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I’d Rather Be Wrong

The Johnson Treatment

by Jack Bell
Harper & Row, 305 pp., $4.95

About this sub-book, an AP reporter’s mix of anecdotes and bilge, there is little worth saying except that it confirms the impression most literate people are likely to have of President Johnson.

Now and again we all succumb to the naive hope that behind a public man’s appearance there must be another, private reality; but anyone involved in politics of whatever kind soon comes to learn that it is a mode of life enforcing a remarkable closeness between public and private styles. What drew intellectuals to Stevenson and Kennedy was, in fact, a sense that they were “different,” that they were political men who maintained some critical perspective upon themselves and therefore experienced a strain between what they were and what they had to do. Stevenson gained sympathy because he seemed to find this burden hard to bear, Kennedy won admiration because he carried the burden with such grace. Now all this may be a mere indulgent fantasy on our part, for Stevenson’s notable sophistication has not kept him from playing a role at the UN often humiliating and sometimes deceitful. Still, for those of us who believe that self-awareness and its inevitable consequence of self-division are the marks of a civilized man, it is hard to become emotionally involved with any public figure who does not at least suggest a trace of these characteristics.

Perhaps that is why the intellectuals, while obliged to vote for Johnson, have felt so little warmth toward him. In Mr. Bell’s portrait he is a totally political man, clever but not thoughtful, calculating more than reflective. He appears at once sentimental and ruthless, thin-skinned and imperious, remarkably attuned to public moods and utterly expert at the “game” of political maneuver. He is all of a piece, seemingly monolithic, not only completely in but totally of politics. Upon the devices and costs of political manipulation he is capable of looking with some irony, but toward the idea of the manipulation itself and the kind of life it entails he shows no irony whatever. For him the system of American politics is an unquestioned “given,” just as the system of Russian politics must be for Brezhnev. The man is the role; the person, the function.

Within very narrow limits, this may explain why he has been so much more effective than was Kennedy in securing passage of such desirable legislation as the Civil Rights and education bills. (I leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Johnson won the Presidency by a far greater margin than did Kennedy.) Johnson felt no awe, no uncertainty, no fastidiousness before the mechanics of Congressional politics. Understanding it completely and accepting it gladly, he worked entirely within its limits. Sometimes he twisted arms, sometimes he waved carrots. Thereby Johnson managed to achieve more on the domestic front than his predecessor, who was neither inclined to go to the people, as in part Franklin Roosevelt had been, nor skillful at working with the politicians. The lesson seems inescapable: either be part of the machine or fight against it, but don’t convey a tone of elitist superiority toward the system in whose survival you acquiesce.

Does Johnson have root convictions? The question may well be unanswerable. When he repeatedly voted in the Senate against Civil Rights legislation, he was no doubt sincere; when he pushed through a Civil Rights bill as President, he was again sincere; and it may be doubted that in the interim he was overcome by a flash of revelation. In the mind of an expert politician, the matter of right and wrong cannot be separated from an estimate of political possibilities and a measure of the conflicting forces that bring their weight to bear upon the government. What changed between Senator Johnson and President Johnson was not, or not primarily, the man Lyndon Johnson; what changed was the temper of American politics, the thrust and power of the aroused Negroes and their allies. Once there was enough pressure to make the Civil Rights bill a political possibility, there would soon be enough pressure to make it a political necessity; and thereby the moral problem would be transformed in nature, since now it could be quantified, it could be measured in units of gain and risk. It had become “real.”

Am I being cynical? I think not. For while we may yearn for a more elevated mode of public discourse, we ought to recognize that as long as we have to function in this kind of world we would profit by thinking not merely, or so much, in the stylistic terms which encourage the Kennedy myth but also in terms of power, pressure, political coalitions. What Johnson will do in extending the welfare state, or what he can be prodded into doing, will depend no more on his personal crudeness than it would have depended, had Kennedy lived, on Kennedy’s personal refinement. It will depend on what happens in the social life of the country, on which groups show strength and a serious disposition to combativeness.

This point seems especially urgent in trying to understand why Johnson has been so much more flexible and liberal in domestic than in foreign policy. I am not, of course, saying that it is all a matter of pressures within the balance of a pluralist society. Personal factors count. Johnson, no doubt, shares the simple emotional responses of the American middle class—and the working class—that the flag must not be trod upon, that Communism must be “stopped” everywhere. There is a tradition in this country of joining populism with chauvinism, and it is from a blend of the two that Johnson has been shaped politically. Probably he has also been guilty of a simple but gross miscalculation: the notion that the kind of stick-and-carrot maneuver that more or less works within a “consensus” society will also work in foreign affairs—a dangerous mistake imposing an overly simplified model of the domestic complexity upon the still more complex international scene.

