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Page 43
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<< 42. Peace with Honor44. Letter to the Editor >>

Lyndon: In a Winter of Our Discontent

By John Crandell

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PART 3: (The third of a three-part dissection of LBJ)

Ol' Hang Dog, it was who sent us halfway around the world to kill or be killed in the jungle. Some made money off the black market at base camp; back home in Texas, others made a boatload of money off of Vietnam Inc. Ten years earlier, scriptwriter Bud Schulberg and director Elia Kazan had visited Capitol Hill in an effort to discern human nature. They interviewed Lyndon Johnson in the Old Senate Office Building. Johnson admitted guilelessly, "That TV camera is right in your face… If you don't hold your eyes steady, people will say 'he's shifty'." Nine years onward, sixty-seven days before the August 2nd, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, Johnson put in a call to Richard Russell, his senatorial confidant in discrimination and disenfranchisement of yesteryear.

We have long been told that LBJ was vexed over the prospect of war in Vietnam. He elicited Russell's opinion and then chuckled just as the senator replied, "It's a damn worse mess I ever saw," in declining to advise any such foreign involvement. Was it Russell's no-nonsense reply that sparked Johnson's mirth or a frank acknowledgment of a false narrative in progress? Was it his purpose to create a sympathetic construct? He said to Russell right out of the gate: "What do you think about this Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear your talk a little bit." "I don't know what to do for the past six months." Capitol Hill's magister contracting profiteer of the Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower years readily said he'd felt the same way—when reliable evidence sourced in 1996 by future DNS H.R. McMaster indicates otherwise. He intended to get into, resolve a foreign conflict, and quickly get out, and if anything were to go wrong, he'd need reference material for an excuse. And it all proved so wrong that no sympathetic references could ever furnish anyone with an excuse for the human atrocity our involvement became.

It seems that the new president only became confused in the hours after JFK died. At a meeting the next day in his office at the Executive Office Building, he countermanded Kennedy's NSAM for withdrawal from Vietnam. The confusion seems apparent here: he directed McNamara to begin reducing and streamlining the Defense Department budget. Or was it a double deal? Mac was happy enough, wagged his tail in agreement—until Johnson woke up to reality a few weeks later and realized what a position he could put himself in Texas' political spectrum if he were to go forward with cutting Defense. His new direction for South Vietnam remained the same, however. His direction regarding the Pentagon changed polarity, and none of the Chiefs or his advisers questioned the sensibility of propping up a weak and corrupt government on the other side of the globe. In the meeting in the EOB, Johnson said, "We'll stand by our word, but I have misgivings. I feel like a fish that just grabbed a worm with a big hook in the middle of it."

Conversely, he directed Ambassador Lodge to tell Big Minh that he "can count on us" and that he was "not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went." Such an ability to defuse and pour in every direction had been gained in a lengthy, storied, and infamous career on Capitol Hill. The era of guns, butter, and misdirection had arrived.

LBJ would be vexed in coming years, but only to a point. All of the grocery sacks and suitcases that John Connally and mega-contractor George Brown had carried to Washington on flights from Texas, all of those bundled Franklins served up for Johnson's cash cow operation in the Senate were pure leverage. Now they seem to have served to spawn his commitment to violence abroad. No matter that Connally had lost a bag worth $40,000 that was never recovered and no matter the tragic cost to a younger generation, Johnson would have to placate the Lone Star establishment that'd gotten him his career, perhaps even his job in the Oval Office. Readers can research and judge whether LBJ, while president, masterminded the extraction of all or a majority of a Spanish-era bounty of gold bars from Victorio Peak on the White Sands Missile Range. Such was LBJ's position that Baker was recorded as saying that the Chinese leader: "Chiang Kai-shek probably sent more cash to senators than anybody in history." It's interesting to note that Brown and his brother Herman had committed their firm to engineer and construct an all-weather highway through the Thai jungle so that the CIA could oversee the transport of opium conscripted by Chiang's continental forces in the wake of Mao's victory. This episode occurred well over a decade into Johnson's career in Washington.

