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Speaking to his special assistant for national security, McGeorge Bundy, in a May 27, 1964, recorded telephone conversation, President Lyndon B. Johnson expresses his worry that the war in Vietnam is turning into another Korea.
LBJ and the Descent into War
BY THE TIME Lyndon B. Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the United States had already made a significant commitment to South Vietnam’s struggle against communist forces. Military advisers were first sent to Vietnam in 1950 by President Harry S. Truman, and their numbers grew during the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy, but no combat troops were there when Johnson came into office. On Aug. 2, 1964, three small North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin (a second attack was alleged on Aug. 4 but did not occur). Johnson ordered airstrikes against North Vietnam, and Congress on Aug. 7 passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president to use “all necessary measures” to deal with the North Vietnamese threat. In November, Johnson soundly defeated Republican Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. Throughout the fall, the president’s team debated the proper course of action in Vietnam, but when Johnson began his new term in January 1965, there were still no U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. That would soon change, as historian Michael Beschloss describes in rich detail in his book Presidents of War.
In his inaugural address, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1965, Johnson said not a word about Vietnam. The president spoke exclusively of domestic affairs, for he planned to make fundamental changes in American life—with his War on Poverty, voting guarantees for all Americans, Medicare, aid to education, and other initiatives—that would install the architect of the Great Society in the record books.
Three days after being sworn in, at 2:26 a.m. on Saturday, Johnson was hurried by ambulance from the White House to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Lady Bird feared that he had suffered another heart attack. She stated in her diary that she “just patted him and sat down and held his hand. It could have been a frightening day. It was a day I had expected and thought about.” Without telling him, she bought a black dress, in case she needed one for her husband’s funeral.
When Johnson returned to the White House after three days at Bethesda, Lady Bird wrote that he was feeling “washed out” and “depressed.” Eight days after his collapse, she recorded that “Lyndon spent most of the day in bed,” and “for a man of his temperament, it means you have time to worry.” She told her diary, “It’s sort of a slough of despond. . . . The obstacles indeed are no shadows. They are real substance—Vietnam, the biggest.”
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the Viet Cong attacked a U.S. Army barracks in Pleiku, killing eight Americans. That evening, Johnson called House Speaker John McCormack, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other advisers to the Cabinet Room and told them he would order retaliatory airstrikes against three North Vietnamese targets. Johnson explained he had “kept the shotgun over the mantel and the bullets in the basement for a long time now,” but now they had to act because “cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.” He contended that the United States could have avoided both world wars “if we had been courageous in the early stages.”
Sen. Richard Russell, left, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, told Johnson in early March 1965, just before the Marines landed in Vietnam, “I don’t know how to back up now.” (AP Photo/Charles Gorry)
Then, on Wednesday morning, Feb. 10, McGeorge “Mac” Bundy, the president’s national security adviser, called Johnson to report that the Viet Cong had attacked a U.S. aircraft maintenance barracks in Qui Nhon. Twenty-three Americans were killed, the most of any single incident yet in Vietnam. Bundy noted that the North had recently attacked train facilities therefore the United States and South Vietnam could together retaliate against a northern railroad, “an extremely easy target.” Johnson asked that Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, be told to notify captains on aircraft carriers to begin “loading their stuff, and let’s pick the targets.” Eager to bring in Congress, Johnson called McCormack and said, “We’ve got to meet right quick on targets.”
The president knew the gravity of the step he was taking. He went to see Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “I’m not temperamentally equipped to be commander in chief,” he told Humphrey. “I’m too sentimental to give the orders.” On Friday, Johnson’s directive was executed.
Seeking reassurance and hoping to thwart Republican opposition, Johnson called Eisenhower at his winter home in Palm Desert, California: “I don’t want to put it up like we are in deep trouble, because I don’t think it’s reached that point,” but “you could be more comforting to me now than anybody I know.” He asked, “Why don’t you come stay all night with me?” During his White House visit, Eisenhower advised Johnson that if it took eight American divisions, in a “campaign of pressure,” to protect South Vietnam from a communist takeover, “so be it.” Should China or the Soviets threaten to intervene, “we should pass the word back to them to take care, lest dire results occur to them.” Eisenhower was suggesting a reprise of the hints of nuclear attack that he had quietly dropped in his effort to obtain a Korean armistice. He told Johnson that the “greatest danger” now would be if China concluded “that we will go just so far and no further” in pursuing the Vietnam War. The former president described how he had conveyed his nuclear threat to the Chinese in 1953 through “three channels.” Johnson asked how he might convey a similar warning to the Chinese. Eisenhower suggested using the Pakistani president, Mohammed Ayub Khan, “a very fine man,” whom he knew from his own time in office.
Johnson asked Eisenhower what he should do if Chinese forces crossed the border into Vietnam. Eisenhower advised him to “hit them at once with air” and “use any weapons required”—including tactical nuclear weapons. He complained that during the Korean War the Chinese believed that Truman had made “a gentleman’s agreement” not to cross the Yalu River or use nuclear arms. In Vietnam, “we should let it be known that we are not bound by such restrictions,” he said.
With Korea on his mind, Johnson also called Truman in Independence, Missouri. “I’m having hell!” Paternally, the 80-year-old former president asked him, “What’s the trouble?” Johnson replied, “A little bit with Indochina. I’m doing the best I can. My problem is kind of like what you had in Korea.” Johnson added, “I think when they go in and kill your boys, you’ve got to hit back. And I’m not trying to spread the war, and I’m not trying—” Truman broke in, “You bet you have! You bust them in the nose every time you get a chance, and they understand that language better than any other kind.” Objecting to the airstrikes, two Democratic senators, George McGovern of South Dakota and Frank Church of Idaho, publicly asked Johnson to negotiate. Furious, the president told Bundy that the two senators “ought to be told” what “hurts us most is not the hitting our compound” but “these goddamned speeches that the communists blow up, that show that we are about to pull out.” McGovern went to see Johnson, who warned him that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was a tool of the Chinese. The senator, who had taught history at Dakota Wesleyan University, rejoined that the Chinese had been struggling against the Vietnamese for a thousand years. By McGovern’s later account, the president told him, “Goddamn it, George, you and [Arkansas Democratic Sen. J. William] Fulbright and all you history teachers down there—I haven’t got time to f–k around with history. I’ve got boys on the line out there.”
