I spent a lot of time on my back this week due to a freak dog-washing injury. But I’m a silver-lining kind of guy, so instead of writing about the stabbing pain I’m writing about the fact that I got to catch up — a bit — on a few unread issues of the New York Review of Books, which always seems to give me so much to think about.
From the September 27 issue, I enjoyed Christopher Jencks’s review of Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency, a book we also discussed on this blog a few months back, and also Janet Malcolm’s article “Pandora’s Click,” an uncharacteristically brief review that provides a timely reminder about the perils of e-mail and that medium’s own special contribution to our incivility. I also finally got around to reading the piece Jim Walsh recommended in the October 11 issue, Bill McKibben’s review of four books on climate change. But what really held my attention in the October 11 issue was this fascinating excerpt from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s journals of 1966 and 1967.
It’s called “The Turning Point,” and it’s all about LBJ’s fateful decision to escalate rather than withdraw from Vietnam. It’s difficult to find representative excerpts because the main point is that the LBJ presidency was on a steep downhill slide during this period. But here’s one from July 28, 1966:
[LBJ] would seem to have turned a corner toward the systematic enlargement of the war. Why? I cannot resist the feeling that domestic politics — his precipitous decline in the public opinion polls — constitute a major factor. . . .
In any case, whatever the motive, LBJ now seems to have committed himself to pressing the war a l’outrance. He seems to have accepted the Rusk argument that this is Munich all over again, that the issue is democratic resistance to Chinese aggression, and that, if we don’t hold the line in Vietnam, we are condemned to “wars of national liberation” all through the underdeveloped world. . . .
I suppose that the illusion of a military victory lies behind LBJ’s decision to widen the war – this, plus the feeling that widening the war will enable him to pursue the domestic strategy of rallying the country around the flag.
And from April 27, 1967, a few days after Schlesinger — Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. — concluded that he “saw no choice but to vote Republican in 1968”:
We are reaching some sort of crisis on Vietnam. LBJ has evidently decided on a quick and brutal escalation of the war. . . . [H]is clear intention now is to bomb North Vietnam until Hanoi is prepared to sue for peace on terms which will meet Rusk’s idea of a satisfactory settlement. More than that, the administration is apparently determined to advance the proposition that dissent is unpatriotic, and has brought General Westmoreland back for this purpose.
The irony is that all of us for years have been defending the presidential prerogative and regarding the Congress as a drag on policy. It is evident now that this delight in a strong presidency was based on the fact that, up to now, all strong presidnts in American history have pursued poliices of which one has approved. We are now confronted by the anomaly of a strong president using these arguments to pursue a course which, so far as I can see, can lead only to disaster. It is not hard to assert a congressional role; but, given the structure of the American system, it is very hard to see how the Congress can restrain the presidential drive toward the enlargement of the war. Voting against military appropriations is both humanly and politically self-defeating. The only hope is to organize a broad political movement; and even this cannot take effect until, at the very earliest, the 1968 primaries, which may be to late.
I find this fascinating purely as history; that is, even if there were no war in Iraq inviting comparisons to Vietnam, there is something chilling about reading a contemporary account of someone who saw the train wreck happening but couldn’t stop it. And I find it particularly arresting when Schlesinger describes conversations with people who didn’t guess what was around the corner for them, like LBJ, Humphrey, and of course RFK. It’s like sitting in a horror show and watching the babysitter walk toward the window where you know the murderer is lurking. Throw in all the parallels with today’s policy debates — Munich, patriotic dissent, rallying ’round the flag, and the proper scope of executive power — and you’ll want to read it all for yourself. If you’re not a subscriber, it’ll cost you three bucks. But this might be a great time to subscribe.