Was the Country Better off with LBJ than JFK?

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

The assassination and death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy(JFK) was a great tragedy and ended the love affair the American people had with the Camelot like presidency. The Kennedy’s were as close to royalty as America would ever get. However, what is posed here is whether or not the country was politically speaking better off with Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) than with JFK? While there is no denying that LBJ was a despicable person, he was a master politician with 12 years of congressional experience. He was also a pragmatist, he knew in order to have a successful presidency that was not be tainted by comparisons JFK he had to not only compete all the unfinished goals of the previous president he had to complete them quicker and accomplish more than JFK would ever conceivably be able achieve. LBJ had an ego so big, he even compared his sexual prowesses to JFK’s. So much so that he even showed his genitalia to both men and women in the white house. What is impressive is that he actually accomplished that goal in less than 1 and 1/2 terms. The Johnson Administration submitted 87 bills to Congress, and Johnson signed 84, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in US congressional history. Something that the more popular Kennedy had no hope of ever accomplishing.

Among historians and some authors, there has been detailed debate and discussion about what would have happened in the event that Kennedy wasn’t killed in November 1963. The three main topics of debate have been the outcome of the 1964 presidential election; the escalation of the Vietnam War; and the finality of the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. All three of those items were in process when Kennedy died when he visited Texas as part of the run-up to the 1964 presidential campaign. Kennedy was committed to running again in 1964 and based on the theories among historians, he had a good chance of winning. His popularity rating was at 58 percent right before the assassination, just after he served 1,000 days in office. That number was higher than similar ratings for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, five presidents who won re-election bids. The presumptive presidential nominee for the Republicans in late 1963 was Senator Barry Goldwater. He was friends with Kennedy and briefly dropped out of race after Kennedy’s death, only to re-enter it to oppose a man he disliked, Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy and Goldwater had reportedly agreed to debate, while Johnson had no interest in debating Goldwater. The closeness of an election between Kennedy and Goldwater would have been decided by two big issues looming over the year of 1964: civil rights and Vietnam. On taped recordings made in the White House just before his death, Kennedy told advisers he expected a tough re-election campaign because of his support of civil rights. President Kennedy had introduced his historic Civil Rights Act in June 1963. It was stalled in Congress when Kennedy died. The Civil Rights Act faced fierce opposition in Congress, mostly from southern Democrats. Kennedy rejected an attempt to substitute a bill that would allow segregation at public facilities to continue. After Kennedy’s death, President Johnson told the nation that passing the Civil Rights Act would be the best way to honor Kennedy’s legacy, but it took until July 1964 for Johnson and his allies to get the act approved.

Kennedy believed in reducing taxes, stating that “A risingtide lifts all boats.” It was derided by liberals and called “trickle-down economics.” The real key is to encourage the downward flow of wealth:

-earned income tax credit

-welfare reform

-day care

-college scholarships

If Kennedy had lived, the debate over the Civil Rights Act would have occurred during an election year—or maybe not. One theory is that Kennedy would have waited until after the 1964 election, with the hope of having more leverage in Congress to pass the act. The combination of Kennedy and Johnson would have tackled the bill, which would have been a protracted battle. In reality, President Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 using his mandate from a landslide election, Kennedy’s legacy, and his considerable powers of persuasion in Congress. So we see that LBJ accomplished all of Kennedy’s major goals for his second term, and did so in record time.

There also remains the question of how Kennedy would have handled the Vietnam issue?

The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, did an audio interview for the Kennedy Library in April 1964 that recounted the thinking about Vietnam at the time of the president’s death: that Vietnam couldn’t fall to the Communists. “He had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam,” Robert Kennedy said about his brother. The reason was the Domino theory, “Just the loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. I think everybody was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall,” Kennedy said. Just three weeks before President Kennedy’s death, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was killed in a military coup indirectly supported by the United States. In August 1963, Kennedy said in another taped conversation that Congress would be mad if it found out about a proposed coup in Vietnam, but Congress would “be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain.” The situation rapidly deteriorated in Vietnam in the year after Kennedy’s death and in August 1964, Congress approved by a near unanimous vote the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson the ability to commit massive amounts of U.S. troops without a war declaration. In 2009, filmmaker and visiting Brown scholar Koji Masutani took on the subject of Kennedy and Vietnam in Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. The film was based on a book and considerable research on the subject by academics at Brown and the University of Toronto, who looked at large amounts of data and transcripts from the Kennedy administration.
Masutani and the researchers concluded that Kennedy would have sought a more diplomatic solution than Johnson, who committed more troops to the Vietnam War in 1964, and that Kennedy wanted to be out of Vietnam entirely by 1966. Their theory was that Kennedy had a pattern of behavior, established in his handling of crises like the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile situations, which usually had the president going against the advice of his military advisers to find a diplomatic solution. Planning documents from November 20, 1963 show that the U.S. had hoped to have all military personnel out of Vietnam by the end of the 1965 calendar year, unless there were “justified” exceptions. But the fallout from the Diem coup was unknown at the time of the Kennedy assassination, so how the president would have handled Vietnam during an election year remains a mystery.

It was said that the day that Kennedy was assassinated America lost its innocence. I am not sure if this was the case or not. America had just finished a decade with McCarthyism and the advent of the cold war, and the 1960’s saw us firmly entrenched in this war with the Soviet Union, so I don’t think the American people were that innocent. We were also embroiled in a crisis with race relations that had been percolating for decades and was just coming to a head in the 60’s. But it can’t be denied that it was a major blow to the country. JFK and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy were much loved by the people. However, that is far as it goes. I think the country was politically speaking based on sheer congressional accomplishments far better off with LBJ in office.

JFK Rating 3.8 stars

LBJ Rating 4.0 stars


Article By Scott Bomboy, the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center, “What if JFK had survived his assassination?” livescience.com, “If JFK Lived: 5 Ways History Would Change.” By Becky Oskin; history.co.uk, “WHAT IF JFK WAS NEVER SHOT?”;


If JFK Lived: 5 Ways History Would Change

(Update 11/2/2022)

John F. Kennedy surviving his assassination has always been an irresistible twist for authors of alternate histories. Some of the best writers of the past 50 years have tackled this plot device since that fateful day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Some are fanciful, such as the 1992 short story collection “Alternate Kennedys,” which sent the clan to Hollywood. Others take a serious turn, reversing the 1960s’ amazing progress in civil rights.

Here are five intriguing ways history may have changed if Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt, or if gunman Lee Harvey Oswald had never taken the shot.

1. The 1964 election

What if JFK had lived through the assassination attempt on Nov. 22, 1963? There may never have been a Warren Commission to investigate the crime, and the wealth of conspiracy theories that followed may have never arisen. But there would have still been investigations.

And in the alternate history presented in Bryce Zabel’s novel, “Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?” (Publish Green, 2013), those investigations threaten Kennedy’s ability to win re-election by revealing his personal and political secrets. Those include his affairs and ties to the mob. In Zabel’s novel, the revelations trigger an impeachment battle.

2. Vietnam

Tensions were already escalating in Vietnam in 1963. Just a few months before Kennedy was killed, he supported a coup that ended with the death of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. In the documentary film project “Virtual JFK,” historians suggest Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, resisting pressure to escalate the war.

Even so, after Kennedy’s death, his brother Robert told reporters that JFK had no intention of pulling out of Vietnam; historians, as well, aren’t sure how the Vietnam War would have concluded with Kennedy in charge.

3. Civil rights

Historians describe the trouble Kennedy would have faced in building consensus in Congress had he continued on for another term. Rather, Lyndon B. Johnson gets credit for pushing through the landmark civil rights and poverty-busting legislation of the 1960s. In the novel “11/22/1963” (Gallery Books, 2012), by Stephen King, a high-school English teacher travels through a time portal to foil Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination attempt. When the time traveler returns to the present, he discovers the 1964 Civil Rights Act never passed.

4. The Cold War

John F. Kennedy won election by preying on fears of nuclear war, some have argued. But just before his death, the president pushed for a limited ban on nuclear weapons. In the book “If Kennedy Lived: An Alternate History” (Putnam Adult, 2013), by Jeff Greenfield, the author suggests Kennedy would have worked with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

5. The space program

Would there be people on Mars by now if Kennedy had lived beyond 1963? In the science fiction novel “Voyage” (Harper Collins, 2011), by Stephen Baxter, the United States lands people on Mars in 1986, after Kennedy survives his assassination attempt. But JFK only serves as inspiration — it’s Nixon who approves the Mars mission. Another twist: All of the Apollo missions beyond Apollo 14 were cancelled. Historians have focused more on the outcome of the lunar program than a possible Mars launch had Kennedy lived. A few think the budding détente between Kennedy and Khrushchev could have even lead to a joint space program.


Although John F. Kennedy served just two years in the White House, the young President had come at a pivotal time in American politics. During his short term in office, his administration touched on some of the biggest political and cultural events of the 20th century – Civil RightsVietnam and the Cold War.

Extra-marital affairs and declining health aside, we ponder what might have happened to these significant events had JFK’s motorcade not turned down Elm Street in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963. What if he’d not fallen foul of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun and Lyndon B. Johnson had never ascended to the presidency?


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The law prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin and it brought about the end of segregation in public places in America. It is considered one of the great legislative achievements of the civil rights movement and according to most historians would not have come into law in 1964 had JFK not been assassinated.

Although Kennedy was committed to the cause of civil rights, his civil rights bill was languishing in Congress at the time of his death. With an election year on the horizon, he admitted to his advisors in taped recordings that he expected a tough re-election campaign due to his support of civil rights. That’s led some historians to speculate whether the president would have parked the issue until after his election, at which point he might have hoped for more leverage in Congress. Even with more clout in Congress, it’s generally accepted that a Kennedy-led administration would have had to make a lot more concessions to get the bill through that Johnson had to.

Johnson came to power like a force of nature. The southern Democrat knew how to work Congress and although he lacked the charisma of Kennedy in front of the TV cameras, his political influence was second to none. The Democrats also gained a huge majority in the 1964 elections, something that might not have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated.

Declaring the civil rights bill should be passed to honour Kennedy’s memory, Johnson’s forceful negotiation skills, along with the Democratic majority, saw the new president push the bill through to law without much compromise. Without Johnson in power, without the Democratic majority and therefore without Kennedy’s death, it’s unlikely the Civil Rights Act would have come to pass when it did, which would have led to many more years of civil unrest in America during the 60s and 70s.


The Vietnam War claimed over 58,000 American lives as well as millions of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. It left America divided, caused deep social unrest and left an ingrained distrust for government, the scars from which can still be seen today.

Although not its architect, Johnson escalated the war to new heights, committed American troops to a land battle in Asia, conducted devastating bombing campaigns and used body counts as a way of monitoring progress.

Hotly debated amongst historians is whether JFK would have done things any differently. There are two main camps; those that believe Kennedy would still have gone to war and those that don’t.

The pro-war historians argue that Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist who’d won his election in 1960 in part due to his claims that Republicans had been weak against the spread of Communism. It was unlikely he was then going to follow suit, especially since he was a believer of the ‘domino theory’ that if one country in a region fell to Communism then surrounding countries would follow soon after. To protect Southeast Asia turning red, Kennedy knew Vietnam couldn’t fall; he was once recorded on tape declaring how mad Congress would be if ‘Vietnam goes down the drain.’

A 1964 interview given by Kennedy’s Attorney General brother Robert, also seems to back up the pro-war argument. ‘…he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam’, Robert spoke of his brother. He would go on to emphatically state that there had never been any intention on his brother’s behalf to pull out of Vietnam.

Those in the anti-war camp highlight that Kennedy never wanted to be in Vietnam in the first place and was even beginning to withdraw troops before his death. They argue Kennedy saw the political quagmire that an escalated conflict could become. He also had a deep distrust of his over-confident military advisors and more often in the past had chosen his own path, as demonstrated during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy liked to seek the diplomatic solution and if given the opportunity and time, Vietnam could have played out in the same way.

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle with an argument that straddles both camps. Unwilling to seem weak on Communism, it’s likely Kennedy would have kept up the US presence in Vietnam but would not have escalated it to the lengths that Johnson did. He would also have wanted a quicker timeframe to get out, leading to a phased withdrawal strategy. Ultimately, this would still have left the South to fall to the North as in our timeline just at an earlier date.

This approach would have saved countless lives and prevented the explosion of counterculture back in America. U.S. citizens wouldn’t have been subjected to the first televised war and saw the horrors of battle beamed back to their living rooms. The 1960s without the anti-war movement would have been a very different place.


From 1947 to 1991, the world was gripped by the dangerously icy tensions of the Cold War. It would take until the 1970s for the world to witness the first period of détente (the relaxation of relations by more open verbal communications). Could everyone have breathed a slight sigh of relief a decade earlier had Kennedy remained in charge?

As already touched on, Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist who had already taken the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust during his face-off against Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At first glance, it might be easier to believe that had Kennedy not been shot he might have escalated the Cold War further, especially with the tensions over Vietnam getting worse around that time.

However, most historians believe the opposite is true. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, they argue there was a shift in Kennedy’s attitude. Having come so close to obliterating the world at the push of a button, Kennedy looked to work with the Soviets more than ever before.

At a speech in 1963 delivered in Washington, Kennedy spoke of peace between the two nations and pushed for a limited ban on nuclear weapons. At another speech later in the year to the United Nations General Assembly, Kennedy proposed a joint manned lunar program with the Soviet Union. ‘Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy said. ‘The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements—agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction.’

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility then that Cold War tensions could well have de-escalated a long time before they did had Kennedy been in charge. Relations with Cuba would also have thawed, cancelling the long period of alienation we witness in our own timeline. Perhaps even the world would have witnessed a Soviet and an American walking on the moon for the first time in 1969.

Lyndon Johnson and Chinese Representation at the United Nations, 1964-1966

Between 1964 and late 1966, international events posed a serious challenge to longstanding American support for the Taiwanese seat in the United Nations. As American officials attempted to deal with the rising status and power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the concomitant decline of Taiwanese prestige, they undertook an extended review of Chinese representation policy. During this period, administration policy underwent no less than four reviews, and Johnson changed strategy in three separate instances, dramatically reversing policy twice before eventually settling on a stance that represented a modest—though not insignificant—deviation from the administration’s Chinese representation inheritance. While Johnson moved away from the harsher aspects of his policy inheritance, his final position found the middle ground between view-points of administration hawks and doves. In sum, the Johnson administration pursued an ambivalent and conflicted strategy toward Chinese representation that produced widely varying policy decisions, ultimately leaving an ambiguous record on this issue.

Part I

In November 1966, the United Nations General Assembly voted down two resolutions regarding the question of whether the Republic of China (ROC) or the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would occupy the Chinese seat in the United Nations. The first would have expelled the ROC delegation and seated the PRC in its place; the second proposed to refer the question to a specially created “Study Committee.” Beyond rejecting these two resolutions, the General Assembly upheld its previous “Important Question” determination on the Chinese Representation issue, requiring a two-thirds majority in any vote to expel the ROC and seat the PRC. These events marked a critical (though ultimately temporary) victory for the ROC in its struggle to maintain international legitimacy, and a setback for the PRC in that nation’s rhetorical and political contest with the United States.

Though these votes were favorable to the ROC and its superpower patron, the outcome had never been assured. Indeed, beginning in 1964 American officials began to doubt that they could continue successfully to oppose PRC admission, and by 1966 most observers assumed that a blanket refusal to seat the PRC would lead to defeat and the expulsion of the ROC. Accordingly, between 1964 and late 1966 the administration of Lyndon Johnson debated intensely the American stance on Chinese representation (ChiRep, to U.S. officials). During this period, administration policy underwent no less than four reviews, and Johnson changed strategy in three separate instances, dramatically reversing policy twice before eventually settling on a stance that represented a modest—though not insignificant—deviation from the administration’s ChiRep inheritance.

