Everything Wrong with the (Lyndon Baines) Johnson Administration
Johnson’s actions in Southeast Asia are undoubtedly the most notorious aspect of his presidency, both in popular memory and mainstream histories.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
At a height of six feet four inches, President Lyndon Baines Johnson struck an imposing figure. The tall Texan was known for his physical intimidation of balky legislators – a process called “the Johnson treatment” – as he shoved through a raft of legislation establishing new government programs and regulatory bodies and oversaw a disastrous war of choice in Southeast Asia in his five‐plus years as president. Johnson was a dedicated New Dealer and Wilsonian interventionist, and his choices as president had consequences that still negatively impact Americans today. Predictably, these qualities have earned him a spot in the top ten rankings by presidential historians. [i] Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War is often presented as the only blemish on his record and Johnson loyalists and mainstream historians have often attempted to resuscitate his popular image by emphasizing instead his supposedly beneficent domestic policies. Despite the special pleading of big‐government loving historians, Johnson looms large in the annals of presidential perfidy and disdain for the constitutional limits of federal power.
Johnson’s actions in Southeast Asia are undoubtedly the most notorious aspect of his presidency, both in popular memory and mainstream histories. In fairness to LBJ, the United States had a longstanding and continuously growing involvement in the region by the time he ascended to the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Truman and Eisenhower supported the French in their attempt to defeat the Vietnamese nationalists and maintain Vietnam as a semi‐autonomous “free state” within a French Union, and Eisenhower then supported “free” South Vietnam as a bulwark against the communist North. John F. Kennedy grew the American military presence from about 1,000 advisors at the time he entered office to 16,732 in October 1963, and authorized American participation in combat missions and the use of napalm and Agent Orange. The Kennedy administration also oversaw the removal of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963, a coup ending in Diem’s murder. From that moment on, South Vietnam was nominally ruled by a revolving‐door cast of military dictators who relied upon American support to prop up their unelected regimes. [ii] Johnson therefore became president at a time of Cold War tensions and with a U.S. troop presence in Vietnam that was nearly a decade old.
Johnson also faced political forces that made disengagement from Vietnam difficult in 1963 and 1964, as he ran for election in his own right. With his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the aggressive anti‐communist rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Johnson felt vulnerable to attacks from the right that might weaken his position with the conservative Democrat‐dominated southern states. Yet few things were stronger than Johnson’s will to power. Determined to win election in 1964, Johnson sought to follow a middle way that would allow him to appear tough on communism but more reasonable than Goldwater, who the Johnson campaign painted as an extremist who would risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
With these caveats in mind, Johnson never seriously considered withdrawal from Vietnam or a negotiated end to the conflict during the critical period of 1964–1965. In fact, less than a month after Kennedy’s death, Johnson made it known to his administration that he wanted a more concerted effort to deter North Vietnam from its support of communist insurgencies in Laos and South Vietnam. The result was a campaign of joint American‐South Vietnamese amphibious commando raids, known as OPLAN 34A, which targeted North Vietnamese coastal installations in 1964. [iii]
However, Johnson soon began to contemplate more aggressive measures against North Vietnam. At the president’s direction, in the spring of 1964 the military created a contingency plan for a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The president’s staff completed a draft memorandum by May 23 that laid out a thirty‐day schedule for initiating overt military action. Significantly, the plan called for a congressional resolution on D-20 approving past actions and “authorizing whatever is necessary with respect to Vietnam.” In the spirit of the OPLAN 34A raids, described by historian Edwin Moïse as “an American program carried out with RVN assistance,” the thirty‐day countdown to war envisioned by the Johnson administration did not involve the South Vietnamese government until day fifteen. Although Johnson evidently hoped that the situation in South Vietnam would not require the launching of a U.S. bombing campaign, it seems that it was only a matter of time until he chose to openly involve the United States military in the conflict and that the United States would take the leading role in the war. [iv]
