Lyndon Johnson's Other Wars

Mr. Janeway, twenty-seven, is a member of the ATLANTIC’S editorial staff. His history thesis at Harvard‚ “Lyndon Johnson and the Rise of Conservatism in Texas,” will eventually be published in expanded form.

by Michael C. Janeway

In the period since Lyndon Johnson became President, he has frequently told newspaper reporters of parallels between a situation now and one which occurred during the thirty-six years since he first went to Washington. Often he seemed to want to suggest that though his idol, Franklin Roosevelt‚ was a great man and a shrewd politician, LBJ, the protégé, is at least shrewder. One man testing himself against the record of an illustrious mentor and predecessor is harmless, familiar stuff— FDR often spoke of avoiding mistakes made by Woodrow Wilson and the first Roosevelt.1 As Johnson was building up for his tremendous 1964 election victory‚ he encouraged the press to bill it as the biggest landslide since FDR carried fortysix states in 1936. But he was also remarking that he was not going to re-enact Roosevelt’s misconstrual of his 1936 mandate. As James Reston wrote in January‚ 1965, Johnson “has a horror of making mistakes. He is highly conscious even now of Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-packing blunder after the election of 1936.” (Johnson, of course, was not adding footnotes citing such interesting circumstances as that he himself was first elected to Congress in the spring of 1937 on a one-plank platform: support for FDR’s Courtpacking plan.)

It is worth raising some questions about how Johnson is applying the lessons of history now. There have been signs that he is using them not to amuse himself or ornament his image, but in a desperate fashion. It is as if an episode in history — his history — has a compelling hold over him. He knows the episode well‚ for it was enormously significant for him as well as for the nation and the world. Not the least of its force is that in the course of the episode Lyndon Johnson, as a loyal Roosevelt legionnaire‚ fought on what has been regarded ever since as the right side of history; the Neville Chamberlains, the Joe Kennedys‚ the Burton Wheelers were stigmatized ever after. It is the period from Munich to Pearl Harbor.

It could in fact be argued that Johnson has been living a telescoped rerun of the entire New Deal era, the era which shaped his life. Thus the legislative advances of the first year and a half of his Administration would correspond to those of the New Deal.2 The 1964 election would correspond to that of 1936. After the 1964 election, as after that of 1936, a period of legislative and administrative reform came to a pause and then an end; a widening war became the dominant reality. (One of Johnson’s own motives in using the Roosevelt comparison is to imply a direct sequence and political inheritance which bypass John F. Kennedy entirely. For example‚ early in 1964 when he was new to the presidency, he held a small ceremony at the White House to celebrate a rehanging of the presidential portrait of Franklin Roosevelt in a more prominent place than the one in which it was previously displayed. Many New Deal figures were on hand. As the portrait of FDR was lowered into its new place‚ Johnson leaned down to the ear of one of them, Thomas G. Corcoran, and remarked, “The transition is over.”)

All of this means little, except insofar as it means something to Lyndon Johnson. And it seems it does. There are as many reasons for his need to identify his course in Vietnam with FDR’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the early 1940s as there are reasons for his identification with the whole broad sweep of Roosevelt’s presidency. There are personal factors: the central figure of Johnson’s generation was also his personal benefactor and mentor. In lean years, Johnson employed the reputation of his intimacy with Roosevelt as armor against attacks on his own liberal credentials. From Munich to Pearl Harbor, FDR steered a difficult, patient course, tacking into the wind of a war he saw as inescapable, buffeted by political attacks from left and right, but confident always of his course, its rightness, and its ultimate success. The parallel is attractive to Johnson, who (for the sake of “consensus,” among other reasons) wants a truly heroic and certifiably liberal precedent with which to associate his venture in Vietnam. The Munich-toPearlHarbor experience offers that heroic precedent — to men who fought through it on the right side of history. (There is another period of recent history which I think has a hold over Johnson: the traumatic last Truman years, when Democrats were “soft on Communism.” Johnson’s need to exorcise those ghosts is also an element of his Vietnam policy.)


Roosevelt actually brought Johnson into the fight for war preparedness and against appeasement a full year and a half before Munich, when he arranged Johnson’s assignment to the House Naval Affairs Committee upon his election to Congress in April, 1937. Johnson was henceforth able to balance his New Deal label with positions on defense issues that transcended left-right splits. Why send a fervent young New Dealer from a landlocked central Texas district to the Naval Affairs Committee in 1937? Because, Roosevelt foresaw, storms were brewing which would endanger the position of a pure and simple New Dealer in Texas, storms in which FDR would need foreign and military policy supporters more than domestic reform supporters. In October, 1937, came FDR’s “quarantine the aggressors” speech.

Johnson traded all-out support of Administration policy for naval construction projects along the coast of Texas, none of which hurt Congressman Johnson of Austin when he campaigned for a vacant Senate seat in the spring of 1941. Announcing his candidacy on the steps of the White House after a conference with Roosevelt, Johnson ran with solid Administration support. He called “Roosevelt and unity” the “only issue,” and supported aid for Britain, stating that Hitler and Mussolini would line up against the United States “the day they shake that island loose.” He lost the race by a close margin. In August of 1941, back in the House, Congressman Johnson was one of the floor managers of the bill to extend the Selective Service Act (which had been enacted the year before) for one more year. Speaking for the bill‚ Johnson told the House: “The question still is freedom or slavery. There is no way to escape it. Some cry out for appeasement, but there is a 100% record of destruction and death in every attempt toward appeasement of the Axis powers. . . . The world is in a war to decide freedom or slavery. . . . We are in that world. That war may wash nearer our shores anytime. Darker days than these may lie ahead for us. I hope not, but perhaps they are nearer than we think. . . . I regret the changes time has brought in the last two years. . . . But ... in the face of them, I cannot sell out the welfare of my country.”

