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LBJ Imposed His Bloody, Grand Illusion on a Nation That Had No Use for It BY EYAL PRESS PAY ANY PRICE Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. By Lloyd C. Gardner. Ivan R. Dee, 1995. 610 pages. $35.00. IN CONRAD’S Heart of Darkness, the narrator Marlow observes of the European adventure in Africa: “What re deems it is the idea at the back of it: not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the ideasomething you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” There was, Rutgers University professor of history Lloyd Gardner observes in his excellent new book, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam, something Lyndon Johnson needed to believe in and sacrifice to in order to commit himself to the war in Vietnam. Cynical and conniving though he was, Johnson fancied himself a disciple of Franklin Rooseveltnot Metternichand therefore felt the need to justify Vietnam as an exercise in “good government” and benevolencenot power politics. “At the crucial moment of decision in Southeast Asia,” says Gardner, Johnson recalled his beginnings in the Depression and the glory days of the New Deal, when for the first time the South and West were offered a roughly equal role in the nation’s economic development. If the North Vietnamese ceased their aggression, Johnson promised… they would find the United States eager to help them overcome ‘the bondage of material misery.’ The “idea,” in other words, was to defeat communism by making Vietnam prosper through the methods that had helped lift the American South. Forget that Vietnam was seething with revolutionary anti-colonialist ferment, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone. By fashioning Vietnam as “the Texas of yesterday”a neglected, un Eyal Press is a freelance writer based in New York. derdeveloped agrarian region fit not for revolution but for New Deal-style programs such as dams, rural electrification, schools, health and welfare programs Johnson could convince himself that the war was not only endurable, but necessary and just. The origins of this grand illusion trace back to 1961. Embarking on his first trip to the country as an emissary of John F. Kennedy, Johnson met with his old friend from the New Deal days, Arthur Goldschmidt, then an economic specialist at the United Nations. Goldschmidt promptly un veiled plans for a project to finance a series of dams along the Mekong River. Johnson was impressed. Had not rural electrification and dams lifted the once-impoverished South to economic parity with the North? Had not Johnson personally “brought the lights” to the two hundred thousand ranchers and farmers of the Texas Hill Country? Vietnam deserved nothing less. “It’s a great thing,” he told Goldschmidt, “when people of such different cultures can get together on power.” Delivering a speech at Howard University shortly after his visit, Johnson expounded the faith: “Either the groups who live in misery and degradation pull down their fellow men to their level; or the more fortunate nations extend the helping hand of friendly cooperation that raises the standards of those in a lowly status.” By 1964, as the crucial decisions about bombings and troop deployments were being deliberated, Johnson was calling upon former Tennessee Valley Authority director David Lilienthal to take charge of a project whose goal was to bring rural electrification to the areas adjoining the Mekong River. “Dave,” he whispered, “give them some of that philosophy, that good TVA philosophy.” That “philosophy” was packaged as a global strategy by British economist Barbara Ward in The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations, a book that prescribed using welfare capitalism in the third world to convert “restive proletar ians into fine upstanding consumers,” and which Johnson admitted to reading “like the Bible.” He drew nourishment, as well, from the story of the frontier composed by hitorian Walter Prescott Webb, in which it was shown that “courage” belonged to those who stayed the course regardless of the odds. Vietnam, then, was not about vi olence and terror. It was about welfare and opportunity, ac complished the American way. As Johnson would say in 1965: The guns and bombs, the rock ets and warships, are all sym bols of human failure. They are witness to human folly. A dam built across a great river is im pressive…electrification of the countryside is impressive…a rich harvest in a hungry land is impressive…. These… are the achievements which the American na tion believes to be impressive. And if we are steadfast, the time may come when all other nations will also find it so. There were, of course, certain snags in the vision. America’s only political allies in Vietnam, for one, were not New Deal technocrats bristling with optimism and energy, but the most befouled of henchmen, whose idea of “good government” was to jail and murder the opposition. What Ho Chi Minh was trying to accomplish, moreoverto integrate North and South into a functional, prosperous unitwas precisely what Johnson was so proud of having achieved in America, yet exactly what U.S. policy strictly forbade. Finally, there was the fact that American bombers were obliterating, not developing, the countryside. GARDNER ILLUMINATES these contradictions with great care. He also shows that Johnson clung to the “idea” not because he was ignorant of these problems but because he knew. Even as he sat by the map and personally selected the bombing targets, he would rail at his advisers for their “bomb, bomb, bomb” There were moments when the illusion faded and the glass in the mirror cleared. One stunning note, scrawled during a meeting with his advisers, read: “MurdererHitler,” “Stop the War.” 18 NOVEMBER 10, 1995