Positive or negative, reviewers agreed that the State of the Union address heralded a shift in focus regarding domestic affairs. Events in Panama, however, presented President Johnson with the first foreign policy crisis of his presidency. On January 7, Canal Zone students raised a U.S. flag in front of Balboa High School, violating an informal U.S.-Panamanian agreement that the flags of neither country would be flown outside schools. School officials removed the flag within an hour. When students responded by hoisting a second flag, the Canal Zone governor ordered officials not to interfere. The next two days, students raised and lowered U.S. flags at both Balboa and Cristobal High Schools, as well as at two elementary schools, prompting a complaint from the civic council in the Panamanian city of Balboa. When the governor still took no action, Panamanian students attempted to remove the flag themselves. Skirmishes broke out, and turned into riots that left 20 Panamanians and four Americans dead after U.S. troops moved in to restore the peace. Panama’s foreign minister, Galileo Solis, denounced the response as "ruthless aggression" against a "defenseless civilian population."
The outburst testified to the sensitive state of U.S.-Panamanian relations. Riots in the Zone also had occurred in 1959, forcing the State Department to concede "titular sovereignty" to Panama over the area. The action only generated criticism from both sides: Panamanian nationalists denounced it as an empty gesture, while conservatives in the U.S. Congress pushed through an appropriations rider forbidding the use of Canal Zone funds for displaying the Panamanian flag. The flag issue simmered until June of 1962, when Kennedy and Panamanian President Roberto Chiari agreed that representatives of the two nations should arrange for flying the flags of both nations at "appropriate places" in the Zone. Fifteen sites ultimately were selected: schools were explicitly excluded.
The flag issue symbolized the more general Panamanian desire to revise the Panama Canal Treaties, imposed upon the country in 1903 and last renegotiated in 1936. Kennedy made clear that the United States would not consent to such a demand, but, in the last six months of 1963, the two sides did open talks on what McGeorge Bundy described as "lesser measures," such as a $3 million grant proposal to Panama, a liberalization of the commercial clauses of the 1936 treaty, and the transfer of some land from the Zone to allow for the expansion of the Panamanian city of Colón.
These negotiations dragged along inconclusively in part because U.S. ambassador Joseph Farland submitted his resignation on July 18. A holdover from the Eisenhower administration, Farland departed after the State Department refused his demand that he receive another ambassadorial assignment. He also entertained political aspirations in his native West Virginia. Kennedy kept the post open throughout the fall in the expectation that he would offer it to Frank Coffin, a former U.S. representative from Maine who had lost a bid for governor of the Pine Tree State in 1960. Coffin had moved from the House to a position with AID but had feuded with David Bell. After Kennedy’s death, however, both President Johnson and Thomas Mann decided that they did not want to place Coffin in Panama, and so the post remained open. Columnists Evans and Novak termed Coffin a "New Frontier casualty." In fact, the President himself had chosen to veto the appointment: Johnson remembered a personal slight committed in 1961, when Coffin had told the then-Vice President, "You’re wrong," during a public dispute over the fate of that year’s AID bill.
That decision made a crisis in Panama more than unusually threatening to Johnson politically, since it allowed Republicans to charge that the President had allowed his personal pettiness to get in the way of the country’s national security interests. Richard Nixon, an unannounced candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, certainly thought so: he termed the crisis a symbol of "a general sickness in our Latin American policy," and promised to return to the issue—though, of course, "not in a political way"— more comprehensively in future addresses. The crisis also threatened to aggravate the President’s already cold relationship with Robert Kennedy. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Johnson completely ignored the attorney general, who termed the "very badly" handled issue "the worst matter involving an international problem that I have not been in."
As events developed, the President's most important adviser was Georgia senator Richard Russell. Although Johnson’s elevation to the presidency had changed the balance of power between the two men, Russell retained enormous influence over the new President, especially in the early stages of the Johnson administration. The tapes of his early months in the White House clearly revealed Johnson’s lack of confidence on international matters, prompting him to turn for counsel to McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk. But to Russell the President accorded respect both for his national security experience and his knowledge of congressional sentiment. In this instance, the President’s reliance on Russell had profound, and ultimately unfortunate, consequences. As the calls for today's class illustrated, the Georgia senator pushed an extremely hard line toward the crisis that combined a thinly veiled racism with an exaggerated concern about communist influence in the Panamanian unrest. Russell would only grow more determined to avoid concessions to the Panamanians over the coming weeks.