By August 1964, the Johnson administration was desperate for an opportunity to strike the North Vietnamese. Some administration figures, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, suggested as early as June that American airstrikes in Vietnam and Laos could be justified through the false claim that the aircraft had been fired upon and were acting in self‐defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered on July 8 that an aircraft carrier be stationed off the South Vietnamese coast at all times. [v] Under these circumstances, U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox conducted a reconnaissance patrol off the North Vietnamese coast beginning on July 31. Unbeknownst to the Maddox’s crew, their patrol was set against a backdrop of recent OPLAN 34A raids, the North Vietnamese capture of several air‐dropped South Vietnamese covert agents, and two bombing raids against North Vietnam, all taking place in areas contiguous to the Maddox’s route. [vi] Viewing Maddox as a hostile ship, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked her on the afternoon of August 2. Maddox repelled her attackers, and jets from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga responded and attacked the torpedo boats as they retreated. [vii] Another OPLAN 34A raid – discussed at the White House and authorized by Johnson – struck the North Vietnamese on the night of August 3–4. Johnson also confirmed a decision to resume patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin after the August 2 incident. In accordance with this directive, Maddox and destroyer Turner Joy conducted another patrol on August 4. [viii] Operating in heavy seas at night, they reported multiple sonar and radar contacts and fired hundreds of shells at what they believed to be hostile ships. Considerable doubt existed about the August 4 incident at the time, and later investigations showed that the two ships had reacted to false contacts in poor conditions. [ix]
Nonetheless, the August 2 and August 4 incidents gave the Johnson administration an excuse to ask Congress for the type of resolution outlined in the May draft memorandum. As described to key senators by Robert McNamara, the U.S. ships had been operating far out in international waters when they were repeatedly attacked (they had in fact been much closer than he suggested, though not in North Vietnamese waters). McNamara also gave the impression that the North Vietnamese had initiated the action (Maddox opened fire first on August 2, though attack was obviously imminent). Nothing was said about the pursuit and attack of the torpedo boats by American aircraft. To the press and members of Congress, McNamara denied any knowledge of or connection between the OPLAN 34A raids and North Vietnamese actions. Administration officials presented the Gulf of Tonkin incidents as unprovoked attacks on American ships. [x]
With an aircraft carrier already on station, Johnson launched retaliatory strikes late on August 4. In a televised address explaining the airstrikes, he averred a desire for “no wider war.” With perfunctory debate and little opposition, Congress passed a resolution at Johnson’s request on August 7, 1964, giving the president authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” [xi] Johnson was delighted, explaining that the resolution “was like Grandma’s nightshirt. It covers everything,” and he would later remark that it meant “the sky’s the limit” on Vietnam. [xii] This resolution would serve as the basis for Johnson’s escalation of and open‐ended commitment to the Vietnam War.
The August 5 airstrikes earned widespread approval and Johnson subsequently achieved an overwhelming victory in the election of 1964, yet he still chose to escalate and Americanize the Vietnam War in 1965. Many historians and Johnson loyalists present the Vietnam War as a quagmire from which Johnson could not extricate himself, a situation created by previous presidents and maintained by right‐wing anti‐communist zealots who would crucify Johnson for displaying any weakness in Southeast Asia. [xiii] This ignores the fact that escalation before the Gulf of Tonkin incidents was unpopular, that the supposed historical precedent of Harry Truman being punished for “losing” China is erroneous – Johnson surely recognized that Truman lost to Eisenhower in 1952 largely due to the Korean War, an undeclared war to defend the “free” half of a bifurcated country from communist forces – and that polls showing support for Johnson’s policies likely reflected a rally‐to‐the‐flag impulse on the part of the American public rather than an explicit commitment to the war. [xiv] In the glow of electoral triumph, Johnson decided not to withdraw from the worsening situation in Vietnam, but to instead deliberately mislead Congress and the American people and to commit the country to a widening conflict of dubious legality.
