Suddenly thrust into the presidency by the assassination of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson did what other "accidental" presidents had done under similar circumstances: he promised to continue unchanged the policies of his predecessor. Johnson also retained the Kennedy staff and, in general, the loose Kennedy system. As a formerly close aide, Bill Moyers, noted after he had left the White House, Johnson had regarded the National Security Council as "not a live institution, not suited to precise debate for the sake of decision." Johnson much preferred to "call in a handful of top advisers, confidants, close friends." Johnson also tried to emphasize the foreign policy leadership of the secretary of state and was persuaded to create a system of interdepartmental committees to promote this. Johnson leaned heavily on Secretary of State Rusk, but the system was less than successful. Rusk made little use of it and Johnson came to rely, as Kennedy had, on Bundy and his NSC staff as well as on Secretary of Defense McNamara.
When Bundy left the White House staff for the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1966, he was succeeded by Walt W. Rostow, formerly his deputy and then chief of the Policy Planning Staff in the Department of State, who had been a professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The change was significant. Rostow had written extensively on American foreign policy, notably a book entitled The United States in the World Arena. As that title suggested, Rostow thought in terms of broad historical frameworks; he was a theoretician who from beginning to end saw American involvement in Vietnam as essential to the nation's world preeminence. Along with General Maxwell D. Taylor, who later changed his mind, Rostow had urged Kennedy in 1961 to bomb the Vietnamese insurgents and Rostow's advice to Johnson was always slanted toward escalation.
Like Wilson after 1914 and Roosevelt after the fall of France in 1940, Johnson became totally absorbed in a foreign war after the decision to escalate in l965. Increasingly, his circle of advisers contracted, as the president immersed himself in the details of the Vietnam conflict and tolerated dissent less and less. Johnson continued to rely, however, on a small group of friends outside the White House, often speaking to them at length on the telephone or meeting with them individually and off the record. His intimates included Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and Clark Clifford, who replaced McNamara as secretary of defense in early 1968. On Vietnam, Johnson also relied on the advice of a group of distinguished former government officials known as the Wise Men, who included Dean Acheson, Henry Cabot Lodge, and, by l968, McGeorge Bundy. Initially strong supporters of the Vietnam War, the Wise Men had a change of heart after the Tet offensive and helped persuade Johnson to seek peace with Hanoi in March 1968.
Early in 1965, Johnson instituted the "Tuesday lunch," which for the next four years represented the focal point of foreign policymaking. While Vietnam came to dominate the agenda, topics ranged across the globe, from the Dominican intervention in 1965 to the Six Day War in 1967. The initial grouping of Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy gradually expanded to include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler, CIA Director Richard Helms, and Johnson's press secretary, first Bill Moyers, later George Christian. Johnson kept the proceedings informal to encourage give-and-take, but eventually Deputy Press Secretary Tom Johnson was added to keep a record of major points.
The Tuesday lunch helped the president hear a variety of views on important foreign policy issues. "They were invaluable sessions," Rusk claimed, "because we all could be confident that everyone around the table would keep his mouth shut and wouldn't be running off to Georgetown cocktail parties and talking about it." Others, however, contended that the sessions were too disorganized and rambling, rarely leading to thoughtful decisions. The Tuesday lunch, however, was never intended to be a decision-making body. As H. W. Brands points out in The Wages of Globalism, Johnson used it as "a forum for receiving information and opinions. Sometimes he announced decisions at the Tuesday lunch. More often he took the information and opinions back to his private quarters, where he compared them with intelligence obtained from his night reading and from his telephoning to Fortas, Clifford, and who knew who else, and only then gave his verdict."