January 11, 1964
President Johnson and Richard Russell, 11:25 A.M.
President Johnson: Dick, I want to talk to you off-the-record a minute about this Panama situation. What do you think about?
Russell: Mr. President, I predicted as far back as 1956 that something like this was going to happen. I'm not at all surprised. I don't know all the facts of it. Harry McPherson talked to Bill Darden on the phone and told him something about it, but I just don't know.
Of course, and I know that nobody is going to agree with this except me, but I think this is a pretty good time to make a strong stand. People in this country, I think, are ready for it. I may be fooled, but if I said anything, if I were the President, I’d just tell them, I'd say, "This is a most regrettable incident and it will be thoroughly investigated. However, the Panama Canal Zone is a property of the United States, the Canal was built with American ingenuity and blood, sweat, and sacrifices."
It was of vital necessity for the economy and the defense of every nation of this hemisphere. Under no circumstances, would you permit the threat of interruption by any subversive group that may be undertaking such steps in this hemisphere. I’d give a little lick to Castro in there. I don't know what the State Department—suppose they have suggested you make an apology.
President Johnson: No, but it looks like . . . It doesn't look good from our standpoint.
Russell: It started with a bunch of school boys, from what I hear about it. Those people down there—they've had a chip on their shoulder for a long time.
President Johnson: Yes, they have, and we've known that.
Russell: And we've helped them on four different occasions. If I made a statement, I'd point that out. We have voluntarily increased payments to them, and they have that high standard of living there proportionately—not as compared with our country, but with the other Latin American countries—because I think some 40,000 or 50,000 worked on that canal in conjunction with the operation.
There's one thing I certainly would do, if it were me. If a fellow got up in the United Nations, and went to attack us on account of anything that happened about the Canal, I'd have Adlai Stevenson ask him if he was willing to go back to the status quo. People that we did injury to in connection with the canal was not the Panamanians—we brought them out of the jungles, where they were hiding, thinking that old Cortés was still trying to get them for slaves for several hundred years after Cortés was dead. The people that we did an injustice to was Colombia. Took that isthmus away from them, and set up that puppet government out there in Panama, so anything that's happened out of the Canal is more of an injury to Colombia than it is to Panama. [Chuckles.] If I wanted to be Machiavellian about it, I would get the Colombian delegate to get up and raise the devil about that. It's not to the interest of Colombia to help Panama there—that's a part of Colombia.
I don't know how the State Department is going to handle it. Of course, it does look like . . . But it all happened on American soil. That's one thing, primarily, that you can say. And it grew out of this agreement about this flag down there that started with Eisenhower, and I think Kennedy fortified it when he went down there. That was a mistake to start with, but it was done, and he insisted to the State Department to increase payments there every two years. What does the State Department think you ought to do about it?
President Johnson: We've had a meeting—the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, Cy Vance, Bundy, and the group that we normally meet with. Tom Mann says—I talked to him a couple of times during the night, and he's very solid fellow, pretty strong, pretty pro-American—he says that our students went out and put up our flag in violation of our understanding. They started to put up their flag and we refused it, and we made our people take down our flag and their rioters increased. Communists, we know there, we've been having some contact with. They had a lot of Molotov cocktails, and they had planned this thing apparently just using the flag as an excuse.
Russell: That's exactly what I think.
President Johnson: But they would have kicked it off some other way some other time, but this was ideal. Then our damned fool police started shooting into them. They say—
Russell: They killed 13 or 14 Americans down there.
President Johnson: Yes. They had to, when they started doing that, then snipers started picking off American troops. But we fired into, our civil guard, which are our employees, Panama Canal Zone employees, they started firing into the crowd, and shot 4,500 rounds of ammunition.
