“All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s play now on Broadway, dramatizes Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year of the presidency that started upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. Watching the show reminded me how my view of the man changed over the years.
It was a remarkable year for Johnson. With his seemingly diabolical skill, he maneuvered through Congress historically the most important civil rights act. He then went on to be elected president in one of the biggest landslides in American history.
There had been several civil rights acts before then, starting with the one of 1866, but the one Johnson signed into law on July 2, known since as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was different.
As he clearly acknowledged in his remarks at the signing ceremony, some of the ringing assertions made in the Declaration of Independence were outright lies to “many Americans” — “not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.”
The most duplicitous among them was, of course, the loftiest of them all, that “all men are created equal.” The purpose of the new legislation was to “close the springs of racial poison,” Johnson said.
Crucially he also announced that he would put the full powers of the federal government behind it. Exactly 10 years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court had unanimously struck down “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal.’ ” That was the doctrine that had legally permitted blatant racial segregation and discrimination.
But the Supreme Court decision had no teeth, as some of the justices had warned. Robert Jackson, who had served as U.S. chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials, for one, had expressed the concern, during the deliberations, that the “courts have no power to enforce general declarations of law.”
Sure enough, many states went on to ignore the decision for years. The decision, as some feared, fanned whites’ resentment and violence, even as blacks’ frustration and anger mounted.
“All the Way” makes that clear sans the judicial history. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders have important roles in the play.
The dramatization, however, necessarily skips or skimps on some of the other important things Johnson did that year: the “unconditional war on poverty” he declared in his first State of the Union message in January; the vision for “the Great Society” he spelled out at the University of Michigan in May; and, above all, his response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August that triggered what would become the bane of Johnson’s presidency: the Vietnam War.
In the play, this last is brought up more or less as an afterthought.
In one of Johnson’s hectic daily dealings, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara rushes in and tells the president about North Vietnamese attacks on an American warship, although he is not really certain about it. Johnson grumbles and dismisses him.
Later, Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator whom Johnson is thinking of picking as his running mate for his campaign for president, questions the validity of the report. That’s about all.
Nothing like the steps Johnson took to secure the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is suggested.
We in the audience know that incident was “hogwash,” as the navy pilot James Stockdale put it. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he later wrote. He watched the whole thing from the sky and saw no North Vietnamese PT boats attacking American destroyers. In 1992 Stockdale would become Ross Perot’s running mate in the latter’s run for president.
In truth, the United States was the provocateur, not North Vietnam. Johnson had earlier started the covert Op Plan 34-A to destroy bridges and such in North Vietnam. No matter.
The resolution gave him the pretext to unleash fury and destruction.
By early 1968, when I arrived in New York, “the escalation of the war finally reached an upward limit,” as historian David Kaiser puts it in “American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War” (2000). Johnson was at the zenith of his unpopularity.
Thus, on March 31, in his nationally televised speech, Johnson admitted that “a house divided against itself” is “a house that cannot stand,” and announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
The main aim of his speech that night, however, was to tell the American people, “I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam” so that peace negotiations may start at once. Johnson had initiated the full-scale bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965.
But the war would grind on for the next five years. As a result, most of my experience of the antiwar fervor and despair in the U.S., with the news of battles, bombings and casualties would occur under Richard Nixon.
In 1969, Nixon’s first year as president, the war produced 11,600 American casualties, similar to the number in 1967. And in 1970, more than 6,000, similar to the number in 1966.
In the end, the war would kill 3 million Vietnamese, to cite one of the more recent estimates.
To me, then, the culpability of the war lay more heavily with Nixon than with Johnson. After all, Nixon had been elected president with the promise to end the war. Yet nothing like the Broadway musical “Hair,” with the refrain of LSD, LBJ, FBI and CIA, was made about Nixon. Johnson was the demon that was the Vietnam War.
But I now think that there were three real demons.
One was anticommunism, the obsession of the age most clearly enunciated by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in his insistence that “the U.S. cannot tolerate the loss of Southeast Asia to Communism.”
Another was America’s military might. Without its stupendous war machine, the U.S. would not have bothered with the fatuous Domino Theory.
And a third was the truism that a war, once started, is hard to get out of.
The obsession today is antiterrorism. America’s military power may have waned in relative terms, but it’s still capable of sending destruction to remote lands. That once you start it, war is difficult to stop has been amply demonstrated by the U.S. meddling in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York