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Machismo In The White House
LBJ AND VIETNAM
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
He was an old-fashioned man by the purest definition. Forget that he was enamored of twentieth-century artifacts—the telephone, television, supersonic airplanes, spacecraft—to which he adapted with a child’s wondering glee. His values were the relics of an earlier time; he had been shaped by an America both rawer and more confident than it later would become; his generation may have been the last to believe that for every problem there existed a workable solution: that the ultimate answer, as in old-time mathematics texts, always reposed in the back of the book. He bought the prevailing American myths without closely inspecting the merchandise for rips or snares. He often said that Americans inherently were “can-do” people capable of accomplishing anything they willed; it was part of his creed that Americans were God’s chosen: why otherwise would they have become the richest, the strongest, the freest people in the history of man? His was a God, perhaps, who was a first cousin to Darwin: Lyndon B.Johnson believed in survival of the fittest, that the strong would conquer the weak, that almost always the big ’uns ate the little ’uns.
There was a certain pragmatism in his beliefs, a touch of fatalism, even a measure of common sense. Yet, too, he could be wildly romantic. Johnson truly believed that any boy could rise to become President, though only thirty-five had. Hadn’t he—a shirt-tailed kid from the dusty hardscrabble precincts of the Texas outback—walked with kings and pharaohs while reigning over what he called, without blushing, the Free World? In his last days, though bitter and withering in retirement at his rural Elba, he astonished and puzzled a young black teen-ager by waving his arms in windmill motions and telling the youngster, during a random encounter, “Well, maybe someday all of us will be visiting your house in Waco, because you’ll be President and your home will be a national museum just as mine is. It’ll take a while, but it’ll happen, you’ll see. …” Then he turned to the black teen-ager’s startled mother: “Now, you better get that home of yours cleaned up spick-and-span. There’ll be hundreds of thousands coming through it, you know, wanting to see the bedroom and the kitchen and the living room. Now, I hope you get that dust rag of yours out the minute you get home.”
Doris Kearns, the Harvard professor and latter-day L.B.J. confidante, who witnessed the performance, thought it to be a mock show: “almost a vaudeville act.” Dr. Johnson peddling the same old snake oil. Perhaps. Whatever his motives that day, Lyndon Johnson chose his sermon from that text he most fervently believed throughout a lifetime; his catechism spoke to his heart of American opportunity, American responsibility, American good intentions, American superiority, American destiny, American infallibility. Despite a sly personal cynicism—a suspicion of others, the keen, cold eye of a man determined not to be victimized at the gaming tables—he was, in his institutional instincts, something of a Pollyanna. There was such a thing as a free lunch; there was a Santa Claus; there was , somewhere, a Good Fairy, and probably it was made up of the component parts of Franklin Roosevelt, Saint Francis, and Uncle Sam.
These thoroughly American traits—as L.B.J. saw them—comprised the foundation stone upon which he built his dream castle; he found it impossible to abandon them even as the sands shifted and bogged him in the quagmire of Vietnam. If America was so wonderful (and it was; he had the evidence of himself to prove it), then he had the obligation to export its goodness and greatness to the less fortunate. This he would accomplish at any cost, even if forced to “nail the coonskin to the wall.” For if Lyndon B. Johnson believed in God and greatness and goodness, he also believed in guts and gunpowder.
All the history he had read, and all he had personally witnessed, convinced him that the United States of America—if determined enough, if productive enough, if patriotic enough—simply could not lose a war. As a boy his favorite stories had been of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, of the heroic defenders of the Alamo, of rugged frontiersmen who’d at once tamed the wild land and marauding Indians. He had a special affinity for a schoolboy poem proclaiming that the most beautiful sight his eyes had beheld was “the flag of my country in a foreign land.” He so admired war heroes that he claimed to have been fired on “by a Japanese ace,” though no evidence supported it; he invented an ancestor he carelessly claimed had been martyred at the Alamo; at the Democratic National Convention in 1956 he had cast his state’s delegate votes for the Vice-Presidential ambitions of young John F. Kennedy, “that fighting sailor who bears the scars of battle.”