Russell: If they'd stayed on American soil and if there's any one thing that is essential to the economic life as well as the defense of every nation in the hemisphere, it is the Panama Canal. We can't risk having it sabotaged or taken over by any Communist group. There's no question in my mind but that that is Castro's chief aim there.
President Johnson: That’s what he tells . . . That’s what he tells us.
Russell: I would say that in any statement I made, even if I had to be rather apologetic to the Panamanians in accordance with the State Department’s idea, [that the incident was] undoubtedly inspired—right after when Castro came into power, you know, he sent a group down there to have taken that country over. They landed on the coast there.
President Johnson: I thought I might do this: I thought I might call, if I could talk to him, he’s claimed he’s broken off diplomatic relationship—I might call their president and say I regretted the situation of violence that developed and that I thought we should do everything we could to restore quiet and I appreciated his calling the Panamanian people last night to remain calm, and hope he will do everything possible to quiet the situation. I’ll do the same, and I’m going to send my trusted representatives, Tom Mann and other Panama Canal Board people in there today to assist in finding a solution to the situation. Both of us are aware of the possibility that elements unfriendly to both of our countries are trying to exploit the situation. I want to keep in close personal touch with him.
Then, I thought I’d send Tom Mann and Ed Martin and the assistant secretaries, Cy Vance, on the Panama Canal Board, and probably this boy [Ralph] Dungan, who’s handled it here at the White House and who is a pretty levelheaded fellow—used to be on Kennedy’s committee. I might ask Harry McPherson. He’s been down there and has been awful concerned about it. I might ask him to go with them.
Russell: You couldn’t get a better boy to come back and give you a clear report as an observer. He wouldn’t be stampeded in any way. I’d certainly take a chunk out of the Communists, because you’re going to have trouble there all through your entire tenure as President in that area down there. Castro is going to pick up the tempo of his activities down there, in his desperation, and that’s going to be a trouble spot.
I say, I’ve been of that opinion for several years, now, especially when they increased the payments here the last time, in which I said that we were in danger there because—especially when you encroach on the feeling on the part of the Panamanians that we’ve done them some injustice. We really did them a hell of a favor. They’ve been a lot better off than the Colombians. They have better income, everything else, not that that satisfied them. The only way you can satisfy them is to give them the canal, and that wouldn’t completely satisfy them. You’d have to operate it for them too.
President Johnson: What about this McNamara-Goldwater fight [over the reliability of ICBMs]?
Russell: I think he’s been going along all right. I wouldn’t get into that. You’ve got no business in that, the President of the United States. That’s secretary against senator. Goldwater is fading too fast for you to get off into that.
President Johnson: I agree with that, and I refused to yesterday when they suggested it. But what about the merits of it? That’s what I’m asking.
Russell: I think both of them went to extremes on it. We have never fired a Minuteman missile with a warhead in it. That’s where we put most of our billions. I raised the devil about it and tried my best to get them to fire at least one before we ever got into that test ban business, but we never did. So, no man can take an absolute and categorical oath that he knows.
President Johnson: Why won’t they fire one?
Russell: They said they’d fired a Polaris, which is an entirely different type of firing. They did fire a Polaris; as you know, it will carry a warhead there and deliver it, but in view of the very strong feelings throughout this country on this airplane missile thing—
President Johnson: He’s got three bombers to their one, according to his estimate.
Russell: I think that’s about right—I’m not sure. I’ll talk to McNamara. When he gets to going, he’s sort of like I am. He oversells himself a little. I do. I state the case strong as it is, often. It’s an attribute . . .
President Johnson: I don’t know. I read about your being the farmer of the year down there. Old man Brooks brought me an article yesterday, and I dictated you a little note.
They’re going to get the president of Panama. I’ll call you back.
President Johnson and Roberto Chiari, 11:40 A.M.
President Johnson: Hello, Mr. President. Mr. President, I wanted to say to you that we deeply regret the situation of violence that has developed there. We appreciate very much your call to the Panamanian people to remain calm. We recognize that you and I should do everything we can to restore quiet, and I hope that you’ll do everything possible to quieten the situation, and I will do the same.
