BJ’s body betrayed him at moments of crisis. On election nights he could be wracked by debilitating bouts of depression. When hard political decisions loomed, his internal organs acted up in life-threatening ways; problems with his heart, gall bladder, and kidneys, and fears about his pancreas, seemed timed with intensifying public debate and private anxiety. In response to these many ailments, the ever-practical Lady Bird kept a black dress in her closet in case her husband keeled over. He wanted to know exactly what those odds were, biographer Robert Dalleck reports in Flawed Giant (1996), so in 1967 he commissioned a secret actuarial study of his life expectancy. Convinced that his genes would cloud his prospects of living out a second term, a brooding Johnson noted that the “American people [have] had enough of Presidents dying in office.”
Even when in recovery, he was dogged by rumors of persistent illness. Following a gall bladder operation in late 1965, during which doctors also removed a kidney stone, the president recuperated amid stories that he had actually been treated for cardiac arrest. To halt rampant media speculation, a frustrated Johnson yanked up his shirt in a press conference, and pointed to the angry red scar that cut across his abdomen; the presidential torso was to testify that he was on the mend and a man of his word.
Political cartoonist David Levine inscribed another set of meanings on the exposed flesh of the American Commander-in-Chief. With deft, scalpel-like strokes of his pen, he transformed the surgical incision into a map of the country that he perceived to be the real cause of LBJ’s troubles: Vietnam. Levine’s one-panel illustration, which ran in the May 12, 1966 issue of the New York Review of Books, brilliantly suggested the fraught link between place and personality: The large, flaccid, and morose man, with enlarged ears and elongated nose, seems to collapse in on himself. So the Texan often felt. Press Secretary Bill Moyers recalled a moment when an abject Johnson, sunk well beneath the bed covers, moaned that the war in Southeast Asia was like a Louisiana swamp “that’s pulling me down.”
That he felt out of his depth is everywhere evident in Reaching for Glory, the second of Michael Beschloss’s projected three-volume series of the president’s secret tapes. Johnson confided to Hubert Humphrey that he did not have the personality to be the nation’s head warrior; the studied casualness of his November 1964 aside to Robert Kennedy–”if you get any solution to Vietnam, just call me direct, will you?”–suggested just how serious were his concerns about that distant struggle. Its increasing power to unsettle his waking (and sleeping) hours emerged three months later in the aftermath of the Vietcong’s surprise attack on Pleiku. The president’s blood pressure spiked dangerously, and Lady Bird, whose voice throughout the book functions as a Greek chorus articulating the heightened interior drama, sets the enduring context for his health woes:
In the night [of February 7, 1965], we were waiting to hear how the [counter] attack had gone. It came at one o’clock, and two o’clock, and three, and again at five–the ring of the phone, the quick reach for it, and tense, quiet talk…it was a tense and shadowed day, but we will probably have to learn to live in the middle of it–not for hours or days, but years.
Overwhelmed by events in Vietnam, Johnson would confess later that month to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that he doubted we would be victorious: “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.” But that did not mean that we had little responsibility for its prosecution. After all, our actions there were perfectly consistent with long-standing doctrines governing our foreign policy since the advent of the Cold War. It was for this reason that Johnson was forever ringing up former Presidents Truman and Eisen-hower seeking their advice, currying their favor, and soliciting their sanction for his decisions to expand our involvement. They complied for the same reason he importuned: to sustain their precedents and to cover their reputations.
With that, Vietnam became an examination that no post-war president must fail, and each cribbed from the others what he believed was the only correct response–escalation. Truman and Eisenhower had poured ever-larger sums of money into Southeast Asia to prop up the fading French Empire. Kennedy beefed up our financial investment in the tottering puppet government of South Vietnam, and then sent a bevy of advisors to train the South Vietnamese army, and the Green Berets to run special operations; by his death in November 1963, our armed forces numbered upwards of 20,000. Johnson followed suit, and in early 1965 signed off on a new campaign dubbed “Rolling Thunder.” This plan for the sustained bombing of North Vietnamese military targets by U.S. jets stationed at Danang and elsewhere not only widened our strategic ambitions, but ratcheted up our presence on the ground. To defend these air bases required more troops on their perimeters; to protect those entrenched forces–whom the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army quickly targeted–demanded that hundreds of thousands more fight to secure the embattled countryside. LBJ recognized in advance the consequences of each step he would take. As he admitted to his mentor, Senator Richard Russell, whom he called upon to support “Rolling Thunder,” once the Marines landed at Danang, “They’re going to get them in a fight. Just sure as hell. They’re not going to run. Then you’re tied down.”
Johnson’s use of the passive voice signaled his refusal to acknowledge that he had any choice in the matter. Yet despite his inner angst (“I can’t get out,” he told Lady Bird, “and I can’t finish it with what I have got. And I don’t know what the hell to do!”), the war for him was also a very public, ritualized test of manhood. To this challenge he knew how to respond: Asked at a White House meeting why the United States was in Vietnam, U.N. Secretary Arthur Goldberg remembered that “he unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ, and declared, ‘this is why!'”
With equal masculine bravado, the president disdained those who challenged his actions in Vietnam; for him, doves were men who had to squat to pee. He would discover their potency soon enough. In early February 1965, for instance, Johnson cavalierly dismissed Senator George McGovern’s early misgivings about Vietnam because he believed he was merely mouthing the ideas of another misguided senator, Idaho’s Frank Church; neither should be taken seriously, he told McGeorge Bundy, because “neither one of them really fought in many wars.” How apt that the peacenik McGovern (a much-decorated World War II aviator), Senator Eugene McCarthy (who also served in intelligence during the war), and Church (also in Army intelligence), drove Johnson out of the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.
This political trajectory is only glimpsed in Reaching for Glory, which concludes in late August 1965, but its foreshadowing adds to the volume’s tragic feel. So do the disturbing hints that the mounting expenses associated with the Vietnamese conflict were draining the treasury, and would force the administration to raise taxes and to pull funding from Johnson’s innovative array of social programs for the elderly and minorities. Martin Luther King’s July 2, 1965 assertion that he and other civil rights leaders must “not…sit by and see war escalated without saying anything about it” hurt Johnson, who believed he was simultaneously promoting the spread of democracy in Southeast Asia and the American South. Yet the President was already predicting, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin, that when Congress erupted “into a major debate on the war, that day would be the beginning of the end of the Great Society.”
Against this backdrop of increasing economic pain and social dislocation, of riotous American cities and burning Vietnamese hamlets, Johnson aged rapidly. So much so that in mid-July Lady Bird slipped on the “black silk dress” she had purchased several months earlier but had “never yet worn,” an act which brought to the fore what had been “in the back of my mind when I bought it, the grim, unacknowledged thought that I might need [it] for a funeral.” She gained rare reprieve from these macabre worries when she visited their Texas ranch or Camp David, settings in which she also hoped her husband might reclaim a measure of well- being that eluded him in Washington, a “city of troubles.” One May weekend, shortly after their chopper touched down at the Maryland retreat, the First Family “charged up to the bowling alley,” Lady Bird recorded in her diary. “It’s the funniest thing to watch Lyndon when he gets a strike. He turns around and looks at everybody and all but takes a bow.”
Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches U.S. history at Trinity University and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Island Press) and editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (University of Pittsburgh Press).