Three New Revelations About LBJ

The author of an about-to-be-published biography of Lyndon Johnson shares some of what he has learned

URINATING in a sink, inviting people into his bathroom, showing off his abdominal scar, exposing his private parts: after a while nothing surprises a biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson. After fourteen years of research for a two-volume biography, of which the second volume, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press, I have, however, found some new evidence, in three areas, that even by Johnson standards is surprising.
First, I discovered that even as he decided to escalate the war, Johnson had deeper and more clairvoyant doubts about Vietnam than contemporaries could possibly have imagined. He believed his own rhetoric about the need to fight in Vietnam. At the same time, however, he could see the makings of the quagmire ahead.

When, in May of 1964, Senator Richard Russell told Johnson that Vietnam was "the damn worst mess I ever saw," LBJ replied, "That's the way I've been feelin' for six months." Shortly after, he told McGeorge Bundy, his national-security adviser, "The more I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more ... it looks to me like we're gettin' into another Korea.... I don't think it's worth fightin' for and I don't think we can get out. It's just the biggest damned mess.... What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? ... What is it worth to this country?"

After increasing U.S. combat troops in Vietnam in July of 1965, Johnson expressed doubts that he had done the right thing. "Light at the end of the tunnel?" he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers. "We don't even have a tunnel; we don't even know where the tunnel is."

Lady Bird Johnson remembers the President's pain over the war. "He had no stomach for it," she told me, "no heart for it; it wasn't the war he wanted. The one he wanted was on poverty and ignorance and disease, and that was worth putting your life into." She added, "It was just a hell of a thorn stuck in his throat. It wouldn't come up; it wouldn't go down.... It was just pure hell and did not have that reassuring, strong feeling that this is right, that he had when he was in a crunch with civil rights or poverty or education. It didn't have that 'We'll make it through this one; win or lose, it's the right thing to do.' So, uncertainty ... we had a rich dose of that.... True, you can 'bear any burden, pay any price' if you're sure you're doin' right. But if you do not know what is right ..." Her voice trailed off. The opposition provoked in the United States by the expanding war spoke to Johnson's hesitation and forebodings, but criticism made him more rather than less reluctant to consult his own doubts.

Johnson had "an unfillable hole in his ego," Moyers says. Feelings of emptiness spurred him to eat, drink, and smoke to excess. Sexual conquests also helped to fill the void. He was a competitive womanizer. When people mentioned Kennedy's many affairs, Johnson would bang the table and declare that he had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose.

Acknowledging the failure of a policy that by 1969 had cost 30,000 American lives was more than someone with so fragile an ego could manage.

Second, escalation of the war against his own misgivings made Johnson irrational almost to the point of disability. He told Richard Goodwin, a White House aide, that opponents of the war were close to being traitors. He told his staff that "the communists already control the three major networks and the forty major outlets of communication." He complained to Moyers that "the communist way of thinking" had infected everyone around him.

Moyers described Johnson to me as "paranoid" and "depressed," and never more so than in 1965. Moyers attributes this dark passage to "the realization about which he was clearer than anyone -- that [Vietnam] was a road from which there was no turning back." Johnson saw the decision to send troops as potentially marking the end of his presidency. "It was a pronounced, prolonged depression," Moyers adds. "He would just go within himself, just disappear -- morose, self-pitying, angry.... He was a tormented man," who described himself to Moyers as being in a Louisiana swamp that was "pulling me down." "When he said it," Moyers remembers, "he was lying in bed with the covers almost above his head."

I asked Moyers if others in the White House were as troubled by Johnson's behavior as he and Goodwin. Yes, Moyers replied, and "when they were deeply concerned about his behavior, they would call me -- Cabinet officers and others. Rusk would call me and tell me about some exchange he just had with the President that was very disturbing, and he would say that he seemed to be very depressed."

I asked Moyers if Johnson was so continually depressed as to be incapable of rational judgments on Vietnam. No, he answered. Johnson was erratic. One day he would be down and the next he would be upbeat. "But always when he returned to the subject of Vietnam, this cloud in his eyes and this predictably unpredictable behavior" would recur.

Third, Johnson's role in the 1968 presidential campaign was more central to its outcome than previously known, or even suspected. In August, after Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated and Hubert Humphrey, the likely Democratic nominee, hinted that he would make a quick end to the war, Johnson tried to come back into the presidential race and arrange a draft for himself at the Chicago convention. He asked John Connally to discuss his nomination with southern governors. A negative response from the governors, combined with the riot at the convention between anti-war demonstrators and Mayor Richard J. Daley's police force, ended such thoughts. Resigned to Humphrey's candidacy, Johnson pressed his Vice President throughout the campaign not to stray too far from the Administration's position on Vietnam.

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