LBJ, Vietnam, and the Great Society

Francis Bator argues that LBJ got us into Vietnam, and lied about it, because he thought the other choices meant losing the Great Society to the conservative coalition in the Senate.

For those of us who cut our political teeth on the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election, and who still admire LBJ as, with Martin Luther King, one of the two key figures in the Second Reconstruction, Johnson’s behavior around Vietnam is a puzzle, as hard to fathom as the German Social Democrats’ vote for the war credit in 1914. Surely he must have known that he couldn’t run a war and a social revolution at the same time. And surely he wasn’t dumb enough (unlike one of his successors) either to believe his own lies or think they wouldn’t come back to haunt him politically.

Francis Bator, who taught me economics at the Kennedy School, had been LBJ’s Deputy National Security Adviser. He has now turned his attention to history, and produced a fascinating short document called No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection. (Click through for a .pdf.)

The argument is detailed, nuanced, and heavily footnoted, but here are the two money quotes:

The war deprived the Great Society reforms of some executive energy and money. But Johnson believed—and he knew how to count votes—that had he backed away in Vietnam in 1965, there would have been no Great Society to deprive. It would have been stillborn in Congress.


I believe there was nothing that LBJ cared more about in July 1965 than completing and extending the old Roosevelt program that had stalled in 1938. With forty extra northern congressional seats in 1964, he thought he had a two-year window of opportunity. His proposals for voting rights and Medicare were headed for conference. Much of the Great Society legislation—on education, poverty, cities, the environment, and the rest—had either only just started wending its way through the Congress or was still on the drawing board. Johnson knew how to count votes. He knew that an honest discussion of the Westmoreland plan would provoke a coalition of budget balancers and small-government Republicans, who balked at the high cost of guns and butter, and Deep South senators, who were determined to block civil rights legislation. They would need only 34 votes out of 100 to block cloture—20 Deep South senators plus 14 conservative Republicans. (Mike Mansfield, LBJ’s successor as majority leader, refused

on principle to resort to what he called rough tactics to beat down filibusters.)

And so—to avoid a Vietnam versus Great Society debate that might destroy his social and civil rights legislation—Johnson (shutting Bundy up) signed off on Westmoreland’s minimum numbers, but sidled into war with minimum fuss: no prime-time speech, no new resolution, no call-up of reserves, no tax increase, no drumming up of support. Announce at noon: “No change in policy.”

Footnote Once again, Eisenhower is the villain of the piece. No wonder Churchill strongly preferred Stevenson in ’52 and thought Ike’s election was a major disaster.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: