Henry F Graff. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Not since the first President Johnson took office in 1865 has a presidency begun amid such tragedy and turmoil as Lyndon Baines Johnson’s did when he took the oath of office on 22 November 1963 aboard Air Force One, parked on Dallas’ Love Field. It was the plane that earlier in the day had brought President John F. Kennedy to the city on a trip that was to end with his assassination. In its somber aftermath, when President Johnson received at the White House the dignitaries from around the world who had traveled to Washington for Kennedy’s funeral, he stood in a brighter limelight than any incoming president had ever had to endure. He faced the daunting challenge of succeeding a martyr figure and of competing instantly with that memory for the public’s approbation.
In attaining the White House, Johnson had fulfilled his life’s ambition (as a mere twelve-year-old he had told his classmates, “Someday, I’m going to be president of the United States”), but he soon knew he would not inherit with his office the people’s esteem. Many of the Kennedy faithful immediately and forever regarded Johnson as a “usurper” of Camelot, unworthy to sit in JFK’s chair. Indeed, to them, the new man, notably less handsome and boyish than Kennedy, and “with a few gray hairs in his head” that Johnson liked to say were necessary in a chief executive, seemed virtually an impostor-president. They could not adjust to the Texas drawl hitherto unheard in the Oval Office, where it abruptly replaced the Boston-Harvard accent the nation had become accustomed to. Johnson even indulged a brand of humor that they found offensive: it was not witty and literary like their hero’s, but often coarse and sometimes scatological.
The keepers of the Kennedy flame gave the appearance of awaiting impatiently the advent of another of the Kennedy brothers to the presidency—and behaving meanwhile as if they represented a kind of government-in-exile. An extremely sensitive man with deep personal insecurities despite the macho image he projected, Johnson felt demeaned, as suggested by his often-repeated reminder, “I’m the only president you have.” He lived with his nightmare that in the line of the presidents he would be remembered as sandwiched between two Kennedys.
To be sure, Johnson had a host of admirers, too. Almost immediately he brought a new style to the White House, symbolized by the ending of haute cuisine dinners and their replacement by homelier American fare. Millions appreciated hearing about it. And many people everywhere seemed ready to see in Johnson’s older, craggy face and in his long experience in Washington likely evidence of valuable experience and maturity. Finally—and not least of all—Lady Bird Johnson, the president’s articulate and tactful wife, quickly won favorable attention which helped give reassurance to the country that this presidential couple was a satisfactory successor to the Kennedys.
Johnson, who for years had been a dominating voice in the Senate, was immensely proud of his reputation as a legislative giant justly compared to the likes of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Yet he believed that as vice president, during the thousand days of the Kennedy administration, his talents had been forced to lie fallow. Now, by a sudden turn of fortune, he had the levers of power in his grip, and he fairly lusted to work them—aiming to make his page in history glow as brilliantly as any other president’s.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas, on 27 August 1908. His father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had been a member of the Texas House and had recently lost several thousand dollars speculating in cotton. His mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, raised on the outskirts of the little town of Blanco, was the daughter of Joseph Wilson Baines, an attorney. He had previously occupied the seat that Sam Johnson held in the House. Rebekah worked her way through Baylor College at Belton, where she found encouragement for her lively literary and cultural interests.
When Lyndon was five years old, the family moved to Johnson City. Sam Johnson struggled to earn a living while Rebekah Johnson worked diligently to make ends meet. But there was never enough money, and Lyndon would often speak with disdain of the steady diet of grits, greens, cornbread, and fat-back of his early years. Although the family was never as hard up as Johnson later liked to say it had been, he developed what proved to be a lifelong sympathy for ordinary people whose lives were blighted by economic insecurity and deprivation. As a boy, Johnson resented having to wear homemade clothing that once included, to his unspeakable embarrassment, a Buster Brown suit. His mother did private tutoring in elocution in order to pay for dancing and violin instruction for him. He detested the training in both and eventually refused to have any more lessons. He would not be marked a “sissy.” Ironically, in the White House his accomplished and tireless social dancing at public functions charmed and sometimes astonished his guests.
Even as a youth, Johnson yearned to have a share in the rising wealth around him, which was based chiefly on the booms in oil and beef. Still he despaired of gaining even a foothold. He put in time working for farmers in and around Johnson City. For a period he was a printer’s devil at a local newspaper. He also shined shoes in a barber shop. As he grew up he appeared to be both ambitious and aimless.
Politics had begun to draw the boy’s interest when Sam Johnson won back his old seat in the state legislature in 1919. Lyndon became a familiar sight at his father’s side on the floor of the Texas House. Soon the youth was bent on becoming a politician as well as a millionaire. After a trip to California with some friends when he finished high school, he yielded to his mother’s nagging advice to seek more education. He enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, from which he was graduated in 1930. To support himself, he had interrupted his studies to take a teaching job at a “Mexican” school in Cotulla, Texas. One day, voting analysts would credit Johnson’s close ties with the Mexican-American community with helping to put Texas in the Kennedy-Johnson column in the election of 1960. Johnson also taught briefly in Pearsall and Houston, where he won acclaim training students in public speaking and debating.
But the world of politics proved irresistible. Johnson avidly seized an opportunity in 1931 to become private secretary to Richard Kleberg, son of the owner of the fabled King Ranch, who had just been elected to Congress. In Washington, Johnson quickly became as familiar with the labyrinths of the bureaucracy as he was with the landscape of his Texas hill country. Then, in 1934, he was married in San Antonio to Claudia Alta Taylor of Karnack, Texas, known invariably by her nickname, Lady Bird. Not yet twenty-two years old, Lady Bird Johnson brought much-needed stability to Johnson’s life; her winsomeness combined with her shrewd judgment of people from the start helped significantly in furthering his career.
Politically, Johnson was a child of the new opportunities that the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt opened for office seekers eager to have a hand in enlarging and redistributing the nation’s resources. After a creative stint as director of the National Youth Administration in Texas, Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937 to fill the unexpired term of James P. Buchanan in the Tenth District. Already inured to the ways of Congress, Johnson took worshipful counsel from Speaker Sam Rayburn, also a Texan. In turn, Rayburn, who was unmarried, treated Johnson like a son and turned him rapidly into an “insider” despite his lack of seniority. Johnson served in the House until 1948, having been reelected five times on an ever-growing reputation for his craft in directing to his constituents a goodly share of the bounty that New Deal economic programs provided.
