On Sept. 3, 1968, Robert Brooks, then 21 and president of the St. Edward’s University Students’ Association Inc., boarded Air Force One with Lyndon Baines Johnson, president of the United States, for a flight from Austin to Washington, D.C.
The native Austinite had gone along with his father, Max Brooks, an architect and Johnson family friend, already at work on plans for the future LBJ Presidential Library.
Onboard, the country’s leader, who had announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election, pulled the younger Brooks aside and asked for his advice about the polarized Vietnam War homefront.
“We sat down at a table and talked for hours about it,” says Brooks, now 68 and a retired canon of the Episcopal Church. “I was someone he could trust. He asked: ‘What are the kids trying to tell me? What do they want?’ All those screaming: ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’”
Meanwhile, back in Austin, David V. Edwards, a charismatic University of Texas professor of government, age 27 in 1968, continued to play a leading part in the local protest movement against the war.
“Vietnam was certainly a very important topic for me,” says Edwards, 75, who recently retired from UT after 50 years. “It was a big issue on campus right away. We were having rallies pretty regularly soon after I got here in 1964.”
As the LBJ Presidential Library prepares for its Vietnam War Summit on April 26-28 — while its exhibit, staged in collaboration with the Briscoe Center for American History, “Vietnam: Turning Points of the War,” continues through July 31 — it is timely to consider what Austinites thought about this searing chapter in American history while it was happening.
Edwards, whose family followed a Quaker tradition, opposed the war from the start. Brooks, who later would be honored for his role in ending the El Salvador civil war, supported his hometown president.
Other Austinites professed varied reasons for being for or against the war, a split exacerbated by the “generation gap” and a countercultural revolt against what was perceived to be the establishment.
A massive Austin antiwar march, rallying tens of thousands of demonstrators, would wait until May 8, 1970, after President Richard Nixon had ordered the invasion of neighboring Cambodia — and soon after students were shot and killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio.
Yet antipathy to the war had been bubbling, especially around the UT campus, urged on by the underground newspaper the Rag, as well as by student leaders such as Jeff Jones and Jeff Friedman.
At one point, a big showdown at the Student Union pitted Edwards and West Coast journalist Bob Scherr against a member of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a general.
“The ballroom was packed to the gills,” Edwards remembers. “We had a spirited debate. Their arguments: We had to defend freedom around the world. They backed the domino theory — all of Asia would fall to communism if we didn’t stop it there.”
During the 1960s, Austinites, aware of the evolving political attitudes, found themselves in a unique position.
While local families were among those whose members died in the long war that killed more than 58,000 Americans — often people of color were heaviest hit because they could not avoid the draft — many, like Brooks, remained loyal to the man who had served, over the course of decades, as their complicated but effective congressman, senator, vice president and president.
Others, especially older folks who had lived through World War II, felt any antiwar sentiment was treasonous. According to a 1985 story by W. Gardner Selby published in Third Coast magazine, Austin Mayor Travis LaRue led a flag-waving Loyalty Day parade down Congress Avenue just before the biggest 1970 antiwar marches.
For Brooks, it was more personal.
“I found a person who was agonizingly trying to find a way to draw that war to a conclusion,” Brooks says of his Air Force One exchanges with LBJ. “People in my generation couldn’t believe that. It was like he was a great monster, that he devoured young people in blood. That was not the man I knew.”
Born to a political life
Now living quietly with his family in a modest house in Kyle — “I’m a retired priest, not a retired NBA player,” he quips — Brooks shows this reporter around a study lined with honors and photographs. For a long time, he worked on public policy for the Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
“Though I’ve worked with three presidents since then,” he says. “When I say ‘the president,’ I mean Johnson.”
His parents, Max and Marietta Brooks, had known Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson since 1935, when wealthy Austinite Edgar H. Perry connected the promising couples, both newly married and living in West Austin.
“Mother ran the women’s division of his first campaign,” Brooks recalls. “And she did that all the way through his presidential elections.”
In 1947, the Johnsons came to see the Brookses’ new baby at Seton Hospital.
“Lady Bird was pregnant with Luci,” Brooks says. “So Luci and I grew up together.”
Brooks made his first big political push at age 12. He headed the statewide youth campaign for Gov. John B. Connally in 1961 and worked for Congressman Jake Pickle’s election in 1963. He revved up his Texas connections as captain of Youth for Kennedy-Johnson that year, too.
He keenly recalls Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, hours before a planned Austin rally.
