Flawed Giantthe monumental concluding volume to Robert Dallek's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnsonprovides the most through, engrossing account ever published of Johnson's years in the national spotlight. Drawing on hours of newly released White House tapes and dozens of interviews with people close to the President, Dallek reveals LBJ as a visionary leader who worked his will on Congress like no chief executive before or since, and also displays the depth of his private anguish as he became increasingly ensnared in Vietnam. Writing in a clear, thoughtful, and evenhanded style, Dallek reveals both the greatness and the tangled complexities of one of the most extravagant characters ever to ascend to the White House.
About the Author
Robert Dallek is Professor of History at Boston University. He is the author of several books, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, for which he won a Bancroft Prize and was nominated for an American Book Award. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
"The Most Insignificant Office"
The morning of January 20, 1961, dawned cold and clear. The eighteen-mile-an-hour wind gusts and the seven inches of snow that had fallen on Washington, D.C., the previous day gave way to bright sunshine and a twenty-two-degree noontime temperature. On the east wing of the Capitol, where an inaugural platform and temporary wooden grandstands had been erected, thousands had gathered to witness the swearing-in of the new President and Vice President. As Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Vice President-elect, walked onto the platform, a Texas partisan rose to his feet, waved his ten-gallon hat, and shouted, "All the Way with LBJ," Johnson's campaign slogan in his 1960 bid for the presidency. Johnson waved and smiled.
His look of pleasure at the friendly reception masked the mixed feelings he had had since accepting John F. Kennedy's proposal to become his running mate. At 12:40, as he shed his overcoat and stepped forward to take the oath of office, Johnson was nervous and distracted. During the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Marian Anderson he had stood glum and silent. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Johnson's fellow Texan and strongest supporter in Congress since LBJ had entered the Lower House in 1937, administered the oath. Despite the brevity and familiarity of the pledge, Johnson stumbled over its closing words.
He was a reluctant Vice President. He had hoped and planned for the presidency, but fate or the limitations of his time, place, and personality had cast him in the second spot. And he despised it. From his earliest days in the Texas Hill Country, he had aspired to be the best, to outdo friend and foe. He needed to win higher standing, hold greater power, earn more money than anyone else. Some inner sense of want drove him to seek status, control, and wealth. Being less than top dog made him feel rejected and unworthy.
It is never easy to identify the origins of such strivings. In Johnson's case, nature and nurture surely played their parts. Sam Ealy Johnson, LBJ's father, was a hard-driving, grandiose character whose two terms in the Texas lower house and activism in local politics only partly satisfied his reach for public influence. Rebekah Baines, LBJ's mother, took pride in her prominent Texas ancestors, and expected her oldest son to reach heights worthy of her family's heritage.
If success and prominence were Johnson and Baines bloodlines, LBJ's childhood also contributed to his larger-than-life personality. Johnson was an emotional orphan. He was the offspring of "absent" parents: his father was a self-absorbed character who was often away from the household, and his mother was usually too depressed to fill her children's emotional needs. LBJ's childhood is an object lesson in the formation of a narcissistic personality. Yet it does not explain how so self-centered a child, adolescent, and mature man was able to translate his neediness into constructive achievements that were the envy of healthier personalities. LBJ is also an object-lesson in the complexity of human behavior. He may have been, as New York Times columnist Russell Baker says, "a human puzzle so complicated nobody can ever understand it."
How, for example, are we to explain Johnson's misery during the 1960 campaign? Running for Vice President hardly seems like a punishable offense--unless you were Lyndon Johnson. His sense of defeat at having to take second place expressed itself in "the heaviest period of boozing" in his life. At times his staff "had to lift him physically out of bed and pump his arms up and down to stimulate breathing and make him functional." One night "he went on an incredible toot ... wandered up and down the corridors" of the hotel and crawled into bed with one of the secretaries, where he tried "to snuggle into her arms the same way a small child will snuggle into its mother's arms."
Throughout his life Johnson had demonstrated a compensatory grandiosity that spawned legends. In one of them, German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard asked Johnson whether he had been born in a log cabin. "No, no, no," LBJ answered, "you're confusing me with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger."
Political rivals, collaborators, and journalists all felt the energy of his drive. He was a human dynamo, one childhood friend remembered. Fellow senator Hubert Humphrey compared him to "a tidal wave.... He went through the walls. He'd come through a door, and he'd take the whole room over. Just like that.... There was nothing delicate about him." Bending people to his will became an art form Washington journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called "the treatment." Meeting Johnson reminded Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post of going to the zoo. "You really felt as if a St. Bernard had ... pawed you all over.... He never just shook hands with you. One hand was shaking your hand; the other hand was always someplace else, exploring you, examining you."
