I watched PBS ‘American Experience’ episode on LBJ this weekend.
In part four of the series, it’s January of 1968. The Tet offensive has
just ended. LBJ talks to the American people, insisting that we can
still win in Vietnam. He says at a public appearance, “…make no
mistake about it. I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking
otherwise: we ARE going to win.”
The narrator follows, “but by now, Johnson had mislead the American people so badly that even when he told the truth, few believed him.”
This was the point at which Walter Cronkite turned on the war.
Johnson had spent the previous three years escalating the war, but also working to realize what he called ‘The Great Society’, a barrage of social reform legislation unseen since, and modeled on, FDR’s New Deal. In this period legislation was passed that saw the birth of Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Civil Rights Act, the EEOC, food stamps, the Wilderness Act, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Water Quality Act, the Immigration Act, the Highway Beautification Act, the Higher Education Act, the National Teachers Corps, the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of Transportation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Product Safety Commission, the Air Quality Act, the Safe Streets
Act, the National Trails Systems Act, and the Gun Control Act. Just to name a few.
So how could a man who sought to create positive change for the citizens of his own country at the same time destroy another abroad? The answer is complicated. As was Johnson. For a completely negative character study of Johnson, see this blog entry.
But that reading of Johnson doesn’t account for his expressions of guilt
and despair – expressions absent from our current President (and also
the parts about having done anything positive for the country.)
White House Press Secretary George Reedy comments in 1990, looking back on
LBJ’s actions at this time, trying to understand Johnson’s insistence
that we could win in Vietnam, despite all obvious evidence to the
“Suppose that you are the President of the United States and you give some orders. And some men get killed. You aren’t going to say to yourself – and I mean to yourself, late at night – ‘those men are dead because I was a damned slob gave some silly actions.’ What you’re going to say is ‘my
God, those men died in a noble cause and we’ve got to see that those
men didn’t die in vain.’ So you send more men, to vindicate their
Closest advisers to LBJ begin to resign – including Robert McNamara. “…He felt like a murderer” LBJ said later.
“I never felt like a murderer.”
Clark Clifford, Johnson’s National Security Advisor said that bit by bit, those close to LBJ pointed out to him what was going wrong in the war. Clifford was working to convince Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam. But he thought it
wasn’t going to happen all at once. “It’s like a great train – you just can’t suddenly put it in reverse, you’ve got to bring it to a stop.”
After his retirement, Johnson rarely wanted to discuss his years as President. On a rare occasion when he did, attempting to describe to his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin what was going on in his psyche in 1968, he said, “Every night when I fell asleep, I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle
of a long, open space. In the distance I could hear the voices of
thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward
me. ‘Coward! Traitor! Weakling!’ They kept coming closer. They began
throwing stones. At exactly that moment, I would wake up.”
Reedy adds, “At around midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock, the casualty
reports would start coming in. He would wake up automatically and call
the situation room, or sometimes wander down there, where you could get
the direct figures. The men became haunted by it.”
S. Douglass Cater, special assistant to the President said of one of LBJ’s middle
of the night trips to the situation room: “He just looked sunk and he
said, ‘I don’t know what to do… if I put in more boys, there will be
morekillin’ if I take out boys, there will be more killin’, anything I do, there will be more killin’. And he just sat there. Then he got up and left.”
LBJ’s foreign policy expert known as ‘The Wise Men’, finally turned on him and the war.
Clark Clifford contacted many of them before one last meeting to get a
feeling for their positions on Vietnam. He found that Tet had changed
every one of their minds. Clifford said, “They all turned around. The
impact was profound. So profound that he (LBJ) thought something had
gone wrong. He used the expression ‘I think somebody has poisoned the
“Finally at the end, they all left him. They said, ‘it’s not working’ and walked out of the room. And there was Johnson, alone with his war, the last believer.” – Richard Goodwin, LBJ speechwriter
If only we could see a photo like this of George W. Bush.