This is the best book thus far written on the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It has the same psychological acumen, quality of political analysis, wealth of detailed and, in good measure, new information as do the best books written on John F. Kennedy’s stewardship. It is eloquent testimony to the ability of an adroit and discriminating journalist to penetrate the secrets of state, without excluding obviously classified documents. The author pays tribute to his sources of information, who “are men living or working somewhere within Lyndon Johnson’s ken…. In any case, it is in the nature of things, above all in Lyndon Johnson’s Washington, that anonymity is the price of a reasonable degree of candor about an incumbent President.”
However, the book is not just a character study of Lyndon B. Johnson as the molder of American foreign policy. It is also a study of American foreign policy as conducted during the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It deals extensively with the crisis of NATO and the attempt to solve it through the device of the MLF (the multilateral seaborne nuclear force). It analyzes in great detail the development of the war in Vietnam and of the intervention in the Dominican Republic. Its account of the transformation of our foreign-aid policy is the best I know of. The emergence of an Asian Development Bank is traced with similar skill.
Yet to give an account of the development of a new American foreign policy since November, 1963, is, of course, not the main purpose of the book either. Thus it may not be too serious a matter that the index is deficient and that the analysis of political developments sometimes tends to be descriptive in the journalistic manner rather than analytical, laying bare the political forces at work. The account of the MLF, for instance, could have gained from a deeper probing into the extraordinarily injudicious nature of its promotion as well as into the fascinating character of its demise. The book does not to injustice to McGeorge Bundy’s acumen and dexterity—promoting the MLF, spotting its impending doom before anyone else, and being the first to jump off the sinking ship after making sure that it would realy sink. What the books is really about is the impact of Lyndon B. Johnson’s personality upon the conduct of American foreign policy. That impact has been dramatic and profound. The results have been gratifying in certain secondary matters; they have been disquieting in the great affairs of state. For better or for worse, the foreign policy of the United States is the foreign policy of Lyndon B. Johnson and bears the mark of his mind and character. What mind and character does the foreign policy of Lyndon B. Johnson reveal? It reveals a mind narrow in the substance of its knowledge and understanding, but superbly suited for the tasks of the tactician. It reveals a character of extraordinary complexity, beset by contrasts that render extremely hazardous the prediction of future courses of action.
THE PRESIDENT’S THINKING on foreign policy has been molded by his domestic experience. As far as his modes of thought are concerned, he is incapable of making a distinction between foreign policy and domestic policies. Mr. Geyelin writes:
He had heard the fashionable concepts, be they containment of disengagement or neutralism or parallelism. But he didn’t speak the language because he did not think in it; he thought in analogies to the New Deal or Munich, to “another Korea” or “another Cuba”; the Mekong Basin was “another TVA.”
Thus, as the author cleverly remarks, the President does not practice “foreign policy” so much as “foreign politics.”
Yet, as James Byrnes found out as Secretary of State twenty years earlier, when, according to his own recollection, in the negotiations with the Soviet Union he used every trick he had learned in the Senate, but to no avail, the issues of foreign policy do not necessarily yield to the techniques that have proven successful in American politics. It is this experience that brought to the fore two innate traits of Lyndon B. Johnson’s character; His deviousness and impetuosity. On the one hand, in the words of “a close but reasonably dispassionate associate,” “This President wants the world to work to his clock.” On the other hand, he came to realize that, in his own words, the trouble with foreigners “is that they’re not like folks you were reared with.” One reaction to this gap between intent and reality was the attempt to obliterate the gap by misrepresenting reality. It brought out what Geyelin calls
the Munchausen in the man. His public and extemporaneous description of the carnage in Santo Domingo, during the April, 1965, uprising, went so far beyond the demonstrable facts that U.S. officials on the spot could only throw up their hands when badgered by newsmen for some supporting evidence.
He could tell “one of the Senate’s more serious students of foreign affairs that ‘if we don’t stop the Reds in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they will be in San Francisco.’ ” In the summer of 1965, he assured Senator Gruening that “the U.S, troops would be beginning to come home from Vietnam by the early part of 1966.” Mr. Geyelin adds that “At that time, mid-1965. no responsible American official thought American troops could be withdrawing from Vietnam anything like that soon; the President didn’t think so; and it is even doubtful if Senator Gruening really thought so.” This “credibility gap” has become a persistent aspect of Johnson’s conduct of American foreign policy.
In the field of action, Johnson has tried to fill the gap between intent and reality by forcing the American intent upon a recalcitrant world. At Kennedy’s funeral when the Foreign Minister of Pakistan rose to depart after having delivered a message of condolence from his government, “mr. Johnson ordered him to sit down and delivered an impromptu discourse on Pakistan’s increasing antipathy to Western causes and growing preference for those of Peking…even U.S. officials present were taken aback.” When anti-American riots broke out in Panama, “he startled his advisers by grabbing for the phone and calling the Panamanian president direct.” Johnson’s massive military reaction to the Dominican revolution is a matter of historic record.
