LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?

Corporealism XII: LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?


Howard Adelman

Upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, having been Kennedy’s Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) became the 36th President of the United States. A year later, he won a sweeping victory in his own right, but by 1969 he had become the main villain responsible for perpetuating and escalating the Vietnam War (the American War for the Vietnamese) and decided not to stand again for the presidency. What had happened between Kennedy’s speech, “A Strategy for Peace,” and 1969? The answer can be found in what happened in 1964.

From a hawk, a presidential candidate who first won election on the fabricated claim that there was a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the USSR to the advantage of the Soviet regime, Kennedy had become a convert mouthing the slogans and beliefs of the peace movement. He had reigned in his generals, or so it seemed. But had he? There were 16,000 American servicemen stationed in Vietnam to help train the Vietnamese army and participate alongside South Vietnamese troops in fighting the Viet Cong. America suffered 122 combat deaths in 1963 alone and had become the main arms supplier for the South Vietnam government’s war against the insurgent guerillas but was losing helicopters at an enormous rate simply from ground fire.

President Kennedy in his 1963 State of the Union Address had insisted that, “the spearpoint of aggression had been blunted in Vietnam.” This was a situation that LBJ had not initiated but had inherited. But he never questioned the repeated misrepresentations by the military brass of the progress of the war in spite of the facts taking place observed by their own officers and the advice to switch the emphasis from military sweep operations to civil and political action. The top brass did the reverse, calling the “hearts and minds” operation a “sissy” approach and shifted more resources into the military battles and called for more troops on the ground.

When LBJ took office on 22 November 1963, in his inaugural speech, he promised to enact Kennedy’s Civil Rights legislation and declared his own war, not against communism but against poverty. He more than fulfilled the promise to complete Kennedy’s war on apartheid America. A year later in November of 1964, he won the largest landslide in the history of American presidential campaigns, winning with 61% of the popular vote and sweeping the Electoral College.

In 1964, after 83 days of debate, the Civil Rights Act was passed that ended legalized racial segregation in the use of any public facilities anywhere in the United States. Discrimination in employment was outlawed. The Southern control of the Senate through the use of the filibuster lay in ruins, as did future support from white voters for the Democratic Party in the south. Nevertheless, in the Johnson electoral sweep of 1964, 28 Democratic Senators and 295 Democratic members of the House of Representatives had been swept into office on LBJ’s coattails. Johnson’s bullying and entreaties, exchanges of favours and waving a very large stick, had worked wonders. In the 1965 Voting Rights Act after he won his sweeping re-election, discriminatory voting rules were banned and the gerrymandering of electoral districts was made illegal. Yet what comes immediately to my mind when I think of President Johnson? Not his enormous achievements, not his Great Society program and legislation to eradicate poverty and guarantee racial justice, not his Medicaid protections for the elderly, not his guarantees of equal access to education and his Headstart program, not the first efforts ever to protect America’s natural resources and not even the beginning of a series of missteps in America’s war against crime, but “LJ, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”

Six months after his inauguration in his own right, in July 1965, LBJ received a request from General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, for 175,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Johnson agreed to 50,000 on top of the 16,000 already there. In February of 1963, General Paul D. Hawkins had requested 485,000 personnel promising subsequent rapid reductions. He was supported in his requests by the “optimistic” reports (some would call them exercises in self-deception if not outright lies) by Army Chief of Staff General Earl Wheeler that victory was in sight.  Those reports by the top brass were contradicted by on the ground assessments, such as that of Colonel Wilbur Wilson that the attacks against the hamlets overwhelmingly killed civilians since the advance bombardments on the hamlets forewarned the Viet Cong who escaped into the jungles.

Whereas Kennedy began as a hawk and converted to a dove, LBJ, when he was Vice-President, opposed military escalation in Vietnam, but became its adopted parent. By the end of 1965, almost 200,000 Americans were serving in Vietnam. Johnson authorized the expansion of the U.S. bombing campaign. By 1968, there were a half million American troops in Indochina. LBJ then had an approval rating of only 26% and American campuses and communities were ridden with protests and clashes over the war. Americans had become cynical about government even though economic growth had been raging forward at an average of 4.5% per annum, personal incomes were growing by leaps and bounds, and unemployment had reached a peak of an unprecedented only 3.5%. In spite of all these positive indicators, a wave of American refugees began migrating to Canada. Abroad, Americans taped the new Canadian flag on their backpacks as they traveled to avoid being reviled overseas.

LBJ’s problems began with the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that, in the context of the fight against communism, was passed by the United States Senate in 1964 after only 40 minutes of debate. Recall that Eisenhower had advised being steadfast in one’s loyalty and support of allies, but in his twelve principles to guide policy, his last advised engaging with allies “in a ‘confederation of mutual trust and respect’ among equals no matter how weak an ally may be, and never abandon the continuing imperative in pursuit of perpetual peace and, wherever possible, the avoidance of the certain agonies of war.” To that end, the pursuit of disarmament had to remain a continuing imperative as Kennedy had reiterated this theme in his famous address, “A Strategy for Peace.”

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was a fraud, a child of the Chief of Staff’s beliefs that, in the fight against communism, including deceiving Americans as the order of the day. Recall Lemnitzer’s proposal for creating a pretext for engaging Castro in battle by staging an attack on Guantánamo and by setting up attacks on Cuban exiles in Florida that could be blamed on Castro agents. However, with LBJ they had a willing listener. He had been left out of the loop by JFK and had not acquired Kennedy’s skepticism of the military brass. Besides, LBJ had been a firm believer in the “Domino Theory,” and a belief in helping the South Vietnamese government fight off the communists. LBJ supported the presence of American troops in Vietnam. He just did not want to support an escalation in the deployment of more troops to Vietnam until he had won re-election.

But the American Chiefs of Staff believed that American intervention was urgent, otherwise the South Vietnamese government was in danger of falling to the Viet Cong.  General Khánh, the new leader in Vietnam, spoke directly to LBJ and told him that the South Vietnamese army was not yet capable of standing up to the Viet Cong. The American presidential elections were almost a year away. As a compromise, KBJ approved continuing first “Operation Plan 34A” (OPLAN 34Alpha) which he inherited from JFK and then authorized “Operation Plan 34B”.

OPLAN 34A was a covert action program in support of the South Vietnamese government to insert undercover operatives and naval operations for purposes of sabotage conjoined with aerial reconnaissance. Under Johnson, this operation was transferred from the CIA to the American Military Assistance Command in South Vietnam under the direct command and control of the Pentagon. The trained operatives inserted into North Vietnam were being captured on a regular basis indicating that North Vietnam had a successful spy program in operation in South Vietnam. So OPLAN 34B shifted from putting its weight on its right foot and began emphasizing its naval operations, including electronic surveillance by ocean-going minesweepers. The American navy acquired and operated a small fleet of very fast patrol boats that landed rapid action teams behind enemy lines and engaged in offshore bombardment, increasing the activities enormously over the summer of 1964 after an intense engagement at Chan La.

Maritime surveillance by minesweepers had already been replaced by destroyers capable of self-defense. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam responded in turn, not by attacks on the American ships, but by deploying gunboats and torpedo-equipped frigates to track the American maritime maneuvers. On 2 August 1964, one of those destroyers, the USS Maddox, was reported as having come under fire by North Vietnam patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.  LBJ used the alleged incident to secure passage by Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (formally the Southeast Asia Resolution) passed on 7 August 1964 which authorized LBJ to use military force in Southeast Asia without obtaining the prior approval of Congress or a formal declaration of war.

It was all a fabrication. Did LBJ know that, or was he simply being used by the military brass who had no respect for civilian presidents since Dwight Eisenhower ended his term as President? There were supposedly two confrontations in the Gulf of Tonkin. Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were alleged to have attacked the USS Maddox engaged in surveillance operations. A sea battle allegedly took place. The second alleged incident on 4 August was quickly revealed to be mistakes on radar of “ghost” ships and the attacks by the Maddox joined by the Turner Joy were against blips on their radar screens in turbulent weather rather than real North Vietnamese patrol boats. Robert S. McNamara, the Defence Secretary Johnson had inherited from JFK, in a documentary called The Fog of War admitted that there was no real incident on 4 August 1964 and, in the first incident, there had been no attack by North Vietnamese boats against the USS Maddox. In 1995, when General Vő Nguyën Giáp, former head of the Vietnam People’s Army in North Vietnam, met with Robert McNamara, the latter still insisted, however, that the whole incident had been to warn the patrol boats not to come within ten thousand yards of the American ships.

