Part 5: Lyndon Johnson and the Lost Society
by Robert L. Kocher
The Johnson presidency was the second of two in succession that would turn out to be immensely destructive to the United States.
Lyndon Johnson was a deal-maker and horse trader who did it simply because he enjoyed it and because it made him feel important. He more appropriately belonged on a used-car lot than in the White House. He was an American primitive with the aggressive instinct of a Texas hunting dog, and with just about as much brains and depth. He was a loud-mouthed bully who loved power and wanted the presidency. There was a story told by the Secret Service. At the Texas White House the swaggering Johnson would drink beer and urinate indiscriminately while Secret Service men would gather around to shield him from onlookers and cameras. In one instance the wind was blowing and one of the Secret Service men complained to Johnson that he was urinating all over him. Johnson’s reply was, “I know, son. That’s my prerogative.” That was the way Johnson looked at life and power.
Ask yourself whether Abraham Lincoln would have done that. Ask yourself if anyone would even consider believing Lincoln would have done that. Ask yourself why not. But few people have trouble believing it of Lyndon Johnson because it concisely describes the character of Lyndon Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson seems a tortured and confused personality. He apparently wanted to go down in history as being somebody or having achieved something. It would elude him because he just plain didn’t have any class. He didn’t understand the necessity for it. The only thing he could do was attempt to remake the country into something like himself. To the extent he was successful in doing so, he would gain power, but at the expense of lowering the class level of America. Like Huey Long, his political power rested in reaching for the lowest common denominator and elements in society. Anything else was beyond his understanding. His approach would be an attempt to convert the country into a socialist swill in the belief he would be popular and slapped on the back like the swaggering loudmouth who brags about furnishing the liquor and a few loose floosies at a trashy, hogwallowing Texas party. That some people would find it repugnant would be lost upon him.
What people from the lower classes, including Johnson, fail to understand is that a very necessary component of human dignity is personal morality and personal integrity. An easy path to human dignity that substitutes socialism for morality and integrity is an illusion that inevitably fails. For more than 35 years America has been struggling with that failure. For 35 years America has also struggled with the problem of people who, in spite of demand for social equality under socialistic programs, in spite of militant demands for acceptance under doctrines of social pluralism, still have no class, can’t understand it, don’t want to understand it, and are somehow resentful of class and those who have it.
Johnson could not understand that in a thousand years he could not bully, or buy, or loudmouth and bellow, himself out of what he was. He couldn’t even imitate what eluded him. Neither can many others.
Johnson’s Social Ambitions
The people in the country never wanted Johnson, but he was thrust upon them by circumstances and continued by demagoguery. The early sixties represented both a sharp turning point and a quirk in American history where presidential elections were thrown; hysteria prevailed; where TV arose to become the strongest political force in politics; and two presidents took office who were unknown to the public and whose agendas were not known to the public—or perhaps even understood by the presidents themselves. In a short period of time, the public’s attitude toward Johnson became one of universal rage, requiring him to leave office rather than run for re-election. It has been said that Johnson felt misunderstood by the public. It is more likely that Johnson misunderstood himself, and that the public understood Johnson for what he was better than Johnson did. People who openly falsify elections find themselves understood better than they sometimes wish.
Johnson may have convinced himself that he did what he did for us instead of to satisfy his own ambition. Lyndon Johnson had reached the megalomaniacal state where his visions and will would be forced upon society—licensed by his belief that those who were compelled would, or should, either eventually see the wisdom in his actions, or else adapt their mentalities after a time. People were to be treated a little like his dog that he used to grab by the ears and pull up off the ground as a joke. Whatever was good for Johnson became looked upon in his mind as good for the country. The only problem with this was there were puzzling “right-wing” ingrates who questioned those (like Johnson) who claimed the right to arrange and impose agenda that would supposedly be better for those same ingrates without their knowledge or pre-approval. The days of individuality were over. Individual freedom was whatever was left after having fulfilled the enforced primary obligation of servitude to a social order which was called “The Great Society.” In his self-centeredness, there was no world other than Lyndon Johnson’s. There was no other interpretation than Johnson’s.
In electing Lyndon Johnson, people thought they were voting for a president. Afterwards, they awakened to find themselves facing a man who interpreted himself as having been elected king and commissar. He called it a “mandate.”
Lyndon Johnson would declare a war on poverty. His conceptions of what produced poverty were naive and heavily influenced by left-wing romanticism. Having never held a real job (other than the business of conning people) during his adult life, his conceptions of economics and what was required to end poverty were ridiculous left-wing platitudes.
Trillions of dollars channeled into social services under programs started under the Great Society were to produce few results other than increasingly arrogant dissatisfaction—along with demands for further expansion of the same programs when results became looked on as an entitlement, together with licensed separation from any increase in sense of personal responsibility.