Johnson interrupted his tenure in the House shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve as a lieutenant commander, having been commissioned in the Naval Reserve in 1940. He was the first member of Congress to go on active duty in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Silver Star for “gallantry in action” when the patrol bomber Johnson was flying in was fired upon by Japanese Zeros near Port Moresby, in New Guinea. (Critics would later say that Johnson’s political prominence rather than personal valor had won him the decoration. For the rest of his life, however, Johnson proudly wore the insignia of the medal in his lapel.) Almost immediately after receiving the award, Johnson responded to Roosevelt’s directive that members of Congress leave military service and resume their legislative duties. After six months in uniform, Johnson was pleased to be back at his desk in Washington.
Johnson won election to the Senate in 1948 (he had failed in a bid in 1941) by a margin of eighty-seven votes, a squeaker that earned him the sobriquet “Landslide Lyndon.” He held the seat until he became vice president in 1961. He was minority leader for two years and majority leader from 1956 to 1960, acquiring formidable fame among supporters as a legislative statesman and among detractors as a wheeler-dealer. His selection by Kennedy to be vice president, despite much opposition in the Kennedy camp, was the outcome of a disappointing effort to obtain the nomination for president.
As vice president, Johnson was ignored by many of the administration’s prominent figures and was idle much of the time, his vaunted knowledge of Congress largely unused. Although he chaired some significant public committees and was sent on some missions abroad, he was convinced that most of his assignments were little more than busywork. He hid his smoldering resentment even as he made his initial appeal to the people as president an assurance of continuity of policies. Where Kennedy had urged in his inaugural, “Let us begin,” Johnson, on 27 November 1963 in his first address to Congress, exhorted, “Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.”
What Johnson lacked in Kennedy’s urbanity, he made up for in energy so uncommon that one aide credited him with having “extra glands.” Despite a severe heart attack in 1955—”the worst a man could have and still live,” he liked to tell people—Johnson gave himself unstintingly to his work. Although he climbed into bed for a nap each afternoon, his long hours at his desk—spent mostly on the telephone—topped by his “night reading” left no doubt that he withheld nothing in fulfilling his duties. His desire to be embraced by the people and his constant sense of being unloved drove him to the limit relentlessly as he tried to earn his way into the company of the country’s greatest presidents. He was tied to the reputation of Kennedy for his popularity in the beginning, and he struggled to create a devoted following of his own.
The desire to show he was in charge made his first month in office frenetic. From 23 November to 19 December he saw in his office almost seven hundred people alone or in small groups. Possibly to suggest that the new chief executive was economy-minded, the White House let it be known that he went about turning out unused electric lights every night—causing him to be dubbed for a time “Light Bulb Johnson.” Still shaken by the circumstances of his own elevation to the presidency, Johnson consulted with Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts, next in line of succession, regarding any unexpected turnover of the White House.
About fifty pieces of proposed legislation were languishing in congressional committees, but the civil rights bill was the focus of Johnson’s labors in the first several months. Its passage as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would thenceforth be the key-stone of Johnson’s claim to fame as inheritor and keeper of the urban liberal base of the Democratic party. In seeking support for the bill’s passage, he had beseeched Congress on sentimental grounds: “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill.” In short order, the bill that Kennedy had prepared had been made stronger by a number of amendments proposed by ardent advocates. The House passed the revised bill on 10 February. In the Senate it met a filibuster by southerners that lasted eighty-three days, ending on 10 June only with the enactment of a cloture resolution. The bill finally became law on 2 July.
Johnson, feeling special responsibility as a southerner, had made the bill’s passage a personal crusade. His efforts can only be called Herculean, for he cajoled and pulled strings to round up support from early in the morning to late at night, day after day, week after week. On more than one occasion in the White House, he upbraided opponents or fence-sitters by fairly screaming as he faced them down—often nose-to-nose, “Do you know what it is to be black?”
The act set in place some of the most fundamental social changes in American history. Among its provisions, it forbade discrimination on account of race in places of public accommodation. It contained protection of the right of blacks to vote. It forbade discrimination on account of race or sex by employers and labor unions. Moreover, to help monitor the law’s operation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established. To accelerate the desegregation of schools, the new law empowered the attorney general to challenge local discriminatory practices in court.
The Great Society
Johnson, having pushed through what he considered Kennedy’s bill, now went to work on his own legislative program. He began with the Economic Opportunity Act, the first salvo of a concerted “war on poverty,” as he called it, that would become one of the hallmarks of his presidency. The act, signed into law on 20 August 1964, was funded with an appropriation of $948 million. It eventually authorized ten programs under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) established as part of the White House office. The programs included a “domestic Peace Corps” to operate in depressed areas of the country, known as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA); the Job Corps, designed as a make-work program for the hard-core unemployed; Head Start, to help deprived children compensate for their cultural disadvantages; and community-action programs to give poor people a hand in running government programs. When the session of Congress ended, Johnson, competing in his mind with the legislative achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Hundred Days,” declared grandly, “This session of Congress has enacted more major legislation, met more national needs, disposed of more national issues than any other session of this century or the last.”
Johnson was now hitting his stride in the work he was touted to be expert in—persuading Congress to act. The difficulties between the executive and legislative branches that Kennedy had been unable to surmount were apparently vanishing. As they did, so did the memory of Kennedy’s New Frontier. Speaking at the University of Michigan on 22 May, Johnson unveiled his own vision of America: “In your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”
The possibility of giving life to such a vision brought popular support to the intense new president, who apparently was indeed able to fill Kennedy’s shoes. The opinion polls showed Johnson more popular than his predecessor had been at the comparable time in his presidency. An uncommon feeling of confidence and unity seemed to pervade the nation, even though perceptive people could see that the excitement connected with the spate of legislation masked the troubles that were brewing in Vietnam. There the Communists in the northern part of the country were bent on overrunning the southern part, which the United States was committed to support.
The Campaign of 1964
With these events—favorable and portentous—as a backdrop, the presidential campaign of 1964 got under way. It was a foregone conclusion that Johnson would have the Democratic nomination, which he received at Atlantic City late in August amid much hoopla over the selection of a vice presidential candidate. Johnson, who played a cat-and-mouse game with several possible candidates (he had already ruled out Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late president), was searching for a man, he said, who was “attractive and prudent and progressive.” He believed he had found him in Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who had been his colleague in the Senate from the time they were both elected to it in 1948. (Johnson would keep Humphrey very busy, but on a short tether. When Winston Churchill died in 1965, Johnson could not attend the funeral because of illness. But he would not dispatch Humphrey in his place for reasons he never made public.)
Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated the conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as they shunted aside the liberal, internationalist, eastern wing of the party, whose leaders included Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. One of only six Republicans who had voted against the civil rights bill, Goldwater was hoping to win the election by cobbling together support in the South and in the West and by providing the nation with what he spoke of as “a choice, not an echo.” When eastern Republicans sought to denounce conservative extremists in the party—especially the John Birch Society—Goldwater assured fellow Republicans in his acceptance address that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” The alarm of moderates was heightened when Goldwater told a reporter that if he could, he would “drop a low-yield atomic bomb on Chinese supply lines in Vietnam.”
Johnson campaigned as an experienced man whose restraint and judgment in military matters could be relied upon. It seemed unremarkable in July when five hundred more troops—so-called advisers—were dispatched to Vietnam because Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had already been increasing gradually the American military presence there. And the general public seems not to have become exercised when, on 2 and 4 August, in murky circumstances, North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin near North Vietnam’s coast. Johnson ordered massive air attacks on targets in North Vietnam in retaliation. Moreover, on 7 August he obtained a congressional resolution—ever since known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—supporting the president in whatever action he deemed necessary “to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia. It was not unlike the resolution that Congress had given Eisenhower in 1958 when he sent marines into Lebanon, and its passage was widely approved in the country at large.
Johnson had the support of the middle sector of American political sentiment, which was eager both to avoid a nuclear confrontation and to leave untouched the major domestic reforms, to which people had grown accustomed. Goldwater’s broadside attacks on the Social Security Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the graduated income tax played into Johnson’s hands. The president could appear the solid man, continuing in international affairs the tried-and-true policies of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years. He had shown he was in the tradition of the New Deal by putting Humphrey on the ticket. He showed he was the peace candidate by saying of the conflict rapidly heating up in Vietnam, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Furthermore, where Republicans were saying of Goldwater, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” Democrats were responding, “In your heart, you know he might.” Unlike his opponent, Johnson could be counted on, the country was assured, not to press the button that would start a nuclear war. The unabashed way in which Goldwater referred to the Soviet Union as “the enemy” also alarmed many voters, who concluded that Goldwater regarded open war with the Soviets as unavoidable.
In domestic matters Johnson seemed a wizard. Having staunchly supported and pressed upon Congress early in 1964 Kennedy’s $80 billion tax cut proposal despite dire predictions by business people of its likely effect, economic activity flourished. All of the usual indicators—consumer spending, gross national product, and federal tax receipts—showed the success the Democrats had predicted.
Johnson received the election results at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. Amid his closest friends he reveled in the greatest popular victory in American history. With 43 million votes, he had run 16 million ahead of Goldwater, carrying 44 states and losing only Arizona and 5 states of the Deep South. The immense triumph had the effect of changing the politics of America, giving Johnson what he labeled “a mandate for unity.” On his coattails rode to victory hundreds of Democratic candidates for lesser offices throughout the country. In the House of Representatives the Republicans lost 37 seats, giving the Democrats 295 places to 140 for the Republicans. The 2 seats the Democrats picked up in the Senate enlarged the margin of the Democrats, making it 68 to 32. The nation could see that one effect of Goldwater’s anemic candidacy was to open the way for an expansion of the Great Society programs. Johnson would not have to endure the tug-of-war with Capitol Hill that had been Kennedy’s lot.
Democratic voters thought that Johnson had earned the support he received because of the deftness he had shown in enlarging Kennedy’s constituency of four years earlier. Moreover, following so closely on the heels of the assassination, the victory may have revealed the voters’ desire not to have another change of president so soon. Johnson took his triumph to mean that he had a blank check to go ahead with an extensive program of social legislation. The president concluded happily that the national unity he had asked for in the sad days of November 1963 had been achieved.
Johnson’s goal as president was to achieve consensus—to occupy that common ground on which the general citizenry and Congress alike could stand with him. One of his favorite sayings, “Come, let us reason together,” became a rallying call to his banner. As a leader in the Senate he had already made known his fondness for consensus government even across party lines in the close working relationship he established with President Eisenhower. Now he would rely on the force and influence of his own personality rather than on the Democratic party itself. His persuasiveness with erstwhile colleagues on Capitol Hill, often involving psychological arm-twisting that long ago had been labeled the “Johnson treatment,” would now be a feature of the relations between the executive and legislative branches.
Already Johnson’s first year in office had revealed him a master, too, at self-advertising. Whether holding press conferences, walking his dogs on the White House lawn, or greeting new appointees with lavish fanfare, he was a constant item on the television screen. A photograph of him baring his new surgical scar (he had had his gall bladder removed) seemed undignified to many people, although it stamped him a down-to-earth man for countless others. He was at first an uncertain performer before the television camera, the now indispensable tool of politics, but he nevertheless conveyed a picture of strength. He projected a sense that with his bare hands he could seize the country’s problems and subdue them.
The inauguration on 20 January 1965 was itself a symbol of national consensus. The first president elected from the South since Zachary Taylor in 1848, Johnson was serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” His inaugural address was a ringing call for national unity and noble deeds couched in almost biblical language. The president declared that “the oath I have taken before you and before God is not mine alone but ours together.” And in rhetoric that evoked Franklin Roosevelt, he stated, “For every generation there is a destiny. For some, history decides. For this generation the choice must be our own.” The destiny was to fulfill the American “covenant with this land”—to achieve justice, liberty, and union. In speaking of the toil and tears that each generation must expend, he unashamedly echoed Winston Churchill. A sentence that called to mind Kennedy’s full-throated call four years earlier to defend freedom wherever it was threatened was soon to prove prophetic: “If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, then that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.”
The new Congress was soon at Johnson’s beck and call. It established two new cabinet posts: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to which Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver, the first black to hold a cabinet post, and the Department of Transportation. Johnson soon appointed the first solicitor general who was black, Thurgood Marshall (and elevated him in 1967 to the Supreme Court).
The special messages that Johnson sent to Capitol Hill began to inundate the lawmakers, even before the inauguration. On 7 January 1965 he called for Medicare, federally supported medical health services for the elderly, and improved health services for children, the mentally retarded, and the disabled; and he insisted upon millions of dollars for medical research. He traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign the Medicare bill in the presence of former president Harry Truman, whom Johnson saluted as the law’s true progenitor.
Before Congress could catch its breath, he sent it a billion-dollar proposal that became the Education Act of 1965 to aid elementary and secondary public schools, provide preschool programs for young children, grant subsidies to school libraries, finance scholarships and loans to needy students, and extend a variety of help to small colleges. He put his signature on the bill in the one-room schoolhouse he had attended as a boy near Stonewall, Texas. At his side sat “Miss Katie,” his first teacher.