South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse in the fall of 1964, and Johnson was forced to wait until a semblance of stability emerged before he could begin the bombing campaign that by November had become the consensus next step for pressuring North Vietnam. With a new military junta in power and an attack on an American airbase at Pleiku in February 1965, Johnson authorized a series of airstrikes. After another attack on American troops, he launched a gradually escalating bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder. As predicted by a number of outside observers, the bombing only spurred the North Vietnamese to commit more resources and regular troops to the war in the South. [xv]
Rolling Thunder naturally paved the way for the introduction of more American troops to defend the air bases used in the campaign. Two battalions of Marines splashed ashore in March; the following month Johnson chose to allow offensive operations within fifty miles of American air bases. Although a temporary halt to the bombing came in May, Johnson was not serious about negotiation and reluctantly called the halt only to defuse mounting domestic criticism. In the same month, he asked Congress for an appropriation of $700 million for military operations in Vietnam, signaling that he would view its passage as an endorsement of his policy. Fearful of being accused of not supporting American troops under fire, Congress dutifully obliged. In late July 1965, Johnson approved the immediate commitment of 50,000 troops with the private agreement to deploy 50,000 more by the end of the year. He approved 100,000 more troops for deployment in 1966. [xvi]
The United States was now involved in an open‐ended but simultaneously limited war. The White House maintained tight controls over bombing targets in North Vietnam, refusing to strike the North’s industrial base or to mine its harbors, and did little to rally the support of either Congress or the American people for victory. Neither would the reserves be called. Instead, Johnson dissembled, admitting publicly only to a deployment of 50,000 troops in 1965 and announcing the decision as a routine item at a noon press conference on July 28. The war would escalate with scant acknowledgment so as not to distract Congress from Johnson’s domestic policy initiatives or risk too much domestic criticism. Without discussing his choices or aims with the country, Johnson committed American forces to major ground combat operations with military victory a secondary concern. [xvii] At no time did Johnson either seek or desire a declaration of war. Neither did Congress attempt to reclaim its constitutional war‐making powers. Between 1965 and 1968, 36,540 Americans and several hundred‐thousand Vietnamese would die in the growing conflict. [xviii]
Why did Johnson choose to escalate a war for a country that neither he nor his advisors considered vital to American interests, and that many in the government quietly believed we could not win? Historian Fredrik Logevall argues that Johnson stubbornly escalated America’s war in Vietnam due to personal reasons. “I will not lose in Vietnam,” Johnson said in November 1963, revealing a preoccupation with his presidential legacy from the beginning of the ambitious politician’s tenure in office. Johnson apologists point to another, supposedly redeeming reason: the connection between the war and Johnson’s so‐called Great Society programs. Johnson certainly saw the war as a means to mute conservative critics of his beloved social welfare projects, but a more literal parallel between the Great Society and U.S. intervention in Vietnam also existed. Johnson’s own words reveal this connection in his thinking. In April 1965, as he neared the decision to commit large numbers of U.S. combat troops, Johnson famously spoke at Johns Hopkins University of a billion‐dollar campaign of cooperative development for both Vietnams, musing that “The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own TVA.” [xix] Nine months later he spoke with civil rights leader Roy Wilkins of his ambitions for overseas development projects:
“I am going to start this year or try as best I can to commence it [Head Start] in the African countries and Latin American countries and Asian countries.… I am going to take some of my AID money and start Headstart Programs in these countries and have the children come in and get examined physically then have a health program where they will all get inoculated for cholera and things of that kind. Then I am going to have them learn how to read and write instead of all these Ph.D.’s coming to exchange under the Fulbright program.” [xx]
Johnson had a nearly limitless view of the United States government’s power for good. In foreign policy this translated to interventionism, most notably in Vietnam but also in an invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965 at the same time that he was escalating U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. In domestic matters, Johnson was the driving force behind a host of new laws and a massively enlarged welfare and regulatory state. More than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Johnson transformed the federal government, taking it far from any basis in constitutionally enumerated powers and placing it squarely in the midst of Americans’ everyday lives. The anxiety that greeted Donald Trump’s election in 2016 is difficult to imagine without the enactment of numerous laws and regulations building on Johnson’s vision of the central government as an intermediary between consumers and producers, employers and employees, and society and the individual.