On a slow Saturday afternoon in the 1950’s, expansive and garrulous in his posh Senate majority-leader quarters, Johnson discoursed to a half dozen young Texas staffers in the patois of their shared native place. Why—he said—you take that ragtag bunch at Valley Forge, who’d have given them a cut dog’s chance? There they were, barefoot in the snow and their asses hanging out, nothing to eat but moss and dead leaves and snakes, not half enough bullets for their guns, and facing the soldiers of the most powerful king of his time. Yet they sucked it up, wouldn’t quit, lived to fight another day—and won. Or you take the Civil War, now: it had been so exceptionally bloody because you had aroused Americans fighting on both sides; it had been something like rock against rock, or like two mean ol’ pit bulldogs going at each other with neither of them willing to be chewed up and both of ’em thinking only of taking hunks out of the other. He again invoked the Alamo: a mere handful of freedom-loving men standing against the Mexican hordes, knowing they faced certain death, but they’d carved their names in history for all time, and before they got through with ol’ General Santa Anna he thought he’d stumbled into a nest of stinging scorpions or bumblebees.
Fifteen years later Johnson would show irritation when Clark Clifford suggested that victory in Vietnam might require a sustaining commitment of twenty to thirty years. No—L.B.J. said—no, no, the thing to do was get in and out quickly, pour everything you had into the fight, land the knockout blow: hell, the North Vietnamese had to see the futility of facing all that American muscle. If you really poured it on ’em, you could clean up that mess within six months. We had the troops, the firepower, the bombs, the sophisticated weaponry, the oil—everything we needed to win. Did we have the resolve? Well, the Texas Rangers had a saying that you couldn’t stop a man who just kept on a-coming. And that’s what we’d do in Vietnam, Clark, just keep on a-coming …
Always he talked of the necessity to be strong; he invoked his father’s standing up to the Ku Klux Klan in the igso’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s carrying that big stick, F.D.R.’s mobilizing the country to beat Hitler and Tojo. He liked oP Harry Truman—tough little bastard and his own man- but, listen, Harry and Dean Acheson had lost control when they failed to properly prosecute the Korean War. They lost the public’s respect, lost control of General MacArthur, lost the backing of Congress, lost the war or the next thing to it. Next thing you know, they got blamed for losing China and then there was Joe McCarthy accusing them of being soft on communism and everybody believed it. Well, it wouldn’t happen to him, nosir. He hadn’t started the Vietnam war—Jack Kennedy had made the first commitment of out-and-out combat troops, don’t forget—but he wouldn’t bug out no matter how much the Nervous Nellies brayed. Kennedy had proved during the Cuban missile crisis that if you stood firm then the Reds would back down. They were playground bullies, and he didn’t intend to be pushed around any more than Jack Kennedy had. When a bully ragged you, you didn’t go whining to the teacher but gave him some of his own medicine.
Only later, in exile, when he spoke with unusual candor of his darker parts, did it become clear how obsessed with failure Lyndon Johnson always had been. As a preschool youngster he walked a country lane to visit a grandfather, his head stuffed with answers he knew would be required (“How many head of cattle you got, Lyndon? How much do they eat? How many head can you graze to the acre?”) and fearing he might forget them. If he forgot them, he got no bright-red apple but received, instead, a stern and disapproving gaze. L.B.J.’s mother, who smothered him with affection and praise should he perform to her pleasure, refused to acknowledge his presence should he somehow displease or disappoint her. His father accused him of being a sleepyhead, a slow starter, and sometimes said every boy in town had a two-hour head start on him. Had we known these things from scratch, we might not have wondered why Lyndon Johnson seemed so blind for so long to the Asian realities. His personal history simply permitted him no retreats or failures in testings.
From childhood L.B.J. experienced bad dreams. As with much else, they would stay with him to the grave. His nightmares were of being paralyzed and unable to act, of being chained inside a cage or to his desk, of being pursued by hostile forces. These and other disturbing dreams haunted his White House years; he could see himself stricken and ill on a cot, unable even to speak—like Woodrow Wilson—while, in an adjoining room, his trusted aides squabbled and quarreled in dividing his power. He translated the dreams to mean that should he for a moment show weakness, be indecisive, then history might judge him as the first American President who had failed to stand up and be counted.
