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Ol’ Lyndon

The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969

by Lyndon Baines Johnson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 636 pp., $15.00

The issue here is how we read a document. For how we read determines what we learn.

So far, at any rate, we have not been learning much from this slyly honest witness. Mostly we have heard a frustrated (and therefore angry) complaint that Ol’ Lyndon did not go naked down to the river and confess his sins in chants of unconditional surrender. But then I remembered Abbie Hoffman’s belated admission that Revolution for the Hell of It is a contradiction in terms, and it struck me that Lyndon went to the river before Abbie. I have a feeling that the comparison may tell us as much about the weakness of the left during its most striking opportunity since it blew the Great Depression as all the books that will ever be written on the subject.

We face, on another front, the precious vanguard of sophisticated nags who fill the page with put-downs of the man. They scan the document to cull footnotes for a priori conclusions of such profundity as that LBJ was not JFK. My, how the computers must be overheating under the load of all those Brownie Points coming in from the Ivy League. The one relevant aspect of John Kenneth Galbraith’s egoistic digression is his honesty about the supercilious arrogance of such elitist evasions.1 If the Liberal Establishment were prepared to lead us plebs into the Golden Age, it would have neither the time nor the need to belabor Lyndon and his merely human torments. Having won the battle at the crossroads with their shiny new crossbows, the prodigies would be fingering the Grail.

Alas.

Rather, thank God. (Remember the Bay of Pigs, the Green Berets, the Missile Madness, and the noble call to Define Ourselves in Terms of the State?)

Next there will be many readers of the witness who will try to use it as the cornerstone for their own ambitious architecture. You know: the dreary academic-bureaucratic strategy of constructing one’s own career upon a critique of another’s labor. If you have that much leisure, and are hung up on reading, you can relax about what to do for the next decade.

So we are left with the most difficult alternative (there is a double meaning there, but it will have to wait for another essay). The only way forward is to make the effort to read with skepticism, compassion, and a readiness to recognize a truth we did not expect to find. That is, try to be a historian. Or, if you (like me) prefer the idiom of Thucydides, try to be a citizen. Meaning read Lyndon to understand better what we have wrought, and how we misbent the iron, in order to undo what we came to feel (when manipulated through appeals to our good intentions and our egos) was our finest hour.

Extremely difficult and terribly painful.

But Lyndon has given us some leverage, and it is crucial to use it carefully: “I make no pretense of having written a complete and definitive history of my Presidency. I have tried, rather, to review that period from a President’s point of view—reflecting a President’s personal and political philosophy…. I have not written these chapters to say, ‘This is how it was,’ but to say, ‘This is how I saw it from my vantage point.”’2

He saw first and always as a southern white who grew up wandering hither and yon across that no-man’s land that divides the lowers from the maybe middles. He knew want and work, and learned what the constancy of both did to his parents and his neighbors. That prism-prison distorts some truths, but it clarifies others that the rest of us seldom glimpse—let alone see and feel and therefore know.

One of those is an excruciating awareness of the rest of the country’s pervasive anger and contempt toward the South (that backward slough). Acknowledge and live with that truth as a northern white and you begin to understand Johnson.3 The visceral essay on the white southerner as a second-class citizen has yet to be written. C. Vann Woodward is just too damn polite. And Norman Mailer has not considered it important enough. But if you wonder about their hawkish bellicosity, for example, remember that they alone among us have been defeated and occupied, and then kept down economically, politically, and emotionally for yet another century.

Then put that southern consciousness of being first among the damned into a male with a great and earthy zest for life who has suffered a heart attack; and then make that man President because the young and handsome symbol of northern power and smug self-satisfaction has been murdered while visiting a backward and unruly southern fief. I think you have to take that man seriously when he says he was of a mind not to tempt the gods in 1964. Of course he was torn. Hell, yes, he wanted victory in his—and his beloved South’s—own right, but I have a strong sense that he would have gone home if Lady Bird had said the bags were packed. Her lines about becoming the handy dart board for all the tension and anger, and about the drinking, are masterpieces: the South is finally here and the sex is going, Love; so if you do not challenge Fate, the booze will get you. In that league, Ms. Camelot is a spectator who does not even know the name of the game. It sure as hell is not touch football.

I am glad he stayed. That does not mean I like what happened. I am glad he stayed because what he did at home (especially in trying openly to help the blacks and the poor), and what he did in Vietnam after the attack on the Marines at Danang, finally brought us to the visceral confrontation with ourselves that offers us a chance to break out of our traditional outlook. Given all that has gone before, I do not think that option could open up in any other way. And the Kennedys (and maybe even another white northern Establishment man) might well have finessed the mess into another classic American victory.

