Reaching for Glory:
Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965
Simon & Schuster
475 pages / $30
How Many Boys Did You Kill Today?
Review by Paul Corrigan
"Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?"
That chant of protesters picketing the White House during the Vietnam War has remained with me for well over 30 years. It has always been my belief that the words in that one question helped end a war and a presidency. It is ironic to learn now that early in his presidency, before the protests magnified, Lyndon Johnson believed that the Vietnam War could not be won and that his presidency was doomed. These insights come from reading Reaching For Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 by Michael Beschloss. The book, the second volume in the secret tapes trilogy, is a fascinating historical account of a transition in our nation's history that marked the beginning of a long period in which Americans viewed their government with a healthy skepticism, a skepticism that Americans appear to have recently forgotten.
My greatest surprise in reading the book was how much I like Johnson, as a president and as a man. Johnson combined a keen political intuition with a strong understanding of human nature. The tapes reveal a man that was very adept at working a one-on-one relationship. He was thoughtful and appeared to care little for the imperial trappings that office of the presidency offered. He was no puppet or celluloid figure. As a man, and a president, he towers over Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. Johnson's professed philosophies were often simple (e.g., "if you really trust people, there are few who don't reciprocate"), but he was prone to discard them as often as he was to follow them. Like all presidents, once in office he seemed haunted by history and the future. He displayed a Nixonian paranoia, especially in his obsession with Bobby Kennedy. Many readers would and should be sensitive to Johnson's apparent homophobic and sexist comments. I would remind those readers to put Johnson's comments into historical perspective and appreciate that he helped break down some of America's greatest social barriers.
Reading Johnson's dialogue is a reminder that the political stakes in the mid-sixties were enormous. The chasm between the Left and the Right during these years was monumental. Civil Rights, the War on Poverty, and the Vietnam War divided the nation. Johnson, the architect of The Great Society, won the presidential election in 1964 as the antiwar candidate. Barry Goldwater's statements in support of limited nuclear war legitimized the most powerful political television ad in our nation's history, the little girl picking the petals off a daisy along with the countdown to a nuclear mushroom cloud. Before the election, Johnson was pushed to escalate the war in Vietnam based on fabricated military intelligence that the North Vietnamese initiated an unprovoked attack on the American destroyers Morton and Edwards in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Pentagon then attempted to force Johnson into responding by leaking the story to the press.
Johnson's patronizing response to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's recitation of the military account should be read by every American:
Now, Bob, I have found over the years that we see and hear and we imagine a lot of things in the form of attacks and shots and people running at us, and I think it would... make us very vulnerable if we conclude that these people were attacking us and we were merely responding and it develops that it just wasn't true at all. And I think that we should check that very, very carefully... A man gets enough braid on him, and he walks in a room, and he just immediately concludes that he's being attacked... I have been watching and listening to these stories for thirty years before the Armed Services Committee, and we are always sure we've been attacked. Then in a day or two, we are not so damned sure. And then in a day or two more we're sure it didn't happen at all!
This is the president of the United States sounding like he's reading script from Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Wow! Alas, despite his skepticism of the military Johnson did escalate the war, and in doing so, killed tens of thousands of American boys, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, all while lying to the American public. Johnson's escalation of the American presence in Vietnam handed the presidency to conservatives for years to come.
Why did Johnson escalate the war? He was not immune to political pressure but his words, as edited by Beschloss, point to a belief that Communism was a menace that needed to be stopped. Johnson believed that "aggression must not succeed anywhere in the world... If you let a bully come in and chase you out of your front yard, tomorrow he'll be on your porch, and the next day, he'll rape your wife in your own bed." Johnson apparently believed the whole world was his front porch and forgot that America often was the bully. Sadly, the American ego may have been the real reason Johnson did not end the war. Johnson saw the war in black and white terms: "I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace." It seems a simple choice to me but not one Johnson was able to make.
I commend Beschloss for his exhaustive work but the reader should be aware of a number of points. The book begins with a prologue covering conversations between Johnson and Jackie Kennedy from December 1963 and January 1964, a period that should have been covered by the first book in the trilogy. These conversations, excluded from their chronological place by an initial decision by the Johnson Library to keep the tapes confidential, have an embarrassingly creepy tone. Beschloss reveals much about himself and his work in the prologue. He uses exclamation points to punctuate two utterances by Johnson to Jackie. The emphasis is that of Beschloss, not Johnson. As odd as some of Johnson's comments are, it seems likely that he said them to a woman whose husband was recently assassinated to comfort her and her children. Beschloss recites them with an emphasis that I found inappropriate. More importantly, the fact that the library kept such inconsequential tapes confidential is evidence that the tapes made available to Beschloss were hardly the whole story. Despite these caveats, I highly recommend Reaching For Glory.
Reaching For Glory underscores how important access to presidential tapes and other presidential papers are to the American people. In 1978, Congress passed a law permitting the release of presidential records 12 years after the end of a term. The present Bush administration has fought disclosure of the Reagan records. As Daniel Schorr has pointed out, the whole idea of the Presidential Records Act was to avoid another Nixon tapes battle and facilitate disclosure. Bush's conflict of interest is obvious. Americans should push for full disclosure.
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