Lyndon B. Johnson - The final days

Johnson's political world was soon a shambles. In November 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy had announced his audacious intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. McCarthy was opposed not only to the war but also to what he saw as the excessive power of the presidency under Johnson. For a brief time Johnson assumed that McCarthy was only a stalking-horse for Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, which incensed him all the more. The Kennedys, he had come to think, regarded themselves as superior people to himself.

In March 1968, Clark Clifford, Johnson's long-time informal adviser and widely regarded as a hawk, became the secretary of defense. The president did not want another doubting Thomas—as McNamara had become—serving in his cabinet. Nevertheless, events soon overwhelmed traditional categories. On 23 January the USS Pueblo , an intelligence-gathering vessel, was seized by North Korean gunboats while on patrol off the North Korean port of Wonsan, and the crew of eighty men imprisoned. The president, provoked and exasperated, restrained himself despite a public outcry for quick military retaliation. He responded by calling to active duty fifteen thousand air force and navy reservists and ordering the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to assume a station off the coast of South Korea. His desire was to give assurance that despite the war in Vietnam, he continued to exercise freedom of military action. Following frustrating negotiations, the crew was freed eleven months later, after the United States admitted culpability for violating Korean waters and apologized. Apparently by prearrangement, the "confession" was repudiated after the men's release, for it obviously had been wrenched out of the United States under duress.

A week after the seizure of the Pueblo , critical developments changed the scene in Vietnam. While Saigon was celebrating Tet, the lunar new year, the Vietcong had launched an attack on the city, including the vital Tan Son Nhut Airport. Within two days every significant city or provincial capital in South Vietnam was under assault. General Westmoreland said that the concerted attack had been expected but not its size and destructiveness. The United States and South Vietnamese forces, caught by surprise, recovered quickly. Yet the recapture of the beautiful old capital of Hue, which contained many architectural treasures, took three weeks and some of the costliest fighting of the war. In the end, the city lay in ruins.

The administration insisted that in blunting the Tet offensive it had gained a victory, but the public generally perceived the outcome of the battle as a defeat. In truth, the struggle was a prelude to a decision in Washington to wind down the war. Johnson insisted at a press conference on 2 February that basic United States strategy would remain unchanged. He was relying heavily upon the assessment of the military situation by his generals. He and they, ever mindful of the decisive defeat that the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had inflicted on the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, were determined that a similar disaster would not befall the American forces. When crack North Vietnamese units laid siege to the marine garrison and South Vietnamese regulars at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border in late 1967, fear of such an outcome ran high. Johnson anxiously followed the fierce encounter from the war room in the White House. The beleaguered troops—substantially reinforced in response to Johnson's order to hold at all cost—lifted the siege in early April. They had been given the heaviest air support ever accorded to ground forces. Johnson, temporarily relieved by the reports of these momentous battles, continued to rally support in the nation. He even personally bid farewell to a contingent of troops being hurried to the war zone.

The war was entering a new phase. General Wheeler, who had rushed to Vietnam after the Tet offensive, returned with a request from General Westmoreland for additional troops—206,000 of them. To raise and support that many men would require calling up reservists and adding $10 billion to the federal budget. Johnson, seemingly aware now that his goal of "carrying forward the Nation's struggle against aggression in Southeast Asia" was not going to be achieved, instructed Secretary Clifford to undertake a close study of the Westmoreland request. Clifford became the instrument through which the policy of constantly expanding the American presence in Vietnam was eventually reversed.

Johnson, meanwhile, had come to the conclusion that with the military force the United States had in Vietnam the Americans were not going to be able, as he put it, "to nail the coonskin to the wall." Political developments no doubt were determinative in leading Johnson to reexamine his position on staying the course. On 12 March, McCarthy, whom the president personally scorned, won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Robert Kennedy, no doubt emboldened by McCarthy's victory, entered the presidential race too.