Yet once allowance is made for the inclination of a man like Johnson to explode into sheer belligerent nationalism and to suppose he can handle the world as if it were Texas multiplied several times over, there is another and perhaps decisive element. The alignment of forces within the U.S. which makes possible a moderate if insufficient progress in domestic affairs simply breaks down when it has to confront foreign policy.

By now, measures to improve or extend welfarism are accepted by a large segment of the country. A good education bill can be passed without upsetting the balance of political or social forces and without having to conduct a struggle for popular support that might be politically damaging in the future. But the same thing is by no means true in regard to foreign policy.

Here the issues are more ambiguous, complex, and charged with emotion; here the psychic smog of the Cold War still hangs across the national consciousness. The loose coalition of labor, liberal, Negro, church, and minority groups which usually supports welfare measures has no consensus within itself regarding foreign policy. Except for a tiny radical fringe, the Negro movement has little to say about Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, and its constituency probably cares even less. The trade unions, as Bayard Rustin remarks, are “despite obvious faults, the largest single organized force in this country pushing for progressive social legislation.” But they are quiescent in regard to foreign policy, in one or two instances ritualistically liberal, or for the most part downright reactionary. There is no reason to suppose the bulk of the union membership does not accept George Meaney’s “get tough with the Communists” line (even if it has never heard of his éminence grise in international affairs, Jay Lovestone).

Sustained dissent on foreign policy comes only from minority segments of the academic world, small groups of pacifists and some liberals. Add these together, multiply a few times out of sheer generosity, and the result is still more impressive for articulateness than power and mass support.

If, then, we recognize that in regard to foreign policy the Johnson administration is under far less popular constraint than in regard to domestic policy, and if we also bear in mind that our constitutional system allows the President very large powers in conducting external affairs, we must conclude somewhat unhappily that on problems like Vietnam and the Dominican Republic Johnson has a relatively free hand. Confronting a Medicare bill he must calculate and measure; considering a proposal to send marines to Latin America he can act upon what he takes to be the national interest, or what may at the moment come to little more than his, or his advisers’, panic and pique. And what is more, he can act with considerable assurance that his views on foreign policy, in their instinctive simplicity, are harmonious with the desires of a majority of the American people.

The result in recent months has been a worsening of a bad policy, which in principle allows the U.S. to cast itself in the role of policeman of the world. And the danger that ensues is not so much that of total war as it is a series of draining and interminable small wars, today in Vietnam, tomorrow in Latin America, the day after in the Near East—though it should be added that if the contingent of “hawks” keeps growing more influential and imposes upon the U.S. its chimerical goal of military “victory” in Vietnam, even a full-scale war with China is a possibility not to be excluded. For the U.S. is trying to do something in South Vietnam which may not be impossible but is certain to exact a very high political and social cost: it is trying to reverse a severe political defeat through a desperate use of military means; it is trying to blur the obvious fact that the Vietcong rests upon very considerable indigenous support, it is trying to evade the consequences of years of reactionary and stupid politics in Vietnam (support of Diem, etc.); it is trying to act in the name of a South Vietnamese nation which has all but crumbled and now consists of little more than a military apparatus; and perhaps worst of all, it is trying to do all this through systematic “management” of news, which in practice comes to little more than distortion and suppression of the dismal facts.

Yet the situation is a good deal more complicated than I have thus far allowed, and consequently a bit more hopeful. Those of us critical of American foreign policy may not have behind us the popular support which can be gained for proposals to extend domestic welfare legislation; but in a society where, alas, there is a great deal of indifference and passivity among the population at large, it becomes possible for articulate minority groups to exert—whether for good or bad—an influence disproportionate to their numerical strength. The Johnson administration, so faithful a replica of American institutional life, is enormously, even morbidly sensitive to public criticism; the President’s mania for admiration and “consensus” seems almost a caricature of national character; and the result offers opportunities—though not only for “us.” More seriously, there are intelligent people in Washington who realize that the continuity and self-assurance of the American political elite is greatly affected by what happens in the universities. Intellectuals, having lost much of their political bite, have gained in political influence; perhaps now, if they bite a little harder, it will be worth having the influence. Protests, teach-ins, counter-proposals do not go unheard.

