When a liberal president goes to war: Lessons of the LBJ era are relevant today

We drove LBJ from office — and got 50 years of dreadful Republican policy. Those who don't learn from history ...

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 19, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Lyndon B Johnson and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Lyndon B Johnson and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?
Antiwar chant, circa 1967

I was among the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of young people who chanted those words as the horror of the Vietnam War dragged on despite rapidly growing opposition in 1967. I was morally outraged at the slaughter of innocent children in my name, and particularly by the unforgivable decisions of a president who had shown such sober, even bold and inspiring leadership in the past — in passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, as prime examples.

I've never wavered in my belief that calling out Lyndon Johnson that way was the right thing to do. Yet it ultimately led to LBJ  abandoning his re-election bid in 1968, and thus to the election of Richard Nixon (aided by some seditious conspiracy) and 50-plus years of mostly horrible foreign and domestic policy — starting with Nixon prolonging, worsening and expanding the same horrific slaughter of innocents I had been protesting.

I can honestly say that there's no comparison: LBJ was far and away the best U.S. president of my lifetime. His policy record — on civil rights, social programs (Medicare, Medicaid), environmental protection (even environmental justice. via his wife), consumer protection, you name it — towers over everyone else, and over the entire half-century. Without it, we'd be a nation so backward that even present-day Mississippi might look like a beacon of hope.

What’s more, we now know two fundamental things about the Vietnam War: First, that Johnson felt tormented and dragged into it, as tapes released decades ago make clear and, second, that he was not alone: The entire political class was complicit in leading the U.S. into a futile and disastrous war — something that should have been avoidable after the dire military misadventure of Korea. Historian Robert Mann, a former Senate staffer and author of “A Grand Delusion,” an invaluable Senate-centric history of the Vietnam War, summarized it in an email:

The tragedy of Vietnam was individual and collective. I don't want to downplay the horror of the individual atrocities committed by rogue soldiers or underestimate the corrupt and reckless decisions made in the White House, Pentagon or State Department. But I've always believed that the Vietnam War was a catastrophic, collective decision that didn't involve the public in any meaningful way.

If Johnson had been honest with the public and had Congress fulfilled its constitutional duties, the calamity might have been prevented.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 was “the original sin,” Mann said. But hardly the only one:

Throughout the 1960s, Congress — most of its members understanding little about Vietnam and our reasons for fighting — supported the American policy, fearing political retribution if they did not. But the leaders knew. Most leaders of both parties in Congress understood our involvement's futile and reckless nature but did too little to stop our headlong rush into Southeast Asia. Johnson bears the lion's share of the blame, for sure, but it wouldn't have happened without the help and/or abdication of every other military, political and diplomatic institution.

So what does all this mean, when we look at Joe Biden today? How should today's left, and the broader progressive movement, respond to his military support for Israel? We can protest it vigorously, sure — but how? Do we drive him from office and end up with Donald Trump? Echoing what happened with Johnson and Nixon — but honestly far worse, given what experts on authoritarianism tell us — doesn’t seem like a sound strategy to me. It doesn’t sound like a strategy at all, and it would leave all the other enablers in place, some even stronger than ever.

How should today's left, and the broader progressive movement, respond to Joe Biden's military support for Israel? We can protest it vigorously, sure — but how? Do we drive him from office and end up with Donald Trump?

Of course, if you’re as horrified and angry with Biden as I was with LBJ, you might not listen — and I’d understand. I couldn’t vote yet in 1968, but I would have voted for the Peace and Freedom Party, created the previous year to give voice to people like me. (It ran two candidates for president, curiously enough: comedian Dick Gregory in some states, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in others.) Although I supported Rep. Shirley Chisholm in the Democratic primaries four years later — when she became the first Black woman to run for president — and campaigned with a friend who went to Miami as a Chisholm delegate, I remained primarily identified with Peace and Freedom until I volunteered with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic campaign. So I probably wouldn’t have listened to me, either. But I genuinely wish there had been an older me around, at least to make this argument and push younger-me to think more systemically and more long-term.

It's not that my 1967-'68 experience should count for anything special. The world has changed, America has changed, the left has changed — all of them dramatically since the chants I joined in helped drive LBJ from office. To take that experience in such a different context as a beacon of eternal truth would be foolish. But so would ignoring it entirely. It's an experience that should be considered as part of the framework for making a better way forward. I believe that the possibilities for the left today — particularly here in America — are far greater than they were for us in back in the late '60s, and we should be far more ambitious in fighting for systemic change. 

For one thing, we have far more mass support from young voters in particular, across a broad range of issues — on inequality,  climate, abortion, guns and LGBTQ rights, substantial majorities support progressive positions and are potentially receptive to systemic left arguments. The connections that have produced broad support for a Gaza ceasefire and for Palestinian rights more fundamentally are evidence of how many people are able to understand networked and intersecting issues. In contrast to where we stand today, consider the implausible but true fact Nixon won a majority of younger voters in 1968. The future, in terms of potential mass politics, is far brighter today, in contrast to the threatening darkness we see close at hand. 