Dear God.

It is easy to discount Johnson’s concern and determination to help the poor and the old and the other put-downs. You have heard it many times: “Oh, that just comes naturally to a populist.” But many poor boys—probably most—forget those other people once they scratch and claw their way into the front row at the feed trough. The primary issue here, though it takes a bit of care to confront it directly, is how the programs reveal the limits of white northern liberalism. We must begin, though, with Johnson’s knowledge of how to move the system. That was the product of his white southern experience: if they will not let you run it from the top, then learn how to control it from the side. Others from the South could have maneuvered the legislative victories just about as effectively if they had cared. And, so far as whites are concerned, some of them do care.

So the populist answer is not enough. For Johnson included the blacks and other nobodies. Not just up to the crunch, but through the crunch. The way he tells us how he began to transcend the color line is beautiful. His black driver asked him (in the 1930s) to stop taking the dog along on the numerous trips to Texas. It was hard enough, he explained, just barrelin’ through in three days. But a black man was utterly beaten down because of all those extra hours spent looking for a place to piss—let alone to eat and sleep—and it was just too damn much, even if you are a good man, Mr. Lyndon, for a black man with a dog. And his soul confrontation with his fellow white southerners during an address to the Congress remains a great moment.4

What happened in Selma is part of a far greater movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”

I paused for breath. In that fleeting moment my thoughts turned to the picked line in Birmingham, the sit-ins in North Carolina, the marches in Selma….

I raised my arms.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And…we…shall…overcome.”

And here, in this memoir, he does what few other whites of any section have done. He admits publicly that he was wrong about black power. No radical chic here: just poor white southerner getting on down the line.5

When asked about black power in 1966, I responded: “I am not interested in black power or white power. What I am concerned with is democratic power, with a small d.” As I look back now, that answer seems totally insufficient. It is easy for a white man to say he is “not interested in black power or white power.” Black power had a different meaning to the black man, who recently had had to seek the white world’s approval and for whom success had come largely on white people’s terms. To such a man, black power meant a great deal—in areas that mattered the most—dignity, pride, and self-awareness.

What we come down to, then, are the concepts that guided Ol’ Lyndon. And those were the product of orthodox northern white liberalism. The program was simply the ideas of the New and Fair Deals pushed to their limits. And, underlying all, the American Zen Buddhism of growth. The nonviolent, nondisruptive way to solve all problems. “The economic pie was big enough for everyone—and growing much faster than our population.”6 But it did not work for Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman, and it did not work for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

This fallacy is tucked away in the classical capitalist assumption (and prayer) that growth will mask the inequitable and irrational use and distribution of resources, as well as meet the demands of increasing population and the cry from everyone for more goodies. Another difficulty was that not even Ol’ Lyndon could forever override the southerners and northerners who demanded duly sanitized and processed representatives when the past seemed about to push us into the present in such matters as community initiative and control of community affairs.7 But the gut truth of it is that the Great Society was what Franklin Roosevelt should have proposed in 1936. It was too little and too late in 1963.

None of that can be dumped on Lyndon. Unless, of course, you simply prefer your benevolent elite to spend its childhood in upstate New York or Cape Cod rather than in Texas. Only a thimbleful of radicals and utopians were offering anything significantly more imaginative and fundamental. If the Great Society was Camelot’s program, then the New Frontier was nothing more than the liberal intellectuals whoopin’ it up back at The Old Stamping Ground.8 If it was mostly Johnson, as I think it was, then he deserves credit for striving to do all that was possible within the orthodoxy he had been taught.

In any event, it was Johnson rather than Kennedy who moved the system. The Kennedy machine was like a freeway cruiser: beautiful on the way to the White House or the moon, but of little help in getting coal to Grandma in the snow. A full appreciation of Lyndon’s contraption, which would make either kind of trip, depends upon an understanding of two of the assumptions behind the Constitution.

One holds that the Constitution enables a majority (even a strong plurality) of the people to do almost anything they want to do if and when they function as citizens. The other promises that when the people do not act as citizens nothing terribly bad can happen because of the carefully designed structural baffles (and the size of the empire) that prevent any man or group from appropriating total power, and because the government will in any event be managed in trust by the best available men who sit in the Senate and the White House. The first proposition is largely true. The second is demonstrably false. And therein lies the trouble.

