He misled me.
—Walter Lippmann on LBJ, May 21, 1967
The affair of Lyndon Johnson and Walter Lippmann began, as most affairs do, with invitations and flattery, and it ended in recriminations and a feeling of betrayal.
Lippmann knew that Johnson wanted to go down in history as the true descendant of Franklin Roosevelt, as the man who actually achieved the great reforms that John F. Kennedy had only promised. He encouraged Johnson in that ambition, and hailed the president as “a bold innovator.” He admired the civil rights legislation Johnson pushed through Congress before he stood for election in 1964. Rarely, he rejoiced a few weeks after the inauguration, had a new administration shown “such a coherent program, such insight and resourcefulness.” *
LBJ soaked up the compliments, but he had something on his mind besides the Great Society: Vietnam. Even while he had been assuring the American people, during the election campaign, that their “boys” should not be sent to do the job of South Vietnamese “boys,” he was secretly making plans to expand the war by bombing North Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, casually approved by Congress in August 1964, provided the legal authorization in the form of a blank check. All the president needed was a pretext. It came soon enough, early in February 1965, when Vietnamese communist forces attacked the base at Pleiku, killing seven Americans. Within hours the United States retaliated by bombing military sites in North Vietnam.
Another barrier had been breached, although few realized its full meaning at the time. Lippmann was among those who misread it, defending the bombing as a “test of American will.” Had the administration not retaliated, he explained, the Chinese would have labeled the United States a “paper tiger,” thus backing up their view that Moscow’s policy of peaceful coexistence with the capitalists was absurd. “President Johnson profoundly desires to avoid war, but his power to do that is not unlimited nor can he be counted on not to be provoked if the provocation is continual and cumulative,” Lippmann warned.
He supported the air strike on the grounds that LBJ, having now proved his toughness, could negotiate a settlement. He was sure that the Russians were pushing Hanoi toward a compromise—“The Russians have every interest in keeping the war from spreading,” he told his research assistant Elizabeth Farmer, “even though they will probably do things to reassure the North Vietnamese, like putting in missiles and the like, that simple-minded people here will find disturbing”—and was trying to nudge Johnson in the same direction. The retaliatory air strikes would put the United States in “a better bargaining position for a negotiation,” he wrote a few days after Pleiku, adding that LBJ’s “great predecessors, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, never thought they could have a military solution without at the same time a diplomatic offensive.”
Six days later, on February 17, 1965, Lippmann went to the White House to talk with McGeorge Bundy. That very morning he had written, in the column to appear the following day, that it was time for the administration to announce that it sought a cease-fire and an international conference to end the war. It would be a “supreme folly” for the United States to become involved in an Asian land war, he wrote. “While the warhawks would rejoice when it began, the people would weep before it ended.” Unknown to him, Pleiku was just the opening salvo of the administration’s long-planned and carefully concealed “Rolling Thunder” offensive against the North. That afternoon at the White House, Bundy, giving no hint of the plan to expand the war, told Lippmann what he wanted to hear: that the president truly sought a negotiated settlement.
Lippmann had every reason to believe him. He and Bundy had long been on close terms. And Bundy was certainly in a position to know the administration’s intentions, for he had been at Pleiku during the attack and had personally ordered the retaliation. On the day after his talk with Bundy, Lippmann taped his seventh—and, as it turned out, his final—TV interview in a series he recorded for CBS. Although the war hawks were powerful, he told Eric Severeid, “they’re not found in the interior and at the top of the White House—that I feel sure of…. The president is not a war hawk,” he insisted. Johnson’s bombing policy was “strictly controlled and regulated,” and was confined to the “rather empty country” just above the borderland of the seventeenth parallel. They were really “public relations jobs” more than military attacks, Lippmann explained, echoing what Bundy had told him. “I don’t think they kill anybody…because what we bomb is wooden sheds.”
Even though he trusted Bundy’s version of the bombing campaign, Lippmann began to suspect that his plea for negotiations was not making much of an impact. On March 1 a story appeared in the papers that Frank Church—one of the first senators to come out openly against the war—had cited Lippmann as an authority in urging a negotiated settlement. At a White House meeting for a key group of senators Johnson had, according to newspaper reports, glowered at the Idaho Democrat in his most intimidating manner and said, “Frank, the next time you want a dam in Idaho, you just go to Walter Lippmann for it.”
The story hit the papers while Lippmann was in New York, where he had gone to deliver an address to the United Nations. His research assistant Elizabeth Farmer phoned to tell him about the story, which she found amusing. But he took it with deadly earnestness. “I’m afraid they don’t like me very much at the White House,” he responded glumly. “I’m not angry about it—just sorry, sorry for the president. It shows how wrong his estimate of a man like Church is, that he thinks you can trade dams against questions of war or peace.” As it turned out, LBJ had never made the remark about the dam; the journalist had heard the story second-hand and then garbled it. Johnson’s only comment about Lippmann, Church told him when they met a few days later, had been respectful. Lippmann’s reaction to the original story was more interesting than the story itself, for it showed, as his columns confirmed, that he was not a cynical man. Despite half a century of writing about politics, he was still shocked at the notion of trading off dams for war credits.
