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Machismo In The White House
LBJ AND VIETNAM
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
Ambassadors waiting to present their credentials to the new President were miffed by repeated delays—and then angrily astonished when L.B.J. received them in groups and clumps, seemingly paying only perfunctory attention, squirming in his chair, scowling or muttering during the traditional ceremonies. He appeared oblivious to their feelings, to their offended senses of dignity. “Why do I have to see them?” the President demanded. “They’re Dean Rusk’s clients, not mine.”
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was selected to focus on Vietnam while L.B.J. concocted his Great Society. McNamara should send South Vietnam equipment and money as needed, a few more men, issue the necessary pronouncements. But don’t splash it all over the front pages, don’t let it get out of hand, don’t give Barry Goldwater Vietnam as an issue for the 1964 campaign. Barry, hell, he was a hip shooter; he’d fight Canada or Mexico—or, at least, give that impression—so the thing to do was sit tight, keep the lid on, keep all Vietnam options open. Above all, “Don’t let it turn into a Bay of Pigs.” Hunker down; don’t gamble.
The trouble—Johnson said to advisers—was that foreign nations didn’t understand Americans or the American way; they saw us as “fat and fifty, like the country-club set”; they didn’t think we had the steel in our souls to act when the going got rough. Well, in time they’d find out differently. They’d learn that Lyndon Johnson was not about to abandon what other Presidents had started; he wouldn’t permit history to write that he’d been the only American President to cut and run; he wouldn’t sponsor any damn Munichs. But for right now—cool it. Put Vietnam on the back burner and let it simmer.
But the Communists—he later would say—wouldn’t permit him to cool it. There had been that Gulf of Tonkin attack on the United States destroyer Maddox , in August of 19-and-64, and if he hadn’t convinced Congress to get on record as backing him up in Vietnam, why, then, the Reds would have interpreted it as a sign of weakness and Barry Goldwater would have cut his heart out. And in February of ig-and-65, don’t forget, the Vietcong had made that attack on the American garrison at Pleiku, and how could he be expected to ignore that? There they came, thousands of ’em, barefoot and howling in their black pajamas and throwing homemade bombs: it had been a damned insult, a calculated show of contempt. L.B.J. told the National Security Council: “The worst thing we could do would be to let this [Pleiku] thing go by. It would be a big mistake. It would open the door to a major misunderstanding.” Twelve hours later American aircraft—for the first time—bombed in North Vietnam; three weeks later L.B.J. ordered continuing bombing raids in the north to “force the North Vietnamese into negotiations”; only a hundred and twenty days after Pleiku, American forces were involved in a full-scale war and seeking new ways to take the offensive. Eight Americans died at Pleiku. Eight. Eventually fifty thousand plus would die in Asia.
Pleiku was the second major testing of American will within a few months, in L.B.J.’s view. Then in the spring of 1965 rebels had attacked the ruling military junta in the Dominican Republic. Lives and property of U.S. citizens were endangered, as Johnson saw it, but—more—this might be a special tactic by the Reds, a dry run for bigger mischief later on in Vietnam. The world was watching to see how America would react. “It’s just like the Alamo,” he lectured the National Security Council. “Hell, it’s like you were down at that gate, and you were surrounded, and you damn well needed somebody. Well, by God, I’m going to go —and I thank the Lord that I’ve got men who want to go with me, from McNamara right down to the littlest private who’s carrying a gun.”
Somewhat to his puzzlement, and certainly to his great vexation, Lyndon Johnson would learn that not everybody approved of his rushing the Marines into the Dominican Republic, and within days building up a twenty-one-thousand-man force. Attempting to answer criticism, he would claim thousands of patriots “bleeding in the streets and with their heads cut off,” paint a false picture of the United States ambassador cringing under his desk “while bullets whizzed over his head,” speak of howling Red hordes descending on American citizens and American holdings, and, generally, open what later became known as the Credibility Gap.
By now he had given up on his original notion of walking easy in Vietnam until he could put the Great Society across. Even before the three ma or testings of Tonkin Gulf, the Dominican Republic, and Pleiku, he had said- almost idly—“Well, I guess we have to touch up those North Vietnamese a little bit.” By December, 1964, he had reversed earlier priorities: “We’ll beat the Communists first, then we can look around and maybe give something to the poor.” Guns now ranked ahead of butter.