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Machismo In The White House
LBJ AND VIETNAM
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
He considered the sources of dissatisfaction and dissent: the liberals—the “red-hots,” he’d often sneeringly called them, the “pepper pots”—who were impractical dreamers, self-winding kamikazes intent on self-destruction. He often quoted an aphorism to put such people in perspective: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” He fancied, however, that he knew all about these queer fellows. For years, down home, Ronnie Bugger and his Texas Observer crowd, in L.B.J.’s opinion, had urged him to put his head in the noose by fighting impossible, profitless fights. They wanted him to take on Joe McCarthy, slap the oil powers down, kick Ike’s rear end, tell everybody who wasn’t a red-hot to go to hell. Well, he’d learned a long time ago that just because you told a fellow to go to hell, he didn’t necessarily have to go. The liberals didn’t understand the Communists. Bill Fulbright and his bunch—the striped-pants boys over at the State Department and assorted outside pepper pots—thought you could trust the Communists; they made the mistake of believing the Reds would deal with you honorably when—in truth—the Communists didn’t respect anything but force. You had to fight fire with fire; let them know who had the biggest guns and the toughest heart.
Where once he had argued the injustice of Vietnam being viewed as “his” war, Lyndon Johnson now brought to it a proprietary attitude. This should have been among the early warnings that L.B.J. would increasingly resist less than victory, no matter his periodic bombing halts or conciliatory statements inviting peace, because once he took a thing personally, his pride and vanity and ego knew no bounds. Always a man to put his brand on everything (he wore monogrammed shirts, boots, cuff links; flew his private L.B.J. flag when in residence at the L.B.J. ranch; saw to it that the names of Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson—not Claudia, as she had been named—had the magic initials L.B.J.), he now personalized and internalized the war. Troops became “my” boys, those were “my” helicopters, it was “my” pilots he prayed might return from their bombing missions as he paid nocturnal calls to the White House situation room to learn the latest from the battlefields; Walt Rostow became “my” intellectual because he was hawkish on L.B.J.’s war. His machismo was mixed up in it now, his manhood. After a cabinet meeting in 1967 several staff aides and at least one cabinet member—Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior—remained behind for informal discussions; soon L.B.J. was waving his arms and fulminating about his war. Who the hell was Ho Chi Minh, anyway, that he thought he could push America around? Then the President did an astonishing thing: he unzipped his trousers, dangled a given appendage, and asked his shocked associates: “Has Ho Chi Minh got anything like that?”
By mid-1966 he had cooled toward many of his experts: not because they’d been wrong in their original optimistic calculations so much as that some of them had recanted and now rejected his war. This Lyndon Johnson could not forgive: they’d cut and run on him. Nobody had deserted Roosevelt, he gloomed, when he’d been fighting Hitler. McGeorge Bundy, deserting to head the Ford Foundation, was no longer the brilliant statesman but merely “a smart kid, that’s all.” Bill Moyers, quitting to become editor of Newsday , and once almost a surrogate son to the President, suddenly became “a little puppy I rescued from sacking groceries”—a reference to a part-time job Moyers held while a high-school student. George Ball, too, was leaving? Well, he’d always been a chronic beller-acher. When Defense Secretary McNamara doubted too openly (stories of his anguish leaked to the newspapers), he found it difficult to claim the President’s time; ultimately he rudely was shuttled to the World Bank. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, privately having second thoughts, was not welcomed back to high councils until he’d muffled his dissent and shamelessly flattered L.B.J. Even then Johnson didn’t wholly accept his Vice President; Hubert, he said, wasn’t a real man, he cried as easily as a woman, he didn’t have the weight. When Lady Bird Johnson voiced doubts about the war, her husband grumbled that of course she had doubts; it was like a woman to be uncertain. Has Ho Chi Minh got anything like that?