Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Unraveling Of Lyndon Johnson

  My good buddy and colleague Kevin Barrett. (Notice that I threw in a little elitist lingo there) stated that Lyndon Johnson, after retiring from the presidency, let himself go physically. He grew his hair long and gained extra pounds before he suffered his fatal heart attack in 1973. His question to me was this. Do you think that Johnson was suffering from depression or was he identifying with the Vietnam protesters? I believe that he was suffering from depression. Johnson's greatest ambition from the earliest age was to be president. As a teenager he would tell others that he was going to be president someday. He had a plan that he followed to the letter and he never diverted from it. His plan was that he would first be elected to the House of Representatives. The second part of his plan was to be elected to the senate and becoming Senate Majority leader. From there he would run for president. He was offered a position in the Roosevelt Administration as the head of his rural electrification program and a chance to run for governor of Texas along with other positions over time but he turned them all down because they didn't fit in to his plan. His plan was fulfilled until he ran for president in 1960. He underestimated John Kennedy and lost the nomination to him. Of course Kennedy was elected partly because he chose Johnson as his Vice Presidential running mate. This choice united the Southern block of Democratic voters with the eastern block of Democratic voters. Kennedy needed Texas to win. The Kennedy's looked down on Johnson as a crude Southern hick. He realized this and resented it. The Vice presidency was hell on Johnson. He felt totally useless. Johnson was a man of action. He became president through the back door when Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson was then able to work his magic. No president in American history had the power and influence over congress like Johnson. All of his years of experience enabled him to pass the unfinished legislative agenda of Kennedy and then he went on to pass his own agenda. Johnson holds the record for passing more legislation than any president in American history. He did it legitimately and didn't use the methods of the coward Obama. The pen and a phone. However his pen and his phone were used to communicate with congress because unlike Obama he had respect for them. After his retirement from the presidency being out of politics for someone like Johnson had to be even worse than his time as Vice President. Especially at the end of such a controversial and failed presidency. For Johnson this was a death sentence. Hopefully I have answered Kevin's question but I want to talk about Johnson's successes and failures and evaluate his entire presidency.

  Like Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon Johnson came very close to dying in obscurity. Had it not been for the Civil War Grant would have been just another common man lost to history. Had it not been for an assassins bullet Lyndon Johnson would have been just a footnote in American History. From the time he became Vice President in 1961 until November 22, 1963, he was steadily losing prestige and political power. Due to a combination of his own mistakes his image in the Kennedy Administration as a country hick, and Robert Kennedy's loathing for him, he had virtually no influence on political policy in Washington. He was a virtual nobody. It was becoming evident that Johnson had lost his political pull in Texas to John Connally. A good case could be made that had Kennedy lived he would have dropped Johnson from his ticket in 1964. Kennedy picked him in the first case to help win the Southern states in 1960, primarily Texas, Louisiana, and the Carolina's. Johnson campaigned hard and came through for Kennedy in a big way. Kennedy won the South. Things had changed since 1960 however. Kennedy's championing of Civil Rights had alienated the South and Johnson no longer had the political clout in the there that he had in 1960. Kennedy had lost support in the South but had gained it in those states in the North that he had lost in 1960. It was believed that he could win without the South. If Kennedy had lived it was very probable that he would have been reelected in 1964. Even if Kennedy had maintained LBJ as Vice President, Robert Kennedy would have been waiting in the wings to run in 1968. The obscurity of the VP position was taking an emotional and physical toll on a man that had devoted his life to becoming president. Johnson's lifelong plan had been to become a congressman, a senator and from that office he would be catapulted into the presidency. The first part of his plan had been successful but he had totally underestimated John Kennedy in 1960. If he had started his campaign earlier and been more focused he would have probably won the nomination. However by the time Johnson realized what was happening Kennedy had stole a march on him and robbed Johnson of key delegates necessary for the nomination. Johnson had survived a massive heart attack in 1955 and the Johnson men did not live to be very old. Time was Johnson's enemy and 1960 would prove to be his best chance for the White House and he had screwed that up. A head shot from Oswald's rifle would give Johnson the ultimate power that he always craved, and most of all, that bullet saved him from historical obscurity.