YET THE EXPERIENCED INADEQUACY of the policy of frontal assault brought out another trait of Johnson’s character: a caution sometimes blending into inaction where action is called for. After more than a year in office, he complained about being “new here” and said that he was “in the position of a jack rabbit in a hailstorm, hunkered up and taking.” The MLF and Vietnam in different ways illustrate the point. The MLF had been sold to the reluctant policy makers by a group of zealots in the State Department with the argument that it was necessary to satisfy our main European allies. When Johnson realized by way of first-hand contacts that these European desires were by and large a figment of the inflamed imagination of our men in the State Department, an explosion occurred in the White House, of whose magnitude Mr. Geyelin gives no more than an inkling, and the MLF was shelved for good. Since then, the President has been most careful not to be swayed by the anti-Gaullist emotionalism which previously had been common in the highest councils of the White House and State Department, and to leave the initiative for change to De Gaulle, while trying to preserve as much as possible of the status quo.
In Vietnam, the President has given the appearance of trying to wage a limited was for the limited objective of a negotiated settlement. He has shied away both from liquidation and drastic escalation. While he has probably committed as many American troops as could be supported logistically at any particular time, he has been very slow—much too slow for the preferences of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—in expanding the war against the North. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep control over both the selection of targets and the kind and frequency of attacks.
While the conduct of the war in Vietnam provides an example of Johnson’s caution, it also demonstrates the outstanding and most successful gift Johnson has brought to the conduct of American foreign policy: his unsurpassed mastery of the tactics of political manipulation. Domestically, he maneuvered himself into a position in which he appeared to resist in equal measure the “escalators” and the “deescalators,” threading carefully and cautiously a middle course. In truth, he has never ceased to escalate the war. But he did it almost imperceptively, in unspectacular little steps. He never sided openly with the “escalators.” Quite the contrary, he made it appear that there was really no great difference between his position and that of his senatorial and academic critics. Did he not do everything to achieve peace with honor, and what alternative had his critics to suggest? When he had to take a major step on the road of escalation, he either denied that it was such a step of covered it up with a “peace offensive,”aiming at, and in good measure succeeding in, taking the wind out of the sails of the opposition.
THE CONDUCT OF FOREIGN POLICY through the methods of domestic political manipulation was but temporarily successful with regard to Vietnam because sooner or later that policy was bound to come up against the facts of international life which do not yield to this kind of manipulation. A “peace offensive” may temporarily disarm the domestic opposition: internationally, if it is divorced from the facts of interests and power, it will be no more than a propagandistic flash in the pan. However, where the international component is insignificant or susceptible to manipulation, the method has proven stunningly successful.
My. Geyelin shows in impressive detail how the Johnson approach has succeeded in reforming our policy of foreign aid and marshaling our support for the Asian Development Bank. Here Johnson the magical tactician carried the day. More importantly, his tactical virtuosity was here at the service of objectives of whose soundness hid domestic political experience had convinced him. Here he was on sure ground. Thus he could not fail to see that much of foreign aid neither served the interests of the United States nor met the needs of the recipient countries. Emotionally dedicated to the projection of the Great Society onto the international scene, especially as an alternative to military intervention, he was more keenly interested than were his subordinates in the economic potentialities and political advantages of an Asian Development Bank.
It is at this point that we are approaching the crux of the matter. What is the President’s general conception of foreign policy? Through what kind of philosophic presuppositions does he try to understand the world and master it? What is the strategy that his tactics are to serve? This book makes abundantly clear that it is impossible to give a coherent answer to these questions. For the most disparate elements coexist in the President’s mind without any awareness on his part of their disparity. On the one hand, the President approaches foreign aid with the hard-headed calculations of the politician; on the other hand, he accepts a book as intellectually shallow and politically preposterous as Barbara Ward’s The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations as the ultimate revelation of political wisdom. On the one hand, he is resolved not to repeat the error which he thinks the United States committed in the Thirties: to encourage its enemies by failing to make its resolution clear from the outset; on the other hand, he can quote a passage from the Bible praising faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, Godliness, brotherly kindness, and love, and add: “That’s what the Peace Corps is to me. That is what my religion is—that is what the Great Society is…and that is the foreign policy of the United States.”
ONE HAS TO READ THIS BOOK in order to experience the shattering impact of the variety of these contradictions which operate upon the President’s mind simultaneously or alternately without any coherence, let alone hierarchical order. This being the state of the President’s mind, it is impossible to define the President’s approach and redact the action he will take on the world scene. As an expert of the Johnson record put it: “You will search without success for any evidence of deep commitment or firm philosophy.” “I have known him for fifteen years and I don’t think I could predict what he will do in any given circumstances,” is the judgment of “one of the White House men from Texas.”
What restrains a President intellectually so constituted is the gnawing doubt about his own adequacy and the correctness of his policies. Thus he searches for reassurance outside himself in a consensus as revealed by the public opinion polls. These polls perform for the President the same psychological function as the light of the birds of the constellation of the stars did for the statement of old. They put his doubts to temporary rest and enable him to act with assurance. They prove his policies right because they approve of him.
Thus comes into play the other motive force of the President’s nature: the urge to prove himself, to be a great President. Yet that urge toward greatness bespeaks his unacknowledged inner weakness. Greatness is a quality inherent in men, not something to be acquired like power and riches. It is not like a woman to be conquered by conscious effort; rather it is a gift of heaven which is given to those who deserve it (because in a sense they already have it), not to those who seek it. Those who seek greatness with frenzied effort reveal though their very frenzy that they are lacking what it takes to be great.
August 18, 1966