“We were scheduled to be in the arrival party, all dressed up at Mueller Airport,” he says. “We were going to be in the presidential motorcade down Congress Avenue, draped in bunting. I was supposed to sit on the platform when he was to speak, and we had tickets for dinner (at Palmer Auditorium) that night.”
As a close friend of Luci Johnson, Brooks often played at her family’s ranch or at their house in Austin. Pictures show him rolling around in the grass in front of the future president.
“I was just a kid,” he says. “Everybody else was out playing baseball. I’m absorbing everything at the knee of LBJ. He liked having me around, and called me ‘son.’”
The consummate politician, LBJ asked the youthful Brooks’ opinions on far-ranging subjects.
“’Robert, what do thinking about that,’ he’d say, while pointing at my chest,” Brooks remembers. “I was supposed to be part of the scene and was.”
Brooks’ fledgling political thinking led him to attend St. Ed’s.
“From my youth campaigns, I had the Rolodex from heaven, as it were,” he says. “I wanted to go to school here. I didn’t want to go away from my base.”
Faith was then, as always, an issue in electoral politics. Brooks’ father was agnostic, his mother a lapsed Southern Baptist. He converted to Christianity after a retreat conducted by a Catholic chaplain who had been in Rome during the groundbreaking Vatican II Council.
“I spilled my guts,” Brooks says about an encounter-group-type session. “They accepted me anyway. I was so astonished that it was possible.”
Fascinated by faith communities, he took philosophy and theology classes, and retained a lifelong interest in liturgy and public policy. He admired the Anglican reforms and was troubled by the philosophical swings from one Catholic pope to the next.
Ordained an Episcopal priest in 1974, Brooks was determined to make a difference.
“What I learned from LBJ: Don’t just be taking up space,” he says. “If I was going to be in a parish, I was going to be doing something important.”
Brooks doesn’t remember a lot of antiwar sentiment on the St. Ed’s campus during the mid-1960s.
“In terms of the war, it almost wasn’t a thing to think about,” he says. “Because of course I was going to support whatever Johnson was doing.”
Brooks also recalled the irrational hatred of Johnson — who, though considered fairly conservative by many in the Democratic Party, was anathema to the far right. In 1960, LBJ and Lady Bird were attacked by a Dallas group — the “Mink Coat Mob” — egged on by that city’s hard-line conservatives, especially in the John Birch Society.
“That was very real to me, and appalling,” Brooks recalled. ” We were getting a sense of the right-wing folks who were doing things in Texas. It was all that poison in the atmosphere. It was harsh. Constant spewing of hatred.”
The political argument seems remote today, but Brooks also agreed with LBJ that Democrats should not do anything to give that right wing ammunition, especially after the “Who lost China?” attacks on President Harry Truman, which paved the way for red-baiting McCarthyism.
“Democrats could not appear to be less than anti-communist,” Brooks says. “But the assassination of JFK was such a shock, it flushed a lot of the poison out of the system. It came back up in 2010 and picked up momentum since then.”
Pundits put out that Johnson gave up during the 1968 primaries because he had barely beaten antiwar Sen. Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire.
“He had not even filed to be on the ballot,” Brooks says of LBJ. “So he was a write-in there, and he still won. … But he wasn’t going to run anyway. He’d asked for peace talks. He’d given away the presidency.”
Dogged by serious heart trouble that included a near-deadly heart attack in 1955, LBJ repeatedly promised Lady Bird as early as 1964 that he would retire to Texas to enjoy his children and grandchildren.
When Johnson confronted Brooks on Air Force One that September, the young man reached a moral and political impasse, especially since he was leading a charge to reform the administrative structure of St. Ed’s.
“I was in this mix of a role of being a lifelong friend who wanted him to succeed and break this impasse, while at the same time having a constituency … looking at re-election, walking this kind of tightrope,” Brooks says. “I knew a lot of what people were saying. My student body hadn’t yet turned against the war, but it was dividing, going to demonstrations in other parts of Austin.”
All that changed after LBJ left office and St. Ed’s students joined those from UT and other area universities in giant antiwar protests — some violent — culminating in the peaceful May 8, 1970, march.
Brooks feels that Johnson, painted as a warmonger, was vindicated when the LBJ Library released tapes that showed the president had been anguished all along about Vietnam.
“In that conversation with president on the flight — and then later at a cabinet meeting — I knew what others found out later: He was struggling with this. He actually had qualms about this,” Brooks says. “And always the political context: Who lost China? I had his back, and I know he knew that.”
Born to another political life
Born and reared on Chicago’s South Side, Edwards attended Swarthmore College, a Quaker-founded liberal arts college near Philadelphia, before heading to Harvard University for his master’s degree and Ph.D.
