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Posts Tagged ‘LBJ’

Lyndon B. Johnson-Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)

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Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.
US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo
on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.

LBJ Regretted Ordering U.S. Troops into Dominican Republic in 1965, White House Tapes Confirm; Yet He Insisted, “I’d do the same thing right this second.”

Dominican Intervention 50 Years Ago Sparked Mainly by Fear of Communists: “I Sure Don’t Want to Wake Up … and Find Out Castro’s in Charge,” President Said

New Transcripts of Key White House Tapes Clarify and Illuminate LBJ’s Personal Role in Decision-Making during the Crisis

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 513

Posted – April 28, 2015
Edited by David Coleman
For more information, contact:
David Coleman, david@historyinpieces.com, 703/942-9245
or nsarchiv@gwu.edu, 202/994-7000

Washington, D.C., April 28, 2015 – President Lyndon Johnson regretted sending U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, telling aides less than a month later, “I don’t want to be an intervenor,” according to new transcripts of White House tapes published today (along with the tapes themselves) for the first time by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

Johnson ordered U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo 50 years ago today. Three weeks later, he lamented both that the crisis had cost American lives and that it had turned out badly on the ground as well as for the United States’ – and Johnson’s own – political standing. Nevertheless, he insisted he would “do the same thing right this second.”

In conversations with aides captured on the White House taping system, Johnson expressed sharp frustrations, including with the group surrounding exiled President Juan Bosch, whom the United States was supporting. Speaking in late May 1965, Johnson told an adviser, “they have to clean themselves up, as I see it, where we can live with them. Put enough perfume on to kill the odor of killing 20 Americans and wounding 100.”

Johnson’s public explanation for sending the Marines into Santo Domingo was to rescue Americans endangered by civil war conditions in the Dominican Republic. But his main motivation, the tapes and transcripts confirm, was to prevent a Communist takeover. Basing his decision largely on assertions by the CIA and others in the U.S. government that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had been behind the recent uprising, Johnson confided to his national security advisor, “I sure don’t want to wake up … and find out Castro’s in charge.”

That intelligence, along with other information Johnson received during the crisis, turned out to be erroneous – a possibility LBJ himself worried about at the time.

The tapes, transcript and introductory material presented in this posting were provided by David Coleman, former chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and a Fellow at the National Security Archive. As Coleman notes, the materials are revelatory about Johnson’s personal conduct of the crisis and his decision-making style as president. The transcripts, in several cases newly created by Coleman, are crucial to understanding the material on the tapes, which can be hard to decipher and are therefore often of limited usefulness on their own to researchers.

* * * * *

Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

Fifty years ago today, some 400 U.S. Marines landed in the Dominican Republic. By the end of the following day, over 1,000 more had landed. In the coming weeks, they were joined by U.S. Army forces. Eventually, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be engaged in what became known as the Dominican Intervention, first as part of a U.S. unilateral military action and then under the auspices of an international force compiled by the Organization of American States.

President Johnson huddles with advisers in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 28, 1965, just before delivering his televised speech announcing the deployment of U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. L-R: George Ball, Sec. Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, Richard Goodwin, unidentified, George Reedy, McGeorge Bundy, unidentified. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

Four days earlier, the Dominican Republic had begun a spiral into civil war when members of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party) and their allies stormed the National Palace and installed a provisional president. Resistance from Loyalist forces led to escalating levels of violence.

A series of increasingly dire reports from the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, William Tapley “Tap” Bennett, Jr., warning that the situation was getting dangerous for American citizens in the country and that outside influences were likely playing an influential role in the revolution convinced Johnson that he had to act and that he did not have the luxury of time to assemble an international coalition through the Organization of American States.

Against the advice of many of his senior advisers, Johnson personally decided to send in the Marines. Their declared mission was to protect and evacuate U.S. citizens from the island. As he explained it to a national television audience on the evening of April 28, it was “in order to give protection to hundreds of Americans who are still in the Dominican Republic and to escort them safely back to this country.”[1]

There was no mention of a communist threat in his public statement; nor had there been in his news conference comments the previous afternoon. Indeed, Johnson himself had specifically removed any such references from the drafts of his statement to encourage an emphasis on the peace-keeping and humanitarian aspects of the intervention. But there was a second important part of the military mission. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler put it in orders to General Bruce Palmer Jr., the commander of U.S. forces, the mission had two objectives, one announced and one unannounced.