Johnson told his old friend Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader from Illinois, that the North Vietnamese “can’t come bomb us, kill our people and expect us to go in a cave.” To the president’s delight, Dirksen replied that his only mistake had been not to have attacked the North hard enough. Invoking the appeasement of prewar Nazi Germany at a conference in Munich, as well as the domino theory, Johnson replied, “We know, from Munich on, that when you give, the dictators feed on raw meat. If they take South Vietnam, they take Indonesia, they take Burma, they come right on back to the Philippines.”
Johnson was outraged to find that his vice president wished to get out of Vietnam. Humphrey wrote him that “involvement in a full scale war” would not “make sense to the majority of the American people.” He conceded that it was “always hard to cut losses,” but for the newly elected president, “1965 is the year of minimum political risk.” As Humphrey later recalled, his letter made Johnson so angry that the president threw him into political “limbo.”
Johnson tried to expand his struggle against the North by stealth. When the U.S. Embassy in Saigon confirmed, in late February, that the United States had used B-57 and F-100 jet bombers for the first time against the Viet Cong, Johnson complained to Secretary of State Dean Rusk that this news looked “desperate and dramatic” and that “all of TV” was heralding “an entirely new policy.”
That month, the president had quietly approved McNamara’s proposed Operation Rolling Thunder, a gradual, sustained bombing campaign intended to ratchet up pressure against the North. But in a telephone call to McNamara on Friday morning, Feb. 26, he spoke these bone-chilling words: “Now we’re off to bombing these people. We’re over that hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.” No earlier chief executive had pushed Americans into a major war with such initial pessimism.
On Monday, March 1, Johnson told McNamara to unleash Rolling Thunder without public announcement. But that same day, the New York Times reported that the “highest” U.S. officials in Saigon were confiding that Johnson had “decided to open a continuing, limited air war.” Furious at the leak, Johnson snapped, “Am I wrong in saying that this appears to be almost traitorous?” He added that it was “not good to say that we’ve got a plan to bomb this specific area before we’re bombing it. Because, Christ, I guess every anti-aircraft and everything they can get is alerted.”
The next day, Rolling Thunder began, with more than a hundred U.S. aircraft striking a munitions depot and navy base. During the following three years, Rolling Thunder would unload more bombs on the North than struck all of Europe during World War II. As if to make up for the private helplessness he seemed to feel about the war, Johnson made sure that he scrutinized the aerial forays, boasting, “They can’t hit an outhouse without my permission!”
Poignantly, the president stayed up late into the night hoping for assurance that his “boys” had returned safely, saying later, “I want to be called every time somebody dies.” After the first mission, a Situation Room duty officer called him very early on Tuesday, March 2, to report that two planes were probably missing. Johnson asked, “What’s it look like—our two pilots lost?” He was told that rescue efforts were “underway,” and, later, that six U.S. aircraft had been shot down, but five of the pilots had survived.
By Friday, Johnson was pondering Westmoreland’s request for 3,500 Marines to protect U.S. flyers and air bases in South Vietnam, which Rusk, McNamara and the Joint Chiefs had approved. The president told Bundy, “Now, the Marines! I haven’t made that decision. I’m still worried about it.”
The next day, Johnson told Democratic Sen. Richard R ussell of Georgia, “I guess we’ve got no choice, but it scares the death out of me. I think everybody’s going to think, ‘We’re landing the Marines—we’re off to battle.’” He predicted that the North would “get them in a fight, just sure as hell. They’re not going to run. Then you’re tied down.” Russell replied, “We’ve gone so damn far, Mr. President, it scares the life out of me, but I don’t know how to back up now.” Johnson said, “That is exactly right. We’re getting in worse.” Morosely, the president confided, “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” He added: “The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare, the more people you make mad, the more embassies you get—” Russell said, “It’s the worst mess I ever saw in my life.” Johnson exclaimed, “If they’d say I ‘inherited,’ I’ll be lucky. But they’ll all say I created it!”
Two hours later, the president told McNamara that “if there’s no alternative,” he could send the Marines to protect the U.S. airmen: “My answer is yes, but my judgment is no.” McNamara pledged to “minimize the announcement,” but warned that it would provoke “a lot of headlines.” Johnson replied, “You’re telling me!”
In April 1965, hoping to avert further dramatic escalation, Johnson publicly offered Ho Chi Minh a billion dollars to develop the Mekong River Delta, so long as the North Vietnamese leader would guarantee the freedom of the South. But the money was refused. McNamara and Westmoreland that month persuaded Johnson to approve nine new battalions for Vietnam, which would increase U.S. forces there to 82,000.
Johnson asked Congress for $700 million “to meet mounting military requirements in Vietnam.” The House and Senate backed the president, almost unanimously, but newly elected Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York told colleagues on the Senate floor that his yes vote should not be taken as a “blank check” for any “wider war.” Escalation, he warned, could bring “hundreds of thousands of American troops” to Vietnam and “might easily lead to nuclear warfare.” Johnson complained to McNamara, a friend of the senator, that Kennedy was making “little snide remarks” in the Senate cloakroom that the president had “manipulated” Congress on Vietnam. “You’ve just got to sit down and talk to Bobby,” he said.