The bill passed by one vote. (Substitute one word — “Communist” for “Axis” — and that speech would not sound unusual emanating from the White House today, right down to regretting the changes of the last two years.)

“From Munich until today”

The rhetoric of the President on Vietnam is by now familiar: “We are engaged in a crucial struggle in Vietnam. . . . Independent South Vietnam has been attacked by North Vietnam. The object of that attack is total conquest. Defeat in South Vietnam would deliver a friendly nation to terror and repression.

“It would encourage and spur on those who seek to conquer all free nations that are within their reach. Our own welfare, our own freedom, would be in great danger.

“This is the clearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today, we have learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats and brings even more destructive war. To stand firm is the only guarantee of a lasting peace. . . .

“For this is the same battle which we’ve fought for a generation.”

(LBJ, April 27, 1965)
Awarding a posthumous congressional Medal of Honor in May of this year, Johnson said of Americans who “debate” the war while others die in it: “Some of them have never learned, or have forgotten, the lessons of this century — that no nation or people can be secure when aggression is ignored, that those who can resist aggression bear the heaviest responsibility to do so, that resistance cannot be made without pain and sacrifice, but that the cost of ignoring the aggressor is to the integrity —the soul of a whole people.”

“The clearest lesson of our time,” “the lessons of this century” — it has the sound of a catechism. One can hear that tone as well in his sarcastic rejoinders to press conference queries about dissent, in which he recites the sins of the pre-war isolationists: “I remember one time Senator Borah said he had better information than the President. ... I remember Jeannette Rankin of Montana voting against the declaration of war.”

Rhetoric is rarely a valid measure of a man, never more than a kind of index, though now and again a great figure — Churchill and Roosevelt in our time — combines great rhetoric with great deeds. Johnson’s rhetoric in particular is little more than a hint of what he is up to and should not be overemphasized. Part but not all of it is cynical. Like most politicians, Johnson prefers to silence opposition rather than to fight it out at high noon. His Vietnam War rhetoric is designed to silence domestic criticism by rendering it an insult to men in the field, to the dead of this and past wars, and to the flag. But Johnson’s rhetoric is not all cynical; if anything he and his Administration appear to believe all too much of it‚ and to be, as Professor J. K. Galbraith recently suggested, the prisoners of their own propaganda. To many, Johnson has never seemed anything but a backroom operator and a cynical manipulator. But the zeal of his prosecution of the military effort in Vietnam, his beloved “other war,” and his rhetoric about building a post-war Great Society in the paddies of Southeast Asia suggest a resemblance between Lyndon Johnson’s war(s) and the medieval Crusades.

The uses of history

My purpose is not to question what Johnson said and thought in 1941. Nor is it to suggest that what he is doing now in any way discredits his judgment then. And it is certainly not to suggest that the lessons of 1938-1941 are invalid. What is at issue is their applicability. What Johnson said and thought in 1941, even when it seems to help determine what he says and thinks now, hardly legitimizes his present policies. Johnson seems to think it does: he seeks to simplify the confusion of this war and eradicate its squalor by linking it with the war against Nazism.

Now it is he who is the doctrinaire, and who eschews pragmatic solutions in Vietnam. The more emotional and irrational his equation of the worlds of 1941 and 1967, the more he misuses the lessons of history and seems in the spell of his fatalistic vision of that history. His memory is good, or at least strong, but that is not the same as understanding how to apply generationold history and experience in the present. He is looking, after all, for the similarities between the two, not the differences. In this sense, a little history, like a little learning, is a dangerous thing.

Johnson at his press conference of May 4, 1967, citing the recent words of one of the last of the great New Deal figures, former Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold:

Q. Mr. President, do you feel that the general level of dissent throughout the nation on Vietnam has reached a particularly critical point now. . . ?

A. I think whenever you have men dying and men sacrificing, when you have a million or more [sic] committed to a theater of war, you have dissent. It occupies a stage of discussion in our lives every day.

I was just reading last night a speech by Mr. Thurman Arnold. . . . He reviewed what happened after the fall of France: how as late as 1941 when the vote on the draft [i.e., on the extension of the draft, about which Johnson spoke to the House] was 203 to 202, there were eloquent voices of dissent which, according to his quotations, said that we should shrink our Army and concentrate our major efforts upon the Navy and the Air Force and lend-lease.

That was just a few days [in fact, a few months] before Pearl Harbor, after France had fallen‚ after Hitler had successfully performed the conquest of France.

We will expect dissent in any period like this. We have always had it. We hope that a majority will support our proposals, our appropriations and our recommendations. We hope it won’t be that narrow.” [My italics.]

Does Johnson now see an event of Pearl Harbor’s shattering impact‚ one which terminates debate and dictates mobilization at home‚ as his only hope for the restoration of “unity” and “consensus”? There is question whether the President prefers a military victory in Vietnam to a face-saving negotiated settlement; there is very little question that he wants “unity” more than either.

  1. FDR was deeply intent on succeeding where Wilson had failed both in winning the peace after winning the war, and in converting wartime prosperity into something better than post-war burst.
  2. See Tom Wicker, New York Times‚ April 15‚ 1965; Arthur Krock, New York Times, April 18, 1965‚ and Richard Rovere‚ New York Times magazine (“A Man for This Age Too”), April 11, 1965‚ for contrasts between FDR’s and LBJ’s “first 100 days.”