Johnson does not discuss the problem in those formal terms in The Vantage Point (though I have little doubt that he could). But he does let us see what happens when the people stay home glued to the tube. It is very simple. The men charged with the responsibilities in the Senate and the White House have to distort and manipulate (and thereby weaken) the basically representative system to cope with immediate needs, and to try to fulfill the public’s expression of its wishes when it last performed as an assembly of citizens.

All very understandable. And all very dangerous. First, it means that the honest custodians have to bargain in a closed environment (the Congress) with other minds closed to almost everything except the bullheaded self-interest of those who define citizenship as die-hard protection of their self-defined welfare. Second, the powers of the Presidency are fudged and fudged again in order to do what the sometime citizenry said it wanted during its last venture into self-government. It all comes down to creeping benevolent despotism—with serious limits on the opportunity to be benevolent.

Very bad news. Even if (as with Johnson) your hero is Franklin Roosevelt.9 Perhaps particularly if Roosevelt is your patron saint. For that means you as acolyte have to develop on your own the inner strength to engage the people in serious dialogue when they finally arouse themselves as citizens. Franklin is a poor guide for that trip. A dialogue is not a Fireside Chat. He never said anything as gutsy about the blacks as Lyndon did—or did anything as meaningful to help them. And Roosevelt set the pattern for easing the nation into war through disingenuous maneuvers.

So we come to Vietnam (and the Dominican Republic).

Remember whom we have at the bar. A southern poor white who molded himself in the image of an upstate New York aristocrat and that kind of noblesse oblige, and then came to power because a Massachusetts nouveau riche (and that kind of pseudo noblesse oblige) had been killed in the heart of his own Texas. Foreign policy offers such a man the one and only basis for taking the oath with any confidence that he is truly an American in his own right. Foreign policy is the magic key. For there he is in tune. He is a child of his age.

Lyndon’s critics are wrong. He was not unprepared for foreign policy, he was instead miseducated with masterful efficiency by the white northern elite that had dominated the conduct of foreign affairs since 1865.

Like most men and women of my generation, I felt strongly that World War II might have been avoided if the United States in the 1930s had not given such an uncertain signal of its likely response to aggression in Europe and Asia.

Then consider the projection of that outlook in his May 23, 1961, report to Kennedy on his mission to Asia.

  1. The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination to achieve success there—or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses on our own shores…. 3. There is no alternative to United States leadership in Southeast Asia…. 8…. The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a “Fortress America” concept. 10

Along the way, the teaching continued. After Roosevelt, the instructor was Truman. The haberdasher as town tutor: bringing the insights of Wilson and the two Roosevelts to Main Street.

It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure:… We must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way…. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world.11

Our foreign relations, political and economic, are indivisible…. We are the giant of the economic world…. The choice is ours…. So our devotion to freedom of enterprise, in the United States, has deeper roots than a desire to protect the profits of ownership. It is part and parcel of what we call American.12

The various elements in that outlook, first brought together by Wilson, were tightly integrated by the white northern elite in National Security Council Document 68 (prepared during the winter of 1949-1950). The gospel as amended and interpreted by Dean G. Acheson, associated bishops, and consulting Protestant Jesuits. If the true American faith is to be maintained and advanced, “the nation must be determined, at whatever cost or sacrifice, to preserve at home and abroad those conditions of life in which those objectives can survive and prosper.” The United States will be the sun, “with other free nations in variable orbits around it.” This “means the virtual abandonment by the United States of trying to distinguish between national and global security…. Security must henceforth become the dominant element in the national budget, and other elements must be accommodated to it.”13 Underlying it all, of course, were the assumptions that Washington was the Holy See of the new empire, and that America possessed the necessary power.

Here again, as with the explanation of Johnson as populist, we need to move carefully to undo the facile, unfair, and misleading charges that Vietnam was Johnson’s war. First, it is impossible to separate domestic from foreign affairs. Second, NSC-68 is the classic expression of the American projection of that truth into absurdity: for America to be well, the entire world must take the patented American remedy and then follow the American diet. Third, the absurdity cannot be laid in the lap of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Even Townsend Hoopes acknowledges that Johnson was educated in that idiom, and that Kennedy bequeathed him advisers who thought “about the external world in the simplistic terms of appeasement versus military resolve.”14 Hoopes is so excited, relieved, and impressed by his own awakening from the nightmare that he not only blames Johnson for the wrong things, but totally ignores those brave souls who had been warning about the impending disaster through the long and lonely night. Finally, the major point is to learn from Johnson’s sad experience in carrying the absurdity to its insane conclusion.

