The war was beginning to threaten Johnson's prized consensus. The first sign had been the votes of Senators Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But during 1965 other leading senators went into opposition. Two of the best known were William F. Fulbright of Arkansas and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Fulbright, who was opposed to the resumption of bombing after the temporary halt, voiced his fear of an "ever-increasing escalation in the fighting." Morse, the most caustic of the critics, boldly and angrily predicted that the American people "will repudiate our war in Southeast Asia."
Johnson's response was more and more rancorous and hostile. He saw Americans as divided simply "between cut-and-run people and patriotic people." With deep sarcasm he said of his critics: "They have a real feeling for danger.. . . They see a fire and they turn off the hose because it is essential that we not waste any water." Mindful of Fulbright's opposition to the civil rights movement, Johnson pointedly explained the senator's opposition to the war as racist, asserting that the senator from Arkansas "cannot understand that people with brown skins value freedom too."
Johnson never accepted the widely held view of the Democratic "doves" (opponents of the war) that the conflict was a civil war and that the Vietcong had won the allegiance of most South Vietnamese even before the North Vietnamese had began their large-scale infiltration. While Johnson and his people insisted that China was the puppeteer manipulating the assault on South Vietnam, the doves scoffed, maintaining that if the United States restrained itself and did not force North Vietnam to seek Chinese assistance, an independent Communist Vietnam might evolve. The doves rejected, too, Johnson's insistence that the United States had a solemn obligation to act under the provisions of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Johnson was adamant, taking pains to point out that Mike Mansfield of Montana, who had succeeded him as majority leader in the Senate and was increasingly opposed to the war, had been a signatory of the treaty establishing SEATO.
A serious defection from the phalanx of Great Society supporters was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King had concluded that the prosecution of the war was assuming a higher priority than the pledged expansion of civil rights. But Johnson remained adamant, at increasingly heavy cost to the nation's tranquillity and to the base of power that had carried him to his recent electoral victory.
By the end of 1966, the momentum of Johnson's Great Society program was slowing. Worse, the tide of domestic troubles—inflation, a price-wage squeeze, and mounting strikes—was rising, mostly because of the war in Vietnam. Yet the problems could not be managed unless the war ended. Besides, Johnson, having widened the war without calling for public sacrifice, continued to act as if the country could have "both guns and butter." The situation called for a cutback in domestic spending or an increase in taxes, but Johnson was unwilling to break up his immense majority in Congress by asking for either.
The air war in Vietnam had clearly not produced the results sought. Johnson, increasingly testy, even became disenchanted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman, General Earle G. Wheeler, also a victim of heart trouble, he felt kin to. "Bomb, bomb, bomb, that's all you know," Johnson several times complained in frustration. The search-and-destroy operations of the troops under General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, did not seem to put a strain on enemy manpower. "Westy" now had almost 500,000 men in Vietnam, more than 3,000 helicopters, 28 tactical fighter-bombers, and large numbers of giant B-52 bombers. The Vietnam landscape was so heavily pockmarked by the aerial assaults that experienced pilots could fly to their targets by following bomb craters whose configuration had become familiar to them.
In early August 1967, Johnson formalized to the generals his response to their latest request for troops—for 100,000 more. He would allow them 45,000 and thus bring to 525,000 the strength of the force in Vietnam by the middle of 1968. But he knew that progress in the war was not taking place. He asked Westmoreland, "When we add divisions, can't the enemy add divisions? If so where does it all end?" Expanding the war by calling up the reserves seemed out of the question. The American death toll was rising: by the end of 1967 it was approaching 500 a week. The cost of the war in 1967 was $25 billion, fueling what would prove to be a long cycle of inflation. Moreover, television news was for the first time in American history bringing the battlefield into the living room regularly. Millions were appalled at the use of napalm on villagers who seemed innocent victims of forces they could not comprehend. In the eyes of the world, the United States was Goliath mercilessly pummeling David.
The war had significantly changed the public's judgment of Johnson. Once seen as a political magician with a sure mastery of people and circumstances, he now seemed battered by events out of his control and beyond his ken. His vaunted capacity for wearing out his young aides was being enlarged by a fury regarding any form of dissent within the ranks. And the people saw a president who wearily wrestled with the politics of the nation's problems rather than with the problems themselves. His ill-temperedness, sometimes combined with disingenuousness, made his public persona unattractive to many Americans. It stood in the way of bringing Johnson the public sympathy a beleaguered president traditionally receives, as Kennedy had received it after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. Not even Lincoln in the darkest days of the Civil War had faced such intense dissent and public doubts about his course of action.