An article on politico.com reveals that nearly a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, "Administration hawks, led by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, urged Johnson to give the public all the facts, ask Congress to raise taxes, mobilize the reserves and declare a national emergency." From the State Department, George Ball urged LBJ to stage a "tactical withdrawal" to avert a catastrophe. The undersecretary warned that draftees were ill-suited to fight a jungle war; that backing for the war would implode as casualties rose and that, in the end, the United States would lose." He'd earlier warned JFK of the disaster that could result, and the hero of PT-109 then said he was crazy. Ball, a veteran of the Second World War, had participated in a strategic bombing survey that evaluated the US and RAF bombing of Germany. The lengthy memo from State to Johnson of October 5th, 1964, reasoned through two factors: the tropical terrain being eyed by Strangelovians in Congress and the Pentagon and a frank appreciation of Ho's nativist aim for a united and independent Vietnamese nation. Bill Moyers intervened and saw to it that Johnson saw the memo. MacBundy, Rusk, and McNamara had read it, and their primary concern was that the conclusions might leak. McNamara, in particular, was horrified and treated the work as if it were treasonous, "a poison snake."

It had been the Korean War that served to end the careers of Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur. And afterward, with the collapse of France's colony in Indo-China, MacArthur warned against any US involvement there. And so there is no small irony in the fact that it had been MacArthur who alone decided to award then congressman Lyndon Johnson a Silver Star Medal for having taken a single ride aboard an Air Force bomber against the Japanese navy in World War II, simply as an observer representing Congress. No heroics had been involved; no other man aboard that flight (combat vets all) received any medal. Big Mac was just brown-nosing his superiors in the Pacific Fleet. With only six years interacting with President Roosevelt and Speaker Sam Rayburn, Johnson had already become the brownest nosed pol in the history of Washington, DC. They had that in common.

Two years before the '63 assassination, the Kennedy brothers established a covert investigation of the Civello mob of Dallas under the rubric of an Organized Crime Task Force. They knew that the destruction of Dallas' mafia would ruin LBJ. Objects of that effort may have included HL "Bunky" Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and Frank Halfen. Skip to the final edit of the investigative report by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter William Lambert, then being formatted for Life Magazine's presses just as shots were fired in Dealey Plaza. The report purportedly laid out the reality that Bobby Baker's personal financial activities in his Senate position had primarily been to distribute the cash horde wrought from Texas' lawyers, industrialists, and construction contractors. The salient portion of Life's article was that "Baker had served as Lyndon's bluntest instrument," working in the Senate over the previous eight years. John Connally had introduced the two following Johnson's stealing the Democratic nomination to Texas' Senate seat in 1948. LBJ was unapologetic in their first talk—"Frankly, Mister Baker, I'm for nearly anything the big oil boys want because they hold the whip hand, and I represent 'em!"

All materials related to the '63 Life article were gathered and immediately destroyed following the news from Dallas. Baker had resigned from his senate duties a month and a half earlier. He and Johnson would remain out of contact for nearly a decade. Their only reunion would not be happy. In his dying days, the 36th president would admit to him that his "presidency had been sold out and gone sour." At the zenith of his Capitol Hill years, Baker's staff would sing the words to "Sweet Georgia Brown" whenever one or the other brother's name was mentioned. The brothers had served as CIA assets in the world war, and their company would be absorbed into Halliburton Enterprises in 1962 after Herman Brown's death.