In his famous “Great Society” speech that lent a name to Johnson’s ambitious program for an activist central government, Johnson derided “unbridled growth,” calling instead for “a society where progress is the servant of our needs.” In Johnson’s mind, private institutions had manifestly failed to meet the needs of the American people. Johnson called for a “creative federalism” to defeat the “soulless wealth” that apparently confronted America in 1964. The result of Johnson’s Great Society program has of course been quite different from his lofty vision. Rather than “new concepts of cooperation,” the nearly 200 pieces of legislation encompassing Johnson’s agenda have severely eroded the American federal system, making Americans more and more likely to confront policies emanating from Washington, D.C. in their everyday lives. [xxi] Evaluated on its merits as policy, the Great Society left Americans burdened with ineffective, extraordinarily costly programs that have caused a multitude of unintended consequences and that seem to inexorably expand in their scope and penetration of American life. A few examples reveal the negative impact of Johnson’s legacy of activist government.
Massive government intervention in the healthcare industry is one of the central pillars of Johnson’s legacy of fiscal irresponsibility. Although subsidized healthcare results in greater use of health care services, it is unclear that government healthcare programs actually achieve their purported goal: improved health outcomes. [xxii] The system is also rife with fraud, with the Government Accountability Office estimating $48 billion in improper payments in 2010. [xxiii] Moreover, Medicare alone was responsible for 14 percent of federal spending in 2018, and Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) (two other Johnson‐era legacies), and Affordable Care Act subsidies now account for more than a quarter of the annual federal budget. [xxiv] Federal healthcare spending is untenable in its present form, with Medicare spending projected to tally approximately 6 percent of America’s gross domestic product by 2049. [xxv]
Fiscal recklessness was evident even during Johnson’s presidency, with the $3.6 billion annual cost of the Vietnam War added to large increases in domestic spending to drive up inflation in the late 1960s. With the dollar weakened, the gold crisis of 1968 saw the United States hemorrhaging gold purchases, losing $372 million of gold on March 14 alone. Although Washington was able to pressure Great Britain to close the London gold market, Johnson’s guns and butter policies inexorably led to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and Richard Nixon’s decision to free‐float the dollar in 1971. [xxvi] Thanks in large part to Johnson, we now live in an era of central banking on a fiat currency basis, with Wall Street reacting dramatically to every utterance of the Federal Reserve chairman.
Federal aid to education serves as a dramatic example of the unintended consequences of government interventions. The modern system of student loans and federal funding for local education began under Johnson. Since that time the federal government has added a Department of Education and student loan debt has ballooned to approximately $1.5 trillion. [xxvii] Despite increasing constant‐dollar annual spending on elementary and secondary education from $13.5 billion in 1965 to $80.1 billion in 2014, American students’ test scores remain flat. [xxviii] Federal funding for higher education has simultaneously increased the cost of college, devalued college degrees, and served as a tremendously wasteful means of credentialing employees for the corporate world. Studies show that very little actual learning takes place in colleges, yet these programs have only led to growing demands for “free” college. [xxix]
Head Start and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) typify the many wasteful and ineffective zombie programs begun under Johnson. Studies have repeatedly shown that Head Start has no appreciable positive impact on early childhood learning – a 2010 study actually demonstrated a negative impact on kindergarten math skills – yet the program continues at a cost of $166 billion over the past forty‐five years. [xxx] With federal early childhood programs normalized over several decades, universal pre‐kindergarten is now a trendy proposal among politicians, despite little evidence for its efficacy. Similarly, after spending billions of dollars between 1965 and the present day, many of the counties in the ARC’s purview remain among the nation’s poorest, while others are doing quite well and might be considered for removal from the commission’s purview. [xxxi] One might be surprised to learn that in a typical bit of grasping at federal dollars, the government’s definition of Appalachia includes counties in north Mississippi, the city of Pittsburgh and most of Pennsylvania, and the suburbs of Atlanta. [xxxii] The ARC clearly has little to do with the region’s economic performance, whether poor or positive, and functions mostly as a fund for bureaucrats.
Johnson also had much to do with growing the now‐omnipresent regulatory state. His statements at the signing of the Child Protection Act in November 1966 reveal a bizarre concept of the malignancy of consumer goods produced in a market setting and an abiding faith that government intervention was the only thing standing between Americans and disaster.