Soon the president was pressing Congress to pass a revision of the immigration laws, liberalizing the national origins quota system. Johnson journeyed to the Statue of Liberty to sign the bill into law on 3 October. Meanwhile, under the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson had approved on 6 August, federal examiners went to work immediately, removing impediments to the registration of black voters in the South. No field of reform seemed beyond the interest and reach of the president, and his zeal in dramatizing his concerns was limitless.
Committed to enlarging the “quality of life,” Johnson supported legislation for the beautification of highways that Lady Bird Johnson ardently sought. In the field of the arts, Johnson established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, with a wide agenda of unprecedented duties. The variegated list of laws the administration pursued included the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
Johnson reserved special earnestness for the continuing War on Poverty. The Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 authorized $1.1 billion to rehabilitate and develop the mountainous region from Pennsylvania to Alabama and Georgia, which was experiencing severe social and economic hardship. The far-reaching Housing Act of 1965 made possible the construction of 240,000 low-rent public-housing units and provided $3 billion in grants for urban renewal. In May 1966, Johnson approved a supplementary appropriation bill to make possible the subsidization of rents for low- and moderate-income families. Said the president as he signed the act, “While every man’s house cannot be a castle, it need not be a hovel.” Under the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966, Johnson hoped to see large-scale rebuilding of the total economic and social environment of depressed urban communities. The law recognized, he said, “that our cities are made of people, not just bricks and mortar.” The Eighty-ninth Congress completed under Johnson’s baton the agenda of liberalism opened originally by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Speaker McCormack, who also had formed his views in the 1930s of the role of the federal government, shared Johnson’s enthusiasm: “It is the Congress of accomplished hopes. It is the Congress of realized dreams.”
Johnson never received the public adulation for his labors that he believed he had earned. In the private quarters of the White House, he had placed on the wall an old photograph of himself facing Roosevelt. Johnson had captioned it, “I listen.” And unquestionably he had gone to school to FDR. Johnson’s close aide Bill Moyers once said that to Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt was a book to be read and reread. Now, as a reform president, Johnson had “out-Roosevelted Roosevelt,” but the beneficiaries did not make Johnson their hero as once they had deified Roosevelt.
By the 1960s the United States had become a welfare state. The largesse of government was no longer a gift but a due. Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere and general prosperity of Eisenhower’s time had made it impossible to rekindle enthusiasm for a reforming president. Perhaps, too, many Americans saw Johnson as building a monument to himself as well as sweeping away the problems of industrial America. Where thoughtful people had once hoped to create a good society, Johnson had decided that his legacy to the nation would be Texas-size: the Great Society. He aroused not so much division as disbelief, a contaminant in the brew for immortality.
The liberalism Johnson espoused had been bred into his bones, so he could not see that its time might be drawing to a close. From his father, who taught the young Lyndon how to put his arm on people and serve the cause of social justice in the bargain, he acquired a model and the confidence to go and do likewise. When Johnson was imploring northern city bosses and southern cronies to take his way on civil rights, his nose almost on top of theirs, Texas old-timers could see Sam Johnson alive again.
From his mother the future chief executive acquired a sense of what he could make of himself. Even in his most rebellious time as a destructive and occasionally violent youth, Johnson must have had a picture in his mind’s eye of a better young man who one day would please his mother. He later would say that he never made a major decision in his career without consulting her. It is not too much to guess that when Johnson said he wished to be remembered as “the education president,” he could feel the influence of his mother who would accompany him to the front gate of their house each morning, reviewing with him the stuff of his lessons for the day.
Finally, Johnson was stamped by the models he took for himself from among the affluent cattlemen and oilmen he admired and envied. They tended to see the world through red-white-and-blue glasses and to regard physical power as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. Moreover, the Texas cowboy tradition of fiction and fact left its impress on Johnson. It reinforced his determination to plump for what was right and to be quick on the draw.
In a nation addicted to television, Johnson’s personality became an object of public scrutiny. His penchant for secret conferral and for needlessly refusing to show his hand, which sometimes could seem conspiratorial, grated on associates and, after he entered the White House, on representatives of the media. Many of them began to see a “credibility gap” between the truth and certain White House utterances. The habit of dissimulating thwarted Johnson’s hope to be loved by the people. The eager heartiness with which he embraced others by seeming to take them into his confidence may have been an indication of his awareness that he was not really loved in return, although this mannerism may have been accentuated by his considerable deafness, which he never acknowledged publicly.
The bawdy language that notably peppered his conversation suggests that he harbored a deep feeling of inferiority, which even his size—he stood six feet, three inches, and weighed two hundred pounds—could not overcome. The frustration of his youth that there were people richer and luckier than he appeared never to have left him. It seemed to show in his frequent comment that he came from “the wrong part of the country”—an irascible reference to the eastern establishment, which steadfastly regarded him as an outsider. Possibly he compensated for the felt deprivation in his remarkable love of creature comforts and especially in the fervor with which he outfitted his ranch on the Pedernales River.
Never far from his thoughts was the fear that his presidency, like Wilson’s, might be destroyed by his physical incapacity. He later wrote, “Whenever I walked through the Red Room and saw Woodrow Wilson hanging there I thought of him stretched out upstairs in the White House, powerless to move, with the machinery of the American government in disarray around him.” Johnson may have felt unconsciously that he had no time to lose, that the clock was running against him. Possibly his concern over his health helps explain the frenzy of his presidential activity. Or possibly with his eyes on history’s judgment of him he simply wanted to “do it all.” The White House staff was aware of Johnson’s expressed concern that he might run out of problems to solve—never out of solutions.
In international politics, Johnson was unschooled, and he seemed to lean on precepts gleaned from personal experience. “I know these Latin Americans,” he told some newspaper reporters when he had been in the White House only a short while. “I grew up with Mexicans. They’ll come right into your yard and take it over if you let them.. . . But if you say to ’em right at the start, ‘Hold on, just a minute,’ they’ll know they’re dealing with somebody who’ll stand up. And after that you can get along just fine.” Still, Johnson was no hothead or saber rattler. The besetting concern over Fidel Castro’s regime gave Johnson an opportunity to show his mettle early in his administration. The Cuban dictator was demanding the return to Cuba of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay. To underscore his determination, he shut off the water to the American installation. Johnson countered the move immediately by instructing the navy to establish its own water supply. The Cubans working on the base were simply ordered to spend their wages there or be dismissed.