He capped off those achievements with study at the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research, an arm of Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on arms control and disarmament.
He was offered a job right away at UT.
“I wanted to see if you could do the good teaching you’d find at a small liberal arts college at a large public university,” he says. “When I got here, it was fascinating. UT had hired a bunch of people who didn’t have Ph.D.s but had accomplished a lot in their fields, and were very interesting and friendly.”
His father, J. Earle Edwards, was a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee, which advocated for peace, civil rights and other causes. His mother, Marjorie Edwards served as an archivist at the Swarthmore College Peace Library when she wasn’t taking care of the kids.
“My whole upbringing was about peace,” he says. “My father and grandfather were conscientious objectors during World War I and World War II. When I was 4 years old, I told my mother: ‘When I grow up, I want to make sure there is no more war.’”
Wondering how to make a contribution, he chose teaching and writing as ways to reach a lot of people at an early age.
“I immediately found that the best students here were every bit as good as the best students at Harvard,” he says. “Though many were not as polished. Harvard had its own athletes and legacy students who weren’t really up to standards, as here, but there was more enthusiasm for learning here, in part because many were first-generation college students, and that was the case right up to last year, when I retired.”
Edwards also taught many offspring of prominent politicians. One of his first students was John B. Connally III, the Texas governor’s son.
Vietnam was not the only cause at hand. The U.S. also intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1965.
“That was briefly a somewhat big issue,” Edwards says. “We conducted ‘teach-ins’ and produced a dossier of articles on the Dominican Republic. I’m sure there were demonstrations about that, too.”
The campus protests attracted a mix of students, including countercultural elements. The radical Students for a Democratic Society was active on campus.
“Students knew I was against the war, so they didn’t feel the need to tell me why they were against the war,” Edwards says. “We just shouldn’t be invading other countries!”
While Edwards found himself among the only faculty members in his department forthrightly against the war, he had sympathizers on campus.
“A small group of faculty members put an ad in paper to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam, to entice it to the bargaining table,” Edwards says. Dean of the College of Liberal Arts “John Silber tried to organize a counter ad, but he couldn’t get enough faculty to sign publicly.”
Years later, Edwards delved into his own FBI file and discovered a letter, now in at the LBJ Library, that instructed the FBI to investigate him along with other professors who had signed the ad.
Deeply distrustful, the protest organizers feared that outside provocateurs would turn peaceful demonstrations ugly.
“We learned much later that the police chief was working closely with the FBI,” Edwards says. “The Texas Observer magazine recently got access to the files of his correspondence. There was lots of evidence of cooperation. We never knew if there were plants, but that was a common practice.”
Edwards taught a course on the Vietnam War, along with classes on defense policy, foreign relations and international politics. The subject came up in all those settings. He recalls that ordinary Austinites discussed the war wherever the subject arose, including around his apartment complex’s pool.
Edwards: “They were very cordial but very earnest debates.”
It struck Edwards that Johnson, who identified UT as the keeper of his legacy and visited the area often, rarely set foot on campus, nor did he urge his cabinet members to do so. Edwards did get to meet LBJ at the opening of his namesake library.
“There probably were a bunch of people on the faculty who didn’t want to embarrass him,” Edwards says. “That might be why so few faculty members were not prominently opposing the war.”
Those born after the 1960s have a hard time imagining the bitterness and division that LBJ and the Vietnam War fomented within American families and communities. And yet those feelings began to heal long before the war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Harry Middleton, longtime director of the LBJ Library, clearly remembers 1973, when the president’s body lay in state at the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington and at the library in Austin.
“Lady Bird and the daughters with their husbands stood by the casket in both places to greet the thousands who shuffled past, his supporters and detractors alike,” Middleton wrote in “LBJ: The White House Years.” “Although it was 1973, the ’60s had not yet been played out, and many of the young in the long lines had marched against him in the streets.”
Lady Bird remembered: “One young man, very bearded, who stood before me so stoically and bowed slightly.”
“My apologies,” he said to her.
“It’s all right,” she told him. “He wanted to change things, too.”
The Vietnam War Summit
Among the speakers: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, documentary maker Ken Burns, antiwar activist Tom Hayden, Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh, UT System Chancellor William McRaven, journalists Dan Rather, Peter Arnett, David Maraniss and Joe Klein.
LBJ Presidential Library
‘Vietnam: Turning Points in the War’
Exhibit in Great Hall of the LBJ Presidential Library
Through July 31
Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.