The next two weeks were decisive for the president. He had reached certain conclusions, which he announced on 31 March in an address to the nation. He was halting the bombing of North Vietnam in the hope that the step would lead to peace, and he was going to give higher priority than ever to expanding the size of the South Vietnamese forces—that is, to "Vietnamizing" the war once again—and he was authorizing a small increase in the American forces in Vietnam.

At the end of his address he dropped a political bombshell: he would not be a candidate for reelection. He declared, "I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year." In his memoirs he later reported that he had decided even as he took the oath in January 1965 that he would never take it again. His health, he had concluded, would not stand the punishment of another term. Johnson did not mention that already the public opinion polls, which he followed intensely on all matters throughout his presidency, showed he would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of McCarthy in the upcoming primary election in Wisconsin. Following the announcement, Johnson's political fortunes revived briefly as Congress passed his proposals for fair housing (embraced in the Civil Rights Act of 1968) and also a tax increase. But his presidency was soon in the doldrums again as the peace talks seemed to be going nowhere. In October his nominee for chief justice, Associate Justice Abe Fortas, was turned down by the Senate, the first time a president had been thus humiliated since 1795, when Washing-ton's nomination of John Rutledge as the second chief justice was rejected.

Event had piled upon event. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on 4 April. The riots that ensued added to the dismay of the American people at the low state to which public order and morale had fallen. Two months later Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. When the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in August to choose a presidential candidate amid violence in the streets, as police and antiwar protesters battled each other, the party named Vice President Hubert Humphrey to carry its banner. Johnson's hold on the party had slipped so badly that he did not even attend the convention.

Humphrey, who felt deeply obligated personally to Johnson, was unable to shake the albatross of Johnson's dealings with the North Vietnamese, now negotiating in Paris with American negotiators. The Republicans had nominated Richard Nixon, who insisted—without specifying his meaning—that "new leadership can end the war in the Pacific and bring peace." The crowning disappointment of the summer of 1968 was the need to cancel Johnson's long-planned trip to Moscow for talks on the limiting of antiballistic missiles. All had been in readiness when, on 20 August, at the height of the tumultuous Democratic convention, 200,000 Russian and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress a movement to liberalize society in that Iron Curtain country. The ratification of a proposed treaty was postponed. The president seemed trapped in a maze without an exit.

In retirement, Johnson worked on plans for his presidential library (dedicated in May 1971) on the campus of the University of Texas, in Austin. He devoted time, too, to the preparation of his memoirs, published under the title The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969 . Meanwhile, his heart condition worsened, and it was increasingly difficult for him to exert himself. In considerable physical distress, he presided over a memorable symposium on civil rights at his library only a few weeks before he died on 22 January 1973. He was buried on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

The war remains the dark side of Johnson's moon; domestic legislation is the shining side, particularly the civil rights laws that remain his monument. As his administration drew to a close, Johnson must have felt betrayed by history and by his close associates, whom he had regarded as his choicest inheritance from Kennedy, and by old friends like Senator Fulbright, the carping chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Johnson's wondrous hopes for America were not going to be realized in his time. The civil rights struggle had not yet completely moved from the streets into the courts, although, despite the burning cities of the late sixties, that process was clearly under way.

Johnson came to recognize that he was at the wrong point in history. Although his dream to re-make life for the deprived and underprivileged and to be recalled forever as their benefactor had been shattered by the awful bloodletting ten thousand miles from home, the ideal of a land without poverty or racial division remains his legacy to America. Possibly he sensed this when, in an unusual move, he delivered a State of the Union message on 14 January 1969, just before leaving office. His words were a last call for the passage of Great Society legislation. He plainly had not run out of problems requiring attention, as he once had feared he would.

Americans will continue to ponder the incomplete triumph at home and the unfinished and losing war abroad of its first cowboy president, who came out of the hill country of Texas, certain of how society's wrongs could be put right. As he left office to return to his ranch and to the other substantial interests that his political successes had given him the opportunity to acquire, he rested his case with history. And he could hope that one day Americans with a longer perspective on the Vietnam War would judge more favorably than had his contemporaries what he had attempted in Asia and the central role he had played in the tragic epoch that shook the nation to its roots.

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