Johnson also showed moderation and self-control when nationalistic rioting took place in the Panama Canal Zone in early 1964. As demonstrators screamed, “Gringos, go home,” President Roberto Chiari insisted that the time had come to revise the treaties governing United States-Panama relations. After the violence ended, Johnson agreed to enter into negotiations, declaring afterward that “it was indeed time for the United States and Panama to take a fresh look at our treaties.” A United States-Panama treaty was finally signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, providing for Panama to assume full control of the canal at the end of 1999.
Latin America presented persistent problems. The Alliance for Progress had created high expectations throughout the region, but it was not yielding the improved standard of living the masses of people had been led to expect. Trouble broke out in the Dominican Republic on 24 April 1965. The civilian government of Donald Reid Cabral came under attack from liberal and radical followers of Juan Bosch. Bosch, heading a reform party, had received 60 percent of the votes in a national election in 1962, but he had been ousted in a coup d’état. The new regime under Reid Cabral received the support of the Department of State, although its leader apparently had little popular support. Moreover, the country was in increasing economic difficulties. In April 1965 a group of young army officers raised the banner of revolt, aiming to restore the exited Bosch to the presidency. Civil war ensued as the senior army officers, backed by conservative elements, opposed the insurgents. In the fierce fighting that followed, the military seemed to be winning. But the pro-Bosch forces gained strength by arming civilians in the city. As the struggle raged on, more than a thousand Americans became trapped in the Embajador Hotel. Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, concerned for their safety, expressed anxiety over a possible Castro-like government emerging. He cabled President Johnson, urging that troops be landed immediately in order to protect American citizens. On 28 April marines waiting offshore aboard an aircraft carrier were landed and quickly established a cease-fire in Santo Domingo. The following month the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed to station a peacekeeping force in the Dominican Republic to replace the marines.
Johnson had possibly saved American lives and had prevented the rise of a Communist government. He was able, moreover, to withdraw the American forces gracefully when the OAS troops moved in. Still, he had lost some credibility as he sought to justify the steps he had taken. Two days after the dispatch of troops, he explained his actions on the ground that “people trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control.” On 2 May he identified the cause of the trouble as a “band of Communist conspirators.” In private conversation Johnson stated that “we took out 5,641 people from forty-six nations—without even a sprained ankle … If I hadn’t acted, Castro would have had them all.” Some Americans were inclined to agree with Bosch’s assessment: “This was a democratic revolution smashed by the leading democracy of the world.” Johnson had acted on his conviction that “the last thing the American people wanted … was another Cuba on our doorstep.”
Under Johnson, relations with the Soviet Union seemed less menacing than did those with the People’s Republic of China, although Johnson himself was not afraid of China. In 1967 he said: “Why would the Chinese want to take on the United States of America? … It would be like an eleven-year-old colored girl from Tennessee going up against Jack Dempsey.” And he added, “One way to avoid [war with China] is to quit talking about it.” Johnson’s dour view of the Soviets possibly had been modified by the cordial meeting he held at Glassboro, New Jersey, with Premier Aleksey Kosygin in June 1967, which may have accelerated progress in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty the president was seeking.
Vietnam: An Entangling Alliance
Despite a folksy manner and intonation, which some Americans took as proof that he was only a regional man, Johnson knew that there was beyond the Pedernales a vastly different world full of treacherous risks. He sensed, too, that his place in history might ultimately depend on how he managed foreign affairs. He was no reader of history, but he had watched intently the doings of his predecessors and had an elephant’s memory for their mistakes, particularly those that were politically expensive. He had seen how Truman’s experience in “losing” China had hounded the Missourian to the end of his administration. He had pondered the frustration that Castro’s coming to power had caused the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Moreover, Johnson could vividly recall—and the details were constantly at the tip of his tongue—the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt and his people to buck the isolationist tide in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For Johnson that experience was like a remembered time of terror he did not wish to relive. Forthright steps like those he had taken in the Dominican Republic would help prevent it. They became linked with the war in Vietnam when he called upon Congress on 4 May 1965 for the sum of $700 million in additional military appropriations for both undertakings.
The Vietnam situation was a time bomb in the administration. Inherited from Kennedy and Eisenhower, like most of the problems Johnson faced, it gradually became an overwhelming force. During the campaign of 1964, it was beginning to move to the center of public attention. It had been creeping up slowly for years. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination more than sixteen thousand Americans were stationed in Vietnam, and the danger of deeper involvement enlarged as the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem began to cause widespread unrest.
Johnson himself had visited South Vietnam as vice president and had seen at first hand how heavily American prestige was already committed there. Scarcely become president, though, he was privately telling confidants (which we now know from his telephone taping), “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for.” Johnson, nevertheless, was about to become “the Vietnam president,” unable to win the war the way he understood it had to be fought and unable to extricate the United States on terms he believed acceptable. Still, he was determined: “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”
Hardly settled into his own term of office in 1965, Johnson confronted on 6 February a Vietcong attack on the American barracks at Pleiku. Two days before the election a costly attack on the American installation at Bien Hoa had gone unanswered. Now American B-52 bombers assaulted North Vietnam, the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, the program of gradually intensified air attacks. Johnson ordered that American dependents be evacuated from Saigon. At the same time, the American military presence in Vietnam was beefed up.
At a news conference on 27 April, Johnson stated the issue as he saw it. The United States, he declared, is “engaged in a crucial issue in Vietnam … Defeat in South Vietnam would deliver a friendly nation to terror and repression. It would encourage and spur on those who seek to conquer all free nations that are within their reach.” The “domino theory” of the Eisenhower era received new reinforcement. If North Vietnam succeeded in taking over South Vietnam, said the president, “our own welfare, our own freedom would be in danger.” He added: “This is the clearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today we have learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats and brings even more destructive war.” He was certain that “this is the same battle which we [have] fought for a generation.” He stood ready, he declared, to enter into unconditional discussions with the North Vietnamese. Even as he spoke so resolutely, the process was under way that would erode the Johnson administration and gradually turn the nation against him in scenes of fitful violence unprecedented in the history of the presidency. From the beginning of his presidency he was anguished over his plight, musing privately that “when I land troops they call me an interventionist [referring to his move in the Dominican Republic], and if I do nothing I’ll be impeached.” So, the troubling buildup in Vietnam continued. There were 33,500 American soldiers and marines in Vietnam in April 1965; there were 75,000 by the end of June. And the mission of the troops was gradually broadened from static defense to permit patrolling of the countryside.
Even as the American troop commitment was growing, Johnson had grave doubts about the course he had set the country on. Anxiously, he asked former President Eisenhower: “[Do] you think that we can really get beat out there?” And he was saying to Lady Bird Johnson, his most trusted confidante: “Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing with the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.”
