A half-century has passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned Americans by announcing, in a televised address on March 31, 1968, that he was drastically reducing the bombing of North Vietnam, appealing to the Hanoi government for negotiations and, most incredible of all, withdrawing from the presidential election that fall. One imagines the stupefied reaction in living rooms all across the country: “Did he just say what I think he said?”
Johnson did what modern American presidents are never supposed to do: refrain from seeking re-election. (Since World War II, only Harry Truman in 1952 has done likewise.) He feared that his health could not withstand four more years, but what really worried him was the Vietnam War and the divisions it had created. The war was not just a threat to his personal legacy; it was a threat to the very foundations of the liberal political order that he cherished so deeply and that had built so many middle-class American dreams.
His viewers didn’t know it, but Johnson had always suspected this moment would come. From his earliest days in office, he repeatedly told his wife, Lady Bird, and aides that he felt trapped on Vietnam, that he would be crucified for whatever he did, that the conflict in far-off Southeast Asia would ultimately be his downfall.
Already in May 1964, a year before he committed the country to large-scale war, Johnson said to his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess.” A year later, shortly before the first American ground forces set foot in Vietnam, Johnson told Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee: “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”
Publicly, Johnson projected optimism. But the truth is that he was always a bleak skeptic on Vietnam — skeptical that it could be won, even with American air power and ground troops, especially in view of the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese military and government, and skeptical that the outcome truly mattered to American and Western security.
This attitude was reinforced by the opinions of people he valued. The Senate Democratic leadership on foreign policy — J. William Fulbright, Russell and Mike Mansfield, the majority leader — privately warned him in 1964 and ’65 against Americanizing the war. Allied leaders abroad did the same, as did prominent voices in the press.
His own vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, a savvy politician who needed no reminder of the risks of “losing” a nation to Communism, insisted, in a memo in mid-February 1965, that the risks of escalation were far greater.
“If we find ourselves leading from frustration to escalation and end up short of a war with China but embroiled deeper in fighting in Vietnam over the next few months,” Humphrey warned, “political opposition will steadily mount,” because Americans had not been persuaded that a major war on behalf of an ineffectual Saigon government was justified.
At the same time, no senior military leader in 1965 offered the White House even a chance of rapid victory in Vietnam. Five years, 500,000 troops, was the general estimate Johnson heard. Where would that put the president in early 1968, as his campaign for re-election began in earnest? Right where he found himself as he sat down to deliver his announcement on March 31: in a protracted war with no end in sight.
So why did he go in? Part of the answer, surely, is that escalation, if done quietly, gradually and without putting the nation on full war footing, offered Johnson the path of least immediate resistance (always a tempting option for a policymaker), especially in domestic political terms. Given his repeated public affirmations of Vietnam’s importance to American security, it made sense that he would remain steadfast, in the hope that the new military measures would succeed, lest he face accusations of backing down, of going soft.