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JFK’s Greatest Legacy

America has spent 50 years asking, "What if?"

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

In the fall of 1967, in whichever direction Lyndon Johnson looked from his increasingly isolated vantage point within the confines of the White House, the signs of disenchantment about the war in Vietnam — and his leadership — were unmistakable.

Public opinion polls showed that, for the first time, Americans considered the war in Vietnam a mistake. They saw their president in equally negative terms. "He is widely regarded as devious, even dishonest," wrote Time in a stunningly harsh indictment. A front-page article in the New York Times warned that, even after 12,000 American deaths, "Victory is not at hand. It may be out of reach." Anti-war activists — 100,000 of whom marched on the Pentagon in October — were mobilizing to challenge him in Democratic primaries. On Capitol Hill, members of both parties were growing more vocal in their criticism of Johnson’s Vietnam policy.

Faced with an increasingly untenable position, Johnson faced two stark and unappealing choices: wind down the U.S. commitment in Vietnam and seek a political solution to the conflict, or escalate the war and try to win. But as was the case so often, Johnson chose not to choose at all.

Too stubborn to admit a mistake, too personally invested in the conflict, and too scared of the domestic political ramifications of showing any slack in confronting communism, Johnson kicked the can down the road — instead launching a public relations offensive that he hoped would shift views in the United States enough to allow him to regain his political footing. At the end of January 1968, when hundreds of thousands of communist foot soldiers launched the Tet Offensive, Johnson’s political balancing act crumbled, destroying what was left of his presidency and forcing him from office.

In the 50 years since Johnson became president, much attention has been paid to the question of what might have been if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963 — particularly what might have happened in Vietnam. Would JFK have Americanized the war, as Johnson did? Would he have sent combat troops to Vietnam? These are of course unanswerable questions, though in recent years, something of a quasi-consensus has emerged: probably not.

But if international relations is often the study of quantifiable military and economic power, what emerges from the counterfactuals about Kennedy surviving his ill-fated trip to Dallas is the critical importance of presidential temperament. Kennedy’s personality was well-suited to monumental decisions about war and peace. Johnson’s was not.

In Kennedy’s brief tenure in office he brought pragmatism, flexibility, proportionality, and a willingness to be challenged — and to challenge political orthodoxy — to his foreign policy decision-making. The man who urged Americans to pay any price and bear any burden in the fight against communism repeatedly adopted positions of restraint. In 1961, he resisted calls from his own military officials — and former President Eisenhower — for intervention in Laos to prevent that small land-locked nation from turning red. He reacted with public bluster but personal relief at the construction of the Berlin Wall, which defused one of the periodic showdowns between the United States and the Soviet Union over the fate of post-war Germany. Most decisively, he went against the opinion of virtually his entire foreign policy and national security team in responding to the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba by agreeing to a diplomatic resolution to the most serious crisis of the nuclear era.

In the months after that crisis, he signaled a willingness to reduce Cold War tensions. In June 1963, he delivered the commencement address at American University, in which he endorsed steps toward nuclear disarmament and reminded his audience (and the Soviets) that "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal." In October, he signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the USSR.

Finally, on Vietnam, Kennedy was a reluctant hawk who believed that the United States should try to prevent South Vietnam from falling to the communists but who also assiduously avoided deploying American combat troops — a pledge he made in 1961 and stuck to until the last day of his life. This is not to suggest that Kennedy was a dove. After all, he ran for president on the misleading notion that the United States faced a missile gap with the Soviets. But when it came to Vietnam there is an unmistakable sense that, while Kennedy wanted to preserve an independent South Vietnam, he viewed the idea of U.S. military engagement with great trepidation. It is "their war" he told Walter Cronkite only two months before his death, and "in the final analysis it is the people and the [South Vietnamese] government itself who have to win or lose the struggle. All we can do is help."

The man who replaced him as president was the polar opposite. Lyndon Johnson had a simplistic view of international affairs and often conflated the horse-trading he did in the U.S. Senate with the conduct of international diplomacy. (He truly appeared to believe that he could buy off Ho Chi Minh with the offer of a TVA for the Mekong Delta.) And he tended to view foreign policy through the narrow prism of domestic politics — in particular the "Who Lost China?" debate of the early 1950s, which had politically pulverized Democrats perceived to be insufficiently anti-communist. He strongly believed that to show weakness in Vietnam would imperil his ambitious domestic goals. He told his in-house dove George Ball: "The terrible beast we have to fear is the right wing; if they ever get the idea I am selling out on Vietnam, they’ll do horrible things to the country, and we’ll be forced to escalate the war beyond anything you’re ever thought about." 

But these calculations were driven more by insecurity and rationalization than cogent political analysis, and it was this temperament that pushed him toward the very escalation he claimed he wanted to avoid. According to George Herring, one of America’s foremost Vietnam War historians, LBJ was "particularly ill-suited to be commander-in-chief in a limited war." He was "flamboyant and impulsive, "restless and impatient," &qu
ot;an emotional man given to wild mood swings." Herring concluded that "he was a man for whom defeat was intolerable, even unthinkable, fighting a war that may not have been winnable."

And he was haunted, almost literally, by the specter of weakness. He once told his biographer and aide Doris Kearns Goodwin that he dreamed Bobby Kennedy accused him of "betraying John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man." In his dream, Johnson imagined thousands of people running at him shouting "Coward! Traitor! Weakling!"

By the fall of 1967 it should have been obvious that the biggest threat to Johnson was neither the right-wing nor political caricature, but that the increasingly unwinnable war would unravel his presidency and the extraordinary ambitions that underpinned it. His electoral coalition was fracturing and Americans were losing confidence in not just LBJ’s leadership but also that of the Democratic Party. Yet, Johnson’s obsession with victory in Vietnam became that much more pronounced.

"The war," writes LBJ biographer Robert Dallek in Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, "had become a personal test of his judgment, of his wisdom in expanding the conflict in the first place. Having invested so much in the conflict, "he would not acknowledge that his principal foreign policy initiative has largely failed," says Dallek. Johnson’s vow that, "I’m not going to be the first American president to lose a war," played a dangerously outsized role in the president’s thought process on Vietnam.

Johnson’s conviction that anything less than victory would be a humiliating defeat for him personally and a domestic disaster politically made it impossible for him to take the steps in the fall of 1967 necessary to wind down the U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia — even though this was the reasonable and politically proper course of action. It’s difficult enough to imagine a politician as self-confident as Kennedy and ambivalent about the efficacy of U.S. military engagement even reaching this point. But making the same disastrous decision to not make a decision as Johnson did in the fall of 1967? Unthinkable.

The fact is for all of Lyndon Johnson’s many positive attributes — his sense of empathy, his passion for reform, his extraordinary identification with the poor, the humble and the downtrodden and his mastery of the legislative process — the American people (and the people of Vietnam) were decidedly unblessed to have a man of such stubbornness, of such raging personal insecurity and of such limited imagination as president of the United States at this moment in history.

And therein lies perhaps the most enduring tragedy of November 22, 1963 — not the death of one president, but the swearing-in of another.    

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