You and I should be aware of the possibility and the likelihood that there are elements unfriendly to both of us who will exploit this situation. I am sending immediately my trusted representative, Secretary Tom Mann, and others associated with him and with the White House, to Panama to assist in finding a solution to the present situation and accurately finding the facts.
I think it’s important that we keep in close personal touch with each other, and I will be ready to do that. I hope you’ll give Secretary Mann any suggestions he has that might result in the development of correcting the situation.
Chiari: [Through interpreter.] Would you please allow me a moment, Mr. President?
Operator: Would you get off the connection, please? We have other calls waiting.
Chiari: Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?
President Johnson: Hello?
Chiari: Hello? I can’t hear you.
President Johnson: Hello?
January 11, 1964: President Johnson and Richard Russell, 1.05pm (conversation picked up midstream)
President Johnson: . . . The question is: How arbitrary can you be, or should you be? Are you willing to just say that you . . . I know damn well one thing—I can take the position of discussion. We’ll discuss it, but we won’t do anything. But I guess if you’re going to discuss it, you ought to discuss it in good faith, and that’s what they want, and I don’t know how that’s going to be interpreted in the public eye, whether they’ve got to kill a few American soldiers to get us to discuss something. I don’t like that. On the other hand, we’ve got to do something.
Russell: Yes, that’s of course true. But I don’t know. That’s your instructions to [Thomas] Mann, now?
President Johnson: Mann says that he’s going to tell him that we won’t agree to any structural changes, but he’ll listen to him. I say to him—
Russell: At this time.
President Johnson: That’s right. He wants to get—
Russell: He said not at this time. That sounds perfectly safe.
President Johnson: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
Russell: And just let Mann tell him frankly that, in view of all this upheaval down there, that we have commitments and difficulties all over the world, and if we start yielding to riots, that we will just generate one in practically every country of the world where we’ve even got a man.
President Johnson: Well, I think our instructions to Mann are consistent with his recommendations. It may be a little bit more encouraging than his recommendations require.
Russell: When I send him that, I would certainly tell him that when you get your doctor, you better, if you ain’t got any confidence in him, you better not hide. But if you have got confidence in him, and you get him, you best take his pills, even if you’ve got some misgivings about it. By sending those instructions, I think that I would add a little paragraph saying that "I do not regard this as being in conflict with your suggestions, and, in the last analysis, I’m depending on your good judgment, your old, good-time judgment." Something like that.
President Johnson: I wonder why it’s necessary to go into all this, anyway. Why don’t we just—
Russell: It ain’t necessary. [Unclear] just a hell of a long—
President Johnson: Why don’t we just say that "I concur in your recommendation that you inform Chiari that you will not now agree to negotiations, and that you be authorized to say this does not close the door for all time."
Russell: I wouldn’t say all the time. I’d just say—
President Johnson: Well, that’s what he says.
Russell: I’d say, "agree to negotiations under present conditions, but that this does not close the door for all time, or forever."
Now, that’s a hell of a long thing you’re sending down there. It would confuse me if I were down there with all the pressures that he must feel in that atmosphere down there.
President Johnson: [sighing] He and [Cyrus] Vance had a good talk with the fellow, and both of them were awfully tough with him. This fellow, every damn one of them are running against us for reelection. Six hundred of them stood outside and said, "Get out of here, gringos."
Russell: Yes, they’ve been doing that. And the one that denounces the Colossus of the North 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.
But you can’t close the door to any negotiations. But you can certainly say that we can’t negotiate in this atmosphere, but we will talk to you sometime later. I’ve got a lot of confidence in that fellow Mann, Mr. President. I may be wrong. I’ve only seen him twice. I had . . .
President Johnson: Does this seem like to you they’re softening up what he’s recommending?
Russell: One or two sentences seem to me like it’s sort of putting him in a halter.
President Johnson: That’s what it seems to me. OK.
Russell: It’s a rather vague halter, but it’s just enough to confuse him.
President Johnson: All right. OK.