Truman took us a good way down that path by going to war in Korea without so much as a courtesy call on the Congress. The Congress seemed to have forgotten that he was supposed to come by, but that does not absolve HST. For a time, nothing happened. Then, slowly and cautiously, almost as though they were learning to walk after a year in traction, some Americans began to act as citizens. The ensuing protest against the war was not dramatic, but it was significant and ultimately influential. The crucial weakness of that opposition was that it focused narrowly on the war rather than on the war as the expression of an underlying outlook.

Thus Truman met no resistance as he simultaneously implemented the Weltanschauung in Indochina, even though the antiwar sentiment clearly affected the election of 1952.15 Thus the possibility of a serious reconsideration of the traditional approach that would lead on to different action depended wholly upon the wild chance that the President, or a significant number of other established leaders, would be jarred enough by the war, or by the antiwar feeling, to question orthodox assumptions and policies.

And, wonder of wonders, a boy from Kansas who stayed human through West Point did gingerly approach that heresy. Dwight David Eisenhower occasionally talked bluntly in private about the possibility of direct intervention in Indochina (and allowed John Foster Dulles to preach about it far too much), but the key fact is that he acted very cautiously.16 He made no irreversible commitment, and did not trap himself by exposing advisers to enemy fire. And there is something more: for, in spite of his failure to confront Joseph McCarthy, he did not appease the wild man from Wisconsin by embarking on overseas adventures.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was of a different breed. He charged on to honor orthodoxy and to revive the activism of Truman. In foreign affairs, at any rate, he displayed little understanding of either the virtue or the sanity of going slow. Even of doing nothing. He agreed (in 1956) with Dulles that it would be wrong to hold elections throughout Vietnam. He described the make-believe government below the seventeenth parallel as the

…cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the Keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike…. Moreover, the independence of Free Vietnam is crucial to the free world in fields other than the military. Her economy is essential to the economy of all of Southeast Asia; and her political liberty is an inspiration to those seeking to obtain or maintain their liberty in all parts of Asia—and indeed the world. The fundamental tenets of this nation’s foreign policy, in short, depend in considerable measure upon a strong and free Vietnamese nation.17

Four years later, campaigning against Richard Milhous Nixon, he attacked the Eisenhower failure to oust Fidel Castro as symptomatic of the Republican inability to deal toughly with Russia. And then, upon winning, he surrounded himself with zealous “watchmen on the walls of freedom” and launched a major effort to strengthen and refine the orthodox counterrevolutionary policy by applying the relevant manipulatory insights and techniques of the social sciences, and by adopting centralized and computerized management.18 It may help in understanding Robert S. McNamara to approach him as the white northern equivalent of Lyndon B. Johnson. That is, the white northern middle-class boy who became corporation manager and then took on the challenge of controlling the military by asserting American control of the world without relying on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Jackie had hardly ordered her wardrobe before JFK was striding down the road to war in Vietnam. First stop was the Bay of Pigs. The attack on Castro came a cropper, however, and Kennedy lacked the imagination and the courage to re-examine the white northern liberal catechism and go to the people with a confession that would revive them as citizens. Instead, he took the bypass. No More Cubas. That made him a hostage of the right. Cut off at the pass. One stays in power to do good for the people by drastically narrowing one’s definition of the good.

So “we are not going to withdraw” from Vietnam: “for us to withdraw…would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia.” Dominoes with a shot of Irish whisky. That crusading zeal manifested itself, sooner than later, in a steady expansion of American troops who were exposed to combat, and who had been imbued with the true faith “to revolutionize the economy and political structure of the provinces…during their one-year tour of duty.”19 Read revolutionize to mean Americanize, and read advisers-in-the-field-exposed-to-enemy-fire to mean votes in the pocket of Barry M. Goldwater and Associates.20 Kennedy had defined himself into the trap of having to win abroad to win at home.

That put Johnson in the position of a man wandering down an arroyo with a cloudburst moving in behind the hills. Given all the elements that had been unleashed, the wonder is that he went so slow.21 It says a good bit about the man. True, I would not have gone at all, and of course neither would you, but that is not the issue. To stop at that point is to engage in the worst kind of self-indulgence.

So we are not yet done.

At a crucial juncture, Johnson did do less than was in him. That is the only solid ground for criticism. But to get to that we have to think some more about the situation. Meaning all those “advisers,” and ever more of them being killed. Johnson had not sent a one. Despite the orthodoxy and the clamor from the right, that problem might have been fuzzed enough to fold the tent.