The Kennedys vs. Johnson
At best, Johnson’s predecessor Jack Kennedy had barely won the presidential election by a few thousand points in key spots, ignoring the issue of massive vote fraud and payoffs to mob figures strongly indicating that the election was stolen. Kennedy had always been in national political trouble. If 24,000 people in Texas and 4,500 in Illinois had been recorded as voting differently, Kennedy would have lost the entire presidential election. Afterward, those who disliked the Kennedys would have their dislike for them intensified, for the same reasons, after the Kennedys were in office. There would be little change of heart from the initially disaffected. Most of those who weren’t bowled over initially found the Kennedys a constant grating upon their nerves: there would be few conversions to the Kennedy camp. The Bay of Pigs and other problems were eating into that part of Kennedy’s original support that had not been based on the type of blind worship his appearance could generate. If one person in 100 changed their vote in the next election, Kennedy would be voted out of office.
America was tiring of a Kennedy façade which lacked substance. The plot of the Kennedy movie was shallow, and fewer people were infatuated enough to buy tickets for repeat showings.
The Kennedys were not Texans’ kind of people. There was an intense hatred of the Kennedys that even the immense power of, and support for, Lyndon Johnson had been only barely able to counterbalance long enough for the election. Kennedy was in Dallas the day he was shot precisely because Texas was in a state of angry revolt against the Kennedys that Johnson’s coat-tails and manipulations could no longer control—to the point Kennedy’s physical security would be a serious problem. In fact when Kennedy was killed it was immediately assumed and rumored that some right-wing Texan had plugged him. Without the critical Texas electoral votes, Kennedy would lose the next election.
Kennedy’s assassination changed the entire political scene overnight and granted Kennedy a popularity far beyond anything he had remotely achieved in life. While many among the ordinary people hated Jack Kennedy, they didn’t want assassination to happen. Kennedy’s death, and the sight of a vulnerable-looking young widow with small children, aroused sympathy which Johnson was able to mobilize. A coalition of political and journalistic forces made it look as though Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was at least in sympathy with, and almost responsible for, Kennedy’s death. They saddled him with “insensitively” running against the memory of a martyred president. Martyred for what, was never asked. Johnson would stand before crowds and lay it on thick with references to “our poor dead president up in the sky” with tears in his eyes—as if he hadn’t hated Kennedy in life.
Assassination Salvages Kennedy’s Legacy
Goldwater, and the twenty-seven million people who voted for him, were portrayed as a small group of right-wing extremists who had somehow taken control of the Republican party. In reality, Kennedy’s death was the worst thing that could have happened to Goldwater, because the same bullet that killed Kennedy was also Goldwater’s political death. Goldwater was now forbidden, out of respect for grief, to criticize the degenerating direction the condition of the country had been going. He might have won against Kennedy in life, but he couldn’t defeat Kennedy in death. Kennedy’s political opponents, including the so-called “right wing”, desperately needed Kennedy alive where he would be held accountable for his presidency and lose the next election. Kennedy’s assassination precluded realistic criticism and saved the Kennedy political legacy.
Johnson made several what could generously be called “mistakes”—ones which destroyed his presidency, and which have been destroying America ever since.
One fact that has been carefully de-emphasized in historical accounts is that tens of thousands of service men, possibly as many as 60,000, although not all simultaneously, may have served in Viet Nam during the Kennedy presidency. Perhaps the exact figures will never be known. I have seen different sets of figures on this that have been revised over the years. The original figures I saw said there were 33,000 service men in Viet Nam (in those days it was called Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia) at the last part of the Kennedy presidency. Recent assertions are that there were 15,000 there. Some of them died. At the time I was in the army (1961-63), friends and acquaintances were being quietly sent to the developing conflict. Those who were not being sent to the area were aware of the conflict, knew of it, and there were army training lectures on the subject.
In 1964 the Viet Nam war began very seriously escalating. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a general in the armed services in addition to being a United States Senator. He was knowledgeable about military science and tactics. He knew what needed to be done to win the Viet Nam war, and knew as well as what would cause us to get ourselves militarily mauled and to thereby lose it. The gravely-voiced, no-nonsense Goldwater was not much of a politician and had a habit of telling the truth, even when people didn’t want to hear it.
Goldwater’s view on the situation in Southeast Asia was: get tough or get out. As a ploy to win the election, Johnson portrayed Goldwater’s analysis as being that of an insane militaristic warmonger. Johnson would stand before crowds and declare, “As long as I’m president, no American boys will ever die in Viet Nam.”
In the mindless hysteria of the period, it never occurred to many American people that those boys were already there and were being shipped back in coffins. Men were being drafted in exponentially increasing numbers, beginning early in the Kennedy administration. Viet Nam was a well-established military operation. If Kennedy and Johnson had not been sending large numbers of men to Viet Nam, the issue never would have arisen. In the incredible psychotic hysteria of the period, Goldwater, who had nothing to do with it, was somehow made the villain for it.