No battle at all. But a big American War followed. In 1963 we had come to believe that we were finally on the road to peace when Kennedy formally renounced the MAD doctrine and endorsed seeking a test ban treaty. All the while covert action had been underway to escalate a conventional guerilla insurgent war backed by the North Vietnamese. Johnson may not have been briefed about the perfidy of the senior American military brass, but McNamara knew and seemed willing to go along with the deception at the time. Johnson was already prone to going along with the escalation as long as it did not jeopardize his winning the 1964 election. For LBJ believed in the Domino Theory and shared the generals’ beliefs that the advance of communism could only be stopped by military means.

A prime source of the truth of what happened came from Daniel Ellsberg. At the time of the second alleged incident, he was on duty at the Pentagon receiving messages from the surveillance ships. Ellsberg was a captain in the marines and a young mathematician who had taken graduate studies at Harvard and worked for the Rand Corporation as an analyst where he was a committed Cold Warrior. Disillusioned seven years later, he became the source for the infamous Pentagon Papers. At the time he knew that there had been no provoked attack if there had been any attack at all.

As reported publicly, the Gulf of Tonkin incident allegedly consisted of the following:

  • An attack on the afternoon of 2 August by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats against the USS Maddox
  • The Maddox was attacked within 10 nautical miles of the U.S. ship that was lying in international waters 28 nautical miles from the North Vietnamese coast
  • Maddox was attacked by a torpedo
  • Maddox replied by firing its 5” guns.
  • Another torpedo was directed at the Maddox
  • The third torpedo boat, which had not yet fired its torpedo, was hit by a shell from the 5” guns of the Maddox
  • Jets were launched from the destroyer USS Turner and allegedly sunk one retreating North Vietnamese fast patrol boat and damaged another.

According to an American NSA study:

  • North Vietnamese patrol boats had never fired torpedoes against the Maddox
  • Though the Maddox claimed to be in international waters, according to Admiral Ulysses Simpson Grant Sharp Jr., it was actually within the 12 mile limit recognized internationally according to the law of the sea and claimed by North Vietnam as part of its territory; even the Pentagon orders to the captain to stay 8 nautical miles (9.2 regular miles) from the coast put the ship inside North Vietnamese territorial waters; the information did not come from a low level officer but from Sharp who was then a PACOM Commander and was subsequently promoted to a four star admiral commanding the United States Pacific Fleet from 1963 to 1964 and head of United States Pacific Command from 1964 to 1968 – another proof of how it pays to buy into and support the military brass party line
  • The Maddox had fired on fishing boats
  • North Vietnamese patrol boats then intervened to protect the fishermen, but fired guns, not torpedoes
  • According to air squadron commander James Stockdale, who was later captured and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese, there were no targets at sea except American ones, but he was ordered to suppress that information at the time. (See James Stockdale (1984) Love and War)
  • Senior CIA intelligence officer S. Eugene Poteat was asked in early August 1964 to examine the radar operator’s report, and he concluded no real torpedo attack had taken place, though retired Rear Admiral Lloyd “Joe” Vasey, backed by 18 military witnesses, testified offering details that an actual attack had taken place, suggesting not simply a mistake, but a conspiracy of deep deception not just a misunderstanding
  • See John White’s 2014 book, The Gulf of Tonkin Events – Fifty Years Later: A Footnote to the History of the Vietnam War; White, who had been previously skeptical about the incident, was inspired to write the book when he interviewed Stockdale, then an admiral, and Joseph Schaperjahn, the chief sonar operator on the Turner Joy who verified that the initial Maddox radar reports were erroneous

It was the second phantom incident that set LBJ in motion when the two American ships claimed to have sunk two attacking North Torpedo boats. There never was, even at the time, any real evidence of an attack. Cables from the Maddox from Captain John J. Herrick, indicated doubt whether any real incident had taken place. There had been only one claim that a single torpedo had been fired and it had only allegedly been heard but never seen by anyone. Nevertheless, after receiving this highly qualified alleged report of an attack, without any further critical assessment, well warranted under the circumstances, but without being informed explicitly by McNamara that Herrick himself even doubted that a real confrontation had taken place, LBJ expressed outrage and ordered retaliatory measures on 5 August. Within hours of LBJ making these claims in his Gulf of Tonkin address to the nation in which he said, “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.” American aircraft launched from U.S. carriers were bombing North Vietnam, focusing initially on four torpedo boat bases.