Consider, as a test case of what I have been saying, the invasion of the Dominican Republic. Here we faced a situation that, roughly speaking, was equivalent to the stage Vietnam was in some ten years ago—that is, a situation not yet politically hopeless. In Vietnam, thanks to French imperialism, geography, and a complex of local factors, the movement of national resistance was from the outset strongly under Communist influence, almost entirely in the North but measurably in the South. The solution that liberals and socialists have been advancing, not very effectively, for underdeveloped countries—a mixture of careful economic aid and political support for an indigenous “democratic left”—was extremely difficult to apply in the Vietnam of the Fifties. For there the “democratic left” had never been strong and what there was of it had been repeatedly smashed by the Japanese, the French, the Communists, and the Diem government.

In the Dominican Republic, however, there was present a viable movement under the leadership of Juan Bosch which did aspire toward a democratic alternative to Communist and reactionary dictatorships. When Bosch, overwhelmingly chosen as President in a free election, was removed by a military junta, the U.S. did not stir into immediate action; that did not strike the State Department as reason for dispatching troops. At least, however, the Kennedy administration had the decency to withhold military aid and formal recognition from the junta. Johnson reversed this policy, as part of a larger shift of emphasis from the social reform promised by the Alliance for Progress to the traditional support of military regimes.

The immediate consequences we all know: the U.S., so frequently declared by Adlai Stevenson an admirer of legal niceties, violated the OAS charter; threw the Dominican democrats into despair; provoked the hostility and contempt of every democratic country in Latin America; and provided the Communists with a political advantage they will be exploiting for a decade.

It was vile, stupid, reactionary. And the effort at justification was insulting to ordinary human intelligence: a list of fifty-eight Communists active in Santo Domingo, without even the pretense of examining the extent of their influence, or the inner relationship of political forces in the country, or the possible consequences of sending troops. One reason the Johnson administration could resort to such shabby devices was that it assumed it would not have to face any mass opposition. Only the intellectuals would protest.

What began as intervention on the side of the generals, most of whom are carry-overs from the Trujillo dictatorship, seems now to have settled into a policy of massive incoherence. One day the U.S. is supposed to be supporting the “rebels” who but a short while earlier were said to be helplessly contaminated by Communist infiltration; the next day the U.S. is trying to impose a “coalition” government (between those who wish a return to the elected constitutional regime and those who overthrew it!). Meanwhile, there has appeared a superb and very detailed report by Theodore Draper in the May 24 New Leader which tears to pieces every defense of U.S. policy and shows Juan Bosch to be a principled democrat squeezed between reactionary generals and incipient Castroists. Draper claims, and offers a strong argument to demonstrate, that American intervention in the Dominican Republic saved the generals from defeat: another twenty-four hours and the pro-Bosch forces would have won.

Whatever the outcome of this disaster, it is important right now to keep asking some hard questions. On what kind of information was the decision made to send troops? Did it really seem so urgent that even a day or two delay to consult the OAS countries could not have been accepted? And by what moral right does the U.S. government presume to choose which faction shall constitute the Dominican government? Does the “Johnson doctrine” signify that the U.S. is to become the policeman of the world? Will troops be dispatched to any country in which a revolution breaks out and extends beyond the limits permitted by Mr. Tom Mann?

For by their very nature, revolutions are ambiguous; conflicting political tendencies may join together momentarily in behalf of common ends, such as the removal of a dictator; those ends achieved, the tendencies within the revolution then come into conflict with one another. If the possibility or threat that the Communists will take over democratic revolutions—a possibility or threat that is, of course, quite real—becomes the justification for military intervention, then the U.S. may gain some temporary victories but in the long run will be enabling the very forces it claims to be halting.

Meanwhile, one thing is clear; the protests of intellectuals and academics seem now to matter. This should give us a modest confidence but should also serve as a warning not to exhaust whatever political credit we have. There is a destructive and at times nihilistic fringe in the essentially healthy campus protests; it takes the form, at times, of a vulgarized sort of Marxism which asserts the evils and failures of American foreign policy to be inevitable. (But if you believe that, then what is the point of demanding that the U.S. withdraw from Vietnam? And if you believe that, how do you explain the presence not only of hawks but of doves, and how do you motivate your support of the doves? Unless of course you mean your protest simply as a maneuver to “expose,” etc., etc….) And disturbingly the campus protests have sometimes spilled over from entirely legitimate attacks upon U.S. policy in Vietnam to either an ingenuous or disingenuous support of the Vietcong.

It is a difficult position: to fight against the moral and political insanity of the hawks while dissociating ourselves unambiguously from the authoritarian “left.” If ever there was a need in this country for a strong articulation of a true liberalism, a clear democratic radicalism, it is now. I propose that we try.

Letters

Out in Left Field August 5, 1965

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