Johnson Administration (1963–1969), United States National Security Policy

Johnson Administration (1963–1969), United States National Security Policy


President Lyndon B. Johnson continued the longstanding commitment of the United States to Southeast Asian security by providing increasing amounts of support to anti-communist South Vietnam. A former congressman from Texas and vice-president since 1960, Johnson took office in 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In light of the circumstances, Johnson considered it his obligation to the electorate to continue Kennedy's polices. He stated his determination to resist Soviet expansionism and reiterated the nation's support of South Vietnam.

Johnson also moved national security policy in the direction that Kennedy had indicated. Kennedy allowed the structure of the National Security Council to atrophy and Johnson continued to this process. Congress had established the NSC as a means of encouraging the president to consider political and military advice, but the men in the Oval Office did not always cooperate with the plans of the legislative branch. Both leaders sought greater direct presidential control over foreign relations.

Johnson generally operated outside the formal advisory structure of the NSC. He saw the council as too large and unwieldy to serve as a forum for policy formulation. Perhaps more significantly, the Johnson NSC also established a reputation as a major source of leaks to the news media and to Capitol Hill. With the president holding the NSC at arm's length and treating it as only a symbolic mechanism, the frequency of its meetings declined during his administration. The president generally used the council as a means of informing subordinates about the future direction of policy.

For national security advice, the Johnson administration depended chiefly upon the national security advisor (NSA). This role was filled by McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's NSA who remained in office through February 1966, and Bundy's successor, economist Walt Rostow, who served to the end of the administration. The NSA staff, various ad hoc groups, and trusted friends also offered assistance. In 1966, Johnson officially turned over responsibility for the supervision and coordination of interdepartmental activities overseas to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara continued to fill that role under Johnson.

While serving under Kennedy, McNamara began to develop a doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that he honed under Johnson. According to MAD, deterrence depended upon the confidence of each superpower in the ability of its own nuclear forces to survive a first attack and retaliate. Mutual fear of massive deaths among the populace served as an incentive to avoid making that first strike.

As MAD indicates, potential nuclear conflict dominated the administration's treatment of the Soviet Union. Warnings by McNamara about the suicidal arms race that both nations were running helped persuade Johnson to agree to a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In 1968, each power pledged to halt the distribution of nuclear weapons. While 59 other nations also signed the treaty, not every country agreed; China, France, and India refused to participate.

Johnson sought to de-escalate Cold War rhetoric, but continued to see the Russians as a threat that had to be contained and this objective would lead to the escalation of involvement in Vietnam. As did the presidents before him, Johnson struggled to find a means to save South Vietnam from communist aggression. A brief and confusing episode between North Vietnamese and American naval forces in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 gave Johnson his opportunity. He used the incident to secure a resolution from Congress giving him authority to employ armed forces to defend American personnel in South Vietnam and stop further attacks.

Johnson used the resolution as his authority to wage war in Southeast Asia. A supporter of the domino theory, Johnson held that if South Vietnam fell to communism, then the other free governments in the region would also topple, thereby costing the U.S. its valuable Asian allies. Under Johnson, the American military commitment to Vietnam rose rapidly to a force that peaked at 543,000 in 1969.

Protests against the war grew slowly. In 1966, Senator J. William Fulbright, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began nationally televised hearings on American national security policy. Fulbright, a powerful Arkansas Democrat, argued that by escalating the war, Johnson had exceeded the limits of the authority granted to him by Congress in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Witness George Kennan, a top State Department expert on Russia who had helped shape Truman's doctrine of containment, challenged testimony by Secretary of State Rusk that the U.S. had to fight in Vietnam to prevent Soviet expansion. Kennan argued that the conflict in Vietnam had so preoccupied the government that areas of more important strategic significance had been stripped of forces sufficient to deter a possible Soviet attack. The hearings indicated deep divisions over foreign policy.

During 1966, increasing numbers of members of the Johnson administration spoke out against the Vietnam War. Unable to brook dissent, Johnson did not tolerate attacks on his policy. His intolerance of criticism persuaded some of his most trusted national security counselors, including NSA Bundy and George Ball of the State Department, to leave government service. Whereas Bundy had informed Johnson of the full range of senior opinions about national security, Rostow gave hawkish advice. Increasingly isolated from contrary opinions, Johnson had established an administration with little dissenting opinion.

Throughout 1967, doubts about the Vietnam War consumed additional members of the government. Both Secretary of Defense McNamara and the Central Intelligence Agency challenged the judgment of the military. While the Joint Chiefs sought intensified bombing of North Vietnam, McNamara had concluded that massive bombing only boosted patriotism in that country instead of destroying the will of its people to fight. After McNamara categorized administration policy as dangerous, expensive, and failed, Johnson decided to replace him, and McNamara left in 1967. His successor, Clark Clifford, a longtime Democratic party stalwart who had helped establish the NSC, finally managed to persuade Johnson that Vietnam could not be won. Johnson did not run for reelection.

The Johnson administration's national security policy strained the resources of the U.S. and made it difficult for succeeding presidents to mobilize support for military security efforts. Besides eroding American military effectiveness, Johnson's failed effort in Vietnam raised doubts about the nation's willingness to use military power to support its foreign policy of deterring the spread of communist governments abroad.



Boll, Michael M. National Security Planning: Roosevelt Through Reagan. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Crabb, Cecil V., and Kevin V. Mulcahy. American National Security: A Presidential Perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1991.

Hunt, Michael H. Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945–1968. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.


White House. "History of the National Security Council, 1947–1997." < > (April 25, 2003).


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Cold War (1950–1972)
Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States
National Security Advisor, United States
NSC (National Security Council)
NSC (National Security Council), History
National Security Strategy, United States
Nonproliferation and National Security, United States
Vietnam War

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