Once The Vietnam War turned to Lyndon Johnson’s stewardship of the conflict, I immediately looked for several milestones to be elucidated. For what happened in regard to Vietnam from November 24, 1963 until August 10, 1964 were the most crucial contributions to the Indochina disaster since the creation of South Vietnam and the installation of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955. The developments under Johnson allowed the conflagration to escalate to an entirely new level of violence, one that seemed unimaginable beforehand. Those events made possible both the giant air war—codenamed Rolling Thunder—unleashed over North Vietnam in March of 1965, and the introduction of American combat troops that same month. The first would lead to the explosion of more bomb tonnage over Indochina than was dropped over Europe and Japan during World War II; the second would culminate with 540,000 American combat troops in theater by 1968. There were no combat troops in Vietnam the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
It was stunning to me to see how quickly the film moved from Kennedy’s assassination to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This was an interval of about eight and a half months. The film glides through that period in about 14 minutes. And in those 14 minutes it portrays Lyndon Johnson as a kind of avuncular stumblebum who wants to transfer the war to the South Vietnamese so he can fulfill his ambitions on the domestic front. The only way one can present this foreshortened and ersatz picture is by refusing to consult the newly declassified record.
To understand how this colossal—and ultimately disastrous—American involvement in Indochina took place, one has to go back to 1961. In May of that year, Vice-President Johnson went on a goodwill tour to Saigon. Counter to President Kennedy’s already stated policy, he recommended that head of state Ngo Dinh Diem ask Washington for American combat troops. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 72) As we have seen, this was a Rubicon that Kennedy never showed any signs of crossing. And as we saw in our review of Part 2, the indications are that he would have rather evacuated South Vietnam than do so. Yet Johnson is requesting Diem do just that in the summer of 1961.
A second key fact about Johnson is still enshrouded in mystery. As more than one author has noted, the Pentagon kept two sets of books on the progress being made by Diem in the war. One was announced to the public and press. This told the story that Saigon was doing well in its battle against the Viet Cong. But a second in-house set of books revealed the true facts: Diem was actually losing the battle. In some way, Johnson got access to that secret set of books in the spring of 1962. (Newman, pp. 225-29) Therefore, he knew that our side was losing. And that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s forecast of the USA being able to start leaving the country in 1963 was really camouflage: PR to make the American exit easier.
Those two facts help explain Johnson’s first meeting concerning Vietnam after Kennedy’s death. This occurred on November 24, 1963. As the advisors who were there noted, Johnson’s tone and attitude were much more militaristic, uncompromising and controlling than Kennedy’s. (Robert McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 102) For example, he said, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went.” He instructed the ambassador to tell the generals in Saigon “that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word.” He then told those assembled that he had never been happy with American operations in Vietnam. (Newman, pp. 442-43)
As previously noted about Part 2, Burns and Novick failed to mention NSAM 263. This was the order by which Kennedy began his withdrawal from Vietnam. It said that 1,000 advisors would be brought home for Christmas, 1963. Kennedy sent Robert McNamara out to announce this to the press. (Newman, p. 407) Which was fitting since Kennedy had appointed his Defense Secretary to supervise the withdrawal plan until its completion in 1965. Johnson not only ignored NSAM 263, he actually increased the advisors there to over 20,000. The film notes this, but does not note how that broke with NSAM 263.
As this author mentioned in Part 2, some of the most important declassified documents of the ARRB related to Vietnam. And some of these specifically revealed what happened to McNamara after Kennedy’s assassination. Largely due to David Halberstam’s bad book, The Best and the Brightest, McNamara had been pictured as the architect of the escalation of the Vietnam War, even though the declassified record reveals that, from April of 1962 to November of 1963, he was implementing Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. For example, in a taped conference of October 2, 1963, McNamara says that after the American training mission in South Vietnam is completed, we can bring all our advisors home. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, pp. 100, 124) In light of this unearthed record, the question becomes: What happened to McNamara to alter his mindset on Vietnam?
