Wednesday night, Aug. 9, 2016, PBS American Experience re-aired “LBJ”, a four-hour, two-part film by David Grubin, narrated by David McCollough. Here’s the official link.
I remember election day in 1964, cool and rainy, lots of fallen leaves around. My father said, “Npbody can beat LBJ.” He voted for Goldwater (despite the commercial with the little girl in front of the hydrogen bomb). I was 21 then. I think I voted for LBJ and went along with the crowd.
On February 8, 1968, I would take the oath and enter the Army, with basic at Fort Jackson, SC., shortly after the Tet offensive, which up-ended Lyndon Johnson’s previous “optimism” about prevailing in Vietnam.
The first episode covers his work in the civil rights movement as senator, and continues with the Kennedy assassination and his “accidental” presidency and his desire to prove himself in 1964. It seems that he manipulated the Gulf of Tonkin (or USS Maddox) to decrease the perception he could be soft of communism with Goldwater as opponent.
As covered in McNamara’s book “In Retrospect”, LBJ’s involvement in Vietnam seems insidious, but actually it escalated very quickly in 1965, after the election.
Johnson feared that the War would divert Congress away from the War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives. He signed Medicare into law in July 1965, just two days after a critical wigwam on Vietnam (I was working my first summer at the Navy David Taylor Model Basin at the time). John felt that America was affluent enough to be able to share wealth with the poor easily. Johnson also thought that US technology would prevail easily in Vietnam, as he did not understand guerrilla warfare led by a dictator (Ho Chi Minh) who could mobilize poor people who had little to lose into self-sacrifice.
By 1966, Johnson had to deal with a “different kind of folk” among inner city blacks in northern cities, who seemed much more combative and who, according to the documentary, wanted “black power”. The film covers the 1965 Selma march rather summarily.
Demonstrations against the War (and the draft) started to accelerate in 1966 and 1967. The documentary did not cover the deferment controversy as well as it might have.
Johnson's last days at his ranch the Texas Hill Country were sad, as he tried to run the ranch like it was a country. He depended on nitroglycerin tablets, spoke for the last time in 1972 and died of cardiac arrest four days before the Vietnam peace treaty was announced in January 1973.