The dam story was apocryphal, but it gave a true picture of the president’s increasing impatience with the critics of his Vietnam policy. Early in March he complained publicly about the “folks who don’t understand,” a remark that led Lippmann to write a sorrowful column about the “self-delusion” of assuming a foreign policy was right if nobody dissented. “At the bottom of this self-delusion, if we search deeply enough, we shall find a visceral feeling that, as compared with foreigners, we are always right and never wrong,” he wrote. “If therefore we are agreed among ourselves, none can withstand us because none should withstand us, and we shall and must prevail.” By expecting conformity, Johnson was evoking “visceral feelings” that would make the whole business unmanageable, Lippmann warned.
Among those provoking Johnson were journalists like Joseph Alsop, who questioned in his columns whether LBJ was man enough to stand up to the communists, and many of the president’s advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Saigon Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, counselor Walt Rostow, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. “I watched Rusk on television last night,” Lippmann told Elizabeth Farmer. “He’s a very intelligent stupid man. He doesn’t examine his premises. His reasoning is based on misplaced historical analogies, like what happened in the 1930s or in World War II. He’s like Joe Alsop in that respect. The trouble with Rusk is that he’s been promoted one level too high. He would have made a good undersecretary.”
Johnson, disturbed by Lippmann’s growing estrangement, invited him back to the White House on March 15 for lunch. The president showed him a great batch of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports, and read to Lippmann glowing accounts of American success against the Vietcong. “I don’t understand why those people in Hanoi won’t negotiate with me,” he complained. Lippmann suggested that maybe the reason was that he had never indicated what kind of settlement he was willing to accept. “Your policy is all stick and no carrot, Mr. President,” Lippmann explained. “You’re bombing them without offering any incentive for them to stop fighting; in effect you’re giving them a choice between destruction and withdrawal.” A dark cloud crossed Johnson’s face. He waved his hand impatiently and changed the subject, reading Lippmann the draft of a speech he was planning to give to Congress on Negro voting rights.
Johnson, who prided himself on his ability to manipulate people, realized he wasn’t getting through. Once, in a state of exasperation, he had said of Lippmann: “Every time I pull my chair nearer that guy, he pulls his chair further away.” He meant it as a reproach. His long years in politics had told him that every man had his vulnerable point. With Lippmann he had tried flattery, but had not had much effect. Now, at lunch, he would take a different tack: he would be the puzzled executive humbly seeking advice from the wise elder. As the servants were bringing in dessert LBJ turned from a frenetic monologue that had wandered from Texas county politics to the state of his digestive system, and returned to the subject of Vietnam. “Now about that peace offensive you mentioned, Walter. Tell me just what it is you have in mind.”
Seizing the opportunity, Lippmann explained why he believed the Pentagon’s bombing campaign would never bring Hanoi to the conference table. The North Vietnamese would suffer, but they would take whatever punishment the Americans could inflict. The only way to get them to negotiate was to outline what kind of compromise settlement the United States had in mind. A bombing campaign without a sketch for a political settlement was simply a demand for unconditional surrender. The war could go on forever. Johnson thought a moment and then got Bundy on the phone. “Mac, I’ve got Walter Lippmann over here and he says we’re not doing the right thing. Maybe he’s right.” Lippmann stayed on at the White House until 4:30 and returned home to Woodley Road in an elated mood. “I made quite an impression on the president with the peace offensive idea,” he told Farmer. “He asked me to think it over some more and said he’d come over and have a drink next week.”
Two days later, at LBJ’s request, Lippmann met Bundy for lunch at the Metropolitan Club. Lippmann elaboorated his suggestion for a “peace offensive”—one that he had laid out for the public in the column he had written that morning—and urged that the president make a declaration, something along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Lippmann left, guardedly optimistic that the president could yet be turned around, if he could be lured away from the hawkish advisers who were pressing for a military victory.
Copyright © 1980 by Ronald Steel.
Lippmann wrote this in his syndicated column, "Today and Tomorrow," for February 2, 1965. In this account I have drawn on, among other sources, Lippmann's columns, his correspondence, the notes of conversations he had with his assistant Elizabeth Farmer and with myself, and on McGeorge Bundy's memorandum to Lyndon Johnson of April 6, 1965 in the Johnson papers in the Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Full citations are given in my book, Walter Lippmann and the American Century.↩
Lippmann wrote this in his syndicated column, “Today and Tomorrow,” for February 2, 1965. In this account I have drawn on, among other sources, Lippmann’s columns, his correspondence, the notes of conversations he had with his assistant Elizabeth Farmer and with myself, and on McGeorge Bundy’s memorandum to Lyndon Johnson of April 6, 1965 in the Johnson papers in the Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Full citations are given in my book, Walter Lippmann and the American Century.↩