These deep-rooted insecurities prompted Lyndon Johnson always to assert himself, to abuse staff members simply to prove that he held the upper hand, to test his power in small or mean ways. Sometimes, in sending Vice President Hubert Humphrey off on missions or errands with exhortations to “get going,” he literally kicked him in the shins. “Hard,” Humphrey later recalled, pulling up his trouser leg to exhibit the scars to columnist Robert Allen. Especially when drinking did he swagger and strut. Riding high as Senate majority leader, Johnson one night after a Texas State Society function, at the National Press Club in Washington—in the spring of 1958—repaired to a nearby bar with Texas Congressmen Homer Thornberry and Jack Brooks. “I’m a powerful sumbitch, you know that?” he repeatedly said. “You boys realize how goddamn powerful I am?” Yes, Lyndon, his companions uneasily chorused. Johnson pounded the table as if attempting to crack stout oak: “Do you know Ike couldn’t pass the Lord’s Prayer in Congress without me? You understand that? Hah?” Yes, Lyndon. “Hah? Do you? Hah?” An observer thought he never had seen a man more desperate for affirmations of himself.
Johnson always was an enthusiastic Cold Warrior. He was not made uncomfortable by John Foster Dulles’ brinkmanship rhetoric about “rolling back” communism or of “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek to free the Chinese mainland. He was, indeed, one of the original soldiers of the Cold War, a volunteer rather than a draftee, just as he had been the first member of Congress to rush to the recruiting station following Pearl Harbor. Immediately after World War n he so bedeviled House Speaker Sam Rayburn about his fears of America dismantling its military machine that Rayburn appointed him to the postwar Military Policy Committee and to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. L.BJ. early had a preference for military assignments in Congress; he successfully campaigned for a seat on the House Naval Affairs Committee in the iQSo’s and, a decade later, the Senate Armed Services Committee. He eventually chaired the Senate Preparedness Committee and the Senate Space Committee. Perhaps others saw the exploration of outer space in scientific or peaceful terms. Johnson, however, told Senate Democrats that outer space offered “the ultimate position from which total control of the earth may be exercised. Whoever gains that ultimate position gains control, total control, over the earth.”
Lyndon Johnson was a nagger, a complainer, a man not always patient with those of lesser gifts or with those who somehow inconvenienced him in the moment. Sometimes he complained that the generals knew nothing but “spend and bomb” almost always, however, he went along with bigger military spending and, in most cases, with more bombing or whatever other military action the brass proposed. This was his consistent record in Congress, and he generally affirmed it as President.
On November 12, 1951, Senator Johnson rattled his saber at the Russians:
Even allowing for those rhetorical excesses peculiar to senatorial oratory, those were not the words of a man preoccupied with the doctrine of peaceful coexistence. Nor were they inconsistent with Johnson’s mind-set when he made a public demand—at the outbreak of the Korean War, in June, 1950—that President Truman order an allout mobilization of all military reserve troops, national guard units, draftees, and even civilian manpower and industry. In a Senate debate shortly thereafter Senator Johnson scolded colleagues questioning the Pentagon’s request for new and supplementary emergency billions: “Is this the hour of our nation’s twilight, the last fading hour of light before an endless night shall envelop us and all the Western world?”