Johnson's behavior largely came from the conviction that intimidation was indispensable in bending people to his will. It was gratifying to have people love you, but it was essential to overpower them if you were to win on controversial public issues. Johnson's more than thirty years in politics told him that people did not act out of affection for others but rather for reasons of self-interest or concern that you had the capacity and will to help or hurt them.
The economist Gardner Ackley remembers a meeting in LBJ's office with Roger Blough, the chairman of U.S. Steel. Johnson wanted Blough to hold the line on steel prices. And so he "just started working him over and asking him questions and lecturing him. I have never seen a human being reduced to such a quivering lump of flesh.... But it wasn't really what he said, it was the way he just leaned over and looked at him."
Robert Strauss, the Texas Democratic party power broker, was an intimidating figure in his own right. Yet he recalls being no match for Johnson. "Lyndon Johnson just towered over me and intimidated me terribly," Strauss said. "He's the one person who had my number all his life. Even when he was a sick old man, out of office, whenever he called, perspiration broke out on the top of my head. He was the best I ever saw. Tragic, but the best I ever saw. I remember once asking him, 'Why did you cast that vote, Mr. President?' 'Bob,' he said, 'one thing you'll learn someday is that you have to be a demagogue on a lot of little things if you want to be around to have your way on the big things.' I'll never forget him saying that. A lesson in primer politics from the Master."
In the fifty-two years before he became Vice President, Johnson had converted his ambition into a series of political triumphs. As secretary to a wealthy, self-indulged south Texas congressman, he had taken over the duties of the office, making it responsive to depression-ridden farmers, businessmen, and Army veterans. In the mid-thirties, he became the youngest and best state director of FDR's National Youth Administration, a Texas wunderkind who at age twenty-eight beat several better known opponents for a south-central Texas congressional seat. After eleven years in the House, where he established himself as a supremely effective congressman with powerful White House ties, he defeated, by fair means and foul, one of the most popular governors in Texas history for a U.S. Senate seat. Twelve years in the Senate, where he became the most effective Majority Leader in American history, made him a viable but unsuccessful candidate for President.
Johnson's reach for power and influence rested on more than a desire for personal gain. Although self-serving ends were always a prime concern, he was never happier than when he could marry his ambition to some larger design. He associated his attainment of high office with the delivery of "good works." He told his biographer Doris Kearns: "Some men want power simply to strut around the world and to hear the tune of 'Hall to the Chief.' Others want it simply to build prestige, to collect antiques, and to buy pretty things. Well, I wanted power to give things to people--all sorts of things to all sorts of people, especially the poor and the blacks."
Johnson had a keen sense of identification with the needy. Throughout his life he had suffered from feelings of emptiness, which he answered with constant activity: "I never think about politics more than 18 hours a day," he joked. He filled himself with excessive eating, drinking, and smoking, and an affinity for womanizing--sexual conquests gave him temporary respites from feeling unwanted, unloved, unattended.
His strivings also translated into efforts to fill the poor with the material possessions and psychic well-being he wanted for himself. It was as if the disadvantaged were extensions of himself; his yearning for recognition, for concrete and symbolic demonstrations of his worth expressed itself in helping others, but especially those most in need. For Johnson, gaining the presidency meant fulfilling fantasies about becoming a great man who gave all Americans a richer life. The recipients of Johnson's largesse were understandably indifferent to what propelled him, and any final assessment of his work does better to focus on the consequences of his actions than their origins. His motives are essentially a matter of analytic interest to biographers and historians.
Pained by childhood poverty in rural Texas, educated by national deprivation during the depression, and inspired by FDR, the greatest liberal reformer in the nation's history, Johnson had indeed produced "good works." His commitment to New Deal, Fair Deal programs, the liberal nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, helped transform America, particularly his native South and West. Aid to education, dams providing flood control, conservation, and cheap rural electrification, public works modernizing the nation's infrastructure, low-cost public housing sheltering millions of poor Americans, Social Security benefits, minimum wages, and farm subsidies serving the elderly, unskilled workers, and farmers, black civil rights, and space exploration through a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), all had benefited from LBJ's public service.
And now after thirty years of accomplishment, as Vice President, he found himself in a dead-end job. Or so the 172-year history of the office suggested. There were no notable achievements by a Vice President to give him comfort, and no Vice President had succeeded to the presidency by election since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Johnson was mindful of the observation made by Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's V.P., that the Vice President "is like a man in a cataleptic state. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He suffers no pain. And yet he is conscious of all that goes on around him." John Adams, the first occupant of the office, wrote: "I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything." Johnson recalled: "Every time I came into John Kennedy's presence, I felt like a goddamn raven hovering over his shoulder."