In June, American forces took on an active role against the Vietcong in a zone northwest of Saigon. Nevertheless, the troops were instructed not to initiate offensive action. The air strikes, furthermore, were confined to nonindustrial targets some distance removed from Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, and Haiphong, its principal port.
In July the military situation in South Vietnam worsened noticeably. The government was shakier than ever, and the Vietcong were pressing the attack. On 28 July the president announced that 50,000 more Americans would be sent to the war zone immediately. And he was looking further down the road: “Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested.” Johnson talked once again of the stakes: “If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or in American protection.” By the end of 1965, there were almost 185,000 uniformed Americans in Vietnam, and the end was not in sight.
The war, moreover, was spreading beyond Vietnam. The United States felt free to take action in Cambodia if necessary to protect American troops in South Vietnam. The bombing of infiltration routes in Laos was being intensified. And the bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail leading from North Vietnam was raising the specter of possible Chinese intervention in the war. Johnson and his intimates were unable to define what a victory would be, and they were terrified of “another Korea”—a war with an indecisive outcome. Instead of victory, they preferred the phrase favorable settlement—defined by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara as coming about when the North Vietnamese ceased feeding “the fires of subversion and aggression in South Vietnam” so that South Vietnam could gradually “expand its control and shape the outcome.” The president continued to use the words winning and losing. Until early 1968 he believed what he had been saying in mid-1965: “I know the other side is winning; so they do, too. No man wants to trade when he’s winning.” So he concluded that the United States would have to “apply the maximum deterrent until [the enemy] sobers up and unloads his pistol.” Johnson persisted in a mistaken conviction that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, was, like most other politicians, ready sooner or later to make a deal.
At Christmastime 1965 the president conducted a worldwide effort—the “Johnson peace offensive”—aimed at commencing negotiations. Vice President Hubert Humphrey sped off to meet with Soviet Premier Kosygin in New Delhi; Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg visited with Pope Paul VI, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk conferred in Saigon with South Vietnamese officials. The veteran diplomatic troubleshooter Averell Harriman went behind the Iron Curtain to present the position of the administration to ranking officials in Warsaw and Belgrade. The good offices of U Thant, the secretary general of the United Nations, were also earnestly enlisted. The peace offensive, launched with a dramatic and well-publicized halt in the bombing of the North, ended after thirty-seven days on 31 January 1966—an unmitigated failure.
Protest at Home
The war was beginning to threaten Johnson’s prized consensus. The first sign had been the votes of Senators Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But during 1965 other leading senators went into opposition. Two of the best known were William F. Fulbright of Arkansas and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Fulbright, who was opposed to the resumption of bombing after the temporary halt, voiced his fear of an “ever-increasing escalation in the fighting.” Morse, the most caustic of the critics, boldly and angrily predicted that the American people “will repudiate our war in Southeast Asia.”
Johnson’s response was more and more rancorous and hostile. He saw Americans as divided simply “between cut-and-run people and patriotic people.” With deep sarcasm he said of his critics: “They have a real feeling for danger … They see a fire and they turn off the hose because it is essential that we not waste any water.” Mindful of Fulbright’s opposition to the civil rights movement, Johnson pointedly explained the senator’s opposition to the war as racist, asserting that the senator from Arkansas “cannot understand that people with brown skins value freedom too.”
Johnson never accepted the widely held view of the Democratic “doves” (opponents of the war) that the conflict was a civil war and that the Vietcong had won the allegiance of most South Vietnamese even before the North Vietnamese had began their large-scale infiltration. While Johnson and his people insisted that China was the puppeteer manipulating the assault on South Vietnam, the doves scoffed, maintaining that if the United States restrained itself and did not force North Vietnam to seek Chinese assistance, an independent Communist Vietnam might evolve. The doves rejected, too, Johnson’s insistence that the United States had a solemn obligation to act under the provisions of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Johnson was adamant, taking pains to point out that Mike Mansfield of Montana, who had succeeded him as majority leader in the Senate and was increasingly opposed to the war, had been a signatory of the treaty establishing SEATO.
A serious defection from the phalanx of Great Society supporters was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King had concluded that the prosecution of the war was assuming a higher priority than the pledged expansion of civil rights. But Johnson remained adamant, at increasingly heavy cost to the nation’s tranquillity and to the base of power that had carried him to his recent electoral victory.
By the end of 1966, the momentum of Johnson’s Great Society program was slowing. Worse, the tide of domestic troubles—inflation, a price-wage squeeze, and mounting strikes—was rising, mostly because of the war in Vietnam. Yet the problems could not be managed unless the war ended. Besides, Johnson, having widened the war without calling for public sacrifice, continued to act as if the country could have “both guns and butter.” The situation called for a cutback in domestic spending or an increase in taxes, but Johnson was unwilling to break up his immense majority in Congress by asking for either.
The air war in Vietnam had clearly not produced the results sought. Johnson, increasingly testy, even became disenchanted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman, General Earle G. Wheeler, also a victim of heart trouble, he felt kin to. “Bomb, bomb, bomb, that’s all you know,” Johnson several times complained in frustration. The search-and-destroy operations of the troops under General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, did not seem to put a strain on enemy manpower. “Westy” now had almost 500,000 men in Vietnam, more than 3,000 helicopters, 28 tactical fighter-bombers, and large numbers of giant B-52 bombers. The Vietnam landscape was so heavily pockmarked by the aerial assaults that experienced pilots could fly to their targets by following bomb craters whose configuration had become familiar to them.
In early August 1967, Johnson formalized to the generals his response to their latest request for troops—for 100,000 more. He would allow them 45,000 and thus bring to 525,000 the strength of the force in Vietnam by the middle of 1968. But he knew that progress in the war was not taking place. He asked Westmoreland, “When we add divisions, can’t the enemy add divisions? If so where does it all end?” Expanding the war by calling up the reserves seemed out of the question. The American death toll was rising: by the end of 1967 it was approaching 500 a week. The cost of the war in 1967 was $25 billion, fueling what would prove to be a long cycle of inflation. Moreover, television news was for the first time in American history bringing the battlefield into the living room regularly. Millions were appalled at the use of napalm on villagers who seemed innocent victims of forces they could not comprehend. In the eyes of the world, the United States was Goliath mercilessly pummeling David.
The war had significantly changed the public’s judgment of Johnson. Once seen as a political magician with a sure mastery of people and circumstances, he now seemed battered by events out of his control and beyond his ken. His vaunted capacity for wearing out his young aides was being enlarged by a fury regarding any form of dissent within the ranks. And the people saw a president who wearily wrestled with the politics of the nation’s problems rather than with the problems themselves. His ill-temperedness, sometimes combined with disingenuousness, made his public persona unattractive to many Americans. It stood in the way of bringing Johnson the public sympathy a beleaguered president traditionally receives, as Kennedy had received it after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. Not even Lincoln in the darkest days of the Civil War had faced such intense dissent and public doubts about his course of action.
