Lyndon and Bobby
In reading the book Mutual Contempt, I learned that, allegedly, RFK had a “Lyndon problem.” That is, Bobby Kennedy could not afford to be too critical of Johnson’s Vietnam policies without it costing him politically, that is, electorally. So Bobby compromised, didn’t express himself as candidly as he might have were he not a political actor or not seeking the presidency.
However, Bobby had another political problem, viz., his agreement with our “politics of credibility,” whereby the US had to be “involved” in the world and had to stay “involved” to prove its “credibility.” Once such a politics is accepted, then if that led to large-scale bombing in Vietnam or to large-scale troop infusions, then so be it. These things had to be done.
Bobby did try to distinguish himself from Johnson, in a way summed up as follows: “We have erred . . . in regarding Vietnam as a purely military problem. . . . [p. 267] While this may be true, there is a greater “error” Bobby doesn’t mention, viz., the assumption that Vietnam was an American problem. And of course this error stems from the idea that America must be “involved” in the world almost everywhere. As Bobby put it: “My only concern is that we emerge from these crises [Vietnam and the Dominican Republic] in an honorable position to continue our leadership in the world at large.” [p. 268]
Once you decide, as both Bobby and LBJ did, that America’s honor requires her “leadership in the world at large,” the only question is “how should the US be in Vietnam?” There other question, which our “involvement” in Vietnam should have raised, viz., “should the US be in Vietnam?” is ignored. And because Bobby did not raise this other, more important question, he was compelled to compromise with Johnson about how the US should be involved in Vietnam, as well as the Dominican Republic.
So RFK was not boxed in simply by LBJ and electoral politics; he was also boxed in by his own politics, a politics of “involvement,” or a politics of “credibility.” Without questioning such politics, which are essentially euphemisms for imperialism, Bobby was compelled to compromise with LBJ because he remained “committed” to the war in Vietnam, that is, to American imperialism. As Francis Fitzgerald has written, the US didn’t get caught in the quagmire of Vietnam; Vietnam got caught in the quagmire of American politics. Our politics of “credibility, “ of “honor,” of imperialism was the quagmire into which the Vietnamese stumbled in their pursuit of national unity.
And the “feud” between LBJ and RFK, as presented by the press, only served to obscure the more important issue, the issue of the character of American foreign policy in general. Their “feud” was essentially over the details of US imperialism, whether it should be “purely military” or both military and political. Whether one or the other, it would still be imperialism. And to get to the more important question it would be necessary to get beyond the politics of credibility, beyond our politics of imperialism.