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LBJ and Bundy on the Military Option in the Cuban Missile Crisis

LBJ and Fulbright

Fulbright and LBJ in June 1965
Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto / LBJ Library

For the second time in a month, LBJ talked of a supposed leak of a letter from the Joint Chiefs to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis that found its way to Khrushchev. In his previous conversation, he relayed the story to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not been there. This time, he discussed it in more detail–and explains where he got the story from–with someone who was there: National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

Not for the first or last time, LBJ was frustrated with Senator J. William Fulbright’s anti-Vietnam War stance. In televised committee hearings, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman criticized the administration’s Vietnam policy and pointed to the example of the Cuban missile crisis as a case when a moderate approach was successful. Arguing that a withdrawal from Vietnam would not have the dire consequences the administration claimed, Fulbright said:

This country is much too strong, in my opinion, that it would suffer any great setback. We are much stronger than Russia was when she withdrew from Cuba. Within a week maybe people said she had had a rebuff and within a month everyone was complimenting them for having contributed to the maintenance of peace.

We are certainly strong enough and decent enough and good enough in every respect to withstand any kind of compromise that is at all reasonable.{{1}}

Another person who irritated LBJ–even more than Fulbright did–had also weighed in on the Cuban missile crisis analogy in recent days. Robert Kennedy pointed to his brother’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis as a model for what should be done in Vietnam. That crisis was solved, Kennedy said at a press conference on February 20, 1966, because his brother focused on removing the missiles, not humiliating the adversary. That approach, Kennedy argued, should be applied to Vietnam to create a compromise Saigon government in which Communists shared power.{{2}}

In terms of the “leak” LBJ mentions, and his implication that it was both unauthorized and undesirable, he may have been missing the point. As Bundy seems to try to point out, the Kennedy administration had used the threat of invasion directly with the Soviets precisely in the hope they would back down before it became necessary. Robert Kennedy, in his secret meetings with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, had even explicitly told Dobrynin that the President was finding it increasingly difficult to resist the pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for military action against Cuba.

LBJ But gosh, he's real inconsistent.
McGeorge Bundy Oh, I know that.
LBJ Following [J. William] Fulbright's theory and talking about how careful and measured they were. Fulbright was dropping bombs on Cuba, as I remember it.
Bundy Sure.
LBJ And saying, “Let's do it right now.”
Bundy That's right.
LBJ And the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as I understood it, signed the letter. And [General Maxwell] Taylor first agreed with it, and then backed off a little bit that day, the day before. Isn't that correct?
Bundy I don't remember Max's position.
LBJ Well, didn't they recommend taking them out?
Bundy They were certainly--they certainly were. Air strike plus invasion, really.
LBJ I was told by my military aide that he was told that they had signed it, that Taylor was on board, that he signed it, that he was going to take it over, that he talked to somebody, and then called them back in and said that he wanted to interpret it a little differently, And he backed away from it at that very moment. And a good many people over there who were gossipers and who are still gossipers were of the opinion that the commies knew about that and that's why [Nikita] Khrushchev came in when he did. They knew that we were getting ready to do this, and they had their leaks. And that it's kind of like [Dwight] Eisenhower's leak.
Bundy I've always thought that the prospect of invasion had more to do with the solution than any other one thing. I couldn't prove it, but I just think that it looked awful imminent.

In characterizing Fulbright’s views during the Cuban missile crisis, LBJ was quite correct. LBJ had been present at an October 22, 1962, meeting, convened just 90 minutes before President Kennedy’s speech to the nation announcing the blockade of Cuba, when Fulbright had argued emphatically against a blockade and for a military invasion. (That exchange was caught on tape, and you can listen to it here.)

Source Tape: WH6602-07-9655, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

[[1]]John A. Goldsmith, “Rusk Rejects Limit on War Involvement,” Washington Post, 19 February 1966, p.A1.[[1]]
[[2]]Robert E. Thompson, “Bob Kennedy Urges Share for Reds in Saigon Regime,” Los Angeles Times, 20 February 1966, p.1.[[2]]