Success and American Politics
July 4, 2013
It is interesting for me to read about LBJ and the war in Vietnam as an illustration of the psychology of American politicians. And the following is based on some passages from a book, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, by James T. Patterson.
In his book, Patterson presents LBJ as “trapped” or “doomed” with regard to Vietnam. Here are two passages, one from Patterson and the second one a quote from LBJ himself, taken from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“If Johnson…allowed himself to hope…that incremental increases in bombing might…achieve…success…he was doomed to disappointment. The North Vietnamese were fighting a revolution, and they were not to be shaken from their course. Johnson, trapped, quietly decided…to launch daily and gradually more powerful air strikes against the North Vietnamese.” [p. 95, emphasis added]
“I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – to get involved in that bitch of a war…then I would lose everything at home. All my programs….But if I let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation…as an appeaser and we would find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe. Once the war began, then all those conservatives in Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society. Oh, I could see it coming. And I didn’t like the smell of it.” [p.92]
LBJ was and he played the victim, even to the point of being Christ-like as he would be “crucified” like Christ. He was the victim of Communists, of Congress, of conservatives, and of a “bitch.” And, apparently, there was “no way out.”
Secondly, victimizers very often play the victim. E.g., OJ Simpson and his children were “victimized” by Nicole who was a “slut.”
But let us take for granted that LBJ, in his own mind, was “trapped” or “doomed” and ask a simple question: Why?
Answer: Because he was unwilling to “do the right thing.” That is, he was unwilling to “do the right thing” if doing so meant “losing,” i.e., losing his power, his reputation as a powerful man, his place at “the top.” LBJ, like any calculating politician, put success, his success, the success of his programs, his policies, ahead of “doing the right thing.” Even MLK, Jr. made similar assumptions, saying that “he sympathized with Johnson’s ‘serious problem’ concerning Vietnam….” [p. 97] That is, MLK saw that handling Vietnam successfully was indeed a serious problem.
This is why it appeared that there was “no way out,” because success required actions that were, to put it mildly, less than satisfactory – bombing a “damn little piss-ant country,” as LBJ once described Vietnam – but were unlikely to succeed, as Johnson well knew. Once you seek success above all else [or power, prestige, or greatness], you are in fact “doomed,” “trapped,” and there is “no way out” from doing things that you know are not only inhuman but also almost certainly bound to fail.
Ah, but “do the right thing” and there is “a way out.”
 “As the marines were preparing to land [at Danang], [LBJ] called Senator Richard Russell.” “Dick,” he complained on March 6 , “a man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.” Russell concurred: "There’s no end to the road. There’s just nothing.” Johnson agreed….Russell sympathized, saying, “It’s just awful….It’s the biggest – it’s the worst mess I ever saw in my life. You couldn’t have inherited a worse mess.” P. 99.