From 1964 to 1968, close to 34,000 Americans died in South Vietnam. We will never know how many Vietnamese women, men, and children perished during those years, but the total, according to most estimates, was at least one million. Among the dead were tens of thousands of civilians—blown apart by explosives dropped from planes, burned to death by napalm, or gunned down by U.S. troops whose commanders told them that, in a village considered loyal to the Vietcong, they should “kill anything that we see and anything that moved.” Their commander-in-chief was Lyndon Baines Johnson.
This past week, on the golden anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, four of LBJ’s successors went to his library in Texas to praise his character and his deeds. George W. Bush lauded him for turning “a nation’s grief to a great national purpose.” Jimmy Carter chided his fellow Democrats for not emulating Johnson’s determination to fight for racial equality. Barack Obama remarked that LBJ’s “hunger” for power “was harnessed and redeemed by a deeper understanding of the human condition, by a sympathy for the underdog, for the downtrodden, for the outcast.” Bill Clinton reflected that Johnson “saw limitless possibilities in the lives of other poor people like him who just happened to have a different color skin.”
Some liberal journalists echoed the chief executives, past and present. LBJ, wrote my friend E.J. Dionne, presided over “a consensual period when a large and confident majority believed that national action could expand opportunities and alleviate needless suffering. The earthily practical Johnson showed that finding realistic ways of creating a better world is what Americans are supposed to do.” Not a word about those countless people in Southeast Asia whose lives reached their unnatural limits when they encountered an American infantryman with an M-16 or a bomb dropped from a B-52.
Of course, to remember what the United States, during LBJ’s tenure, did to Vietnam and to the young Americans who served there does not cancel out his domestic achievements. But to portray him solely as a paragon of empathy, a liberal hero with a minor flaw or two, is not merely a feat of willful amnesia. It is deeply immoral.
In 1965, as Johnson was pushing Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, he was also initiating the bombing of North Vietnam and signing the orders which eventually sent over 500,000 U.S. troops to occupy and fight to “pacify” the Southern half of that country. At the time, liberal Democrats who opposed the war condemned the hypocrisy of a President who could help millions of Americans win their rights and a degree of medical security while he oversaw the destruction of what he called “a raggedy ass little third rate country.” Fifty years later, powerful Democrats in search of a usable past would just prefer to ignore the contradiction.
They would also, it seems, like to forget the profound damage which Johnson’s conduct of the war did to the fortunes of liberalism back home. As every politician and journalist once knew, mass discontent about the debacle in Vietnam split the Democratic Party in two and convinced LBJ not to run for re-election in 1968. The party’s nominee, that flaming liberal Hubert Humphrey, then won less than 43 percent of the popular vote. It would be another 40 years before another unabashed liberal (uh, “progressive”) was elected president.
The disastrous conflict was not the sole reason why national politics slid rightward after LBJ left office; the energy crisis and stagflation of the 1970s also soured voters on the ability of government to keep the economy humming. But the turmoil caused by a war that Johnson could neither win nor justify was integral to that change.
A big reason why LBJ failed to persuade Americans to support his escalation is that he didn’t really believe in the cause himself. In May of 1964, he asked his old friend and sometime mentor, Senator Richard Russell, for his advice about what to do in Vietnam. Russell told him air strikes on the North would mostly just “kill old men, women, and children.” The conservative Georgian added, “It’s just one of those places where you can’t win. Anything that you do is wrong.” Johnson listened carefully and did not disagree. He ended their conversation that day with a sigh, “Well, they’d impeach a president though that would run out, wouldn’t they?”
The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.