The publication of "Reaching for Glory: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1964-1965" by historian Michael Beschloss (Simon & Schuster) should end the argument as to who was right about the Vietnam War. George McGovern was right, and so were his Senate colleagues who opposed the war even before he did, including Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., Wayne Morse, D-Ore., and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska.
McGovern called LBJ's carpet bombing of North Vietnam "a policy of madness." It was a political statement, but the Johnson tapes reveal it also might have diagnosed Johnson's mental state.
The escalation of America's role in Vietnam began with a lie -- The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution -- which Johnson rammed through Congress in August 1964, after fabricating a military confrontation between American and North Vietnamese forces, the tapes reveal. Johnson was quoted in 1965 as saying, "for all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
Beschloss says Johnson assured a Washington audience in August 1965, that "America wins the wars that she undertakes. Make no mistake about it!" Beschloss says Johnson didn't really believe this, predicting instead to intimates, "America could never win the war in Vietnam."
Repeatedly, Johnson confides to his wife, Lady Bird, and to Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., that he sees no way of winning the war but cannot bring himself to withdraw American forces. Johnson believed in the "domino theory," a controversial view at the time, which said that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, other nations would follow.
In a conversation with his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, Johnson suggests ways to finesse news that he will send 100,000 more combat troops to Vietnam, the tapes show. "Feeling trapped," Beschloss writes, "LBJ realizes that the war is racing out of his control." Johnson says to McNamara, "This is ... a holding action. ... Now, not a damn human thinks that 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 (American troops) are going to end that war."
So why did he send them? In one of his most famous utterances, Johnson said he wasn't going to be the first American president to lose a war. He was and he did.
Daniel Ellsberg, a top Pentagon official in the Johnson administration, claimed four years ago to have had in his safe in 1964 records that proved LBJ planned to escalate the war after the November election. Johnson promised not "to send American boys to fight a land war in Asia," which is why a lot of people of draft age -- including me -- voted for him. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would send us to Vietnam, not Johnson.
Sens. McGovern, Hatfield, Gruening and Morse took a lot of heat for their principled opposition to the war. Hatfield, a practicing Christian, was told by critics he was opposing God. The others were called communists or communist sympathizers. "America: Love It, or Leave It" was a popular slogan among war supporters, including Republicans who hated communists more than they hated The Great Society. Bob Hope presided at pro-America rallies to whip up support for the war.
The anti-war sentiment unfairly smeared our armed forces. They were, and always have been, our finest product. The Vietnam War was about the politicians and some generals who betrayed their fellow citizens and their country by fighting a war the political leadership lacked the will to win and the faith to fight.
A staggering 58,000 Americans are dead because Johnson would not listen to his inner voice, revealed on the tapes, or the voices of McGovern, Hatfield, Gruening and Morse, who many conservatives at the time labeled un-American.
Among the many lessons of Vietnam, which, as Beschloss notes, can teach us something about present and future conflicts, is that no president should have exclusive power when it comes to committing so many American lives and resources to a war.
The Johnson tapes also should teach conservatives a lesson. Many anti-war activists love this country as much as those who supported the Vietnam War. Just because someone is of a different party or persuasion does not necessarily mean they are wrong.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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