Although international debate over ChiRep began in the late 1940s and continued until Beijing’s admission to the United Nations in 1971, I have chosen to focus on the American deliberations on the issue between 1964 and 1966. This period marked the culmination of international enthusiasm for PRC entry and the height of Washington’s concern in trying to prevent this development. American policy-makers perceived the years between 1964 and 1966 to be the greatest crisis they had yet faced on ChiRep, and devoted greater attention and discussion to the issue than they had previously. Similarly, 1966 marked the climax of almost two decades of PRC efforts to gain admission to the United Nations, and—because of the increasing isolation of the PRC caused by the Cultural Revolution—the last instance that ChiRep received serious debate until the 1970s. All told, the period between 1964 and 1966 was the time of greatest and most urgent American deliberation on ChiRep. In a broader sense, U.S. policy decisions of these years foreshadowed the future, illustrating in microcosm a growing clash of American perceptions of the PRC and the course of Sino-American relations.

This essay asserts that the Johnson administration pursued an ambivalent and conflicted strategy toward Chinese representation that produced widely varying policy decisions. While many mid-level advisers wished to pursue a strategy of “flexibility” that would bring the PRC into the United Nations, exploit the increasingly apparent Sino-Soviet split, and open the door to a fuller reconciliation between Washington and Beijing, Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk favored a more conservative policy focused on continued efforts to minimize PRC influence. In most cases, Rusk and Johnson acted as a drag on policy, opting to maintain the status quo whenever possible. At the same time, Johnson’s tenure marked significant change in the way the administration viewed and practiced ChiRep. Johnson moved away from the harsher aspects of his policy inheritance, and his final position found the middle ground between viewpoints of administration hawks and doves. Again complicating the picture, however, is the fact that the policy suppleness that did exist under Johnson was mainly a function of necessity. On an issue that he and Rusk still viewed as something close to a zero-sum game, Johnson gave ground only when retreat seemed imperative. In sum, Johnson made modest progress toward a more reasonable ChiRep policy, frustrated those who favored greater efforts at reconciliation, and went only so far in altering his stance as he perceived to be absolutely necessary.

Because ChiRep has been consistently neglected in the historical literature dealing with Johnson’s China policy, and because this policy assumed significant contemporary importance, new exploration of this issue is needed. At the same time, this essay provides illustration of several larger historical and historiographical matters. A study of ChiRep during this period further informs our understanding of the shifting state of Sino-American relations in the 1960s, provides considerable insight into the president’s role and effectiveness as a decision-maker, and enriches the literature on U.S.-PRC relations under Johnson.

Upon assuming office in late 1963, Johnson became heir to more than a decade of bitter American opposition to PRC entry into the United Nations. Since Chinese intervention in the Korean War, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy had employed various devices to ensure that President Chiang Kai-Shek’s ROC government would continue to be the sole occupant of the Chinese seat.

During the Korean War, the Chinese representation issue was moot. The General Assembly condemned the PRC as an aggressor in the conflict, and no meaningful discussion of the question was possible until the conflict had been concluded. Chinese representation eventually became a debatable issue in the late 1950s. The Eisenhower administration dealt with the PRC challenge by proposing a moratorium on discussion of the subject in the General Assembly and making thinly veiled threats to withdraw from the United Nations were the PRC seated and the ROC expelled. In the early 1960s, as the PRC’s international status rose and more (mostly non-aligned) nations extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing, support for mainland China’s claim to representation increased, forcing Kennedy and his advisers to devise a new strategy to protect the ROC seat. Within the General Assembly, the American delegation annually supported an “Important Question” resolution on the subject, asking that any measure to seat the PRC and expel the ROC require a two-thirds supermajority. Privately, Kennedy promised Chiang that the United States would veto any resolution that promised to seat the PRC. Despite the opposition of UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who shortly thereafter warned that this pledge would bind the administration to a rigid position on U.S.-PRC affairs and eliminate any chance of improving the overall relationship between the two countries, the veto promise remained American policy through the end of Kennedy’s administration.

Within Johnson’s first year in office, international developments necessitated a review of Chinese representation policy. In January 1964, French Ambassador to the United States Herve Alphand informed American diplomats that France intended to recognize the PRC. Both Rusk and Johnson feared that the defection of an important ally from the American position might trigger rapid erosion of international support for the ROC. In a conversation with Senator Richard Russell, to whom Johnson often turned for foreign policy advice, Johnson acknowledged that American diplomatic isolation of Beijing could not last much longer. Russell counseled, “The time’s going to come when we’re going to have to recognize Red China.” Johnson replied, “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Johnson and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy tried to minimize the fallout from the French decision by urging Chiang’s government to maintain relations with France as long as possible. Because the French government had apparently not accepted Beijing’s usual condition for recognition—that the country in question must break relations with Taipei—Bundy believed that France would not take the initiative in severing Franco-Taiwanese diplomatic ties. Bundy told Johnson on January 15, “If [Chiang] would not break his relations with the French, which is what he’s always done when people recognize [Beijing] before, this would put the monkey right back on [Beijing’s] back.” Johnson agreed with Bundy’s assessment, and several days later told aide Bromley Smith, “We ought to get tough with ROC if they go through with this threat [to break relations with France] (Reducing aid, etc.).” On January 25, the administration dispatched CIA official Ray Cline to inform Chiang of the American position, instructing Cline to “take a fairly tough line….This includes implied threat that if [the ROC] won’t listen to us, we may not be able to work so closely with it.”

This implicit blackmail failed as it became clear that France would soon break relations with Taipei. Despite American pressure to make French President Charles de Gaulle move first, Chiang broke relations with France in early February, heightening administration fears of a decline in international support for the ROC and confirming the PRC’s diplomatic coup.

The successful PRC nuclear test on October 15, 1964, also seemed likely to bolster the mainland’s international position. Shortly thereafter, the New China News Agency released a statement from Premier Zhou Enlai that trumpeted Beijing’s nuclear capability as an important counterweight to American “imperialism.” While downplaying the military impact of atomic energy, Zhou foresaw the achievement of the bomb as a boon for Beijing’s foreign policy. “The mastering of the nuclear weapon by China,” the announcement read, “is a great encouragement to the revolutionary peoples of the world in their struggles and a great contribution to the cause of defending world peace.”

Zhou’s announcement, highlighting the political potential of a PRC bomb, played on the fears of American officials that the new nuclear status of the PRC would be a powerful factor in influencing other nations to support Beijing on the Chinese representation issue. Henry Rowan, Director of the U.S. Information Agency, sent Johnson a memo on October 19, four days after the Chinese test. Rowan wrote, “While there is no evidence that the blast changed any UN votes, a deeper survey of world reaction indicates a widespread focusing on the UN membership question. It seems clear to me that one of the major problems in protecting our UN membership policy is to ensure that the ChiComs do not ‘blast’ their way in.” National Security Council staffer James Thomson, a China expert, expressed similar concern. “Given the Chicom nuclear blast,” Thomson wrote, “We are now moving into a period when Communist China’s world position will probably change quite rapidly, regardless of what we do. . . . Communist China will be voted into the United Nations sometime during the life of the new Administration.” Concerned with the damage that a defeat on Chinese representation could do to Johnson’s overall foreign policy, Thomson advocated an early review of the administration’s stance on ChiRep: “One designed to cut our losses, to reduce our isolation, and to improve our look as a confident, realistic, and responsible world power.”

The fears of Rowan and Thomson seemed to be confirmed on November 14, as the Canadian ambassador to Washington indicated that his government was considering supporting PRC admission to the United Nations at the 1965 General Assembly. Four days later, Johnson had Bundy convene a meeting to consider the administration’s approach to the issue for the next General Assembly.

Part II

As the administration weighed its options for ChiRep, clear divisions emerged among Johnson’s advisers. One faction, led by Stevenson, Thomson, and Robert Komer, an Asia and Middle East expert on the NSC staff, argued that current policy had been overtaken by events, that the PRC would continue to accrue international status and be admitted to the United Nations regardless of American opposition. In October, Thomson argued American that ChiRep policy could be made most effective by shifting efforts away from excluding the PRC, and toward ensuring that the ROC remained in the United Nations. “At the UNGA session,” Thomson wrote, “We should base our opposition to Communist China’s membership primarily on Peking’s threat to the independent existence and UN seat of the 12 million people of Taiwan. (Our aim would be to hold the line on Chirep during the present session but to prepare for acquiescence in a “one-China one-Taiwan” seating arrangement at the next GA.)” Aside from preparing for the unavoidable, a “two-China” policy would demonstrate to both the leaders of the PRC and the rest of world that the administration—while eternally vigilant to the communist threat—was willing to allow mainland China to enter the community of nations. Komer stressed this theme in a November memorandum: “In effect, we want to make our ChiCom policy more like that toward the USSR—tough where they push us but flexible where there’s something to be gained, if only in terms of willingness to talk.” For this group, PRC admission was inevitable, and not necessarily something to be avoided—the question was how to shape a policy that would demonstrate American flexibility and ensure that PRC inclusion would hurt Taipei as little as possible.