Your announced mission is to save US lives. Your unannounced mission is to prevent the Dominican Republic from going Communist. The President has stated that he will not allow another Cuba—you are to take all necessary measures to accomplish this mission. You will be given sufficient forces to do the job.[2]

Johnson feared that Castro-ite and Communist forces were threatening to establish a Communist regime in the Dominican Republic. But there was little hard evidence of such influence—something Johnson suspected at the time and which prompted later private expressions of regret.

LBJ’s secretly recorded White House tapes provide a deeply textured and intimate view of his decision making during the crisis.[3]

The telephone had long been one of Johnson’s essential work tools, allowing him to neutralize geography and compress time in reaching out beyond the bubble of the Oval Office. During the Dominican crisis, he employed it extensively, connecting directly with Tap Bennet in Santo Domingo, and with Puerto Rico where Abe Fortas (the future Supreme Court justice) had volunteered his services as a line of communication with exiled president Juan Bosch. He was also able to get status reports at all hours directly from the duty officers in the White House Situation Room and the Pentagon Military Command Center.

President Lyndon Johnson on the telephone in the Oval Office on July 17, 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

But it did not always go smoothly. The lack of secure communications equipment meant that the President and his representatives in the Caribbean typically had to speak over open lines that were prone to interception or just the more mundane problem of crossed lines. In some cases, that led to absurdly convoluted codes being improvised that often created more confusion than clarity. In one call presented below, Johnson tells Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to call Bennett in Santo Domingo to ask his opinion on whether to send in an additional 500 Marines. “Listen for him to cough right loud, and if he doesn’t, why, let’s move,” Johnson instructs.[4]

Reflecting Johnson’s own heavy personal involvement in directing the intervention, the crisis is represented on hundreds of tapes in the Johnson collection of secretly recorded White House telephone conversations. Below is only a small sampling taken mainly from the first days when the important decisions were being made about sending U.S. Marines into harm’s way and whether to escalate U.S. military involvement.

The transcripts presented here provide a cross-section illustrating Johnson’s personal management of the crisis. Some of them are entirely new; others are improved versions of transcripts that have been published elsewhere previously. Together they reveal the kind of information that the President was hearing, including when, how, and from whom. They reveal, strikingly and often jarringly, the kind of incomplete and often flawed information that was being used to make important decisions. And they show the gap between what was being said in public and what was being said in private, a phenomenon that had troubled the administration less than a year earlier in the Tonkin Gulf episode and would become increasingly important as the Vietnam War raged on.

* * * * *

Links to Tapes and Transcripts

[Note: The following tapes are available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, White House (WH) and Situation Room (SR) Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings.]

(See http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/Dictabelt.hom/content.asp.)

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lbj-obama-combo(1)

President Barack Obama has lost his hold on a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. Though more than two years remain in his term, the popular appeal that propelled him to win the 2008 and 2012 elections may be beyond recovery.

It is sadly reminiscent of what President Lyndon B. Johnson experienced in the mid-1960s after winning the 1964 presidential election by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.  This is not to suggest that history is repeating itself. There are too many differences between Johnson and Obama — both the men and their presidencies — to argue that. Yet, as Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

In broad terms, though, LBJ and Obama share a record of pushing through bold domestic reforms, then losing momentum as foreign affairs blocked their progressive programs. With Johnson, it was largely foreign problems that stopped his forward motion. With Obama, it has been foreign and domestic developments.

lbj-crowds

Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs generated strong conservative opposition to so broad an expansion of federal power. Johnson most likely wouldn’t even have been able to enact his stunning domestic reforms if not for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. This tragedy gave Johnson a martyr to invoke in his effort to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which forbids racial segregation in public accommodations and helped establish an anti-poverty agency that Johnson said JFK intended to create.

The two-thirds Democratic majorities that Johnson had in both the House of Representatives and the Senate after the 1964 elections allowed him to push through the Voting Rights Act, as well as Medicare and federal aid to education. Numerous other progressive reforms became law in 1965 and 1966, including two new Cabinet departments –transportation and housing and urban development.

By 1967, however, Johnson’s advocacy of additional reforms had fallen victim to the fighting in Vietnam, where the United States was losing close to thousands of combat troops every month, and doubts had arisen about the wisdom of fighting a war against insurgents in the Vietnamese jungles. The public  questioned why American sacrifices in Southeast Asia were essential to defeating Communist Russia and China in the Cold War.

The surprising North Vietnamese-Viet Cong Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 did much to create a Johnson “credibility gap.” He had been insisting the U.S. military could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

“How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth?” Johnson’s critics would ask. “When he rubs his chin or pulls at his ear lobes, he’s telling the truth. When he moves his lips, you know he’s lying.”

lbj-mlk

Tet and the credibility gap helped end any prospect of renewed progressive advances in the United States and destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning another term. Vietnam crushed Johnson’s reform ambitions and hopes of a historical reputation as one of America’s great presidents.

Ironically, Johnson thought if he lost Vietnam it would kill his reform agenda. But it was the fighting in Vietnam that ruined all his progressive dreams.

Obama has had no single foreign-affairs frustration comparable to Vietnam. Historians will likely credit the Obama administration with more advances toward a more humane society. His signed into law his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, designed to provide health insurance to most of the more than 40 million uninsured; promoted equal rights for women, including equal pay for similar work; ensured equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians; increased protections for the environment, and pressed for sympathetic treatment of illegal immigrants, especially the “Dreamers,” children brought to the United States by their parents.

The Obama presidency will likely be remembered as part of the country’s progressive tradition — dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Johnson.

At this juncture, however, when Democrats look unlikely to take back the House or perhaps hold the Senate in the midterm elections, Obama’s progressive agenda seems to be stymied by both domestic and foreign developments.

At home, he confronts the aggressively conservative Tea Party movement. Its message has been consistently anti-government — and anti-Obama.

During one of the five dinners that Obama has held with a group of presidential historians (including me), I said the Tea Party is practicing classic “politics of resentment.” Though Tea Party adherents talk about being opposed to government debt and intrusion into people’s private lives, this is only the overt part of their opposition, I explained. Tea Party adherents are mainly white, middle-class citizens, angry at being elbowed aside by minority voters. Obama replied only that he saw something “subterranean” in their outlook.

lbj-signing-voting-rgt-bigger

In many ways, though, these Tea Party conservatives are a throwback to the fundamentalists of the 1920s, who spoke out against blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants. The 1924 National Origins Act, strongly supported by small-town and rural Americans across the country, served as a roadblock to post-1870 immigrants, who flocked to America from Southern and Eastern Europe. When Johnson put through major immigration reform in 1965, tossing out the National Origins measure, he called the 1924 law “racist.”

Tea Party-inclined Republican representatives in the House have indeed played a large part in stopping Obama’s reform agenda. The Republican House majority has often made it impossible for the president to negotiate compromises on his proposals and virtually killed some legislative advances Obama hoped would expand his record of progressive reforms.

Even if the Republicans didn’t control the House, however, Obama’s foreign-policy problems would likely have made a bold reform program problematic. In May 2009, at the first of our White House dinners, three historians (full disclosure: including me) cautioned the president against expanding the war in Afghanistan or sending in additional ground forces.  History has shown the difficulty of combining guns and butter, we stated.

Consider: U.S. participation in World War I ended the Progressive movement; after Pearl Harbor, FDR said “Dr. Win the War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal;” President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal went a-glimmering with the Korean War, and LBJ’s Great Society came to a halt with Vietnam.

lbj -- obama-face

Obama replied that he was not unmindful of what we were saying. But, he added, he had a problem with this argument. We took it to mean that though he had labeled Iraq a “mistake” and vowed to “remove” U.S. troops from there as soon as possible, he had called Afghanistan a “necessary” conflict and could not back away from it without paying a substantial political price or abandoning a foreign-policy judgment he still considered accurate.

Other foreign problems have also undermined Obama’s popularity. These include a red line in Syria that he never enforced, as well as an inability to influence events in Egypt or the fighting between Israel and Hamas. He also looks unprepared to deal with Islamic State’s challenge to the Iraqi government and other Middle East nations, and the Ebola crisis has driven his approval numbers lower. With only about 40 percent of the country now supporting him, it is doubtful that he could have led other bold reforms through even a more sympathetic Congress.

Like Truman, Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama now looks like he could end his presidency on a sour note. Yet he still has two years to recoup some of the lost political ground and find a formula that excites renewed enthusiasm for his leadership.

It is doubtful that Obama will end up with as poor a reputation as Johnson. Recent polls place Johnson third from the bottom in the rankings of public approval for the 10 last presidents — ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. Obama will certainly do better than that.

The high hopes Obama initially brought to the White House, however, have been disappointed. He has again forcefully demonstrated that being president can be a hazardous enterprise.

