You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Cost of Overcorrecting on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam

For years, LBJ was reviled for Vietnam. Then the historical tables turned in his direction. But they turned a little too far.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets soldiers
Corbis/Getty Images
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets soldiers during a surprise visit to an American base in South Vietnam in October 1966.

If you don’t like the legacy of an American president, just wait awhile and it will likely change. For that is the iron law of presidential reputations: With rare exceptions, they fluctuate over time.  

This is certainly true with Lyndon Johnson. A new documentary that is currently streaming on Hulu, based on the book Lady Bird Johnson by Julia Sweig, provides a mesmerizing look at the president through the words of his wife. Based on an oral diary that Lady Bird maintained during their time in the White House, the film offers affecting personal footage of the first family and an important account of how she moved her husband’s administration on key issues connected to conservation, including the Highway Beautification Act.  

For all the contributions that the film provides viewers about this period in American political history, it is oddly subdued in its treatment of Vietnam. For much of the movie, the war in Southeast Asia is a creeping problem, something that comes to President Johnson periodically rather than something that he forces on the table. We see the student anti-war protests, and Lady Bird’s frustration with the protesters, but the film ghosts the decision-making process that produced the results. While The Lady Bird Diaries captures the historic progress LBJ made on key domestic issues, including race relations, the utterly devastating effects of Vietnam and the direct role that the president made in the escalation are mostly bypassed. Lady Bird herself, at least in the diaries, appears more concerned with her family than the nation at large. As Rhoda Garelick points out in her review in The New York Times, “When discussing the thousands protesting the expanding Vietnam War … Mrs. Johnson says little about the corpses coming home, but worries deeply about the pain it all caused her husband. ‘When he is pierced, I bleed,’ she says.” 

As much as this critique is particular to the film, the problem reflects a broader and problematic shift in the way we have remembered LBJ’s legacy—one that has downplayed the destructive consequences of the war and Johnson’s pivotal role in the escalation that took place in the middle years of his presidency. As much as we laud LBJ’s political prowess in moving domestic legislation, some of those same attributes led him and the nation deeper into the jungles of Vietnam.   

In the early decades that followed his presidency, Johnson’s reputation suffered. He himself set the tone when he spoke to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin of “[leaving] the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world.” The troubles that ensued did not surprise him. Indeed, a remarkable thing about Johnson and Vietnam is that he sensed from an early point—from well before he Americanized the struggle in 1965—that the war would be his undoing. He suggested as much to Lady Bird and to others. He was right. And Americans who lived through the tumult and tragedy of the war, which left 58,000 Americans and between 1.5 and four million Vietnamese dead—and grievously undermined the international standing of the United States—would not forget. The war deeply divided the nation and increased distrust in government, helping to stoke divisions and cynicism that have become more pronounced over time. The atmosphere of chaos and dysfunction born out of Vietnam created an atmosphere that would benefit conservative forces diametrically opposed to the political values that LBJ hoped to protect and promote. Despite being the president who signed two of the most important civil rights laws on the books and guaranteed that the elderly had health care, Johnson would be remembered by most Americans, fairly or not, as the architect of the most disastrous military operation in America’s history. 

His reputation changed in the early 2000s, as more historians and Americans started to look beyond Vietnam in assessing his tenure. The tide started to turn as much more attention was focused on the sheer breadth of domestic accomplishments that he left behind. Lectures, books, films, and television reintroduced Americans to the nation’s thirty-sixth commander in chief. They told the story of a savvy, indefatigable politician who knew how to make the levers of Washington work in a way nobody else could. Most famous was the “Johnson Treatment,” where the six-foot-three Texan would literally hover with body and spirit over colleagues until they gave him the answers he wanted. The recordings of his White House telephone conversations provided an unprecedented glimpse into how Johnson wielded power when nobody was looking. And he got results—the scope of domestic legislation was astounding. Working with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, when the internal balance of power temporarily shifted from Southern conservatives to Northern liberals, Johnson pushed through legislation addressing poverty, health care, civil rights, voting rights, open housing, immigration, elementary and secondary schools, higher education, food insecurity, the environment, cultural institutions, public television, and much more—nearly two hundred pieces of legislation in total. 

As compared with the war, Johnson’s domestic accomplishments seemed much more relevant as we moved into the twenty-first century. During an age of immense dysfunction in Washington, his political skills became a roadmap to how power could be made to work. For every news story that Americans read reminding them that nothing was getting done on the big issues of the day, LBJ provided the best evidence available that there was a different road the nation could travel on. Government could work. Presidential power could be effective. Our disjointed and fragmented system did not have to be, even if no one doubted change would be hard. President Barack Obama was reportedly frustrated when advisers kept talking to him about learning more about what LBJ would do; Obama reminded them that he never had anywhere near the congressional majorities his predecessor enjoyed after 1964. He might well have added that he, Obama, faced an implacably right-wing and oppositional Republican Party, whereas the GOP of Johnson’s day included numerous moderates and deal-makers.  

