The Ghost of LBJ

Afghan War Will Kill Democrats' Domestic Hopes

In early 1968 Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not accept his party's nomination for re-election to the presidency.  The Democratic party was a house torn asunder.  It came to a head at the '68 Democratic Convention when Mayor Daley's Chicago police were caught on nationwide television gleefully swinging clubs and bashing the heads of peaceful anti-war protesters.  Inside the convention center the nation saw delegates conducting business as usual.  The Vietnam War was now a Democratic War, continued by a Democratic president, and the protesters saw both parties as corrupt.

The rifts in American society were fully exposed, and it took an extended war to expose them.  On one side, a large number of blue-collar union workers, many of whom sent their sons into Vietnamese rice paddies along with ghetto blacks and Nebraska farm boys, mirrored AFL-CIO union president George Meany's rabid anti-communist, pro-Vietnam War views.  The rough equivalent of today's Tea-baggers, their social views leaned toward conservative, and they were upset with the status quo without knowing exactly why.  They would later be co-opted by the Reagan Revolution, and became the lunch-bucket, Reagan Democrats who provided Reagan's margin of victory.  On the other side were more privileged, college-bound liberals who avoided the draft with school deferments and the perks of wealth.  Some protested in the streets and got their heads busted in Chicago along with their poorer brethren.  Others became the young Republican chickenhawks, the George Bushes and Dick Cheneys, who saw the potential in these social divisions and built careers and political parties by exploiting them.  

When Bill Clinton made his bid for the suburban soccer mom vote by scolding Sister Soulja, he was not challenging Republicans for primacy.  He was taking a page straight from their book.  Twenty years later, by declaring that Democrats would henceforth not challenge the bloated, post-Cold War military budget, not be perceived as hostile to the interests of business, and would continue Reagan's war on welfare mothers, Bill Clinton consolidated the Reagan Revolution once and for all.

What is little-known today is that Johnson's Great Society program, declared before the escalation of the Vietnam War, was truly ambitious and remarkable.   Johnson's goal was nothing less than to eradicate poverty in America, by pumping billions of dollars into education, jobs building mass transit, and a tightened social safety net.  It would reach out to ghettos and dying rural farms alike.  It would require a president with nothing less than the enormous political skills of an LBJ to shepard through Congress; Johnson, the bear-hugging, arm-jostling giant of a man (6' 4") who could bend other men to his will through his sheer physicality and persistence.  But Johnson's enormous energies were drained, and his treasury bankrupt, by the Vietnam War.  The funding which would be required to enact sweeping social change went to Southeast Asia instead.  

The Vietnam War was the rock upon which Johnson's Great Society foundered.  Johnson, sensitive to accusations that his rise owed in part to his willingness to play the race card early in his political career, assembled a Great Society program which even his critics had to admit was a marvel of thoughtfulness, sound policy, and real possibility.  The Great Society was to be Johnson's proof to the world that he was not a racist, nor a southern pol, but a Great President.  It might have succeeded.

The Vietnam War drained $600 billion from the American economy, and the economic maneuvering room to implement Johnson's Great Society disappeared.  Johnson left office obsessed with casualty reports and 3 a.m. meetings with his generals in the war room, poring over maps and particular battles.  He set out to defend Khe San at enormous cost in the 1968 Tet Offensive, blurting out "I don't want any damned Din Bin Phu!" a reference to the French defeat which turned the tide against the previous western occupier.  Like Afghanistan, Vietnam was a dirt-poor Third World country which had never been subjugated.  Throughout its thousand year history, the Vietnamese resisted repeated attempts at conquest by another great power, China.  Despite China's vastly superior numbers and willingness to use brutal methods, the Vietnamese remained independent.  

Johnson was caught between his desire to enact the Great Society and threats from the Right that he would be painted as soft on communism if he did not escalate in Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh, who quoted Thomas Jefferson and, upon winning independence from the French colonialists, appealed for friendship with the United States, and was rebuffed.  Even though Vietnam had no desire to be aligned with the Soviet Union, no nominally communist government would be tolerated by the National Security State.  This was the foreign policy establishment running in a line from the OSS, the Dulles brothers, the Rockefellers, the Zbigniew Brezinskis, and the Bushes, whose prescriptions always amounted to one thing: more war.  Presidents stepped into office reliant on this apparatus, with deep reach both within the government and abroad.  A president who bucked its advice would find himself the target of attacks from unexpected quarters, accused of being weak, and of leaving the nation vulnerable.  

Johnson succumbed to this threat, and it cost him his agenda.  It made him a one-term president, emboldened the far-right, and paved the way in the long-run for the Reagan Revolution.  In Clinton the final passing of papers took place in the corporate boardroom merger of the Democratic and Republican parties.  

Obama is an outsider, smart, and standing on the same precipice as Johnson did.  Can he sidestep and perfom a dazzling political juijitsiu as pressure comes from behind to push him over the edge?  Into an escalation in Afghanistan which will guarantee we are drained there for another 10 - 20 years?  What would the ghost of Lyndon Johnson be whispering into Obama's ear?  I can almost hear that gruff voice and see that huge paw draped gently across the president's shoulder: Don't do it, son.  Don't do it.

ACTION: Tell your representative to co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Lee's HR 3699, blocking troop escalation in Afghanistan (list of present co-sponsors.) Contact congress member HERE.

Contact White House.

Tags: Afghanistan, great society, Lyndon Johnson, obama (all tags)

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