PHOTO (TOP): REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking hands with a crowd in 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Voting Rights Act of 1965.

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado, April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek is the author of two volumes on President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson in his Times 1908-1960” and “Flawed Giant 1961-1973.” He is also the author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963” and most recently “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.” He is now writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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50 Years Ago Congress Gave the President a Blank Check for War 

by Leonard Steinhorn

HNN August 3, 2014

 

Walt Rostow showing LBJ a map of Khe Sanh in 1968

 

Fifty years ago, on August 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It is a day that should live in infamy.

On that day, the President gave himself the power “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces,” to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and assist our ally in South Vietnam “in defense of its freedom.”

Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it decades later, it gave “complete authority to the president to take the nation to war.”

History has shown that the resolution was built on a foundation of misinformation, fabrication, and willful evasion of the truth. Contrary to what the President claimed, there was no unprovoked “act of aggression” against the American  destroyers that were patrolling the Tonkin Gulf, and a second alleged incident never even took place.

But the Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to escalate the war. “We don’t know what happened,” National Security Adviser Walter W. Rostow told the president after Congress passed the resolution, “but it had the desired result.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have had the desired result, but the war it unleashed didn’t.

By the time Lyndon Johnson left office more than four years later, we had amassed over half a million troops in Vietnam, lost nearly 37,000 soldiers, dropped more bomb tonnage than we had in all of World War II, released chemical weapons – Napalm and Agent Orange – throughout Southeast Asia, and burned thousands of South Vietnamese homes and villages to the ground.

Yet it was increasingly clear by then that we could not win the war.

Rather than stopping any dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution set in motion a series of dominoes in our own country  that would profoundly alter our politics, economy, and culture for years to come.

Perhaps the most significant decision President Johnson made beyond using his newly authorized power to escalate the war was to hide the cost of the war and resist any tax increase to pay for it. Johnson feared that any congressional debate over funding the war would come at the expense of his Great Society program.

He wanted both guns and butter, but he worried that Congress would choose guns over butter. So once again he resorted to obfuscation and deception to get his way.

What resulted was a cascading series of economic  consequences that would transform our nation and undermine the Great Society he so dearly wanted to protect.

To pay for the war without gutting his robust domestic agenda, Johnson resorted to deficit spending which fueled an already overheating economy that was now being asked to divert its productivity away from consumer goods and toward the war effort.

Consumer demand began to outstrip supply, and that let the inflation genie out of the bottle. Less than five years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, inflation more than quadrupled.

Johnson couldn’t hide the rising cost of the war for long, and by 1968 he asked for a 10 percent tax surcharge on all but the poorest Americans. But it came at a cost: Congress demanded, and he had to accept, a 10 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending. Barely three years after birthing the Great Society, he began to starve it to pay for the war. It never fully recovered.

To middle and working class Americans, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the war’s economic impact was taking a toll. Though inflation meant pay raises once a year, prices for food and consumer goods were rising every month which then ate away at any increase in their wages.

Their standard of living began to stagnate. Nor were taxes indexed to inflation in those years, so every pay increase risked pushing them into a higher tax bracket, which took even more money from their pockets in addition to the tax surcharge they would have to pay.

These were largely Democratic voters who generally supported the president and the war – many had their own boys fighting in Vietnam – so if they were looking for blame they weren’t about to point the finger at a deceptive and misguided war policy.

Instead, they saw higher taxes, higher domestic spending, and lots of fanfare for a Great Society that didn’t seem to include them. They also saw domestic unrest and urban riots.

To them, they were hard-working Americans who played by the rules yet were now forced to tread water just to keep from falling behind while government seemed to be giving everything away to the poor. That domestic programs themselves were getting squeezed by the war was a detail that got lost in the heat of the moment.

Couple these growing resentments with the fact that it was their boys, not the children of the well-educated, who were being sent off to war. From their perspective, the liberal elites were taxing them to coddle the poor, yet when it came to defending our nation these same liberal elites sheltered their sons in colleges and universities.

Those seeking to understand the rise of Reagan Democrats and white working class Republican populists – and the corresponding demise of the New Deal majority – need look no further. The cultural and political divide that began in the Sixties was a direct result of the deceit that brought us the Vietnam War.

And what was then a still fragile liberal consensus that government could mitigate the hardships of poverty – a consensus that enabled passage of the Great Society legislation – began to erode.