John Kennedy added to Johnson's sense of being eclipsed and useless. The son of a famous father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Harvard-educated, handsome, charming, urbane, a northeastern aristocrat with all the advantages, JFK appeared to be everything LBJ was not. As painful to Johnson, Kennedy's claim on the presidency seemed unmerited alongside of his own. "It was the goddamnedest thing," Johnson later told Kearns, "here was a whippersnapper.... He never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing. But somehow ... he managed to create the image of himself as a shining intellectual, a youthful leader who would change the face of the country." Behind Kennedy's back, Johnson called him "sonny boy," a "lightweight" who needed "a little gray in his hair."
When the forty-three-year-old Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected to the presidency, declared in his Inaugural speech that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," Johnson saw the reference as applying not only to Eisenhower, at age seventy, the oldest man then to have served in the White House, but also to himself. To be sure, he had established a record as an exceptional Senate leader and had made a significant contribution to JFK's victory in November 1960, helping him carry Texas and six other southern states. But whatever his political savvy as a legislator and a campaigner, he was now an outsider, a marginal figure in a Kennedy White House taking its distance from familiar faces and programs as it sought to conquer "the New Frontier."
Defining the Job
Johnson had no intention of remaining a fringe player in a Kennedy administration. He had left the Senate in part because he believed he would not be able to sustain his influence as majority leader: the bipartisanship of Eisenhower's presidency, a necessary condition of LBJ's influence, seemed certain to disappear; a Democratic or Kennedy White House also seemed likely to diminish Johnson's importance in the 87th Congress beginning in 1961.
In accepting the vice-presidential nomination, he had high hopes of transforming the office. Presiding over the Senate and casting rare tie-breaking votes--a Vice President's only constitutional duties--were not Johnson's idea of how to achieve a second four years as Vice President and a record to win the presidency. A promise from Jack Kennedy to Sam Rayburn that he would give Lyndon "important domestic duties and send him on trips abroad" was music to Johnson's ears. During the 1960 campaign one of Johnson's aides told him that the Founding Fathers "intended the Vice President to be the number two man in the government" and that a larger executive role for the Vice President should complement a significant part for him in rallying Congress behind the President's program. Johnson wanted the memo published in a national magazine.
Johnson's plan to make himself a powerful Vice President ran into insurmountable obstacles. On January 3, seventeen days before taking office, he tried to assure himself of an unprecedented congressional role. At a Democratic Senate caucus, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Johnson's hand-picked successor as Majority Leader, asked the 63 Democratic senators to let Johnson preside over future caucuses. The proposal angered several senators, who saw this as a power grab and a challenge to the traditional separation of congressional-executive authority. Liberal Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee spearheaded the opposition: "This caucus is not open to former senators," he declared. Although a vote of 46 to 17 gave Johnson a large majority, it left no doubt in his mind that most senators opposed the plan. "You could feel the heavy animosity in the room, even from many who voted for Lyndon," Gore asserted. The reaction of his Senate colleagues humiliated and enraged Johnson. "I now know the difference between a caucus and a cactus," he told someone who leaked his remark to reporters. "In a cactus all the pricks are on the outside."
Johnson suffered another humiliating defeat within days after becoming Vice President. In his eagerness to establish an important role for himself, Johnson proposed that Kennedy sign an Executive Order giving the Vice President "general supervision" over a number of government agencies, including NASA, and directing Cabinet heads and department chiefs to give Johnson copies of all major documents sent to the President. Knowing a power grab when he saw one, Kennedy simply ignored the memo. But White House aides, determined to put Johnson in his place at the start of the new administration, leaked the incident to the press and compared Lyndon to William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, who had made a similar unsuccessful proposal.
Yet in turning aside Lyndon's reach for power, Kennedy did not want to alienate him and destroy his usefulness to the administration. Indeed, Kennedy was sensitive to Lyndon's plight: the powerful Majority Leader of 1955-60, whom the younger, less experienced JFK had to court for favors, was now the supplicant asking for a share of power. Kennedy had no intention of letting Lyndon become a dominant figure or more than a well-controlled functionary in his government. But neither did he wish to provoke him into becoming a covert opponent, as John Nance Garner, FDR's first Vice President, had been. "I can't afford to have my Vice President, who knows every reporter in Washington, going around saying we're all screwed up, so we're going to keep him happy," JFK told White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell. Having won the presidency by a paper-thin margin over Nixon and needing southern Democratic support to pass significant legislation and win reelection to a second term, JFK saw LBJ as a useful political ally.
