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This Week in Texas History: LBJ fills CIA vacancy with fellow Texan

By Bartee Haile

The first test-fire of the Polaris missile on Jan. 10, 1960 was a spectacular success that put the low-profile career of a Texas-born admiral into public orbit.  

A native of Decatur and a 1928 graduate of Annapolis, William F. Raborn passed the tests of war and peace with flying colors.  But nothing could prepare the can-do sailor for his final assignment as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

During the last days of the war in the Pacific, a kamikaze pilot scored a direct hit on the aircraft carrier Hancock.  Repairing the badly damaged flight deck in a remarkable four hours, Executive Officer “Red” Raborn made possible the safe return of a fighter squadron, an incredible feat rewarded with the Silver Star.

The Texan’s post-war duties were no less challenging, and his long list of peacetime accomplishments earned him an enviable reputation as the most able administrator in the navy.  In 1955 he took the job of speeding up production of the Polaris, a submarine-launched missile with a 1,500-mile range.

A tough taskmaster who believed in seven-day work weeks for everybody including himself, Rabon regularly revived weary subordinates with rousing pep talks.  “I knew that I was ready to die for someone,” a former aide later recalled with mixed feelings, “but I didn’t know whether it was the admiral, the president, my mother, the head of the Boy Scouts or who.”

Raborn’s management magic added the underwater weapon to the US arsenal an impressive three years ahead of schedule.  The successful test-firing of the Polaris in 1960 instead of the projected 1963 landed him on the cover of Time magazine.

Retiring from the navy after his 30-year hitch, Raborn settled into the comfortable life of a civilian executive.  He was hired as vice-president of a California aerospace company and spent his off-hours chasing golf balls in Palm Springs.

But duty unexpectedly called in April 1965.  On his way to the airport for a mysterious trip to Texas, Raborn slyly suggested to the public relations department, “You might want to have some biographical material on me available.”

President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of the Texan as his choice for CIA director caught Washington know-it-alls, as well as Raborn’s corporate cronies, by complete surprise.  Although the admiral had never been mentioned as a prospect for the post, his name topped the only list that mattered — LBJ’s.

Director Raborn hardly had time to find his office in the vast CIA complex in Langley, Virginia before facing his first full-blown crisis.  Six hours after the swearing-in ceremony on Apr. 28, 1965, the president decided to dispatch the Marines to a Caribbean hot spot.

From 1916 until 1924, American soldiers kept the peace in the volatile Dominican Republic.  Strongman Rafael Trujillo maintained dictatorial order until his assassination in 1961, which rekindled political strife in the small country.  Juan Bosch, a popular writer, was elected president in 1962 and ousted the following year by the military because of his purported left-wing ties.

The United States feared the riots that erupted in the spring of 1965 would culminate in a pro-communist coup.  Rather than risk a replay of the recent revolution in Cuba, Johnson sent in the Marines.

Director Raborn’s role in the Dominican affair was restricted to passing along information obtained by CIA spooks behind the stormy scenes.  With no background in intelligence, he concentrated on reorganizing the spy agency and wisely avoided the swamp of international intrigue.

However, there was no way Raborn could steer clear of the escalating crisis in Indochina. In August 1964, North Vietnamese gunboats supposedly took torpedo potshots at a pair of naval destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf.   

CIA specialists analyzed the reports and concluded the sound the Americans had detected with their sonar equipment had not come from torpedo propellers.

But the White House did not bother to check with the CIA.  Citing the questionable incident as proof positive of the enemy’s hostile intent, President Johnson asked for the authority to use “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

Within 72 hours, congress approved the historic request by votes of 416-0 in the house and 88-2 in the senate.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution became the blank check for the Vietnam War.

In the midst of the rapid military build-up that would commit more than half a million troops to the Southeast Asia stalemate, “Red” Raborn cut short his stay at the CIA.  He had originally agreed to a two-year tenure, but 14 months proved long enough under the circumstances.

Order your copy of “Texas Depression Era Desperadoes.” by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393. 

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