Some of the Joint Chiefs advised Johnson to bomb Hanoi. The president told congressional friends he had “stalled them off” by warning that this might force China to enter the war. Johnson later reported to Russell that some of the military leaders were “awfully irresponsible. They’ll just scare you. They’re ready to put a million men in right quick.”
On Monday, June 7, Westmoreland wired McNamara from Saigon that he urgently needed 41,000 more combat forces and 52,000 later on, which would mean 175,000 troops in Vietnam. He argued that the United States must abandon its “defensive posture” and “take the war to the enemy,” in which case “even greater forces” may be required. The defense secretary told colleagues, “We’re in a hell of a mess.”
Calling the president, McNamara now said, “Unless we’re really willing to go to a full potential land war, we’ve got to slow down here and try to halt, at some point, the ground troop commitment.” Johnson refused, noting that the North was “putting their stack in, and moving new chips into the pot.” The choice, he said, was either “tuck tail and run” or respond to those who were telling the United States, “The Indians are coming!”
To gauge the attitude of the doves, Johnson called Mansfield, confiding that his “military people” were warning that “our 75,000 men are going to be in great danger unless they have 75,000 more.” But then “they’ll have to have another hundred and fifty. And then they’ll have to have another hundred and fifty.” The majority leader said, “We’ve got too many in there now. . . . Where do you stop?” Johnson replied, “You don’t. . . . To me, it’s shaping up like this, Mike—you either get out or you get in.”
Westmoreland cabled that “short of decision to introduce nuclear weapons against sources and channels of enemy power, I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war.”
The first U.S. combat troops to arrive in Vietnam, a battalion from the 3rd Marine Division, come ashore at a beach north of Da Nang on March 8, 1965. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Johnson predicted to Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, that ultimately the Viet Cong would “last longer than we do” because their soldier was willing to hide out in a “rut” for two days “without water, food or anything, and never moves, waiting to ambush somebody. Now, an American—he stays there about 20 minutes and, God damn, he’s got to get him a cigarette!”
In June, the president told McNamara, “I’m very depressed about it.” He didn’t believe the communist forces were “ever going to quit,” and “I don’t see . . . that we have any . . . plan for a victory—militarily or diplomatically.”
With cold candor, Johnson told McNamara at the start of July: “We know ourselves, in our own conscience, that when we asked for this [Gulf of Tonkin] resolution, we had no intention of committing this many ground troops. We’re doing so now, and we know it’s going to be bad.” That same week, he confided to Lady Bird, “Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.” She told her diary, “When he is pierced, I bleed. It’s a bad time all around.”
On Thursday, July 22, 1965, Johnson made his decision. At 5:30 a.m., agitated in his bed, he turned, woke up Lady Bird, and told her, in torment, “I don’t want to get into a war and I don’t see any way out of it. I’ve got to call up 600,000 boys, make them leave their homes and their families.”
Briefing congressional leaders, Johnson confessed, “We all know that it is a bad situation, and we wish we were 10 years back—or even 10 months back.”
McCormack assured the president that they were “united” behind him, along with “all true Americans.”
Johnson rejected suggestions to announce his big decision before a joint session of Congress or in an Oval Office television address. Instead, at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28, he read a brief statement on Vietnam during a regular East Room press conference. Citing Westmoreland’s request, Johnson announced that he would “raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men, almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent, as requested. ”
Revealing his ambivalence, Johnson confessed, “This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your president.” But unless the nation stood up against “men who hate and destroy,” then “all of our dreams for freedom—all, all will be swept away on the flood of conquest. So, too, this shall not happen. We shall stand in Vietnam.” During a speech the following week, he gave no hint of his private doubts about the war and told the crowd, “America wins the wars that she undertakes. Make no mistake about it!”
— Michael Beschloss has written nine books on presidential history. He is the NBC News presidential historian and a contributor to the PBS NewsHour.
The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson
The perturbed spirit of Lady Bird Johnson will rest until somebody writes a more complete article about how she and her husband became millionaires. Of the top dailies, only the New York Times and the Washington Post obituaries slow to savor the political skulduggery she and her husband, Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson, relied on to pour the foundation of her business empire. Some of the clips find her scheme to “beautify” America more interesting than her blatant exercise in political graft. (See the deficient obituaries in the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and USA Today. See the relevant passages here.)
Robert A. Caro examines the roots of the Johnson broadcasting fortune in the second volume of his biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. Although Lyndon Johnson always protested that Lady Bird bought the station on her own and that he applied no political pressure to help her, Caro easily proves him a liar.
In 1943, the year Lady Bird Johnson purchased KTBC, the Federal Communications Commission, which reviewed all broadcast-license transfers, was close to being abolished, Caro writes. Lyndon Johnson used his political influence in both Congress and the White House to prevent that from happening. The FCC was among the most politicized agencies in the government, Caro asserts, and it knew who its friends were.
Johnson socialized with FCC Commissioner Clifford Durr at the time, “sometimes at Durr’s home, sometimes at his own,” although Durr says Johnson never mentioned Lady Bird’s application for KTBC’s license. Lady Bird, however, directly approached Durr about the station, and Lyndon phoned James Barr of the FCC’s Standard Broadcast Division. “He wanted to get a radio station, and what I remember is, he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Caro quotes Barr.
Legendary Democratic fixer Tommy “The Cork” Corcoran also helped with the KTBC application—”all up and down the line,” is how Corcoran put it. Asked in an interview whether Johnson’s status as a member of Congress helped his wife’s application, Corcoran said, “How do you think these things work? These guys [FCC staffers] have been around. You don’t have to spell things out for them.”
The Los Angeles Times and USA Today obituaries make it sound as if KTBC were a congenitally unprofitable station at the time of Lady Bird’s bid and give the impression that she was the lone suitor for the property. That was not the case, as Caro documents the identities of the other interested bidders.