LBJ never indicated that America had been involved in a covert war since 1961and his statements that America’s only goal was a limited military response as a warning to the North Vietnamese was an outright lie. Senator Wayne Morris, who had heard from a secret informant that the whole story was a hoax, was not given time to set up a Senate committee to examine the logs of the two ships and hear from various witnesses. Morris’ efforts at delay were overwhelmed by a vote in support of 88 to 2 senators giving Johnson unlimited rights to take military action. The House voted unanimously in support of LBJ.

Longer term practices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council during that period suggest deep habits of deceptions. Yet the seemingly moderate character of LBJ’s approach went a long way in misleading Americans, especially in contrast with the ardent hawkish views of Barry Goldwater whom he faced in the 1964 election campaign. A month after his inauguration, Johnson authorized “Operation Rolling Thunder” to begin on 24 February. By 8 March, 3,500 American troops landed on the ground to directly engage the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. American installations were no longer off limits for attack by the Viet Cong lest America be given an excuse to escalate its involvement. It did not matter. America’s commitment rose to over have a million military personnel involved in the war. Yet Senator Morris was defeated in his effort at re-election in 1968.

We now know that both LBJ and McNamara at the time had their own doubts about whether any attack had actually taken place. The passions for war were being stirred by the American media while LBJ was assuring Americans that there would be no war between the U.S. lest that in any way jeopardize his election chances. It has since become reasonably clear that both LBJ and McNamara had been willing dupes of a fabrication by the military brass to escalate the war in Vietnam, though the evidence remains circumstantial; no smoking gun had been produced. (See James Bamford, Body of Secrets.) Having got away with it, the American military brass now went on a course of escalating provocative incidents to bring the war to North Vietnam.

Robert J. Hanyok in his reassessment for The New York Times claimed the evidence supports a case of unintended error rather than deliberate deception. My review of both the evidence and the long term thought processes and practices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council led me to the opposite conclusion, a deep pattern and practice of deliberate deception in the highest ranks of American military and civilian leadership at the time. The irony is that all this knowledge is available because America is a more open society than any other in my experience, confirmed when I was charged with investigating the involvement of various states in the Rwanda genocide.

The course of action was assisted on its way, not only because of LBJ’s personal convictions, but by the fact that he was a bully by nature. Lester B. Pearson, after he became Prime Minister of Canada, visited Washington to discuss the possibility of cancelling or delaying the installation in Sudbury of the Bomarc missiles that were specifically designed for nuclear warheads and that I wrote about yesterday. The two were in the Oval Office. After Pearson made the suggestion, Johnson first scowled and then growled and then approached Pearson face to face, his chest within inches of Mike’s chin. The tall Johnson actually took hold of the lapels of Pearson’s jacket, lifted him off his feet and roared into his face, “You try to stop the installation of those missiles and I’ll have your balls for dinner.”

I heard the story the evening of the incident. Pearson had flown back to Toronto, rather than Ottawa. Vince Kelly, then the head of the Young Liberals of Canada, came over to my house after he dropped Pearson off at his hotel and told me the story. He insisted that Pearson was still shaking from the incident when he arrived at the airport. Years later, when I chaired one of three commissions looking into the use of nuclear energy for peaceful and military purposes and where the waste could also be safely handled, our commission heard testimony from Professor David Cox of the Politics Department at Queens University that all along the Bomarcs had just been a decoy. They had been obsolete as we had claimed in the sixties. The vital and effective nuclear tipped missiles were already on Canadian soil all along the Dew Line. The Canadian government knew nothing about it at the time.

Deliberate deception has its own hubris. Kennedy never confessed to his misleading election campaign and to the claims of a missile gap. He allowed the generals and admirals to play with their military toys safely on leash, or so he thought, while he concentrated on setting the threat of nuclear war on a new course. There is no evidence that he briefed Lyndon Baines Johnson, his Vice-President, on the madcap schemes of the American military top brass, perhaps because LBJ might sympathize with them. Because of those sympathies, because Johnson himself was a bully, he added to and exaggerated the schemes rather than reigning them in. Instead of going on record as the greatest president ever as a result of his enormous domestic record of accomplishments, he went down in history as America’s greatest killer of kids, American but especially Vietnamese.

Can Obama learn the correct lessons from Johnson’s presidency and apply them when it comes to making decisions about Syria, about Iraq, about Yugoslavia and about Libya? Johnson had allowed himself willingly to become the ventriloquist for the military machination of the top brass in the U.S. Is Obama doing the same thing?


With the help of Alex Zisman