I’ve gotten a few notes from readers asking me to spend some blog time on the JFK conspiracy and after this post I promise to devote three or four posts directly to that – but as I noted in my last post, I think its very wise read broadly about Vietnam given how much attention is paid in conspiracy literature to that subject – often bringing LBJ into the same discussion.
From that perspective, I’d like to recommend a couple of other books for background, if you really want to dig deeper into the evolution of the US involvement there and particularly who was “zooming” who at various stages. John Prodos biography of William Colby gives an in-depth treatment of the CIA’s involvement there – since Colby was there in both the earliest days and at later at the height of American involvement. It also provides some very solid background on the inception and evolution of the Phoenix program, something often written about but often not studied in detail. The name of the book is “William Colby and the CIA / The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster.”
But even more interesting to me, and perhaps more significant in studying the transition from JFK to Johnson is a book which I think had been largely ignored in conspiracy discussions – “Dereliction of Duty / Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.” The book is by H.R. McMaster and its focus is on the Joint Chiefs and McNamara – and the relationship between each party and Johnson in his decisions.
As I mentioned in my last post, JFK was not a fan of massive retaliation and because that he brought in Taylor as an adviser and moved him into a very influential position in regard to military affairs (McMaster’s dialog about the relationship between LeMay and Taylor is pretty pithy and highly educational; his similar discussion of McNamara and LeMay is as well). But while JFK may have had issues with certain of the Chiefs, Johnson had issues with all of them and consistently promised them one thing and did another, taking a only a few short weeks in office before aggressively putting them in their places and as time went on isolating himself from them in favor first of advice from Taylor but increasingly relying on McNamara. Even before his retirement in 1965 LeMay was complaining that Johnson wasn’t really interested in anything the Chiefs had to say, he might listen to Taylor but then the Chiefs themselves had become certain Taylor was not advocating their positions but only his own (I’m really glad I didn’t know all this when I went off to get my draft physical in 1965; come to think of it it would have made writing and delivering my 1966 speech class series of short speeches on “How we certainly will win in Vietnam a lot more difficult).
McMaster gives a blow by blow of meetings and exchanges between the Chiefs and Johnson. His very first meeting with them was on November 29, 1963 and in that meeting his top priority was cutting defense expenditures (in order to fund the Great Society programs he was going to push). Within that same time period Johnson had also dismissed three of his four military aides and made sure that a message was passed via the Deputy Defense Secretary – he was to let the admiral and generals know that if they thought they could use aides or any other channels to pressure their Commander in Chief on strategy or decisions , “they just didn’t know their knew Commander in Chief.” At the same time he was whining that they military had never paid any attention to him as VP and he was going to remember that.
McNamara on the other hand immediately offered Johnson something that made him very comfortable with “trusting” him – he volunteered to underestimate monies to be spent for defense so that the budget projections could be brought in line with increased domestic spending – and to willingly express surprise later when military spending far exceeded forecast (for all of you who thought hiding war expenses was something new – nope; problem is it seems to sound doable at first and sort of holds together for a couple of years but when you get mired down in a war for several years…)
Overall McMasters cuts McNamara little slack as the following quote suggests – “McNamara’s can-do attitude and talent for manipulating numbers and people would prove indispensable.” Fans of McNamara, if there are still any, and fans of LBJ should read this book – but they probably won’t be happy with it.
JFK was action oriented but he did listen to a very broad range of opinions and even in his short term he demonstrated he could learn from mistakes – and he could ask the very best of questions. At the height of debate in the missile crisis, with his brother pushing for air strikes, JFK simply asked the Air Force if they could guarantee taking out all the operational sites in a preemptive attack – they were forced to say no – and we know now that several sites had not even been identified and that local commanders were under a “launch before losing” rule of engagement. Johnson only listened to his closest “loyalists” (as McMasters details)- and in the end that largely became McNamara.
I don’t think JFK would have gone that direction and it would be fascinating to know at what point JFK himself might have started to become cautious about his Secretary of Defense.