Presidential Aggressor

Mitchell B. Lerner, editor, Looking Back at LBJ: White House Politics in a New Light (University Press of Kansas, 2005).

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, 1941–1975, 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 1967–8, 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.

Author: Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal, The Nation, The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Newsday, and other publications.