  I judge Johnson in three areas The 1964 and 65 Civil Rights Acts, the war on poverty, and the war in Vietnam. Johnson's success  in the area of Civil Rights was the most courageous stance that he ever took. For that alone he deserves a monument right next to the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately his war in Vietnam and war on poverty had disastrous consequences for this country. In Congress Johnson was the consummate politician. To succeed in congress from a Southern state and to be elected to office as a Southern congressman he had to take a segregationist stance. In 1956 he was unsuccessful in his attempt to be nominated for president but he wanted to win in 1960. No Southerner had been elected president since the Civil War. Northerners did not trust Southern politicians because of segregation and their treatment of black people. Johnson knew that he would have to pass a civil rights bill in order to win the presidency and broaden his appeal among Northerners and Black people. He was able to pass a very watered down civil rights bill in 1957. Johnson had to water it down because he knew if he didn't, Blacks would end up with nothing. To him something was better than nothing. The main thing that blacks gained from it was the right to vote. Johnson regularly used racial slurs but like Truman, who also used racial slurs, he truly wanted justice for black people. This is why, as president, he pushed through the 1964 and 65 Civil Rights Acts. Kennedy is given much credit for the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it was originally proposed by him. Kennedy however did not have the skill and ruthlessness to pass it if he had lived. Kennedy had a legislative domestic agenda before he was assassinated. It included many things including tax cuts and a Civil rights bill. Kennedy asked Johnson's advice on how he should proceed in Congress. Johnson advised him to push his domestic agenda through Congress first and save Civil Rights for last. If he pushed Civil Rights first, it would be filibustered by Southern congressmen and his domestic agenda would be held up. Nothing would be accomplished. Kennedy did not follow Johnson's advice and presented the Civil Rights bill first thereby delaying the bulk of his legislative agenda. Johnson rose to the pinnacle of power in the House of Representatives by wooing the powerful speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who was also a Texan. He did the same thing in the Senate by befriending the powerful Democratic Majority leader Richard Russell from Georgia. No politician knew more about Congress and how to get things done than Lyndon Johnson. After passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act Johnson realized that he had lost the South to the Republican Party. Bill Moyers. a Johnson aide, stated "When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come". The following is a passage from his first speech to Congress two days after the funeral of John Kennedy, Wednesday November 27th, 1963. 

First, no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law. I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.

  As far as the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War we are still paying a terrible price. The War on Poverty combined with the Hippie movement was a curse on this land. Regardless of whether you fall down on the side that it actually alleviated poverty in America or it didn't, in my opinion the greatest damage was to the American family. Before the War on Poverty there were two safety nets that discouraged out of wedlock births. A man was an important part of a family and being pregnant out of wedlock, especially without a man, was a shameful thing. It was also a sure path to poverty. Economics professor Walter E. Williams writes: "According to the 1938 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, that year 11 percent of black children and 3 percent of white children were born to unwed mothers." In mid 1960's America, the nation's out-of-wedlock birth rate (which stood at 7.7 percent at the time) began a rapid and relentless climb across all demographic lines, a climb that would continue unabated until 1994, when the Welfare Reform Act helped put the brakes on that trend. Today the overall American illegitimacy rate is about 40.7 percent (29.1 percent for non-Hispanic whites). For blacks, it is about 72 percent—approximately three times the level of black illegitimacy that existed when the War on Poverty began in 1964. Before the expansion of Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) only widows and poor single women received help from the government. This law was New Deal legislation passed in 1935. Originally mostly white women received it because they usually didn't work before being widowed. Most black women were working and didn't qualify. After the law was expanded to include more women in the 1960's it still primarily affected white women. The AFDC program tended to treat households with a cohabiting male who was not the natural father of the children much more leniently than those with a resident spouse or father of the children. This feature created a clear disincentive for marriage and also a clear incentive for divorce, because women who married faced the reduction or loss of their AFDC benefits. The welfare reform act of 1996 limited women to five years and ended much of the abuse of the program. Because of the sexual revolution and the Hippie movement out of wedlock births were no longer shameful. My cousin became pregnant out of wedlock at 15 in the early 1960's and my aunt kept her hid from the family until after the baby was born because she was so embarrassed. Now having children out of wedlock is nothing. The Hippie movement came about as a result of the Vietnam War. This movement popularized drug use which has also been very damaging to society and the family. Because of Johnson's failure and mishandling of the Vietnam War drug use among American troops skyrocketed. This has also aggravated social problems and drug addiction related to returning Vietnam veterans and has contributed to homelessness. The combination of single parent and fatherless homes combined with increased drug use has contributed to the increase in poverty and crime since the 1960's. This can all be placed at the feet of LBJ.

