Washington, D.C., April 28, 2015 – President Lyndon Johnson regretted sending U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, telling aides less than a month later, "I don't want to be an intervenor," according to new transcripts of White House tapes published today (along with the tapes themselves) for the first time by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).
Johnson ordered U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo 50 years ago today. Three weeks later, he lamented both that the crisis had cost American lives and that it had turned out badly on the ground as well as for the United States' – and Johnson's own – political standing. Nevertheless, he insisted he would "do the same thing right this second."
In conversations with aides captured on the White House taping system, Johnson expressed sharp frustrations, including with the group surrounding exiled President Juan Bosch, whom the United States was supporting. Speaking in late May 1965, Johnson told an adviser, "they have to clean themselves up, as I see it, where we can live with them. Put enough perfume on to kill the odor of killing 20 Americans and wounding 100."
Johnson's public explanation for sending the Marines into Santo Domingo was to rescue Americans endangered by civil war conditions in the Dominican Republic. But his main motivation, the tapes and transcripts confirm, was to prevent a Communist takeover. Basing his decision largely on assertions by the CIA and others in the U.S. government that Cuba's Fidel Castro had been behind the recent uprising, Johnson confided to his national security advisor, "I sure don't want to wake up ... and find out Castro's in charge."
That intelligence, along with other information Johnson received during the crisis, turned out to be erroneous – a possibility LBJ himself worried about at the time.
The tapes, transcript and introductory material presented in this posting were provided by David Coleman, former chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and a Fellow at the National Security Archive. As Coleman notes, the materials are revelatory about Johnson's personal conduct of the crisis and his decision-making style as president. The transcripts, in several cases newly created by Coleman, are crucial to understanding the material on the tapes, which can be hard to decipher and are therefore often of limited usefulness on their own to researchers.
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Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965
By David Coleman
Fifty years ago today, some 400 U.S. Marines landed in the Dominican Republic. By the end of the following day, over 1,000 more had landed. In the coming weeks, they were joined by U.S. Army forces. Eventually, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be engaged in what became known as the Dominican Intervention, first as part of a U.S. unilateral military action and then under the auspices of an international force compiled by the Organization of American States.
Four days earlier, the Dominican Republic had begun a spiral into civil war when members of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party) and their allies stormed the National Palace and installed a provisional president. Resistance from Loyalist forces led to escalating levels of violence.
A series of increasingly dire reports from the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, William Tapley "Tap" Bennett, Jr., warning that the situation was getting dangerous for American citizens in the country and that outside influences were likely playing an influential role in the revolution convinced Johnson that he had to act and that he did not have the luxury of time to assemble an international coalition through the Organization of American States.
Against the advice of many of his senior advisers, Johnson personally decided to send in the Marines. Their declared mission was to protect and evacuate U.S. citizens from the island. As he explained it to a national television audience on the evening of April 28, it was "in order to give protection to hundreds of Americans who are still in the Dominican Republic and to escort them safely back to this country."
There was no mention of a communist threat in his public statement; nor had there been in his news conference comments the previous afternoon. Indeed, Johnson himself had specifically removed any such references from the drafts of his statement to encourage an emphasis on the peace-keeping and humanitarian aspects of the intervention. But there was a second important part of the military mission. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler put it in orders to General Bruce Palmer Jr., the commander of U.S. forces, the mission had two objectives, one announced and one unannounced.
Your announced mission is to save US lives. Your unannounced mission is to prevent the Dominican Republic from going Communist. The President has stated that he will not allow another Cuba—you are to take all necessary measures to accomplish this mission. You will be given sufficient forces to do the job.
Johnson feared that Castro-ite and Communist forces were threatening to establish a Communist regime in the Dominican Republic. But there was little hard evidence of such influence—something Johnson suspected at the time and which prompted later private expressions of regret.
LBJ's secretly recorded White House tapes provide a deeply textured and intimate view of his decision making during the crisis.