Johnson: “No American boys will ever die in Viet Nam”
Johnson’s repeated theme and declaration was that he was “not going to send American boys to fight for Asian boys” in an Asian war that Asian boys should be fighting. This “sending American boys to do what Asians should be doing in Viet Nam” was a demagogic play on words, an absolute distortion, and lie. If we had followed a policy of not sending American boys to fight for European boys in World War II, Hitler would have wound up occupying Florida. The principle of Americans fighting in foreign wars had been established long before this: at the time of Teddy Roosevelt and the rough riders, and later in Europe and Korea. (American troops in South East Asia was an absolute requirement if there was to be even token opposition to communist insurgency and invasion. For the reasons given in Part 2 of this series, even a marginally competent mind knew the South Vietnamese would be unable to survive if they were to commit a quarter of their entire adult male population over the age of 16 to military service.)
The Johnson deception was coordinated with other factors such as TV political commercials showing little girls counting petals on flowers while the picture faded into nuclear explosions, as if Goldwater was going to drop atom bombs on schoolyards. While the worst of the commercials was played only once and removed from TV, it was devastating and others were similar and played on the hysteria from the first. It was distortion beyond anything the public had ever seen before, and coming from the certifying authority of TV networks it produced near-panic in the streets as if was viewed as fact from the nightly news instead of a scripted campaign distortion.
Johnson retained the members of the Kennedy administration to promote a degree of continuity and connection. Additionally, he was committed to them because there would no time for change given the way Johnson came into office. He walked directly into a completely staffed Kennedy administration on 15 minutes notice. Any changes would appear an affront to the Kennedy memory that Johnson could not afford.
McNamara writes, “President Johnson firmly believed that a Goldwater victory would endanger the United States and threaten world stability. He also believed that the end—Goldwater’s defeat—justified the means. So what he said publicly during the campaign was accurate only in a narrow sense. It was the truth, but far from the whole truth” .
To some, the above logic may sound similar to that of Bill Clinton arguing that “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’” and sex are. At this point regarding Viet Nam, it depends on what the definition of truth is. Johnson’s public statements were lies.
The question is, did McNamara believe the same thing? You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution. One of the problems was a lack of honesty and integrity in Washington. McNamara’s softened response to Johnson’s lack of character is less than impressive and his attitude contributed to a sense of hopeless wanton corruption and incompetence in Washington.
This is an interesting exercise in what is known as word salad. McNamara’s use of words confers an unrealistic blandness upon what was happening. What is the difference between the truth versus the whole truth? What Johnson said was simply far from the being the truth. Period. Is this anything like lies or deception? Yes. Johnson rationalized an entitlement to lie to suit his agenda. What was being said bore little resemblance to the truth.
If you can’t tell people the truth it means you don’t really have much going for you. Basically, without lies and deception, and exploitation of hysteria, Johnson’s presidential campaign was in big trouble. If Johnson had sat down quietly with Goldwater in an honest televised discussion devoid of hysteria, with the participation of an intelligent panel, the election outcome would have been starkly different. Johnson might well have been out of office then, instead of four years later.
Soon after winning the election, Johnson called a special meeting for an evaluation of Viet Nam tactics and strategy from Eisenhower and his former assistant, General Goodpaster. According to McNamara, “He (Eisenhower) believed the time, therefore, had come for the president to shift from retaliatory strikes to a ‘campaign of pressure.’ When someone present—I do not remember who—said it might take a very large force—eight US divisions—to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, Eisenhower stated he hoped they would not be needed, but if they were, ‘so be it.’ If the Chinese or Soviets threatened to intervene, he said, ‘We should pass the word back to them to take care lest dire results [i.e., nuclear strikes] occur to them’” .
Here was a stable ex-president of eight years. with half a lifetime of military background, and who had dealt with every major world military or political figure over a 25-year period, saying, in secret meetings, essentially the same thing that an exasperated Barry Goldwater had been saying, honestly, in public, and for which Goldwater had been labeled a madman.
But Goldwater’s analysis was correct and there was no way of getting around it. That meant, to maintain any semblance of credibility, Johnson found it necessary to employ military methodology he had only weeks earlier described as being Goldwater insanity, and that he had promised never to employ, but which had to be Johnson’s original intention if any degree of competence or internal consistency is assumed. Moreover, having immobilized himself by his dishonest election tactics, and probably also by his own intellectual and background or ideological deficiencies, Johnson (or his functionaries) employed that methodology in a way that was incomplete, incremental, incompetent, and ineffective. It was militarily catastrophic, greatly aided by the fact that one of the Vietnamese generals we adopted as a principal advisor on critical strategies and tactics eventually turned out to be an infiltrator who was also secretly a general in Ho Chi Minh’s army. After the war he gloated about how his advice had destroyed much of the U. S. military effort, and about how stupid we were to listen to it. He was correct. Somebody was stupid.
This was a peculiar period in the American condition, and particularly the military. Dwight Eisenhower had given a speech shortly before leaving office containing a somewhat cryptic warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” in America. Distorted interpretations of that warning were subsequently misused to justify leftist and anti-military attitudes that had been looking for such an opening, as well as for any other nonsense. Kennedy had brought in the era of intellectuals. Many of them were not much more than self-infatuated little kid mentalities who had now been given the keys to the toy store and wanted to play at everything. Generals were looked upon as puffed up third-rate mentalities to be brought to hand and taken down a step. To some extent this was done with considerable amusement, self-satisfaction, and childish behind-showing.
