In a Feb. 3, 1964 conversation with newspaper publisher John Knight, Lyndon Johnson—then a mere two months into his presidency—laid out the stark choice he saw before him in Vietnam. “I opposed it in ’54,” Johnson said, “but we’re there now, and there’s only one of three things that we can do. One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. … You can run or you can fight, as we are doing, or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it.”
Those same three choices—fight, withdraw or neutralize South Vietnam and leave it for a communist takeover—appear in a flood of memos, briefings and telegraphs that Johnson began receiving within hours of taking office. Even as Johnson began to meet the requests of his military and national security advisers for more bombs, and, eventually, for more troops on the ground, the recorded phone conversations in which he sought counsel far and wide are a window to a president far from the warmongering cowboy depicted by the protesters outside the White House—one who agonized over the decision to send Americans off to die. In one particularly frank May 1964 exchange with National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Johnson laments, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out, and it’s just the biggest damned mess I ever saw. … What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country?”
One White House memo from this period dismissively echoes Johnson’s concerns. “We could get out on the grounds that we don’t belong there,” it says. “Not very many people feel this way about Vietnam. Most people feel that our national honor is at stake and that we must keep our commitments there.”
It is tempting to draw parallels between the dilemma faced by Johnson and the dilemma over the escalation of the War is Afghanistan faced by President Barack Obama today—in a real way, Obama is faced with the same three choices, in what some have called a “dismal process of elimination.” The comparison is an inexact one: there are some aspects of the conflicts that could not be more different. But in other ways, the escalation of the War in Afghanistan is frighteningly similar. At the very least, Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has the potential to suck energy and resources away from a progressive president who enjoys an electoral mandate and huge congressional majorities.
In at least one way, though, Obama’s and Johnson’s paths to war couldn’t be more different. Once Johnson committed himself to escalation, he took every step in secret—a world away from Obama’s public months of deliberation last fall. Johnson’s deployment of ground troops began in March 1965 with 3,500 soldiers sent to secure American air bases in Vietnam. When Johnson gave clearance in April 1965 for the deployment of an additional 40,000 troops, and cleared them to conduct sweeps of the countryside, rather than merely defend air bases, he expressly ordered that the press, and the public, be kept in the dark. The historian Robert Caro has called April 1965, “a month of secrets—secrets and lies.” Five days after the 40,000 troop increase decision had been approved by the president, Bundy sent a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, laying out what came to be delicately termed the Johnson Administration’s “policy of minimal candor.”
“The President continues to believe it is very unhelpful to have detailed accounts of the size and strength of air operations against North Vietnam,” Bundy wrote, “and does not understand why it is not possible to avoid giving out accurate information on numbers of aircraft and the weight of bombs dropped.”
The troop increase wasn’t announced publicly for more than two months, and when the announcement did come, it wasn’t in the form of a White House press conference, but in an announcement by state department spokesman Robert J. McCloskey at a routine, normally news-less noon press briefing. Johnson was furious about McCloskey’s “leak,” telling MacNamara that McCloskey would be “giving his future briefings somewhere in Africa.” The New York Times reacted to the news, and the unusual setting of its delivery, with an editorial announcing that, “The American people were told by a minor state department official yesterday that, in effect, they are in a ground war on the continent of Asia,” and columnist I.F. Stone commented on what he called the “peculiar division of labor in Washington” in a column titled “Lyndon Johnson Lets the Office Boy Declare War.”
If Obama’s decisions about troop increases to Afghanistan have been anything, they have been in full public view, subject to the full scope of criticism and mockery that Johnson so strove to avoid. The comparisons drawn between the two wars may be inexact, but the lessons are still there, along with the echoes of a president who tried earnestly to balance the human cost of action against the human cost of inaction, and miscalculated horribly.