Once Lady Bird completed her purchase of KTBC, the “five years of delays and red tape, or delays and unfavorable rules” from the FCC that had stymied the previous owners “vanished … and slowness was replaced by speed,” according to Caro. In short order she got permission to broadcast 24 hours a day (KTBC had been a sunrise-to-sunset station) and move it to 590 on the dial—”an uncluttered, end of the dial” where it could be heard in 38 surrounding Texas counties. It was no coincidence. Lyndon and Lady Bird recruited a new station manager, promising 10 percent of the profits, and Lyndon told him that the changes in the license restrictions that would make KTBC a moneymaker were “all set.” In 1945, the FCC OK’d KTBC’s request to quintuple its power, which cast its signal over 63 counties.
When Lyndon visited William S. Paley, president of CBS radio, and asked if KTBC could become a CBS affiliate and carry its lucrative programming, he didn’t have to spell out why the request should be granted. The radio networks feared the regulators in Washington as well as the members of Congress who regulated the regulators. KNOW in Austin had been repeatedly denied the affiliation because a San Antonio “affiliate could be heard in Austin.” CBS Director of Research Frank Stanton approved Johnson’s request.
Johnson shook down powerful companies to advertise on the station. Local businesses that wanted Army camps to remain located in Austin knew one way to secure Lyndon’s help was to advertise on KTBC. Caro writes:
Under Texas law, the station belonged solely to Lady Bird because she purchased it with her inheritance. But as her spouse, Lyndon owned half of all the profits. He was ultra-active in recruiting staff and running the operation, and by 1948, Caro writes, he was telling his friends that he was a millionaire.
The Johnsons earned thousands from their radio station but millions from their TV stations, writes former FCC official William B. Ray in his book, FCC: The Ups and Downs of Radio Regulation. The commission allocated one commercial station to Austin in the early 1950s, and the Johnsons were its sole applicant. “Filing a competing application would have been a waste of money,” Ray writes, because of the Johnsons’ political clout. “Whenever there was a business matter to be discussed between CBS and the LBJ stations, Johnson would summon the appropriate CBS personnel to the White House to discuss it,” he continues.
Was it graft? The crooks of Tammany Hall distinguished between honest graft—which they considered respectable—and dishonest graft. Honest grafters used political connections, such as tips as to where a new bridge was going to be built, to make surefire investments. Dishonest grafters stole directly from the treasury.
You can rest in peace now, Lady Bird. Your honest-grafting days are over.
Lyndon Johnson began his administration with dreams of fulfilling his fallen predecessor’s civil rights initiative and accomplishing his own plans to improve lives by eradicating poverty in the United States. His social programs, investments in education, support for the arts, and commitment to civil rights changed the lives of countless people and transformed society in many ways. However, Johnson’s insistence on maintaining American commitments in Vietnam, a policy begun by his predecessors, hurt both his ability to realize his vision of the Great Society and his support among the American people.
Answer to Review Question
- The social programs of the Great Society, such as Medicaid, job training programs, and rent subsidies, helped many poor African Americans. All African American citizens were aided by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended discrimination in employment and prohibited segregation in public accommodations the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited literacy tests and other racially discriminatory restrictions on voting and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which outlawed discrimination in housing.
Great Society Lyndon Johnson’s plan to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in the United States and to improve the lives of all Americans
war on poverty Lyndon Johnson’s plan to end poverty in the Unites States through the extension of federal benefits, job training programs, and funding for community development
Mr. Tornado is the remarkable story of the man whose groundbreaking work in research and applied science saved thousands of lives and helped Americans prepare for and respond to dangerous weather phenomena.
The Polio Crusade
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Lyndon Johnson declines nomination for re-election (1968)
On March 31st 1968, Lyndon Johnson appeared on television and announced his intention not to seek re-election as president:
“Good evening, my fellow Americans. Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. No other question so preoccupies our people. No other dream so absorbs the 250 million human beings who live in that part of the world. No other goal motivates American policy in Southeast Asia.
For years, representatives of our government and others have travelled the world seeking to find a basis for peace talks. Since last September they have carried the offer that I made public at San Antonio. And that offer was this: That the United States would stop its bombardment of North Vietnam when that would lead promptly to productive discussions. And that we would assume that North Vietnam would not take military advantage of our restraint.
Hanoi denounced this offer, both privately and publicly. Even while the search for peace was going on, North Vietnam rushed their preparations for a savage assault on the people, the government and the allies of South Vietnam.
Their attack during the Tet holidays failed to achieve its principal objectives. It did not collapse the elected government of South Vietnam or shatter its army, as the Communists had hoped. It did not produce a “general uprising” among the people of the cities, as they had predicted. The communists were unable to maintain control of any of the more than 30 cities that they attacked, and they took very heavy casualties…
This much is clear: If [the communists] do mount another round of heavy attacks, they will not succeed in destroying the fighting power of South Vietnam and its allies. But tragically, this is also clear: Many men, on both sides of the struggle, will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on…
That small, beleaguered nation has suffered terrible punishment for more than 20 years. I pay tribute once again tonight to the great courage and the endurance of its people. South Vietnam supports armed forces tonight of almost 700,000 men, and I call your attention to the fact that that is the equivalent of more than 10 million in our own population. Its people maintain their firm determination to be free of domination by the North.
There has been substantial progress, I think, in building a durable government during these last three years. The South Vietnam of 1965 could not have survived the enemy’s Tet offensive of 1968. The elected government of South Vietnam survived that attack and is rapidly repairing the devastation that it wrought…
The actions that we have taken since the beginning of the year to re-equip the South Vietnamese forces to meet our responsibilities in Korea, as well as our responsibilities in Vietnam to meet price increases and the cost of activating and deploying these reserve forces to replace helicopters and provide the other military supplies we need, all of these actions are going to require additional expenditures. The tentative estimate of those additional expenditures is $2.5 billion in this fiscal year and $2.6 billion in the next fiscal year. These projected increases in expenditures for our national security will bring into sharper focus the nation’s need for immediate action, action to protect the prosperity of the American people and to protect the strength and the stability of our American dollar.
