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To save a politician’s hide…

August 22nd, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.[1]

This quote paints a rather complementary picture of Lyndon Johnson and his reasons for escalating the Vietnam War. It is true that the political atmosphere of the era was hysterically anti-communist, and that any politician who could be portrayed as “soft on communism” suffered an inevitable fall. But the communist threat in Vietnam had been created by Americans with their support of the corrupt and unpopular French puppet Ngo Dinh Diem. In fact every American President from Eisenhower on knew that there was no way to overcome the popular appeal of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, but each President in his turn, fearing to be seen as “soft on communism,” essentially kicked the can of inevitable failure to his successor.

The political tactic is entirely understandable. To be sure, Americans then viewed the spread of communism as seriously as Americans today view the spread of terrorism. The Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, beginning American escalation, almost unanimously (407-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate). Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of the two to vote against the measure, warned “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake.” Boy howdy! In spite of near-unanimous support, the situation in Vietnam presented no immediate threat to the United States. Yet Johnson felt compelled to call upon American jingoism and fear as a political expedient. The question is, should we expect politicians to self-immolate to do the right thing? In this case Johnson’s failure to act on principle resulted in the death of over 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. How many lives are acceptable in return for saving a politician’s ass?

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written, Eighth Printing edition (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 251.

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