Coming Soon: The Other Lyndon Johnson

tags: LBJ, Vietnam

Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama."

The past year has been a big one for Lyndon Johnson. He was regularly hailed as a champion of equality and a president who got things done. (Even that nasty depiction of him in Selma played well: historians and Washington insiders rallied to his defense.)

But things are about to change. The big new half-century milestones of 2015 will be about Vietnam. March now marks the 50th anniversary of Operation Rolling Thunder, the first sustained U.S. bombing campaign against the North. Soon enough we’ll be remembering the violent, lying, polarizing LBJ—the “how-many-kids-did-you-kill-today” LBJ.

And most of it, alas, will be true. The Vietnam War is a story of endless bad decisions (also bad non-decisions), and LBJ was responsible for them. Yet before the vilification begins, one part of his role needs to be better understood: He didn’t want to get into the war, tried much harder to stay out than anyone remembers and relented only when his senior advisers ganged up on him.

In fact, it is hard to think of another American president—until Barack Obama, as it happens—who was so at odds with the core members of his team. Johnson’s experience remains a cautionary tale about how costly (and unsuccessful) a divided foreign policy can be.

LBJ did not, of course, make his Vietnam policy easy to understand. When he told his advisers, soon after John Kennedy’s death, that their job in Vietnam was to “win the war,” most of them thought he meant military action. (Many historians read him this way too.) When he urged State Department diplomats not to go to bed at night without asking what they had done to reach this goal, they surely thought the same thing. ...

Read entire article at Politico

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