This is the fourth in a series of articles that explore the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the US presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). Here we look at Lyndon Johnson and his decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam. The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning, The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door, and Kennedy’s Central Intelligence Agency are the preceding posts.


Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was not an easy man.  Bill, a colleague with whom I worked on Johnston Atoll in the 1980s, was on the Johnsons’ security detail during their Texas visits.  He spoke of loud, embarrassing, drunken fights between the Johnsons and crude behavior like throwing dishes of jelly beans and popcorn and expecting the security detail to pick it all up immediately.  Ronald Kessler’s book, In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, confirms much of what Bill told me then.  Regardless of his personal behavior, Johnson was a political sophisticate who understood power at a fundamental level.  By all accounts, Johnson’s rise to power was steady and ruthless.

President Lyndon B Johnson greets troops in Vietnam. December 1967.

President Lyndon B Johnson greets troops in Vietnam. December 1967.

The dichotomy among historians becomes apparent once Johnson assumes the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination.  The gulf widens through the nine years of the Johnson presidency.  Was Johnson a model for business executives and a great progressive leader as portrayed by historian Robert A. Caro, who has studied Johnson for the better part of three decades?[1]  Or, at the other end of the spectrum, was Johnson a dangerous, paranoid individual?  According to former Kennedy speech writer and author Richard N. Goodwin in his 1988 book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Johnson’s behavior drove two presidential assistants to separately seek opinions on Johnson’s mental stability from psychiatrists.[2]

What can be said with certainty is that, as president, Johnson drove social engineering to new heights with his ‘War on Poverty’ and ‘Great Society’, which included legislation for public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, and aid to education.  Johnson did not confine his activity to just the home front, though.  He was busy with the CIA, too; the US Dominican Republic intervention in 1965, the Vietnam War, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and efforts to reduce tension with the Soviet Union.



It took three tries to land a Director of Central Intelligence, DCI, he wanted, but Johnson finally got the job done.  Johnson inherited DCI John A. McCone from Kennedy.  Kennedy asked McCone to head up the CIA following Kennedy’s termination of Allen W. Dulles, a remnant of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS, after the Bay of Pigs disaster.  McCone was reputed to be an excellent manager and returned balance to an agency enamored of covert activities and nation-building.  Under McCone, the CIA redistributed its organizational energy between analysis and science and technology in addition to its well-known covert actions.  Not everyone in the CIA was a happy camper with this intelligence outsider, but McCone earned his spurs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Johnson and DCI McCone parted ways in 1965 over disagreements about the Vietnam build-up.

President Johnson, a former naval officer, replaced McCone with DCI William A. Raborn, a career naval officer whose claim to fame was managing the Polaris Missile program (submarine launched missiles).  Other than brushes with Naval Intelligence, Raborn had no directly related experience.  It appears that Johnson selected Raborn to keep the DCI seat warm while Richard M. Helms matured his administrative skills as Deputy DCI.  Raborn, according to prevailing wisdom, never really adjusted to being the DCI and offered his resignation sixteen months after assuming the role.  Without ado, Johnson quickly accepted Raborn’s offer to resign.

Richard M. Helms, the heir apparent and another of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS operatives, became DCI in June 1966.  Helms reveled in espionage.  Between the OSS and the CIA, Helms was a very active operator.  During WWII, Helms worked out of London and shared a flat with William J. Casey, the charismatic Irish lawyer who would head the CIA under Reagan.  Together, Helms and Casey were up to their proverbial ears in WWII cat and mouse spy games. During the Cold War, Helms kept both his espionage and operational skills sharp.  He had his fingers in the Iran pot, the Soviet forgeries, Operation Mongoose, and the Diem regime in Vietnam.  Although Helms preferred espionage and stated that assassinations rarely worked in the US’s favor, he was nothing if not a company man and certainly was party to many.

Johnson was not overly impressed with the CIA and, initially, did not see much value in intelligence.  Then, too, DCIs McCone and Raborn had each bucked Johnson on ramping up American involvement in Vietnam on more than one occasion.  Johnson’s lack of respect for the CIA was reflected in the number and type of meetings to which the CIA was not invited.  In Helms, Johnson found a DCI that, if not a kindred spirit, was at least a more accommodating one.  The CIA, however, still did not come up on Johnson’s radar until the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967.  The accuracy of CIA intelligence estimates, timing, and outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War earned Helms his DCI service stripes and a seat at Johnson’s regular Tuesday lunch meetings with his advisors to discuss foreign policy.



What was it about Vietnam that propelled Johnson so hard that he eventually broke up on its shoals?  Vietnam drove Johnson’s relationship with the CIA, his advisors, and congress.  For example, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Mt), Senate Majority Leader during the Johnson administration championed Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs and legislation but fought bitterly with Johnson against the Vietnam War.  The frying pan that was the Vietnam War got so hot that in July 1968 Johnson flew to Central America to meet with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.[3]   According to an interview I taped with Raul Castro in 2003, on short notice Johnson’s staff requested that Castro pull together the meetings because he needed a break from the pressures of Vietnam.  The staffers wanted adoring crowds, good press and a rest for the embattled president.  Raul Castro was appointed US Ambassador to El Salvador by President Johnson in 1964.   All three staff objectives were met.