The answer to that key question is simple: President Johnson succeeded Kennedy.
Johnson understood McNamara’s crucial role in Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. In order to turn him around to his different point of view, he began to work on him as only LBJ could. In a phone call, he told McNamara, “I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.” (Blight, p. 310) This statement not only confirms Kennedy’s withdrawal plan, but it tells us that Johnson opposed it. Later, Johnson went even further. He tried to get McNamara to make a public statement denying he ever really meant his declarations about withdrawing! (ibid) Which indicates that Johnson was trying to conceal a conscious upcoming break with Kennedy’s Vietnam policy.
There is another manipulative statement Johnson made to McNamara that is probably the most revealing of all. He said, “Then come the questions: how the hell does McNamara think he can—when he’s losing a war—he can pull men out of there?” (ibid) That query indicates a revealing fact, and also a dividing line in attitude. It shows that Johnson was reading the Pentagon’s back channel reports about the true state of the war: namely Saigon was losing. Secondly, it shows that Johnson thought that Vietnam figured among America’s vital interests and it had to be defended at all costs. Because if we lost there, it would embolden the international communist conspiracy.
This is exemplified by another declassified tape. President Johnson is talking to a reporter months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. LBJ says of the option to simply withdraw that, if he did that, the dominoes would fall, and the Republicans would attack him as they did President Truman for losing China. (ibid, p. 211) Around this time, he even said the dominoes could fall all the way to San Francisco if Saigon collapsed. (Eugene Windchy, Tonkin Gulf, p. 302) Having listened to many, many tapes of Kennedy talking about the issue, this author has never heard him make those dire comparisons. But once he was out of office, Johnson went even further. He said to a writer that his losing Vietnam would have been like Neville Chamberlain appeasing Adolf Hitler. (Blight, p. 211) This illustrates the difference between the two men. Johnson was a classic Cold Warrior who completely bought into the Domino Theory. As National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told his biographer, that was not the case with Kennedy. (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, pp. 230-32)
With all this elucidated for the viewer, what was about to happen can be much better understood. A couple of days after his first meeting on Vietnam, Johnson had Bundy alter the rough draft of National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273. This document had been prepared at a conference in Honolulu a few days previous. Since he was visiting Texas, Kennedy had not read it. And because of what happened in Dallas, he never saw it. McGeorge Bundy prepared the NSAM 273 working draft. Johnson made three important changes to this document. The first allowed the USA to use its own ships to help South Vietnam stage attacks in the north (these would be codenamed OPLAN 34A). The other two made it easier to expand cross-border covert operations into Laos and Cambodia. (Newman, pp. 446-47) In other words, their net effect was expansive and escalatory. The first one—as we shall see—set the stage for the Tonkin Gulf incident.
With McNamara now co-opted to his view of Vietnam, Johnson sent him to Saigon to tender his opinion on the true circumstances of the war. In late December, McNamara reversed himself from what he was declaring two months earlier. Instead of saying that the training period was almost over and we could withdraw, he now said that unless major changes were made it was likely the communists would take over soon. (Goldstein, pp 105-07) In January, two months after Kennedy was killed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend air strikes and claim US forces are necessary against the north.