Kennedy tried to assuage Johnson's huge ego with the trappings of power. He raised no objection to letting Lyndon hold on to his Majority Leader's office, a seven-room suite across from the Senate floor, known as the "Taj Mahal" or the "Emperor's Room." Decorated in royal green and gold with crystal chandeliers and plush furniture, the office featured a lighted full-length portrait of Johnson leaning against a bookcase and two overhead lamps projecting "an impressive nimbus of golden light" as Lyndon sat at his desk. In addition, although Kennedy rejected a request from Johnson for an office next to the President's, he assigned him a six-room suite on the second floor of the Executive Office Building (EOB) next to the White House. Since many, including Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, believed that the Vice President was a member of the legislative rather than the executive branch, Johnson's presence in the EOB had significant constitutional implications. Kennedy also invited Lyndon to attend Cabinet meetings, weekly sessions with House and Senate Leaders, pre-press conference briefings, and National Security Council meetings, as required by law.
Kennedy insisted that his staff treat Johnson with the same respect they would have wanted shown him were their positions reversed. "You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego," JFK told O'Donnell. "I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other." Kennedy also asked Angier Biddle Duke, White House Chief of Protocol, to take care of the Johnsons. "'I want you to ... see that they're not ignored, not only when you see them but at all other occasions.'" Kennedy explained that everyone in the administration eventually would be so busy they would forget about Johnson, and he wanted Duke "to remember." And so during White House photo sessions, when Lyndon "would always hang in the back as if he felt he was unwanted," Duke "would say in a loud voice, 'Mr. Vice President, Mr. Vice President,' and then the president would look around and say, 'Where's Lyndon? Where's Lyndon?' Johnson liked that, and he'd come up front."
New York Times columnist Arthur Krock remembered Kennedy's "often" expressing concern about Lyndon, saying, "'I've got to keep him happy somehow."' To appease Johnson, who would descend on him with personal complaints, Kennedy worked out a routine with O'Donnell. JFK would first hear Lyndon out, and then call in O'Donnell for a tongue-lashing about Johnson's problem. Johnson would then "go away somewhat happier." Johnson told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that he "had been treated better than any other Vice President in history and knew it."
Johnson's satisfaction was hardly Kennedy's first priority. His problems with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Southeast Asia, the domestic economy, black pressure for equal rights, and the political survival of his administration left him little room to fret over a discontented Vice President. Yet he had genuine regard for Johnson as a "political operator" and even liked his "roguish qualities." More important, he viewed him as someone who, despite the limitations of the vice presidency, could contribute to the national well-being in foreign and domestic affairs and, by so doing, make Kennedy a more effective President.
JFK gave some careful thought to Johnson's role in the administration. He did not want him managing its legislative program and creating the impression that the President was following the lead of his Vice President, a more experienced legislator. Kennedy was happy to have Johnson gather intelligence on what senators and representatives were thinking, but he had no intention of allowing him to become the point man or administration leader on major bills. Besides, he understood that Johnson no longer had the means he used as Majority Leader to drive bills through the Senate. Instead, he wanted Johnson to head a new Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO), chair the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and represent the United States on trips abroad.
Kennedy knew that civil rights was going to be a major issue during the next four years. The campaign in the fifties by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference against racial segregation made civil rights a compelling question for JFK's administration. He doubted, however, that a cautious Congress dominated by southern Democrats would be favorably disposed to a bill assuring black Americans the right to vote and access to public facilities across the South. Consequently, he planned to rely on executive action as an immediate device for advancing black equality. He wanted the CEEO to combat discriminatory hiring practices in the federal government and by private businesses with federal contracts. Lyndon was to be one of the principal figures implementing this strategy. As a southern moderate who had led a major civil rights law through the Congress in 1957 and believed the national well-being required equal treatment for blacks, Johnson could be invaluable in advancing a rational response to a highly charged issue and preventing southern alienation from the administration.
At the same time, Kennedy wanted Johnson, the legislative father of NASA, to have a significant part in shaping space policy. Again, he would not let Lyndon eclipse him on an issue given high public visibility by Soviet space shots, but he was eager to use Johnson's expertise on a matter of vital national concern. Moreover, in giving Johnson some prominence as an architect of America's space program, Kennedy was making him a political lightning rod. Should an effort to catch and pass the Soviets in space technology fall or suffer a well-publicized defeat, Lyndon would be out front taking some, if not much, of the heat. As for trips abroad, this was a ceremonial given of the Vice President's office, but Kennedy also saw them as an outlet for Johnson's restless energy.
None of what Kennedy asked him to do made Johnson happy. He resented the President's unwillingness to rely on his legislative expertise, telling people that his knowledge and contacts on the Hill were not being used. "You know, they never once asked me about that!" he complained privately about administration dealings with Congress. He had little enthusiasm for foreign travels that would be more symbolic than substantive. Although he saw some political benefits coming to him from chairing CEEO and the Space Council, he also saw liabilities that could work against his having another vice-presidential term or ever getting to the presidency. As important, he viewed both jobs as relegating him to a distinctly secondary role in the administration, which, of course, they did.