On many occasions, I have pointed out that without a tax bill or decreased expenditures, next year’s deficit would again be around $20-billion. I have emphasised the need to set strict priorities in our spending. I have stressed that failure to act–and to act promptly and decisively–would raise very strong doubts throughout the world about America’s willingness to keep its financial house in order. Yet Congress has not acted. And tonight we face the sharpest financial threat in the postwar era–a threat to the dollar’s role as the keystone of international trade and finance in the world…
Finally, my fellow Americans, let me say this. Of those to whom much is given much is asked. I cannot say – and no man could say – that no more will be asked of us. Yet I believe that now, no less than when the decade began, this generation of Americans is willing to pay the price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival, and the success, of liberty. Since those words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, the people of America have kept that compact with mankind’s noblest cause. And we shall continue to keep it.
This I believe very deeply. Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant and a member of my party, in that order, always and only. For 37 years in the service of our nation, first as a congressman, as a senator and as vice president, and now as your president, I have put the unity of the people first, I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship. And in these times, as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril of the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples, so I would ask all Americans whatever their personal interest or concern to guard against divisiveness and all of its ugly consequences.
Fifty-two months and ten days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help, and God’s that we might continue America on its course binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people. United we have kept that commitment. And united we have enlarged that commitment. And through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, a land of greater opportunity and fulfilment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.
Our reward will come in the life of freedom and peace and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead. What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion and distrust and selfishness and politics among any of our people. And believing this as I do I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With American sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office: the presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong and a confident and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honourable peace and stands ready tonight to defend an honoured cause, whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.
Thank you for listening. Good night and God bless all of you.
The Presidency in Crisis
Even before the Watergate scandal came to light, scholars and journalists started to debate what had gone wrong with the American presidency. George Reedy, former aide to Lyndon Johnson, critiqued the unchecked power the chief executive wielded in his 1970 book, The Twilight of the Presidency. 1 Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a prominent historian and former advisor to John F. Kennedy, classified this state in which the institutional authority of the office had exceeded its constitutional authority as the “imperial presidency” in his famous 1973 book by the same name. 1 That same year, journalist David Wise lamented the web of lies presidents had constructed to mislead and deceive the American people in his The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power. 3 Even before the details of the Watergate break-in and the litany of presidential abuses in the Nixon administration came to the surface, it was clear to many that the shift of concentrated power in the chief executive threatened democracy. These works were “forerunners to the theory that the cause of Watergate was the accretion of power to the presidency,” contends political scientist Ruth Morgan. 4
Scholars agree that the Watergate scandal marked a transformative moment in American politics and culture. As the historian Keith W. Olson contends, “Watergate and Vietnam…contributed significantly to a fundamental distrust of government that has continued into the second decade of the twenty-first century.” 5 President Lyndon Johnson’s controversial and problematic engagement in the Vietnam War both expanded the institutional power of the office and distanced the president from the people.
Position of Moral Leadership, 1974. Graphite, ink, and opaque white over blue pencil and graphite underdrawing. Published in the Washington Post, April 13, 1974. Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.
These cracks in public trust of the presidency were widened during the Nixon administration. When The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein drew attention to a June break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, they began an investigation into illegal activities waged by members of Nixon’s reelection committee. The following February, the Senate launched a congressional investigation into the alleged misconduct of the burglars, and as the narrative unfolded over the next year, it became clear that the fears of criminal activities, wire-tapping, and abuses of power were validated—and even worse than many suspected.
The televised Senate hearings in the summer of 1973 brought the crimes of the Nixon White House—a break-in at the Watergate hotel, subsequent cover-up attempts and bribery, and a range of dirty tricks the president used to target his opponents and punish his enemies to gain personal power—directly to the American people. The Watergate investigation, which played out in Congress, the courts, and the press over the next year, confirmed public suspicions of presidential abuses of power, and as a result, fundamentally altered the relationship of the presidency to the people, the press, and Congress.
Historians have paid significant attention to the crisis of the American presidency that unfolded during the 1960s and 1970s. While some have focused on the power-hungry and paranoid personality of Richard Nixon, others have seen Nixon not simply as an aberration but also a product of shifting political and cultural values in the post-WWII period and the expansion of the presidency as an institution begun over the course of the twentieth century (a historical development this website examines). 6 This section examines these historical arguments, situating the Watergate scandal as a culmination of the personal, political, and institutional changes of the executive branch over the previous decade. This module offers students an opportunity to think about historiography along with understanding the multifaceted roots of the crisis of the American presidency during the 1960s and 1970s.
The Credibility Gap: Watergate as the “Last Chapter of the Vietnam War”
President John F. Kennedy at Press Conference, March 23 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to tape sent by Captain Charles Robb from Vietnam. Source: NARA. [view larger] October 21, 1967, “Vietnam War protesters at the March on the Pentagon, White House Photo Office, Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library.
Since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, presidents have increasingly intervened in southeastern Asia. Following WWII, Harry Truman supported colonial France against Vietnamese nationalists mobilized under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, whom Truman and Eisenhower both viewed as ‘Moscow-directed.” 7 When France was defeated in 1954, Minh accepted a temporary agreement to divide the country into a North and South Vietnam, believing that national elections would soon eliminate this partition. Viewed as part of the Cold War, in which the United States used military and economic resources to contain the spread of communist influence from the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, Eisenhower and Kennedy saw reunification under Minh as a Cold War defeat. Before his assassination, Kennedy publicly called South Vietnam the “cornerstone of the Free World.”