The telephone had long been one of Johnson's essential work tools, allowing him to neutralize geography and compress time in reaching out beyond the bubble of the Oval Office. During the Dominican crisis, he employed it extensively, connecting directly with Tap Bennet in Santo Domingo, and with Puerto Rico where Abe Fortas (the future Supreme Court justice) had volunteered his services as a line of communication with exiled president Juan Bosch. He was also able to get status reports at all hours directly from the duty officers in the White House Situation Room and the Pentagon Military Command Center.
But it did not always go smoothly. The lack of secure communications equipment meant that the President and his representatives in the Caribbean typically had to speak over open lines that were prone to interception or just the more mundane problem of crossed lines. In some cases, that led to absurdly convoluted codes being improvised that often created more confusion than clarity. In one call presented below, Johnson tells Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to call Bennett in Santo Domingo to ask his opinion on whether to send in an additional 500 Marines. "Listen for him to cough right loud, and if he doesn't, why, let's move," Johnson instructs.
Reflecting Johnson's own heavy personal involvement in directing the intervention, the crisis is represented on hundreds of tapes in the Johnson collection of secretly recorded White House telephone conversations. Below is only a small sampling taken mainly from the first days when the important decisions were being made about sending U.S. Marines into harm's way and whether to escalate U.S. military involvement.
The transcripts presented here provide a cross-section illustrating Johnson's personal management of the crisis. Some of them are entirely new; others are improved versions of transcripts that have been published elsewhere previously. Together they reveal the kind of information that the President was hearing, including when, how, and from whom. They reveal, strikingly and often jarringly, the kind of incomplete and often flawed information that was being used to make important decisions. And they show the gap between what was being said in public and what was being said in private, a phenomenon that had troubled the administration less than a year earlier in the Tonkin Gulf episode and would become increasingly important as the Vietnam War raged on.
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Links to Tapes and Transcripts
[Note: The following tapes are available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, White House (WH) and Situation Room (SR) Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings.]
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Tape No. 1: How many people got killed down there?
April 28, 1965 | 3:30AM | LBJ and Jim Murray | WH6504.06–7371
In the early morning hours of April 28, Johnson called down to the White House Situation Room to get an update on the situations in South Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Duty officer Jim Murray fielded the call. The USS Boxer, on station off the coast of the Dominican Republic, was being used as a floating base to evacuate Americans by helicopter from a polo field next to the Hotel Embajador in the western outskirts of Santo Domingo. Later in the day, Johnson would order the Marines to move into Santo Domingo, but for now their mission was confined to evacuation. The recording begins after the conversation has started.
Tape No. 2: They don't think Bosch is [a communist]. They think he's just a stooge for the deal. But nobody thought Castro was either.
April 28, 1965 | 10:20 PM | LBJ and Abe Fortas | WH6504.06–7373
Using his extensive contacts in Latin America, lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas volunteered to act as a line of communication with Juan Bosch, the exiled President of the Dominican Republic who had been ousted in a coup in 1963 and had since been in self-imposed exile in Puerto Rico. The revolutionaries who had seized power had done so in Bosch's name, but Washington suspected that real control lay not with Bosch but with others inspired—and perhaps directed—by Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Tape No. 3: In my opinion this is a real struggle mounted by Mr. [Fidel] Castro.
April 29, 1965 | 8:47 AM | LBJ and William Raborn | WH6504.06–7375
William "Red" Raborn's first day on the job was a busy one. He had been sworn in as the new Director of Central Intelligence, replacing John McCone, just eight hours before Johnson went on national television to announce that U.S. Marines were landing in Santo Domingo. A notable aspect of this conversation is Johnson asking whether the CIA was caught by surprise by the deterioration in the Dominican Republic. The question anticipated later disputes about whether intelligence agencies had failed to provide adequate warning to policymakers.
Tape No. 4: You might get some of them killed, that's the only thing.
April 29, 1965 | 9:48 AM | LBJ and McGeorge Bundy | WH6504.06–7376
Johnson checked in with his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, on the situation in the Dominican Republic and discussed whether or not to send in additional Marines.