In arguing for a “two-China” policy, Komer and Thomson tended to downplay the domestic political ramifications of relaxing opposition to PRC admission. Although this issue was still contentious in late 1964, Komer believed that the PRC was no longer the partisan bludgeon it had once been. Komer wrote, “The China question has…become depoliticized with time.” Thomson agreed: “The US political climate can bear the weight of [changes in China policy].” In making this case, Thomson and Komer attempted to minimize the prospective costs of a policy shift, making such a move less of a risk for the always wary Johnson.

Finally, these advisers repeatedly argued that the strong American stand in South Vietnam gave Johnson the flexibility needed for an initiative in Sino-American relations. Komer wrote:

If we take a tougher stance in Vietnam, if there is widespread fear abroad of US escalation—it can hardly be taken as a sign of undue weakness to be flexible on ChiRep. In fact, we could use this counterpoint as a justification for our Vietnam policy; it would demonstrate that while we were determined to resist Communist aggression, we were simultaneously prepared to deal with the ChiComs wherever there was some peaceful purpose to be served.

Pressure applied at the most critical points, Komer believed, would allow flexibility in other areas.

As used by Komer and Thomson’s opponents on ChiRep, the Vietnam argument could cut the other way. A second group of Johnson’s advisers, led by Dean Rusk and Policy Planning Council chief Walt Rostow, argued that ChiRep was inseparable from other American problems in Southeast Asia. A lack of firmness on ChiRep would therefore work contrary to American interests in defending South Vietnam. Rusk took a clear-cut approach to Sino-American relations: “Anything that makes the Communist Chinese leaders think that their policies are succeeding works against our interest.” Rostow, who had spent much of his time in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations focusing on policy toward Southeast Asia, agreed. Not given to understatement, Rostow wrote that PRC admission to the United Nations would be “the greatest setback to US interests on the world scene in many years.”

The difference between the views and relative influence of these two groups was made readily apparent by the November 18 meeting. Johnson’s decision not to alter ChiRep policy at this point illustrated his reliance on Rusk’s counsel and his wariness of taking an initiative that he saw as comparatively more risky than the status quo.

Adlai Stevenson opened the meeting by forecasting dire consequences if the administration did not face the reality of mainland China’s growing international momentum. “Unless we start to shift our policy this year,” he argued, “Taiwan would be…totally replaced in a few years.” Stevenson laid out an alternative: the administration could implement a two-China policy that would protect the ROC while allowing Beijing to enter the United Nations. Aside from offering an alternative to ROC expulsion, Stevenson added, signs of flexibility in the administration’s position would counter international perceptions of American obstinacy. Stevenson “did not think we should continue frozen, which would in the future damage our prestige.” The ambassador, having tried vainly since 1961 to convince his superiors in the State Department of the wisdom of a two-China policy, made a plea for presidential intervention, appealing to Johnson for direct “guidance.”

After Stevenson finished his remarks, Rusk rebutted the UN ambassador’s arguments for a change in strategy by returning to a familiar theme. Rusk cast Asian communism as a cohesive, monolithic entity directed by Moscow and Beijing. Allowing the PRC to enter the United Nations, he argued, would weaken the American position by strengthening its communist enemies. “The matter of war and peace lay in the Pacific,” Rusk told Johnson. “If we appeared to falter before the Soviet Union and Communist China this would be interpreted as a reward for the track they have been following.” By this logic, accommodation on any single issue would embolden overall communist aggression, tempting Washington’s enemies to undertake ever greater provocations: “This would increase the chance of war,” counseled Rusk. Rusk admitted that the administration’s previous tactics would not last for long, but predicted success for the 1965 General Assembly. Accordingly, he counseled against any change in policy.

Rusk’s remarks, portraying the Chinese representation question as a key component of Johnson’s overall firmness toward communism, were far more effective than Stevenson’s appeal for a two-China policy. Johnson said that “Secretary Rusk’s remarks impressed him…what gave him pause was Secretary Rusk’s statement that to change would be a pay-off for the Soviet and ChiCom hard line.” Johnson didn’t much care for Stevenson’s argument that a shift in policy would better the American image abroad, either. The President snapped that “he did not pay the foreigners at the UN to advise him on foreign policy, but that he did pay Rusk and that he was inclined to listen to him.” Johnson decided to adopt Rusk’s wait-and-see approach to the issue—the administration would continue its one-China strategy through the 1965 General Assembly.

Three factors influenced Johnson’s decision. The first, as mentioned above, was the fear that a shift under pressure on ChiRep would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Eager to escape the growing conflict in Vietnam, Johnson was unlikely to accept policy recommendations that might further embolden his antagonists.

A second factor was Johnson’s relationship with his advisers. Johnson liked and trusted Rusk, and shared the secretary’s conservative approach to China policy. Johnson once remarked of Rusk, “He’s a damned good man. Hard-working, bright, and loyal as a beagle. You’ll never catch him working at cross purposes with his President. He’s just the kind of man I’d want I’d want in my Cabinet if I were President.” Stevenson, on the other hand, was an old political rival whose tendency toward compromise clashed with Johnson’s determination to appear a competent Cold Warrior. Whereas Stevenson saw his post in the United Nations as a natural conduit through which to conduct negotiations on the conflict in Vietnam and other outstanding East-West issues, Johnson envisioned no such role for his 65-year-old ambassador, and their relationship suffered accordingly.

Finally, Johnson feared a domestic backlash against any initiative that would allow the PRC into the United Nations. During the meeting, Johnson predicted that “abandoning our policy” would “[invite] strong partisanship in Congress,” a statement with which Rusk, who had been savaged over the original “loss” of China, likely agreed. In sum, changing policies might be immediately costly; maintaining the status quo for another year seemed less so. Not yet convinced of the necessity of movement on ChiRep, Johnson chose to stand still.

Part III

While most American officials were aware that existing ChiRep policy was unlikely to remain effective far past 1965, few realized just how much the American position vis-à-vis the People’s Republic had deteriorated. In early 1965, Indonesia walked out of the United Nations as a protest to the seating of Malaysia on the Security Council, a move that the PRC opportunistically endorsed. Zhou went on to propose the formation of a rival international organization, a “revolutionary” version of the UN. That spring, the PRC drew closer to America’s erstwhile ally, Pakistan, inviting the Pakistani president to visit Beijing. During 1965 the PRC intensified its diplomatic efforts in southern Africa and among the non-aligned nations, scoring some notable successes. Though the gains from these endeavors proved to be temporary, PRC activism reached new heights in 1965.

Beijing’s diplomatic offensive was not limited to the Third World. In late September, PRC Vice-Premier Chen Yi held a press conference in which he demanded fundamental changes in the nature of the body and thanked those countries that supported PRC entry. When ChiRep came up before the General Assembly in November, the American delegation followed Rusk and Johnson’s instructions, supporting the Important Question resolution and vigorously opposing an Albanian motion brought to seat the PRC and expel the ROC. Despite American lobbying, the Albanian resolution garnered far more votes than had been expected. Forty-seven nations voted to seat the PRC, forty-seven voted to maintain current seating arrangements, and twenty nations abstained. For the first time, the American position was no longer a plurality. While the Important Question motion carried by seven votes, many American officials feared that support for this procedural maneuver would evaporate once it became evident this tactic was obstructing the will of the assembly.

