It has even been suggested, to take a recent example, that “LBJ's decline in credibility [ . . . and] Vietnam's spiraling costs ultimately undid both his Presidency and the Great Society” (emphasis added). Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire (New York, 1995), 214. The part about the Great Society is hard to square with the great civil rights reforms of 1965–1968, or the host of other civic institutions we now take for granted that were created under Johnson's leadership: Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, Food Stamps, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Freedom of Information Act, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Environmental Protection Agency. . . . The list goes on and on.
Or take George McGovern's surprising recent conclusion that “with the exceptions of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt—and perhaps Theodore Roosevelt—Lyndon Johnson was the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln” (New York Times, December 5, 1999, op-ed). For Freedman, see his February 6, 2005, New York Times review. Nick Kotz's book, Judgment Days (Boston, 2005), a marvelous new double portrait of Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., is a “must read” for anyone interested in the civil rights revolution they led. For Caro, see The Theodore H. White Lecture with Robert A. Caro, Shorenstein Center, JFK School, Harvard University, 2003, 52, and, especially, “Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed: A Conversation with Robert Caro,” Harvard Business Review 84 (April 2006). Also, footnote 61 below.
When he made his 2003 comment, Caro had apparently just started working on Johnson's vice presidency. It surely does him great credit—although in light of the thoroughness of his research, it's not a surprise—that he changed his mind when he discovered countervailing evidence in the post-1961 record. (I confess that I too have changed my mind. After Caro's first two volumes, I had decided not to read the rest of what I thought would end up a prejudiced hatchet job. I now find myself looking forward to his volumes on LBJ's vice presidency and the presidency. I hope before he completes the last, he'll read this paper.)
Historians polled by C-Span in 1999 ranked Johnson second only to Lincoln among forty-one presidents in “pursuing equal justice for all.” In “international relations,” they ranked him thirty-sixth. A year earlier, fifteen of thirty-two historians thought Johnson a “near great” president; twelve thought him “average,” and five “below average to failure.” Although understanding the “failures,” Johnson would have hated being thought average. “How do you strike an average between voting rights and Vietnam?” he might have grumbled. He disliked the Great Society label, but it stuck. (I have not tracked down the poll, but it's a fair bet that no other president rated near great by so many also drew a lot of failures.)
For Daniel Schorr, see the Harvard Shorenstein Center booklet, The Theodore H. White Lecture with Robert A. Caro, 2003, 60; for Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant (New York, 1998), 87. The assertion has become dogma. According to Maureen Dowd, writing about the Michael Beschloss edition of the Johnson telephone tapes, “Beschloss says that we might have avoided Vietnam if Lyndon Johnson had been as secure in foreign policy as he was on domestic policy. He might not have been as easily swayed by misguided Kennedy holdovers like Robert McNamara.” And George Stephanopoulos, also on the Beschloss tapes: “Dealing with domestic policy he [Johnson] gives orders; on foreign policy he seems to take them.” Or Eric Foner in his New York Times review (May 8, 2005) of Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, and Timothy Naftali, eds., The Presidential Recordings (New York, 2005): “Johnson came into the White House with little experience in foreign relations, and listened primarily to those who agreed with him.” Or James Reston in Deadline: A Memoir (New York, 1991), 305: “Paradoxically [Johnson] failed in Vietnam in large part because he followed the advice of the intellectuals he inherited from Kennedy.” An article in a recent Harvard Crimson about Berkeley law professor John Yoo—newly notorious for his 2002 Justice Department memoranda on the treatment of prisoners and on the “unitary executive”—quoted Yoo's undergraduate thesis: “Johnson . . . conscious of his ignorance [in foreign affairs] decided to rely on his advisors.”
The hypothesis that sheer ignorance of foreign affairs made Johnson go wrong in Vietnam is peculiar on its face. There are too many counterexamples: people knowledgeable about foreign policy but mistaken about Vietnam before the fact, and vice versa. (Even statistically, would members of the Council on Foreign Relations, or Foreign Service officers, or professors of international relations, or journalists specializing in foreign affairs have been smarter about Vietnam in 1965 than members of an age/income/education/party affiliation-adjusted control group drawn from the population at large? I don't suppose there exist appropriate polling data for a statistically competent young historian or political scientist to try to answer the question.)
To test my recollections and opinion, six years ago I studied the files and wrote a detailed description of Johnson managing policy toward Europe and the Soviets. I believe that the evidence confirms not merely that those policies were notably successful (on Soviet relations, see fn. 55), but that LBJ's active involvement and good judgment made them so. Francis M. Bator, “Lyndon Johnson and Foreign Policy: The Case of Western Europe and the Soviet Union,” in Presidential Judgment: Foreign Policy Decision Making in the White House, ed. Aaron Lobel (Hollis, NH, 2001), 41–78.
Thomas A. Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2003).
Or J. P. Dunn: “Schwartz challenges the dominant view . . . that . . . Johnson, the domestic politics guru, was uninterested, inept, incompetent, and ineffective in foreign policy, a perception enhanced by his Vietnam quagmire. Schwartz contends that Johnson did not separate domestic and foreign policy but always saw the two as part of the same whole, and that he became increasingly adept at shaping and controlling policy on the world stage. . . . This is a first class piece of scholarship and writing, a very important contribution.” Or Mark Trachtenberg: “A perceptive and intelligent study . . . important topic . . . largely ignored . . . a very serious, highly professional and exceptionally honest analysis of the evidence.” Or Tony Judt in his New York Review of Books review of John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York, 2005): “For a corrective, see Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe. . . . This important book is missing from Gaddis's bibliography.”
Gaddis is not alone: the Johnson/Europe story is missing in much of the Johnson literature. To cite only one telling example: in the index of Robert Dallek's 754-page second volume on Johnson, there are 59 mostly multipage entries on Vietnam but no entries on Europe, Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Bonn, London, NATO, or the EEC; there is/are one entry on Germany, three on Great Britain, one on Harold Wilson, two on Adenauer, three on Erhard, one on arms control. . . . I could go on. And Dallek, unlike many, works hard to present a balanced view.
