|Lyndon Baines Johnson|
Military intervention in Vietnam expended vast amounts of blood and funds, and shattered the popular consensus that previously supported U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, dramatic growth in Soviet military power, and in German and Japanese economic strength, challenged U.S. hegemony. The tumultuous events that spanned LBJ’s presidency inspired many conspiracy theories, which often featured LBJ controlling events from behind the scenes.
Numerous biographers have described LBJ’s unpleasant personality: he was grossly crude, profane, vain, greedy, secretive, and ruthless; he flattered superiors and viciously bullied subordinates, and strove to dominate others and win at any cost. His relentless womanizing made President Clinton’s transgressions seem minor.
Johnson used his political power to amass a vast personal fortune, using, for example, his influence over the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to assure the success of the radio and TV stations he owned in his wife’s name. Lobbyists and government contractors purchased advertising time on these stations to secure LBJ’s favor.
Johnson employed corrupt and illegal political tactics. In Texas, he bought votes directly and through local officials, labor unions, and ethnic political machines. His opponent out-stole him in 1941, but Johnson created enough illegal ballots to win the 1948 senate race by eighty-seven votes, earning him the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.” In 1964 and 1968, Johnson instructed the FBI to spy on both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican presidential campaigns.
LBJ’s abuses of presidential power greatly exceeded Nixon’s. Johnson used the executive branch—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service, and Army Intelligence—to spy on and harass political opponents, administration officials, civil rights activists, antiwar protesters, celebrities, and ordinary citizens.
Conspiracy theorists often cite the above character flaws and criminal acts to support further speculation. After all, would not such a profoundly immoral man be capable of anything?
The chief accusations are that Johnson masterminded the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Allegedly, only Johnson had the motive and means to commit these crimes and to cover up government involvement afterward. LBJ is also accused of escalating the war in Vietnam on false pretenses, and giving Israel a “green light” to attack its neighbors.
Johnson’s alleged motives to kill JFK included simple desire for power and fear that Kennedy would drop him from the ticket in 1964. Some believe the assassination resulted from a bitter factional dispute between Kennedy’s northeastern “doves” and Johnson’s southern “hawks.”
These theorists note that after the assassination, Johnson immediately reversed Kennedy’s policies toward the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Southeast Asia, and began aggressively planning for intervention in Vietnam.
The assassination occurred on LBJ’s “home turf” (Texas), where Johnson’s supposed underworld connections could easily murder Kennedy and the patsy, Oswald. Finally, only Johnson, as the new president, could ensure that the Kennedy autopsy and the Warren Commission reached the “correct” conclusion—that is, that Oswald was a lone nut—and stymie any competing investigations.
Johnson’s alleged motives to kill Robert Kennedy included personal hatred and fear that he would reopen the investigation into his brother’s death (which would lead back to LBJ) once elected. More importantly, Robert Kennedy threatened Johnson’s position on Vietnam.
Before announcing his candidacy, Kennedy offered Johnson a choice: if LBJ publicly announced that Vietnam was a mistake, and appointed Kennedy to a commission to determine a new strategy, then RFK would not run for president. Otherwise, he would run on an antiwar platform, and presumably would withdraw the U.S. from Vietnam if elected.
The means of assassination were allegedly a “second gunman” infiltrated into Kennedy’s bodyguard, with a chemically programmed robot (Sirhan Sirhan) as patsy. Los Angeles Police Department officers with CIA and Army Intelligence ties purportedly ensured that the investigation was a whitewash and Sirhan was convicted.
Johnson’s motive to kill Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged from King’s threat to mobilize a massive antiwar protest in Washington and shut down the federal government. The FBI and Army Intelligence had watched King for years, and Army Intelligence had a massive presence in Memphis in April 1968.
Conspiracy theorists contend that Johnson ordered the military to “use every resource” to prevent King’s “invasion” of Washington. An army sniper team allegedly killed King, and the FBI coordinated the cover-up. Once again, the crime was pinned on a loner with no apparent motive, deflating talk of a larger conspiracy.
The conspiracy view of U.S. intervention in Vietnam contends that as soon as Johnson took power, he reversed Kennedy’s policy of gradual disengagement. In 1964, Johnson began to escalate the conflict, and provoked North Vietnam with covert operations in order to secure a pretext for overt intervention.
On 30–31 July, South Vietnamese commandos raided the North Vietnamese coast, and on 2 August, North Vietnam retaliated with a torpedo boat attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Johnson administration claimed that North Vietnam attacked again on 4 August, and that these were “unprovoked” attacks on innocent ships in international waters.
Hanoi accepted responsibility for the first attack, but charged that the Johnson administration deliberately faked the second attack in order to justify escalation (an accusation many conspiracy theorists accept). Whatever the case, Congress gave Johnson a “blank check” to intervene in Vietnam—the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution”—and LBJ cashed this check when he sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam after the 1964 election.
Conspiracy theorists believe that U.S. support permitted Israel’s crushing victory in the 1967 Six Day War. They contend that Johnson met Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban in May 1967, and gave Israel a “green light” to attack Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel thereby gained a defensive buffer, and obtained access to U.S. arms.
In return, Johnson secured the Jewish vote, and gained crucial assistance with his Vietnam problems, because closing the Suez Canal dramatically reduced the flow of Soviet weapons and supplies to North Vietnam. Some believe that the United States provided intelligence to Israel before the war, and that U.S. and British aircraft participated in the attack.
During the Six Day War, Israel attacked the USS Liberty, a U.S. intelligence ship in the Mediterranean. Johnson accepted Israel’s apology and explanation that the attack was a mistake.
Conspiracy theorists, however, believe Israel deliberately attacked the Liberty to prevent the ship from gathering intelligence on Israeli plans to attack Syria, and that Johnson knew this but hushed it up to protect Israel. Some even contend that Johnson purposely denied air cover for the Liberty, because he did not want U.S. aircraft and Israeli forces embroiled in combat.