As unfavorable as the vote on the Albanian resolution had been, Assistant Secretary for International Organizations Joe Sisco thought that the outcome could have been worse; “If Israel and Congo had not come in this morning we would have lost it.” Undersecretary of State George Ball also worried about the ROC’s prospects for 1966, and asked Sisco to send a copy of his report to Rusk. Arthur Goldberg, having replaced Adlai Stevenson as UN ambassador, made a similar recommendation, stressed the need for “a new hard look at the ChiRep problem” before the next General Assembly. Speaking to Johnson personally on November 18, Goldberg argued that the American position simply would not last through another General Assembly. “We won’t be able to hold much longer,” he said. “It took a hell of a doing to get the votes that we got.”

In early 1966, the administration began to move toward a review of ChiRep policy. The concerns of Goldberg and Sisco were only one of the factors that finally pushed the administration toward a new strategy. In early 1966, Senator J. William Fulbright, head of the upper house’s Foreign Relations Committee, conducted a series of hearings on American policy toward Southeast Asia. Though mainly concerned with the deepening American commitment to Vietnam, Fulbright also examined the U.S. stance toward the PRC. The Arkansas senator had long criticized American policy toward mainland China. Two years earlier, in a speech titled “Old Myths and New Realities,” Fulbright had urged Johnson to move beyond the rigidity that characterized American opposition to the PRC. Aware that Fulbright planned to call Dean Rusk to testify on Johnson’s policies, the administration tried to put its affairs in order. In early March, Komer sent Johnson a memo on “China Hearings in Senate Foreign Relations,” asking the President, “Are we fully prepared?” Johnson regularly conversed with Rusk during early March, making sure that the Secretary was ready for his appearance. Combined with the adverse results of the 1965 General Assembly vote, the imminent Fulbright hearings added an urgency to ChiRep policy that had heretofore been lacking.

Appearing before the Foreign Relations Committee in mid-March, both Rusk and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey gave statements that stressed the flexible elements of American policy. Rusk allowed that the United States had long considered Beijing to be the de facto ruler of mainland China, while recognizing Taipei’s claim to de jure sovereignty. The secretary expressed hope for Sino-American reconciliation, saying, “We must avoid assuming the existence of an unending and inevitable state of hostilities between ourselves and the rulers of mainland China.” Humphrey gave a similar statement, arguing that American policy should be based on “containment—without isolation.”

Public reaction to Rusk and Humphrey’s appearances was quite positive. Newspapers in all regions of the country ran positive editorials that praised what appeared to be a move away from hostility and toward engagement. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, ran a highly favorable piece on Rusk’s appearance. In essence, the public reaction to the Fulbright hearings proved that domestic opinion would tolerate a shift toward a less rigidly hostile China policy.

Public opinion combined with the prospect of imminent defeat in the United Nations to provide outside pressure for change, and the elevation of Robert Komer to interim national security adviser acted as an inner accelerator. McGeorge Bundy departed the administration on March 1, and Johnson had not yet decided on a replacement. Though Johnson did not accede to Bundy’s recommendation that Komer be appointed as permanent replacement, Komer did serve as national security adviser until mid-April. Komer, an unabashed supporter of a two-China policy, thus found himself tem-porarily in a position of considerable influence on administration decision-making.

Komer wasted no time in making his preferences known; on his first full day in office he composed a memo for Johnson entitled “Open-door for Red China?” Komer argued that the administration could make a virtue of necessity by adopting a more flexible policy toward the PRC. “We could show the peaceful face of our policy by suggesting our willingness to take a different attitude toward China’s UN membership,” he wrote. “We have to face the problem of a shift in our UN stance anyway, so we would merely be anticipating this a few months.

Three weeks later, Komer followed up with a similar memo, stressing the favorable public reaction to Rusk’s testimony. Komer attempted to assuage Johnson’s fears of a conservative backlash against any change in China policy by drawing the president’s attention to favorable newspaper editorials, writing, “Signs of flexibility in our China policy are not unpopular as of yet.” Convinced of the wisdom and necessity of a two-China policy, Komer hoped to make this alternative as attractive to Johnson as possible.

Komer was aware that his own eagerness for a two-China policy was not shared by his counterparts in the State Department. He told Johnson, “My own instincts are frankly much more in a ‘two-China’ direction that those of your chief State advisers.” Komer knew that Johnson relied heavily on Rusk for ChiRep advice, and worried that two-China advocates were often forced to the policy background. In late March, Komer worked to create a back-channel to the president. He asked Johnson, “Would it be worthwhile suggesting to Arthur Goldberg that he undertake quietly to make the case [for a two-China policy] to you?” On March 27, Komer returned to this tactic, telling Johnson, “I’ve talked with Arthur Goldberg about being your lawyer for a liberalized China policy…. I hope you’ll find some way to personally encourage Goldberg to take a new look at China policy.” Johnson assented.

Komer’s choice of Goldberg as a conduit was quite shrewd. Goldberg believed that a new policy was needed to spare the ROC from defeat in the next General Assembly, and spent the time between the 1965 General Assembly vote and the Fulbright hearings agitating for a change in the administration’s position on ChiRep. Furthermore, though Goldberg and Johnson were not close personally and would eventually grow farther apart because of disagreements on the Vietnam War, the president was obligated to accord his new UN ambassador a certain stature based on Goldberg’s high standing with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

On April 19, Komer sent Johnson a note on various issues in Sino-American relations. Komer reported that Goldberg felt very strongly about the need for a change in the American stance on Chinese representation, writing that the UN ambassador “fears that we’re in real trouble on the ChiRep issue this year…. He urges that we switch to a ‘Two-Chinas’ policy, which will show that ‘LBJ is not a stick-in-the-mud.’” Komer seconded Goldberg’s views, noting that “all the hints about new flexibility in our China policy have netted a big plus so far,” a reference to the positive reaction accorded Rusk and Humphrey’s earlier statements. From Komer’s point of view, a new policy was needed not only to rescue the U.S. position in the United Nations, but also to move toward a stance that came closer to acknowledging political realities in East Asia and on the global scene. Komer believed that American ChiRep policy—which essentially called on the United Nations to ignore the world’s most populous state—was out-of-date and unrealistic, and that a shift on this issue could be a first step in moving toward a broader Sino-American rapprochement.

In pressing for a change in ChiRep as part of a larger strategic reorientation, Komer’s advice represented the belief, prevalent among many mid-level administration officials, that the Chinese representation issue provided an opportunity for the United States to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. During 1965 and 1966, evidence increasingly pointed to a lasting and bitter divide between the two communist states. One government study completed in early 1966 concluded: “Relations between the Soviet Union and Communist China have deteriorated so far in the past ten years that we can say with validity that they are now engaged in their own ‘cold war.’” Building on this theme, a special State-Defense Study Group completed a study in mid-1966 that stressed the necessity of undertaking action to ensure that the Sino-Soviet rift became permanent. The group’s final report read, “Our long-term problem may well be how to ensure that, as containment succeeds, China will turn toward the free world rather than toward the Soviet Union…. By demonstrating… that we are not committed to a policy of hostility….we might ease the tensions between China and ourselves, thereby facilitating a decision that Chinese interests were better served by normalizing relations with us rather than risking another betrayal at the hands of the Russians.” As argued by its advocates, a more flexible ChiRep policy would put the United States in position to draw closer to the PRC and crack what remained of Sino-Soviet solidarity.

Johnson was apparently interested by Komer’s recommendations; he asked the national security adviser to have Goldberg draft a memo laying out his views on ChiRep. In his reply, Goldberg stressed that the issue had reached a crisis point. Fearing that current American policy “run[s] the grave and unacceptable risk of the majority vote going against the Government of the Republic of China in next Fall’s General Assembly,” Goldberg was “especially anxious that we reach an early decision.” Goldberg outlined his proposed strategy. “Both for UN tactical reasons and broader strategic reasons,” he wrote, the administration should end its attempts to isolate Beijing. The American focus should be on keeping the ROC in the General Assembly, rather than keeping the PRC out. “We should therefore support a ‘Successor State’ resolution in the next General Assembly which would recognize both the Government of the Republic of China and the Chinese Communists as having UN membership,” Goldberg argued. The United States should not introduce such a resolution, but should support it as offered by an ally, perhaps Canada or Japan. In short, Goldberg contended, the time had come for a two-China policy.