While Johnson used Kennedy’s death to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he also found himself bound by Kennedy’s promise to maintain support for South Vietnam. And, by all accounts, the new president was “out of his element in foreign relations,” and as such, relied on insights from advisors, with historian Bruce Schulman noting that Johnson began to “navigate by abstract principles rather than the sure instincts about what really worked that guided him so well in the Congress.” 8
Blinded by the ideological lens of the Cold War, Lyndon Johnson slowly, reluctantly, and controversially expanded American involvement in South Vietnam. The international conflict turned LBJ into a villain in the White House, and created a “credibility gap” between the American people and their president.
When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, he too faced the dilemma of how to withdraw troops from a controversial war while still maintaining the victory that was deemed essential to his reelection in 1972. 9 Richard Nixon called himself the “last casualty in Vietnam”—the final chapter of the growing distrust of the president and the increasingly hostile relationship between the White House and the press. This section allows students to examine the institutional growth of the national security state and the implications that Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam had for his successor.
- Bruce Schulman, “’That Bitch of a War’: LBJ and Vietnam,” in Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2006), 133-178.
The Kennedy and Eisenhower Legacy:
Public Promises, Private Doubts:
- Lyndon Johnson, “Speech to the American Bar Association,” concerning the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 1964. http://presidentialcollections.org/catalog/nara:2803385
- Lyndon Johnson, “Pattern for Peace in Southeast Asia,” address delivered on April 7, 1965 at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.
“Hey, Hey LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”: Criticism of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam:
How did the Cold War commitment of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy influence Lyndon Johnson’s decisions about Vietnam? How does Vietnam fit into the Cold War consensus and view of foreign policy that came out of WWII?
What concerns does Lyndon Johnson express about Vietnam behind closed doors?
How does Johnson sell the war to the American people? What is the difference between his private views of the war and his public statements?
Why does Vietnam become known as “Johnson’s War”? Why do protesters focus their criticism on Johnson as an individual?
What does the term “credibility gap” mean? What pressures does it place upon Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon?
GROUP ACTIVITY: WATERGATE AND THE BATTLE OF GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS
Critics of the Vietnam War argued that the unfettered use of executive authority to wage war and deceive the American people on the progress of that war exposed pressing problems in expanding the institutional authority of the Executive Branch. And yet, the Watergate scandal, though perhaps a culmination of what historian Joan Hoff terms the “decline in political ethics and practices during the Cold War,” did test the system of checks and balances designed by the Constitution to prevent abuses of power. 10 In fact, the investigation began and continued because of actions taken by the press, Congress, the courts, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—all government institutions which pushed back against the growing power of the presidency. As such, Watergate involved a battle between the president and each of these government institutions, leaving each of them fundamentally transformed in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Break students into five groups and assign each group the task of analyzing the battle waged between President Nixon and that particular institution. Each group has a particular secondary source they should first consult to help direct their research agenda. After considering the following questions, have each group make an argument about the impact of their government institution in exposing the Watergate scandal and reforming the presidency.
Group 1: Congress
Reading Assignment: Bruce J. Schulman, “Restraining the Imperial Presidency: Congress and Watergate,” in The American Congress: The Building of Democracy, ed. Julian Zelizer. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 638–649.
Group 3: The Press
Reading Assignment: Michael Schudson, “Watergate and the Press,” in The Power of News. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 142–165.
- How did the presidency, as an institution, become so powerful? How did other government institutions respond to the growth of the presidency?
- Did these changing attitudes in the media, parties, Congress, and courts combat the institutional power of the executive, or did it just amass evidence to show Nixon’s misconduct?
- While many argued that Watergate exposed the corruption of the political system, others pointed out that it demonstrated how the system of checks and balances worked. What is the legacy of Watergate for your particular institution?
RESEARCH ACTIVITY: NIXON AND THE TAPES
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson expanded the White House recording system, and, as the civil rights module illuminates, these recordings provide valuable insights into their styles of governance. But, the Watergate investigation sparked a legal debate between the president and the courts about the content of the tapes: were they Nixon’s personal property, or were they public records that would be preserved by professional archivists at the National Archive and Records Administration, as established by Congress in 1934? 11 In Richard Nixon v. United States of America, the Supreme Court mandated the release of the tapes. Knowing the tapes had proof of his involvement, Nixon resigned from office soon after the decision. After nearly four decades of litigious debates about the processing and preserving of the tapes, the tapes have finally been released to the public, providing insight into Nixon’s personality, style of governance, paranoias, hopes, and fears.
Have students listen to a recording in the “Watergate Collection,” and offer an analysis of how each discussion adds to our understanding of Watergate in its entirety. As students listen to their assigned tape, have them consider the following questions and prepare a presentation to the class on their selected recording.
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As American casualties mounted and news filtered back home that the war was not going nearly as well as the White House had been claiming, the public’s faith in Johnson began to wane. Politicians and journalists described a “credibility gap”—the space between the president’s assertions and the facts on the ground. Skepticism eventually gave way to disillusionment with the presidency itself.
Richard Nixon’s presidency carried that process of disillusionment much further. Nixon’s fondness for audio recordings is notorious. We rightly remember that it was transcripts revealing the president’s crude, cutthroat willingness to conceal his crimes that shocked the nation and forced him from office. But we often forget that the war and the Watergate scandal were inextricably intertwined. Before the White House Plumbers botched the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, they attempted to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, by stealing files from his psychiatrist’s office.
When audio of the Nixon tapes eventually became public in 1980—2,658 of the 3,400 hours are now accessible—Americans could hear for themselves just how cynically the president had approached the war. On tape, he is frequently ruthless, amoral, and self-interested. Nixon had promised peace with honor, but as he weighed the consequences of American withdrawal, chief among his concerns was the potential effect on his reelection in 1972 if Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, returned to this worry again and again, including on May 29, 1971, in a conversation not released to the public until 1999:
kissinger : The only problem is to prevent the collapse in ’72 … If it’s got to go to the Communists, it’d be better to have it happen in the first six months of the new term than have it go on and on and on.
nixon : Sure.
kissinger : I’m being very cold-blooded about it.
nixon : I know exactly what we’re up to …
kissinger : But on the other hand, if Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam go down the drain in September ’72, then they’ll say you went into these … You spoiled so many lives, just to wind up where you could’ve been in the first year.
nixon : Yeah.