On March 2, 1964 Johnson called Bundy and told him that after a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, he was thinking of escalating the war by letting American air and naval elements directly attack the north. (ibid, p. 108) But he did not want to do that without congressional support. In other words, in less than three months, Johnson was contemplating doing what Kennedy would not hear of doing in three years: inserting American combat forces into Vietnam. After sending McNamara to Saigon again in March, Johnson signed onto a report by his newly converted Defense Secretary that said the US should begin contingency planning for both “Retaliatory Actions” and a program for “Graduated Overt Military Pressure” against Hanoi. For all intents and purposes, Johnson’s agreement with this report closed off any hope of withdrawal or negotiated settlement. It was adapted as NSAM 288, and with its rubric of “retaliatory action” it foreshadowed what would happen in the Gulf of Tonkin. (Frederick Logevall, Choosing War, pp. 128-130) As Logevall wrote, McNamara’s 1964 militant approach was not really due to his own attitudes, but to his “almost slavish loyalty to his president. Lyndon Johnson had made clear he would not countenance defeat in Vietnam … .” (ibid, p. 127)
In February of 1964, Johnson announced he was creating an Inter-Agency committee to consider future actions to take in Vietnam. Again, this is something that Kennedy did not do. Two members were William Sullivan from the State Department and Bill Bundy, who worked for the Navy but would soon transition to State. (Joseph Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty, p. 87; Windchy, p. 309) This committee suggested all kinds of escalatory actions, including Johnson making a speech in advance of direct American bombing of the north, then going to Congress for a resolution authorizing further actions. Their conclusion then was that Saigon needed direct American intervention in order to win. (Goulden, p. 88) The Pentagon picked out a series of targets—94 of them—to attack. A congressional resolution was actually drafted in May of 1964 by Abram Chayes, a lawyer in the State Department. Bill Bundy then redrafted it. (Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, p. 27) After Bundy revised it, Johnson would occasionally carry it around in his jacket pocket. (Windchy, p. 318)
By now, I need not tell the reader that almost none of the above information is conveyed in the Burns/Novick film. They deal with it all in about two sentences. In this author’s opinion, it is not possible to understand or place in context what was about to happen without knowing all of the above. For what was about to occur allowed America to directly intervene in Vietnam.
With the above in place—the inter-agency committee, the rough draft of a congressional resolution, the 94 targets list, the concept of “retaliatory action”—all that was needed to trigger these prepared paths of action was a casus belli. After Kennedy was killed, President Johnson had greatly increased the scope and size of Special Forces actions. One of these covert operations was called OPLAN 34A. (Moise, p. 7) OPLAN 34A has been described as Republic-of-Vietnam-, i.e., Saigon-, sponsored attacks against the coast of North Vietnam. But as one participant said, they “… were not really an RVN program carried out with American assistance; they could better be described as an American program carried out with RVN assistance.” (Moise, p. 7) America purchased the boats for these raids, and it appears that America employed the navigational crews, but did not land with the actual assault teams. (Moise, pp. 15-16) As the raids crept north up the coast—attacking radar installments, shooting up security posts, boarding and hijacking fishing trawlers—Hanoi decided to beef up its defensive patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin. This in turn resulted in the attack boats being furnished with large caliber, tripod-mounted machine guns so they could fire from a distance. (Moise, p. 21)
As the raids grew in number and variety, the Pentagon decided to use them for intelligence purposes and then use the gathered intelligence to map out future raids. Thus were initiated the DeSoto Patrols in January of 1964. They were performed with Navy destroyers, which were outfitted with extra communications equipment. Their mission was to take photos, make visual observations, intercept and translate Hanoi’s radio messages, and do radar tests up the Tonkin coast. In the summer of 1964, the two ships Maddox and Turner Joy were manning this mission.