That became extremely difficult after the assassination and the nomination of Goldwater. Still, Johnson gave it a try. I do not think that the Tonkin Gulf Boo-Boo was the point of no return. Being an Academy man, I say simply that the Navy looks bad. We did fire first, and there is no such thing as a warning shot between two men of war. 22

But Johnson was not a Truman. Not even a Roosevelt. And certainly not a Kennedy saying yes to the Bay of Pigs in the secrecy of his clique. He did go to the Congress. And nobody has yet told us why the North Vietnamese or the VC (or both) decided to push the issue. In their place, I might have done the same (though I do think they could have won the quiet way). Nevertheless, the persistent attacks on American units in February, 1965, made it extremely difficult for Johnson to step back and reconsider.

I will get to Johnson, but first a point about revolutionaries. The will to win is crucial, but it should not be allowed to cloud the mind. There are many ways to win, and the key to choosing among them is a knowledge of one’s opponent. I have a strong sense that the North Vietnamese and the VC misjudged the situation.

Push Ol’ Lyndon and you are in trouble with an aroused poor southern white.

And it blinded him, fogged his mind, and the only message he got was the one already inside: we have the power to finish the job.

So at that juncture he was neither candid nor shrewd. He did not go back to the Congress, and he did not withdraw the American combat units.

He had blanked out what he had written to Kennedy in May, 1961. “At some point we may be faced with the further decision of whether we commit major United States forces to the area or cut our losses and withdraw…. We must remain master in this decision.”23

Only much later, after the orthodoxy had run its course into horror, did Johnson’s mind begin to clear. The public, first aroused by the students, began slowly to come awake and act as citizens with a will to “remain master in this decision.” Then Têt. Lyndon goes on for pages about how the situation was stabilized, but most of it should be read as an unconscious record of the way he came to terms with the truth that it was all over.

So he went to the river.

He argues cogently that his push for the blacks and the poor had more than a bit to do with that last trip to Texas. Forcing the nation to confront the truth that the nobodies were somebodies did strengthen the right. It is a paradox appropriate to our ongoing moment of truth. The left got us out of the war but the right retained the initiative at home.

To Robert Kennedy Johnson was brave and honest.24

I’m not that pure, but I am scared.”

I see no point in belaboring Ol’ Lyndon anymore.

The responsibility and the opportunities are now ours.

  1. 1

    J.K. Galbraith, “Seeing Things Through for JFK,” Saturday Review (November 6, 1971).

  2. 2

    Johnson, Vantage Point, p. ix.

  3. 3

    Ibid., pp. 18, 89, 95, 155.

  4. 4

    Ibid., pp. 154-155; then see pp. 29, 39, 73, 157.

  5. 5

    Ibid., first see pp. 155-162 and 164-165; then p. 167.

  6. 6

    Ibid., p. 30.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 83.

  8. 8

    Here the mind-bending essay is W.I. Susman, “The Persistence of American Reform,” in American Reform: The Ambiguous Legacy, ed. by D. Walden (Yellow Springs, Ohio: The Ampersand Press, 1967), pp. 94-108.

  9. 9

    Vantage Point, pp. 70, 81, 104, 324, 327, 345.

  10. 10

    Ibid., pp. 46, 147-148; The Pentagon Papers (Bantam, 1971), pp. 128-129.

  11. 11

    Truman, March 12, 1947 (The Truman Doctrine).

  12. 12

    Truman, March 6, 1947 (address at Baylor University).

  13. 13

    C. Phillips, The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession (Macmillan, 1966), pp. 306-308.

  14. 14

    T. Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (McKay, 1969), pp. 6-7, 15-16. But also see C.L. Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (Dodd, Mead, 1970), p. 13.

  15. 15

    Lost Crusade, p. 63.

  16. 16

    Ibid., pp. 134-137.

  17. 17

    Ibid., pp. 150, 168.

  18. 18

    Ibid., p. 207; A. Austin, The President’s War (Lippincott, 1971), pp. 30-31.

  19. 19

    Lost Crusade, pp. 211, 207.

  20. 20

    President’s War, pp. 30, 43, 104. On the same trap in the Dominican Revolution, consult J. Slater, Intervention and Negotiation (Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 16-17, 32, 199. Then see Vantage Point, pp. 19, 42, 197-198, 201-202, 280.

  21. 21

    Here read Lost Crusade.

  22. 22

    President’s War: it has to be read through.

  23. 23

    Pentagon Papers, p. 130.

  24. 24

    Vantage Point, p. 541.

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