Russell: And he’s the man on the ground that’s got to do the talking.
President Johnson: Say, what are you going to do tomorrow?
Russell: Tomorrow? I hadn’t planned anything . . .
January 14, 1964, President Johnson, Thomas Mann, and Ralph Dungan--call picked up in midstream
President Johnson: I sure don’t want to imply that I’m going to sit down and talk to them about changes that I’ll make in the treaties and revise the whole thing and all they’ve got to do is burn a USIS embassy and then we’ll come in, hat in hand, and say, "Come on boys, we’ll let you write your ticket."
Mann: We have agreed, as I said earlier, that there are no preconditions. We’re not committing ourselves to treaty revisions—
President Johnson: Just make that awfully clear in our statement.
Mann: [continuing] Just that we’ll talk.
President Johnson: All right.
Dungan: And also, they’re very insistent on not giving any of this publicity. Is that right, Tom?
Mann: Well, I was coming to that. The committee—not the Panamanian government—is putting the pressure on both us and the Panamanians to avoid official statements to the press until we can get time to talk and let tempers cool down a bit. I think this is good. In the long run, Mr. President, we’re going to be judged by our deeds, and not by our words, anyway. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: No, but you may not be around to judge them if they think we’re sitting down to revise some treaties, Tom. [Chuckles.]
Mann: Well, that’s true, and I think we have to go up on the Hill and explain very clearly what—
President Johnson: Did you go up there this morning?
Mann: I haven’t been up yet, sir, but I’m waiting for [Cyrus] Vance to get through.
President Johnson: All right.
Dungan: I called Dan Flood this morning.
President Johnson: How did Vance get along? Does anybody know?
Mann: We don’t know yet.
Dungan: He’s not finished yet.
Mann: Not finished. We don’t really know. I think I will get up this afternoon and talk to them, and work out a plan to get in touch with some key people on the Hill.
President Johnson: I think that’s very good. OK. Anything else?
Mann: That’s all, sir, but is it all right to say that we will agree to . . .
President Johnson: I think we can always agree to talk and listen. I don’t want to imply that we’re, by so doing, that we’re making any commitment of any kind.
Mann: All right, sir.
President Johnson: I want to be fair and want to be reasonable and want to be just to these people. If we’ve got problems with the wage scales or arrogant military peoples or Zone-ites that cause these troubles or any improvements or changes we can make, we’re anxious to do it. Wage scales, or whatever it is.
President Johnson: But if they think all they got to do is to burn a USIS and shoot four or five soldiers and then we come running in with hat in hand, well, that’s a different proposition.
Mann: No. I agree. I think we’ve won our point, we’re not going to negotiate under duress, that is, until law and order is restored.
President Johnson: What do you mean that they’re mad—that they’re upset about what we said about the soldiers? Do you mean about their behaving admirably under extreme provocation?
Mann: [Laughing.] Yes. They’re the most unreasonable people, Mr. President, you can imagine, but we still have to live with them. We’ll have to deal with them as long as we have the canal, and . . .
President Johnson: Well, you better go on and get started on your other canal.
Mann: That’s what I think, too.
President Johnson: I do, too, and I thought so before you got back here. So just the quicker you get on it, the better off we’ll—
Mann: I’ll tell Ed that we will agree to tell the committee we will agree to discuss the whole range of U.S.-Panamanian relations.
President Johnson: Have you talked to Secretary Rusk and McNamara?
Mann: I talked to Ball. Mr. Rusk is at dinner, but I think I will touch base.
President Johnson: Yes. Did you talk to McNamara?
Mann: Not yet.
President Johnson: Talk to McNamara, and if it’s agreeable to them, it’s OK by me.
Mann: All right, sir. Thank you very much.
February 11, 1964, President Johnson and Richard Russell, 4:30 PM
President Johnson: Hello?
Russell: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: Dick, we’re going to meet again at 4:30.
Russell: That’s right now.
President Johnson: Yes. I wanted to talk to you before I went into the meeting. They’re meeting downstairs. Now here’s the [situation].