No one with any objectivity could deny that the patrols were related to the raids. In fact, the USA made possible, and was controlling, both. Further, it would be difficult to deny that they were meant as provocations. In fact, two holdovers from the Kennedy administration—George Ball and McGeorge Bundy—labeled them as such. (Moise, p. 100, 240) Yet, this is what the administration said about them afterwards. These raids had been going on for months. (Windchy, pp. 152-53) The DeSoto patrols began in January, and the two that would ensnare the US in the war were the third and the fourth. The Maddox had been in Tonkin Gulf when OPLAN 34A raids took place at the end of July. Hanoi gunboats had counterattacked those raids. (Windchy, p. 75) On that mission, the Maddox had violated North Vietnam’s territorial waters. (Moise, p. 68) For that reason, when new raids occurred 48 hours later on August 2, and Maddox was still in Tonkin, Hanoi sent out three torpedo boats to head her off. After an exchange of fire, the navy called in planes. The Maddox was virtually unscathed; it was hit by one bullet. The American air assault hit all three attacking vessels with machine gun fire. One of the torpedo boats was dead in the water and was rescued by the other two. (Moise, pp. 79, 83)
The naval officer in charge wanted to discontinue the patrols. (Moise, p. 94) But Johnson personally approved another one. The idea behind this was to “show the flag” and not leave the impression Hanoi was facing us down. (Moise, pp. 104-05) But a key point that Burns and Novick leave out is this: there were further OPLAN 34A raids on the night of August 3! The Maddox, joined by the Turner Joy, were in the vicinity of those raids. This information was so sensitive it was kept secret until February of 1968. (Windchy, p. 169)
The following evening, August 4th, was the occasion for the infamous “phantom attack” on the Maddox and Turner Joy. No one knows for sure what caused the crews of the two boats to start firing. It was probably a combination of tenseness, and misinterpretation of both radar and sonar signals. (See chapter 15 of Windchy for an analysis.) The bottom line is that it was a false alarm. There was no attack. But the message was sent to Washington that there was an attack. After August 2nd, Johnson had warned Hanoi not to fire again at American ships. He now quickly came to a conclusion on two key matters: 1.) He would retaliate, and 2.) He would present the already prepared resolution to Congress.
This much the film presents. It does not present the amazing speed with which LBJ finalized those immense decisions. Johnson got news of an impending attack from Robert McNamara at about 9 AM on August 4. The first thing Johnson asked him was how fast he could put together a retaliatory air strike. (Moise, p. 211) Johnson then went down to McGeorge Bundy’s office and told him to bring up the congressional resolution his brother Bill had written. When Bundy suggested that they think about it first, the president tartly replied: “I didn’t ask you what you thought. I told you what to do!” (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 126) As Alexander Haig later reported, after this, the air attack and resolution were faits accomplis. (Moise, p. 211)
There are other points that should be noted that are lacking in the film’s depiction of these epochal events. The film says that Johnson was told the second attack had been “probable” when he made up his mind to retaliate. This is not really accurate. As noted above, McNamara, Haig and McGeorge Bundy stated that the news of the so-called attack had not even come in when Johnson had made up his mind. Burns and Novick further muddy things when they say that the ship officers misinterpreted Hanoi’s orders to prepare an attack for the actual order to attack. According to Ray Cline, the intelligence chief for the CIA and then the State Department, that is not the case. About seven years after the fact, he finally got to review all of the messages that came in from both ships that morning—with time stamps. He concluded that, without fail, they were all referring to the first attack, not the second. (Moise, p. 199)
We next see and hear a pilot who was shot down during the retaliatory air strikes, code-named Pierce Arrow. The film does not reveal that a fellow pilot was actually killed in that mission. Burns and Novick also fail to mention a distinct possibility for why one pilot was shot down and became a prisoner and one was killed. The president insisted on going on TV to announce the attack. He wanted to get on in prime-time. When that was not possible, Johnson insisted on getting on at 11:30 EST before The Tonight Show. At that time, only four of the 64 sorties had been flown. In other words, Johnson’s announcement tipped off Hanoi. (Moise, pp. 217, 222; Windchy, p. 229; Goulden, p. 45) Burns and Novick fail to mention another interesting fact: the list of targets for the strikes was culled from the previously mentioned list of 94. In other words, everything Johnson did with Tonkin Gulf had been discussed and reviewed previously. (Moise, p. 211) None of it had ever been mentioned by President Kennedy.
But there was one great advantage that the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution held for the president. And thankfully, the film does present this. It served as a great political asset that allowed Johnson to outflank his GOP foe Barry Goldwater on the one issue the Republicans could use against him. In fact, Johnson actually spoke out loud about this the morning of August 4th. Referring to himself in the third person, he said: “The attack on Lyndon Johnson was going to come from the right and the Hawks, and he must not allow them to accuse him of vacillating or being an indecisive leader.” (Moise, p. 211) As the film shows, Johnson’s approval ratings on his conduct of the war zoomed up by thirty points.