The May, Beschloss, and Gardner quotations are taken from the jacket of the book. I do not know Mr. Beschloss and Professor Gardner personally, but I have known Ernest May as a friend and close colleague for forty years. I have never known him to write a word that he didn't mean.
Recall the story told about Lincoln: outvoted by his cabinet, nine “nays” to his one “aye,” he is alleged to have brought the meeting to a close with a firm “The ayes have it.” About Johnson's mind: many of the issues I brought him over three years were unavoidably technical as well as political. He never missed a beat, and would remember months later what one had said to him. If contrary lore makes you doubt it, remember that for many years, as Senate leader, he maintained unprecedented mastery of ninety-five purposeful prima donnas, countless pieces of intricate legislation about complicated domestic and foreign issues, and procedural maneuvers that confound all but the experts. You don't do that unless you are both very smart and a master of detail (language from Bator, Presidential Judgment). The Bundy quotation, from his Oral History, is cited in the interesting essay by Waldo Heinrichs in Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World, ed. Warren I. Cohen and Nancy B. Tucker (New York, 1994), 24.
See Kent Germany's description and selections from the Presidential Recordings Project in “ ‘I'm Not Lying about that One’: Manhood, LBJ, and the Politics of Speaking Southern,” Miller Center Report 18, no. 3. For more on LBJ and Act 1/Act 2, see also Bator in Presidential Judgment, 66–69.
LBJ's response to the April 1965 coup in the Dominican Republic—I was not a first-hand witness—might have been a counterexample to the observation that an Act 2 phase invariably preceded significant decision. Although in the end things turned out quite well, his (later self-acknowledged) overreaction persuaded some close observers that Johnson was at heart an ideology-driven hawk. I believe that's a misdiagnosis. What I think drove LBJ a little crazy at the time was the thought that the Dominican Republic might become his Cuba—a Caribbean nation that turned Communist on his watch—and thus a costly political liability. (Think of the disproportionate response of Eisenhower and especially the Kennedy brothers to Castro in relation to the actual threat to the United States that he represented—aside, that is, from the political muscle of the anti-Castro Cuba lobby.)
McGeorge Bundy, Fragments (unpublished notebooks), no. 22, 2. Thirty years later, Texas Governor and self-made Texas grandee John Connally—LBJ's protégé and friend—described the “calm and almost somber” Act 2 Johnson: “I had not seen him before so deeply in this mood, but I would see it often after he became President. Normally, he dominated any conversation, and all his listeners. He was restless, confident, persuasive. But when faced with a great decision, he changed. He fell silent, almost brooding. He questioned without revealing his thoughts. All his energy appeared to be focused on the decision.” And my own observation, from a staff officer's perspective, writing about some European policy question: “I now think that LBJ's instincts were right. I only wish he had bothered to explain what he had in mind. But explaining his reasons to staff—especially when he thought them pretty obvious—was not in his nature. He expected you to figure it out on your own, and if you paid close attention he usually provided enough leads to make that possible. One learned to be a pretty good predictor of where he would come out on issues, and why.” Bator, Presidential Judgment, 59; John B. Connally, In History's Shadow (New York, 1993), 179.
For trying to make out what Johnson might have had on his mind, the tapes are not of course useless. But to keep myself from cherry picking, I try to subject inferences to “rules of interpretation,” and to deal head on with evidence contrary to my story.
For the Bundy quotations on dominoes at the White House, see Fragments, no. 15 and no. 50, 4. On Eisenhower, see his long face-to-face conversation with Johnson on February 17, 1965, in Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS), Vietnam, January–June 1965, Department of State (Washington, DC, 1996), 298–308; the Eisenhower-Johnson telephone conversation on July 2, 1965, in Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory (New York, 2001), 383; and, especially, for the “must-win” quotation, General Andrew Goodpaster's report of his conversation with Eisenhower—on LBJ's behalf—on August 3, 1965. Both men relied on Goodpaster as a deeply trusted go-between (FRUS, Vietnam, June–December 1965, 291–293).
The “no American War as we came to know it” phrase was Bundy's, but I have not been able to find the exact quotation. In his 1995–1996 Fragments, Bundy emphasized the deployment of mainline U.S. combat units in large numbers (“it's the big jumps”)—as distinct from the February 1965 decision to bomb North Vietnam—as the watershed decision. He acknowledged that the bombing led to what he called a “leakage” on ground troops for base protection (ibid., no. 53, 5). But, as he put it, “Johnson could have said [to Westmoreland]: look, I'll defend your airplanes, because I want the airplanes. But he didn't want that. He wanted Westy. . . . Westy's decision is not a problem of three thousand, ten thousand, a hundred and fifty thousand—it's that he wants to fight and win a war” (Transcript, September 22, 1995, 31. “Transcript” refers to “Transcription[s] of Meeting: McGeorge Bundy and Gordon M. Goldstein,” transcribed by Bundy's secretary Georgeanne V. Brown. Goldstein was then Bundy's research assistant, later the editor of his Vietnam papers. Copies are in my McGeorge Bundy Vietnam Papers files.) Also: “Everyone from LBJ on down knew that the crucial decision of the summer of 1965 was the decision to put a large U.S. ground force—infantry and marine divisions—to fight and win some sort of ground war themselves” (emphasis in original) (Fragments, no. 100, 1).
Quoted in VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 166. The original source is George Ball's account of Moyers's report to him. George Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern (New York, 1982), 396. See also Chapter 26 in William Bundy's unpublished manuscript (on deposit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas). McGeorge Bundy's June 30 “rash to the point of folly” memorandum—a remarkable forewarning of all that went wrong—is must reading for anyone interested in Bundy's role. Item 35 in FRUS, Vietnam, June–December 1965.