Nobody wants to do much. They think that in the first place these fishermen oughtn’t to even have been picked up, that it was a mistake, that they were over the limits, but we ought to have told them to get on back home and not make a big incident out of it, because there’s not anything to be gained from it. We ought to let him [Castro] show his hand, whether this is in concert with Khrushchev, and what all it means, before we act irrational.
There’s an opposing viewpoint—that’s pretty well the viewpoint of Rusk and McCone, and, I would say, Bobby Kennedy. He wants to turn everybody loose and let them go on home. 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 by saying, "We’re going to furnish our own water, and we don’t want your damn water, and to hell with you." And, number two, tell the people that are on there that they can pledge allegiance to us and live there—the 600—and the other 2,500 to go on back, and we’re going to quit financing [Cubans]. We’re going to operate the base independently, so our country can be secure, and so we can operate it independently. It’s going to hurt you more by this action than it hurts us, and we just don’t need your people.
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.
Russell: That’s mine.
President Johnson: I think--they’ll say we’re cruel, and these people have been loyal to us for two or three generations, been working there. We’re just firing them outright without anything on their part, because Castro did this. USIA thinks it will get a good deal of sympathy from the rest of the nations, and . . .
Russell: Well, that’s their professional attitude. These nations ain’t as silly as we attribute them 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, give them the facts, say, "Here it is now. You’ve got a stake in this." Same thing is true here in Cuba. They don’t want Castro to prosper—none of the leaders do. There are thousands of the little people who are Communists do.
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 very logical position to take. You’ve got to know that you can protect this."
If Khrushchev pulled them out all at once, which he could do, if he’d stopped them all one morning, and you hadn’t even had an hour’s notice, you would need them. But now you’re giving yourself the hour’s notice, and you’re preparing against the probability that he will do another asinine thing by declaring that no Cuban national can enter on the base. You’ve got to be ready for that. But I know—
President Johnson: What do you think? I don’t like to see them so split and so divided—State, and Defense, and CIA. What do you think the attitude of the country is? The Senate? Are they indignant about cutting this water off? I don’t guess many of them feel as strongly as Goldwater does, but I guess a good many of them feel—
Russell: No. No, they don’t. But a great many of them, they don’t know exactly what they want done, Mr. President, because they don’t know what can be done. But they want something done.
President Johnson: That’s right. There ain’t much you can do, but this.
Russell: 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’re 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 are 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: [softly] Mm.
Russell: Of course, it would be mighty easy to whip them up to where they’d be ready to go to war over it if you to cut loose, and fanned it up, instead of playing it in low key like is being done. But I approve of the low-key play. But I think there’s a latent feeling there, and it may not explode right now, but one of these days, they are going to say, "Well, we’ve just been a bunch of asses in this country to continually just back down and give away and say excuse me every time we come in collision with one of these little countries, because they’re small—and particularly these Communist countries." And when that there blows, now, somebody is going to get hurt, and nobody will know just when the boiler is ready to give on it. But there’s a slowly increasing feeling in this country that we’re not being as positive and as firm in our foreign relations as we should be, and that we just lean over backwards, that we worry more about our image than we are about our substance, and we’re backing down.
Now, that feeling is in the country. Just how far it’s gotten, I don’t know. A demagogue with any strength could blow it up. I don’t know of anyone who’s got enough strength to do it. The people don’t trust Goldwater’s judgment. A lot of them like his independence, and his . . .
President Johnson: You think a lot of people are going to think you’re hotheaded when you just fire a bunch of innocent Cubans?
Russell: I don’t think so. I don’t believe that even the Times and the Post could stir up five percent of the people about this. I would make it perfectly clear that this is regrettable, that our association with these people 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 that we have to make this base independent, and we hope that in happier days, our pleasant relations with them could be renewed.
I’d sure throw that in there. You get one of them, why, he’d be a potential assassin of Castro. Yes, I’d certainly put it in there that way: that our relations with these people have been mutually pleasant and profitable. Castro—of course, has control of them, he could stop them any morning, and not a one of them could come, and we couldn’t afford to be placed in that uncertain position, if we had to rely on our own resources--
President Johnson: If he is going to cut off our water, tomorrow he can cut off our people.
