LBJ's Presidential Tapes ... Excerpts Published in the Atlantic About JFK's Death

Roundup: Talking About History

Max Holland, in the Atlantic (June 2004):

In July of 1973, six months after the death of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Atlantic published an article by a journalist and former Johnson speechwriter named Leo Janos. "The Last Days of the President," about LBJ in retirement, was elegiac in tone and fact, save for one dissonant paragraph—in which Johnson volunteered his opinion that President John F. Kennedy's assassination had been the result of a conspiracy organized from Cuba."I never believed that [Lee Harvey] Oswald acted alone, although I can accept that he pulled the trigger," he explained to Janos. Johnson thought such a conspiracy had formed in retaliation for U.S. plots to assassinate Fidel Castro; he had found after taking office that the government"had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean."

Johnson's assertion generated just a ripple of attention at the time, ten years after the assassination. Conspiracy theories about the assassination had become a cottage industry, and the fact that even a former President believed in one was interesting, but only mildly so. Then, too, Kennedy's mythic stature left no room for an allegation of this nature, and Johnson's well-known penchant for exaggeration worked against him. Besides, it was easy to discount the views of a President whose term had given rise to the phrase" credibility gap." After his bitterly divisive years in office the public wanted none of Johnson's regrets, reminiscences, or revelations.

Johnson's remark was dismissed until 1975, when an extraordinary series of events, ignited by the Watergate break-in, culminated in the baring of the Central Intelligence Agency's darkest secrets—including the fact that it had indeed tried during the early 1960s to assassinate Fidel Castro. Still, the story behind Johnson's indiscretion to Janos has never been adequately understood or explained. Surely Johnson appreciated the likely consequences if his words were taken at face value. They could be devastating to the government and the nation to which he had devoted the greater portion of his life. To answer the question of why Johnson spoke out is to understand how he himself saw his presidency.

It is possible to reconstruct the story only because Johnson secretly recorded many of his telephone conversations. Without these recordings—history with the bark off—vital information would be altogether missing. Not one of the millions of documents in the Johnson Library reveals the President's own thoughts soon after hearing what was then a rumor about CIA plots against Castro; only the recordings do. It is virtually an article of faith among historians that the war in Vietnam was the overwhelming reason the President left office a worn, bitter, and disillusioned man. But the assassination-related tapes paint a more nuanced picture—one in which Johnson's view of the assassination weighed as heavily on him as the war.

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