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Machismo In The White House
LBJ AND VIETNAM
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
Not that he was happy about it. Though telling Congress “This nation is mighty enough, its society is healthy enough, its people are strong enough to pursue our goals in the rest of the world while still building a Great Society here at home,” he knew, in his bones, that this was much too optimistic an outlook. He privately fretted that his domestic program would be victimized. He became touchy, irritable, impatient with those who even timorously questioned America’s increasing commitment to the war. Why should I be blamed—he snapped—when the Communists are the aggressors, when President Eisenhower committed us in Asia in ig54, when Kennedy beefed up Ike’s efforts? If he didn’t prosecute the Vietnam war now, then later Congress would sour and want to hang him because he hadn’t—and would gut his domestic programs in retaliation. He claimed to have “pounded President Eisenhower’s desk” in opposing Ike’s sending two hundred Air Force “technicians” to assist the French in Indochina (though those who were present recalled that only Senators Russell of Georgia and Stennis of Mississippi had raised major objections). Well, he’d been unable to stop Ike that time, though he had helped persuade him against dropping paratroopers into Dien Bien Phu to aid the doomed French garrison there. And after all that, everybody now called Vietnam Lyndon Johnson’s war. It was unfair. “The only difference between the Kennedy assassination and mine is that I am alive and it [is] more torturous.”
Very well; if it was his war in the public mind, then he would personally oversee its planning. “Never move up your artillery until you move up your ammunition,” he told his generals—a thing he’d said as Senate majority leader when impatient liberals urged him to call for votes on issues he felt not yet ripe. Often he quizzed the military brass, sounding almost like a dove, in a way to resemble courtroom cross-examinations. He forced the admirals and generals to affirm and reaffirm their recommendations as vital to victory. Reading selected transcripts, one might make the judgment that Lyndon Johnson was a most reluctant warrior, one more cautious than not. The evidence of Johnson’s deeds, however, suggests that he was being a crafty politician—making a record so that later he couldn’t be made the sole scapegoat. He trusted McNamara’s computers, perhaps more than he trusted men, and took satisfaction when their print-outs predicted that X amount of bombing would damage the Vietcong by Y, or that X number of troops would be required to capture Z. Planning was the key. You figured what you had to do, you did it, and eventually you’d nail the coonskin to the wall.
He devoutly believed that all problems had solutions: in his lifetime alone we’d beaten the Great Depression, won two world wars, hacked away at racial discrimination, made an industrial giant and world power of a former agrarian society, explored outer space. This belief in available solutions led him, time and again, to change tactics in Vietnam and discover fresh enthusiasm for each new move; he did not pause, apparently, to reflect upon why given tactics, themselves once heralded as practical solutions, had failed and had been abandoned. If counterinsurgency failed, you bombed. If bombing wasn’t wholly effective, then you tried the enclave theory. If that proved disappointing, you sent your ground troops on search-and-destroy missions. If, somehow, the troops couldn’t find the phantom Vietcong in large numbers (and therefore couldn’t destroy them), you began pacification programs in the areas you’d newly occupied. And if this bogged down, you beefed up your firepower and sent in enough troops to simply outmuscle the rice-paddy ragtags: napalm ’em, bomb ’em, shoot ’em. Sure it would work. It always had. Yes, surely the answer was there somewhere in the back of the book, if only you looked long enough …
He sought, and found, assurances. Maybe he had only a “cow-college” education, perhaps he’d not attended West Point, he might not have excessive experience in foreign affairs. But he was surrounded by good men, what David Halberstam later would label “the best and the brightest,” and certainly these were unanimous in their supportive conclusions. “He would look around him,” Tom Wicker later said, “and see in Bob McNamara that [the war] was technologically feasible, in McGeorge Bundy that it was intellectually respectable, and in Dean Rusk that it was historically necessary.” It was especially easy to trust expertise when the experts in their calculations bolstered your own gut feelings—when their computers and high-minded statements and mighty hardware all boiled down to reinforce your belief in American efficiency, American responsibility, American destiny. If so many good men agreed with him, then what might be wrong with those who didn’t?