President Johnson: If today he can cut off our water--
President Johnson: --tomorrow he can cut off our people.
Russell: Sure, sure. He can stop them at the gate, where not one could come in without a moment’s notice. We just can’t operate that important establishment in that uncertain atmosphere. And as regrettable as it is, we’ll have to make other arrangements for the time being, and hope that in better days when the Cuban people and the American people are permitted to fraternize as they have in the past, and as we are anxious to do today, that we hope to be able to renew this.
President Johnson: I had planned . . . I think I’m going to make some kind of a statement on it, at least authorize the press to, after we have our meeting this afternoon, because I think they’ll want to hear something after working all day.
Russell: I think you’re going to have to say something.
President Johnson: Then I think I’m going home for the weekend. Do you see any reason why I shouldn’t?
Russell: No, I do not.
President Johnson: I think there’s every reason to kind of ignore him, go on and make your statement, and then go on, not hang around.
Russell: I agree. I don’t think there’s any reason why you shouldn’t.
President Johnson: OK. Goodbye.
March 30, 1964, President Johnson and Dean Rusk, 8:35 PM
Rusk: . . . Tom Mann and a group here, including CIA, on this Brazilian situation. The crisis is coming to a head in the next day or two, perhaps even overnight.
There’s a snowballing of opposition to [João] Goulart, and therefore the thing may break at any moment. The armed forces, the governors, particularly in the populated states of the east coast, seem to be building up real resistance there.
I would like to send a message to Linc Gordon, and I’d like to read it to you if I may, and then also indicate that I’ve asked Bob McNamara to get some tankers ready for some POL supplies, things of that sort.
"U.S. policy toward Brazil is based on our determination to support in every possible way the maintenance of representative and constitutional government in Brazil, free from the continuing threat of dictatorship from the left erected through a Goulart-Brizola manipulation. It is of great importance that there be a preemption of the position of legitimacy of those that will oppose the communist and other extremist influences.
"It is highly desirable, therefore, that if action is taken by the armed forces, such action be preceded or accompanied buy a clear demonstration of unconstitutional actions on the part of Goulart or his colleagues, or that legitimacy be confirmed by acts of the Congress, if it is free to act, or by expressions of the key governors, or by some other means which gives substantial claims to legitimacy.
"With respect to U.S. support capabilities, we could act promptly on financial and economic measures. With regard to military assistance, logistic factors are important. Surface vessels loaded with arms and ammunition could not reach southern Brazil before at least 10 days. Airlifts could be provided promptly if an intermediate field at Recife or other airfields in northeast Brazil, capable of handling large jet transports, is secure and made available. In an ambiguous situation, it may be difficult for us to obtain permission for intermediate stops from other countries, such as Peru.
"In a fast-moving station, we’re asking all of our posts in Brazil to feed Washington a continual flow of information on significant developments in their areas and to stay on 24-hour alert. At this particular moment, it is important that U.S. Government not put itself in position which would be deeply embarrassing if Goulart and Mazzili—he is the next in line of succession—congressional leaders, and armed forces leadership reach an accommodation in the next few hours which would leave us branded with an awkward attempt at intervention.
"However, every disposition here is to support those elements which would move to prevent Brazil from falling under an authentic dictatorship of the left heavily infiltrated or controlled by the communists. Obviously, in a country of over 75 million people, larger than the continental United States, this is not a job for a handful of United States Marines. A major determination by the leadership of Brazil, and a preemption of the position of legitimacy are of the greatest possible importance.
"We will not, however, be paralyzed by theoretical niceties if the options are clearly between the genuinely democratic forces of Brazil and a communist-dominated dictatorship. As we see the problem tonight, the greatest danger may well be that Goulart will be able to pull back enough within the next day or two to confuse the situation, blunt the edge of key conservative military action, and gain more time to resist those elements who would resist a communist-infiltrated authoritarian regime.
