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Lyndon Johnson and Foreign Policy: What the New Documents Show

Lyndon Johnson should have been a great president. He was better than anybody alive at getting things done in Washington. He proved it in his first few years as president, when he persuaded the hitherto squabbling branches of government to work together. Freed for a time from checking and balancing, the president and Congress dealt with a long overdue domestic agenda; the result was the more than 200 laws and programs constituting the "Great Society" initiative. The United States witnessed the rare spectacle of its system of government actually working. A Republican business leader remarked, "Now that Americans have seen what a really professional politician can accomplish, they’ll never elect an amateur again."

A broad consensus supported the goals to which Johnson devoted his amazing energies and persuasive powers. At home, he acted to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination and to improve education—a closely related goal. Abroad, he tried to achieve a working relationship with the Soviet Union so the two superpowers could conduct their disagreements peacefully. In L.B.J., the United States seemed to have found a leader who knew both where to go and how to get there.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

What went wrong was Johnson’s foreign policy: foremost, the disaster of Vietnam. That seemed evident at the time. Now, recent and forthcoming studies question that verdict. Not everybody regards the outcome of the Vietnam War as a complete loss. Some point to the successes that (arguably) flowed from the U.S. stand in Southeast Asia: the failure of the attempted communist takeover of Indonesia in 1965 and the fact that the fall of much of Indochina was not followed by other dominoes: Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore. There is even the view that, in losing the Vietnam War, the United States actually won. General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, has made that case recently, saying that America’s strategic goal in Indochina, in the end, was achieved. That goal was and is to establish a strong buffer state to protect the nations of Southeast Asia from the threat posed by China. Westmoreland says that Vietnam, ironically, has fulfilled that objective. So it turns out that Hanoi’s triumph was in the best geopolitical interest of the United States. That far one can go with Westmoreland, but no further along the tortuous road that ultimately leads him to credit the Johnson administration for that result. There are many points that may be reconsidered in Johnson’s favor, but this is hardly one of them: it clearly never occurred to L.B.J. that letting North Vietnam win might be a good thing.

In 1993, attempting a reassessment of Johnson’s foreign policy, a group of historians posed 31 unresolved questions to a panel of Johnson administration officials. The recollections of the participants at times emphasized the gulf that separates practitioners of international relations from its students. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote in response to one written inquiry, Question No. 13, "Anyone who asks such a question should have his head examined." To Question No. 14: "My answer is the same as that given to Question 13."

This past year, the academics had their turn: nine leading U.S. scholars contributed to Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World, an outgrowth of their research at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas that provides, in the words of one coeditor, "the first comprehensive examination of foreign policy making in the Johnson years." Its other coeditor explains that although the government documents for the period are only beginning to be published, an enormous amount of material has been declassified and is available at the L.B.J. Library, and so great has been the helpfulness and archival support of the library that "we concluded that a scholarly examination of the record of Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy was not only needed, but practicable."

H. W. Brands, a history professor at Texas A&M University, decided paradoxically that this was the time to reassess. A revisionist on the post-World War II history of U.S. foreign policy, he is publishing his book now because, as he sees it, there is no point in waiting until later. "Anything approaching a comprehensive account of Johnson’s foreign policy," he writes, "remains years off. The Johnson Library in Austin has opened many of its files, but much high-level material is still classified. Available records of the State and Defense Departments are even thinner. If the cia ever releases the bulk of its working papers for the 1960s, many researchers, including this one, will be surprised."

CARRYING ON AFTER J.F.K.

