Presidential Reflections on U.S. Intelligence: Lyndon B. Johnson
From President Truman on, each President has written a note of thanks to the men and women of the CIA. These notes are displayed with the President’s official photograph in the Presidential Gallery of the New Headquarters Building. This story is the third in a series about the relationship each president has had with the CIA. This article will focus on President Lyndon B. Johnson.
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When Lyndon B. Johnson took office as president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he had very little experience with foreign affairs and intelligence. During his time in office (1963-69), President Johnson was faced with the U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the war in Vietnam, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and efforts to reduce tension with the Soviet Union.
One of the most challenging tasks the director of an intelligence organization can face is gaining the trust of the president. But throughout all of these situations, President Johnson and the White House commanded the CIA’s support.
Building a Relationship with President Johnson
The Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI) during Johnson’s tenure — John A. McCone, William A. Raborn, and Richard M. Helms — faced the difficult task of establishing a relationship with a president who had little experience in intelligence.
DCIs McCone and Raborn didn’t have much luck with this task. It was DCI Helms who succeeded in building a rapport with President Johnson. The key intelligence achievement that won Johnson’s trust was the Agency’s accurate analysis of the Arab-Israeli War.
Analysis During the Arab-Israeli War
When the Arab-Israeli War broke out in June 1967, the CIA already had task forces operating and gathering information about the two sides’ strengths, weaknesses, and readiness for battle. Because of the Directorate of Intelligence’s (DI) foresight in this matter, DCI Helms was able to hand President Johns assessments of the situation in the Middle East only four hours after the request.
In addition to the quick turnaround, the intelligence produced was incredibly accurate. The DI’s assessment was correct about the timing, duration, and outcome of the war. Specifically, the reports indicated that the Israelis were in a strong position to win the war. This information resulted in President Johnson’s refusal to provide military supplies to Israel.
From then on, Johnson included Helms in all of the Tuesday lunches — weekly meetings with presidential advisers to discuss foreign policy matters.
The Value of Intelligence
At the beginning of his term, Johnson could not see much value in intelligence. However, Johnson had a change of heart after his successful interactions with the Agency:
“We have committed our lives, our property, our resources, and our sacred honor to the freedom and peace of other men, indeed to the freedom and peace of all mankind. We would dishonor that commitment, we would disgrace all the sacrifices that Americans have made if we were not every hour of every day vigilant against every threat to peace and freedom. That is why we have the Central Intelligence Agency in this country.”
Carrying on the tradition started by President Truman following the Agency’s founding, President Johnson wrote a note thanking the men and women of the CIA for their service to the United States. He is the fourth president to write a note for the CIA’s Presidents’ Gallery:
“To the Central Intelligence Agency — with appreciation.”
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