I think I first saw the phrase used in a handwritten Bundy memorandum. Anyway, it sounds like Bundy.
Public Papers of the Presidents, LBJ, 1965 II (Washington, DC, 1966), 794–803. For the classic documentary history of the U.S. government's Vietnam decisions during January–July 1965, see William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, pt. III (Princeton, NJ, 1989). For an excellent, short account, see Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York, 1982). Gibbons cites Berman as his source for the Bundy quotation in the first full paragraph on p. 324 (see footnote 32), which I had discovered in Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 371. While double-checking quotations, I discovered that the wording of my descriptions of LBJ's decision to underplay his war decision (pp. 317, 322) resemble Berman's construction (“not to mobilize the Reserves, not to seek a Congressional resolution or declaration of national emergency, not to present the program in a prime time address . . . [rather than an afternoon press conference]” (Berman, Planning a Tragedy, 146). Because my copy of Berman reveals that, when I read it some twenty-four years ago, I heavily underlined most of the three pages that contain the passage, I have to conclude that my language (taken from my notes for the AAAS lecture a year ago) might well reflect a subliminal memory of Berman's 1982 formulation. If so, I thank him for it.
For a still shorter fine arm's length account, see George C. Herring, America's Longest War, 3d ed. (New York, 1996), especially “Decisions for War,” 150–57. Herring—widely regarded as the premier American historian of America's part in the Vietnam War—also thinks that Johnson's Great Society legislative preoccupations appreciably affected his 1965 Vietnam decisions. Last, for a superb first-hand account—not short—I would strongly recommend William Bundy's unpublished manuscript, on deposit at the LBJ Library. Utterly honest, totally un-self-serving, it is a model of history writing by a participant. It's a great shame that it has never been published.
To be sure, candor would have demoralized Saigon and reduced our bargaining power vis-à-vis Hanoi. The price would have been well worth paying.
Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 381–82, also 378. There is a lot of evidence that Johnson's concerns about the draft and inflation contributed to his lament, “We know it's going to be bad.” He was worried about the unfairness as well as the politics of the draft, with its privileged college deferments. And he had ample warning about inflation from his economists and McNamara. (He later abolished graduate draft deferments and created a lottery, knowing perfectly well that his action would further inflame antiwar sentiment among the articulate well-to-do.)
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 7, 1964, stated that “the United States regards as vital to its national interest . . . the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia” and authorized “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to . . . prevent further aggression.” Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, pt. II (Princeton, NJ, 1986), 302. Passed by the Senate with only two negative votes, and unanimously by the House, it was, nevertheless, doubly flawed. Some of the facts of the naval incidents that provided the occasion for the resolution were uncertain, and the circumstances tainted. And, whatever the words said, no one at the time—not Johnson, not the senators nor representatives who voted for it—intended the resolution really to authorize the president to turn the war in Vietnam into a full-fledged American war. (About Johnson's intentions at the time, Bundy wrote in 1996: “Not in itself proof of plan to escalate. . . . It was a desire to be free in future—to threaten future action—and most of all to look strong and decisive and careful in responding to visible attack. . . . It was cost free standing tall. . . . It's not—though it later looks that way—a trick play. . . . He gets trapped in it before he knows it's not a clear case.” Also: “Both for show in 1964, and for use any way he wants later”; and “The posture was what mattered three months before the election.” Fragments, nos. 100, 53, 71.)
To try to sort out what went on in the White House during that first week of August 1964—“who knew what, and when did they know it”—I spent several months studying the documentary evidence. I hope eventually to publish the resulting paper. Francis M. Bator, “Tonkin Gulf” (2003).
Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 379–380. Judged by context and language, in both conversations, Johnson was unmistakably in his Act 2 mode (see pp. 313–14).
The suggestion that Johnson avoided public debate about going to war because he feared that he might lose in the Senate and/or that the public wouldn't back him seems to me—in light of the evidence on the balance of opinion in 1965—untenable. (At an informal lunch for all the president's senior civilian Vietnam advisers hosted by Secretary of State Dean Rusk on Saturday, June 5, Johnson said, according to William Bundy's notes, that he thought he could count on a 70/30 or 60/40 margin in the Senate for a resolution along the lines of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964 that passed with only two negative votes. But in June–July 1965, the senators would have known that—unlike a year earlier—they really were voting for war. William Bundy, manuscript, ch. 26, p. 15.) The LBJ quotations are from private letters from Richard Neustadt.
H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York, 1997).
Transcript of Meeting (with Gordon Goldstein, Bundy's then research assistant, later editor of his papers), November 9, 1995, 23.
Bundy, Fragments, no. 61.
For the H. K. Johnson, Abrams, Palmer view, and its implementation during 1969–1972, see Lewis Sorley, For a Better War (New York, 1999). For the drawdown of U.S. forces in Vietnam on Abrams's watch, see esp. p. 346. (Strictly, forty months later: 49,000 was the number when Abrams turned over command to his deputy, General Frederick C. Weygand, during the last week of June 1972.) For the 1973–1975 denouement, see Stanley Karnow, Vietnam (New York, 1997), 669–84.
The Joint Chiefs and Westmoreland failed in not saying to the president—repeatedly and firmly—that, given his ground rules, they could promise only a stalemate. At the least, they should have insisted on a change in strategy along the lines favored by Abrams. I suspect that they kept hoping that Johnson would change his mind about not invading North Vietnam when he realized that we were stuck in an unwinnable war of attrition.
On Johnson's failure in 1965 to force debate on “search and destroy,” here is Bundy, writing in April 1996, five months before he died: “In the record of what was said and written when Johnson could hear or read it, there is no mention of the word attrition, and yet it was in fact exactly this war that resulted from his decisions of July 1965. With these new forces, and no extension of the area in which they could be used—no right of hot pursuit beyond South Vietnam and so no capacity to prevent the enemy from ending any battle by his own choice or withdrawal—the strategy of attrition could not be pressed to a conclusion.