  I have often wondered how different America would be today if John Kennedy had lived or Barry Goldwater had been elected president in 1964. There is pretty solid evidence that Kennedy was moving toward a more moderate stance in regard to Vietnam. He felt that the Vietnamese were going to have shoulder the major part of the effort to defend Vietnam. We would continue to supply arms and training but the Vietnamese would have to provide the combat troops. This in essence was the same policy that Nixon would later use to get us out of the war. It was called Vietnamization. When Johnson became president upon the death of Kennedy he felt an obligation to keep the same cabinet and advisers that Kennedy had. These men were called the ""best and the brightest" by author David Halberstam in a book by the same title. People like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith, George Ball, Nicholas Katzenbach, Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor, and William Bundy just to name a few. These were the whiz kids of academia and industry brought in to manage and advise Kennedy and later Johnson of military strategy regarding Vietnam. A measured response strategy that produced a successful outcome in the Cuban Missile Crisis was also used as we escalated the war beginning in March 1965. There were bombing halts, military bombing targets were picked by the White House. We avoided taking out enemy sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. Johnson would not invade North Vietnam or do anything to increase the likelihood of China intervening in the war as they did in Korea. Our strategy for winning the war defied common sense.

  The Eisenhower Administration had focused on building up our nuclear Triad forces, which was a three pronged method of defending America with nuclear armed bombers, ICBM's, (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), and SLBM's, (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles). This was called the New Look. Ike knew that it was cheaper to build up nuclear forces rather than conventional forces. As a result he had less options. He developed a military strategy called (Massive Retaliation). If countries got out of line he would just threaten them with nuclear destruction. After Kennedy was elected he built up our conventional forces with an emphasis on counterinsurgency. He created the Green Berets and the Navy Seals were formed as a naval counterpart to the Green Berets. By the time of Kennedy's death Johnson had a ready made army at his disposal. In August 1964 Johnson based his response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident on a lie. He had formed plans for heavy air raids on North Vietnam in the Spring but they felt that they would need some kind of provocation to justify these attacks in the eyes of the American people. On August 2, and 4, North Vietnamese torpedo boats supposedly attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The attack on the 2nd occurred but it is pretty certain that the attack on the 4th never happened. Knowing this Johnson approached congress for a war resolution that would basically give him a free hand in regards to Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed on August 7,1964. There were only 2 dissenting votes. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska. Morse tried to warn his fellow Senators that they should wait until there was a further investigation into the incident because Johnson couldn't be trusted but he was unsuccessful.

  LBJ knew that he had two wars to fight. The War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam. He believed that America was rich and powerful enough to fight both. Johnson's preference was the War on Poverty. Out of frustration he would call Vietnam that "bitch of a war". In order to pull off fighting both wars he had to manage them in such a way that would avoid too much attention by the American people. Having a ready made professional army at his disposal he was able to expand the war so gradually that he could avoid a draft. At least for a few years. When the draft came two thirds of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers and the remaining third were drafted. Most men were drafted from poor and working class families. They were usually from under represented congressional districts. Finally in order to make the draft fairer a lottery system was devised on December 1, 1969. The first since 1942. I joined the Air Force in January 1968 and was inducted on August 5, 1968. If I wasn't proactive I would likely be drafted. I was very patriotic but I felt that the war was being mismanaged and never doubted that I would serve in some capacity. This wasn't my fathers war. It was much more complicated than that. As it was I nearly ended up in Vietnam in the Air Force. Most of the men in my unit were either going to Vietnam or coming back. I would listen to their war stories with interest. Air Force Security policemen were tasked with Air Base Ground Defense. They endured primarily rocket and mortar attacks. Occasionally they would fight off perimeter penetrations by Viet Cong sappers. Security Police would fight off massive attacks all across Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive at places like Ton Son Nhut and Bien Hoa air bases. Many Security Policemen won the Silver Star for bravery and many were killed and wounded. I always expected that I would end up in Vietnam and had resigned myself to it. So many in my unit were going to Vietnam and Southeast Asia that an Airman wrote a letter of complaint to his congressman. After an investigation myself and four other Airmen were the first in our unit to go to somewhere other than Southeast Asia. One was sent to Canada, one to Greece, and the rest of us received orders to Tuslog Detachment 93 in Turkey.

Air Force Security Policemen fighting off a Viet Cong attack during the Tet Offensive in 1968 

 Another aspect of Johnson's deception was that he would not need to call out the National Guard and the Reserves. This is why so many men flocked to the Guard and Reserves in order to avoid service in Vietnam and their image suffered for many years as a result. Reservists were considered draft dodgers. Johnson was also dead set against raising taxes in order to pay for the war. He was also determined to keep inflation under control. So determined that when he heard that egg farmers were wanting to raise prices he manufactured a false report that eggs were high in cholesterol which sent the price of eggs plummeting. It was during the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty that Johnson began the practice of raiding the social security surplus in order to finance these wars while keeping taxes low. A practice that every president and congress since Johnson has used, to our detriment, for financing the government. The massive spending of the 1960's and early 70's would eventually lead the out of control inflationary cycle of the late 1970's and early 80's.  

