Early Foreign Policy Issues
Johnson’s first foreign policy crisis came in Panama, in early January. His instinct: avoid anything that could appear as concessions (despite the trivial nature of the issue), lest doing so make him week at home. Few of his advisors shared such a hard-line view, so he turned for support to his Senate patron, Georgia senator Richard Russell, in these excerpts from January 10 and 11.
President Johnson: I was cold, and hard, and tough as well, so far as—
Richard Russell: That is exactly right.
President Johnson: —so far as this is concerned. Then I went back in and told our group here, that I thought we had to remember that a week ago—two or three weeks ago—I had to tell ‘em in Bolivia I’d send whatever aid I needed in there, to make them release one of our people there.
A few days earlier, they had someone else locked up in another place, and I was damn tired of [them] attacking our flag and our embassy and our USIS [United States Information Service] every time somebody got a little emotional outburst.
Russell: I’m so pleased.
President Johnson: So they better watch it.
Russell: I’m so pleased. That’s a great President. That’s a man that will go down in history.
[The conversation resumes the next day.]
President Johnson: And this fellow [Panamanian president Roberto Chiari]—every damn one of them is running against us, for re-election.
Russell: That’s right.
President Johnson: Six hundred of them stood outside and said, “Get out of here, gringos.”
Russell: Yeah, they’ve been doing that, and the one that denounces the Colossus of the North the most vociferously is the one that wins. That’s been true of the last three elections they’ve had.
On the surface, we haven’t got a friend there, but if we wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have anything. They’d be living out there half-naked in those swamps.
Johnson and Richard Russell
About a month later, On February 8, 1964, Johnson again turned to Russell to validate a hard-line response to a minor foreign policy problem, in this instance the arrest of Cuban fishermen off the Florida coast—which prompted Castro to cut off the water to the U.S. base in Guantanamo and led the United States (ultimately) to fire all Cuban workers on the base.
President Johnson: [Robert] McNamara feels like the sentiment in this country is such that we’ve got to do more than that. And that even though we would stand acquitted in the eyes of the world, and maybe some of the liberal papers in this country, that we probably ought to do two things: declare the independence of that base [Guantánamo] by saying we’re going to furnish our own water, and we don’t want your damn water, and to hell with you.
President Johnson: Now, that’s his feeling. He’s about the only one that feels that way. That’s my feeling. I think we ought to rap them.
President Johnson: USIA thinks it [the plight of fired Cuban workers on the base] will get a good deal of sympathy from the rest of the nations—
Russell: That’s their professional attitude. These nations ain’t as silly as we attribute ‘em to be, as we seem to think they are. And while they’re envious as hell of us, when they get down to where their self-interest is involved (and when we get hurt, their self-interest is injured), they’re not nearly as bad as everybody makes out like they are.
This Panama thing will demonstrate that beyond any doubt, if our people will just sit tight, and give them the facts. Say, “Here it is now; you’ve got a stake in this.”
Same thing’s true here in Cuba. They don’t want Castro to prosper—none of the leaders do. There’s thousands of the little people who are Communists [that] do. But they’re not going to raise any hell about it.
Khrushchev will blow up like hell. Comrade Mao Tse-tung will come in with a prolific of some kind. But the world as a whole will say, “Well, that’s right.” They don’t know just exactly what to do—they’re not in favor of any war, I don’t think; I don’t believe 10 percent of them would vote for that right now, under these circumstances.
But they are just tired of Castro urinating on us and getting away with it. They don’t like the smell of it any longer. And they just want to sort of show that we are taking such steps as within our power, without involving the shedding of a lot of blood.
That’s my analysis of the sentiment in the Congress.
President Johnson: Mm-hmm.
Russell: And I think in the country.
President Johnson: You think a lot of a lot of people are going to think [speaking of himself in the second person] you’re hotheaded when you just fire a lot of innocent Cubans?
Russell: No, sir, I don’t think so. I don’t believe that even the [New York] Times and the [Washington] Post could stir up 5 percent of the people about this.
I would make it perfectly clear that this is regrettable. That our association with these people [Cuban workers] has been pleasant and mutually profitable over a period of years. But they were within the power of Castro, and not in our power, and we had to make this base independent.
And we hope that in happier days that our pleasant relations with them could be renewed. I’d sure throw that in there. You’d get every one of them—why, he’d be a potential assassin of Castro.
These hard-line responses, ironically, only generated domestic criticism—the very outcome they were intended to avoid. Two days after his conversation with Russell, Johnson vented to his aide Walter Jenkins, expressing his frustration about his political vulnerability on foreign policy issues.
President Johnson: I’ve been trying to keep these little tinhorn ambassadors out of here ever since I’ve been in here, and you come in here and present it. If you do, it just gets in the newspapers, and all this will be in the papers somewhere. It’ll be in a [William] Haddad story, or [Douglas] Kiker, or somewhere. Or the Washington Post.
I think if you start seeing one ambassador, I don’t know how you’re going to avoid the other 113. I just honestly don’t know how.
Walter Jenkins: I agree with that.
President Johnson: I don’t know how you’re going to say that you’re willing to see the ambassador from Germany . . . Hell, I’ve had four state meetings, and I’ve been in here 60 days! I’ve had all kinds of meetings with ‘em, and every one of ‘em had their picture made with me, and sent back home. I just don’t understand it.
It looks like to me that one [negative] article on foreign policy—of course they’re going to make foreign policy the issue! If we could find out how to handle Vietnam, or what to do about Cuba, or how to handle the Republican National Committee, or what to do with these mean newspapers, maybe we’d know how to answer it.
But this is no more answer to it than it is for us to see all the reporters about Bobby Baker. As I see it. I don’t see what mileage we get.
Suppose they do go out and say, “Johnson’s seen 80 African ambassadors.”