Lyndon Johnson’s Tragic Last Hurrah A noted historian’s take on LBJ’s last year as president.

LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval

By Kyle Longley (2018, Cambridge University Press) 361 pages including index, bibliography, notes, glossary, and photos.

It is a story that has been told more than once. Historian Kyle Longley relates in LBJ’s 1968 how, in a private meeting with reporters who “pestered [President Lyndon] Johnson to explain the U.S. involvement in Vietnam,” Johnson unzipped his trousers, pulled out his “substantial organ” and answered the reporters, “This is why.” UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, present at the meeting, was shocked, to say the least. (3) It is clear that by 1968 the Vietnam War, which Johnson realized that he could not win militarily nor resolve diplomatically, had unhinged the former Texas senator. He agonized over the young men he was sending to die in a meat grinder, with nothing honorable or even useful to show for their sacrifice. It seems more than a little facile to say Johnson’s gesture was a sign of toxic masculinity, a concept that the left used in the late 1960s in alternative publications to discredit the entire American misadventure in Southeast Asia: the war was white America’s great phallic fantasy, the grandiose and brutal rape of the resilient, heroic brown people of the earth. Masculinity is much about the nightmare of impotence and castration, about one’s testicles being squeezed bloody in a vice[1], about how inevitable vulnerability is, as it is about anything else, let us say, for instance, power and the triumphs and tragedies of power’s seductive pathologies. Johnson’s gesture was puerile and hopeless, even pathetic: a schoolboy trying desperately to bluff the ghostly thugs in a graveyard at midnight by a show of bravado that does not even rise to being a bad joke. Johnson was “fascinating,” as motion picture mogul Jack Valenti famously observed. He was “arrogant, boorish, crass, devious, egotistical, and so on,” as one reporter put it.[2]

Longley calls his LBJ’s 1968, “a microbiography of Lyndon Johnson, focusing on one critical year as opposed to a lifetime.” (6) “Ultimately, this book looks at 1968 through the eyes of Johnson and those closest to him, especially [First Lady] Lady Bird and the president’s staff and cabinet to show how he managed the ghastly year. The coverage is not comprehensive … but it establishes the patterns of how President Johnson dealt with the many challenges that arose that year.” (6) This seems such an obvious sort of book that it is striking that no one thought of writing it until now: one of the most remarkable and remarkably flawed men ever to be president and one of the most troubling, tragic, turbulent years of the 20th century for the United States, the intersection is just too rich to miss. What was 1968 from LBJ’s perspective?

The Vietnam War, of course, overshadowed everything else for Johnson in 1968. The Tet Offensive, a massive attack by the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam in the hopes of causing a general uprising in the country and driving the Americans out, was launched on January 30, 1968. American troops, now numbering over 500,000, with soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), staunched the attack and eventually beat the enemy back, inflicting enormous losses. But the audacity and the scope of Tet, the bloodbath at the American Embassy in Saigon, the fierce battles of Hue and Khe Sanh, and the losses that the American troops suffered, so disheartened and discouraged the American chattering classes, the opinion and policy makers, that they all almost in unison declared the war a lost cause. As Johnson himself wrote: “I was surprised and disappointed that the enemy’s efforts produced such a dismal effect on various people inside the government … whom I had always regarded as staunch and unflappable. Hanoi must have been delighted.” (60) But Johnson had, in good measure, only himself to blame, having so misled the government and the public about how “successfully” the war was being prosecuted to that point, despite the ever-mounting number of combat troops we were committing to the fray. Victory was always just around the corner. Tet was the final straw. CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite turned against the war which, as Johnson noted, meant that he had lost America, certainly, middle America, by this point. Johnson was now faced with only one impossible option: finding a way to get out of Vietnam without actually seeming like he lost the war.

The course of the war was tied to another challenge Johnson faced with the capture by the North Koreans of the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo, also in January 1968. North Korea kept the crew hostage for nearly a year. Johnson had no military option in this instance: U.S. troops were already stretched too thin because of the Vietnam War as well as commitments in Europe, Japan, and Korea itself.  Besides, it was a certainty the crew would be killed if Johnson launched a military strike against North Korea, and it was possible that a renewal of the Korean War, which was halted in 1953 only a truce, not a political settlement, could ensue, or even a war with the Soviet Union or China. All of these were horrible outcomes.  The North Koreans were obviously trying to pressure or squeeze South Korea, which had the greatest number of foreign combat troops in Vietnam besides the United States (50,000).  Johnson ultimately had to play a waiting game, messaging caution and patience. As Longley writes, “The most powerful man on earth found himself largely unable to respond forcefully in the face of a much weaker adversary. In many ways, it reflected the same frustrations as Vietnam.” (40) In the end, the Johnson administration had to simultaneously sign and disavow an apology in order to get the crew back. But the Pueblo weighed on Johnson for all of 1968.

He thought his chances of a negotiated settlement were better if he became a lame duck. The North Vietnamese would not have the possibility of four more years of Johnson, would fear the uncertainty of having to deal with another president, and would thus find it attractive to cut a deal with the devil they know, so to speak.

