LBJ Quagmire

LBJ and Vietnam.

     From August 1954 the attention of the LBJ government shifted heavily towards Vietnam. The troubled nation was to become an example to the world on what America can do for a nation. Internally Vietnam was beginning to line up according to demographically based on religious beliefs. The Catholic moved south while the communists and Ho Chi Minh supporters move north. The U.S commit to support Diem and to showcase Vietnam as a model for nation building.

President Lyndon Banes Johnson was sworn in on air force one just hours after Kennedy’s assassination. LBJ was not elected as a president as such he had no electoral mandate. He became president by default. He was only chosen as Kennedy’s running mate to soak up the southern votes for Kennedy. In fact he was Kennedy’s running adversary in the primaries. LBJ did receive a certain degree of resentment among the Kennedy support. As such he continued to proclaim he was only continuing the policy of his predecessor. He even campaigned on the slogan ‘let us continue’. However what is often forgotten, as early as 1963  Kennedy and McNamara had announced to remove all troops from Vietnam as early by the end of 1965.They realized that they needed a ‘way to get out of Vietnam and this is the way to do it’. LBJ basically had to totally go against Kennedy’s previous announcement. This was difficult publicly and politically.

      Many people today argue that Johnson put off escalating the war because he wanted to concentrate on the election. During the 1964 Election Johnson ran against a republican by the name of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was an extremist and a warmonger. He was quoted in saying ten years earlier that the U.S would do well to drop a low yield atom bomb to defoiliate the trees. He wanted to carry the war to North Vietnam. In the mean while Johnson seemed a model of moderation. It remains unclear if Johnson had already put plans in place to enlarge the war after the election or not. In any case that is irrelevant, what is important however was the fact that after campaigning in the election as a man of peace how could he enlarge the war without looking like a liar. The administration was therefore inclined to use a strategy of incremental escalation. I argue that this promise of peace prevented him from looking to get congressional authority for the war.

     It has been argued that the lack of intelligence disabled LBJ’s ability to wage war. The McCarthy witch hunt had effectively purged the U.S government of all the people who had expertise in South East Asia. Clark Clifford argues how can you escalate war when there is no intelligence? ‘I could not find out when the war was going to end; I could not find out the manner in which it was going to end.’ However I don’t believe this lack of intelligence was a constraint. It was but a hindrance on their ability to wage war.

      It has been argued that Johnson had a huge ego. He was constantly seeking affirmation. He is quoted in saying that ‘I am not going to be the first president to lose a war’.  In a sense we must examine Johnson character and public persona when discussing this question. LBJ was an excellent speaker, he did not tolerate dissent, and he had as David Halbstrem called them the ‘best and the brightest’ behind him. The Joint Chiefs of staff were all recommending to Johnson to escalate. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations made decisions in a process known as group think. However this form of decision making makes it more difficult for people to express their reservations. The stronger characters in the group get the most time and by default the most influence. Often numbers and statistics can be deceiving and this was certainly the case in Vietnam. According to Daniel Ellsberg in his book ‘Secrets a memoir of the pentagon papers’ which was published in 19… explains that often ARVN lied to the U.S and basically told them what they wanted to hear. Robert McNamara’s book   in retrospect published in 1995 also states that they were so many different groups in Vietnam irregular and regular that the line was blurred. Westmoreland tended to use the lower number and that was the one he presented to the president. Other channels of communication was available to the president, however Westmoreland’s estimates carried more weight.  Unfortunately because of false or inaccurate data and because the way the administration used group think, this often led to premature action.

    The Gulf of Tonkin undoubtly allowed Johnson to escalate the war. It gave him the excuse to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The language of which granted LBJ the political power to wage war. The system of checks and balances failed.  Johnson was a political tactician. He had been a congressman for several years. He knew how to manipulate the public and also understood the importance of both public and international opinion. No one questioned his ability when it came to domestic politics, it was his experience in foreign policy which brought him extra criticism. However he somehow in his rhetoric managed to make Vietnam a domestic problem. Vietnam served his beloved domestic society. The question of congressional versus presidential power over the military is still hotly debated today. The problem lies in the ambiguity of the constitution. The president is the commander and chief however the congress reserves the right to declare war. A similar situation arose in the Persian Gulf when Dick Cheney asserted that Bush had the power to commit large scale U.S forces. Before Bush went into Iraq he sought and obtained Congressional support. In a sense Bush was right Johnson was wrong.

In a sense history enabled Johnson to escalate the war. Johnson was a 1930’s child. He had grown up in the wake of the Great depression and lived through world war two. He had seen the appeasement of Hitler and how it lead to world war 2. The so called Munich analogy is a rather strong argument. ‘I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did. I’d be giving a fat reward to aggression’. In short Yalta guilt. The cold war mentality also played into this. Communism was the new fascism. To yield to communism would mean losing the cold war.

Useful resources:

Quagmire Arthur Schleisenger

Frederick Logevall; choosing war.


Recent Posts