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 …
Copyright © 1980 by Ronald Steel.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.