That an administration could dissemble us into war would lead to another cultural and political repercussion of Vietnam: our growing and seemingly permanent distrust of government.

Trust in government peaked at 76 percent in 1964, not coincidentally the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and declined precipitously in the years thereafter, reaching what was then a low of 25 percent in 1980, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies.

Not all of this decline is due to Vietnam, but a war built on the original sin of deception, fiction, and illusion deserves a good deal of the blame.

Almost daily, Americans were treated to an official  version of the war that had us winning. The  Johnson administration trumpeted body counts and bombing raids and assured us, in the famous words of General William Westmoreland, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But there was no light. The dark reality we saw every night on television contradicted what our leaders were telling us. We saw bloodied soldiers, troops burning villages, body bags, fear and despair and little of the triumphalism that was emanating from the Pentagon.

When the Vietcong launched their Tet Offensive in  January 1968, striking at the U.S. Embassy and other key sites in the heart of Saigon, Americans had a hard time reconciling the official version with what they were witnessing.

Thus was born the credibility gap between the American government and its citizens.

And nowhere did it grow wider than among journalists, who were greeted with untruths during the daily military briefings in Vietnam – known as the Five O’clock Follies – and saw through such euphemisms as “pacification,” which in truth meant torching Vietnamese huts and shooting those who resisted, and “collateral damage,” which in reality meant civilian deaths.

Reflexive skepticism of government remains a defining characteristic of contemporary journalism.

Watergate, which calcified the credibility gap, also grew out of Vietnam when President Richard Nixon authorized his secretive White House Plumbers to retaliate against Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the duplicity behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the U.S. prosecution of the war.

Years later Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told Ellsberg that if members of Congress had seen the evidence from the Pentagon Papers in 1964, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee, and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”

What Lyndon Johnson saw as a ploy to grant him war powers ended up harming so many and transforming our nation in ways the President surely never intended. It would end up engulfing the liberalism he so loved. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the hubris behind it were the linchpins of Johnson’s Shakespearean Vietnam tragedy – and ours as well.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, where he teaches politics, strategic communication, and courses on the presidency and recent American history. He is the author of the much discussed book on baby boomers, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of the critically acclaimed By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race.

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“You could blackmail LBJ”: The other Nixon scandal behind the Watergate scandal

 Ken Hughes

Salon.com  July 27, 2014

"You could blackmail LBJ": The other Nixon scandal behind the Watergate scandal

Johnson and Richard M. Nixon (Credit: AP/Charles Tasnadi)

Excerpted from “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate”

On all 2,636 hours of secretly recorded Nixon White House tapes that the government has declassified to date, you can hear the president of the United States order precisely one break-in. It wasn’t Watergate, but it does expose the roots of the cover-up that ultimately brought down Richard Milhous Nixon. Investigation of its origin reveals almost as much about the president’s rise as his fall.

June 17, 1971, 5:15 p.m., the Oval Office. None of the president’s men knew what to do when he ordered them to burglarize the Brookings Institution, a venerable Washington think tank. Richard Nixon had gathered his inner circle to talk about something entirely different—the recent leak of the Pentagon Papers, at that point the biggest unauthorized disclosure of classified information in US history. The seven-thousand-page Defense Department history of Vietnam decision making during the administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson had nothing on President Nixon. The study stopped well before his election, climaxing with LBJ’s surprise March 31, 1968, announcement that he would not seek a second full term.

In that same speech, Johnson created the issue that nearly sank Nixon’s presidential campaign. LBJ announced that he was limiting American bombing of North Vietnam—and would stop it completely if Hanoi could convince him that this would lead to prompt, productive peace talks. Throughout the fall campaign, Nixon worried that LBJ would announce a bombing halt before Election Day, a move that would boost the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Johnson did, and it did. The president announced the bombing halt on Halloween, less than a week before the voting. The Republican nominee, who had begun the campaign 16 points ahead in the polls, watched his lead disappear. Nixon still won, but it was too close—at that point the second-closest race of the twentieth century, right behind the one he had lost in 1960 to JFK.

“You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing,” said White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, a California public relations executive with blue eyes and a brush cut who spent years polishing Walt Disney’s image before taking on the greater challenge of managing Nixon’s.

“How?” the president asked.

