LBJ, Vietnam, and American Politics
April 24, 2015
The conventional understanding of Lyndon Johnson’s use of the Vietnam War was that he needed to pursue that war, engage in its vigorously in order to make his “Great Society” acceptable to those conservatives who might otherwise not support it. In brief, American intervention on a grand scale in Vietnam was the price LBJ paid for his Great Society.
However, an alternative view is possible and, at least, plausible and it goes something like this.
First, it is necessary to keep in mind that Johnson went to war “whole hog” only after his victory in the 1964 presidential election, a victory that is most accurately labeled a landslide. But it is also necessary to realize that such landslides are dangerous because they are the result, in part, of forces let loose that need to managed or controlled if the established order, the prevailing ruling group is to survive. All landslides encompass what might be called “insurgent forces.” And certainly, in 1964, such insurgent or threatening forces existed and were growing, forces such as black power, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, flower power, the new left and SDS, to name a few of those forces. These forces had to be managed or controlled if the likes of LBJ were to go on controlling our national politics.
Second, LBJ used the war to try to manage or control these forces, and this required a “vigorous” prosecution of that war. In this manner, LBJ hoped to “discipline” society as well as reinforcing the power, the authority of “the establishment” by making those insurgent or threatening forces seem “unpatriotic” or even “treasonous.” And win or lose, LBJ’s strategy would bear fruit. If the war were “won,” an eventuality LBJ did not hold out much hope for, there would be a new birth of patriotism, as it were, and the insurgents would look like, at best, fools. But if the war were “lost,” this could be blamed on those unpatriotic and treasonous forces that dissented against the war.
In these ways, LBJ’s strategy of going “whole hog” into the war was a “no lose strategy.” Win or lose, this strategy would reinforce the power and authority of the established order, of the status quo. Moreover, it is important to point out that the greater the “unrest,” the greater would be the opprobrium for the dissenters, for the insurgents. The riots in Chicago, for example, at the Democratic National Convention could be seen as almost a godsend from this point of view. What better way to illustrate how “uncivil,” how “vicious” these insurgents were?
I will submit as well both that Richard Nixon would continue this strategy and that LBJ knew this and, hence, would not have been all that upset that Nixon was elected president. In fact, as Nixon had even less reason to try to please the insurgents, the dissenters, his election would have been preferable to that of Humphrey in terms of preserving the status quo. And, of course, Nixon did not disappoint, promising that he was seeking to “unify” the nation, while also promising to reinstitute “law and order” which, as all knew, meant suppressing the insurgency and the insurgents. From his selection of Spiro Agnew as his vice president to his willingness not only to continue but to expand the war, while bringing American soldiers home, Nixon proved to be “all that he could be” when it came to preserving the status quo.
If there is one aspect of politics that is too often overlooked in the United States, it is the fact that politicians, especially those “in” power, want to keep their power. And to do that, because all politicians owe their standing to a particular kind of politics, a particular kind of political order, they must strive to preserve the status quo. And, one result of this is that electoral landslides are dangerous and must be managed or controlled. That LBJ was willing to use the war in Vietnam, a war he suspected could not be won, is a testament to his “realism.” The sad thing is that it is also a testament to how inhuman, how extremist “political realism” can be.