There’s also an immediate threat to that: The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC plans to spend $100 million in Democratic primaries next year, with the principal aim of ousting progressive incumbents. This comes at a time when polling suggests that 80% of Democratic voters — and, for that matter, 57% of Republicans — support a ceasefire in the Gaza war. Defending folks like Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania is vital for leftists and progressives, whatever strategic, tactical or ideological choice you might make about Joe Biden. Building solidarity by uniting to defend those people and other progressive legislators is a good start toward building a strategy that resonates with the majority of Americans who already agree with us on a broad range of front-line issues.  

Defending progressive legislators against the pro-Israel lobby is a vital cause for the left, no matter what strategic, tactical or ideological choice you might make about Joe Biden.

We also don’t have to limit ourselves to playing defense. Run for Something has been doing a great job of promoting progressive candidates from the bottom up, and their model provides a path for going on offense as well. It can be quite liberating to realize that presidential politics doesn’t have to dominate your life. You can choose where to put your time, energy and resources, can give presidential politics no more than a few minutes of effort on Election Day — and can still work effectively to save America from Trump. If you find my larger argument persuasive, that is. And even if you don’t, we’ll be a lot closer to building the kind of political power that can actually change things over the long term. 

Big picture: getting rid of leaders to get rid of wars doesn’t have a great track record. Consider the example of Barack Obama following George W. Bush. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with any sort of leftist systemic analysis. Systems are the problem; politicians are symptoms of that system, at best. If anything, changing leaders can relieve the pressure to end the war. That’s what happened with Nixon, and again with Obama.

I’m not saying we should give Biden a pass — far from it. He needs to be pressured on his deeply misguided decision, as does every other facet of the Democratic establishment. But to do what, and toward what end? And as part of what larger systemic project?

To get a handle on that, consider Biden's speech that sought to combine support for Ukraine and support for Israel in a single overarching pro-democracy framework. It won wide approval from the liberal media, particularly in contrast to the chaos in the GOP-led House. But the view from the Democratic base — particularly among younger voters — as well as from around the world, was markedly different. 

Notwithstanding Beltway conventional wisdom, neither Israel itself nor America's support for Israel has much to do with defending democracy or the "rule of law." Neither country’s democracy is doing so well just now, as even a cursory glance at the headlines will tell you. It's even worse when we come to the rule of law. Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements and its broader apartheid system, recognized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even a former head of Mossad, clearly put it outside the rule of international law. And the U.S. has issued 34 Security Council vetoes to protect Israel as that nation has grown increasingly lawless, making our sanctimonious our claims about the rule of law ring equally hollow. Insisting otherwise only serves to sow deep cynicism toward the very value system we are supposedly trying to uphold. It's actively helping Putin and Xi Jinping — and, closer to home, Donald Trump too.

What Biden should be doing in this moment is incredibly difficult, as well as unlikely: He should break with decades of false pieties. But it should also be clear, if only we had a realistic understanding of the Cold War, and what the U.S. did right and wrong during those decades. Our post-World War II failure to respect a pluralistic, self-determined majority of new nations, in the spirit of our own Declaration of Independence, did incredible damage to our claims of moral superiority at the time, severely weakening the spread of democracy and planting the seeds for much of the chaos and right-wing authoritarian violence we see across the world today. 

The Vietnam War, in fact, offers a prime example. Ho Chi Minh had been reaching out to America, appealing to stated values of freedom and self-determination, since the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles in 1919, as Marilun Young lays out in her classic, “The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990.” So America's folly long predated the Cold War, but that era of superpower conflict supercharged it.  

We failed to respect the people of Iran and Guatemala, just to cite the first two CIA-backed coups of that era, and we're still living with the poisonous fruits of that betrayal. When I was a young teenager, my family hosted an Iranian foreign exchange student named Said, who gave me a visceral first-hand account of how the CIA’s overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh’s democratically-elected government — for the sin of trying to reclaim Iran’s oil wealth — had plunged his nation backward into a nightmarish police state under the Shah.  

America refused to respect the democratic choices of the people of Iran and Guatemala, and we're still living with the poisonous fruits of that betrayal.

Yet like so many other Iranians even down to the present day, Said looked to American ideals, American culture and the American people with admiration. Only our government’s policy was wildly at odds with what he and so many others, in Iran and around the world, found so appealing about America. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and in return a part of me feels Iranian to this very day. The hope and then the betrayal of the 1979 revolution, the point at which most Americans belatedly discovered Iran, still seems like yesterday to me. 