It was and is commonly agreed that Johnson lacked many of the instincts and sympathies required to conduct foreign policy. He neither liked nor understood foreigners: "Foreigners are not like the folks I am used to," he remarked in the early days of his presidency. It seemed sensible for him, therefore, to rely on his cabinet officials and professional advisers—Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy—to deal with these matters. They had conducted foreign policy for Kennedy before the assassination, and allowing them to continue was symbolic: it reassured a world whose confidence in American stability had been shaken by the tragedy in Dallas. It showed that nothing fundamental had changed and that there would be continuity. Morally, too, it seemed right for Kennedy’s political heir to retain Kennedy’s foreign affairs team and let it pursue Kennedy’s policies. Until 1965, Johnson did not have a popular mandate of his own. The people had not yet elected him president; during his first 14 months in office he was merely filling out another man’s term. Of course, in 1945, Harry Truman took a different approach. As soon as he succeeded to the presidency, he replaced F.D.R.’s secretary of state with his own, which F.D.R.’s intimates thought only right. Roosevelt’s closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, urged the whole F.D.R. circle in government to resign so that the new president could choose his own people.

In any event, once Johnson was elected president in his own right in November 1964, he earned the right to dismiss Kennedy’s officials and appoint his own. It was not that he did not have associates from his days as an up-and-coming congressman and then a supremely powerful senator whom he could have chosen in place of McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy. But he opted instead to stay with Kennedy’s men and measures. That, basically, was his foreign policy decision. The recently opened archives do not call for a revision of that judgment. Johnson was not a "hidden hand" president like Eisenhower, who appeared to let his cabinet make policy while in fact doing so himself. L.B.J. was what he seemed at the time: a president ill at ease in foreign policy who chose to rely on the judgment of the Kennedy team he inherited.

DISTRUSTING HIS OWN SIDE

Johnson’s decision was partly rooted in his experience at the Democratic National Convention in 1960. Kennedy was the front-runner for the nomination that year, but a broad coalition in the party opposed him: he seemed too young and inexperienced to be entrusted with the highest office in the land, and no Catholic had ever been elected president. It was reasonable to suppose that he would be stopped.

What was unreasonable was Johnson’s belief that he could be nominated instead. The smart money was betting that, in a brokered convention, Stuart Symington would emerge as the compromise choice, while Adlai Stevenson would be the sentimental favorite. Johnson was not in the picture. The national party was dominated by liberals, labor unions, and big-city political organizations sensitive to the concerns of ethnic and racial minorities; a seemingly conservative oil-state southern politician was unacceptable. In the industrial states of the North and Midwest, the Texas senator was not regarded as a contender. Apparently, Johnson compared himself, the most effective person in the Senate, to young Kennedy, who was perhaps the least effective, and persuaded himself that a convention filled with political professionals was bound to turn to him. When that never materialized, Johnson sometimes blamed it on the superiority of Kennedy’s staff. Grumbling that brilliant intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., worked for the other side, he demanded of one of his advisers: "Why doesn’t anyone who wears glasses work for me?"

When Kennedy won the nomination and tapped L.B.J. for his running mate, many of Johnson’s close associates broke with him. Harboring personal, business, and political feuds with the right-wing, anti-Semitic, pro-appeasement Joseph P. Kennedy that went back to the 1930s, they regarded Johnson as a traitor for lending his strength to the presidential candidacy of Kennedy’s son. When the Democratic ticket won, some of L.B.J.’s remaining loyal supporters, seeking careers in public service, turned to the newly elected president and his circle for jobs. Cyrus Vance, who had campaigned for Johnson in West Virginia, took a position in McNamara’s Defense Department. Even Johnson’s personal assistant Bill Moyers—regarded, it was said, almost as a son by the newly elected vice president—left to follow his ideals in the newly created Peace Corps headed by Sargent Shriver.

Shut out of the glittering Camelot that Washington had become, Johnson admired, as did so many, the brilliance of the court the Kennedys had assembled at their round table. And then suddenly those courtiers were his. When he inherited the presidency in November 1963, Kennedy’s staff and appointees came with it, for a sense of duty kept them at their posts. They were the members of the A-team he had long coveted. In years to come he showed that he wanted them, not those who had been his own people; and he entrusted his foreign policy to them.

