Machismo In The White House


Privately Johnson groused to intimates of McCarthy’s reckless showboat tactics and particularly of the Texas-directed pressures they brought down on him: why, Joe McCarthy was just a damn drunk, a blowhard, an incompetent who couldn’t tie his own shoelaces, probably the biggest joke in the Senate. But—L.B.J. reminded those counseling him to attack McCarthy—people believed him, they were so afraid of the Communists they would believe anything. McCarthy was as strong as horseradish. There would come a time when the hysteria died down, and then McCarthy would be vulnerable; such a fellow was certain to hang himself in time. But right now anybody openly challenging McCarthy would come away with dirty hands and with his heart broken. “Touch pitch,” he paraphrased the Bible, “and you’ll be defiled.” By temperament a man who coveted the limelight and never was bashful about claiming credit for popular actions, Johnson uncharacteristically remained in the background when the U.S. Senate voted to censure McCarthy in late 1954. Though he was instrumental in selecting senators he believed would be effective and creditable members in leading the censure effort, Johnson’s fine hand was visible only to insiders.

Johnson believed, however—and probably more deeply than Joe McCarthy—in a worldwide, monolithic Communist conspiracy. He believed it was directed from Moscow and that it was ready to blast America, or subvert it, at the drop of a fur hat. L.B.J. never surrendered that view. In retirement he suggested that the Communists were everywhere, honeycombing the government, and he told surprised visitors that sometimes he hadn’t known whether he could trust even his own staff. The Communists (it had been his first thought on hearing the gunshots in Dallas, and he never changed his mind) had killed Jack Kennedy; it had been their influence that turned people against the Vietnam war. One of L.B.J.’s former aides, having been treated to that angry lecture, came away from the Texas ranch with the sad and reluctant conclusion that “the Old Man’s absolutely paranoid on the Communist thing.”

In May, 1961, President Kennedy dispatched his Vice President to Asia on a “fact-finding” diplomatic trip. Johnson, who believed it his duty to be a team player, to reinforce the prevailing wisdom, bought without qualification the optimistic briefings of military brass with their charts and slides “proving” the inevitable American victory. “I was sent out here to report the progress of the war,” he told an aide, as if daring anyone to give him anything other than good news. Carried away, he publicly endowed South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem with the qualities of Winston Churchill, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and F.D.R. Visiting refugee camps, he grew angry at Communist aggressions “against decent people” and concluded: “There is no alternative to United States leadership in Southeast Asia. … We must decide whether to help to the best of our ability or throw in the towel … [and] … pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a ‘Fortress America’ concept.” He believed then—and always would—in the “domino theory” first stated by President Eisenhower. Even after announcing his abdication, he continued to sing the tired litany: if Vietnam fell then the rest of Asia might go, and then Africa, and then the Philippines …

When Lyndon Johnson suddenly ascended to the Presidency, however, he did not enter the Oval Office eager to immediately take the measure of Ho Chi Minh. Although he told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge that “I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went,” he wanted, for the moment, to keep the war—and, indeed, all foreign entanglements—at arm’s length. His preoccupation was with his domestic program; here, he was confident, he knew what he was doing. He would emulate F.D.R. in making people’s lives a little brighter. To aides he eagerly talked of building schools and houses, of fighting poverty and attaining full employment, of heating the economy to record prosperity. The honeymoon with Congress—he said—couldn’t last; he had seen Congress grow balky and obstinate, take its measure of many Presidents, and he had to assume it would happen again. Then he would lean forward, tapping a forefinger against someone’s chest or squeezing a neighboring knee, and say: “I’m like a sweetheart to Congress right now. They love me because I’m new and courting “em and it’s kinda exciting, like that first kiss. But after a while the new will wear off. Then Congress will complain that I don’t bring enough roses or candy and will accuse me of seeing other girls.” The need was to push forward quickly: pass the Civil Rights bill in the name of the martyred John F. Kennedy, then hit Capitol Hill with a blizzard of domestic proposals and dazzle it before sentiment and enthusiasms cooled. Foreign affairs could wait.

Lyndon Johnson at that point had little experience in foreign affairs. Except for showcase missions accomplished as Vice President, he had not traveled outside the United States save for excursions to Mexico and his brief World War n peregrinations. He probably had little confidence in himself in foreign affairs; neither did he have an excessive interest in the field. “Foreigners are not like the folks I am used to,” he sometimes said—and though it passed as a joke, his intimates felt he might be kidding on the level.