Five Presidents Who Went to War & Killed Themselves For It: LBJ (Part 5)

Lyndon B. Johnson and The Vietnam War

LBJ in 1963 and after the presidency.

LBJ in 1963 and after the presidency.

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.

Two former Presidents, one incumbent and one future: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

Two former Presidents, one incumbent and one future: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

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.

President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara reacting to bad news from Vietnam. (LBJL)

President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara reacting to bad news from Vietnam. (LBJL)

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.

LBJ hearing out military brass. (LBJL)

LBJ hearing out military brass. (LBJL)

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.”

LBJ with Vietnam War servicemen.

LBJ with Vietnam War servicemen. (LBJL)

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.

President Johnson engaging a soldier.

President Johnson engaging a soldier.(LBJL)

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.

Unlike FDR, LBJ visited wounded serviceman in the hospital.

Unlike FDR, LBJ visited wounded serviceman in the hospital. (LBJL)

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.

Besides the three in his office, LBJ had televisions going all over the White House, including his bedroom.

Besides the three in his office, LBJ had televisions going all over the White House, including his bedroom. (LBJL)

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:

LBJ listens in angst to a recording of his enlisted son-in-law's report from the front.

LBJ listens in angst to a recording of his enlisted son-in-law’s report from the front. (LBJL)

“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.

Outgoing President Johnson confers with Incoming President Nixon, under whose Administration the Vietnam War would continue for four more years.

Outgoing President Johnson confers with Incoming President Nixon, under whose Administration the Vietnam War would continue for four more years. (LBJL)

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.

The brooding, desolate former President Johnson walking away from ranch guests.

The brooding, desolate former President Johnson walking away from ranch guests. (LBJL)

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.

President Nixon lays a mourning wreath for the late President  Johnson at his U.S. Capitol Building funeral, as his wife Pat Nixon and LBJ's widow Lady Bird Johnson look on. (Corbis)

President Nixon lays a mourning wreath for the late President Johnson at his U.S. Capitol Building funeral, as his wife Pat Nixon and LBJ’s widow Lady Bird Johnson look on. (Corbis)

Categories: History, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Presidential wars, Presidents, The LBJs, Wartime Presidents

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  1. Jacqueline Kennedy’s observation here is so much in line with my own memory of that period. It was all so totally depressing, every evening to turn on the news and see battlefield mayhem in various stages of detail. I can remember, at age 9, thinking: ‘They’ve got to end this war within nine more years, or I’m going to be sent off to Vietnam too.’ And Nixon just barely managed to do it–the year I turned 18, though we still had to register for the Vietnam draft, a surreal experience in itself. So I’ve often wondered what long-term effect that ever-present nagging thought had on boys of my generation. All that carnage, punctuated by horrific assassinations: we just weren’t used to that level of public violence exploding into our living rooms and everywhere else after the relative peace and innocence of the early ’60’s. Which is why I think Jackie was absolutely spot on. Characteristically, of course, and once again.

    • Television transmission of those scenes seemed to have had such a strong psychic influence on the American mood when color sets became widespread. It’s often difficult or impossible to unravel and attribute precisely just how technology will shift perception of an incident or event and suddenly provoke the national narrative in a new direction – with consequence. Even though those incidents or events might have taken place otherwise, whether they were covered or not.

  2. It is interesting how televison comes into play on the latter days of this president’s legacy of war. I remember watching Dick Cavett and the announcement of Johnson’s passing with a revelation from guest Paul Newman that he really had no feeling of sympathy. I could identify as a young man that feeling or non-feeling as it was when I thot of all those coffins and my own anti-war stance.

    I suppose it’s that macho spirit of kings or divine resolution that fall into place even for a “man of the people” that we call the president as I review this excellent series. Also the health neglect that is the residue by being engulfed by war for each of the men you have so eloquently described. Thank you so much for this enlightening series.

    • Thank you Phil. It was exhausting doing this series but I wanted to get it out in time of the news this past week – context seemed necessary. One can’t help wondering if these five Presidents….who were, after all, human beings whom others perceive as symbols – might have consciously chosen to neglect their own health out of some remorse or sublimated need for redemption for all the lives lost on their watch, whatever the initial, idealistic intention – though it may be impossible to ever say without their own direct attribution. I think it may be most true of FDR and LBJ

      • That’s an interesting take on these men. When you really get down to it you have to take into an account of how they as men were conditioned by their own generation of how men were to feel or NOT to feel in these areas. Then wonder if they suppressed these feelings how they would manifest themselves physically and mentally. I realize that this becomes more of a pychological history,but still food for thot!
        That’s what I love about your site it’s like a work out for the heart and the head. Your hard work and detective skills are well appreciated,Carl. Bless you for it!

        • Thank you Phil. I’m not sure whether I enjoy researching or writing more – though both become arduous and I have a tendency to do too much of it for such a little bit, but then again its best for me to know I’ve done everything I can to be sure I offer others as full and accurate a story as possible.

  3. I was twelve years old when the Vietman War started to escalate. My sixth grade teacher talked to us about it and it sounded horrific. Soon afterward, my older sister’s friend told us that he was going to enlist in the Marines when he graduated from high school. I was scared for him and told him not to do it. However he was soon off to boot camp and then to Vietnam where he was killed at the age of nineteen, an age at the time too young to vote. It was not until the Nixon administration that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Sitting at the dinner hour night after night hearing on tv the list of young boys killed from Washington state and seeing their young faces is a vivid memory of my teenage years. I can remember wondering when this nightmare would ever end. I was surprised when LBJ announced he was not going to run for re- election.There did not seem to be any indication that was going to happen. Now seeing these photos and reading this article I can realize that managing this war was his own nightmare that he wanted to end.

    • Thanks so much for giving so much thought and being so open. I think that has gone to be a terrifying and anxious aspect for children and young people anticipating they might be soon sent to war and killed. I think it can be the root for despondency and a feeling that there is no point in looking forward to college or independence or maturity when one is under the shadow of being drafted for combat. And yes, I do believe LBJ was really conflicted – that he had no interest in escalating. I think it was like the compulsive gambler believing ‘okay, just one more time and we’ll win and it will be over.” I appreciate you writing.

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