LBJ's unfitness to command

By LOU MARANO   |   Nov. 28, 2001 at 11:35 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- A fair amount has been written about the military's obligations to civil society in a democracy, but almost nothing is written about civil society's obligations to the military.

Foremost among those is the obligation to elect someone fit to be commander in chief.

No better example of this imperative can be found than in Michael Beschloss' new book, "Reaching for Glory: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1964-1965." Of course, 1965 was the year Johnson -- responding to the sharp escalation of communist North Vietnam's aggression against the Saigon government -- decided to commit U.S. ground troops in strength to defend South Vietnam.

(This ended the counterinsurgency phase of the U.S. effort to protect its ally, to which it was bound by the terms of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The belief John F. Kennedy, had he lived, intended to withdraw U.S. advisers from South Vietnam after the 1964 elections, is poorly sourced, probably inaccurate and certainly irrelevant. At the beginning of his second term, Kennedy would have had to respond to the deteriorating situation that Johnson faced in 1965, not to conditions that pertained early in 1963, when JFK is alleged to have confided his intention to withdraw.)

Beschloss' research, excerpted in the Nov. 12 issue of Newsweek, reveals a president who, frustrated in seeking the proper course of action, admitted, "I don't know what to do!" adding, "I'm not temperamentally equipped to be commander in chief."

Johnson was terrified of losing the war but told confidants he did not see any way of winning it without using nuclear weapons and "kicking off World War III." So he continued to order U.S. forces to Vietnam without a strategy for success.

The rest, as they say, is history: some 58,000 Americans dead, the betrayal of an ally, and incalculable long-term damage to U.S. prestige.

(Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times reported that Saddam Hussein was "obsessed" by Vietnam, which convinced him the United States lacked the resolve to oust him from Kuwait.)

Johnson's inability to develop a successful non-nuclear strategy relates directly to the character flaws that made him an unsuitable commander in chief. Put simply, he did not understand the role of violence in human affairs. Two examples will suffice, one from Johnson's youth and the other having to do with his World War II service.

Robert Caro's "The Path to Power" (1982) charts Johnson's rise from a poor boy from the Texas hill country to the U.S. House of Representatives. Caro's interviews with Johnson's contemporaries at Southwest Texas State University show him to have been a liar who ingratiated himself to the powerful and bullied the weak.

This is a regrettable constellation of traits but unfortunately not all that unusual. His method of handling physical conflict, however, was extraordinary.

Johnson was a large young man with a mouth to match, and when his words got him into Texas trouble, he would flop onto his back and flail his legs as if riding a bicycle. Caro wrote that at a poker game, the future president warned his antagonist: "If you hit me, I'll kick you! If you hit me, I'll kick you!" On another occasion, LBJ performed the same maneuver with the words, "I quit!"

Following Pearl Harbor, Johnson was the first member of the U.S. Congress to go on active military duty, securing a direct commission as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. After working on production and manpower problems, he asked President Roosevelt to send him on an inspection tour of the southwest Pacific.

According to an article in Naval History magazine by Barrett Tillman and Henry Sakaida, Johnson and other VIPs arrived at the U.S. airbase at Port Moresby, New Guinea, via B-17 bomber from Townsville, Queensland, Australia, on the morning of June 9, 1942, delaying the departure of a flight of B-26 bombers in a raid against the Japanese base at Lae, on New Guinea's northern coast. In a 1985 letter to Sakaida, one of the B-26 pilots, Noel A. Wright, wrote the VIPs' late arrival "messed up a potentially good raid, cost lives and aircraft."

In fairness, Johnson cannot be blamed for this. It also must be noted he was willing to put himself in harm's way. He first boarded one B-26 only to leave it to retrieve his camera. When he returned he found another VIP in his seat, forcing him to find a place on another bomber. The first plane was shot down, and all aboard were killed.

But another outcome of the day's events does not reflect well on a future commander in chief.

His B-26 developed generator trouble, jettisoned its bombs and turned back some 80 miles short of the target. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, for reasons of his own, authorized a Silver Star be awarded to Johnson, a mere passenger on the aborted flight. None of the crew was decorated. The Silver Star is a coveted medal awarded for "gallantry and intrepidity in action."

Tillman told CNN that "Johnson, or anyone else caught in that situation, simply could have put the medal away in a drawer." But that is not what LBJ did. In fact, he wore a miniature of the ribbon in his lapel for the rest of his life. Citing Caro, Tillman and Sakaida wrote Johnson had the Silver Star presented to him repeatedly at campaign events, as if for the first time on each occasion. "Claiming the name 'Raider Johnson,' LBJ also told audiences that he saw 14 Zeroes (Japanese fighters) shot down in flames."

I remember the unease I felt, at about age 18, when I became aware of the Silver Star miniature ribbon in news photos of my future commander in chief. Even if his aircraft had come under fire, which was doubted even then, there was no suggestion he had done anything heroic. How, I wondered, could a passenger wear an award when no crewmember was decorated? Now I wonder how Johnson could have worn the medal in the presence of real heroes, some of whom -- like Daniel Inouye and Bob Dole -- had been badly wounded.

In retrospect, we can see Johnson's bizarre behavior as a young man and his imposture after World War II as red flags. At the federal level, the voters' primary responsibility is to choose a president fit to command our forces and to be chief architect of U.S. foreign policy. To do any less is a dereliction of our duty as citizens.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories