223. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Admiral Raborn1

[Omitted here are opening remarks.]

President: I want to talk to you confidentially about a matter, and I don’t want anybody to know it but you and me. I know your health problem and I know your financial problem and all those things, but we’re getting in a pretty serious business up here now, and I’ve been giving very earnest consideration to asking you if you couldn’t come back and help us a little while.

Raborn: Yes sir. Well, I’m terribly honored to have you think of me. You know of my strong affection for you sir, and strong support any way I could, but I do have a continuing health problem.

President: I thought I might take a young man over here and make him your deputy, and you kinda handle it. I don’t think you got much more health problem than I have, and ah—

Raborn: That’s a little different.

President: Well, my blood pressure went to zero—can’t go any lower—when I had my heart attack.

Raborn: That’s cause you would land on the other side. Yeah, I agree with you there.

President: I don’t want you to just, ah—. John McCone’s out there now, and he’s spends some time away, and he’s—. We can’t have but one military man, or one man with military background, but I want somebody that McNamara has great respect for, and he does for you, and somebody that I can-whose judgment, J-U-D-G-M-E-N-T, you can trust. Mr. Rayburn used to say, “I don’t give a damn how smart a man is if he hasn’t got judgment.” And I think we got a fella that in a year or two would be real good to succeed McCone. He’s in charge of Plans out there now. He’s a career man. His name is Helms. Do you know him?

Raborn: Helms?

President: Yeah, CIA. He’s a young, attractive fella, but I would like to give thought to moving him into the deputy’s spot, and giving him some training and some seasoning there, but doing it for a period [Page 497] until we thought he was ready, under, rather, a man with seasoned judgment and somebody that could deal pretty well with Russell and the House committee and Mahon, appropriations people, and let them feel during this critical period that we had somebody that was an old war horse and knew what he was doing and just wasn’t a civilian out of the service.

Raborn: Yes.

President: Now I need you and need you awful bad awful quick. I’ve thought of that, and I don’t think it’s something that you’ve got to go to war about or around the clock. I think you can just take about it as easy as you want to, as long as you’re satisfied that things are going. I think it’s in pretty good shape. I think it, ah—you might want to take a little trip once in a while, but I believe he’d be a very good deputy, and I would almost make him the director, but I’m not quite that close to it at this moment.

Raborn: This is your suggestion—that I would relieve Mr. McCone?

President: Yeah. I’d want you—what we’d do is that’s a pretty closed corporation.

Raborn: I understand sir.

President: And when you—it’s pretty worldwide, and it’s pretty heavy in its appropriations, as you know, many hundreds of millions. But they’ve got a good organization. They’ve got good men. They need a top man that can keep the Congress pretty well informed without [unintelligible] in the newspapers, and they go up and see Russell once a month, spend an hour with him, and kinda of tell him what’s going on, and Harry Byrd, and the same thing with Mahon. But every Tuesday his principal job is bringing in his little briefing for the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and the President. We have lunch, the four of us, every Tuesday, at my dining room at the White House. He’s responsible for the show, but McCone the last few months has been away quite a bit. His wife’s had some trouble. He’s out there now. He’s got some folks sick, and he’s been at it 4 or 5 years, and he will be available to us anytime we want him to use for anything. The main thing for me to do is try to get a man in the spot that I have confidence in when he comes in and says, “Now here’s what we see coming down the trail here. Here’s what our judgment is. I want you to bear in mind that this could happen and this could happen, but our best information this morning so and so.” Because my judgment’s no better than the information it’s based on. And I need someone that I can have respect for and that I’ve watched through the years, and it’s a very critical period right now. I hate to ask you to do this, but I just don’t know of anybody that I think is better equipped or better able to [Page 498] do it. I’ve looked over all what the doctor said about you and over your whole record, and they just don’t want you playing twenty-eight holes of golf.

Raborn: I think with that job you wouldn’t.

President: No! You could take you a nap every day after lunch, and you could have you a good deputy, and you’ve got a good bunch of people running it. John doesn’t take it too hard. He’s gone out and got married, and traveled all around the world, and he’s had a pretty good thing, and I would like to have General Carter, who’s there now, go back to the Defense Department with a good assignment. I would like for you to take over and be the boss and I’d like for Helms to be your deputy and you train him to when you can turn him loose. And I think there’s a good many of them want him now. Good many of them think he’d be all right—some of the boys in my own shop. I’m not quite ready for that, and this is a pretty touchy period, and even if they go wrong, I want to have somebody of my own complexion and my own knowledge.

Raborn: How long can I have to make up my mind? [unintelligible] consider this?

President: Just as long as you want to. I need to know. The quicker the better, and he wants to leave this month. And he’s gonna leave. And I don’t want an acting there. But, you just take whatever time you think about it. Course, if you’re going to come the first of the month, I won’t have any problem. If you don’t, I’ll be in a hell of a shape. And I’ve looked the whole country over. I’ve looked at the jackets, and I’ve talked to the people that I’ve considered. I’ve talked about promoting folks from within and without, and I think you just have to tell your company that you have to come up here—I wouldn’t want it in the paper—on this basis. But I think you have to tell your company that you just got to come here and stay a few months, and they’ve got to make a little sacrifice too and give you leave. We won’t overwork you and we won’t overdo it, and I think you’ll enjoy it and I think it’ll be a great experience for you, and I think you’ll be worth a hell of a lot more to anybody after you leave, including yourself, than you are now, and you just got a wonderful record. I’d just like for you to sit across from Bob McNamara and give him your views and hear mine and listen to Rusk’s and then all of us try to make a judgment, because, ah—. You can’t stay out there when you hear that fire bell anyway if these damn red Chinese—about 35 divisions of ’em start coming down there. I know what the old war horse does when he hear the bell ring.

Raborn: Well you certainly do me high honor, Mr. President. About how long do you think this would be?

[Page 499]

President: I think it would be up to you. I would come without anybody ever knowing it might not be the rest of your life. But I would take Helms in there, and I have a couple—. McNamara thinks Helms is about ready to do it now. Rusk is ready for Helms now. Mac Bundy thinks that Helms ought to go in now. I don’t feel quite that sure, although he’s been with the Agency a good many years. I just want to have somebody—he’s a Brooks Brothers looking fella. He’s a real attractive fella, black hair and olive skin and wears a little pin in his collar, and stuff like that. But I think that in our meetings here, you can bring him with you anytime that you want him or need him and have him around. McCone [unintelligible]. I think in our meetings and with the things as they are now and with Russell sick and with [unintelligible] and Vincent gone over to the House and with Byrd, I just rather think I’d rather have you for a few months and see how we come out on this Vietnam thing and see what your evaluation of him is, and then, and I think, anytime you felt like if you wanted to go back, first of the year, October, September, anytime you thought, well, this is going all right now, or if it’s working too much on you—and I wouldn’t expect you to spend your nights and your Saturdays and things like that. I think the show runs itself pretty well if it’s got a man that everybody respects and thinks is impartial and that there’s nobody [unintelligible], and they wouldn’t be that way about you. I had lunch—I haven’t talked to anybody about it but McNamara and John Macy, and John Macy thinks that your background, your acceptance, your respect would just be the best we can get, and McNamara went and got your jacket and went over it all, and I did ask John Connally and Fred Korth what they thought of you. I didn’t mention CIA at all because I don’t want it to get in the paper, and John said if he’s worth a billion dollars he’d put you in charge of all of it. He thought you were the most competent fellow that he’d ever run into, and that you had the best management job he’d ever seen, and it was the best managed project he’d ever seen, and you were on top of it every minute, and Fred said substantially the same thing. So nearly everybody that’s worked with you feels that your name is what I know it to be and what I believe, but I’m not getting into these things lightly.

Raborn: [unintelligible] Well, sir, I take it then it will be something 6 months to a year.

President: Well, it will be as long as you want it and as soon as you can get out of it if you think it’s all right. I don’t want you to leave unless you think this fella’s all right. If you get in there and stay awhile, you can stay here as long as I’m President or go leave as soon as you think it will run itself.

[Page 500]

Raborn: Mr. President, I couldn’t ask for a better deal, and I certainly thank you for your confidence, and I will be in touch with you right quick.

President: Thank you, Admiral

Raborn: Thank you.

President: Goodbye.2

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and Admiral Raborn, Tape FMISC.04, Side A, PNO 2. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. At 10:07 a.m. on April 8, Raborn telephoned the President and accepted the job. A recording of the conversation is ibid. Raborn served as DCI from April 28, 1965 to June 30, 1966. Helms served as his deputy and succeeded him. For Helms’ recollections of what he was told by Johnson about the decision to appoint Raborn, see John Ranelegh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. Revised edition. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 448. “The Raborn Interlude” is discussed by DDI Ray Cline in his memoir, Secrets, Spies, and Scholars: Blueprint of the Essential CIA (Washington: Acropolis Books, Ltd., 1976), pp. 210–215, and “The Raborn Episode” is discussed by Cline’s successor as DDI, R. Jack Smith, in his memoir, The Unknown CIA: My Three Decades with the Agency (Washington: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 165–177.