Though Johnson had not evinced any strong desire for an overall improvement of relations with the PRC, the fear of losing Taipei’s seats in the General Assembly and Security Council provided incentive enough for action. Johnson asked Rusk to confer with Goldberg on the best means of avoiding defeat in the coming General Assembly. After doing so, Rusk concluded that Goldberg’s strategy offered the best chance of keeping the ROC in the United Nations. “There appears to be little prospect that our traditional position will be sustained by the forthcoming General Assembly,” Rusk wrote, “In canvassing the alternatives, we concluded that one course with the fewest risks involves a ‘two-Chinas’ approach. The objective would be to reaffirm that the [ROC] has a right to representation in the UN, while opening the possibility for the Chinese Communists likewise to be seated.” Rusk endorsed Goldberg’s suggestion of having an American ally introduce a “successor state” resolution. The secretary also suggested that Johnson need not worry about a domestic backlash, citing a recent Gallup Poll reporting that “56 percent of those questioned would favor Red China’s admission to the UN if this would improve relations between us.”

Rusk realized, however, that Chiang’s ROC government would present a major obstacle to this new policy. Rusk thought that he would likely have to visit Taiwan personally to have a reasonable chance of convincing Chiang of the need for such a radical change of American strategy. The sec-retary proposed to have the new American ambassador to Taiwan, Walter McConaughy, broach the subject with Chiang at some point in June, opening the door for a more substantive discussion during Rusk’s trip to the island in early July. At this point, Rusk wrote, “I could do any follow-up work necessary to tie this down.”

One fascinating piece of evidence best illustrates Johnson’s reaction to these recommendations. The president, who rarely put his beliefs about Sino-American relations (or, for that matter, any other aspect of foreign policy) in writing, made a series of messy notes on the subject on a memo sent to him by new National Security Adviser Walt Rostow. Johnson was clearly worried about the implications of a relaxed ChiRep policy. The president wondered whether admission to the United Nations would necessitate formal American diplomatic ties to the PRC. He made a note of this, writing “Recognition?” Similarly, Johnson was not convinced that the American political climate could stomach a dramatic departure from what had come to be the norm in Sino-American relations. On the edge of the memo, Johnson wrote “Dom[estic]—General Eisenhower,” referring to the former president’s private pledge to come out of retirement and oppose any effort to recognize the PRC. Johnson was also concerned about the effect of a policy reversal on American allies in Asia. He wrote, “Korea,” “Thailand,” and “Japan,” indicating a fear that the governments of those countries might be troubled by what could appear to be a weakening of the anti-PRC American position. Which China would get the Security Council seat? If the General Assembly admitted the PRC, Mao and Zhou would have a strong claim. What about Kennedy’s promise to veto PRC entry? Johnson had previously refrained from restating this commitment, but a two-China policy would be an explicit rejection of Kennedy’s pledge.

What most impressed Johnson about Rusk’s recommendation, however, was the secretary’s belief that a two-China policy was imperative. Without a change of strategy, the expulsion of the ROC seemed inevitable. A two-China policy would, as Johnson wrote, “Save Taiwan.” The President jotted the results of the previous year’s votes on the Important Question and Albanian resolutions, revealing his preoccupation with the possibility of defeat. Indeed, it seems likely that this consideration was crucial in making Johnson support the shift of policy. Toward the bottom of the page, Johnson wrote of Rusk’s recommendation, “Necessary & effective.” Though Johnson had fears about moderating China policy and would have preferred not to be confronted with this dilemma, expediency and effectiveness dictated a change of course.

Johnson called two meetings to discuss Rusk’s recommendations; the first in late May and the second in June. At a May 24 meeting, Johnson decided to take initial steps in implementing the proposed policy. After the conference, George Ball reported on its outcome to another State Department official. Ball stated that although no final decision had been made, Johnson had agreed that Ambassador McConaughy “would do some softening up” of Chiang and other ROC officials before Rusk’s trip in early July.

A month later, Johnson took a more definite stance on the issue. There are no yet-available records of this meeting, but a State Department cable sent to the American mission in Taipei records the decisions taken. After a lengthy conversation on June 24, Johnson decided to implement Rusk’s recommendations. As Ball informed McConaughy, the ambassador’s assignment was “to inform the [ROC government] that the US Government has made a determination at the highest level that new tactics may be needed for handling the Chinese representation issue at the 21st GA…in order to protect the position of the ROC.” The new tactic Ball referred to was a resolution that “will affirm the continuing membership of the Republic of China and invite the ChiComs to accept the Charter and its obligations and send representatives to the GA”—in short, a two-China policy. Ball recognized that McConaughy would be hard pressed to convince Chiang of the wisdom of the American position; the ROC president had a longstanding opposition to allowing the PRC into the United Nations. Since 1961, Chiang had regularly threatened to withdraw from the United Nations were the PRC admitted. Ball thought that perhaps the proverbial pill could be sweetened by offering a continuation of American economic and military aid to the ROC as a quid pro quo. Additionally, Rusk promised to “make [a] major pitch on this new tactic himself” once he arrived in Taiwan.

The administration thus chose to embark upon a rather radical reversal of policy toward the PRC. On July 12, Johnson gave a speech on China policy that did not mention this specific shift, but referred in general terms to the administration’s new flexibility in U.S.-PRC affairs. Johnson alluded to a desire to heal the Sino-American rift, calling for “reconciliation between nations that call themselves enemies.” Johnson expressed hope for the PRC’s integration into the world community, saying, “A misguided China must be encouraged toward understanding of the outside world and toward policies of peaceful cooperation….For lasting peace can never come to Asia as long as the 700 million people of mainland China are isolated by their rulers from the outside world.” The call for reconciliation was derided by some observers as insignificant compared to the presence of a quarter-million American troops in South Vietnam. This speech nevertheless can be seen as a manifestation of administration flexibility in Sino-American relations, coming as it did just two weeks after Johnson had approved an unprecedented initiative in U.S.-PRC relations.

The administration had introduced a new element of give into China policy, but it did not do so out of any real desire to improve the climate of Sino-American relations. Though many mid-level officials in the State Department and NSC staff hoped to work toward reconciliation, the calculus of General Assembly voting drove the decisions of those at the top. Rusk’s made his mid-May recommendations, which Rostow called a “landmark,” only because the Secretary feared that any other course of action would doom the ROC to expulsion. Johnson’s notes reveal a similar theme. Johnson was not eager for détente with China; he greatly worried about the con-sequences of taking a two-China approach in the United Nations. Johnson simply saw Rusk’s solution as the only way to keep Taiwan in the international organization. Johnson and Rusk realized that their decisions might have positive externalities for Sino-American relations, but this consideration was hardly dominant. In essence, events of the past two years—aided by Komer’s opportunism and the urgency created by the Fulbright hear-ings—had necessitated a reversal of policy. Whereas in 1964 a ChiRep policy departure seemed the most risky course, by 1966 inaction seemed more perilous. In both cases, Johnson took the course of action meant to minimize the costs of the rising international status of the PRC and the concomitant decline of ROC prestige. The two-China policy was simply a means toward this end.

Part IV

By the time Johnson delivered his speech on July 12, events had already begun to militate against implementation of the administration’s new policy. Between July and September, the costs of a two-China policy rose as those of maintaining the pre-1966 stance decreased. Less than three months after adopting Rusk’s mid-May recommendations, Johnson again reversed policy and reverted to the previous American position of support for Taiwan and opposition to seating the PRC.

As Rusk had planned, Walter McConaughy raised the issue of UN representation with Chiang on July 1. While not explicitly stating the American stance, McConaughy hinted that change was afoot, telling Chiang that the “problem is how to deal with dangerous contingencies which [the American government] believed likely to arise in the UN this fall. We hoped ROC would help us keep ChiComs out of UN by accepting the tactics which a changing situation might demand.” McConaughy went on to say that Rusk would “want to discuss means of dealing with this problem in upcoming G[eneral] Assembly.”

Chiang, likely sensing a change in American strategy, would not budge. He returned to a familiar refrain, stating that admission of the PRC would dictate ROC withdrawal from the United Nations. The ROC “absolutely could not agree to” any arrangement granting the mainland regime international legitimacy.

