Lyndon B. Johnson and The Vietnam War
It was under Truman in the early 50s that the U.S. sent its first military advisers into what had been known primarily as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) when under French colonial rule, in an effort to help fight the encroachment of communists from the north of Vietnam.
It was under Eisenhower in the mid-50s that the “domino theory” was first created, a belief that if southern Vietnam were to fall to the Chinese-backed Communists from the north, then many other smaller Asian nations would be vulnerable to falling and the entire region would be one big Red threat.
It was under Kennedy in the early 60s that we increased the number of military advisers and who were more actively engaged in helping direct the ground war, as well as the first small number of active combat troops. Two weeks before his death Kennedy began to suggest he fully intended to have the U.S. military presence diminish and eventually disappear by the end of 1965, on the premise of his winning a second term in the 1964 election.
It was under Lyndon Baines Johnson, however, that the U.S. presence in South Vietnam escalated rapidly with Pentagon officials imploring the President to send tens of thousands of more American fighting men into the jungles and rice paddies in what he quickly came to recognize as a “quagmire.”
From the beginning, LBJ frequently expressed his gut feeling that it was wrong and would get worse.
On the numerous recorded telephone calls made from his Oval Office, President Johnson expressed his skepticism that Vietnam was a war that could really ever be won.
Less than one year into his presidency, LBJ blurted out to his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy:
“The more I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more … it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea…. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess…. What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country?”
When he agreed to a sharp increase in combat units after a Pentagon official assured him there was “light at the end of tunnel” for South Vietnamese victory, LBJ quipped to an aide, “Light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t even have a tunnel; we don’t even know where the tunnel is.”
The more troops he committed in hopes of US strengthening the South Vietnamese to shore up its own defenses to the point where Americans could soon leave, the more men were exponentially killed and the longer troops stayed.
It was just after LBJ won his own term in 1964 and began it in 1965, that he began to appear increasingly tortured.
There were emergency calls in the middle of the night; never a sound sleeper, LBJ now often went without anything but a nap.
Outside the windows of the White House were protestors yelling loud enough in a mantra of rage, “Hey, hey LBJ? How many kids did you kill today?”
Yet with the queasy certainty of a Vegas gambler on a losing streak, President Johnson sighed his fear into his belly and agreed to keep sending more troops.
Even at the highest levels of government, where rationality was expected to rule, the highly intelligent and successful Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara encouraged LBJ and other military advisers that the reason the U.S. must remain in Vietnam was because they were “losing,” as opposed to the logic of leaving.
A very real fear of Communist defeating Democracy as a form of global government was behind the belief that maintaining a reputation of American superiority was worth developing a new one for horrific death tolls.
By 1967, McNamara even abandoned his own advice and there was mutual agreement it was time for him to go, leaving LBJ not only with the constitutional blame but the public and media reputation of sole responsibility.
Like his hero FDR, LBJ used the rhetoric of strength and power in public, to “keep our commitments,” but unlike the World War II President, Lyndon Johnson went to see many of the wounded and maimed returning home.
And if he couldn’t always meet them in person, he saw them constantly on the three-television-set console he kept constantly on in the Oval Office.
It was the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy who later observed that, with the advent of color television, American families saw the red blood of green-uniformed Americans being carried away from battlefields as they sat down together for dinner each night.
And she believed, more than even her own husband’s murder, that over time this exposure more than anything created an acceptance of a popular culture laden with gory, senseless violence.
As Lady Bird Johnson reflected on her husband and the war:
“He had no stomach for it, no heart for it; it wasn’t the war he wanted. The one he wanted was on poverty and ignorance and disease, and that was worth putting your life into. It was just a hell of a thorn stuck in his throat. It wouldn’t come up; it wouldn’t go down….It was just pure hell and did not have that reassuring, strong feeling that this is right, that he had when he was in a crunch with civil rights or poverty or education. It didn’t have that ‘We’ll make it through this one; win or lose, it’s the right thing to do.’ True, you can ‘bear any burden, pay any price’ if you’re sure you’re doing right. But [not] if you do not know what is right …”
The more he was attacked, the more LBJ resented his eroding support and developed a sense that the media hated him personally.
The more he felt insecure, the worse his insomnia became and the more he engorged on food and drank heavily.
The death toll made him morose, the failure to gain significant traction left him frustrated, the wrong judgments he made left him with depression.
His press secretary Bill Moyers termed LBJ a “tormented man,” and recalled the time the President said he felt as if being engulfed into a swamp: “When he said it, he was lying in bed with the covers almost above his head.”
By the time LBJ’s presidency ended in 1969, some 30,000 people had been killed in the war. And that was just Americans. Before leaving office at age sixty years old, LBJ commissioned an actuary chart, which determined her would live only to sixty-four years old.
He returned to Texas where he made his only primary appearances at the newly-created LBJ School of Public Affairs and overseeing the building of his presidential library.
He refused all press interview requests.
He sold off property.
He stopped getting haircuts.
He sped off, driving alone in his car.
He gained a dangerous amount of weight.
In May of 1970, fourteen months after leaving office, severe chest pains rushed him to the hospital. He had angina of the heart but not a heart attack, as he’d had in 1957.
In December of 1971, LBJ suddenly returned not just to cigarettes, but chain-smoking. “I want to go fast,” he told a friend. Four months later, in April of 1972, he had a massive heart attack. He survived, but depended on an oxygen tank to breathe. Hoping to wave to crowds at the July 1972 Democratic National Convention, the former President was not invited.
Six months later, in January of 1972, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson died of a sudden, final heart attack, alone. He was sixty-four.
The next day, January 23, 1973, President Nixon announced the peace agreement which ended the Vietnam War.
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