The revelations of the Nixon tapes destroyed his presidency and further eroded American faith in the office itself. The presidents of the post-Vietnam era have never managed to fully restore that faith, and lately, it seems, confidence in the chief executive is at a new low, even if tape recorders are no longer running in the Oval Office.
But we needn’t succumb to the cynicism often on display in the Vietnam recordings. The war may have robbed America of its innocence, but it also reminded us that the duty of citizens in a democracy is to be skeptical—not to worship our leaders, who have always been fallible, but to question their decisions, challenge their policies, and hold them accountable for their failures.
At the National Archives, a new perspective on the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War isn’t ancient history. In many Americans’ minds, it’s not history at all — just a part of their lives. “When you live through something, you see it through one perspective,” says Alice Kamps, the curator behind “Remembering Vietnam,” the newest long-running exhibition at the National Archives. “Even the people who lived through [the time] have really basic questions about why the U.S. was there, why it was there so long and why it was so controversial. We’re hoping to show a number of different perspectives, to give people some insight as to what happened and why.” The exhibition traces the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia from 1946 to 1975, through more than 80 original documents and artifacts (many of which are newly declassified), historical recordings and films, and video interviews with people whose lives were touched or transformed by the war. All of these pieces combine to create a whole picture of a turbulent time in American history
National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW through Jan. 6, 2019, free.
Model of “the Hanoi Hilton”
This undated model of the Hoa Lo prison camp — better known as “the Hanoi Hilton” — looks like a school diorama, but it had a much more important purpose. “I was so stunned when one of our archivists showed it to me because it’s so unlike typical Archives records,” Kamps says. “It was built by the CIA when they were planning an escape effort to try to free some of the prisoners.” To best plan its mission, the CIA tried to get as close as possible to the layout of the real camp, down to the electrical outlets on the walls. Still, no American POW was ever rescued from any North Vietnamese prison, including Hoa Lo.
Hard hat for Nixon
President Richard Nixon received a number of hard hats during his tenure, but not because he was visiting construction sites. In the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, “some construction workers attacked some peace protesters in New York City, and it was pretty violent,” Kamps says. “Afterwards, Nixon praised the construction workers for their support, and they sent hard hats as tribute,” including this one he received in 1970. Still, Kamps says it’s important to remember that attitudes about the war weren’t black and white. “Even at the time there was this notion that the protesters were all hippies and the working class was all for the war, which wasn’t the case,” she says. “Many, many people in the working class hated [the protesters’] behavior, but were against the war. In fact, after the Hard Hat Riot, the first labor protests against the war were staged.”
Shoes of evacuated child
When people think of the fall of Saigon in 1975, they usually think of the famous image captured by photographer Hugh Van Es of the final helicopter about to take off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy while people desperately clamber to get aboard. These shoes show a different angle of the South Vietnamese capital’s capture. They came from one of the children evacuated in 1975 as part of “Operation Babylift,” an effort that transported Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. The first flight crashed, killing 78 children and 50 adults, but the program evacuated more than 3,000 children overall.
Telegram from Ho Chi Minh
Early on, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was no involvement at all. Vietnam had long been a French colony, but fell to the Japanese during WWII after the war, the French wanted to recolonize the country. This telegram, sent from North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to President Harry Truman in 1946, partially says, “I … most earnestly appeal to you personally and to the American people to interfere urgently in support of our independence.” “For many years Ho Chi Minh believed the U.S. could be an ally, given our own war of independence,” Kamps says. However, “rather than oppose France, [Truman] made the decision that we needed to support France because we needed France as a bulwark against communism.” Ho Chi Minh’s request for assistance amounted to nothing.
President Johnson audio recording
Among the exhibit’s audio recordings is a 1964 tape of President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers discussing whether to put American soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. “What’s surprising is the degree to which he and other members of the administration had such grave doubts about our chances of success, yet still committed our troops to the conflict,” Kamps says. “It’s not like they went into this thing really confident that this was going to be an easy thing to win. They were well aware, and even questioned the importance of the outcome.”
American History: Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War
STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.
Today, we continue the story of America's thirty-sixth president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Johnson was vice president to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas in November of nineteen sixty-three. Johnson served the last fourteen months of the president's term. Then he won a full term of his own starting in January nineteen sixty-five.
Much of Johnson's time and energy would be taken up by the war in Vietnam.
By early nineteen sixty-four, America had about seventeen thousand troops in Vietnam. The troops were there to advise and train the South Vietnamese military.
Vietnam had gained its independence from France in nineteen fifty-four. The country was divided into North and South. The North had a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh. The South had an anti-communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
In nineteen fifty-seven, communist rebels -- the Viet Cong -- launched a violent campaign in the South. They were supported by the government of North Vietnam and later by North Vietnamese troops. Their goal was to overthrow the government in the South.
President Johnson believed that the United States had to support South Vietnam. Many Americans agreed. They believed that without American help, South Vietnam would become communist. There were concerns about the so-called Domino Theory, that if South Vietnam fell, other Southeast Asian countries would also fall to communists.
As Johnson began his full term, his military advisers told him the communists were losing the war. They told him that North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong forces would soon stop fighting.
On February sixth, nineteen sixty-five, however, the Viet Cong attacked American camps at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. The Johnson administration immediately ordered air strikes against military targets in the North.
Some observers in the United States questioned the administration's policy. James Reston of the New York Times, for example, said President Johnson was carrying out an undeclared war in Vietnam.