As part of that climate, military experience and the fundamentals of military science supposedly could be disregarded. In reality, they couldn’t. Generals were to be subordinated to puffed up intellectuals and amateurs with child-like fourth rate mentalities who thought they could do it just as well or better. In reality, they couldn’t. There is considerable doubt even as to their intentions. Recall the lecture by the Kennedy advisor regarding the Bay of Pigs episode (in Part 4, under “Deliberate Betrayal”).
My impression at the time was that generals were thought to be too right-wing and too committed to the defeat of communism; and that that commitment was considered too much of a rigid anachronism to be acceptable to the triumphant left-wing political elements within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They were also in the way and resented by the intellectuals. That was closer to being the real issue.
The ‘Best & Brightest’ Justify Their Incompetence
We violated every known military principle in conducting the Viet Nam operation. Having done that, it was to be concluded that the war was unwinnable, and not that the so-called “brightest and best” intellectuals conducting it were incompetent or possibly even subversive. Being highly intelligent, the intellectuals were able to fabricate arguments attributing the consequences of their own incompetence to everything under the sun except their own incompetence.
Kennedy and Johnson both ultimately entrapped themselves and the country, although they were unconcerned about it at the time, and Kennedy didn’t live to suffer the consequences. They believed that if they could appeal to, or encourage, irrationality and irresponsibility among the people of America, they could then harness it to their own ambitions. The problem with that is, once started, irrationality (and corruption) develops its own momentum which becomes unpredictable and uncontrollable. Neither does it solve national problems. In the end, Lyndon Johnson was expelled from the presidency by the irrational mobs he helped create.
What follows is another one of the five most important ideological and strategic points or crucial events determining the outcome of the Viet Nam war. It concerns the efforts of Johnson concerning any effort to either inspire support, or suppress necessary public support for the Viet Nam conflict. What follows is from a well-documented paragraph by Podhoretz:
As Johnson would later tell his biographer Doris Kerns in explaining why he decided not to mobilize the American people “…History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an end to the dreams of the best reformers: The Spanish-American War drowned the populist spirit; World War I ended Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom; World War II brought the New Deal to a close. Once the war began, all those conservatives in the Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society…” As he often indicated, moreover, Johnson was proud of the fact that he never tried to generate a war fever in this country. So were many of his people. Thus, for example, McNamara: “The greatest contribution Vietnam is making—right or wrong is beside the point—is that it is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without necessity of arousing the public ire…” .
The point of pride described in that paragraph would be nearly sufficient to lose the war. This is the most exquisite design for absolute destruction, betrayal, and treason that I have read about or heard of in my lifetime. There was no way that the military, the government, or America could survive it and remain sane. It was carried out in such a way such that it nearly destroyed the country, and we are still suffering from the effects 35 years later. Indeed, if an understanding of it does not become widely known, it may still destroy this nation.
Guns and Socialist Butter
Basically, beyond rare, barely perfunctory, statements, the motivation to fight a war was to be avoided or suppressed under the rationalization that it would interfere with a president’s imposition of his own authoritarian left-wing agenda in America. Indeed, there was no serious assertion at the highest levels of government that there was a serious enemy. Strong criticism of the enemy was to be nonexistent or muted lest it provoke public spirit supportive of the war.
This produced at least nine major consequences:
1) It converted the military operation into appearance of a war without serious purpose or justification.
2) It undermined the basic American soldier. Men were being asked to fight and be killed under conditions in which they were not supported at the most rudimentary level by being given strong reason or motivation to do so by their own government.
3) People in America were seeing their friends, sons, or husbands sent to be shot at while an American leadership expressed no spirited animosity toward the people killing them.
4) The dialogue describing or defining the war came to be dominated entirely by the radical left, which became the only voice without serious attempt at refutation by the president, the Secretary of Defense, or other administration officials. Those sent to fight in the war were left with no defense of themselves at home, while being simultaneously attacked and undermined at home. A few photographs of Vietnamese villagers who had been disemboweled or had their heads impaled on posts would have destroyed all leftist arguments and demonstrations from the beginning.
5) Year after year, I heard no incisive serious disagreement with, or objection directed toward, the communist side in the conflict.
6) In an inversion, people who were saying exactly what someone should be saying if there was to be a war were denounced as right-wing kooks.
7) Without any support from the administration conducting the war, public opinion supporting the action should have been expected to dwindle, which it did. People became worn down in frustration.
8) Within the context of the previous point, the military was necessarily to be drafted from that same public that had purposely-diminished support for the war. The men conscripted into the military were undermined before induction. Dampening or discouraging people’s support for a war, then choosing from among those same people and sending them over to be shot at wasn’t going to work. It would produce a non-functioning, rebellious, emotionally gutted military at the lower ranks.