Initially, one of the hardest assignments for Johnson to accept was that of goodwill ambassador. In the nearly three years he served as Vice President, he spent almost two and a half months making eleven trips to thirty-three foreign lands. Most of it consisted of showing the flag. But Kennedy saw it as a good way to fill Johnson's time and improve his disposition. Kennedy told Florida Senator George Smathers, "I cannot stand Johnson's damn long face. He just comes in, sits at the Cabinet meetings with his face all screwed up, never says anything. He looks so sad." Smathers suggested that the President send Johnson "on an around-the-world trip ... so that he can get all of the fanfare and all of the attention and all of the smoke-blowing will be directed at him, build up his ego again, let him have a great time." Kennedy thought it "a damn good idea," and in the spring of 1961 he sent Johnson to Africa and Asia.
Johnson was reluctant to spend his time on what he saw as mostly frivolous business. But his craving for center stage, which he could have traveling abroad but not at home, quickly made him an enthusiast of foreign trips. Indeed, they became a kind of theater in which he could act out his zany, irreverent, demanding, impetuous characteristics that amused and pleased some and offended and amazed others. They also gave him an opportunity to bring a message of hope to needy people in distant lands. In Africa and Asia his trips partly became a crusade for the New Deal reforms that had transformed America. Eager to combat Communist appeals to poor developing nations, Johnson pointed to economic change in his native South as a model for Third World advance.
A four-day trip to Senegal in April 1961 was part comic opera and part serious diplomatic mission. Kennedy's decision to send Lyndon there largely rested on a desire to compete with Communist efforts to woo emerging nations. For Johnson, it immediately became a chance to play the great man offering enlightened guidance to an impoverished people. He insisted that a seven-foot bed to accommodate his six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch frame, a special shower head that emitted a needlepoint spray, cases of Cutty Sark, and boxes of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters with L.B.J. inscribed on them travel with him to Dakar.
There, he ignored the diplomatic niceties urged upon him by the U.S. Embassy. One morning at 4:30 he and Lady Bird traveled to a fishing village, where the American ambassador refused to leave his limousine. "It was too smelly a town for him," a Johnson traveling companion recalls. The ambassador counseled Johnson against any contact with these people, whom he described as dirty and diseased. But the Vice President strolled among the villagers handing out pens and lighters, shaking hands with everyone, including a few fingerless lepers, and advising the bewildered natives that they could be like Texans, who had increased their annual income tenfold in forty years. Back at the ambassador's residence he kept the household up most of the night sending and receiving cables and irritating the ambassador's wife, who clattered up and down the stairs in a long robe and slippers bringing refreshments on a great silver tray. When he returned to the United States, Johnson told black civil rights leader Roy Wilkins that Senegalese mothers, into whose eyes he looked, were just like Texas mothers; all of them wanted the best for their children. The trip was a microcosm of Johnson's career: a grandiose, temperamental man doing outlandish things simultaneously to get attention and improve the lot of the poor.
A two-week trip to Asia in May had a similar design. With Communist insurrections threatening to overturn pro-Western governments in Southeast Asia, Kennedy sent Johnson and Jean and Stephen Smith, JFK's sister and brother-in-law, to visit government chiefs in Laos, South Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. The principal business of the trip was in Saigon, where Johnson was supposed to encourage Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam, to introduce social reforms and increase his military effort against the Communists.
Most recollections of this trip, however, focus on Johnson's outlandish behavior. While crossing the Pacific he exploded at long-time aide Horace Busby for some omission, ordering him off the plane. "But we're over the ocean," Busby replied. "I don't give a fucking damn!" Johnson shouted. Mrs. Johnson's intervention restored peace. In Saigon, while security people responsible for the Vice President's safety fretted and everyone sweated in the stifling heat, Johnson repeatedly stopped a motorcade from the airport into the city to shake hands with South Vietnamese onlookers and give them pens, cigarette lighters, and gold and white passes to the U.S. Senate gallery. "Get your mamma and daddy to bring you to the Senate and Congress and see how the government works," he told bewildered children. In downtown Saigon he made a passionate arm-waving speech in which he called Diem the Winston Churchill of Asia. "He was totally carried away by the occasion," one journalist remembered. The next day, in a suburb of Saigon, when he discovered a herd of Texas cattle bred on the King ranch, he chased them around a pasture until the photographers could get a good picture of him with the steers. Back at the hotel, during a press conference that included several foreign correspondents he didn't know, he disrobed, toweled himself off, and climbed into fresh clothes.