INHERITING CAMELOT

From the vantage point of 1995, it appears that in a number of areas Rusk and the Kennedy foreign policy team did a good job for Johnson, vindicating his decision to follow where they led in foreign policy. In Africa, for example, America took some sound stands on principle: against South Africa in the matter of southwest Africa, against mercenaries in the Congo, against the white rebellion in Rhodesia. At the same time the United States wisely avoided involvement in some of the murkier power struggles in new states such as Ghana, Zanzibar, and Nigeria.

The administration was sometimes skillful, sometimes lucky, in its dealings with the Middle East. During 1963-64, and again in 1967, L.B.J.’s envoys headed off a Turkish invasion of Cyprus that could have provoked a war with Greece. In June 1967, the Israelis’ lightning victory in the Six Day War relieved the American government of its onerous pledge to reopen the Gulf of Aqaba by force if need be.

Luck and skill were evident, too, in policy toward Latin America. A crisis touched off by riots in Panama was resolved by an agreement between both sides to negotiate. What Washington perceived as a danger from the left in Brazil disappeared when a military junta took power. An American military intervention in the Dominican Republic that might easily have misfired resulted in the election of an American-backed president.

Where Washington’s policy did fail, it was not due to flaws that were uniquely Johnson’s. His leading officials—whether of Kennedy or Johnson affiliation—were far more educated than Johnson and better informed about the history and customs of the outside world. But in at least one important respect they were as limited as he was: they shared with him an inability to appreciate the importance to other nations of their own foreign policy objectives and the unimportance to them of ours. Thus Johnson continued Kennedy’s unsuccessful policy of seeking to ally with both India and Pakistan, despite the foreign policy priorities of both countries. The American objectives, neither of which was achieved, were to keep the peace between the two and enlist both in a coalition against China. They did not share America’s overriding fear of communist China, which they thought exaggerated; they were preoccupied with their fear of one another. In turn, their fears of one another seemed exaggerated ("almost psychotic," in the words of an American ambassador to India) to the United States. In both countries, peoples and governments alike turned against the uncomprehending or unsympathetic Americans, and India and Pakistan went to war in 1965.

VIETNAM OVERSHADOWS ALL

To the extent that Johnson personally conducted foreign policy, he sometimes did it well, for his native caution proved valuable. When in the mid-1960s French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the integrated NATO military command structure, Rusk, presidential adviser Dean Acheson, and State Department Undersecretary George Ball urged a denunciation of him, but Johnson overruled them. Denying de Gaulle the public confrontation that would have solidified the French people behind him, Johnson said, "We love France . . . The French will not always feel about us as their government now feels."

The most revisionist case that Brands is willing to make is that, Vietnam apart, the Johnson administration’s foreign policy record was not bad compared to that of others. However, the central flaw in Johnson’s policy makes that argument unpersuasive. A glance at the essays in the Cohen-Tucker volume confirms that the foreign policy of the Johnson administration cannot be judged apart from Vietnam. The president, showing no sense of the relative importance of America’s various goals in the world, allowed the war in Southeast Asia to overshadow them all. The authors contributing to the Cohen-Tucker volume tell how the United States sacrificed its agenda in Europe (Frank Costialiola), East Asia (Nancy Bernkopf Tucker), South Asia (Robert J. McMahon), Latin America (Joseph S. Tulchin), and Africa (Terrence Lyons).

The evidence emerging now adds to the picture formed at the time of an administration that had lost sight of America’s national interests abroad. And no new evidence from the archives is needed to remind us what a disaster the Vietnam War turned out to be at home: inflation that wrecked America’s public finances; divisiveness and riots in the streets; the drug plague that infected the troops and returned home with them; the human cost to all involved, those who survived as well as those who did not.