9) In the insanity of all this, public confidence in the US government began to deteriorate catastrophically—and for very good reason. There was a consistent pattern in which it was foreseeable that there was absolutely no way what was happening could succeed in the ordinary military sense. (Unless, of course, “success” were to be redefined as the skillful strategic arrangement of events so as to undermine and sabotage the war—whether the result of subconscious wish or of cunning on the part of those in charge.) To explain this insanity, any explanation became at least as reasonable as the existing condition. The conduct of the war was clearly destructively insane. To employ the path being executed, anyone had to be stupid, nuts, in support of the communists or various combinations of the three. What would ordinarily be dismissed as paranoid analysis was necessarily true, but was ridiculed.
Again, Deliberate Sabotage
In short, Podhoretz’s paragraph describes suppression of support for—to the point of debilitation or sabotage of—the military commitments and actions being undertaken, as well as setting the stage for an eventual disaster and rebellion at home. This was true whether it was by intent, stupidity, or as a result of Johnson’s having been manipulated into it by advisors. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of confused soldiers out in the field were left betrayed and abandoned with no support anywhere while they were being shot to pieces.
The conflicting message from the administration was that our people were sent out to be killed, while there was no strongly justified reason for them to be there being advocated by the same administration that was sending them there.
Johnson’s use of language in the Podhoretz’s paragraph is framed in references characteristic of someone who has great ease and familiarity with the linguistic and conceptual structure of leftist literature and ideation, and who typically argues from a romanticized view of continuing heroic leftist struggle. His words came from the leftist book of common prayer. His assumption is one of a need for extreme “reform” of the American system.
The comment from McNamara asserting that the greatest contribution Vietnam was making was the supposed development of a United States ability to fight a war, without the necessity of arousing the public ire, reveals a system of thought that should be frightening. The question should be brought up as to why this should be assumed to be a great contribution. It might be worth considering that McNamara’s view had something to do with the reason that an army of nearly half a million troops was immobilized during his disastrously unsuccessful (if not exquisitely destructive) performance as Defense Secretary—with equally disastrous results.
What is of greater concern is that the statement leads to a view of soldiers as brainless emotionless toys who would go were they were told, do what they were told, and even be marched to their deaths without question or reason or motivation or public support, under delicately precise manipulation of an aloof intellectual elite acting like Gods and coolly dallying with the lives of inferior and mere mortal beings incapable of comprehension. It doesn’t work that way.
It shouldn’t work that way. He never understood he was working with people, not statistics. A war without well-stated sufficient rational justification to provoke public support and spirit shouldn’t be fought. Without such support, no government has any right to ask people to fight in it. The world, and people in it, are not some computer machine whose purpose is to service and enhance the feelings of grandiosity of narcissistic intellectuals.
Johnson was a Crolyist with a leftist domestic agenda. He carried the extreme political left into legitimacy in this country. In so doing, he conferred legitimacy upon the entire leftist agenda, including vehement leftist demands for non-opposition to communist or socialist expansion anywhere. The very people he legitimized would oppose or sabotage any efforts to curb imposition of communist expansion in Viet Nam—or anywhere else. It would seem quite impossible for Johnson not to know this.
Straddling the Fence
Lyndon Johnson was a man with one foot in each camp, regardless of whether he consciously understood it or not, or whether he had the intellect to understand it, or whether he even cared as long as it got him the presidency.
But regardless of what Johnson personally believed, if he believed anything, he was trapped into opposing the communists in Viet Nam because the American public in 1964 required it. The public had been raised on opposition to communism and many had died in a war in Korea in opposition to it. The very ideology Johnson was publicly required to fight was the ideology which would give him everything he wanted at home. He had to go through the motions of confronting communism even if he and Ho Chi Minh had no serious ideological differences.
The American period before 1960 had been dominated by complacent belief and pride in America. The assumption was that America was good. Individual prosperity could occur for anyone, and was the result of moral application of the protestant ethic of work, family, sacrifice, and self-discipline, America was the only true enterprise built on individual morality. Millions of people had washed up on the shores and had worked their way into the highest standard of living in the world.
There were seeds of anti-Americanism in progressivism and communism developing from the beginning of the twentieth century. John Kennedy ascended into office with a so-called dynamic message of need for change. The idea of. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” didn’t apply. Lyndon Johnson ascended into office with an agenda of more extreme leftward change. Kennedy and Johnson needed to shake the faith and pride in America in order to create a perceived need for themselves and be elected. The waiting radical left needed the same issues for ideological leverage. The name of the game was, manufacture or promote discontent, then exploit it by offering yourself as a reformer.
Those seeking office needed to convince Americans that serious problems dominated this country. We were to be told by those who sought extreme power that radical power was needed to be given to solve those problems. To the extent the problems could be exacerbated, more power could be demanded and received. There was a clearly inverse motivational system that rewarded destructiveness. We were to enter into a period where we would only hear criticism of this country and its economic system and its culture. Optimism and opportunity were displaced by obsessional criticism that produced exploitable discontent and divisiveness.
