Johnson Seeks a Major Policy Role
Acquiring an expanded role with respect to space was just one element in Lyndon Johnson’s early push for influence within the Kennedy administration. His ambition was apparently to serve as the president’s alter ego with respect to all areas of national security policy, not just the space program. Many prior vice presidents who had served under Democratic presidents, such as John Nance Garner, Harry Truman, and Alben Barkley, were not informed about or involved in national security matters, and Johnson did not want to repeat that pattern.
To achieve this objective, a few days after the inauguration Bill Moyers of Johnson’s staff drafted an executive order for President Kennedy’s signature that would have given the vice president authority “at all times” for “continuing surveillance and review with respect to domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security” and would have allowed the vice president to chair the National Security Council in the president’s absence. To exercise this responsibility, the vice president would be “authorized to obtain pertinent information concerning the policies and operations of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Bureau of the Budget and other departments and agencies affected [sic] with a national security interest.” The reasons for such an expanded role, suggested Moyers, included that “the nature of our times requires that the Vice President be adequately informed on vital matters” and that “the possibility of immediate succession to the number one job, however remote and however distasteful to think about from the President’s viewpoint,” would require a fully informed vice president. Even as he prepared the draft order, Moyers recognized that it would likely be opposed by many of JFK’s advisers, and suggested to Johnson that “a better way to achieve your objective, perhaps, is for the President simply to issue a directive to you, instructing you to play a greater role in national security.”2
While the new president and his White House staff were indeed resistant to the kind of publicly visible executive order that Moyers had drafted, they did accept the suggestion of a nonpublic presidential directive. On January 28,
Kennedy signed a letter to Johnson that had been drafted by Moyers, asking Johnson to review policies relating to the national security so that Kennedy could “have the full benefit of your endeavors and of your judgment” and to “maintain close liaison” with “departments and agencies affected with a national security interest.” In this letter, NASA was added to, and the BOB deleted from, the list of agencies subject to vice presidential review that had been in the draft executive order. Copies of the letter were sent to heads of all agencies involved in national security matters.3
These attempts at the start of the Kennedy administration to give Lyndon Johnson an expanded policy role were not successful. John Kennedy had needed Johnson to attract enough Southern voters to get elected, but Kennedy, and particularly his top aides, had no intention of making Johnson a major player in national security affairs. This quickly became evident. The weeks following the inauguration “were ones of despair for Johnson,” according to one of his biographers; “He felt trapped, useless, ridiculed.”4