By demonizing Iran rather than recognizing its complexity and America's role in poisoning its politics, we created an enormous, ever-evolving geopolitical problem that never had to exist at all. Obama at least tried to reckon with this when he reached the historic multilateral nuclear deal in 2015, which drew in both China and Russia as partners. That was only a first step, but so clearly in the right direction. But the demonization of Iran has been so powerful that Biden hasn't even reinstated the deal that Trump so off-handedly destroyed. Not only has our relationship with Iran grown sharply more hostile, the idea of partnering with China and Russia once again seems absurd. So much opportunity has been lost or wasted that we’ve grown accustomed to accepting desolation as our baseline, which is exactly what fascism requires in order to present itself as an appealing option.

What happened in Guatemala is also worth considering. The CIA overthrew the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 for daring to attempt its own version of the New Deal, starting with a minimum-wage law and going so far as to legalize the Communist Party. Guatemala had only gotten rid of its military dictatorship a decade earlier, but a decade of democracy was too much for Cold War America. The possibility of even modest social democracy spreading to the developing world was more than enough reason for the CIA to oust Árbenz and usher in generations of military dictatorship, political instability and violence, which has essentially continued to this day. 

Indeed, violence in Central America — partly fueled by an extensive history of U.S. intervention, with an overlay of climate crisis and disrupted food security — is the primary reason for the border crisis we’re experiencing today. That’s another basic geopolitical fact that has absolutely no place in elite America’s political discourse about the most salient problems we face.

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We need to find some way to atone for those sins — an impossible task, you might say. You're probably right. But we have to try anyway, because only by doing that can the U.S. actually become what we pretend to be on the world stage. And that's the only way, in the long run, that democracy and the rule of law can actually have a chance to prevail with America playing any significant role in the process.

Living up to America's supposed ideals has always been problematic. “All men are created equal,” while some are slaveowners and others are slaves? Really? But for the foreign policy purposes at hand we can start with the early Cold War. As I noted recently, Cold War liberalism had diverse tendencies, including George Kennan's Long Telegram, the initial defining document of the Cold War, in which he exhibited progressive aspirations and even praise for Scandinavian socialism. Kennan’s outlook should be seen as related to FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech, defining what we were fighting for in World War II, and also to Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. (That, by the way, includes “the right to a nationality,” which Israel is denying to the Palestinian people, with U.S. support.) All three reflect an aspect of Cold War liberalism that was far more open to the left, and more committed to America's professed values, than the term usually conveys. It’s something that can be built upon, even by those of us critical of that tradition.

As I’ve written about before, as far back as 2007, the Cold War as Kennan understood it was not the Cold War actually fought by U.S. elites fought, as a 1998 paper by Efstathios T. Fakiolas, "Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis," helps to clarify. NSC-68 was a secret national security memo written under the supervision of Paul Nitze that profoundly influenced Cold War foreign policy, particularly though not exclusively in terms of the use of covert actions. Fakiolas describes both documents in terms of the realist school of thought about international relations, but based on different paradigms. Nitze’s “billiard ball” paradigm sees only state actors as significant, and thus only zero-sum possibilities exist: Whatever one country gains, another loses. Kennan’s “tectonic plate” paradigm recognizes multiple kinds of actors, and therefore non-zero-sum outcomes are possible: everyone can be better or worse off. As I wrote back in 2007:

Kennan favored a strategy of containment that emphasized strengthening the West socially, economically and culturally, addressing its flaws which the Soviets exposed. In contrast, Nitze ignored issues of the West's internal flaws, and focused almost exclusively on military force to combat the Soviet Union.

It's my own observation, based on this analysis, that we fought Nitze's Cold War, but we won Kennan's. It was not, in the end, military strength that defeated the Soviet Union; it was the appeal of our culture of openness and freedom. The history of Eastern European resistance movements, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland, makes this abundantly clear. Through their influence on dissident culture, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed did more to win the Cold War than any division of tanks ever did — or even a wing of nuclear-armed B-52s.

What I wrote then remains true today, except that the West has lost more of its cultural appeal as the folly unleashed by our response to 9/11 has continued to undermine the world order we halfheartedly built. That’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s bad because undermining that world order has opened the floodgates for a resurgence of fascism. But it’s good because the failures exposed are now understood far more broadly than ever before — and therefore are ripe for fixing.

The challenge for leftists and progressives now is to salvage what is best in the Cold War liberal vision — particularly the egalitarian framework of international law that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did so much to advance — and build on it along with other progressive traditions from around the world, including our own Black liberation traditions and Henry David Thoreau’s tradition of nonviolent resistance, so powerfully expanded and enriched by Mahatma Gandhi and his associates in India, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies in America and Nelson Mandela and his allies in South Africa. 

Building a new world, the “beloved community,” as Dr. King called it, is far more difficult than simply getting rid of a tragically misguided leader. But it’s far more rewarding, too. That should be our North Star in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. If it is, we will not regret it, not even 50-odd years in the future.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Commentary Gaza History Israel Joe Biden Lyndon Johnson Vietnam War