The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was written in such a broad manner that it amounted to a side-door pre-dated declaration of war. In fact, in the planning for its passage back in June, Johnson’s inter-agency committee stated that they should submit it only “… if it could be passed quickly, overwhelmingly, and without too much discussion of its implications.” (Moise, p. 29) Further, they noted that if Congress asks if it is a declaration of war, they should reply that it really was not. (p. 227) It was so broadly written, it also allowed American troops to enter Laos and Cambodia. (Goulden, p. 13)
In the administration’s reports and testimony to the Senate, either by mistake or on purpose, the White House was deceptive. For instance, they called the first attack entirely unprovoked. They said the Maddox was there on a “routine patrol”, like hundreds the US Navy does around the world. (Goulden, pp. 26, 28) The White House also claimed there was no violation of territorial waters; the Maddox and Turner Joy were anywhere from 30-60 miles away from those waters. (p. 39) The White House reported that the torpedo boats had illuminated the Turner Joy, hinted there were North Vietnamese aircraft in the sky, and that the other side fired the first shot on August 2nd. (ibid) The White House denied there was any connection between the two American destroyers and the South Vietnamese raids. (p. 61) When asked the reason why Hanoi attacked, Secretary of State Dean Rusk escaped into pure Cold War boilerplate. He said there was no satisfactory explanation for the attacks since the communists see the world differently from us and it is “very difficult to enter each other’s minds …” (p. 43) I wish the film had mentioned all of this, because it was the beginning of Johnson’s credibility gap. But it was largely because of these false claims that the resolution was passed in both houses of Congress with only two dissenting votes. (Click here for an article updating Cline’s work with more documents)
With the resolution passed, and the election pretty much over, Johnson was then able to begin to militarize the conflict. At the same time, he was on the campaign trail saying things like: “We don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys” and “We seek no wider war”. (Goulden, pp. 38, 164) As one official admitted off the record, “Tonkin saved the war for us. It was a little raft that kept us afloat from the summer of 1964 through the election, when Mr. Johnson felt the political freedom to make the decisions he made.” (Windchy, p. 317) As more than one author has noted, scores of planes now began to be sent to Vietnam from Thailand. (Goulden, p. 236; Windchy, p. 240) Around this time, air bases were built at DaNang and Bien Hoa. (Windchy, p. 313) When the latter base was attacked by Viet Cong guerrillas on November 1, 1964, it marked the start of a small wave of these assaults culminating in the attack on Pleiku in February. McGeorge Bundy was in Vietnam at the time. Just prior to Pleiku, he began to compose a famous message to Johnson that was later called the “Fork in the Road Memo”. Dated January 27, 1965, it mapped out two paths of action to the rising attacks on American installations. One was to retaliate and marshal forces against Hanoi, the other was to negotiate a way out. In the memo, Bundy wrote that he and Robert McNamara favored the former, and Johnson agreed. He ordered another retaliatory attack on the north. (Goldstein, p. 156) In the next month, this led to 1.) Operation Rolling Thunder, a titanic air campaign over North Vietnam that would last for almost four years, and 2.) The landing of combat troops at DaNang a few days later. General Maxwell Taylor strongly disagreed with the troop landing. He said that the natural tendency would be to expand that mission from protecting the air bases to an offensive mode. Which is what happened two weeks later. (Goldstein, pp. 164-169) By the end of 1965, Johnson had committed over 175,000 American ground troops into theater.
What is so remarkable about this commitment is not just its speed, but the fact that, a week before it began, Johnson had been warned by Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson that it would take a half million combat troops five years to win the war. (Goldstein, p. 165) Sure enough, by 1967 Johnson had 525,000 men in Vietnam.