Following Johnson's assuming the vice presidency, Baker managed to install himself as secretary to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield; alarm bells went off at Ninth and Pennsylvania Avenues. By then, he and the new veep had attended the inauguration of Juan Bosch, the progressivist replacement for "Dracula"—Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo—the bloodiest dictator in the western Hemisphere who'd been assassinated by his own military nearly two years earlier. Baker departed Santo Domingo and flew to Miami to meet with Sam Giancana and soon became associated with Las Vegas mobster Benjamin Sigelbaum. J. Edgar had begrudgingly acceded to Bobby Kennedy's interest in tallying those Americans involved in peddling influence in Santo Domingo. Vast sums of money were being contributed to various senators and congressmen to control US sugar import quotas. Given the leniency of the Bosch administration, Baker and his acquaintances sought to establish amusement attractions (slot machines) in Hilton Hotels located in the Dominican capital and Curacao. Suddenly, Meyer Lansky became interested, and following Bosch's inaugural, Baker was frequently observed entering and leaving the Santo Domingo airport. His name had appeared on Hoover's list much earlier.

Following his conviction and incarceration, Baker would relate in his memoir that "For all his strengths and talents, Lyndon Johnson was often a professional crybaby." As storm clouds were gathering in October of '63, Johnson admitted to him—"No, you don't really have any idea of how unhappy I am now,"—not after what RFK, a.k.a.—"The Rat Terrier" had done to him in the Roosevelt Room over the previous summer. When the kill shot rang out in Dealey Plaza, Bobby Baker's friend—insurance broker Don Reynolds, was being interviewed by Senator Hugh Scott and minority counsel Burkett Van Kirk (testimony soon to be disappeared). LBJ's turpitude was under examination. Van Kirk later told investigator Sy Hersch that "there's no doubt in my mind that Reynolds' testimony would have gotten Johnson out of the vice presidency." The veep and his accomplice had been attempting a kickback scheme. The doomed expose for Life had described Baker as "the 101st senator, Johnson's legman, mouthpiece and satrap of power." A few months before, Baker had advised LBJ that "the Washington press corps is convinced that there is a well-organized move afoot to groom Bobby Kennedy for the presidency in 1968 and shove you aside." He'd been hauling in three and a half million dollars per annum running a vending machine business away from Capitol Hill and had never earned more than $20,000 a year working the Senate. According to author Joan Mellen, Johnson's first call after returning to the White House from Dallas was regarding that day's testimony to Scott.

Before his father's cotton investment evaporated, his mother had outfitted him as Little Lord Fauntleroy. He never got over his dad's demise and their subsequent poverty. The nation paid a high price thereby. In December of '64, Lyndon Johnson would meet with three journalists for a three-hour backgrounder. Journalist David Wise would write of that meeting: "He likened his situation to standing on a copy of a newspaper in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean." "If I go this way," he said, tilting his head to the right, "I'll topple over, and if I go this way,"—tilted his head down to the left—"I'll topple over, and if I stay where I am, the paper will be soaked up, and I'll sink slowly to the bottom of the sea." As he said this, he lowered his head slowly to the floor." Right. It was all about Lyndon's career and paranoia of becoming a failure like his father. On the night of the second purported attack on the USS Maddox four months earlier, James Stockdale had been ordered to lead the reprisal in the first US air assault on North Vietnam. "Reprisal for what?" he asked himself. "How do I get in touch with the president?—he's going off half-cocked!" As he dropped his bombs on Vinh, he said to himself, "America has just been locked into the Vietnam War." He was captured after his craft was shot down nine months later. Years onward, after being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he would so aptly declaim: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

It is midwinter as I write this third installment on the 36th POTUS. The Supreme Court is to decide regarding Trump's J6 immunity and candidacy under the 14th Amendment. Who could adequately guess how the fall election will turn out following another torrid summer? Win or lose, there will likely be rioting when the fall edition of The Veteran hits our mailboxes. A conclusion to this series examining the dark side of the president who sent us abroad might still be worth a try (and God help us, no matter the status of JabbaSaurus Rex).

John Crandell, a one-time insubordinate postal clerk for the 4th US infantry, is now retired from Beale AFB, propagates large-sized exotic succulents, and has nightmares regarding Donald Trump. He is a distant cousin to both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

LBJ about to be sworn in aboard Air Force One.

LBJ in 1927.

<< 42. Peace with Honor44. Letter to the Editor >>