The following article was written before Johnson announced he would not run again; I think, by and large, it still holds. These appended remarks are being written a few hours after his announcement.
Is Johnson really out of it? Probably; he seemed entirely sincere; but nothing lends itself more easily to manipulation than a sincere decision. Much, however, depends on Hanoi. Suppose there is a favorable response to the bombing pause; and then a cease fire and negotiations; and even, although unlikely, some sort of agreement before November. Johnson could then say that by remaining “above politics” he, and not Kennedy or McCarthy, had reunified the country. Should he not then be invited to continue his fatherly benefactions?
Suppose, on the other hand, that for one reason or another Hanoi refuses to enter negotiations and a situation both political and militarily untenable is created in Vietnam. There might well follow a rise in pro-war sentiment in the US, based on the feeling that an effort to win an honorable peace had been spurned. How Johnson could exploit this against Kennedy and McCarthy need hardly be elaborated.
An improbable scenario? Yes, but not quite to be discounted.
There may well be further candidacies. Humphrey may enter the Democratic race, though after all that has happened these last few weeks it seems unlikely he could win much favor either in the primaries or with the party professionals. As it comes to seem more and more likely that the Democratic candidate will be a dove, the Republican professionals may decide to dump Nixon and turn to someone like Rockefeller on the grounds that they need a man who could meet Kennedy or McCarthy on his own ground. Meanwhile, now that the argument that we must avoid dividing the anti-Johnson forces has been considerably weakened, there is still more reason to stick with McCarthy.
For all its creakiness and cumbersomeness, the democratic process seems to have come through pretty damned well. Surely a major reason for Johnson’s decision was a belated but strong response to growing public pressure and disenchantment. The complaints one heard around American campuses that dissidents aren’t listened to, and have no choice but “alienation” or exile or urban guerrilla tactics, seem now to be utterly wrong or, at the very least, wildly premature.
If the Democratic candidate is both a dove and a liberal, the intellectuals will have a special opportunity. A part from the task of fundamental social criticism, which is necessary at all times, we ought to begin working up specific programs for the reconstruction of American society. If we don’t indulge ourselves in self-pity and apocalyptic melodrama, if we offer proposals that can provide the basis for both legislation and popular pressure, then we will be listened to. Much is wrong with this country, gravely wrong; but it is alive.
As to the astonishing gesture of Lyndon Johnson one…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.