"Fragmentary reports reaching here tonight suggest that anti-Goulart forces may be developing a certain momentum. Our big problem is to determine whether this presents an opportunity which might be repeated. In this case, we wish to make a major decision as to whether and by what means we might give additional impetus to forces now in motion consistent with what I’ve said above."
Now, the situation is that—
President Johnson: Now, you’re through with the message?
President Johnson: What you—
Rusk: The situation basically is that there is a very substantial buildup of resistance to Goulart. Now, if the governors of the key states of the east coast, such as Minas Gerais, and Sao Paulo, and all those heavily populated states of the east coast, who are anti-Goulart, should join together with the armed forces who are stationed in those key states, then I think this may be something that we’ll have to go along with, and get in touch with. And we need to get Linc Gordon’s fundamental judgment. I’ll tell him that this is the principal judgment he will make for which he will earn his pay. He’s got to tell us his best judgment as to whether this is an opportunity which will not be repeated, and which, if not taken now, will give Goulart a chance to undermine his opposition and take Brazil down the road to a communist dictatorship.
This message that I’ve read to you does not commit you in any way. It’s simply, basically, asking him for information and give him a certain atmosphere of our attitude here.
President Johnson: In effect, though, what it says is, "Get somebody legitimate and get them substantial and don’t let it go communist."
Rusk: That’s right. And I’ve talked to Bob McNamara to lay on some takers to get some POL supplies and other things on the way, and also General O’Meara has been ordered by Bob McNamara to come to Washington tonight to talk about contingency plans that might be needed in this situation.
President Johnson: Hm.
Rusk: So I would like just to send off this, in effect, advisory telegram to Linc Gordon, our ambassador, to see whether by morning, or during the day tomorrow, we might want to make a decision here as to how we move in this situation.
President Johnson: Sure.
Rusk: All right?
President Johnson: That’s good. That’s fine.
Rusk: Now, I have also—we had an unfortunate accident today. The House Foreign Affairs committee put out a report that included some references to Brazil, a report that was prepared last January, that included a reference to the fact that we did not expect an early communist takeover in Brazil.
President Johnson: Was it prepared January ’64?
Rusk: That’s right. Now, I backgrounded some press people tonight to have them say that a high State Department official said that the situation in Brazil had deteriorated in the meantime, since that report was issued, that we are deeply concerned about the prospects for representative and constitutional democracy in Brazil. Because if this report goes down to Brazil without some sort of a correction, Goulart might take this as a blessing for the things he’s trying to do.
So without any direct quote of you or me, I did do some backgrounding to kind of counteract one or two sentences in this report because of its impact in Brazil tomorrow morning.
President Johnson: Mm-hmm. All right.
Now, I had a cable from Mac [Bundy], a wire, on Panama that he’s suggesting that [Ellsworth] Bunker propose tomorrow that he said had yours and [Thomas] Mann’s approval. Are you familiar with it?
Rusk: Yes. Yes, I saw that, the text of that—
President Johnson: Yes. I think that’s what we’ve been saying all the
Rusk: It seems to me that that particular one is all right.
President Johnson: Yes.
Rusk: I don’t think the Panamanians will buy it at the moment—
President Johnson: No.
Rusk: –partly because of Bill Fulbright’s speech.
President Johnson: yes.
Rusk: But, nevertheless, I think we ought to try it out. And if we don’t do that, then I think we can simply state our position to the OAS and let them take it up from there.
President Johnson: Fine. Well, tell Mac and Mann to go ahead on that basis.
Rusk: Oh, fine. Fine. I’m delighted.
President Johnson: I haven’t talked to them . . .
Rusk: Right. Except for this Brazilian matter, I can call you early in the morning—there’s nothing here other than Brazil that would pull you back to Washington tomorrow rather than Wednesday. But I think this Brazilian matter just could blow overnight, and I’ll be in touch with you about it—
President Johnson: Fine.
Rusk: –so you can make your plans.
President Johnson: Fine. Call me. If not, I’ll be coming back Wednesday, but I’ll come anytime I need to.
Rusk: Oh, fine. Thank you, Mr. President.
President Johnson: All right.