The trend toward LBJ scholarship has been to focus on areas of specific policies or various cultural/political topics within the span of his presidency. After all, the all-encompassing career retrospectives by Robert Dallek and Robert Caro can hardly be improved upon. And while Dallek and Caro allow us to see the entire forest that is the life of Lyndon Johnson, books like Robert Duke’s LBJ and Grassroots Federalism (q.v.) examines the role of the LBJ administration working with a central Texas community needing federal help for a dam project. It is indeed a much narrower focus, but scholars like Duke have unearthed new and valuable research that has given the presidency of LBJ a more well-rounded perspective that it deserves.
Kyle Longley’s new book, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, And The Presidency In America’s Year of Upheaval follows the same course in that it focuses on a particular year from the perspective of LBJ and the multitude of issues that he had to face such as: Vietnam, whether or not to seek reelection, the Pueblo incident, the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia, the deaths of MLK and RFK, the mishandling of Supreme Court nominees, and the treachery of Richard Nixon. Arguably, 1968 was the year that defined Johnson’s entire presidency obscuring the president’s civil rights victories of ’64 and ’65. The book jacket itself features a photo of LBJ sitting alone at a conference table by himself, head bowed in anguish – quite apropos for this period. And some of the issues that bedeviled LBJ in 1968 are not far removed from what vexes
Donald Trump in 2018, although Longley makes no direct comparisons.
Vietnam – The Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end for U.S. military presence in Vietnam. It would however take another five years before the U.S. could fully extricate itself from the conflict under Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon. The myth that a military intervention could be successful would be fully exposed in 1968 as well as the inadequacies of the South Vietnamese army. Even Johnson admitted that when he lost the trust of esteemed newsman Walter Cronkite, he had in fact lost the war.
The Pueblo – North Korea’s seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo tried the patience of the president and the nation. Military operations to rescue the crew of the ship were quickly ruled out due to concerns that doing so would spark a wider war on the Korean Peninsula and the prospects of returning the crew home safely would be dim. So, Johnson practiced strategic patience that would last almost the entire year of ’68 before the North Koreans released the crew.
The deaths of MLK and RFK – By 1968 the relationships between the president and both men couldn’t have been any worse. While LBJ and Robert Kennedy were never on great or even good terms, RFK’s jump into the ’68 presidential race further eroded their fragile relationship. While Martin Luther King had enjoyed a great relationship with the president during the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, that bond became strained by ’68 due to King’s opposition to Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Considering the animosity that developed, it was somewhat surprising that the president was magnanimous in his praise for the two men in the aftermath of their deaths and helping to exalt them to mythic status while also trying to soothe tempers while providing solace to a grieving nation.
Supreme Court nominees – Johnson stumbled badly in his picks for open vacancies on the Court. With his choice for Chief Justice, Abe Fortas, he disregarded concerns that Fortas blurred the line between the executive and judicial branches. While an associate on the Supreme Court, Fortas would often advise Johnson on policy and political matters. His other choice, Homer Thornberry, was also considered too close to Johnson giving rise to the charge of cronyism. The often-contentious confirmation hearings bore this out and exposed an underlying anti-Semitism in the case of Fortas and set the stage for bitter, acrimonious hearings for Court picks in the decades to come.
The Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia – When the Soviet Union decided to put an end to liberalization efforts by the reform minded Czech government, it effectively put an end to the planned U.S.-Soviet summit dealing with nuclear arms control. Like the Pueblo incident, the invasion showed the limits of American power. Again, no military action was planned or undertaken. But the Johnson administration’s firmness and resolve were essential in stymieing Soviet plans to invade Romania and Yugoslavia.
The decision not to seek reelection - The stunning announcement that LBJ would not seek, and not accept the nomination of his party for another term on March 31, 1968 was added at the end of an address to the nation dedicated primarily to war and peace efforts in Vietnam. But while the nation may have been surprised, LBJ’s closest advisors and family were aware of his determination to leave office long before his official announcement according to Longley. LBJ relished political theater, and in fact Longley’s research details the president’s desire to be drafted as the Democratic nominee at the Chicago convention his earlier declaration to the contrary notwithstanding. LBJ insisted that his people run the convention which proved detrimental to the eventual nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s ability to tame the chaos that the convention became known for. But in the end, the
convention demonstrated the president’s unpopularity even among his own party.
Nixon’s treachery – The events of 1968 related to Vietnam would demonstrate the futility of the war even to its strongest adherents including the president himself. Peace talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam had started in May of that year. But Johnson would discover that his peace overtures, such as bombing halts were being stymied at every turn. The chief provocateur as it came to be discovered was the Chinese born widow of legendary Flying Tiger leader Claire Chennault. She would parlay her husband’s connections and money to become an influential power player in the Republican Party. Chennault became a Nixon confidante who with his blessing met with South Vietnamese government officials and urged them not to cooperate with the Johnson administration regarding peace talks. After the election, Nixon intimated that the South Vietnamese would receive a better deal under
his administration. Nixon feared that any success on the peace front would benefit Humphrey in the election. Johnson would eventually learn of Nixon’s duplicity, but decided not to go forward with revealing it to the American people. Longley faults LBJ for not exposing Nixon’s treachery thus saving the nation from all the evils including Watergate that the Nixon administration perpetrated.
While reading the book, one gets the feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu. The long war of Vietnam has been supplanted by a much longer war in Afghanistan. North Korea continues to be a concern, and while the Soviet Union no longer exists, Putin’s Russia still insists on being a force to be reckoned with in world affairs. The corrosive, destructive nature of personal politics that made its way to the Johnson era Supreme Court confirmation process has only gotten more political and uglier over the past decades. The current investigation into Russian collusion by the Trump administration of course invites comparisons with Nixon’s collusion with the South Vietnamese. We can learn from the events of 1968 or we can repeat its follies. Longley’s book is timely even as it relates those events from fifty years ago.