The opposition to the Vietnam War was given its most powerful expression by college students. One of their first responses had been the device of the teach-in—hours-long discussions of the war with many participants—the first of which took place on the campus of the University of Michigan on 24 March 1965—a one-day school moratorium during which professors spoke on the war instead of offering their regular lectures. The teach-in became familiar throughout the country. Moreover, it provided an opportunity for students to vent other grievances: against the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), against academic support of scientific work for defense purposes, against the exclusion of students from college decision making, and against a medley of real and imagined irritations. The public demonstrations, which may have been an important stimulus to draft resistance, seemed to merge with the uprising known as the youth movement. Johnson, who had never given up the fond hope of being remembered as a friend of education, was publicly taunted at student rallies, often with the stinging refrain, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Concurrently Johnson’s relationship with the black community cooled noticeably. Some part of the disaffection was owing to the unpopular war, involving as it did the disruption of a land inhabited by people of color, but it also grew out of the alienation from a generally prosperous society of its black people, who did not share in the bounty, and out of a natural evolution of the civil rights movement from a call for integration to a demand for “black power.” The neighborhoods of tenements and slums occupied by poor blacks in the North, now denominated ghettos, were notably marked by high unemployment and run-down schools. Even as the presidential campaign had gotten under way in 1964, a riot in New York erupted and lasted five days.
In the next few years the nation experienced “long, hot summers”—riots and the threats of riots in major cities. The Watts district of Los Angeles burst into flames in 1965, and black communities exploded in Cleveland in 1966, in Newark and Detroit in 1967, and in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Anxiety over possible race war gripped many cities as the words “Burn, baby, burn” were reported to be the battle cry of the rioters. The nation was reaping a whirlwind resulting from its long neglect and indifference to the needs of the black poor. As the destruction, including looting and attacks on white policemen, firemen, and National Guardsmen, rent the air, it was easy to find a scapegoat: Johnson and his war in Vietnam. Both he and the struggle in Asia became more unpopular than ever.
The president’s response was to appoint the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto D. Kerner of Illinois. The report delivered to the president on 2 March 1968 blamed white racism for the troubles. The country, it declared, was dividing into two societies, one white, one black—”separate and unequal.” Its recommendations included a call for open housing and other “massive” programs. Johnson praised the report, but it distressed him, too, for he said: “They always print that we don’t do enough. They don’t print what we do.” Johnson felt stymied: the War on Poverty he had designed had spent more than $6 billion from 1964 to 1967, and poverty had not disappeared. Indeed, there was extensive proof of widespread malnutrition and even hunger in the country. Fresh evidence came to public attention just as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that he was proposing a new antiballistic missile defense system that would cost $5 billion. Johnson was now the object of the new accusation that he was unable any longer to discern the nation’s true priorities. Many Americans insisted that poverty could be wiped out if the money being spent on the war were diverted to the home front.
In October 1967 a mass protest by a group calling itself the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam descended upon Washington. The administration was torn: Should it call a new bombing halt to satisfy the growing opposition at home, or should it intensify the war in order to satisfy the “hawks,” who were eager to smite North Vietnam decisively? Before the end of November, a public opinion poll showed that confidence in Johnson’s management of the war had dropped to 23 percent—the lowest point yet. Nevertheless, public support of the war effort itself remained at about 45 percent between November and March 1968.
The president and his principal spokesmen were finding it harder each week to avoid the chanting protesters, who seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in history, a president was unwelcome in public in most parts of the country, making him a veritable prisoner in the White House, “hunkered down” there, to use one of his favorite expressions. At the end of 1967 he traveled to Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan in four and a half days, returning to the White House on Christmas Eve after stopping off for a surprise meeting with the pope in the Vatican. Johnson was once again attempting to placate the doves. One means was to state a willingness to accept Vietcong representatives in discussions of the war at the United Nations. The immediate effect was to disrupt relations with South Vietnam, where President Nguyen Van Thieu expressed cold anger at Washington for seeming to have truck with the enemy.
In his State of the Union message of 17 January 1968, Johnson could report that “Americans are as prosperous as men have ever been in recorded history.” Still, he took note of the disarray in the country, as he added, “Yet there is in the land a certain restlessness, a questioning.” Privately the president was gloomy and depressed. By now, even McGeorge Bundy, who as Johnson’s first special assistant for national security affairs had been an architect of the first phase of the war, had come out against its continuation.
The nation’s discontent intruded into the White House itself when, on 18 January 1968, Mrs. Johnson held a luncheon for a group of white and black women who had been invited in order to discuss crime in the streets. One of the guests, Eartha Kitt, a prominent singer, rose shortly after the president had spoken briefly, to assert that young people were rebelling and smoking marijuana because of the war. “Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy. They figure [that] with a [prison] record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam.” Johnson was furious over what he regarded as an affront to the presidency delivered in the White House itself and over the extensive coverage of the incident in the press and on television.
The Final Days
Johnson’s political world was soon a shambles. In November 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy had announced his audacious intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. McCarthy was opposed not only to the war but also to what he saw as the excessive power of the presidency under Johnson. For a brief time Johnson assumed that McCarthy was only a stalking-horse for Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, which incensed him all the more. The Kennedys, he had come to think, regarded themselves as superior people to himself.
In March 1968, Clark Clifford, Johnson’s long-time informal adviser and widely regarded as a hawk, became the secretary of defense. The president did not want another doubting Thomas—as McNamara had become—serving in his cabinet. Nevertheless, events soon overwhelmed traditional categories. On 23 January the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering vessel, was seized by North Korean gunboats while on patrol off the North Korean port of Wonsan, and the crew of eighty men imprisoned. The president, provoked and exasperated, restrained himself despite a public outcry for quick military retaliation. He responded by calling to active duty fifteen thousand air force and navy reservists and ordering the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to assume a station off the coast of South Korea. His desire was to give assurance that despite the war in Vietnam, he continued to exercise freedom of military action. Following frustrating negotiations, the crew was freed eleven months later, after the United States admitted culpability for violating Korean waters and apologized. Apparently by prearrangement, the “confession” was repudiated after the men’s release, for it obviously had been wrenched out of the United States under duress.
