The Commitments Deepen

Lyndon Baines Johnson, a consummate politician, was a ka¬leidoscopic personality, forever changing as he sought to dominate or persuade or placate or frighten his friends and foes. A gigantic figure whose extravagant moods matched his size, he could be cruel and kind, violent and gentle, petty, generous, cunning, naive, crude, candid and frankly dishonest. He commanded the blind loyalty of his aides, some of whom worshipped him, and he sparked bitter derision or fierce hatred that he never quite fathomed. And he oscillated between peaks of confidence and depths of doubt, constantly accommodating his lofty ideals to the struggle for influence and authority. But his excesses reflected America’s dramas during his lifetime, among them the dramas he himself created. Or, as Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president he both respected and abused, put it, “He was an All-American president. He was really the history of this country, with all of the turmoil, the bombast, the sentiments, the passions. It was all there. All in one man.”
Raised in the harsh hills of eastern Texas, the elder son of a protective mother and a brutish father, Johnson early acquired an elemental faith in rugged individualism. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps— a thrifty, industrious, sincere, ambitious Horatio Alger hero. At col¬lege, he excelled as a campus operator, and after graduation he briefly taught high school before grabbing the chance to go to Washington as a congressman’s assistant. Using a job in the Roosevelt adminis-tration as a springboard, he won election to Congress, where tie mas¬tered the arcane art of politics as few of his colleagues would. By 1955, he was the Senate Democratic majority leader and one of the most powerful forces on Capitol Hill. Then, unpredictably, he ac¬cepted an offer to stand as John F. Kennedy’s running mate, and the vice-presidency spelled oblivion—until Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets propelled him into the White House.
Now, in 1964, he was president, but he never learned that the politician’s virtues can become the stateman’s vices, as Professor Hans J. Morgenthau once observed. As a representative and senator, John¬son could maneuver, dissemble, break promises and still escape re¬tribution. As president, by contrast, he would be held accountable for his every word and action.
The Depression and his formative New Deal years had ingrained in him an obsession to perpetuate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reforms. He labeled his vehicle the Great Society, and he fought dynamically for social justice, economic equity and racial equality, promoting the most progressive legislation in those fields in decades. But Vietnam intervened, and he was to explain his decision to wage war in Southeast Asia as inextricably linked to his determination to carry on in Roo¬sevelt’s footsteps. Doris Kearns, the most intimate of his biographers, recorded the arguments he advanced, following his retirement:
I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.
Johnson especially feared that right-wing adversaries would prevail over him should South Vietnam fall to Communism, just as Harry Truman had been hounded by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other demagogues after the Communists engulfed China. Recollecting McCarthy’s witch-hunts, he foresaw the danger of another “mean and destructive debate” that would “shatter my presidency, kill my admin¬istration and damage our democracy.” If a Communist victory in Vietnam knocked over the dominoes, Johnson would be the biggest domino to topple—or so he believed.
This real or imaginary prospect haunted him during the summer of 1964, as he campaigned for election against Senator Barry Gold- water, the conservative Republican with stridently anti-Communist rhetoric. But despite his political acuity, Johnson balked at mobilizing public support for the war in Vietnam. Instead, he manipulated the news media, evidently presuming that his measures would not be noticed. He may have initially expected to avoid full-scale interven¬tion, or perhaps he estimated that most Americans were too concerned with other problems to protest, as opinion surveys showed. He was certainly anxious to avert gestures that might encourage the Soviet Union or China to launch a variation of the Korean conflict in Vietnam
or to stage a diversionary crisis elsewhere. Whatever his motives, he refused to admit that he was going to war, yet he would never disavow his commitment, as he told Kearns: “Losing the Great Society was a terrible thought, but not so terrible as the thought of being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists. Nothing would be worse than that.”
Such assertions revealed Johnson’s basic conviction that America, the beacon of liberty, should never surrender. He had inherited the mythology of the Alamo, where Texas boys had “fought for free¬dom,” and he was not contaminated by the cynicism that affected youths after World War I, claiming, as he wrote in his college news¬paper in 1927, that America’s intervention in that conflict had been necessary to “make the world safe for democracy.” The same concept had guided him as a young congressman, when he labored to back Roosevelt’s attempts to prepare the United States for World War II. The memory of the Munich pact—Britain’s capitulation to the Nazis—made him a staunch cold warrior in the struggle against Com¬munism, and it molded his attitude toward the challenge in Vietnam. He would not reward “aggression” with “appeasement,” as he de¬clared in a typically vulgar analogy: “If you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he’ll be up on your porch, and the day after that he’ll rape your wife in your own bed.”

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