  Johnson's generals along with William Westmoreland issued upbeat reports on the progress of the war. Our first troop commitment that signaled a shift to an American takeover of ground combat, occurred in March 1965 when the Marines landed at Da Nang. By January 1968 we had 500,000 troops in country. By then we were actually hurting the Viet Cong and it was decided by General Giap to launch an all out attack on the major population centers. Westmoreland wanted to send the bulk of our forces into the rural areas on search and destroy missions. Lt. General Frederick Weyand fortunately decided to disobey orders and kept American forces concentrated around the cities. The Tet Offensive began on January 30th 1968 and was conducted in three phases that lasted until September 23, 1968. Eighty thousand Viet Cong attacked 100 cities. At first American and South Vietnamese forces suffered setbacks but after a few days it was evident that our troops had the upper hand. The US inflicted massive casualties on the Viet Cong. It would take a month of hard fighting to liberate the city of Hue. Thousands of civilians were murdered by the Communists. By the end of the offensive the Viet Cong was destroyed as an effective fighting force. They would no longer be a major factor in the war. From that point on the North Vietnamese Regular Army would do most of the fighting. TET was a tactical and strategic victory for American forces. It was very similar to our victory over the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. We were initially surprised but in the end it was a devastating defeat for the enemy. The American media reported it as if it were a defeat. This is when Walter Cronkite reported that it was his opinion that we were losing. Johnson supposedly made the comment that if he had lost Cronkite he had lost the nation. Personally I believe that it can be proven that he still had the support of the silent majority. Americans wanted to win and they were not willing to see the sacrifice of so many men and women go for nothing. TET was a shock to the American people. We were told that we were winning and then the enemy was able to mount a major offensive. The Germans were thought to be defeated when they launched Operation Watch on the Rhine which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge. Like Tet we destroyed their attack but there was a different press to deal with back then. 

  Johnson decided that he could not be re-elected in 1968. I was watching the speech when he declared that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president". Like most people I was shocked. In this speech Johnson declared a partial bombing halt and announced the opening of unilateral peace talks. America at this moment snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In spite of Johnson's mishandling of the war we were putting a hurt on the Viet Cong. This was the reason that Giap took desperate measures by launching the Tet Offensive in the first place. Johnson's announcement and subsequent actions signaled to the average American soldier that we were no longer interested in winning the war. The morale of the military took a nosedive. Nobody wanted to die for a losing effort. Discipline suffered and unpopular officers were being fragged. Drug use in the ranks skyrocketed which had a huge impact on the home front as these soldiers returned home, combined with the drug use glamorized by the Hippie movement and Hollywood.  Nixon was elected and in essence all he did was return to the earlier policy of John Kennedy which was Vietnamization. In 1972 American troop strength had fallen drastically and the war was for the most part being fought with Vietnamese troops and American air power. That year Giap tried again to overwhelm South Vietnam by launching the Eastertide Offensive led by the North Vietnamese Army. This offensive was destroyed by B-52 heavy bombers and South Vietnamese troops. Nixon would negotiate an end to the American involvement in January 1973. One assurance that Nixon made to the South Vietnamese was that if the North Vietnamese tried another takeover the United States would supply the air power to beat it back. The North Vietnamese took advantage of the political vacuum created by the Watergate scandal and were successful in overrunning South Vietnam in 1975. The Ford Administration was unable to fulfill Nixon's promise and the Democrats did what they are best at. They pulled the rug out from under South Vietnam by ending all financial support. America never lost on the battlefields of Vietnam. The war was lost here at home by Quislings and traitors. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for a takeover of the Democratic Party by the radical elements in 1972. The radicals over time have weeded out the conservative and moderate wings of the party until all that is left is the radicals. I believe that Johnson's expansion of the war and his mishandling of the war was the catalyst for the downward spiral that we find ourselves in today. So my final grade for the presidency of Lyndon Johnson is this. In the area of Civil Rights he gets an A. For the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam he gets an F.           




  1. I shook his hand in downtown Austin Texas, on a rope line, in 1965.

    1. I was real close to him but never touched him.

  2. I'm so glad the Johnson Presidency is over. Those were some of the worst years of my young life. Newly discharged from the Air Force in 1967, after serving four years, I thought the Country was going into a state of anarchy. MLK was killed, Bobby Kennedy was killed...race riots, inflation, drug use, protests, hippies. However, the moon landing in 1969 was a very redeeming event that seemed to bring us all back together with pride...for a while. What a difference the '60s were from the '50s!