“My own conclusion, drawn more from memory than from documents but not contradicted by any paper I have seen, or by the memoir of any participant, is that the question of the ways and means of victory—the level and cost of what it might take to win—was simply not addressed in any deliberation that can reasonably be called Johnson's. The discussion was about bits and pieces of this question: will our battalions give good account of themselves in this terrain against these opponents? The answer was that they would, and they did. Will we be able to man the forces we commit by draft and enlistment and without calling the reserves? The answer was that we could, and we did. Could we do all this before there was any collapse, and prevent battlefield defeat thereafter? We could and we did. Would that lead to victory? We did not really ask.” Bundy, Fragments, no. 61. Also: “To get U.S. combat troops into a war of attrition . . . is a major error, and we failed even to address it.” Ibid., no. 2.
For all this, see Nick Kotz, Judgment Days. In the House, and until Johnson contrived to change the House rules in January 1965, then Chairman of the Rules Committee Howard W. Smith of Virginia (“Judge Smith”) would kill bills he didn't like by staying at home or going fishing (p. 37).
See also reference in footnote 14. That Richard Neustadt, an occasional consultant to LBJ in 1965, held similar views has greatly enhanced my confidence in this. See especially the text of his lecture given at Essex University in 2000, Clinton in Retrospect. As Dick said in the lecture, he and I talked a lot about what Johnson might have been up to during that spring, and came to the same conclusion. A copy of the typescript of Neustadt's Essex lecture is in my files. (See also footnote 43.)
For the Neustadt quotation, see his Essex Lecture manuscript, p. 4. For more Johnson quotations that support all this, see especially Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, chs. 4–9—an insightful narrative account of Johnson's struggle with himself over Vietnam during the spring of 1965. Oddly enough, in his introduction and conclusion, VanDeMark appears to ignore the evidence in the body of his book about the relevance of the Great Society legislation.
Westmoreland's 44-battalion plan called for 34 U.S. battalions and 10 Korean battalions, with 10 additional U.S. battalions in the event the Koreans reneged. Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 381; FRUS, 153, fn. 1, and 162. The Neustadt quotations (“feeling for” and “dicker”) are from his Essex lecture (see footnote 25).
There was a lot of talk in meetings about going in quietly so as not to arouse the Soviets and Chinese. But they saw what was happening. In any case, it wasn't a question of trumpets and flourishes, but of measured, calm, candid prime-time explanation. (The “fifth option” in Johnson's summary of the choices was what I here call “Westmoreland Redux,” and McNamara identified as his Plan III in his July 23 exposition. Johnson's “fourth option” was the complete Westmoreland package: prime-time speech, new resolution, reserve call-up, tax increase, and so forth. On all this see Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 425–26 and fn. 124.)
Congressional Record, 111: 17146–152; Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 389.
Avoiding “a belligerent challenge to the Soviets,” not “play[ing] into their hands at Geneva,” not stirring up talk at home of inflation and controls, and not needing the money, were the four remaining reasons Bundy listed. FRUS, Vietnam June–December 1965, 165.
Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 384.
Cited in Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 371; citing Berman, Planning a Tragedy, 145, citing personal letter from Bundy.
Merle Miller, Lyndon (New York, 1980), 408–9.
Michael Beschloss, Taking Charge (New York, 1997), 502. Another example, due to Nick Kotz: “I just hope we don't get too much information too quick up at the Senate before they pass that education bill,” Johnson warned George Ball on April 9, 1965, after receiving news that Chinese fighters had shot down a U.S. plane over the South China Sea. Kotz, Judgment Days, 349.
Bundy, Fragments, no. 48, 3.
May 27, 1964, Beschloss, Taking Charge, 369. In response to Johnson's question, Russell had told LBJ that he didn't think Vietnam was “important a damn bit” (ibid., 364). A few months later, he told Johnson that he wished the CIA would “get somebody to run that country [who] didn't want us in there. . . . Then . . . we could get out with good grace” (November 9, 1964, quoted in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 137). But Russell also kept saying things like “We should get out, but I don't know any way to get out” (December 7, 1963, quoted in Beschloss, Taking Charge, 95); “I don't know what the hell to do . . . I do not agree with those brain trusters who say that . . . we'll lose . . . Southeast Asia if we lose Vietnam. . . . But as a practical matter, we're in there and I don't know how you can tell the American people you're coming out. . . . They'll think that you have just been whipped, you've been ruined, you're scared. It'd be disastrous” (June 11, 1964, quoted in Beschloss, Taking Charge, 403); “I wish we could figure out some way to get out. . . . But I don't know how we can get out” (November 9, 1964, quoted in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 137). “We've gone so damn far, Mr. President, it scares the life out of me. But I don't know how to back up now. It looks to me like we just got in this thing, and there's no way out. . . . You couldn't have inherited a worse mess.” To which Johnson replied, “Well if they'd say I inherited, I'll be lucky. But they'll all say I created it!” (March 6, 1965, quoted in Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 212, 213).
Beschloss infers (Reaching for Glory, 137) from Johnson's failure to “seriously entertain” what Beschloss takes to have been Russell's “offer [sic] . . . [to] get the same crowd that got rid of old Diem . . . to get some fellow in there that said he wished to hell we would get out,” that “Johnson's commitment to prevent North Vietnamese victory” could not have rested “merely on a fear of being called soft on Communism and damaging his effort to pass the Great Society”—that it proved “how seriously he takes what he considers to be a treaty commitment, inherited from Eisenhower and Kennedy, to defend South Vietnam.” But Johnson knew perfectly well—as did Russell—that the CIA was in no position to fine-tune Saigon's palace politics. In any case, just what could LBJ have ordered the CIA to do or not do, without exposing himself to the charge that, by omission or commission, he was in effect doing Hanoi's work for it? (The “merely” in Beschloss's formulation is a straw man. See “What If There Had Been No Great Society Legislation to Enact?,” p. 333 below.)
Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War (Berkeley, CA, 1999), 407. Suppose that Logevall is right that by showing them “stacks of intelligence analyses,” Johnson could have persuaded “skeptical Dixiecrats and moderate Republicans” that bombing would be useless, and that we could back away in Vietnam without causing dominoes to topple by “taking steps to strengthen the U.S. position in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.” Would that have sufficed to neutralize the many angry hawks and opportunistic conservatives determined to block his Great Society legislation? Logevall thinks yes. The balance of evidence suggests that Johnson thought not.
Logevall acknowledges that legislative concerns had a lot to do with the way (his phrase) Johnson went to war in 1965. But he appears not to have noticed that the huge price LBJ knowingly paid to protect the legislation by going to war surreptitiously is at least suggestive of the large part that safeguarding it might have played in Johnson's mind when he chose to escalate. Logevall wants to persuade the reader that what Johnson “really feared was . . . personal humiliation that he believed would come with failure in Vietnam. . . . [That Johnson] saw the war as a test of his own manliness” (ibid., 393). (For further comment on Logevall's theory about Johnson's motives, see footnote 61.)
Asking yourself whether you would really bet Saint Peter your grandchildren's bread and board on some counterfactual prediction or inference, the truth of which he could ascertain by looking up the answer, is generally a sobering experience. I think of my conclusions as hypotheses—not as a pretense to scientific rigor, but to remind myself of Paul Valéry's cryptic warning that “History is the science of things that never happen twice.”
It is striking that Logevall asserts the undoubted, nearly certain, etc., invulnerability of the legislative program in a 529-page book whose index contains two single-page references to the Great Society, none to voting rights, Medicare, or any other piece of domestic legislation, or to vote counts in the Senate, filibuster, Montgomery, or Selma. (See footnote 43 about historiography and specialization.)
As Richard Neustadt put it—speaking of Marshall, Acheson, and also Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Omar Bradley—“No one went to Truman because everyone thought someone else should go.” For the full sad story, see Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, with Reflections on Johnson and Nixon (New York, 1976), 208 ff., especially pp. 212–214. For a brief summary, see also David Rees, Korea: The Limited War (New York, 1964), 150–51.
When double checking quotations, the Logevall phrase I succeeded in finding turned out to be “the Nixon-Alsop crowd” (Logevall, Choosing War, 410). Because the story refers to 1948–1954, I omit “Alsop”: at the time, columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop were among the staunchest opponents of Nixon, McCarthy et al. See especially their fierce condemnation of Robert Oppenheimer's accusers: Joseph Alsop and Stewart Alsop, “We Accuse!” Harper's (October 1954): 25–45 (the title consciously borrowed from Emile Zola's J'Accuse).
For an eyewitness description of Eisenhower (“smiling vapidly”) on the podium during Jenner's campaign speech at Butler University in which “Jenner attacked George Marshall as a man ‘not fit to have worn the uniform of a general,’ and call[ed] him a traitor,” see Washington State University emeritus professor Edward Bennett's letter in the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Newsletter, May 2003.
To be fair, Eisenhower did intervene to keep McCarthy from blocking James Conant's nomination as U.S. high commissioner in West Germany. (Conant, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee, had joined its then Chairman Robert Oppenheimer in opposing the plan to try to build a hydrogen bomb.) And Eisenhower supported Conant when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, apparently feeling vulnerable despite his own impeccable anti-Communist credentials, threatened to fire Conant as high commissioner if Conant testified in favor of Oppenheimer at the hearings on the latter's security clearance. See James G. Hershberg, James B. Conant (Stanford, CA, 1993), 650 ff. and especially pp. 679–81. Also, “The Long Shadow of James B. Conant,” in Louis Menand, American Studies (New York, 2002), 99.
For evidence on Kennedy's and McNamara's views about the problems the Soviet missiles in Cuba posed (and did not pose) for the United States, see especially the revealing exchange between them in Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes (Cambridge, MA, 1997), 133–34. Here is McNamara: “The question he [Secretary Rusk] asked me was: How does . . . the introduction of these weapons to Cuba change the military equation, the military position of the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R.? And, speaking strictly in military terms, it doesn't change it at all, in my personal opinion. My personal views are not shared by the Chiefs. They are not shared by many others in the [Defense] Department. However I feel very strongly on this point, and I think I could argue a case, a strong case, in defense of my position.
“This doesn't really have any bearing on the issue, in my opinion, because it's not a military problem we're are facing. It's a political problem. It's a problem of holding the alliance together. It's a problem of properly conditioning Khrushchev for our future moves, the problem of dealing with our domestic public, all requires [sic] action, that in my opinion, the shift in military balance does not require.” [Emphasis added throughout.]
President Kennedy: “On holding the alliance. Which one would strain the alliance more: this attack by us on Cuba, which most allies regard as a fixation by the United States and not a serious military threat? And you'd have to outline a condition you have to go in, before they would accept, support our action against Cuba, because they think we're slightly demented on this subject. So there isn't any doubt that, whatever action we take against Cuba . . . a lot of people would regard this as a mad act by the United States, which is due to a loss of nerve, because they will argue that taken at its worst, the presence of these missiles really doesn't change the balance. We started to think the other way, I mean, the view in America. But what's everybody else going to think when it's done to this guy [i.e., Castro]?” [Emphasis added.]
For a foreign-policy-based 51/49 defense of Kennedy's decision not to back off in Cuba that hinges on its possible effect on Khrushchev's eagerness to confront us over Berlin, see my “Misuse of Presidential Power,” Remarks at the Leadership Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (copy in my files).