Tape No. 5: Then let him, listen for him to cough right loud, and if he doesn't, why, let's move.
April 29, 1965 | 1:04 PM | LBJ and Robert McNamara | WH6504.06–7379
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called with a recommendation to send an additional 500 Marines to Santo Domingo. But the absense of a secure, reliable means of communicating in real-time with U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic William Tapley Bennett, Jr. was complicating the operation and decision making.
Tape No. 6: This is going to be bad in our country.
April 29, 1965 | 4:26 PM | LBJ and Bromley Smith | WH6504.06–7383
Executive Secretary of the National Security Council Bromley Smith played a crucial role in channeling the flow of information in and out of the White House. He had important new information to pass on to the President from the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, William Tapley "Tap" Bennett, Jr.
Tape No. 7: They're shooting at each other now. The Marines are in open fire with the Communists. They started shooting at our embassy, and the Marines are shooting back.
April 29, 1965 | 4:45 PM | LBJ and Abe Fortas | WH6504.07–7388
Abe Fortas called the President to give him an update of developments related to Juan Bosch in Puerto Rico. The President, in turn, passed on the news that the situation on the ground in Santo Domingo was heating up.
Tape No. 8: And so you get bodies lying there for three or four days.
May 2, 1965 | 3:55 AM | LBJ and William Tapley Bennett | WH6505.01–7518
In the early hours of the morning, LBJ gets an update on the situation directly from the U.S. Ambassador in Santo Domingo, William Tapley Bennett, Jr. Bennett expressed confidence that now that the Marines have arrived matters are well in hand, but he also paints a sobering picture of the dangerous situation on the streets of Santo Domingo. Over the previous half-hour, Johnson had spoken with duty officers in the White House Situation Room and the Pentagon Command Center for the latest status reports on the situations in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Bennett is almost inaudible throughout this call.
Tape No. 9: Don't you let them take that public sentiment away from me. You be arousing them as much as [they] arouse you.
May 2, 1965 | 6:24 PM | LBJ, William Tapley Bennett, John Martin, and McGeorge Bundy | WH6505.02–7528
During a telephone call about 13 hours earlier, Ambassador Bennett had been relatively upbeat about the situation. Now, with former Ambassador John Martin and General Palmer in the room with him, Bennett expresses much more concern. LBJ again returns to his concerns about public messaging and emphasizes to both Bennett and Martin that they should be devoting their efforts to generating public sentiment for the U.S. involvement in the streets of the Dominican Republic as well as in other Latin American countries.
This call again illustrates the problem the speakers faced in using open, unencrypted telephone lines for communicating between the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. An operator connects the call and Bennett holds. Voices can be heard in the background, probably on the television, but what they are saying cannot be made out.
Tape No. 10: I don't want to be an intervenor.
May 23, 1965 | 5:10 PM | LBJ, Abe Fortas, and Robert McNamara | WH6505.29–7812 to WH6505.29–7815
Abe Fortas calls to express his concerns about the latest draft of a negotiating position being circulated amongst the State Department and McGeorge Bundy, who had travelled to the Dominican Republic to lead negotiations on an agreement. A key element was how hard to push a new Dominican government to demonstrate its commitment to anti-Communism by deporting 23 people identified as being foreign-trained Communists.
LBJ had spent the day at Camp David, the presidential retreat outside Washington DC. Robert McNamara had joined him. Having spent the afternoon swimming and having just finished an early Sunday dinner, LBJ took the call from Fortas. He asked McNamara to listen in on the phone in the next room. (McNamara stays silent through most of the call.)
In the excerpts below from the long call, LBJ expounds on what he sees as the proper roles for the United States and the Organization of American States in helping to bring the situation in the Dominican Republic to a peaceful and stable conclusion; the influence of domestic politics in shaping the U.S. position; stinging criticism from liberals at home and abroad; and the need to "put enough perfume" on the pro-Bosch elements "to kill the odor of killing 20 Americans and wounding 100,"and make them palatable to the American public.