Until recently I subscribed to the traditional perspective that Johnson knew exactly what he was doing as he amped up the Vietnam War.  In 1965, it appeared that Johnson was resolute in his decision to support the American configured South Vietnamese government against the threat of Communist takeover.  Johnson used the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident to garner the congressional ‘blank check’ from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to do what he wanted. By February 1965, the US military’s Operation Rolling Thunder was bombing North Vietnamese targets and the Ho Chi Minh trail and Agent Orange along with napalm was defoliating the jungle.  In March 1965, General Westmoreland asked for more troops.  About 189,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam in 1965. The following year, the number doubled and casualties escalated at an alarming rate.  And, the Vietnam War got much worse.  I expected to find old familiar friends in the defense contractor community at the root of the escalation but I was wrong.


Anything but linear

Mark Lawrence makes a case that Johnson’s Vietnam decisions were anything but linear.  Lawrence states, “Where scholars once saw certainty and confidence, they now see indecision and anxiety.” In his article LBJ and Vietnam: A Conversation, Lawrence cites a May 1964 telephone conversation between Lyndon Johnson and McGeorge Bundy[4],[5] that illustrates the level of Johnson’s ambivalence:

In his conversation with Bundy, LBJ expresses deep anxiety about what would happen if the United States failed to defend South Vietnam from communist takeover – evidence that bolsters the older, conventional view of U.S. motives for escalation. Fearing what historians would later dub the “domino effect,” Johnson suggests that the communist powers – the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – would be emboldened by a communist victory in South Vietnam and might make trouble elsewhere. The communists, in fact, “may just chase you right into your own kitchen,” the president says in his typical down-home manner. LBJ also provides evidence for the older interpretation by breezily dismissing other powerful Americans who urged him to negotiate a settlement and withdraw U.S. power from South Vietnam. He shows special contempt for Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, charging that the Montana Democrat, a strong advocate of winding down the U.S. role in South Vietnam, had “no spine at all” and took a position that was “just milquetoast as it can be.”

In other parts of the conversation, however, LBJ heaps doubt on the idea that defending South Vietnam was crucial to US security. “What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” he asks Bundy. “What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?” Most chillingly, Johnson shows keen awareness that victory in Vietnam was anything but a sure thing. He worries that full-fledged US intervention in Vietnam would trigger corresponding escalation by Communist China, raising the horrifying specter of a direct superpower confrontation, as in Korea a few years earlier, between Chinese and US forces. “I don’t think we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area,” LBJ asserts. Moreover, the United States, once committed to a war, might find it impossible to get out. “It’s damn easy to get into a war, but … it’s going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in,” LBJ asserts with remarkable prescience….”[6]

Johnson, as I said in the beginning, was not an easy man. It took him more than three of his six years in office to find a DCI he respected and would back him on Vietnam.  Even after Johnson warmed up to the CIA, his use of the agency was as enigmatic as his leadership style.  In many ways, Johnson’s choice of Helms to lead the CIA was a reflection of the contradictions exhibited by Johnson himself. Helms was smooth and adept at politics but beneath his ‘James Bond’ coolness, Helms was a ‘company man’.  He liked the freewheeling CIA style that the ‘plausible deniability’ cloak offered.  Helms became the first and only DCI to be convicted of lying to the US Congress in 1977 regarding the ousting of the elected President of Chile and the installation of the dictator Salvador Allende.[7] Note: Helms was the only DCI convicted of lying to congress.  Many of his predecessors and successors lied to Congress as the need, in their individual opinion, arose.[8]

Johnson and his relationship with the CIA really goes to the question of who Johnson was.  Was he the headstrong leader portrayed by Caro or a leader that became unbalanced, afraid, and insecure that Goodwin paints?  Probably, he was both.  We will need much more data to determine which LBJ occupied the White House for nine years.


This article is provided by Barbara Johnson from


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[1] The Harvard Business Review; April 2006; A Conversation with Historian Robert A. Caro by Diane Coutu; Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed;

[2] Los Angeles Times; September 14, 1988; ELIZABETH MEHREN; Richard Goodwin’s Account of a ‘Paranoid’ L.B.J. Riles Some Ex-Colleagues;

[3] Lewiston Evening Journal; Frank Cormier; July 5, 1968;,396753

[4] Listen to the Johnson-Bundy conversation; (Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Anguish, May 27, 1964: Conversation with national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. 27 May 1964. History and Politics Out Loud. Ed. Jerry Goldman. 30 Sept. 1999. Northwestern University.)

[5] Transcript of the conversation (Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) Washington, May 27, 1964, 11:24 a.m.. Source: U.S., Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia: Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 53. Original Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a telephone conversation between the President and McGeorge Bundy, Tape 64.28 PNO 111. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared by the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.);

[6] Not Even Past; Mark Atwood Lawrence; LBJ and Vietnam: A Conversation;

[7] George Washington University National Security Archives; September 11, 2013;  Peter Kornbluh; National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 437;

[8] The American Prospect; Adam Serwer; May 15, 2009; THE CIA LIE TO CONGRESS? IT’S HAPPENED BEFORE;