It’s clear at this point in time that beginning on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963 and continuing from the following day, LBJ first preempted a full scale conspiracy investigation and then ensured that Lee Oswald was to be the sole individual presented as being involved with the murder of his predecessor. I go into obnoxious detail on that in Chapter 15 of SWHT presenting the case for that view and laying out the evolution of that process – call it what you want, damage control, suppression, cover up. And I spent a good deal of time laying out inconsistencies in Johnson’s personal behavior, especially in the first 24 hours.
Of course the big question is to what extent his rush to control the public perception of the murder was itself novel or consistent with just Johnson “just being Johnson”.
As it turns out we have some further clues to that and I’ve been reading some additional material that gives us insight into Johnson’s responses to crisis during his time as President. The crisis in the Dominican Republic provides one example and later his reaction to reported attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin another. In regard to the coup in the Dominican Republic, Johnson reacted quickly (on incorrect and insufficient information from the CIA) and jumped to his constant position that Communist advances must always be opposed – forcefully. Prados covers Johnson’s response in his book on the NSC, “Keepers of the Keys.” In the days following Johnson’s initial orders, and as the US military response escalated, it became embarrassingly clear that both the CIA and Johnson had been wrong in seeing the coup as a Communist controlled event. Even the press began to call him out on his earliest statements. But Johnson bulled his way forward, escalating military action on one front and beginning his own personal effort to cover decision. In fact, just as he had with the JFK investigation, he sent Abe Fortas (his personal lawyer) to the Caribbean to consult with ousted politicians and produce supportive information for Johnson’s position – Fortas even operated under two different aliases on the trip. And in the end, certainly knowing that he had been wrong, Johnson stood by his stand but remained very sensitive about it, even ordering Jack Valenti to assemble material showing his strong leadership during the crisis.
Certainly all of that begins to sound pretty familiar. And when you dig into studies of the Tonkin Gulf incident, used by Johnson to seriously escalate American military action in Vietnam – you see much the same thing, and a whole bunch more cover up (in which Johnson was heavily assisted by McNamara). Anyone interested in the details and an analysis of the purported attacks on US destroyer patrols (one real and the second, non-existent) should refer to Eugene Windchy’s 1971 book on the Tonkin Gulf incidents and of course Peter Dale Scotts “The War Conspiracy” from the following year.
But perhaps what is more interesting is that by 2012, Johnson’s actions and the extent of the following cover up (of the fact that the US destroyers Maddux and Turner Joy did not come under massive attack on August 6) is now widely excepted, even in some US military history. My January 2012 issue of Air Force Magazine contains a fine article by John Correll on “The Encounters in the Tonkin Gulf”. In that article he relates that within hours a message had been sent to the White House that the early reports of attacks were now “doubtful” (for one thing support air craft had seen no evidence at all of attacking torpedo boats) but he notes within those same hours Johnson had reached his own conclusions and “It became clear that he was in no mood for discussion.” He describes Johnson “chomping at the bit” to attack, based on political reasons and how the American response to Johnson’s action was highly enthusiastic.
Correll goes into considerable detail, which I won’t repeat here, of the Pentagon’s own investigation of the incident – they were uneasy with the reports from the beginning. Much of the final solution did not occur until 1996, when released documents allowed historians to prove that no attack had actually occurred – see Edwin Moise’s Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War.
And it was not until 2005 that certain radio intercepts were released which showed that an NSA field investigation had “deliberately skewed the notion that there had been an attack.” The NSA group very selectively used 15 out of some 122 available intercepts, selecting only those that fit the official story. And as late as 2003 McNamara himself was forced to admit the attacks had not happened.
Perhaps the worse part of the whole story goes back to Johnson himself, who used the Gulf of Tonkin Congressional resolution to back his immense commitment of the American military to Vietnam. Johnson is quoted as later telling Undersecretary of State George Ball that “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!”
Of course you don’t find much of this in the history books but it all seems to indicate one thing, you can rely on the fact that as President Johnson would always rush to the conclusions that would profit him, he would brook no objections and apparently he was always able to enforce the pressure needed to make it play for the public, even when he himself knew better.