Look twice at LBJ’s legacy

Travis Knoll

Here in Austin, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson is considered a tragic figure whose many social programs (Medicare among many others) were marred by the war in Vietnam. Former President Richard Nixon, meanwhile, is viewed as Machiavellian, almost evil. Nixon is often most remembered for the Watergate scandal, in which his staff broke into the 1972 Democratic headquarters and tapped the phones of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Nixon, despite his push for universal health care, his launching of the Environmental Protection Agency and his extension of Johnson’s programs, is remembered more for his “silent majority,” “southern strategy” tactics and crass interventions in Latin America. It’s time rethink this narrative, and the resources at the LBJ Presidential Library can help us do so.

Recently, allegations about Nixon staffers’ alleged meddling in the Vietnam peace talks have come back into the news, with an article by the BBC’s David Taylor citing Johnson administration officials saying that in October 1968, Johnson had knowledge of the parallel dialogue regarding his efforts to stop bombing in Vietnam but did nothing, fearing a political backlash should his surveillance of Nixon’s aides come to light. Taylor cites recorded telephone conversations between Johnson and then-U.S. Senator from Georgia Richard Russell to back his claims. This would seem to confirm the running narrative of a fiery Johnson pitted against a cold and calculating Nixon. However, other phone calls during that time period paint a more complicated picture. 

The tapes with the phone calls reveal that Johnson was conflicted over Nixon’s intervention, but also over his protege Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s handling of the war issue. Commenting on Nixon’s intervention he says, “It’s not very easy for me to work under those conditions, anymore than when Hubert [Humphrey] says he would stop the bombing ‘without a comma, semicolon, but period.’” At one point in the tapes, Johnson says that Nixon “has the right [electoral] formula” and predicts that Humphrey could hurt himself by positioning himself as a dove. All in all, the conversation reveals subterfuge, but also striking continuities. Johnson clearly favored Nixon’s position over former presidential contender and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had defeated LBJ in New Hampshire’s primary. “Up till now Nixon and the Republicans have supported me … better than Eugene McCarthy, [Arkansas Sen. J. William] Fulbright and the rest of them,” Johnson says in the tapes. Johnson also makes the case that he sacrificed his political career to exit gracefully from the war, saying that “if [he] had wanted to sell the country out,” he would have left Vietnam “five months ago” and gotten “overwhelmingly reelected.” Johnson longs for continuity as he recalls his support for Eisenhower and a tradition of not undermining the commander in chief in the area of foreign affairs. Johnson emphasizes in his call to Humphrey the day before the proposed cessation that he is not announcing a peace, but a “discussion.” He fears that the North Vietnamese will “take advantage” of the temporary halt to the bombing.

The tapes reveal broad bipartisan suspicion of communist regimes and expose the healthy egos that prevented peace from then going forward, evidenced by the Nixon campaign’s maneuvering and Johnson’s demand that the bombing cessation be conditional. The LBJ Presidential Library’s exhibits generally and erroneously portray Johnson as tragically noble; they fail to question his dubious claims with respect to the Gulf of Tonkin attacks that triggered the escalation and fail to grapple with Johnson’s own conflicts with his predecessor John F. Kennedy and, before his death in 1968, Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

More generally, the tapes are one more example of how political interests and rhetoric mask a bipartisan consensus. Former President Ronald Reagan is remembered for his announcement heralding the end to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, although Reagan’s election opponent that year, former President Jimmy Carter, negotiated the release. Former President George W. Bush successfully negotiated the status of forces agreement that withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Next time UT students visit the LBJ Presidential Library, they should reconsider the standard assessments of our former presidents and look not at each individual color but at the tapestry that weaves together U.S. foreign policy.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.