Logevall also cites William Bundy's view about Johnson's domestic freedom of action (Logevall, Choosing War, 288). I am unpersuaded for the same reasons that I find unpersuasive McGeorge Bundy's reply to Logevall. (Mac Bundy confessed that he never really understood Johnson's reasons for refusing to level with the country in July 1965: “It must have had something to do with the legislative program.” Many of Mac's descriptions of Johnson cited by Logevall pertain to the spring and summer of 1965, when Mac and LBJ were at sharp cross-purposes on public explanation. When it came to Vietnam in 1965, I believe that the “unsatisfactory” process of decision Mac describes was the direct result of LBJ's concern that an open process would risk igniting a divisive debate in the Congress that would damage his legislation. The decision-making process was not the cause of Johnson's decision to escalate but the result.)
Logevall, Choosing War, 391; Bundy, Notes, 12; Transcript, November 9, 1995, 15–16. (“Notes” refers to a typed sixty-page loose-leaf compilation of transcribed 1994–1995 Bundy jottings. The page numbers in the upper right-hand corners are written and circled in ink.)
I think of Neustadt because, as he explained in his lecture at Essex, he and I talked a lot about what LBJ might have had in his head in 1965, and tried to come up with plausible counterfactual stories: for example, what if (a Neustadt suggestion) McNamara and Bundy had offered to shield LBJ by offering to say publicly that JFK and they had been wrong in 1961–1963 to entangle the United States. We concluded that Johnson wouldn't have thought McNamara and Bundy a robust enough shield, agreeing with Bundy's self-deprecating description of himself as a “political zero,” and thinking the same of McNamara.
I regret that the following absurd fantasy didn't occur to me until after Dick Neustadt died—I would have loved his laughter; he loved to laugh. Suppose that sometime during the spring of 1965, Robert Kennedy had said to Lyndon Johnson that his brother's commitment in Vietnam had been a mistake, that the situation was a hopeless mess, that to help Johnson extricate the country he, Robert Kennedy, would be willing to say so in public and join Johnson in explaining that the U.S. interest simply did not justify deeper involvement. Further, that he was confident that, if asked by the two of them, Bob McNamara and Mac Bundy would be willing to join in such an explanation. At the least, it would have altered Johnson's slate of options. (Being hammered by the late president's brother for a mess that was in part of JFK's making had, I suspect, a lot to do with the intensity of LBJ's anger at Robert Kennedy during the winter and spring of 1968.)
For a president—who in Bundy's phrase (I quote from memory) is president for both domestic and foreign affairs—the inescapable division of labor among advisers with differing professional specializations poses a puzzle about how best to organize his staff. For historiography, specialization and division of labor raise questions about how historians are trained. Evidence: in books about Johnson's choices on Vietnam, count the number of index entries for Selma, Montgomery, voting rights, fair housing—the domestic matters that were at the top of his mind most of the time (cf second paragraph in footnote 38). And count how many books on his domestic accomplishments, apart from blaming Vietnam for the damage it caused the Great Society, even mention that Johnson might have thought that backing away in 1965 would ignite a political row that would sink the legislation at the start, leaving no Great Society to be damaged. (The Bundy “not an expert” quotation in the text is from Notes, 50.)
Not even the young David Halberstam, who, in the first edition of Making of a Quagmire in early 1965, characterized all the basic alternatives (withdrawal, neutralization, escalation) “a nightmare.” According to Walter Lippmann's biographer Ronald Steel, during the spring and summer of 1965, Lippmann “[i]n an effort to find a way out short of ‘scuttle and run,’ which even he did not favor . . . urged a U.S. withdrawal to fortified enclaves along the coast as a ‘basis of influence’ while the Vietnamese negotiated, and an ‘honest and honorable’ way out of the war.” Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston, 1980), 570. At the national teach-in in Washington on May 17 and 18, 1965, according to Walter LaFeber, Arthur Schlesinger was “a chief apologist for the U.S. commitment . . . he urged that more U.S. troops be sent to give ‘much clearer evidence of our determination to stay’ until a political settlement could be reached” (see Cohen and Tucker, eds., Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World, 37).
In a powerfully affecting last chapter in The Making of a Quagmire (New York, 1965)—it deserves re-reading and quotation at length (and not because he honorably changed his mind in some respects soon after)—having characterized all the alternatives “a nightmare,” David Halberstam wrote about “withdrawal”: “Few Americans who have served in Vietnam can stomach this idea. . . . [T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most . . . while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed. . . . The United States' prestige will be lowered. . . . The pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. . . . Throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies.”
Neutralization, Halberstam wrote—he was more candid than most—“would create a vacuum, so that the Communists . . . could subvert the country at their leisure—perhaps in six months, perhaps in two years. . . . Blocking or bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail would not effectively alter the balance of power in the South. . . . The commitment of U.S. combat troops . . . would undoubtedly be even more frustrating than Korea. . . . Caucasians would be killing South Vietnamese. . . . If only 5 percent of the population in the South is committed to the Vietcong . . . U.S. combat units would probably make enemies out of fence sitters. Whatever [the] military gains . . . might soon be countered by the political loss. . . . Would begin to parallel the French experience. . . . A war without fronts, fought against an elusive enemy, and extremely difficult for the American people to understand. . . . [Although] we are deeply involved in a very real war, we should think and prepare for a long, long time before going in with our own troops.
“So, for the moment [Halberstam concluded] we are caught in the quagmire. . . . If and when it becomes a hopeless war . . . it will not be the Americans who will know this first; it will be the Vietnamese . . . who will and must decide that almost anything—even being ruled by a Communist government in Hanoi—is better than endless bloodletting. . . . In the meantime we are committed to playing our part . . . in a desperate hope that we have learned some of the lessons of Indochina. . . . Just conceivably . . . the dissenting forces in the country will band together when the imminent threat of a Communist takeover finally makes the enemy a common enemy. . . . There might be a strong enough base for a viable military approach. . . . But only an improvement in the military situation can make real negotiations possible. . . . These hopes are very frail.”
