Q&A with Michael Beschloss: Tapes provide record of Johnson’s Vietnam dilemma

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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When the White House’s elaborate taping system was revealed during Watergate, the immediate benefit was to enemies of Richard Nixon. The long-term beneficiaries, however, have proved to be presidential historians. Michael Beschloss’ new book, Reaching for Glory, is the second part of his trilogy examining the secret tapes President Lyndon Johnson made in the Oval Office. The book, which covers 1964 and 1965, outlines Johnson’s relationship with the Kennedys, his relationship with Congress, and his spells of depression. But it is Johnson’s newly revealed thoughts on the war in Vietnam that have gotten the most attention. Dr. Beschloss sat down with Dallas Morning News staff writer Joshua Benton and members of the newspaper’s editorial board during a recent stop in Dallas. Here are excerpts from their discussion:

QUESTION: What surprised you most listening to these tapes?

ANSWER: The main thing that surprised me was that Johnson said in private that he didn’t feel we could win the war. This was at the same time he was making the decision to escalate. The first thing I thought at the time was: What do you say to a veteran who went to Vietnam, or a veteran’s family, when the president has these secret doubts? The other side of these doubts is that I think humanly, it speaks well for him that he was so anguished about the war. A lot of people who hated Johnson in the anti-war movement thought he was an icy figure with no pangs of conscience. The fact is he knew, probably more clearly than anyone else, what kind of problems he was putting the country through. It’s chilling to listen to these tapes and hear Johnson say he’s scared to death, that he feels chained down, that he doesn’t believe we can win the war. At one point, he says, “I feel as if I’m in a plane crashing and I don’t have a parachute.” It’s horrifying, because we like to think our presidents have freedom of action.

QUESTION: If Johnson knew the war might be unwinnable, why didn’t he pivot and say, “This isn’t our war”?

ANSWER: He could have done it, but he would have paid a price. If you listen to Johnson on these tapes, talking about the war, he foresaw the problems more clearly than anyone. He said you can’t fight a war if you’re divided at home. The Senate and the House will walk away from it, the campuses will go up in flame. He listens to his friend Richard Russell saying it could take 10 years, 50,000 men could die, and we still might not win – which was exactly right, as it turned out. And Johnson agreed with all this. My point is, if that’s what a president thinks, he should level with the American people. That’s the way democracy works. He could have gone to the American people and said, “I think Vietnam is important and we should defend it to win the Cold War. Yet you should know the costs could be very high. You the American people should choose.” If he had presented it that way, there’s a possibility people would have said, “Maybe this isn’t our fight.” That’s how the system is supposed to work. It didn’t work this time because Johnson didn’t come out and say what he believed.

QUESTION: Would another president in the same situation have done differently?

ANSWER: It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have been president in 1965 doing much else. It’s only speculative, but I think if John Kennedy had been president in 1965, there’s a very good chance he would have done roughly what Johnson did. He might have been more open about it, but Kennedy was, like Johnson, very concerned about being labeled as soft on communism. Both men had wanted to advance a big domestic agenda. Johnson saw no way out. He thought it was just a given that you had to defend Vietnam. And he had people like Robert Kennedy saying, “My brother made a commitment to Vietnam and you’d better keep it or we’ll go after you” – ironically enough, considering what happened later on.

At the same time, he wanted to save his position in Congress to get these great things through, like Medicare and voting rights. Johnson, whose entire background was in Congress, had an instinct that said, “Let me find a way to get through this.” For Johnson, that meant you say the war is going to be won, and you keep the response to the war at bay long enough to get your domestic agenda accepted, which is what he really cared about. The irony is that this is the year he thought he would become the equal of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. And to a great degree he deserved to, with his domestic accomplishments. Instead, as I think he was very much aware, he was committing political suicide.

QUESTION: Did Johnson rely too much on his foreign policy advisers because of his lack of confidence in that area?

ANSWER: Absolutely. John Connally said, when Johnson took office, the first thing to do is fire the Kennedy people. Not because they’re bad people, but because you need to have people whose loyalty you could be absolutely certain of. He knew how suspicious Johnson could be. You hear on the tapes, when Johnson is talking to his own aides on domestic policy, he’s in command, he knows what to take with a grain of salt. When someone’s trying to B.S. him, he knows what to believe and what not to. But with the foreign policy people, who are mainly Kennedy people, he doesn’t ask many questions, he’s very deferential, and that handicapped him.

QUESTION: Is there anything Johnson could have done that might have made getting out of Vietnam easier?

ANSWER: When you’re understanding these presidents, you have to understand what they were really facing. In retrospect, we know what a disaster it was. If you rewind the tape, the way I would do it would be to have Johnson probably call on Richard Russell, his old mentor, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from Georgia – he was Mr. Defense, and no one could ever call him weak. Get him to stand on the floor of the Senate and tell the American people what Russell was saying in private, that it might take 10 years and 50,000 men, and we still might not win. If Russell demanded that Johnson not bring us into a war that was stacked against us, it might have helped Johnson. But even if he had done that, remember there were many millions of people who voted for Barry Goldwater. They would have crucified Johnson for doing that. It wouldn’t have been easy. It would have been horrible, and it probably would have destroyed his domestic program. He would have had trouble passing a lot of the things he was able to get passed, because he would have spent all of his time defending himself on Vietnam.

QUESTION: Will we have the same sort of historical record of future administrations as we did of Johnson’s?

ANSWER: When George W. Bush took office, he was told to stop using e-mail, which he had used to use a lot, because people worried it’d be too transparent. Presidents are now told to keep as little on paper as possible. People are self-censoring. It’s the ultimate cover-up. In 30 years, there will be no way to get into the mind of a president and learn about his decision making. I usually think it takes 30 or 40 years to get the proper perspective on a presidency. It takes a while to even know what are the right questions to ask. If you were writing about the Clinton presidency a few months ago, probably the biggest question to ask would be what role did he have in the remarkable economic growth America had during his terms in office. But now, the top question would probably be how well did he prepare the country for a major terrorist attack like the one we saw in September? When Herbert Hoover took office and the economy was still good, people might have asked similar economic questions about Calvin Coolidge. But when the stock market crashed, the question became what did he not do that might have averted the Depression? You need time to get perspective.