16 February 2011


LBJ. Vietnam veterans may associate those initials with the notorious Long Binh Jail, where (according to the military grapevine) prisoners were treated brutally. Most Americans of a certain age, however, associate the initials with Lyndon Baines Johnson (at center in photo above), who served as the 36th President of the United States from November 1963 (replacing the assassinated John F. Kennedy) until January 1969. Prior to becoming Kennedy's Vice President, Johnson has served as both a Representative and as a Senator from Texas, and was known as a hard-driving deal maker and a man of ideals.

Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which made it illegal to discriminate against or disenfranchise any citizen based on race or color. During those years the Civil Rights Movement was at its most active (along with the antiwar movement and the women's rights movement, and racial unrest was rampant, especially among the black community. White resistance and repression were also stubborn, and it took a man of Johnson's stature and legislative/executive acumen to overcome resistance to reform.

Further, as President he "designed Great Society legislation that included laws that upheld civil rights, Public Broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education, and his War on Poverty." Lyndon Johnson might enjoy a reputation as one of America's greatest presidents, except for one fatal foreign policy blunder -- his acquiescence to the advice of military and national security advisors to greatly escalate direct American involvement in the Vietnam War. Even though Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy before him had laid the groundwork for an American military presence in Southeast Asia, following the withdrawal of the colonial French, it was under Johnson's watch that the war became the focus of violent polarization, widespread riots and antiwar protests in the U.S., and increasing suspicion toward the government, both at home and abroad. Ultimately it was the quagmire of war which forced Johnson to declare in March 1968 that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

I myself had arrived in Vietnam a few weeks before his shocking announcement. At the time, like many, I equated the war with Johnson, and knew little about his achievements in civil rights, education, or combatting poverty. In the years since, my opinion of Johnson has altered. He was a driven man, a man of high principals and a domineering personality, a man who in the end was torn and tortured mercilessly by the irony of the war becoming his legacy.

In 2002 an excellent biographical television film was shown on HBO -- Path to War. It features a stellar cast of fine character actors, with Michael Gambon riveting in the role of LBJ. The film spans his entire presidency, and is filled with the names and personalities which anyone who lived during those times remembers -- Johnson, Clark Clifford, Robert McNamera, George Ball, Richard Goodwin, Earle Wheeler, Dean Rusk, Everett Dirkson, George Wallace, William Westmoreland, McGeorge Bundy, Bill Moyers, Walt Rostow, Nicholas Katzenbach, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., among them. As I watched, initially I wasn't sure whether the movie would hold my attention, but before long I could not look away. The harrowing conflicts, the triumphs or failures of principle and imagination, are captured well and truly. Not many of those involved emerged without blood on their hands. It is a cautionary tale for any president or any citizen who contemplates entering into war -- right up to the present.

MLK. Speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr. (see image below), one of my favorite bloggers, The Angry Black Woman, posted in January a quote from King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. King's thoughts are so relevant to today that I'd like to offer them here.

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for 'a more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

As TABW asked, is it a more convenient season yet?

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