It should be said that Hans Morgenthau, then perhaps the leading international relations theorist in the United States, came close to being an exception. In Newsweek, in January 1965 Morgenthan said he saw only “one alternative: to get out without losing too much face” (Logevall, Choosing War, 406). We should, he thought, get Saigon to invite us out; or quit and blame Saigon: “We can't help people who can't help themselves”; or agree to a Geneva conference aiming at an internationally guaranteed neutralization of South Vietnam, or all of Vietnam—an outcome that Johnson, agreeing with David Halberstam—see above—thought a sham (in Bundy's phrase above, a “de facto surrender”).
For more on Hanoi's intentions, see footnote 56. On where the American public stood on Vietnam in 1965–1966, my inexpert and tentative inference is based on a reading of Trends in Popular Support for the Wars in Korea and Vietnam,” American Political Science Review 65, no. 2 (1971): 358–75; and I have not studied the enormous literature on the subject, and have no idea whether Mueller would agree with the inference. (I have also benefited from reading Bruce Altschuler, , “LBJ and the Polls[Gainesville, FL, 1990].)
For the LBJ quotation, see VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire, 114, who credits Eric Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (New York, 1969), 404. For the Pham Van Dong/Blair Seaborn exchange, see George C. Herring, ed., The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War: The Negotiating Volumes of the Pentagon Papers (Austin, TX, 1983), 16 ff. Pham Van Dong spoke of a negotiation leading to American withdrawal and a neutral South Vietnam, followed by a peaceful reunification. (“We are in no hurry.”) Johnson thought that formula unacceptable for the same reason David Halberstam did (see footnote 44 above).
On LBJ's inclinations in early and mid-June 1965, and the inclinations of his principal civilian advisers, one can't do better than Chapter 26 in William Bundy's unpublished manuscript, especially pp. 4–18.
For comment on Logevall's theory that deep-seated personality disorder was a root cause of Johnson's refusal to back away, see footnotes 37 and 61.
Borrowed from Robin Winks's ingenious book whose title it is. Robin Winks, The Historian as Detective (New York, 1968).
Another not-infrequent response is that I am trying to whitewash Johnson. About that, let it suffice that Johnson's motives are of interest, not mine. In any case, trying to understand (in the sense of comprehend) is not the same as condoning. The distinction is between is-statements and should-statements, description versus prescription, hypothesis testing (a matter of evidence and inference) versus normative evaluation (a matter of ethics, good and evil, virtue and sin).
Until our recent reckless misadventure in Iraq—as I have tried to make clear in the text above—I shared Bundy's 1995 opinion that getting entangled in Vietnam was the greatest foreign-policy mistake we have made since sitting on our hands during Hitler's rise in the late 1930s. (For my prewar view about the folly of making war on Iraq, see New York Times, Letters, March 13, 2003.)
In private conversation a few years ago, Thomas Schelling suggested that the failure of Truman, Marshall, and Acheson to stop MacArthur from marching to the Yalu in 1950 might have been an even greater mistake than Vietnam. (The Chinese-American war that resulted from MacArthur's folly contributed to the China-phobia that had a good deal to do with our entanglement in Vietnam.)
And not only because the consequences at home might affect our position in the world. (The argument is taken directly from Bator, Presidential Judgment, 73–74.)
That Johnson took into account the “potential impact [of his Vietnam decisions] on the election, and [that he] obsessed [sic] about erecting a Great Society,” does not per se belie (contra Logevall, Choosing War, 314) his boast that his Vietnam policy was governed by the national interest. Because, and to the degree that, politics—even “party politics”—affects policy, it should not stop at the water's edge. (Johnson's claim that party politics did not affect his foreign policy was wrongheaded in principle, as well as obviously not true.)
Quoted with permission from an April 7, 2006, email commenting on my “No Good Choices” draft.
A revised version of my email reply to Lewis.
The Johnson “bridge-building” policy produced the Nonproliferation Treaty, helped encourage Bonn's shift from a rigid “reunification or nothing” stance vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact countries to West German chancellor Willy Brandt's ameliorative ostpolitik, led to the LBJ-Kosygin summit in Glassboro, and—had it not been for the Soviets' panicky military response to the Prague Spring—would have culminated in a full-fledged summit in the fall of 1968, in Leningrad, that might have stopped ABMs sooner and MIRVs altogether. (For all this, see Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe; Bator, Presidential Judgment, esp. 42, 64–65; and Johnson's remarkable October 15, 1966, speech before the Editorial Writers.)
For the conflicts over priorities among Communist leaders in Hanoi, and the roles of Beijing and Moscow—and for the story of the decisive Ninth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Workers Party in Hanoi in December 1963 at which the hawks, after “heated debate,” carried the day—see William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War (Boulder, CO, 1986), esp. 54–59; William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (Boulder, CO, 1981); and Robert K. Brigham, Guerilla Diplomacy (Ithaca, NY, 1999). Duiker quotes from the Resolution of the Ninth Plenum: “If we do not defeat the enemy's military forces, we cannot overthrow his domination and bring the revolution to victory. To destroy the enemy's military forces, we should use armed struggle. For this reason, armed struggle plays a direct and decisive role” (Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam, 222).
For more, see also Stanley Karnow's report in Vietnam: A History (New York, 1983), 343–50. Karnow recounts his subsequent conversations about Hanoi's 1964 intentions, and dispatch of troops to the South, with Pham Van Dong (North Vietnam's prime minister at the time), and, especially, with a senior North Vietnamese officer who was personally involved. According to the latter, Karnow recounts, “preparations to send North Vietnamese troops south had begun long before Lyndon Johnson seriously considered the introduction of American battalions into Vietnam. And the North Vietnamese were engaged in battle against Saigon government detachments months before the U.S. marines splashed ashore at Danang in March 1965.”
The Ninth Plenum, convened shortly after the Diem coup in Saigon, preceded the Tonkin Gulf incident by 7 months, U.S. bombing of North Vietnam by 14 months, and Johnson's decisive war decision by 18–19 months. I do not know whether Johnson's judgment in 1965 that there was no negotiable middle ground reflected any information about the Ninth Plenum. What did U.S. intelligence know at the time about the internal politics of Hanoi? If not common knowledge among professional historians of the war, it would be an important question for a young historian to explore.