Matters didn’t improve any when Rusk arrived. The Secretary delicately broached administration concerns that past policy was no longer effective. In response to an optimistic ROC assessment of the coming General Assembly, Rusk stated that he was “much less sanguine about prospect for making past tactic again produce desired result.” Rusk obliquely reaffirmed the American commitment to Taiwan, saying that Chiang “need not worry about basic U.S. policy support,” but clearly implied that some sort of shift would be necessary. The ROC president immediately made it clear that he would reject any arrangement leading to the PRC being seated. Chiang refused to even discuss possible policy changes, saying that he had “already given his views to Amb[assador] McConaughy.” Only two weeks after taking a new stance, the administration was thus confronted with an intransigent ally that threatened to bankrupt any two-China policy by precipitating just the action which the new strategy was designed to avoid.

The emergence of the Cultural Revolution further complicated American policy. In mid-1966, American intelligence officers and diplomats began to detect signs of intense domestic upheaval within mainland China. Internal confusion turned to chaos, and the foreign affairs machinery of the PRC ground to a halt. All but one PRC ambassador was recalled at one point or another. Increased radicalism within the country spread to the communication of foreign policy, as PRC pronouncements grew more strident and provocative. The rise of “Red Guard diplomacy,” which asserted that the Cultural Revolution must spread beyond Chinese borders, alienated both communist and non-communist supporters alike. In early 1966, Cuban President Fidel Castro condemned the PRC for “making a laughing stock of socialism.” The PRC further isolated itself by failing to prevent violent attacks on foreign embassies in Beijing. By late summer 1966, the PRC was well on its way to losing the international capital it had recently accrued.

The increasingly radical pronouncements of communist Chinese officials seemed to lessen the costs of a conservative, one-China policy. The combination of recent PRC belligerence and the chaotic state of Chinese domestic affairs appeared to decrease support for its UN claim in several African and other Third World countries. As the summer waned, it appeared likely that the Cultural Revolution would seriously hamper the PRC’s efforts to gain a seat in the United Nations. These effects of the Cultural Revolution were not lost on Johnson and his advisers. Walt Rostow sent the president almost weekly memos on the upheaval, and the Cultural Revolution was the subject of a series of Special National Intelligence Estimates.

The administration began to take these parallel developments into account in early September. Time was growing short; ChiRep was likely to appear on the General Assembly agenda in mid-November. Ironically, Rusk began to rethink his conversion to a two-China advocate just as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara signaled his assent to the administration’s new policy. On September 1, the same day that an administration official reported that two-Chinas “had been approved all the way through McNamara, without any discernible opposition in Defense,” Rusk and NSC China-watcher Alfred Jenkins put ChiRep back on the administration agenda, suggesting that the issue be discussed at a Tuesday Lunch in the first two weeks of September.

In preparation for the meeting, Jenkins composed a memo reviewing administration policy in light of the developments of the summer. Jenkins argued that while all available policy choices entailed certain risks and rewards, a one-China stance now seemed to offer the most appropriate mix of the two. Specifically, Jenkins cited the failure to persuade Chiang of the necessity of a new course and the isolation of the PRC stemming from the Cultural Revolution. Jenkins referred to “recent Peking belligerence” as alienating many potential supporters, and, while realizing that an American victory on the Albanian resolution was far from certain, thought that there was reason for optimism. Furthermore, Jenkins was not convinced that the administration had been successful in bringing Chiang on board. Referring to the unproductive meetings of early July, Jenkins wrote, “The prerequisite and exceedingly difficult ground work with the [ROC] has not been laid.” In sum, Jenkins recommended that the administration hold to its pre-1966 policy.

On September 12, Rostow arranged for a special Tuesday Lunch the next day to focus solely on Chinese representation. There is no direct record of Rusk’s preparations for the meeting, but the available evidence indicates that the secretary had reversed his previous recommendation and now favored reverting to an insistence that Taiwan alone be represented in the United Nations. A memo written by an NSC staffer a week earlier noted that Rusk was now opposed to any two-China policy. In helping Rusk prepare for the meeting, an aide reminded the secretary that the president would likely want to know why Rusk had decided to withdraw his support for the policy agreed on only weeks previous.

Because Johnson purposely kept the Tuesday Luncheons informal and forbade note-taking, there are no written records of the September 13 meeting. A note made by Rostow in Johnson’s daily diary, however, indicates that the meeting was “of unusual importance—as well as rather long,” and that Rusk stayed with the president roughly twenty minutes longer than the other advisers present. Taking into account the secretary’s influence with the president and the lack of a true two-China advocate at the meeting (the others present were Robert McNamara, who had little direct interest in the decision, Rostow, who was decidedly hawkish on China policy, and presidential assistant Bill Moyers, who had been largely excluded from the making of China policy), plus the fact that Rusk had the last word—these factors make it reasonable to conclude that Johnson’s decision reflected the counsel given by his secretary of state. In brief, Johnson opted to reverse his June decision and return to policy as it had stood before the deliberations of early 1966.

Three days later, Rusk circulated a memo to several dozen American overseas missions relaying Johnson’s determination. The United States, Rusk wrote, would continue to oppose the Albanian resolution, support the Important Question resolution, and discourage nations from introducing a successor-state—or two-China—resolution. Rusk laid out Johnson’s reasoning behind the reversal. In chief, “ChiCom hostility to UN and to much of outer world has been highlighted in recent months by turmoil within China symbolized by emergence of ‘Red Guards’ and related activity. Whatever the final outcome of these developments, their present effect is to underscore militancy and unyielding mood of Peking’s leaders.” Accordingly, Rusk wrote, the administration was guardedly optimistic about its chances for defeating the Albanian resolution and affirming the Important Question.

Johnson’s re-reversal of policy underscores the conservative elements of the administration’s conceptions of ChiRep specifically and China policy in general. Though Johnson and Rusk had been willing to test the water with Chiang to see how far the ROC president would go in cooperating with a two-China policy, they were unwilling to insist on the new approach and risk alienating their close ally. Additionally, the emergence of the Cultural Revolution highlighted for the administration the dangerous aspects of a relationship with the PRC. Though Johnson was hardly prone to accommodation with the PRC before mid-1966, the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution gave the president and advisers such as Rusk an added disincentive to undertake any dramatic policy departures. During the period between early July and mid-September, then, the balance of forces within the administration once again shifted. The Cultural Revolution and the administration’s inability to induce ROC cooperation destroyed the two-China momentum of early 1966 and made the policy proposed by Rusk and Jenkins most attractive to Johnson.

Part V

Even with this change of course, the administration debate over ChiRep was not complete. American policy would again change in early November, when the administration learned that the Canadian delegation to the United Nations planned to introduce the successor-state resolution that Johnson had so recently decided to try to avoid. Fearing the potential popularity of the Canadian proposal, Johnson and Rusk continued their efforts at damage control, hoping to delay temporarily PRC entry through a policy that fell somewhere between one-China and two-China advocates. Though this last-minute tactical shift proved unnecessary, the developments of September through December further underscore the administration’s ambiguous ChiRep legacy.

On September 21, five days after Rusk’s cable announced the return to a one-China policy, a group of Far East experts on the NSC staff attempted to reverse Johnson’s decision. Howard Wriggins, who felt that a continuation of attempts to isolate the PRC endangered long-term American interests in the Far East, drafted a memo to Walt Rostow asking if Johnson should be exposed to the viewpoints of advisers other than Rusk. Because the secretary of state had dominated ChiRep deliberations, Wriggins implied, Johnson had received only one side of the argument. Wriggins politely raised what, in his view, was a central flaw in the administration’s approach to the issue. “Because Mr. Rusk is so firmly persuaded of the rightness of our present posture,” Wriggins wrote, “Should two or three of your own staff prepare a contingency paper for the President in case of Presidential need?” In an attached memo, two other NSC staff members indicated their agreement with Wriggins’s recommendation.

Rostow was the wrong person to ask for help in moderating China policy. The national security adviser had lost none of his hawkishness in the past months; he had fought against Johnson’s initial departure from a one-China policy in May 1966. Not surprisingly, nothing came of Wriggins’s note. Rostow’s response is not recorded, and there is no indication that Wriggins was asked to draft a memo to the president or otherwise present his views. Rostow and Johnson were apparently not interested in changing policy yet again.