Up From Poverty
A recent newspaper piece described Johnson as driven toward radical leftist change because he was raised in poverty and consequently was concerned about the poor in this country. Poverty or adversity do one of two things. For people of petty or mean mentality, they create enduring resentment of those who do not share that condition, along with a vindictiveness. Lyndon Johnson was not a very forgiving man. There was a score to settle with this country.
For others, poverty and adversity are looked upon as passing conditions to be left by seeking opportunity and taking responsibility. Let it not be unnoticed that this was the kind of country where a poor boy from Texas could go on to become a multimillionaire and President of the United States. Where’s the problem with that? No place on earth could offer better opportunity. America was functioning as it promised. Johnson didn’t want to see it that way because it wouldn’t get votes. If he had seen it that way, he would have not had campaign issues. It’s an unfortunate fact that there is political power to be gained in destroying this country.
Whether the glass is viewed as half full or half empty depends upon attitude. For whatever reasons, in Johnson’s view this was a country not of freedom of opportunity, but of oppression that would require Herbert Croly’s prescription.
In a major policy speech Johnson declared an economic and domestic policy of: “we are going to take from the haves and give to the have nots,” accompanied by cheers from the radical left and by the proposed recipients. This presumed not only automatic control and power over the people to be taken from, but power to direct all people in all things to create his society. All individual effort and individual income or productivity were now to be conscripted as national property to be utilized in the best interest of society.
Individuality was to be sacrificed, and individuals were declared to be in a state of national political servitude. The limits on this servitude would be determined only by the declared need of others, which was becoming a rapidly expanding industry, or political interests. This was Crolyist Marxism for the 60s. (Refutation of Croyle’s prescription has been given in earlier parts of this series.)
The rhetoric of suffering and equality hides demands for an indifference to responsibility as well as a demand for power. Beneath the abstract glowing rhetoric was the message that all would be forced into involuntary servitude to the irresponsibility of each. In turn, each was to be in obligated servitude to the irresponsibility of all. What the last 35 years has shown is that has been needed is a war on irresponsibility more than Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
A deliberately avoidant system of language and concepts was devised to support radical leftist frames of reference. Language was used in such a way that a person’s present condition was separated from the behavior which caused it. There was talk about the poor or the needy, but there was no serious consideration of the behavior which was realistically responsible for that condition. There was talk about the rich, or “the haves,” which are terms and images in which the importance of effort or behavior leading to that condition are deleted. Terms such as “the industrious” or “the irresponsible” are not used in liberal discussion of social issues—and certainly were not used in Johnson’s campaign or other major declarations.
This is disastrous as it obscures one of the most basic essential truths in human existence. Sustained well-directed effort, prudence, and responsibility are necessary for success in life. The absence of those is often the reason for distress in life.
Left-wing politics needed victims. If there weren’t enough, it would create them by focusing exclusively on grievances, focusing away from optimistic pursuit of opportunity, and misinterpretating irresponsibility as blameless predestination due to sociological circumstance.
Under leftist sociological conceptualizations a person was predetermined by his past environment. If a person is suffering or in need, he is not responsible, past conditions are the cause. He’s a victim. The role of the victim is one of moral superiority. Those in a condition of poverty became interpreted as morallysuperiority victimized by those in distant unconcerned comfortable circumstances who in their calloused immorality were unwilling so sacrifice themselves by submitting to social servitude.
The center of national dialogue concentrated obsessional exclusive focus on the plight of the poor, as if that was all that existed in the country. A dissenting voice during that period presented a humorous, but serious, depiction of a hypothetical Washington Post headline reading, “End Of The World Coming Tomorrow! Poor and Minorities to be the Most Severely Affected.” It became the national frame of reference.
Behavior and success in life became separated from each other. There was expectation to receive life’s benefits unconditionally. Those who didn’t receive such benefits were innocent victims, regardless of their personal behavior. The failure of reality to conform to wishes and unrealistic fantasies created victims everywhere. In reality, people in this nation were becoming more victims of the psychosocial environment created by the politicians and ideologues than they were the victims of early childhood experience.
But the country bought what was being sold and was wallowing in guilt and obsession with feelings of victimization. America was presented as an entire land of helpless victims dominated by a cruel system which denied them free access to life’s benefits and pleasures. Free enterprise was an inherently moral evil that was barely and apologetically tolerated as a transient condition until such time as enforced social consciousness could impose servitude to the greater social good.
The thinking of the time was perhaps succinctly stated when an acquaintance of mine, who had a Ph. D., seriously and bitterly whined, “What kind of country is this where when you are born, everybody else already owns everything?” It’s hard to argue with that kind of reasoning and concept of injustice. Within this frame of reference it was indeed clear that America was a land filled with victims.
In the near future the list of victims would be relentlessly broadened to include small snail darter fish, obscure liverwort plants, and certain species of frogs.
Better Dead Than Poor
By the end of 1965, this country was becoming so consumed by irrational guilt that people were too beaten down and ashamed to speak in defense of the economic and value system that had done far more for far more people than any other in history. There was certainly no defending it against communist/socialist systems that required killing massive number of people to impose, and required electrified fences to prevent escape. America in the tunnel vision of irrational guilt: the remedy was to move toward a system under which everybody was guaranteed the right to take from everybody else until nobody was left with anything–including personal individual rights to anything, including rights to themselves.