The president also expresses some regrets about how the operation turned out. Although he seems to fault Bundy and Fortas for their handling of negotiations, he ultimately blames himself. "Now, I don't always know what's right. Sometimes I take other people's judgments, and I get misled. Like sending troops in there to Santo Domingo. But the man who misled me was Lyndon Johnson, nobody else. I did that." Still, he insists, "I'd do the same thing right this second."
Tape No. 11: We've tried to save that country.
August 27, 1965 | 11:30AM | LBJ and Dwight Eisenhower | WH6508.12–8660
Well after the initial intervention, as an Organization of American States coalition led by Brazilian forces enforced a ceasefire and maintained order, LBJ continued to be concerned about how the episode was being perceived by public opinion at home and abroad. In this telephone call, Johnson tries to enlist the help of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his brother, Milton. Like his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, President Johnson made a point of consulting frequently with Eisenhower, especially on foreign policy matters such as Vietnam. They made sure to keep Eisenhower briefed on key issues and reached out in person by either inviting the former president to the White House, meeting elsewhere in Washington DC when he was in town, or by calling on the telephone.
Kennedy and Johnson were both interested in benefiting from the depth of Eisenhower's experience. But there was inevitably more to it. The elder statesman remained a powerful and influential figure in the Republican party. Johnson's staff carefully logged each contact between LBJ and Eisenhower, and LBJ himself would frequently tout their conversations – without going into detail on their content – in public. As his administration progressed and the war in Vietnam deteriorated, Johnson pointed to his consultations with Eisenhower in attempts to defuse partisan criticism of his administration's conduct of the war.
In this conversation, LBJ also floated the idea of calling on Eisenhower's brother Milton, the president of Johns Hopkins University who had deep experience in Latin America, to head off criticism of how the administration had handled the Dominican crisis. In early May, the newly installed Senator Robert Kennedy [D-New York] had described the unilateral intervention in the Dominican Republic as having been done "without regard to our friends and allies in the Organization of American States." It was criticism that LBJ found particularly irritating in the context of the tensions and distrust between the two men. Johnson had learned that Kennedy intended to take his critical views on the road on a tour of Latin America.
 "Statement by the President Upon Ordering Troops Into the Dominican Republic," 28 April 1965, in Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington DC: US GPO, 1966), doc. 212.
 Quoted in Editorial Note, FRUS, 1964–68, 32: doc. 43.
 The original LBJ tapes are located in Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, LBJ Library. The transcripts were produced by the National Security Archive.
 For more on the improvised codes, see Alan McPherson, "Misled by Himself: What the Johnson Tapes Reveal about the Dominican Intervention of 1965," Latin American Research Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2003): 127–146.
 An earlier transcript of this conversation appeared as "Telephone Conversation Between Director of Central Intelligence Raborn and President Johnson," 29 April 1965, in FRUS 1964–1968, 32: doc. 39 fn. 3.
 See Tape WH6505.01, Citations 7513, 7514, and 7515, Telephone Conversations, Presidential Recordings, LBJ Library.
 For more context on this particularly revealing tape, see: Randall B. Woods, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), p.633; Alan McPherson, "Misled by Himself: What the Johnson Tapes Reveal About the Dominican Intervention of 1965," Latin American Research Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June 2003): 127-46.
 Robert Kennedy quoted in "The Nation," New York Times, 27 June 1965.
LBJ Regretted Ordering U.S. Troops into Dominican Republic in 1965, White House Tapes Confirm; Yet He Insisted, "I'd do the same thing right this second."
Dominican Intervention 50 Years Ago Sparked Mainly by Fear of Communists: "I Sure Don't Want to Wake Up ... and Find Out Castro's in Charge," President Said
New Transcripts of Key White House Tapes Clarify and Illuminate LBJ's Personal Role in Decision-Making during the Crisis
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 513
Posted – April 28, 2015
Edited by David Coleman