In a letter to Clark Clifford in March 1990, I wrote down the story that makes me think so. Clifford's reply confirms the facts of the story. Because he wouldn't have enjoyed it, I did not in my letter mention the inference I draw from the evidence. Copies of the letters are available in my files in the LBJ Library and in Cambridge.
The statement unfairly brackets advocates of an outright large-scale ground attack on North Vietnam accompanied by heavy bombing near the Chinese border, and the many people who proposed the discriminating use of ground forces somehow to “cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” (One problem with that idea was that it was nothing like what one thinks of as a trail.)
For evidence in the context of European and Soviet policy, see Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe, or my piece in Presidential Judgment.
McGeorge Bundy, “Remarks at Hofstra University” (1985). Also, McGeorge Bundy, “Remarks to Massachusetts Historical Society” (1978).
“Memorandum for the President: Reflections on Lunch Yesterday with the Academics in Government.” May 19, 1967, Box 5, Francis Bator Personal Papers, LBJ Library. Johnson had given a lunch for the dozen and a half or so ex-academics in his cabinet and subcabinet to ask for advice, as Max Frankel put it in his New York Times story (May 21, 1967) about “why he was having trouble communicating with the country's . . . intellectuals. . . . Perhaps, the President is said to have remarked, intellectuals really wanted him to do something he did not think a President could do and something that most other citizens would not want him to do: to agonize about his problems in public.”
Except for footnote 37, I have left aside the theory advocated in Logevall's Choosing War that Johnson's decision to escalate, and then to stick with the war—and to a degree even Johnson's determination to avoid a public debate (p. 298)—are in significant part explained by Johnson's “profound personal insecurity and his egomania [that] led him not only to personalize the goals he aspired to but also to personalize all forms of dissent.” In Logevall's view, for example, Johnson's failure to order “extensive contingency planning for some kind of figleaf for withdrawal” during the spring of 1965 shows that Johnson was concerned, not “only with, or even primarily with, preserving American credibility and/or Democratic credibility,” but “personal humiliation” that “went deeper than merely saving his political skin” and was “fueled by his haunting fear that he would be judged insufficiently manly for the job, that he would lack courage when the chips were down” (pp. 298, 392–93).
But what if—to bring Occam's Razor to bear—Johnson resisted extensive contingency planning for any kind of negotiated withdrawal, other than the informal planning by the small inner circle of Ball, Acheson, William Bundy, et al. that did take place—because (1) leaked by hawks in the bureaucracy (as it almost certainly would have been), the mere fact of such planning would have caused panic in Saigon and risked a political tempest in Washington fanned by opponents of his legislation (see p. 329), and (2) the only kind of planning relevant to what I think was for Johnson the decisive consideration—the one binding constraint—would have had to sort out the domestic political and legislative consequences. And on that subject, LBJ's own off-the-top-of-his-head calculations, probably ongoing and wistful, would have made any formal plan generated by the bureaucracy look like amateur hour. As Bundy pointed out, Ball could never show Johnson “a way not to get in and not lose . . . in terms of how it would look to his own country. And if Johnson couldn't do it both ways, no one could, because it couldn't be done.” Transcripts “B,” 18, and November 16, 1995, 7.
In any case (however persuasive you find speculation about the emotional wellsprings of a man's choices, speculation that is not grounded in exhaustive study of the fellow's entire life history), is it likely that Logevall's Johnson—a man with an “intolerance of dissent” (Logevall, Choosing War, 393), a “general aversion to unsolicited advice” (401), a “craving for approbation  . . . and for internal consensus” (79), whose “dislike of conflict . . . need to create consensus and to avoid confrontation, remained unshaken” (298)—who (nevertheless?) “made his way in politics by intimidation” (393)—would have succeeded as arguably the most effective Senate leader in American history, or as the president who brought about the civil rights revolution of 1964–1968?
Contrast Logevall's description of Johnson, with, say, Robert Caro's, who has devoted much of his adult life to studying Johnson and is not inclined to whitewash: a “great leader . . . [with a] strain of compassion . . . that . . . ran through his whole life . . . [whose] drive for power was inseparable from what he wanted power for. . . . He was both a pragmatist and an idealist. . . . [With] an ability to look facts—even very unpleasant facts—in the face and not let himself be deluded by wishful thinking.” Also, “in his use of power he had an almost unrivaled talent for personal relationships.” Also, “[a]nother element in his genius was his ability to find common ground. When there was no obvious common ground, he would work out how to create some.” [Emphasis added.] Or with Nick Kotz's descriptions in Judgment Days, or with the dozens of stories in Merle Miller's oral histories, or with Joseph Califano's description of Johnson as a “baker”— yes, baker—of decisions. . . . Or—in a very different vein—Kent Germany's description and selections from the Presidential Recordings Project in “I'm Not Lying about that One.”
Bundy warned himself in his 1995 notes not to seem “to be laying off the whole Vietnam tragedy on the personal characteristics of one guy.” Clark Clifford, who knew LBJ very well and for a long time, once wrote about him (in a private letter to the author): “[Y]ou and I already know, that Lyndon Johnson was one of the most complex human beings there has ever been.” And anyone sifting through the mountains of evidence—the stories, the stories about the stories—must keep in mind the Act 1/Act 2 puzzle.
Published in 2007 as an Occasional Paper by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, this is a revised and expanded version of the Academy's Presidents' Week lecture given on February 28, 2006. Please note that this article was initially published with separate footnotes and endnotes. The latter contained further evidence and observations elaborating on but not essential to the flow of the argument. They were not intended to be read side by side during a first reading of the text. Many of them can be read on their own. However, for purposes of production, these endnotes were converted and merged into a footnote format.