JFK, LBJ, and Vietnam
For several reasons, few of them worthwhile, and for some time I have been wondering about I what call “the policy-making paradigm of politics” as a particular and peculiar kind of politics – in a manner of speaking. I also call it “the problem-solving paradigm of politics.”
Having recently read a very good book by John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power,” I have found some illumination on the workings of such a paradigm. Toward the end of his book, Newman points out the similarities – as well as the differences – between JFK and LBJ as follows: “The key to understanding how this campaign problem differed for these two men is this: Kennedy had to disguise a withdrawal; Johnson had to disguise intervention.”  That is, both Kennedy and Johnson engaged in deception, Kennedy to keep combat troops out of Vietnam while Johnson did so to get combat troops into Vietnam.
And they both did it for the same reason. Kennedy disguised withdrawal because he was fearful that if he went public with his policy, he would lose the election of 1964, being defeated as an “appeaser” of communism, as the one who “lost” Vietnam. Johnson shared the same fears. “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went.”  But Johnson didn’t make these views public during the ’64 campaign because he, like JFK, was fearful if he did so he would lose the election. So, neither man went public with his views, Kennedy disguising his withdrawal and Johnson disguising his intervention. Neither man was willing to give the American people the choice to withdraw or intervene. And both men were willing to and did engage in deception and intrigue in order to have their way.
It is important to see that this behavior is part and parcel of a policy-making or problem-solving politics. In such a politics, Vietnam was a “problem” needing a “solution” and our politicians, our officials were expected to have such a solution, which then they would “sell” to the American people. The solution thus takes precedence over “the consent of the governed” and if that consent is not forthcoming, then politicians should work around, should manipulate, should even deceive the people to implement the solution. A policy-making or problem-solving politics is a way of short-circuiting popular rule or “people power.” The politicians choose both the problems and the solutions, not the people.
Hence, the chant, common during the war, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your bloody war!” was “radical” in that it rejected the policy-making paradigm. It meant, among other things, that Vietnam was not a problem, not our problem, and so we Americans had no business being there. It is only a short step from this to the idea that our intervention in Vietnam was indefensible, even immoral. A policy-making paradigm cannot deal with such an argument and, hence, has to marginalize such assertions of the popular will as thoughtless, as ignorant, as illegitimate, or as simply unworthy.
But politics or self-government would seem to require, at the very least, that the people be given choices, here the choice to decide whether to withdraw or intervene in Vietnam. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson was willing to do this, abrogating to themselves the power, even the right to make that most basic choice about a war in Vietnam for the people. Once that step is taken, once that right is claimed, then “deception, intrigue, and the struggle for power” will follow, follow as night follows day, follow as darkness follows light. And, for sure, there will be no “light at the end of the tunnel.”