In international politics, Johnson was unschooled, and he seemed to lean on precepts gleaned from personal experience. "I know these Latin Americans," he told some newspaper reporters when he had been in the White House only a short while. "I grew up with Mexicans. They'll come right into your yard and take it over if you let them.. . . But if you say to 'em right at the start, 'Hold on, just a minute,' they'll know they're dealing with somebody who'll stand up. And after that you can get along just fine." Still, Johnson was no hothead or saber rattler. The besetting concern over Fidel Castro's regime gave Johnson an opportunity to show his mettle early in his administration. The Cuban dictator was demanding the return to Cuba of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay. To underscore his determination, he shut off the water to the American installation. Johnson countered the move immediately by instructing the navy to establish its own water supply. The Cubans working on the base were simply ordered to spend their wages there or be dismissed.
Johnson also showed moderation and self-control when nationalistic rioting took place in the Panama Canal Zone in early 1964. As demonstrators screamed, "Gringos, go home," President Roberto Chiari insisted that the time had come to revise the treaties governing United States-Panama relations. After the violence ended, Johnson agreed to enter into negotiations, declaring afterward that "it was indeed time for the United States and Panama to take a fresh look at our treaties." A United States-Panama treaty was finally signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, providing for Panama to assume full control of the canal at the end of 1999.
Latin America presented persistent problems. The Alliance for Progress had created high expectations throughout the region, but it was not yielding the improved standard of living the masses of people had been led to expect. Trouble broke out in the Dominican Republic on 24 April 1965. The civilian government of Donald Reid Cabral came under attack from liberal and radical followers of Juan Bosch. Bosch, heading a reform party, had received 60 percent of the votes in a national election in 1962, but he had been ousted in a coup d'état. The new regime under Reid Cabral received the support of the Department of State, although its leader apparently had little popular support. Moreover, the country was in increasing economic difficulties. In April 1965 a group of young army officers raised the banner of revolt, aiming to restore the exited Bosch to the presidency. Civil war ensued as the senior army officers, backed by conservative elements, opposed the insurgents. In the fierce fighting that followed, the military seemed to be winning. But the pro-Bosch forces gained strength by arming civilians in the city. As the struggle raged on, more than a thousand Americans became trapped in the Embajador Hotel. Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, concerned for their safety, expressed anxiety over a possible Castro-like government emerging. He cabled President Johnson, urging that troops be landed immediately in order to protect American citizens. On 28 April marines waiting offshore aboard an aircraft carrier were landed and quickly established a cease-fire in Santo Domingo. The following month the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed to station a peacekeeping force in the Dominican Republic to replace the marines.
Johnson had possibly saved American lives and had prevented the rise of a Communist government. He was able, moreover, to withdraw the American forces gracefully when the OAS troops moved in. Still, he had lost some credibility as he sought to justify the steps he had taken. Two days after the dispatch of troops, he explained his actions on the ground that "people trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control." On 2 May he identified the cause of the trouble as a "band of Communist conspirators." In private conversation Johnson stated that "we took out 5,641 people from forty-six nations—without even a sprained ankle.. . . If I hadn't acted, Castro would have had them all." Some Americans were inclined to agree with Bosch's assessment: "This was a democratic revolution smashed by the leading democracy of the world." Johnson had acted on his conviction that "the last thing the American people wanted . . . was another Cuba on our doorstep."
Under Johnson, relations with the Soviet Union seemed less menacing than did those with the People's Republic of China, although Johnson himself was not afraid of China. In 1967 he said: "Why would the Chinese want to take on the United States of America? . . . It would be like an eleven-year-old colored girl from Tennessee going up against Jack Dempsey." And he added, "One way to avoid [war with China] is to quit talking about it." Johnson's dour view of the Soviets possibly had been modified by the cordial meeting he held at Glassboro, New Jersey, with Premier Aleksey Kosygin in June 1967, which may have accelerated progress in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty the president was seeking.