A week after the seizure of the Pueblo, critical developments changed the scene in Vietnam. While Saigon was celebrating Tet, the lunar new year, the Vietcong had launched an attack on the city, including the vital Tan Son Nhut Airport. Within two days every significant city or provincial capital in South Vietnam was under assault. General Westmoreland said that the concerted attack had been expected but not its size and destructiveness. The United States and South Vietnamese forces, caught by surprise, recovered quickly. Yet the recapture of the beautiful old capital of Hue, which contained many architectural treasures, took three weeks and some of the costliest fighting of the war. In the end, the city lay in ruins.
The administration insisted that in blunting the Tet offensive it had gained a victory, but the public generally perceived the outcome of the battle as a defeat. In truth, the struggle was a prelude to a decision in Washington to wind down the war. Johnson insisted at a press conference on 2 February that basic United States strategy would remain unchanged. He was relying heavily upon the assessment of the military situation by his generals. He and they, ever mindful of the decisive defeat that the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had inflicted on the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, were determined that a similar disaster would not befall the American forces. When crack North Vietnamese units laid siege to the marine garrison and South Vietnamese regulars at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border in late 1967, fear of such an outcome ran high. Johnson anxiously followed the fierce encounter from the war room in the White House. The beleaguered troops—substantially reinforced in response to Johnson’s order to hold at all cost—lifted the siege in early April. They had been given the heaviest air support ever accorded to ground forces. Johnson, temporarily relieved by the reports of these momentous battles, continued to rally support in the nation. He even personally bid farewell to a contingent of troops being hurried to the war zone.
The war was entering a new phase. General Wheeler, who had rushed to Vietnam after the Tet offensive, returned with a request from General Westmoreland for additional troops—206,000 of them. To raise and support that many men would require calling up reservists and adding $10 billion to the federal budget. Johnson, seemingly aware now that his goal of “carrying forward the Nation’s struggle against aggression in Southeast Asia” was not going to be achieved, instructed Secretary Clifford to undertake a close study of the Westmoreland request. Clifford became the instrument through which the policy of constantly expanding the American presence in Vietnam was eventually reversed.
Johnson, meanwhile, had come to the conclusion that with the military force the United States had in Vietnam the Americans were not going to be able, as he put it, “to nail the coonskin to the wall.” Political developments no doubt were determinative in leading Johnson to reexamine his position on staying the course. On 12 March, McCarthy, whom the president personally scorned, won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Robert Kennedy, no doubt emboldened by McCarthy’s victory, entered the presidential race too.
The next two weeks were decisive for the president. He had reached certain conclusions, which he announced on 31 March in an address to the nation. He was halting the bombing of North Vietnam in the hope that the step would lead to peace, and he was going to give higher priority than ever to expanding the size of the South Vietnamese forces—that is, to “Vietnamizing” the war once again—and he was authorizing a small increase in the American forces in Vietnam.
At the end of his address he dropped a political bombshell: he would not be a candidate for reelection. He declared, “I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.” In his memoirs he later reported that he had decided even as he took the oath in January 1965 that he would never take it again. His health, he had concluded, would not stand the punishment of another term. Johnson did not mention that already the public opinion polls, which he followed intensely on all matters throughout his presidency, showed he would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of McCarthy in the upcoming primary election in Wisconsin. Following the announcement, Johnson’s political fortunes revived briefly as Congress passed his proposals for fair housing (embraced in the Civil Rights Act of 1968) and also a tax increase. But his presidency was soon in the doldrums again as the peace talks seemed to be going nowhere. In October his nominee for chief justice, Associate Justice Abe Fortas, was turned down by the Senate, the first time a president had been thus humiliated since 1795, when Washing-ton’s nomination of John Rutledge as the second chief justice was rejected.
Event had piled upon event. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on 4 April. The riots that ensued added to the dismay of the American people at the low state to which public order and morale had fallen. Two months later Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. When the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in August to choose a presidential candidate amid violence in the streets, as police and antiwar protesters battled each other, the party named Vice President Hubert Humphrey to carry its banner. Johnson’s hold on the party had slipped so badly that he did not even attend the convention.
Humphrey, who felt deeply obligated personally to Johnson, was unable to shake the albatross of Johnson’s dealings with the North Vietnamese, now negotiating in Paris with American negotiators. The Republicans had nominated Richard Nixon, who insisted—without specifying his meaning—that “new leadership can end the war in the Pacific and bring peace.” The crowning disappointment of the summer of 1968 was the need to cancel Johnson’s long-planned trip to Moscow for talks on the limiting of antiballistic missiles. All had been in readiness when, on 20 August, at the height of the tumultuous Democratic convention, 200,000 Russian and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress a movement to liberalize society in that Iron Curtain country. The ratification of a proposed treaty was postponed. The president seemed trapped in a maze without an exit.
In retirement, Johnson worked on plans for his presidential library (dedicated in May 1971) on the campus of the University of Texas, in Austin. He devoted time, too, to the preparation of his memoirs, published under the title The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. Meanwhile, his heart condition worsened, and it was increasingly difficult for him to exert himself. In considerable physical distress, he presided over a memorable symposium on civil rights at his library only a few weeks before he died on 22 January 1973. He was buried on his beloved LBJ Ranch.
The war remains the dark side of Johnson’s moon; domestic legislation is the shining side, particularly the civil rights laws that remain his monument. As his administration drew to a close, Johnson must have felt betrayed by history and by his close associates, whom he had regarded as his choicest inheritance from Kennedy, and by old friends like Senator Fulbright, the carping chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Johnson’s wondrous hopes for America were not going to be realized in his time. The civil rights struggle had not yet completely moved from the streets into the courts, although, despite the burning cities of the late sixties, that process was clearly under way.
Johnson came to recognize that he was at the wrong point in history. Although his dream to re-make life for the deprived and underprivileged and to be recalled forever as their benefactor had been shattered by the awful bloodletting ten thousand miles from home, the ideal of a land without poverty or racial division remains his legacy to America. Possibly he sensed this when, in an unusual move, he delivered a State of the Union message on 14 January 1969, just before leaving office. His words were a last call for the passage of Great Society legislation. He plainly had not run out of problems requiring attention, as he once had feared he would.
Americans will continue to ponder the incomplete triumph at home and the unfinished and losing war abroad of its first cowboy president, who came out of the hill country of Texas, certain of how society’s wrongs could be put right. As he left office to return to his ranch and to the other substantial interests that his political successes had given him the opportunity to acquire, he rested his case with history. And he could hope that one day Americans with a longer perspective on the Vietnam War would judge more favorably than had his contemporaries what he had attempted in Asia and the central role he had played in the tragic epoch that shook the nation to its roots.