Michael Beschloss: Presidents listen to blue-ribbon panels—sometimes

Roundup: Historians' Take

America was mired in a frustrating, seemingly endless war. An election year was approaching, and the president’s own party leaders were terrified that their recent crushing midterm congressional defeat would be repeated in the coming race for the White House. To blunt the war’s unpopularity, a commission was proposed to measure the crisis and give the president political cover for finding a way out.

The time: January 1968. The war: Vietnam. The president: Lyndon Johnson. Half a million Americans were fighting in Asian jungles, and LBJ was considering requests for hundreds of thousands more. Johnson warned against what some people were calling “cut and run.” He disdained antiwar Democrats—like his nemesis, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York—for turning “on their leader and on their country and on their own fighting men.”

The idea of a Vietnam commission came from a surprising source: the fabled Democratic boss Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. LBJ considered Daley a stalwart loyalist; the old Chicago bulldog was anything but anti-Establishment. But what Johnson didn’t know was that Daley was turning against the war. Too many Chicago boys—including some he knew personally—were coming back from Southeast Asia in coffins. A politician to his core, Daley knew that Vietnam could sink the whole Democratic ticket in 1968, right down to the precinct level.

Daley thought a presidential commission on the Vietnam War could find some solution that might unite the Democrats and avert a bruising election defeat. He quietly made the suggestion to Robert Kennedy, who was then considering whether to challenge LBJ for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1968. RFK was skeptical, but he agreed to raise it (through intermediaries) with President Johnson.

As the secret discussions accelerated, Kennedy implied that if Johnson approved a commission, he would not oppose LBJ’s renomination. Johnson’s large ears perked up: he was still considering a run for re-election in 1968 and, in any case, would have been willing to pay a high price to keep RFK out of the Oval Office.

But the talks broke down when Kennedy insisted that any such panel be dominated by known Vietnam “doves,” starting with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, who had opposed the war from its start....

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