Johnson had appointed William Westmoreland as the commanding general in Vietnam. Westmoreland decided on a strategy of attrition. That is, by employing an enormous amount of American firepower, his forces would kill so many more of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars that they would have to sue for peace. That strategy was unsuccessful for two reasons. First, it failed to account for the inventive and imaginative methods the Viet Cong could use to counter that firepower advantage. Second, it did not allow for the many ways Hanoi could ship more replacement troops into the south.
But there was a third reason the strategy failed. The film barely touches upon it, yet it was crucial, since both the first commander, Paul Harkins, and Westmoreland used it: the body count figures were fudged. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, pp. 288, 298-99; John Ranelagh, The Agency, pp. 456-57) This was done in a number of ways: sometimes by not updating intelligence estimates; sometimes by pure fraud, e.g., creating operations that did not happen. Or, as Nick Turse shows in his book Kill Anything that Moves, at times it was done by adding thousands of civilian deaths to the enemy combatant column.
When Johnson submitted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to the Senate, he had his friend William Fulbright of Arkansas manage its passage through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By early 1966, Senator Fulbright suspected he had been conned by Johnson. He decided to hold public hearings on the conduct of the war. What Burns and Novick do with the Fulbright hearings shows us what is wrong with their film.
Fulbright decided to hold the hearings not only because of what was happening with the escalation in Vietnam, but because he had discovered that Johnson had lied to him about the reasons the United States sent 25,000 Marines into the Dominican Republic in 1965. Johnson had said that the communist forces had decapitated hundreds of innocent civilians and that the insurgents had fired bullets into the embassy. (Goulden, p. 166) Fulbright’s committee had done a study after the Marines had joined the military-backed government to subdue the backers of former president Juan Bosch. The study had proven not only that the above statements by Johnson were false, but that the president had vastly overstated the number of communists backing Bosch. (Windchy, p. 40) Further, that the lie about American nationals being endangered was a cover story for sending in the Marines. Fulbright had concluded the intervention was not necessary and it was also unwise. (Windchy, p. 41; see also Goulden, pp. 165-67)
It should be added here: like Vietnam, the Dominican Republic was another example of Johnson reversing a Kennedy policy. In 1963, Kennedy had begun a series of diplomatic maneuvers to isolate the military junta that had overthrown the democratically elected presidency of Juan Bosch. Inspired by Kennedy, other nations had followed. This momentum had allowed the Bosch forces to grow and actually threaten to take back the presidency. Johnson closed the door on this with this fraudulently motivated intervention. (Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street, pp 78-79)
Fulbright, a Democrat who Kennedy seriously considered as his Secretary of State, then gave a speech that exposed Johnson’s handling of the Dominican Republic. Fulbright hesitated to give the speech. But one of his advisors sent him the following memo, which crystallizes what was happening in America. Carl Marcy wrote that a review of developments of the last 24 months helped to explain what happened to
… turn the liberal supporters of President Kennedy into opponents of the policies of President Johnson, and the rightwing opponents of Eisenhower and Kennedy into avid supporters of the present administration. … We have tried to force upon the rest of the world a righteous American point of view which we maintained is the consensus that others must accept. Most of the tragedies of the world have come from such righteousness. (Goulden, p. 166)
When Senator Fulbright began to hold his hearings, CBS decided to cover them on a daily basis. That is, they pre-empted regular programming. The man most responsible for this daring move was executive producer Fred Friendly. Friendly thought this could be a good opportunity for Americans to see how democracy actually worked and to partake in a debate over what was becoming a controversial war.
One of the first witnesses Fulbright called was former diplomat-turned-historian George Kennan. Johnson knew that Kennan would be a potent witness against the war, because he was immune to the tactics the president was using: branding his critics as commie symps. The reason that would not work with Kennan is because in 1946, while diplomatically stationed in Russia, Kennan had been the author of the famous Long Telegram from Moscow. That 8,000-word memo outlined the philosophy of containment, which the USA would follow for the next 40 years in its relations with the USSR. But Kennan did not agree with starting wars in places that posed no threat to the national security of America. He compared them to an elephant being frightened by a mouse. Burns and Novick tell us that, for whatever reason, CBS decided not to air Kennan’s testimony on its network—the implication being that this was a failure of nerve on the part of the media.