Rostow fended off this challenge, but events beyond the administration’s control threatened to bankrupt Johnson’s strategy once more. On October 28, consultations with the Canadian delegation to the United Nations revealed that the Canadian government was considering introducing the now-discarded successor-state resolution, meant to seat both the ROC and PRC. Several days later, Canadian diplomats informed Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach that they would indeed offer the resolution, in spite of vehement American protests. Having decided just weeks ago to try and avoid such a resolution, the administration was once again confronted with a situation that threatened its China policy.

Rusk, who happened to be at the General Assembly, immediately cabled Johnson. Rusk feared that the Canadian resolution might prove popular with nations that had previously abstained or half-heartedly supported Taiwan. Given Chiang’s declared stance that the ROC would withdraw from the United Nations if such a measure passed, the Canadian resolution raised the possibility that the Taiwanese position might still be in jeopardy. As a compromise, Rusk asked Johnson to have an American ally introduce a “Study Committee” resolution on the Chinese question. If passed, this motion would essentially delay the question for a year while a group of delegations prepared a recommendation that would be presented to the General Assembly in 1967. Rusk recognized that the group’s recommendations would likely favor the PRC, eventually concluding in that country’s admission to the United Nations, and offered the option solely as a delaying tactic, saying that at least “the ultimate solution would not be prejudged.” Rusk believed that such a resolution would be acceptable to the Canadian delegation as a compromise, and would thereby forestall the introduction of a successor-state resolution. With few alternatives apparent, Johnson quickly approved Rusk’s request.

The U.S. delegation introduced the Study Committee resolution after the usual Albanian and Important Question motions, and, despite last-minute theatrics from Chiang, who threatened to withdraw from the United Nations if the Study Committee passed, the General Assembly upheld the American/ROC position. The latest shift in U.S. policy had been unnecessary; many nations that had previously supported the PRC had been alienated by the increasingly radical tone of the Cultural Revolution. One historian estimates that Red Guard diplomacy had negatively impacted PRC relations with thirty nations. The Important Question carried by a comfortable margin, the Albanian resolution suffered a solid defeat, and enthusiasm for PRC entry had declined enough so that even the Study Committee resolution was defeated.

Ironically, the American delegation, operating under the (ultimately mistaken) assumption that a Study Committee was the only means of staving off immediate defeat, was left voting for a resolution considered prejudicial to Taiwan’s interests. Supporting the Study Committee had been a significant concession from one-China advocates, especially when coupled with the realization that the committee’s findings might well favor the PRC. In following the imperatives of damage control, the Johnson administration thus settled on a policy that—while not going as far as the two-China proponents might have liked—marked a considerable alteration of the rigid ChiRep policy Johnson had inherited three years earlier.

The escalating radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, which had played such a large role in defeating the PRC’s bid for United Nations membership, ensured that communist China would not be admitted to the General Assembly during Johnson’s presidency. Between the end of 1966 and 1969, almost all PRC ambassadorial posts were vacant, their former occupants having been recalled to Beijing. In early 1967, Red Guards laid siege to the Soviet embassy in Beijing for several weeks, further straining relations within the communist bloc. The Portuguese colony of Macao received similar treatment in late 1966 and early 1967, owing to its relative prosperity and close proximity to the Chinese border. Subject to violent demonstrations by the Red Guards, the colony was essentially brought under PRC administrative control. By 1968, the PRC and the Soviet Union were engaging in bloody border confrontations. In sum, what international action the PRC took during the last two years of Johnson’s administration tended to lessen its chances of being accepted into the United Nations. While the General Assembly debated the issue in 1967 and 1968, discussion was largely pro forma. The Johnson administration, no longer faced with a crisis of China policy, paid the issue little attention after 1966.

Part VI

How is one to interpret Johnson’s handling of ChiRep policy between 1964 and 1966? Three basic factors account for the president’s approach to the issue.

First was the strong belief of Johnson and many of his top advisers that allowing the PRC into the United Nations would merely encourage the “reckless” behavior to which Beijing was supposedly given. Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow were chief proponents of this belief, and their counsel had a powerful influence on the president. Though the administration was not blind to the opportunities offered by a change in Sino-American relations, Johnson and Rusk were more impressed with the perceived dangers presented thereby.

A second factor was Rusk and Johnson’s focus on damage control and risk minimization. Each ChiRep decision was based on a calculation that the selected course of action was the least perilous option and offered the best chance of shoring up the sagging American position. While junior administration officials (especially Komer and Thomson) focused on the long-term problem of integrating the PRC into the world community, Johnson and his closest advisers concentrated on controlling the immediate repercussions for U.S. and Taiwanese prestige. Proceeding from a view of ChiRep that stressed short-term effectiveness and safety, the administration’s determinations were thus dependent on a highly fluid international environment.

Finally, Johnson’s decisions were often contingent on the relative proximity of certain advisers. In November 1964, the contrasts between Rusk and Adlai Stevenson played a large role in Johnson’s decision to maintain a one-China policy. Robert Komer’s brief tenure as interim national security adviser proved similarly crucial to Johnson’s dalliance with a two-China approach. When Komer was replaced by Walt Rostow, however, the new national security adviser largely excluded two-China advocates from the decision-making process. Johnson’s advisers had strong opinions on ChiRep, and his decisions generally reflected these counselors’ success in waging bureaucratic war over access to the president.

New interpretations of Johnson’s leadership have challenged old perceptions of the president as a weak leader whose decisions were driven by strong-willed advisers. On Chinese representation, this thesis does not hold. Johnson played a role that was largely passive, never took the lead in shaping policy, and made little effort to control the one-sided flows of advice that influenced his decisions of spring, summer, and fall 1966. Johnson’s willingness to allow policy to drift according to the vicissitudes of the international situation also reflects poorly on his leadership. Although aware that growing PRC power posed a serious threat to an American policy that had become stagnant and unrealistic, the administration made little progress in formulating a long-term strategy to deal with this emerging problem. Indeed, it was precisely this lack of foresight that necessitated four separate reviews of Chinese representation policy. In sum, ChiRep shows a president with only a shallow engagement in an issue with profound strategic and geopolitical ramifications.

ChiRep policy between 1964 and 1966 also has implications for the literature on U.S.-PRC relations under Johnson. The president’s handling of this issue does not seem to fit neatly into the largest grouping of these histories, which generally hold that Johnson doggedly adhered to inherited assumptions of Sino-American affairs. While Johnson did attempt to minimize PRC influence, he proved willing to abandon or modify those tenets obviously challenged by growing Chinese power and status. At the same time, the American approach to ChiRep does not affirm newer interpretations of Johnson’s China policy that argue that the administration’s moderation laid the groundwork for the rapprochement of the 1970s. Johnson’s ChiRep policy seems to fall somewhere in between these categories. There was flexibility in the administration’s strategy, but it was granted unwillingly and retracted when events made a reversal possible. ChiRep under Johnson essentially amounted to a holding action. This policy, when successful, generally maintained the state of U.S.-PRC affairs that Johnson had inherited. The inherent weaknesses of the strategy, however, led to concessions that, somewhat ironically, better corresponded to geopolitical realities.

In a broader sense, ChiRep policy was so inconsistent and volatile because it reflected a larger clash of two rival paradigms of Sino-American relations. The first, that of Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution, pushed Johnson and his advisers toward a conservative strategy meant to minimize PRC influence and maintain a rigid divide between Mao, Zhou, and the rest of the world. Focused on the elements of PRC policy perceived as dangerous, this viewpoint argued for strict containment.

The second paradigm, taking into account the Sino-Soviet split and the ever more obvious fact of the PRC’s growing status, led the Komer-Thomson faction to call for a dramatic reversal of ChiRep strategy specifically and Sino-American affairs in general. These competing conceptions of ChiRep and China ensured that this was a period of dynamic change in American policy; the manner in which the administration resolved (and left unresolved) the conflict between these views made certain that this evolution was not always stable or coherent. ChiRep policy as handled by Johnson and his advisers thus came to characterize a dynamic—though sometimes uneven—struggle between two opposed paradigms.

In resolving this clash, the administration ultimately found itself somewhere between these viewpoints, fully satisfying neither and leaving an ambiguous legacy on the Chinese representation issue.

Presidential Series