In Bangkok he held a press conference in his pajamas at three in the morning to respond to some misinformation published by a newspaper. The next night Johnson aides announced a 7 a.m. tour of the Klongs, the water market. One journalist then received a call in the middle of the night canceling the trip and a second call at 6:30 in the morning saying that Johnson had already gone. Cautioned that touching people, and particularly anyone's head, would offend the Thais, Johnson strolled the streets of Bangkok shaking hands and jumped on a bus, where he patted children on the head. Entering a store full of Chinese customers, Johnson lectured the non-English-speaking crowd on the virtues of democracy and the dangers of Chinese Communism. In a meeting with the Thai Prime Minister, a military dictator, Johnson repeated assurances stated in a letter from JFK of American concern for Thai security, and advised that "now is the time to separate the men from the boys." One American diplomat who accompanied the Vice President cabled the State Department: "Saigon, Manila, Taipei, and Bangkok will never be quite the same again."
India was next on Johnson's agenda. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who had become JFK's Ambassador to New Delhi, gave the President a sample of his famous wit in a note about Johnson's arrival. "Lyndon ... arrives next week with two airplanes, a party of fifty, a communications unit, and other minor accoutrements of modern democracy. I ... will try to make him feel good that he was on the ticket. His trip may not be decisive for the peace of Asia. The East, as you know, is inscrutable." In New Delhi Johnson had what he called "a belly-to-belly talk" with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a neutralist in the Cold War. A want of "appreciable business" between the two produced long silences on Nehru's part until Johnson hit on the subject of rural electrification, a matter on which they were in fervent agreement. The conversation impressed Galbraith as innocuous: "Both Nehru and Johnson spoke rather formally on education, which they favored; poverty, which they opposed; freedom, which they endorsed; [and] peace, which they wanted."
The rest of Johnson's stay in India consisted of brief trips outside New Delhi, where he campaigned as if he were running for Congress. Galbraith told a translator: "If Lyndon forgets and asks for votes, leave that out." Johnson rode on a bullock cart, drew water from a well, laid a cornerstone at an engineering institute, shook hands all around, handed out pencils with the inscription, "Compliments of your Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson--the greatest good for the greatest number," and recounted the triumphs of electrification in rural America. Galbraith advised the State Department that Johnson "carries all precincts visited and would run well nationwide." At the Taj Mahal in Agra, he tested the monument's echo with a Texas cowboy yell and poked fun at the Kennedys' wealth by suggesting that one day Jean might want to build such a monument for her husband Steve.
In Pakistan Johnson made headlines with his campaign-style diplomacy. On his way into the city from the Karachi airport, he stopped to shake hands with some of the applauding, enthusiastic crowd lining the streets. Spotting a barefoot man standing with a camel at an intersection, a man with a fine, cherubic face, Johnson stepped across a muddy ditch to greet him and urge, as he had done repeatedly on the trip, "y'all come visit me in the United States." The next day a Karachi newspaper lauded Johnson for reaching out "to the man with no shirt on his back" and for inviting Bashir Ahmad, the camel driver, to come to America and stay at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Not long after Johnson returned home, the American Embassy in Pakistan reported that Bashir's visit to America had become a cause celebre and that, if it didn't happen, "the Vice President was going to look like the biggest four-flusher in history." Before Johnson could arrange the trip, however, the Pakistani government, fearful that Bashir, an illiterate peasant, would embarrass it, had him arrested and hidden by the police. A direct appeal by Johnson to the President of Pakistan freed Bashir to come to the United States, where with the help of a sophisticated Pakistani translator, who turned much of what Bashir said into "beautiful little homilies," the camel driver made a triumphal tour and received a pickup truck donated by the Ford Motor Company.
Johnson's behavior abroad makes it easy to poke fun at him as a comic figure or some sort of fabulous Texas character, a man with a monumental ego whose priority was more the selling of Lyndon Johnson than the advancement of any foreign policy goal. There is, of course, a certain truth to this. Johnson was a larger-than-life character with self-serving impulses that entered into everything he did. Yet he was also someone who never lost sight of bold public designs.
Johnson's trips to Africa and Asia, and especially Vietnam, where the competition with the Communists had turned violent, was a kind of New Deal crusade. It was an attempt to get out and meet the people and sell them on the virtues of American democracy and free enterprise. For Johnson, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia more generally, was less a geopolitical balance-of-power contest with Communism than a giant reclamation project--a campaign to sell his beloved New Deal liberalism to Asians as superior to Communism's economic and political command systems or even their own less productive and less stable economic and political institutions. When Johnson defied the advice of American diplomats not to touch Thais, he was not simply thumbing his nose at conventional wisdoms, he was also affirming his belief in American democratic habits. However parochial it may have been, Johnson, like Woodrow Wilson and other evangels of democracy, was a crusader for the American dream, an exponent of the idea that inside of every impoverished African and Asian there was an American waiting to emerge.
