It’s tempting to say that the very first suspect in the assassination was LBJ; certainly that would have seemed true if you had been talking to folks from Texas. I live next door and have traveled to Texas frequently personally and on business over the decades. I don’t think there was ever a dinner or drinking session where the subject came up that virtually all the native Texans didn’t either suspect Johnson or become open to him when others began talking.
Not that there were any details, it was just that the man was so generally felt to be crooked and so self-seeking that he was capable of anything. The common belief was that he had people killed during the Billy Sol Estes scandal and there were dark hints about his sister’s death.
This led me so spend a great deal of time on Johnson, even to drafting a book manuscript on a Johnson conspiracy – which I pulled at the point where I came to feel that the evidence just did not hang together. Proving him to be immoral and monumentally self-serving is not that difficult – organizing the assassination of a president is something else. In doing the research for that work I did come across a number of seemingly anomalous behaviors that did strike me as suspicious – both before and afterwards. I cover all those in SWHT but the following synopsis gives a brief picture of their scope.
First of all, there was a dramatic change in Johnson’s personal behavior some six to seven weeks before the events in Dallas. Johnson’s career was on the brink of disaster in a Congressional inquiry and he was frantically seeking solutions, making covert night time visits to his attorney and on the phone constantly, obviously frantic. Yet only a few weeks before the Texas trip he virtually withdrew to his ranch, with his top political operative in Texas not even directly involved with the upcoming trip, and suddenly all the calls, the attorney contacts, the rushing around – it all stopped. I still have problems explaining that anomaly innocently, the best scenario I can offer is in the book and it is peripherally conspiratorial.
Second, immediately following the assassination, Johnson was one of the first to talk conspiracy – a Communist conspiracy. No details but he expressed that fear a number of times, even openly wondering during the flight back to DC “if the missiles were flying”. Yet there is absolutely no indication that he did anything to pursue those fears from a Commander in Chief standpoint. Existing records from the first 24 hours show no real discussion of a Communist conspiracy or potential attack. So was Johnson sincerely worried or was it a front? Given his war time record and later events he was surely not a brave man personally, yet he didn’t behave as if his expressed fears were in any way serious.
As it turns out, that anomaly was not quite as unique as I suspected. One of my main goals in researching and writing Surprise Attack was to compare Johnson’s behavior to that of other Presidents or senior officials during crises. As it turns out, other President’s behavior has been just as ambiguous and equally ineffectual. It would be hard to say any were more ineffectual but the actions following the Reagan shooting and on 9/11 are both comparable.
Third, and far broader than I can cover here, is Johnson’s obvious participation in a damage control effort and in shutting down any true investigation of a conspiracy. That occurred in two phases. The second phase started on Sunday, in particular after a Sunday morning meeting with two NSC principals. That turns out to have some pretty reasonable, if uncomfortable explanations. You would have to go to the book for that. Johnson’s own behavior over that weekend can only be described as opportunistic – beginning with the all night talk session with his supporters about how he could take over the Kennedy legislative agenda and leverage it to establish himself politically. But Johnson was always about politics and position first – a closer look at the Tonkin Gulf and Liberty incidents illustrates that and shows the extent to which he was willing to sacrifice American lives for political gain. Both actions were treasonous IMHO and I believe I make that case in Surprise Attack.
There is however an element of the damage control that looks quite suspicious and that relates to the calls from Washington D.C. to Texas by Johnson’s aides, in particular Cliff Carter, on Friday night. Those calls literally ordered a series of Texas law enforcement officers not to file charges of conspiracy, speak of conspiracy or essentially investigate anyone other than Oswald – regardless. Johnson and national security were cited in the calls. A call (which has been removed from the WH phone record) from Johnson to Hoover literally ordering him to take over the investigation and bring it out of Dallas is also suspicious given Johnson’s apparent lack of interest in the details of the assassination that evening. While a case can be made that national security might have necessitated a damage control effort (I didn’t say I liked it but the case can be made) the intelligence to support that was not available on Friday night. The official record shows no communications which explain the Carter calls to Texas or the Johnson call to Hoover. That is especially true when you recall that Johnson wanted to hand the whole matter back to Texas to put to bed only a few days later – after Oswald’s death.
Bottom line, I believe there are anomalies in Johnson’s behavior that suggest he may have had some prior knowledge or guilty knowledge. Going beyond that and connecting the dots to a totally initiated and organized Johnson conspiracy is something else entirely.