In March nineteen sixty-five, the first American combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. Congress supported the president's actions at that time. However, the number of Americans who opposed the war began to grow. These people said it was a civil war. They said the United States had no right, or reason, to intervene.
For six days in May, the United States halted bombing of North Vietnam. The administration hoped this would help get the North Vietnamese government to begin negotiations.
The North refused. And the United States began to build up its forces in the South. By July, one hundred twenty-five thousand Americans were fighting in Vietnam.
Some Americans became angry. Anti-war demonstrations took place in San Francisco and Chicago.
More and more students began to protest. They wanted the war to end quickly.
Some people thought the anti-war demonstrations were only delaying peace in Vietnam. James Reston believed the demonstrations would make Ho Chi Minh think America did not support its troops. And that, he said, would only make him continue the war.
In December of nineteen sixty-five, the United States again halted its air campaign against North Vietnam. Again, it invited the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the fighting. And, again, the North refused.
Ho Chi Minh's conditions for peace were firm. He demanded an end to the bombing and a complete American withdrawal.
Withdrawal would mean defeat for the South. It would mean that all of Vietnam would become communist. President Johnson would not accept these terms. So he offered his own proposals. The most important was an immediate ceasefire. Neither side would compromise, however. And the fighting went on.
In nineteen sixty-six, President Johnson renewed the bombing in North Vietnam. He also increased the number of American troops in South Vietnam.
Nineteen sixty-six was also a year for congressional elections. The opposition Republican Party generally supported the war efforts of Lyndon Johnson, who was a Democrat. But it criticized him and other Democrats for economic problems connected to the war.
The war cost two billion dollars every month. The price of many goods in the United States began to rise. The value of the dollar began to drop. Americans faced inflation and then a recession.
To answer the criticism, administration officials said progress was being made in Vietnam. But some Americans began to suspect that the government was not telling the truth about the war.
Opposition to the war led to bigger and bigger demonstrations.
In July nineteen sixty-seven, just over half the people questioned for opinion surveys said they did not approve of the president's policies. But most Americans believed that Johnson would run again for president the next year.
Johnson strongly defended the use of American troops in Vietnam. In a speech to a group of lawmakers he said:
"Since World War II, this nation has met and has mastered many challenges—challenges in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin, in Korea, in Cuba. We met them because brave men were willing to risk their lives for their nation's security. And braver men have never lived than those who carry our colors in Vietnam at this very hour. The price of these efforts, of course, has been heavy. But the price of not having made them at all, not having seen them through, in my judgment would have been vastly greater."
Then came Tet -- the Vietnamese lunar new year -- in January nineteen sixty-eight.
The communists launched a major military campaign. They attacked thirty-one of the forty-four provinces of South Vietnam. They also struck at the American embassy in the capital, Saigon.
GEORGE SYVERTSEN: “Military police got back into the compound of the two-and-a-half million dollar embassy complex at dawn. Before that, a platoon of Viet Cong were in control. The communist raiders never got inside the main chancery building. A handful of Marines had it locked and kept them out. But the raiders were everywhere else.”
CBS News reporter George Syvertsen described more of the fighting in Saigon and how it affected civilians in a poor part of the city.
SYVERTSEN: [Gunfire] “This neighborhood is called ‘the chessboard’ because of the maze of alleys and passageways. Its residents are mostly poor working people, and its slums are a refuge for Saigon’s hoodlum and criminal elements. Vietnamese Rangers and Marines move carefully, blasting buildings and possible Viet Cong hiding places before moving ahead. This was the first time heavy fighting has taken place in Saigon proper. Until now, most of it has been in the Chinese section of Cho Lon and in the suburbs. [Gunfire]
“The V-C [Viet Cong] were difficult to dislodge. They obviously knew the section well and had built barricades in key spots. The Rangers and Marines took casualties, [Gunfire] mostly from hidden snipers. As soon as a section had been cleared, more terror-stricken civilians scurried out of their homes, thousands of them fleeing from the bullets and explosives, and, even more dangerous, a fire that began to rage out of control.
“Residents in nearby buildings began dragging their most precious possessions out of their shops and homes. Saigon’s water supply system is operating only at seventy percent of normal, so fires are a serious menace.
“For these people, many of whom had fled the war from outlying villages, this is the cruelest blow. The curfew has kept them from making a living. Food prices have tripled since the fighting began a week ago. And now, their homes are being destroyed.”
Thousands of people were killed in the Tet Offensive. The communists suffered heavier losses than the South Vietnamese or the Americans. But many Americans were surprised that the communists could launch such a major attack against South Vietnam. For several years, they had been told that communist forces were small and losing badly. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. military operations in Viet Nam, spoke with reporter George Syvertsen:
GEORGE SYVERTSEN: “General, how would you assess yesterday’s activities and today’s? What is the enemy doing? Are these major attacks or…” [explosion]
WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: “The enemy, very deceitfully, has taken advantage of the Tet truce, in order to create maximum consternation within South Viet Nam, particularly in the populated areas. Now, yesterday, the enemy exposed himself by virtue of this strategy, and he suffered great casualties.”
As a result of the offensive, popular support for the administration fell even more.
Democrats who opposed President Johnson seized this chance. Several ran against him for the party's nomination in nineteen sixty-eight. These included Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy and McCarthy did well in the early primary elections. Johnson did poorly.
At the end of March nineteen sixty-eight, the president spoke to the American people. He discussed his proposal to end American bombing of North Vietnam. He talked about his appointment of a special ambassador to start peace negotiations. And he announced his decision about his own future:
LYNDON JOHNSON: "I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office -- the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Another major issue facing America in the nineteen-sixties was the civil rights movement, which sought to ensure equal rights for black Americans. That will be our story next week.
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
Contributing: Jerilyn Watson
This was program #213. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.