Within the dominant political and cultural climate of this country there was far more criticism of this country than there was of Ho Chi Minh. The supposed enemy was indirectly declared morally superior to America.
Lyndon Johnson’s Crolyism weakened belief in America by the people who counted. Indeed, the people who had been the backbone of this country began to wonder whether America even existed any longer. The radical left and those in one way or another hostile to this country, including the disaffected intelligentsia, were now legitimized and included into the declared American mainstream. The doctrine of inclusion meant the direction in America was being exclusively shifted toward a position that would make radicals comfortable. Whether others were made uncomfortable was of no concern. The problem is, 15,000,000 radicals in comfort won’t get you anything but political power and direction in the hands of these same radicals, who are still determined to be a destructive influence. They don’t really have anything to contribute. All real support for the country is lost. This country’s spirit was broken and replaced with a directionless, guilt-ridden, self-hating left-wing malaise. It would stay that way until Reagan.
There’s a twisted pathological condition that develops in people. They look only at, or become exclusively involved in, what they are told or, what they spontaneously think, while ignoring, or taking no regard, for the reality around them. Within that state, people can deplore America in comparison to other countries filled with hideous conditions ringed with barbed wire around them to prevent people from escaping. They can even seek to imitate those countries.
A statistical profile and discussion of attitudes will be examined in the next installment of the Viet Nam series.
This resulted in a two-fold undercutting of American action in Viet Nam and elsewhere.
If there was lack of belief in the American system in America, then what motivation was there to defend ourselves militarily? What moral motivation was there to defend other countries striving to develop freedom for themselves? What support was there to encourage developing countries to encourage that system for themselves?
If there was increasingly less objection to Marxism in America, then why should there be objection to its imposition in Viet Nam or any place else? If we were going to “take from the have and give to the have not’s” here, and individuality was to be sacrificed, and individuals were declared to be in a state of national political servitude, then why object to Ho Chi Minh’s doing the same thing? Sure, his methods were a little rough, but the end justifies the means and—what the hell—you have to break a few eggs to make an ideologically-imposed omelet. To paraphrase the words of Herbert Croly and the progressivists, the exigencies of political schooling necessary to subdue and condition the population into the insentient numbness required of socialism frequently demands severe coercive measures. Ho Chi Minh was really doing what was declared needed to be done here. The difficulty is, it’s a little inconsistent to ask the country, or its men, to be highly motivated to fight a system elsewhere when it’s the same system and direction you are selling or adopting and whose basic philosophical premises you have morally endorsed at home.
Herbert, Lyndon, and Ho
A very reasonable argument can be made that Herbert Crowly, Lyndon Johnson, and Ho Chi Minh were all going in the same direction.
Left-wing romanticists attempt to argue that we were in a war of ideas against Ho Chi Minh and communism, and that the failure to win the Viet Nam war was the consequence of having lost the war of ideas or of not being adequately able to refute the ideas of communism/socialism (in order to support the reason those ideas were being accepted in America, or the argument that they should be). This concept is still being sold by leftists and the media. There was never any war of ideas. Anyone who disagreed with Ho Chi Minh was killed. That was the only functioning idea. Death settled all ideological discussion. There was little or no presentation of this rebuttal in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.
In the sane real world, when 900,000 people in a small country leave their homes to escape from a leader or system, it is not because that leader has won the war of ideas. Failure to understand that and accept it is not intelligent difference of opinion, but is serious psychopathology.
The romantic concept that socialism/communism was the people’s movement and was an unopposable historical, social, and political force was the defining mark of haute coutre worn by those who defined themselves politically sophisticated. Indeed, they believed opposition to be naive and immoral. This belief was to make itself felt periodically as a subversion of any American attempts to oppose communism, including later attempts to derail the Contra alliance in South America.
Many self-defined intellectuals of that period, and today, looked upon radical socialism as idealism in pursuit of social justice or a new world order. The position was considered cute and evidence of creativity and sensitivity. Any atrocities by communists or socialists were argued as being mere transitions in the struggle to establish the millennium. They further believed in the inevitability of communism/socialism as the direction or force of history which should not be seriously opposed. Opposition should be cosmetic, which would allow paced consolidation, ideological transition, and adaptation. This view seriously compromised any American participation in opposition, whether in Viet Nam, or South America.
What was critically absent from Kennedy, from Johnson, from McNamara or from anybody that should have counted in either administration, was a clear statement that communism or socialism were intrinsically immoral acts against human freedom. A good argument can be made is that the argument did not occur with depth because it was not a premise or believed in strongly enough to be an immediate reflexive response. There was too much ideological weakness and contamination from other sources. What evolved was a cult of personalities, with personalities sometimes opposing each other apart from any serious ideological commitments or definition. In the entire McNamara book, I find not one solid absolute condemnation of Communism or socialism. There was, in the entire period of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, no clear strong absolute condemnation of Ho Chi Minh or other leadership in the North. I don’t recall clear condemnation of the Viet Cong. President Diem was subjected to far more criticism than was Ho Chi Minh, who was sending terrorists down to kill tens of thousands of people indiscriminately.