And there was his decision not to run for reelection. This, too, was tied to Vietnam. He thought that he announced that he would not run again (which he did on March 31, 1968 in a national television address that absolutely stunned the nation). He did not want to go down in history as the first American president to lose a war. But the pressures of his legacy demanded that he do his best to get out of Vietnam. He thought his chances of a negotiated settlement were better if he became a lame duck. The North Vietnamese would not have the possibility of four more years of Johnson, would fear the uncertainty of having to deal with another president, and would thus find it attractive to cut a deal with the devil they know, so to speak. Johnson also was greatly afraid that he would wind up like Woodrow Wilson if he won another term, stricken by heart attack (he had a bad one in 1955), unable to function. As Longley writes, “On the one hand, he hated not completing the job, but the thought of dying in office or becoming incapacitated haunted him. He worried about the boys in Vietnam and what they would think about their commander-in-chief quitting. However, he desperately needed a solution to honorably escape the shackles of the White House.” (92) He thought that being in the White House had become a prison, worse, a death sentence. He did not quit because he thought he could not beat the Democratic challengers to his left—Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. In fact, Johnson was always confident he could win reelection. He simply thought it would come at too high a cost for himself and his party, even his country. So, he went the way of Truman during the Korean War when he chose not to run for reelection in 1952. Small, limited, brutal wars in Asia had become the political graveyards of two American presidents.

It is against this momentous background that the other major events of 1968 unfolded for Johnson: first, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots that ensued which saw the final collapse of his push for the Great Society and the demise of American poverty. King’s partisans cried for Johnson to force Congress to pass legislation to fulfill King’s dream of full employment and a generous safety net. Vietnam and his lame-duck status made that impossible for Johnson. Southern conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans smelled the blood in the water. What they were able to point out, as Longley writes, is “that the focus on civil rights and economic programs for the poor only encouraged them to act badly.” (125) (This is a point that conservatives and Republicans continue to make with considerable effect today.)  Amazingly, Johnson did manage to sign the Fair Housing Act of 1968, his last major civil rights legislation.

King’s partisans cried for Johnson to force Congress to pass legislation to fulfill King’s dream of full employment and a generous safety net. Vietnam and his lame-duck status made that impossible for Johnson.

Second, the assassination of his political rival (enemy) Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, in California in June, two months after King’s murder. Johnson’s presidency was enmeshed and diminished by the promise of the Kennedy brothers. He became president because of JFK’s assassination and forever lived in the shadow of what-might-have-been had John lived out his presidency; and Johnson’s final year in office was tarnished by RFK’s assassination and the shadow of what-might-have-been had Robert lived to become president.

Third, the debacle of nominating Abe Fortas for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, along with Homer Thornberry, now a footnote or mere trivia, as associate justice. Johnson’s lame-duck status gave the Southern Democrats, angered by Johnson’s civil rights programs, their opening to torpedo the liberal Fortas, whose relationship with Johnson was far too cozy for words and made him vulnerable. Johnson even lost his mentor, Georgia senator and hardline segregationist Richard B. Russell. (Johnson never had any hope of getting either Eastland of Mississippi or Thurmond of South Carolina.) Republicans argued that Johnson, as a lame duck, had no business picking justices for the Supreme Court, an argument that was dusted off and used by the GOP again to upend Barak Obama’s nomination of Garland Merrick for the Supreme Court. The difference, of course, is that in 1968 polls showed that the Republicans had a good chance of winning the White House and having their own man (Richard Nixon) select a nominee. In 2016, polls showed that it was virtually impossible for the Republicans to win the White House. But the Fortas defeat adumbrated the coming partisan fights over Supreme Court nominations that have become almost routine. Fortas eventually was forced to resign from the Court in 1969 because of scandal. The liberals and Democrats returned the favor during Nixon’s first term when they worked to defeat his picks of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, two Southerners who were accused with some justification of being, shall we say, a bit unreconstructed.

He became president because of JFK’s assassination and forever lived in the shadow of what-might-have-been had John lived out his presidency; and Johnson’s final year in office was tarnished by RFK’s assassination and the shadow of what-might-have-been had Robert lived to become president.

There are other major events covered here: the nightmarish 1968 Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Chennault Affair that revealed that Richard Nixon was actively undermining the last-hours efforts for a peace settlement, or the possible beginnings of one, in Vietnam in order to win the election. Longley generally admires Johnson, feels he behaved well under the circumstances during his last year in office, that he was a man who was more sinned against than sinning.

This is highly readable and informative book. It has many nice quotations from the three principal books that make the work possible: The Thirty-first of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s Final Days in Office by Horace Busby (2005), the speechwriter who wrote Johnson’s speech where he announced he would not seek reelection; Lady Bird Johnson’s A White House Diary (1970); and Joseph A. Califano’s The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years (2015). For those who have read the major Johnson biographies of Robert Dallek, Robert A. Caro, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, there is not much here that is new, but it is nice to have a book that focuses just on 1968, the year that defined 1960s America, as it nearly upended it too.

[1] This was Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s favorite metaphor for applying pressure on the west.

[2] John A. Goldsmith, Colleagues: Richard B. Russell and His Apprentice Lyndon B. Johnson (Macon, Georgia: Mercer Books, 1998), xviii

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