How Obama Misunderstands LBJ’s Vietnam History

Getty Images

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on prime-time television to tell the nation that he was sending 50,000 additional American troops to Vietnam. He recited, in his Texas drawl, the geopolitical reasons that had led the United States to deepen its commitment to Vietnam over the preceding 15 years. “Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian Communism,” Johnson intoned. “Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield.”

Historians cite July 28, 1965, as the day when the United States committed its forces to the ground war in South Vietnam. A few days before the speech, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had told the president, “This is a major change in U.S. policy. We have relied on South Vietnam to carry the brunt. Now we would be responsible for a satisfactory military outcome.”

Johnson could have used his July 28 speech to sell the new policy to the American people, but he chose instead to dissemble. When a reporter asked whether the new troop deployment implied a change in America’s policy, Johnson replied that it “does not imply any change in policy whatever.”

The events of 1965 should interest Americans for more than antiquarian reasons. America’s current president, overseer of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and several lesser conflicts, mirrors Lyndon Johnson as a wartime leader in several key respects. Both men entered office with ambitious domestic agendas and obfuscated their wars to prevent war fever from undermining legislative initiatives and presidential approval ratings. Both upped the troop ante while harboring deep doubts that the troops would achieve strategic success.

Some of these similarities stem from Obama’s deliberate attempts to learn from Johnson. Shortly after taking office, Obama read the book Lessons in Disaster, in which Gordon M. Goldstein contended that Johnson had too readily accepted the military’s advice on Vietnam. Resolving to avoid Johnson’s perceived errors, Obama became one of the presidents least inclined to heed his generals. While trying to avoid Johnson’s path, Obama actually ended up treading it, for in fact, contrary to Goldstein’s ill-substantiated account, Johnson disregarded his generals as systematically as Obama had.

Johnson repeatedly rejected sound strategic recommendations from the top brass, such as the insertion of troops into the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He preferred the counsel of McNamara and other civilian advisers, who believed that their Ivy League smarts counted for more than a general’s three decades of experience. Obama has similarly run aground by ignoring the military’s recommendations on such issues as troop withdrawals in Iraq and counterinsurgency in Yemen. Both presidents caused military morale to sink by eschewing sound strategic options and basing military decisions on political self-interest rather than the national interest.

Both Johnson’s war and Obama’s wars enjoyed greater support from conservatives than from the president’s liberal base. Conservatives were more worried than liberals about the falling of Asian dominoes in 1965, just as they have been more concerned with radical Islam, Iran, Russia, and other foreign threats on Obama’s watch. Decades elapsed before historians unearthed information showing that Johnson’s war likely saved the most critical domino, Indonesia. No doubt it will take historians decades to find critical facts pertaining to today’s threats, a reality that demands much caution in drawing conclusions from recent history.

Given the gaps and uncertainties in the historical record, one is tempted to write off history as a source of inspiration for current policies. But the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s fateful announcement also reminds us that the only thing worse than using the past in making present decisions is not using the past in making present decisions. During 1964, Johnson’s civilian advisers recommended policies based on “rational choice” academic theories, popularized at the time by economist Thomas Schelling, which predicted the behavior of adversaries based purely on abstract simulations in which rationality guided all decisions. By employing Schelling’s ahistorical methods, administration officials concluded that the United States could prevent North Vietnam from escalating the war through small doses of force, which would signal American resolve to the enemy. The North Vietnamese, however, interpreted the small scale of American actions as evidence of American weakness and escalated the war at the end of 1964, a decision that forced Johnson to send in American ground troops.

Another alternative would be to ignore recent history, of which our knowledge is especially limited, and instead rely on the distant past. Some academic historians are favorably inclined towards this view. But ivory-tower remonstrations can have no impact in the halls of power, where chiefs of state invariably include recent history in their strategic calculations. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the neutralization of Laos in 1962 shaped Johnson’s thinking on Vietnam. Obama’s own intervention in Libya and withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 influenced his second-term decisions on Syria and Afghanistan. Those who would avert their eyes from the incomplete picture of the present will leave unscrupulous presidential advisers and pundits to determine the lessons of recent events.

History is the inevitable, and only valid, guide to foreign policy. But the guide can easily be misinterpreted or misused, as innumerable foreign-policy mistakes attest. A nation must therefore study its own history with care and sobriety, and shield historical inquiry from the pressures of politicians and academics who would use it to their own ends. A nation’s government must empower strategists who can discern what should and should not be learned from history, and put the advice of the strategists ahead of partisan politics. Those are the lessons that today’s leaders should be learning from Lyndon Johnson.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More