In the post–Ronald Reagan era in which the nation had shifted to the right, LBJ’s domestic society also offered a powerful narrative for liberals as to how the federal government could be an extremely effective force for dealing with inequality, injustice, and insecurity. When Johnson started his presidency, Americans who were 65 or over very often fell short of being able to pay for their hospital stays. After Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the insurance to cover those costs was guaranteed by the federal government, paid for through Social Security taxes. 

A new book of essays, LBJ’s America, in which both of us are contributors, attempts to convey the sheer magnitude of these domestic changes. Surveying the War on Poverty, Joshua Zeitz explains how measures to improve quality of life, including federal policies addressing workforce training and food security, “would level the playing field and help poor people realize their share of the growing economy.” When the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or what we colloquially call food stamps) started in 1965, Zeitz says, 500,000 people received help; in 2020, 40 million people were relying on the benefits to have sufficient food on their table.  

Or consider Head Start, the early childhood education program launched in 1965 that helped municipalities meet the needs of low-income families. From an initial eight-week pilot program, it grew into a full-year program serving close to a million children annually, by providing nutritional, social, emotional, and medical support. The program did not eliminate child poverty, but its results were tangible—by its fortieth anniversary in 2005, it had benefited more than 22 million kids.  

Then there were Medicare and Medicaid, both of which were transformative. Before 1965, elderly Americans over 65 depended on philanthropy, welfare, and family to help them through the enormous costs of hospitalization—or they didn’t go. By 1996, over 69 million elderly Americans had received Medicare benefits. Medicaid grew from a small, vulnerable, means-tested program for the “medically indigent” into one of the most impactful social safety net policies, in states red and blue, with a vastly expanded range of beneficiaries.  

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation and has not been undone. Although the Supreme Court dismantled Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the increase in Black American voting registration and elected Black officials was substantial starting in the years that followed passage of the legislation. Eligible Black American voters increased from 7 to 67 percent of the total Black population between 1965 and 1969. More than 1,000 Black candidates were elected by the mid-1970s, up from 72 in the year after the bill passed.              

Federal education funding poured government dollars into elementary, secondary, and higher education. Arts and cultural institutions were beneficiaries of the Great Society, and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting was chartered as a result of 1967 legislation. 

These are monumental accomplishments, and they must be given their due in any proper evaluation of the Johnson years. The problem is that we have overcorrected the record, and doing so is dangerous for the ways we understand the presidency. Historical memory has shifted too far away from Vietnam and the flawed decisions that LBJ made during his time in the Oval Office. The time has come to start taking a more serious look at how a president who could be so skilled on domestic issues had the opposite instincts when it came to war. After all, it was the very same LBJ who sent tens of thousands of troops into a quagmire, despite considerable opposition from inside and outside his administration, despite his own misgivings, escalating the conflict until it was too late to turn back and had mushroomed into one of this country’s greatest historical tragedies.

Where did LBJ go wrong? One key element of Johnson’s stubborn drive in Southeast Asia resulted from his inability to perceive and acknowledge the ways that foreign policy ideologies held and promoted by policymakers could become blinding. Though the “domino theory” no longer held the kind of sway in the inner sanctums in Washington that it had held in earlier years, U.S. officials felt compelled to affirm its salience publicly. Thus, they had to insist that if one country fell to communism, others would follow. To be “tough” on national security, according to this logic, was to stand firm militarily against communism, so that there was no sense around the world that the U.S. would be willing to budge. An openness to negotiations, by contrast, suggested weakness, at least when Communists were involved.    

Party politics was equally important. While it is true that Johnson’s obsessive attention to the political implications of every decision and conversation was essential to how he moved legislation through the House and Senate despite opposition from Southern Democrats and Republicans, those same instincts didn’t serve him well with Vietnam. From the start of his presidency, Johnson was ridden with fears that he would look weak on defense and that any move to end the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam would bring charges of appeasement and weaken him politically. Not least, it would harm him on Capitol Hill, where he had many more bills he wanted to pass, and would weaken his election chances—first in 1964 and then in 1968. As Johnson told Georgia Democratic Senator Richard Russell in May 1964, “Well, they’d impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?” Russell, a conservative Southerner who had mentored LBJ and knew a thing or two about politics, answered, “I don’t think they would.” Johnson didn’t listen. Just as damaging, Johnson refused to consider the way that the military escalation would ultimately harm his domestic ambitions. The budgetary and political costs needed to serve any major intervention have often come at the expense of programs for the home front.  

Johnson’s fears were not wholly irrational. After all, Republicans had won control of the White House and Congress in 1952 on a campaign that emphasized Democratic weakness in fighting communism at home and abroad. There was a cottage industry of books and articles warning that, even though it remained at the margins of national politics, the “radical right” was a more formative and dangerous force than many Democratic officials understood, and they had some connection to mainstream Republican politics. As a Texan, LBJ had seen these forces firsthand throughout his political life and he knew that within the South—still the heart of the Democratic Party—liberalism always maintained a precarious place in the body politic. In 1964, Republicans would nominate Senator Barry Goldwater as their nominee, bringing right-wing extremism to the top of the ticket.  

But there was another way to perceive the opportunities of the era, especially after Johnson’s landslide defeat of Goldwater. In February 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, assisted by aide Thomas L. Hughes, wrote Johnson an extraordinary memo urging him to take advantage of his overwhelming triumph and resist going in deeper in Vietnam, the better to concentrate on his domestic agenda. Escalation, the memo presciently warned, “would eliminate for the time being any possible exchange between the President and Soviet leaders; it would postpone any progress on arms control; it would encourage the Soviet Union and China to end their rift; it would seriously hamper our efforts to strengthen relations with our European allies; it would weaken our position in the United Nations; it might require a call-up of reservists if we were to get involved in a large-scale land war—and a consequent increase in defense expenditures; it would tend to shift the Administration’s emphasis from its Great Society oriented programs to further military outlays; finally and most important it would damage the image of the President of the United States—and that of the United States itself.”  

Just as important, Humphrey wrote, the recent election provided a political opportunity for Johnson to be free from his traditional political concerns. “Politically,” the vice president argued, “it is always hard to cut losses. But the Johnson Administration is in a stronger position to do so than any Administration in this century. 1965 is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson Administration. Indeed, it is the first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican right.”  

Johnson ignored the advice. After banishing Humphrey from his inner circle of foreign policy advisers, he proceeded in the ensuing weeks and months to escalate the war, insisting as he did so that he could have guns and butter at the same time. By the end of 1965, some 180,000 U.S. combat forces were in South Vietnam; the number would ultimately reach more than half a million.  

Which should remind us that when thinking about Lyndon Johnson, the negative lessons from his presidency are as important as positive ones. The war in Vietnam did not just “happen,” nor was it forced on Johnson by circumstances or by his senior advisers or by the North Vietnamese. He had maneuverability. He could have chosen differently, not merely in hindsight but in the context of his time, as his own vice president understood. And it bears underscoring that Humphrey was no political naïf. No less than LBJ, he was steeped in the politics and ideology of the Cold War; no one needed to remind him of the troubles that could befall a politician—especially a Democrat—subjected to the charge of being “soft on communism” and an “appeaser.” Yet Humphrey argued powerfully in that February 1965 memo that now was the right time to suffer those risks and that the risks of escalation were far greater. 

Nor was Humphrey alone. The senior Democratic leadership in the Senate, including Southern conservatives like Russell, shared his misgivings about escalation and his doubts about the stakes, as did prominent voices in the media, such as The New York Times and columnist Walter Lippmann, along with key allied governments around the world, including France, Great Britain, and Canada. 

Did Johnson have a more sanguine take on the prospects in Vietnam? Not really. Though on occasion he could strike notes of measured optimism, he was from the start a somber realist on the war. Two striking quotes are representative of his overall view. “I just don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out,” he complained to national security adviser McGeorge Bundy in May 1964, a year before the Americanization. Twenty-two months later, in February 1966, a month that saw nearly 500 Americans killed in combat in Vietnam, he remarked to Eugene McCarthy: “I know we oughtn’t to be there. But I can’t get out. I just can’t be the architect of surrender.”  

And so he stayed in, year after bloody year. From his first day in office to his last, LBJ was a hawk on Vietnam, which proves anew that warriors don’t need to be eager to be committed. He always framed his choices on the struggle in such a way that holding steadfast seemed the only reasonable option—it was wholesale retreat, launch the bombers against China, or keep the course. At no point did he fully explore imaginative ways out of the conflict; for him, disengagement without victory portended dishonor and defeat. In 1968, after he withdrew from the presidential race and agreed to begin talks with North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris, he expanded the bombing, rejecting pleas from U.S. negotiators for a halt. On July 30, he told associates he wanted to “knock the hell” out of the North Vietnamese. That fall, some part of him wanted to see Richard Nixon win the election over his own vice president; by his calculation, the Republican would be more likely than Humphrey to maintain the Vietnam commitment. 

One is reminded of historian Michael Kazin’s bracing conclusion: “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Kazin’s “most” qualifier is important: Lyndon Johnson was not solely responsible for the misadventure in Indochina. His top advisers played important roles, and mention must also be made of the “permissive context”—domestic and international—in which the president and his men operated in the critical months of 1964–65. This was never simply “Johnson’s War.” But immense responsibility nonetheless must rest on his shoulders—he alone made the key decisions. He never believed otherwise. As we rightly hail LBJ for his tremendous domestic accomplishments and seek to learn from them, we should also acknowledge—and learn from—the tragedy that was Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.