Johnson thought of his trips abroad, and particularly the episode with Bashir, as a welcome contrast to what he called "Cadillac diplomacy," the failure of U.S. representatives to get out of their limos and meet the people. On a later trip, as they drove from the airport to a hotel, a diplomat "methodically instructed him, as if he were some sort of uncouth backwoodsman, on how to behave. Johnson listened to this singular performance with unaccustomed patience. When they arrived ... the diplomat said, 'Mr. Vice President, is there anything else I can do for you?' The Vice President, looking stonily up and down at his model of diplomatic propriety, replied, 'Yes, just one thing. Zip up your fly.'"
Kennedy, most professional diplomats, and journalists saw Johnson's behavior as cornball diplomacy that had limited value in foreign relations. Kennedy lodged no protest against Johnson's actions--and in fact was happy to see him so cheerfully occupied--but it confirmed Kennedy in an impulse to keep Johnson at arm's length in the management of foreign affairs. Indeed, during the Bay of Pigs crisis in April 1961, when CIA-supported anti-Castro Cubans staged an abortive invasion of their homeland, Johnson, at JFK's request, had entertained West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at his Texas ranch. Moreover, Kennedy had systematically excluded Johnson from any part in the operation.
Johnson was so frustrated at being ignored in these deliberations that he had a secretary ask a Kennedy friend to lobby the President for more of a Johnson role in making foreign policy. When the friend asked JFK why he didn't lean more on Lyndon, Kennedy replied: "You know, it's awfully hard because once you get into one of these crunches you don't really think of calling Lyndon because he hasn't read the cables.... You want to talk to the people who are most involved, and your mind does not turn to Lyndon because he isn't following the flow of cables." Of course, Kennedy could have arranged to make it otherwise, but he obviously had no desire to give Johnson a more central part in shaping foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Johnson had some influence on foreign affairs. His trip to Vietnam gave him a chance to speak his mind on what the administration saw in 1961 as the threat to U.S. interests in Southeast Asia. French defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh in 1954 had stirred American fears of Communist gains throughout the region and moved the Eisenhower administration to back the pro-Western Diem government in South Vietnam. A civil war in neighboring Laos heightened concern at the start of the Kennedy presidency that Communist-sponsored wars of national liberation in Asia would represent a major challenge to the United States in the next four years. If America faltered, Kennedy warned, "the whole world, in my opinion, would inevitably begin to move toward the Communist bloc."
Yet Kennedy's actions in Vietnam contrasted sharply with his rhetoric. Although he encouraged the U.S. military to develop a program of counterinsurgency warfare, he was reluctant to make any significant commitment of American forces to Laos or Vietnam. Consequently, he struggled to find a middle ground between a significant U.S. military effort and noninvolvement that might allow Communist success. The failure at the Bay of Pigs and the reluctance of the administration to do more than negotiate a settlement in Laos, however, joined with Diem's stumbling efforts against the Viet Cong to encourage some stronger action by Kennedy in Vietnam.
Johnson's trip to Saigon in May was meant to reassure Diem and the South Vietnamese people that the United States would not abandon them to the Communists. Johnson carried a letter from Kennedy promising more military advisers and aid which would allow Diem to increase the size of his forces. On his return to the United States Johnson pressed the case for a greater commitment to the defense of South Vietnam. "I cannot stress too strongly the extreme importance of following up this mission with other measures, other actions, and other efforts," LBJ told JFK. The trip had "sharpened and deepened" his basic convictions, Johnson added. "The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination ... or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses on our own shores." Without America's "inhibitory influence.... the vast Pacific becomes a Red Sea."
This did not mean an American commitment to send troops other than advisers on training missions, although open attack by the Communists "would bring calls for U.S. combat troops.... The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here," Johnson asserted. "We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a 'Fortress America' concept." Though Johnson did not mention Munich, memories of appeasement in 1938 echo through his advice to Kennedy on Vietnam. Failure to take a stand would mean retreat and defeat and greater ultimate dangers to the national security.
Kennedy had other advice. John Kenneth Galbraith, who described himself as "sadly out of step with the Establishment," warned against an expanded U.S. role in Vietnam. Spending "our billions in these distant jungles" would do the U.S. no good and the Soviets no harm. "Incidentally, who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to ... ask him what is so important about this real estate in the space age." Galbraith also advised seizing the opportunity to make "any kind of a political settlement." Though it would bring political attacks, these would be better than "increasing involvement. Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. I wonder if those who talk in terms of a ten year war really know what they are saying in terms of American attitudes."