The opposition to the Vietnam War was given its most powerful expression by college students. One of their first responses had been the device of the teach-in—hours-long discussions of the war with many participants—the first of which took place on the campus of the University of Michigan on 24 March 1965—a one-day school moratorium during which professors spoke on the war instead of offering their regular lectures. The teach-in became familiar throughout the country. Moreover, it provided an opportunity for students to vent other grievances: against the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), against academic support of scientific work for defense purposes, against the exclusion of students from college decision making, and against a medley of real and imagined irritations. The public demonstrations, which may have been an important stimulus to draft resistance, seemed to merge with the uprising known as the youth movement. Johnson, who had never given up the fond hope of being remembered as a friend of education, was publicly taunted at student rallies, often with the stinging refrain, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"
Concurrently Johnson's relationship with the black community cooled noticeably. Some part of the disaffection was owing to the unpopular war, involving as it did the disruption of a land inhabited by people of color, but it also grew out of the alienation from a generally prosperous society of its black people, who did not share in the bounty, and out of a natural evolution of the civil rights movement from a call for integration to a demand for "black power." The neighborhoods of tenements and slums occupied by poor blacks in the North, now denominated ghettos, were notably marked by high unemployment and run-down schools. Even as the presidential campaign had gotten under way in 1964, a riot in New York erupted and lasted five days.
In the next few years the nation experienced "long, hot summers"—riots and the threats of riots in major cities. The Watts district of Los Angeles burst into flames in 1965, and black communities exploded in Cleveland in 1966, in Newark and Detroit in 1967, and in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Anxiety over possible race war gripped many cities as the words "Burn, baby, burn" were reported to be the battle cry of the rioters. The nation was reaping a whirlwind resulting from its long neglect and indifference to the needs of the black poor. As the destruction, including looting and attacks on white policemen, firemen, and National Guardsmen, rent the air, it was easy to find a scapegoat: Johnson and his war in Vietnam. Both he and the struggle in Asia became more unpopular than ever.
The president's response was to appoint the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto D. Kerner of Illinois. The report delivered to the president on 2 March 1968 blamed white racism for the troubles. The country, it declared, was dividing into two societies, one white, one black—"separate and unequal." Its recommendations included a call for open housing and other "massive" programs. Johnson praised the report, but it distressed him, too, for he said: "They always print that we don't do enough. They don't print what we do." Johnson felt stymied: the War on Poverty he had designed had spent more than $6 billion from 1964 to 1967, and poverty had not disappeared. Indeed, there was extensive proof of widespread malnutrition and even hunger in the country. Fresh evidence came to public attention just as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that he was proposing a new antiballistic missile defense system that would cost $5 billion. Johnson was now the object of the new accusation that he was unable any longer to discern the nation's true priorities. Many Americans insisted that poverty could be wiped out if the money being spent on the war were diverted to the home front.
In October 1967 a mass protest by a group calling itself the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam descended upon Washington. The administration was torn: Should it call a new bombing halt to satisfy the growing opposition at home, or should it intensify the war in order to satisfy the "hawks," who were eager to smite North Vietnam decisively? Before the end of November, a public opinion poll showed that confidence in Johnson's management of the war had dropped to 23 percent—the lowest point yet. Nevertheless, public support of the war effort itself remained at about 45 percent between November and March 1968.
The president and his principal spokesmen were finding it harder each week to avoid the chanting protesters, who seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in history, a president was unwelcome in public in most parts of the country, making him a veritable prisoner in the White House, "hunkered down" there, to use one of his favorite expressions. At the end of 1967 he traveled to Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan in four and a half days, returning to the White House on Christmas Eve after stopping off for a surprise meeting with the pope in the Vatican. Johnson was once again attempting to placate the doves. One means was to state a willingness to accept Vietcong representatives in discussions of the war at the United Nations. The immediate effect was to disrupt relations with South Vietnam, where President Nguyen Van Thieu expressed cold anger at Washington for seeming to have truck with the enemy.
In his State of the Union message of 17 January 1968, Johnson could report that "Americans are as prosperous as men have ever been in recorded history." Still, he took note of the disarray in the country, as he added, "Yet there is in the land a certain restlessness, a questioning." Privately the president was gloomy and depressed. By now, even McGeorge Bundy, who as Johnson's first special assistant for national security affairs had been an architect of the first phase of the war, had come out against its continuation.
The nation's discontent intruded into the White House itself when, on 18 January 1968, Mrs. Johnson held a luncheon for a group of white and black women who had been invited in order to discuss crime in the streets. One of the guests, Eartha Kitt, a prominent singer, rose shortly after the president had spoken briefly, to assert that young people were rebelling and smoking marijuana because of the war. "Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy. They figure [that] with a [prison] record they don't have to go off to Vietnam." Johnson was furious over what he regarded as an affront to the presidency delivered in the White House itself and over the extensive coverage of the incident in the press and on television.