Coincidentally, I don’t later recall significant convincing clear statement of moral condemnation by Dr. Henry Kissinger. That’s one of the things that undercut the Nixon presidency. The fatigued Nixon was isolated without any supportive ideological or intellectual leverage to work with.
There was no passion. There was no passion. There was no passion. That absence confused and angered many people in this country. It undercut the idea of serious purpose. If you are going to fight a war, it helps if you are angry at somebody or seriously disagree with them. Men were being forced to die in a jungle war against a system for which much of the political, journalistic, and intellectual leadership in this country were either holding direct philosophical sympathy with, or else were showing little apparent genuine interest in directing incisive direct criticism against–and it is still true today. The impression received was that major portions of the power structure in this country considered the possibility of our winning the Viet Nam war was not only far from being a goal, but also a threat which had to be averted. When we lost, there was a thinly disguised victory celebration by the political left in this country—and there still is to this day. The role of socialism/communism, the people’s movement, as an unopposable historical, social, and political force was declared to have been vindicated.
There was no passion. There was no passion. There was no passion. In all the years of the Viet Nam war, I never heard as much as an unkind word said about Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong from critical American leadership that counted. The Viet Cong would murder doctors, nurses, women, children, schoolteachers, and leave their bodies hanging from poles. There was no display of any of it by political leadership or on television. There was no display of moral indignation.
That absence left what was blandly mislabeled the anti-war movement and the radical left completely dominant and in charge of the national discourse with no opposition. The anti-war movement was mostly not anti-war. The only consistency within the anti-war movement was a morally and intellectually bankrupt protest against any opposition to socialist and communist movements. Ho Chi Minh could kill people day in and day out, but there would be no protests or criticisms by the anti-war movement.
Nor were there strong criticisms from Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, or anyone else in the Kennedy-Johnson Administrations. Nor were there criticisms on TV. It was a monolith. Yet, we were at war.
What I sensed in Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, and others, was absence of moral indignation. Anger and indignation are the fuel and sincerity of intent. Without that indignation, there was lack of serious intention and lack of sincerity. That is one of the elements that killed us. It was throughout the administration and other cultural policy areas.
Last week (as I write this) there was a bombing of an Israeli market by people referred to on the national TV news as “Palestinian extremists.”
Notice the use of the emotionally charged defining label “extremists” by the news networks. There were pictures of people bleeding and being hauled away in ambulances. In all the years of the war, I did not ever hear the Viet Cong or anyone on the communist side referred to as extremists. The impression was that the Viet Cong were ideologically committed, hard-working, political social workers. A little driven by idealism perhaps, but not to be severely criticized for holding sincere differing beliefs.
People who had sons, or brothers, or husbands, or fathers dying in a war were psychologically abandoned by their own presidents and their administrations. People who were saying what a President or Secretary of Defense should have been saying (provided they are going to send 480,000 men to a war) were labeled right-wing extremists and kooks. Once again, there was something wrong.
The men who were sent to Viet Nam were politically betrayed and philosophically undermined. They were militarily undermined. It stunk to the high heavens. It was destroying the political fabric of this country. Many people are still enraged about it.
For year after year throughout the Viet Nam conflict, this betrayal was obvious to many American people. They wanted to know why.
To this day they have not been given a truthful answer. Mistrust in government and the belief that there was serious subversion in Washington was smoldering. It was eventually to find expression in the militia movement and the Oklahoma bombing.
Within this set of conditions, which he, himself, had engineered, the dim-witted Johnson shipped many hundreds of thousands of men to Viet Nam and found himself being militarily mauled while at the same time turning his back on everything he had said during his campaign. He found himself entrapped by his own lies. The entire country was exploding in outrage. Johnson’s former supporters felt betrayed and were rioting in the streets. Those people intelligent enough not to have supported Johnson in the first place were enraged over the destruction of the American military, the killing of American men, and the losing of a war by a philosophically- infiltrated, diseased power structure and a corrupt incompetent president.
Their hatred of a TV news media which supported, and still defends that support as a premise in their editorial policy, it was beyond measurement. Mistrust and hostility toward government and the presidency was universal.
By the end of the Johnson presidency the intellectuals had had their way. More and more analyses were, with some sense of triumph, declaring the Viet Nam war unwinnable. The radical left was firmly in place. Masses of many tens of thousands of demonstrators were converging on Washington and elsewhere. Many colleges and universities had become protected staging areas for a war against society. America teetered on the verge of revolution. A president would be toppled from office by the irrationality and mobs he had created.
The war would continue. It would continue in America. The unopposed opposition in America would determine the position and vulnerability of the military in Viet Nam.
 Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books, New York, 1995, p. 146.
 Ibid, p. 172.
 Norman Podhoretz, Why We Were In Viet Nam, Simon and Schuster, 1982, p. 80.