But Johnson's view of Vietnam represented the prevailing wisdom in the administration, the Congress, and the press. Defeat in Vietnam would mean the loss of all Southeast Asia and worse. In the grip of the World War II experience, when one uncontested Hitler aggression led inevitably to the next, most Americans, including JFK, shared Johnson's exaggerated fear that a Communist victory in Vietnam would become the prelude to a Red tide sweeping across the Pacific. In consequence, between 1961 and 1963, the Kennedy administration expanded the number of U.S. military advisers from 692 to 16,700 and increased materiel aid to a level that marked a "transition from advice to partnership" in the war, When Diem's repressive rule in his country produced ever greater instability in South Vietnam, the Kennedy administration, accepting Galbraith's proposition that "nothing succeeds like successors," acquiesced in a military coup that toppled Diem's rule and took his life. Johnson thought the decision to oust Diem "very unwise," but, as with other foreign affairs questions, he had no significant impact on administration actions. Johnson's voice on Vietnam was no more than an echo of what other, more influential advisers were telling JFK.
Nothing underscored Johnson's limited role in foreign policymaking more than his silence during White House deliberations on the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. During the two weeks that JFK held meetings on how to settle the greatest post-1945 crisis in Soviet-American relations, LBJ was a shadow figure, expressing few opinions and asserting himself only on the afternoon of October 27, when the President was not present. Johnson kept his silence, not because he lacked opinions or conclusions on how to respond to the Soviet challenge, but because he felt compelled, as Vice President, simply to follow JFK's lead. Johnson said later that he followed a "general policy of never speaking unless the President asked me." Since Kennedy asked his opinion only once during the discussions, Johnson assumed that the President wanted him to be no more than a silent partner.
The one instance in which LBJ played more than a peripheral role in foreign affairs was during a crisis over Berlin in August 1961. An exodus of many of the best-trained citizens from East Germany through Berlin moved the Communists to build a wall sealing off the eastern part of the city. Unclear as to whether this was a prelude to more aggressive action against West Berlin, unwilling to order an assault against the wall, as some in Germany asked, and eager to counter demoralization in the American, British, and French zones, Kennedy ordered Johnson to make a symbolic trip to Berlin.
Johnson was reluctant to go. He believed that such a 'journey might produce more recrimination over U.S. weakness than hope that America intended to stand up to Soviet expansion. If he were right, as the President's representative, he would then take some, if not much, of the heat for a gesture that was too little and too late. Kennedy ordered 1500 U.S. troops to move from West Germany to West Berlin as a show of American determination. But believing this was insufficient to boost morale in West Berlin, he wanted Johnson to make a very public appearance in the city as a demonstration "to the Russians that Berlin was an ultimate American commitment."
Despite his doubts, Johnson took on the assignment with characteristic energy and preparation. He stayed up all night on his transAtlantic flight discussing his itinerary and speeches that would give meaning to his trip. Landing in Bonn, where West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met him, Johnson refused to be drawn into the current election campaign between Adenauer and West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. He refused Adenauer's request to travel together to West Berlin. Instead, he focused on giving the West German crowd greeting him a message from President Kennedy that America was "determined to fulfill all our obligations and to honor all our commitments." We will "dare to the end to do our duty."
Johnson's trip to West Berlin was a triumphal tour. After an eighty-minute flight to Tempelhof Airport, LBJ rode to the city center in an open car cheered by 100,000 spectators. Stopping repeatedly to shake hands with the people lining the curbs, he was greeted with unmistakable enthusiasm. At City Hall, where 300,000 Berliners had gathered, he declared himself in Berlin at the direction of President Kennedy to convey the same commitment that "our ancestors pledged in forming the United States: 'Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.'" The wall, Johnson presciently declared, was a testimony to Communism's failure. This was not a time for despair, but for understanding that "in the long run this unwise effort will fail.... This is a time, then, for confidence, for poise, and for faith--for faith in yourselves. It is also a time for faith in your allies, everywhere throughout the world. This island does not stand alone."
The next day, Sunday morning at 9 a.m., Johnson and General Lucius Clay, former High Commissioner for Berlin, who Kennedy had asked to join the Vice President, went to the Helmstedt entrance to West Berlin, where they waited the arrival of the 1500 troops traveling along a 104-mile stretch of Autobahn. President Kennedy, who normally spent his summer weekends in Hyannis Port, stayed in Washington to await word of the convoy's unimpeded arrival. When the column of tanks and troops reached the city at 10 a.m., Berliners greeted them with shouts, tears, and flowers. The commanding officer remembered the occasion as "the most exciting and impressive thing I've ever seen in my life, with the possible exception of the liberation of Paris." The moment was the capstone of what LBJ saw as his most successful vice-presidential mission abroad.