The Vietnam War should not be blamed on Johnson, in Brands’ view; L.B.J. merely happened to be president when the reckoning came due for America’s global overextension. The true architects of the Vietnam disaster, Brands argues, were Truman and Acheson, because of the inflated rhetoric with which they pledged the United States, in coming to the aid of Greece and Turkey in 1947, to combat communist aggression everywhere. But their rhetoric, however deplorable, was only rhetoric. In practice, at least until 1950, they—and former U.S. Army General George C. Marshall, especially in his State Department years—pursued a policy of intervening only to maintain the balance of power and protect vital American interests.

Brands could have made a stronger case against Kennedy, who also used globalist rhetoric but did not show similar restraint in practice. Rebelling against the generations of both Truman and Stevenson, with their focus on vital American interests in Europe, Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen proposed to battle communism in the Third World. Special Forces, Green Berets, paratroopers, helicopter gunships, "lift": these were the catchwords of the glamorous young men who had come to Washington with Kennedy.

James Reston of the New York Times remembers that in June 1961, after Kennedy had bungled his first moves in foreign policy—the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—Kennedy told him that he "had tried to convince Khrushchev of U.S. determination but had failed. It was now essential to demonstrate our firmness, and the place to do it, he remarked to my astonishment, was Vietnam!" Wrote Reston: "I was speechless."

Southeast Asia was the battlefield chosen by the youthful president, and it was to be the proving ground for the kind of limited war that he and his brilliant secretary of defense, McNamara, intended to wage against communism around the world. George C. Herring, the dean of American experts on the war, tells us: " ‘The greatest contribution Vietnam is making,’ McNamara observed in the early days of the conflict, ‘is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war . . . without arousing the public ire. In that sense,’ he added, ‘Vietnam is almost a necessity in our history because this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for the next fifty years.’ "

NO STRATEGY, NO FOREIGN POLICY

In 1965 Johnson was persuaded by McNamara and Bundy that the United States had come to a fork in the road and could avoid losing in Vietnam only by committing major resources to the conflict in a full-scale escalation. Yet, caught up in the confusion of McNamara’s limited war theories, the president told others—and perhaps himself—that the United States was still at peace. Determined to exercise power, L.B.J. immersed himself in the smallest details of the Air Force’s bombing campaign and the casualties suffered in the campaign. He took charge; he barked out orders at all hours of the day and night; his physical presence was overwhelming. Audibly and visibly, he was in command.

Perhaps for that reason, those who were with him did not notice what now strikes scholars: he did not have a grand strategy. Herring argues, in a 1993 study based on newly released documents, that "there was no real strategy. Johnson and McNamara provided no firm strategic guidance to those military and civilian advisers who were running programs in the field . . . Without direction from the top, each service or agency did its own thing . . . Perhaps equally important . . . despite widespread and growing dissatisfaction . . . with the way the war was being fought and the results that were being obtained, there was no change of strategy or even systematic discussion of such a change."

The latest archival studies suggest that the same was true of foreign policy: in a sense, Johnson did not have one. The historians show us a president who, when his advisers disagreed, would try to split the difference between them. He acted as a majority leader, reconciling diverse points of view within his own camp rather than making decisions on the merits of the issue. He wanted to quell dissent, and he was a master at it. In a typically original and brilliant essay, Walter LaFeber, in the Cohen-Tucker volume, shows that Johnson was an extraordinary success in dealing with what concerned him most: keeping public opinion behind him, year after year, in holding to his course in Vietnam. In a written contribution to the 1993 Austin conference, former CIA official George H. Carver, Jr., explained, "President Johnson was more concerned about the adverse image of the Vietnam struggle in the United States than about the substantive complexities of the situation on the ground in Indochina."

Instead of a policy, he had only a set of unoriginal opinions that he articulated with great force and conviction and was unwilling to question even in the face of failure. That did not leave much room for any policy in Vietnam other than the one he had been handed by Kennedy and McNamara. He had seen the Democratic Party bloodied by the charge that Truman and Marshall had "lost" China, so he did not want to let another country in Asia fall to communism. Since Kennedy had engaged U.S. forces in Vietnam, L.B.J. also (as he said often) did not want to be the first American president to lose a war.

