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In the summer of 1965, exactly fifty years ago, President Johnson made the decision to “Americanize” the Vietnam War. This meant escalating dramatically the number of US troops in Vietnam and, after playing a comparatively peripheral role, assuming the burden of defending the south against the communist forces of the north. The southeast Asian country was about to gain a profoundly new significance for the American people. In the new essay-length ebook The War Bells Have Rung: The LBJ Tapes and the Americanization of the Vietnam War, George C. Herring explores this turning point in our history through a remarkable resource—LBJ’s privately taped conversations.
The tapes show how the president had grave doubts about eventual success in Vietnam. And yet, he felt he had to agree to General Westmoreland’s request for more troops. He cited America’s years-long commitment to southeast Asia and, displaying more than a little Cold War hubris, felt he could not abandon it. A peaceful exit through diplomacy seemed unrealistic; as long as Hanoi felt it had the upper hand, LBJ reasoned, why would they engage in peace talks that would only “get them to give up something they’re going to win”? He even compared their position to his own when he beat Barry Goldwater in a landslide election: “They’re arrogant as hell and I don’t blame them. I defeated Goldwater by 15 million [votes]. Now why would I want to give Goldwater half of my Cabinet?”
On July 7, Johnson spoke with Martin Luther King Jr. You may read a transcript and listen to the entire conversation here. Their main business was the voting rights bill, but the conversation eventually turned to controversial remarks King had made about Vietnam.
MLK: Now, there was one other point that I wanted to mention to you because it has, again, concerned me a great deal. In the last few days, in fact, last week I made a speech in [Petersburg]Virginia, where I made a statement concerning the Vietnam situation. And there have been a number of . . . press statements about it . . . I know the terrible burden and awesome responsibilities and decisions that you have to make are just very complicated. So I didn’t want to add to the burdens because I know they’re very difficult.
LBJ: Well, you’re very . . . helpful, and I appreciate it. I did see it. I was distressed. I do want to talk to you. I’d welcome a chance to review with you my problems and our alternatives there. And I not only know you have a right, I think you have a duty as a minister and as a leader of millions of people to give them a sense of purpose and direction. . . . I’ve lost about 264 lives up to now.
LBJ: And I could lose 265,000 mighty easy, and I’m trying to keep those zeros down and, at the same time, not trigger a conflagration that would be worse if we pulled out. I can’t stay there and do nothing.
After explaining to a patient King why he cannot “tuck tail and run,” the president goes onto invoke that trademark of Cold War logic, the domino theory.
LBJ: If I pulled out, I think that our commitments would be no good anywhere. I think it would immediately trigger a situation in Thailand that would be just as bad as it is in Vietnam. I think we’d be right back to the Philippines with problems. I think we’d . . . the Germans would be scared to death that our commitment to them was no good. And God knows what we’d have other places in the world.
Johnson remained an ambivalent hawk, however, wary of the Joint Chiefs’ military demands. He also needed to maintain the support of a Congress that he had to work with—above all to pass the Great Society legislation he hoped would be his chief legacy. Ten days after speaking with MLK, Johnson was on the phone with House minority leader Gerald Ford, who supported more bombing of North Vietnam but balked at the idea of more troops on the ground. This July 17 phone call—which you may read and listen to here—is a master class in controlling a conversation. Whereas LBJ’s tone with Reverend King was very calm and sober, almost to the point of solemnity, with Ford he engages in a colorful performance, raising his voice, telling jokes, flattering. He insists the newly added troops cannot be sitting ducks and must be allowed to engage if they come under threat—a position that few would argue with but somewhat beside the point. He also manages to satisfy Ford when pressed for details on Congress’s role in approving any further military actions, although his answer is noncommittal. Ford is, as Herring puts it, “artfully worked over.” By the end of their talk, LBJ has Ford promising his cooperation.
Ford: [A]s far as I’m concerned, I will in the future, as I’ve done in the past, you know, I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder.
LBJ: I know that and I’m proud of you and your country’s proud of you. And the only thing I regret is that you’re going to pick up some Republican seats as a result of that kind of forward-looking policy. And I won’t be happy with that unless they’re like you. And if they’re like you, I won’t object.
There is a bitter layer of irony here, of course: as Herring points out, Ford would be president a decade later when the US endured the “inglorious end to the Vietnam War.”
The War Bells Have Rung, a specially priced essay-length ebook including links to audio files of LBJ’s private tapes, is available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other ebook retailers. George Herring has contributed a piece on LBJ and Vietnam to Salon—read it here.