His ties with Texas—with its indigenous xenophobic instincts and general proclivities toward a raw yahooism—haunted him and, in a sense, may have made him a prisoner of grim political realities during the witch-hunting McCarthy era. “I’m damn tired,” he said, “of being called a Dixiecrat in Washington and a Communist in Texas”; it perfectly summed up those schizophrenic divisions uneasily compartmentalizing his national political life and the more restrictive parochial role dictated by conditions back home. He lived daily with a damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t situation. Texas was a particularly happy hunting ground for Senator Joe McCarthy, whose self-proclaimed anticommunist crusade brought him invitation after invitation to speak there; the Texas legislature, in the 1950’s controlled beyond belief by vested interests and showing the ideological instincts of the early primates, whooped through a résolution demanding that Senator McCarthy address it despite the suggestion of State Representative Maury Maverick, Jr., that the resolution be expanded to invite Mickey Mouse. Both Johnson’s powerful rightist adversaries and many of his wealthy Texas benefactors were enthusiastic contributors to the McCarthy cause.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Shortly after the Tet offensive began—during which Americans would be shocked by the Vietcong temporarily capturing a wing of the American embassy in Saigon—the President, at his press conference of February 2, 1968, made such patently false statements that even his most loyal friends and supporters were troubled. The sudden Tet offensive had been traumatic, convincing many Americans that our condition was desperate, if not doomed. For years the official line ran that the Vietcong could not hang on: would shrink by the attritions of battle and an ebbing of confidence in a hopeless cause; stories were handed out that captured documents showed the enemy to be of low morale, underfed, ill-armed. The Vietcong could not survive superior American firepower; the kill ratio favored our side by 7-to-1, 8-to-1, more. These and other optimisms were repeated by the President, by General Westmoreland, by this ambassador or that fact-finding team. Now, however, it became apparent that the Vietcong had the capability to challenge even our main lair in Asia—and there to inflict serious damage as well as major embarrassments.
It was a time demanding utmost candor, and L.B.J. blew it. He took the ludicrous position that the Tet offensive (which would be felt for weeks to come) had abysmally failed. Why, we’d known about it all along—had, indeed, been in possession of Hanoi’s order of battle. Incredible. To believe the President one had also to believe that American authorities had simply failed to act on this vital intelligence, had wittingly and willingly invited disaster. The President was scoffed at and ridiculed; perhaps the thoughtful got goose bumps in realizing how far Lyndon Johnson now lived from reality. If there was a beginning of the end—of Johnson, of hopes of anything remotely resembling victory, of a general public innocence of official razzmatazz—then Tet, and that press conference, had to be it.
Even the stubborn President knew it. His Presidency was shot, his party ruined and in tatters; his credibility was gone; he could speak only at military bases, where security guaranteed his safety against the possibility of mobs pursuing him through the streets as he had often dreamed. The nightmare was real now. Street dissidents long had been chanting their cruel “Hey, Hey, L.B.J. / How Many Kids Did You Kill Today”; Senator Eugene McCarthy soon would capture almost half the vote in the New Hampshire primary against the unpopular President. There was nothing to do but what he’d always sworn he would not do: quit. On March 31, 1968, at the end of a televised speech ordering the end of attacks on North Vietnam in the hope of getting the enemy to the negotiation table, Johnson startled the nation by announcing: ”… I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term …”
“In the final months of his Presidency,” former White House aide Eric Goldman wrote, “Lyndon Johnson kept shifting in mood. At times he was bitter and petulant at his repudiation by the nation; at times philosophical, almost serene, confidently awaiting the verdict of the future.” The serenity always was temporary; he grew angry with Hubert Humphrey for attempting to disengage himself from the Johnson war policy and, consequently, refused to make more than a token show of support for him. He saw Richard Nixon win on a pledge of having “a secret plan” to end the war—which, it developed, he did not have.
In his final White House thrashings—and in retirement—Lyndon Johnson complained of unfinished business: he had wanted to complete Vietnam peace talks, free the crew of the Pueblo , begin talks with the Russians on halting the arms race, send a man to the moon. But the war—he would say in irritation—the war had ruined all that; the people hadn’t rallied around him as they had around F.D.R. and Woodrow Wilson and other wartime Presidents; he had been abandoned—by Congress, by cabinet members, by old friends; no other President had tried so hard or suffered so much. He had a great capacity for self-pity and often indulged it, becoming reclusive and rarely issuing a public statement or making public appearances. Doris Kearns has said that she and others helping L.B.J. write his memoirs, The Vantage Point , would draft chapters and lay out the documentation—but even then Lyndon Johnson would say no, no, it wasn’t like that, it was like this; and he would rattle on, waving his arms and attempting to justify himself, invoking the old absolutes, calling up memories of the Alamo, the Texas Rangers, the myths and the legends. He never seemed to understand where or how he had gone wrong.