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.

Humphrey largely complied. But at the end of September, when he showed greater flexibility than the White House on how to end the war, Johnson reacted angrily. He told Clark Clifford that he doubted Humphrey's ability to be President. He lacked the guts for the job. After Humphrey had become Vice President and expressed doubts about the war, the White House, according to a Humphrey aide, Ted Van Dyk, had arranged for wiretaps on Humphrey's office phones. Van Dyk learned this from two Secret Service agents on the vice-presidential detail. Neither Van Dyk nor Humphrey was surprised. Though Johnson in principle disliked taping and wiretaps, he secretly taped more than 7,500 of his own telephone conversations as President. Moreover, during the 1964 campaign, after a visit to the White House, Richard Russell wrote, "Hoover has apparently been turned loose and is tapping everything.... [Johnson] stated it took him hours each night to read them all (but he loves this)." The speed with which Johnson had information about Humphrey's presidential campaign suggested to Van Dyk that the White House was still tapping Humphrey's phones in 1968. Johnson apparently wanted the taps to gain advance notice and a chance to dissuade him should Humphrey decide to break away on the war.

With Richard Nixon sending word to Johnson, through Billy Graham, that as President he would give Johnson "a major share of credit" for a settlement in Vietnam and would "do everything to make you ... a place in history," Johnson secretly favored Nixon in the campaign. "You know that Nixon is following my policies more closely than Humphrey," LBJ told his longtime friend Jim Rowe, a prominent Washington attorney, in October. When Humphrey persuaded Johnson to have a fence-mending talk at the White House and then showed up late from a campaign rally, Johnson refused to see him. Humphrey was furious. He told Van Dyk, "That bastard Johnson.... I saw him sitting in his office. Jim Jones [a member of the White House staff] was standing across the doorway, and I said to him: 'You tell the President he can cram it up his ass.' I know Johnson heard me."

At this charged moment in the campaign Elias P. Demetracopoulos, a Greek journalist who had fled Athens in 1967 after the colonels' coup, provided the President with a chance to damage, if not sink, Nixon's campaign. Demetracopoulos had learned that Greece's military dictators had funneled more than half a million dollars into the Nixon-Agnew campaign. He gave this information to Larry O'Brien, Humphrey's campaign manager. Demetracopoulos urged O'Brien to put this potentially incendiary news before Johnson; CIA Director Richard Helms, Demetracopoulos said, could confirm its accuracy. O'Brien took the story to the President, but Johnson, according to what O'Brien told Demetracopoulos, refused to act on it. He would neither ask Helms to investigate the report nor leak it to the press should it prove to be true. Johnson wanted something to use against Nixon if the Nixon Justice Department started to comb the Johnson Administration for scandal, and Nixon's Greek connection would serve that purpose handsomely.

Only in the final days of the campaign -- when Nixon destroyed Johnson's last chance of reaching a peace settlement as President by secretly persuading the Saigon government not to participate in peace talks and thus not to allow an October surprise that could give Humphrey the election -- did Johnson try to help Humphrey.

Johnson left it to Humphrey to decide whether to leak Nixon's "treason" on Vietnam. In what the journalist Theodore White called an uncommon act of political decency, Humphrey chose not to make Nixon's sabotaging of peace a last-minute issue in the campaign. Humphrey feared that should Nixon win anyway, accusations against him could provoke a constitutional crisis. Besides, Humphrey and Johnson would need to explain how they had learned of Nixon's actions. They didn't want to reveal the wiretaps and bugs that had brought them the information about Nixon's undermining of the peace talks.

If LBJ had run again in 1968, can there be any doubt that, unlike Humphrey, he would have used Nixon's skulduggery against him in the closing days of the campaign? How different our national perspective would be had Johnson, rather than Nixon, served from 1969 to 1973.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Three New Revelations About LBJ; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 42 - 44.