“It will ban the sale or use of toys and other children’s articles that contain dangerous or deadly substances. It will ban the sale of other household articles so hazardous that even labels cannot make them safe. Now there is a law that says the eyes of a doll will not be poisonous beans. Now there is a law that says what looks like candy will not be deadly firecracker balls. Now there is a law that says Johnny will not die because his toy truck was painted with a poison. Both these laws offer sweeping new protection to the American family.” [xxxiii]
Though many Americans likely assume that killer toys were a real problem prior to federal legislation – why else would we have such a law? – Good Housekeeping Magazine declared the year prior to federal action that “the great majority of toys today are safe when used properly.” [xxxiv] Nonetheless, the federal government came to the rescue. Regulatory creep throughout the entire range of American economic activity continues apace, subject somewhat to the whims of the occupant of the White House at a given time.
It is clear that most of Johnson’s major initiatives such as the War on Poverty failed or have had damaging consequences. Perhaps more importantly than their failure as matters of policy, Johnson’s expansion of federal spending and oversight helped to dramatically upset the balance between local, state, and federal governments. With huge amounts of state and local funding drawn from Washington and state legislatures rendered largely irrelevant on major issues, national politics have become central to very local and even personal matters. This state of affairs is completely antithetical to the nation’s founding vision of individual liberty, local governance, and federalism.
LBJ opened the door for a host of issues that have only grown in magnitude over time. At one point during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara declared, “The greatest contribution Vietnam is making is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war … without arousing the public ire.” This was necessary “since this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for [the] next fifty years.” [xxxv] McNamara’s vision was derailed by the anti‐war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but must appear familiar to Americans in 2019. Vietnam has now been surpassed by the conflict in Afghanistan as America’s longest war. American troops remain committed to a variety of conflicts around the globe that the nation has no intention of winning, yet cannot seem to disengage from, while the public and Congress dutifully supports the troops but demands neither victory nor withdrawal. The real lessons of Vietnam remain unlearned.
The welfare and regulatory states are similarly woven into the fabric of twenty‐first century American life. In 2019, United States senators feel free to demand that federal agencies investigate the dangers of beach umbrellas, while the current Republican administration vows to defend Medicare in its current form against the Democrats’ expansive government‐based healthcare proposals. [xxxvi] The nation’s $21 trillion‐plus debt is hardly a topic of political discussion, while nearly all candidates promise new spending on ambitious projects.
The unfortunate truth about Lyndon Johnson is that his presidency was unique in the past half‐century more for the scope of his policies than for the substance of his actions. The modern imperial presidency enabled Johnson’s hubris and ruthless ambition to the detriment of the United States. Vast power remains ensconced in the presidency, and Congress prefers that it stay there. In this sense, Johnson was the logical outcome of the system of national governance that emerged over the first half of the twentieth century. Yet with the great power of the modern Oval Office comes greater presidential responsibility. Good intentions do not absolve the powerful of policy outcomes. Lyndon Johnson’s legacy remains with us in the looming national fiscal crisis, the penetration of American everyday life by political conflict, and the thousands of names engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial.
[xii] Quotes from Paterson, “The Truth About Tonkin,” and Moïse, Tonkin Gulf, 226.
[xiii] See for example Francis M. Bator, “No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection,” Diplomatic History 32 (June 2008): 309–338.
[xiv] Fredrik Logevall, “Comment on Francis M. Bator’s ‘No Good Choices:’ LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection,” Diplomatic History 32 (June 2008): 355–359; Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), xvi–xix.
[xxix] See Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018); Neal McCluskey, “College Aid Not Helping Students:
[xxxiv] Quoted in Andrew McClary, Good Toys, Bad Toys: How Safety, Society, Politics and Fashion Have Reshaped Children’s Playthings (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2004), 82.
[xxxv] Quoted in George C. Herring, “‘Cold Blood:’ LBJ’s Conduct of Limited War in Vietnam,” The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History 33 (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force Academy, 1990), 16.