B. Lerner, editor, Looking
Back at LBJ: White House Politics in a New Light (University Press of
In Mitchell Lerner's informative and worthwhile
collection of essays by a group of historians scrutinizing LBJ's domestic and
foreign policies (Lerner teaches history at Ohio State University in Newark,
Ohio and is the author of The
Pueblo Incident), the essay by David L. Anderson, the 2004 president
of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, concludes that
as a war president LBJ "was not a profile in courage."
The volume as a whole covers his domestic successes as well his foreign policy
problems during the 1967 Six Day War. This review, however, will deal exclusively
with David Anderson's superb essay about the Vietnam War.
Relying on declassified phone discussions and other newly released material,
Anderson believes that, while LBJ could ask the right questions of people, especially
about his hopes for a Great Society, where Vietnam was concerned, he had no
consistent policy and was surprisingly weak when dealing with his hawkish advisors.
He and his closest advisors had a Cold War mindset and believed that no President
could dare sound weak on communism. Anderson quotes Robert Schulzinger's shrewd
opinion in A
Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 19411975, that, "Had
all American leaders not thought that all international events were connected
to the Cold War, there would have been no American war in Vietnam." But
alas, they did and we now have a Vietnam memorial wall.
A master of cajoling, tradeoffs, threats and smarmy good fellowship in the
Senate, the complex, dominating LBJ as President believed he could persuade
a professional revolutionary like Ho Chi Minh to behave himself just as he had
corralled the veteran cold warrior AFL-CIO George Meany to enlist labor to back
a war that not only damaged its interests but also those of its members forced
to fight the war.
In the Congress, political courage was rare. Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest
Gruening were the only two members who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution,
which gave LBJ a free hand. The House of Representatives voted unanimously for
the resolution and no one rose to ask if there was evidence (there never would
be) that North Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. warship. With the resolution in
his pocket, and Americans allegedly under attack, LBJ's popularity soared as
Americans rallied around the flag. Communists were out to dominate the world,
the Domino Theory was conventional wisdom, and only the U.S. stood in Moscow's
imperial way, or so went the unquestioned mantra until 19678, when a large
antiwar movement began taking shape drawing growing numbers of moderate Americans
to its cause.
Meanwhile, intelligence was "fixed" and the public and lots of insiders
too were offered a steady diet of military progress over a motley peasant enemy
about whom so many knew so little. Walt Rostow, portrayed by David Dellinger,
the pacifist and antiwar leader, in From Yale to Jail offering him "books
and articles that advocated the basic communist philosophy" when both were
at Yale and Oxford, kept telling LBJ how well the war was going and informing
LBJ about the "light at the end of the tunnel." When he couldn't find
the right CIA department to back up his view, he went shopping for another CIA
desk. Anderson cites George W. Allen, the CIA's senior Vietnam analyst complaint
in the latter's None
So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, that
he would not play along with Rostow and "be a party to 'cooking the books.'"
During his later period of repentance, Robert McNamara's In
Retrospect explained, "The [so-called] Wise Men had no clue that
all this was going on." By the time Johnson realized the war was a lost
cause, it was too late. The irony, says Anderson, was that "Johnson never
wanted a big war because he wanted no war at all."
Hawks believed otherwise. Some have since argued that the U.S. should have
bombed more than they did. Yet B-52s dropped as many or more bombs on that rural
society than on Germany during WWII. General Westmoreland wanted to dispatch
more and more cannon fodder into the war, which LBJ wisely rejected. The General
believed he should have been allowed to send more troops into North Vietnam
but LBJ worried how the Soviets and Chinese might react a distant echo
of Harry Truman calling a stop to Douglas MacArthur's risky plan to expand the
Korean War into China and later firing him for insubordination.
By 1968, popular opposition to the war was widespread on the streets and campuses
and it seemed as if the country was undergoing a nervous breakdown especially
after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the
turmoil at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Congressional centrists were
also increasingly restive and, as Anderson wisely concludes, the war was "already
doing more damage to itself and to Vietnam than the level of American interest
could tolerate." In the end, it was, to paraphrase General Omar Bradley
when he famously criticized the Korean War, "the wrong war in the wrong
place at the wrong time."
The irony and sadness is that the lessons of Vietnam absorbed by the Bush-Cheney
administration and its unrepentant hawkish allies are the wrong lessons. As
a result, as in Vietnam, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are the latest
victims of their ideological blindness.