“The bombing halt stuff is all in the same file,” Bob Haldeman said. “Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings.” Haldeman was working with some bad information. Tom Charles Huston, author of the secret Huston Plan to expand government break-ins, wiretaps, and mail opening in the name of fighting domestic terror, claimed Brookings had a top secret report on the bombing halt, written under the direction of some of the same people who oversaw the Pentagon Papers project.

 

“Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it,” the president said.

 

An aide began to object.

President Nixon: “I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

This wasn’t what Haldeman had in mind. He wanted government officials to visit Brookings on the pretext of inspecting how it stored classified material and to confiscate the bombing halt file in the process. No one in the Oval Office pointed out that the president’s idea was illegal. National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, a former Harvard government professor with a profound German accent, asked the obvious question: “But what good will it do you, the bombing halt file?”

“To blackmail him,” the president said. “Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.”

“The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson,” Haldeman said.

“Why, why do you think that?” Kissinger asked.

The timing, Haldeman said. Johnson stopped the bombing less than a week before the election.

“You remember, I used to give you information about it at the time,” Kissinger said, reminding them of the secret role he had played as an informant to the 1968 Nixon campaign on Johnson’s bombing halt negotiations. Kissinger had worked as a consultant on a 1967 bombing halt initiative for LBJ, so when he visited the American negotiating team in Paris during the 1968 talks, members confided in him. He gained Nixon’s trust by betraying theirs. “To the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October,” Kissinger said. “I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [Ambassador W. Averell] Harriman.” (Years later, Kissinger denied having had access to information about the negotiations at the time; the instructions to Ambassador Harriman, LBJ’s lead negotiator with the North Vietnamese, were, of course, highly classified information.) If Kissinger was right, then even if Nixon got someone to break into Brookings and steal the bombing halt report, it was unlikely to contain the blackmail information he said he wanted.

Yet Nixon ordered the Brookings burglary at least three more times in the next two weeks. It was one of the reasons he took the fateful step of creating the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an unconstitutional secret police organization better known as “the Plumbers” because one of its jobs was to plug leaks. The SIU recruited a former FBI agent with experience conducting “black bag jobs” (that is, government-conducted break-ins) and a former CIA agent experienced in covert operations.

Exactly one year to the day after Nixon first ordered the Brookings break-in, a different one planned by these two former government agents took place at Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington’s Watergate apartment and office complex. Once Washington, DC, police arrested five men in dark suits and blue gloves at the DNC offices on the morning of June 17, 1972, President Nixon faced a stark choice. An unobstructed investigation of the crimes the two former government agents had committed would lead back to ones that the president himself had ordered. He could either order a cover-up or face impeachment.

So why did Nixon want the bombing halt file so badly in the first place? What good would blackmailing LBJ do, anyway? (At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony.) The potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.

There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself. Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival. The reasons why are not on Nixon’s tapes, but on those of his predecessor.

Imitation of the Enemy

The president pounded his desk at his first meeting of July 1, 1971, as he told Haldeman and Kissinger, “We’re up against an enemy. A conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.”

In his classic essay on conspiracy theorists, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy.” When Nixon conceived of his enemy as Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers who arrogantly placed themselves above the law, he gave himself license to do likewise. He placed himself above the law that prohibits the disclosure of grand jury testimony, for one. “This is a conspiracy. It does involve these people, and they are not on very good ground in many cases. Also, we now have the opportunity really to leak out all these nasty stories that’ll kill these bastards,” he said. Though sworn to preserve the Constitution, he placed himself above the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to a fair trial. “Screw the court case,” the president said. “I mean, just let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done!” These orders don’t make Nixon a cackling villain out of melodrama, glorying in his own malevolence. Imitation of the enemy is a faulty kind of moral reasoning, a trumped- up claim of self- defense. Nixon did unto others as he feared they would do unto him. His conspiracy theory enabled him to claim he was fighting fire with fire. But it turned him into what he hated.

It’s questionable whether what Ellsberg did can accurately be called stealing classified government documents, but that’s a perfectly accurate way to describe what Nixon intended to do as he put together an organization to burglarize a think tank, blow its safe open, and obtain a top secret report. Imitation of the enemy, as Hofstadter wrote, produces “secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations.” To fight an imaginary conspiracy, the president initiated a real, criminal one.

 

Excerpted from “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate” by Ken Hughes. Copyright © 2014 by Ken Hughes. Reprinted by arrangement with University of Virginia Press. All rights reserved.

Ken Hughes is a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, where he heads the Presidential Recordings Project’s Nixon team

 

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