That is wrong. And I do not for five seconds think that Burns and Novick did not know it was wrong. What really happened was this: Johnson called up the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, and browbeat him into not showing Kennan! (Randall B. Woods, Fulbright: A Biography, p. 405) In my opinion, this is a serious alteration of the record. It somehow blames the media for something that they would not have done on their own. And it softens the image of Johnson, who was becoming more and more unstable as he was being attacked for his huge escalation of the war. One would think that film-makers who work through television would be sensitive to something like that.
But as alluded to above, Johnson did not just try to neutralize Kennan. He wanted to brand the whole anti-war movement as communist-inspired. As the film notes, he called in both Richard Helms and J. Edgar Hoover, Directors of the CIA and FBI, and told them to come up with some dirt relating these protesters to Moscow or Bejing. (Church Committee, Book 3, p. 681; James K. Davis, Spying on America, p. 132) These attempts were unsuccessful; but they were terribly damaging in the long run, because, given permission to do such things, those forays evolved over time into the CIA’s MH/CHAOS program, and greatly expanded the FBI’s COINTELPRO project. Both of them involved massive surveillance of leftist groups in America. And the surveillance often turned into operations to undermine those groups. The film leaves that out.
Burns and Novick mention the split the war caused between Johnson and Martin Luther King. It does not mention the fact that as King grew more vocal in his objections, Johnson struck out at him also. He began to play the so-called “sex tapes” that the FBI had put together for Hoover as a way of driving King to take his own life. Johnson had offered them to certain journalists while entertaining them in the White House. (Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, p. 574) When Vice-President Hubert Humphrey argued against escalating in 1965, Johnson became enraged and barred him from future meetings on Vietnam. He actually wanted surveillance placed on Humphrey to see who he was talking to. (Goldstein p. 162)
The film also tries to imply that Johnson conducted the war only in cooperation and agreement with his advisors. As we have seen with Humphrey, that is not really true. Johnson ended up overriding his advisors. And one by one, they started leaving: Pierre Salinger, Ken O’Donnell, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and finally, Robert McNamara were all gone by 1967. They all ended up disagreeing with Johnson’s war policy. And O’Donnell later wrote a book with Dave Powers where he specifically stated that Johnson had broken with Kennedy’s policy on Vietnam. (Ken O’Donnell & David Powers, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, pp. 14-18) As McGeorge Bundy found out, the so-called troop escalation debates were crafted in advance. Johnson had a secret telegram channel with Westmoreland in Saigon. When the general would make a troop request, LBJ would approve it. The president would then call in his advisors for a meeting whose conclusion had already been ordained. (Goldstein, pp. 214-15)
When taken with a wider lens, the picture Burns and Novick try to focus of Johnson is not really accurate or complete. The portait of Johnson drawn by the film is—to use a literary analogy—sort of like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: a blustering, but somewhat sympathetic elderly man who stumbles into an unforeseen mess.
This author would use two other literary comparisons: Captain Ahab and Macbeth. Ahab for the years 1963-65 and Macbeth for 1966-68. As we have shown with a surfeit of evidence, Johnson thought he knew and understood Vietnam and the Cold War better than Kennedy. So he immediately began to overturn his predecessor’s policy there. As he did so, he tried to hide the evidence of his reversal. Once he was elected in November of 1964, he began his full attack on Vietnam. Which turned into an epic tragedy for both Vietnam and America. In fact, what happened in Vietnam—short of atomic weapons—was probably the worst that could have happened. When Johnson saw how wrong he was, he turned into the Shakespearean character: striking out, and attempting to neutralize all those who opposed and criticized him. Until almost everyone had deserted him.
As depicted in Athens or at the Globe Theater, with tragedy there is always an element of both rage and violence. Johnson assiduously worked to spring his own trap on himself. And that is what is missing from this film.