and Johnson had been friends prior to 1965. In fact, Johnson used Fulbright to get his Tonkin Gulf resolution through the Senate; the unsuspecting Fulbright trusted him. He ended up regretting it.

The CNN series does not mention the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic either. Yet the two subjects are related, because Fulbright’s relationship with LBJ collapsed over the lies Johnson had told him about that 25,000 man Marine invasion in the Caribbean in 1965. Fulbright was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He had helped expedite both the Latin American invasion and the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Ironically, it was Fulbright’s reinvestigation of the former that led to his doubts about Tonkin Gulf and ultimately wrecked the relationship. One can even argue this was the main engine for Johnson’s capsized approval ratings, which resulted in his abdication.

In June of 1965, Fulbright’s staff had begun to examine the reasons Johnson had given for the April 28, 1965, invasion of the island. At every opportunity, the reasons for the invasion were escalated and sensationalized. This culminated in June with the excuse that 1,500 people were killed, heads were cut off, the American ambassador called while hiding under a desk with bullets flying through windows, and Americans were huddled in a hotel screaming for protection. (Goulden, p. 166) The staff found out that this was mostly nonsense and Fulbright decided to give a scathing speech in which he said that there was simply no evidence to back up what Johnson had told him about decapitations and bullets flying through embassy windows. The democratically elected leader, Juan Bosch—who the Marine invasion fatally crushed—had been favored by President Kennedy. (Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street, pp. 78–79) Therefore, Johnson’s reversal of JFK’s policy “lent credence to the idea that the United States is the enemy of social revolution in Latin America…” (Goulden, p. 167)

Fulbright now suspected that maybe the White House had also lied about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. In November and December of 1965, he and his staff now prepared for full-blown hearings on the Vietnam War. Fulbright called up administration official after official and quizzed them on both what the real purpose of the Tonkin Gulf resolution was, and if the administration had been candid about its provenance. The hearings themselves were damaging enough to Johnson, but when CBS and NBC decided to run them at full length for days on end, they began to really hurt him politically. For the first time, administration officials had to defend the remarkable escalation of the Indochina conflict and reply to questions about if the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was justified. There had been nothing like it since the Army/McCarthy hearings and there would be nothing like it again until the Watergate hearings.

Average Americans now began to be informed about how America got into an open-ended conflict that had seemingly escalated beyond what anyone had ever thought it could be. But perhaps most importantly, the hearings dramatically illustrated the formula for the following:

…what had happened to turn the liberal supporters of President Kennedy into opponents of the policies of President Johnson…and the right-wing opponents of Eisenhower and Kennedy into supporters of the present administration… (Goulden, p. 166)

In other words, how Johnson had fragmented the Democratic Party beyond saving.

Neither Califano’s book nor the CNN series figuratively lifts up the hood to show the audience just how Johnson was finally convinced to get out of Indochina. Since they will not, the present reviewer shall. After the Tet offensive, and during the siege of Khe Sanh, several foreign policy luminaries were asked to attend a Pentagon briefing at the White House—after which LBJ ranted and raved for about 45 minutes. This compelled former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to walk out. A White House staffer called him and asked him why he left. Being blunt, Acheson told him to “Shove Vietnam up your ass!” Johnson got on the phone and Acheson told him he would no longer listen to “canned briefings.” He only wanted to hear from people on the scene in Vietnam and would only accept raw data, not finished reports. About a month after this, Johnson sent his new Secretary of Defense over to the Pentagon. Clark Clifford went over the data and then quizzed the Joint Chiefs on the overall situation on the ground. He concluded that the only way to win the war was to expand it into Cambodia and Laos. Clifford reported back to Johnson that he should get out; Vietnam was a hopeless mess. (Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men, pp. 683–89; see also Clifford in the documentary film Hearts and Minds.)

That is apparently too strong a truth for CNN and Bat Bridge Entertainment, which tells the reader a lot about the value and candor of this disappointing production. The program ends with the Richard Nixon/Anna Chennault subterfuge of Johnson’s attempt at a truce in Vietnam—which was about four years too late. (Click here for details)

In sum, this is a disappointing and less-than-candid four-part series about Johnson and his presidency.  These kinds of programs make it difficult to understand the past, and therefore stifle our attempts to deal with the present.

Last modified on Saturday, 16 April 2022 16:48
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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