I find it interesting that often “state secrets” are kept even from high ranking officials of state – like the Vice President. We’ve all heard the story of Truman and the atomic bomb. An HNN article from this week explores how little Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), Kennedy’s Vice President, knew about the actual happenings of the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC).
The article starts with the criticism that has been levied against LBJ – that he should have been better able to cope with Vietnam because of the lessons of the CMC, but the authors (Holland and Egan) bring up this question:
But what if Johnson was not permitted to learn the right lessons, which would have had to begin with an accurate understanding of what had happened? What if Johnson was purposely denied important knowledge? What if Johnson thought he had drawn the right lessons, but actually was trying to replicate a manufactured illusion?
The authors tell us that four members of ExComm were excluded from the final secret deal that ended the CMC – namely the US pulling missiles out of Turkey in return of the USSR pulling missiles out of Cuba. One of these members was LBJ. The other three (Taylor, Dillion, and McCone) were for political reasons. By why LBJ – JFK’s own Vice President?
…John Kennedy also decided to shut out Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat and the second-highest officeholder in the land. There was a tinge of irony in LBJ’s exclusion. Like any consummate politician, Johnson valued one quality—loyalty—above all else, and since he expected it, he gave it in return. Still, not even LBJ’s repeated demonstrations of fealty had been sufficient to overcome the Kennedys’ distrust, and in Robert Kennedy’s case, intense and ineradicable dislike.
So what happened?
In the days following the discovery of the Soviet missiles on October 15, Johnson had played an ambiguous, even contradictory, role at the ExComm meetings—that is, when he chose to speak at all. During the first day of deliberations, the vice president expressed the view that the offensive elements of the Soviet buildup were intolerable for domestic political reasons. As the ExComm’s discussions turned to the crucial question of whether to impose a blockade or take more violent action, however, LBJ went missing in action. Because the administration did not want to signal Moscow that its missiles had been sighted in Cuba, it was decided to keep LBJ on the political hustings as if nothing were untoward.
When Johnson finally made it back to Washington on October 21, the president directed DCI McCone to bring the vice president up to speed on the controversial decision to impose a blockade. Johnson initially expressed disagreement with the policy that had been developed. But McCone had also briefed Dwight Eisenhower that morning, and when the DCI informed Johnson that the former president opposed a surprise attack, and accepted the military handicap that came with imposition of a blockade, Johnson reluctantly changed his position.
Johnson attended every ExComm session thereafter, though his return hardly seemed to matter. Johnson only began to assert himself during the critical meeting on Saturday afternoon, October 27. Overall, LBJ seemed to favor a negotiated solution to the crisis, though he also came down on both sides of the key issue of linkage. At one point he criticized Robert McNamara’s stiff opposition to a missile swap, arguing that the Jupiter missiles were “not worth a damn” anyway. Minutes later, LBJ likened an outright trade to appeasement, asserting that it would be tantamount to dismantling the containment edifice Washington had painstakingly built.
There was every reason to believe, from the totality of what Johnson said, that he would have genuinely supported Kennedy’s gambit: to make the trade, so long as the Soviets agreed to keep it secret. But when the president convened a rump ExComm session on October 27, after the regular one broke up and just before RFK’s evening meeting with the Soviet ambassador, Johnson was purposefully excluded from the trusted inner circle. Thus, LBJ was left unaware of the genuine settlement terms that were hastily accepted by Nikita Khrushchev the next day.
Since the actual agreement was never known at the time, the CMC became a fabled stand-off and Kennedy a hero and after his assassination, no one was willing to contest the story. Stanford Professor Barton Bernstein pointed out in 1992 that this myth made it impossible for Johnson to live up to JFK’s image. While LBJ knew some of the story was false, there were parts that he did not even know, making it difficult for him to work with.
Holland and Egan state that even a better knowledge of the CMC probably wouldn’t have changed LBJ’s Vietnam policy:
Being privy to the truth about the missile crisis settlement might not have altered materially Johnson’s decisions about Vietnam. Had Johnson had a more accurate understanding of the missile crisis’ true history, he still would have had to contend with the false analogies and “lessons” that were rife in public. But more knowledge would have indisputably served him better than what he was allowed to know.