If you haven’t seen (or heard) last week’s episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS called LBJ’s Path To War, it’s something special. The hour-long program consists almost entirely of excerpts from President Johnson’s recorded phone calls with advisors and congressional leaders. He’s talking to them about the Vietnam problem.
The first call is from November 1963, when Johnson had just taken office after JFK’s assassination. There were about 15,000 U.S. military advisors on the ground in South Vietnam. The last call we hear is from the end of 1965, when the build-up of combat forces had reached 184,000 and there was no end in sight.
It’s eerie to listen as Johnson struggles to find a military strategy for Indochina that’s politically acceptable back home. Several times you hear him fantasizing about a stronger and more legitimate government in Saigon, one that could provide an honorable exit by inviting U.S. troops to leave its soil. But as we all know, he never found a peace partner there — only corruption and infighting. As Johnson slid deeper into war, he described himself as a victim trapped by events. There’s no hint he ever saw himself as a leader who could shape history. But that’s what he did.
Eavesdropping on the commander-in-chief from our time now — and knowing how the catastrophe that Vietnam became destroyed his presidency and cost maybe a million lives, including 56,000 Americans — is almost unbearably frustrating. Like Marty McFly in Back To The Future, you want to yell, “No, don’t do that.”
Bill Moyers, who was working for LBJ in the White House during those years, closes the program with thoughts about Afghanistan. Although the world is different, he says, we’re once again “fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.”
Afghanistan ranked 179 out of 180 on the 2009 Corruption Perception Index, and 7th worst on Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index. So the idea of finding a stable and legitmate partner in any government there is another fantasy. That leaves today’s commander-in-chief with the same two military options Johnson himself said he had: Go all the way in or get all the way out. Johnson did neither.
“We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war,” Moyers says. “We know what happened because he said yes.”