Like many in his generation, he misunderstood the experience of the Nazi menace in the 1930s, wrongly believing that its lesson was that if the United States did not stop every act of aggression overseas, an aggressor would keep going until it crossed the ocean to attack America. specifically, he accepted the domino theory, outlined on the front page of the "News of the Week in Review" of the Sunday New York Times only three weeks before he inherited the presidency, according to which the fall of South Vietnam would be followed by that of the rest of the Indochina region.

He had seen President Truman lose control of the Korean War when Chinese "volunteers" flooded over the Yalu and was determined not to have the experience repeated. He ordered the Vietnam war fought in such a way as not to risk bringing in the Chinese. China would intervene to save North Vietnam from losing the war, so the United States would have to avoid both defeating and being defeated by the enemy. This was the kind of war of attrition, or limited war, that McNamara advocated. Moreover, Johnson subscribed to the doctrine of credibility, which dictates that a great power must be consistent in its direction, even when it discovers it is wrong, in order to husband its credibility and maintain the trust of other nations.

There were important dissenters from McNamara’s Vietnam policy in early 1965, when the de facto decision to go to war was made. The three dissenters who had access to the president were all from Johnson’s wing of the Democratic Party, that broad coalition of experienced politicians from whom young John Kennedy and his youthful outsiders had wrested the presidential nomination in 1960. There was George Ball, Adlai Stevenson’s friend and adviser; Washington attorney and Democratic Party stalwart Clark Clifford, who had backed Stuart Symington for the presidency; and Senator Hubert Humphrey, who had run against Kennedy in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries. Humphrey, in collaboration with his former aide Thomas Hughes, wrote a memorandum to Johnson that masterfully made the political case for immediate withdrawal from Indochina.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

An intriguing question, unanswerable but often asked, is whether Kennedy, had he lived, would have listened to such views. An equally intriguing question, although asked less often, is whether Johnson would have listened to them had he won the presidency in 1960—and never learned to think of those in his wing of the party as losers.

Furious with his own side for letting him down, fearful of the Kennedys and their machinations, and angered by his generals for their political clumsiness in asking for large reinforcements, Johnson was driven to explain the reversal of his Vietnam policy and the destruction of his presidency in much the same way as he had explained his loss of the 1960 nomination. "This," he said, "is caused by the 206,000-troop request, leaks, Ted and Bobby Kennedy." Even at the end, he did not question the assumptions and opinions that shaped the policies that led him to political ruin.

In June 1967 in meetings in Glassboro, New Jersey, with Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin, the two leaders seemed to agree on some things, and to agree on a peaceful framework for disagreement on the others. But the Soviet prime minister warned the American president that the Vietnam War was a continuing obstacle to good relations between their two countries. He observed that the war had provided China with "a chance to raise its head with consequent great danger for the peace of the entire world." L.B.J. seems not to have understood that he was being told that, by withdrawing his forces from Vietnam, he would free the Soviet government to widen its split with China. He was ignoring an opportunity to let each of the two communist powers neutralize the other: a balancing of power that any of history’s great foreign ministers would have given anything to achieve.

The Glassboro episode throws into relief the massive opportunity that Johnson wasted. He served as president at a time when the vital interests of the United States were not under attack anywhere in the world. The country was free to relax. The Soviet Union, the only country physically capable of threatening the western hemisphere, was securely in the hands of a conservative and somewhat elderly government, averse to risk and disposed to cooperate. In addition, it was ready to play itself off against America’s only other potential adversary so that neither would pose a danger.

It was a good time to shift attention and resources to the economic and social rebuilding of the United States, which, as the president rightly saw, was long overdue. Johnson had his chance to do it, but threw it away. The 1960s were years in which conventional thinking about international politics needed to be challenged, but he was not the sort of person who would do that. So, in a changing world, he might have made a poor foreign policy president even without the Vietnam War. That was a common view at the time. Perhaps no reassessment is necessary.

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