Two years ago, four U.S. presidents attended an Austin civil rights summit to celebrate Lyndon B. Johnson’s role as the most consequential president on race since Abraham Lincoln. For three days this week, the LBJ Presidential Library will hold a more somber contemplation of the Vietnam War, which library director Mark Updegrove calls the “stain on his presidency.”
“Johnson said upon the dedication of this library in May of 1971, ‘It’s all here, the story of our time — with the bark off.’ He went on to say it’s there ‘for friend and foe alike,’” Updegrove said. “We’re taking him at his word.
“This summit is our effort to take an unvarnished, candid look at the Vietnam War and its lessons and legacy,” he said.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, negotiated the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that brought American troops home from Vietnam, will be interviewed by Updegrove on Tuesday evening.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who returned from naval service in Vietnam to become an outspoken critic of the war, will speak Wednesday night and then enter into a conversation with filmmaker Ken Burns, who also will preview his 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the war, due to air on PBS in the fall of 2017.
Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, will speak Thursday afternoon.
Afternoon panel discussions will examine different aspects of the war and its impact from the front lines to the home front.
Few events of the last half-century have had a more profound impact on American life and culture, and, for those who lived through it, the Vietnam War is both a personal touchstone and a political flashpoint.
Participants in the Tuesday through Thursday summit, and interested parties drawn to it, are among those whose lives were most intimately bound to the war and whose actions and activism most profoundly shaped it and the nation’s reaction to it.
And although LBJ isn’t the sole focus of the summit, his anguished, tragic figure is a compelling and fitting emblem.
The nuclear option
Tom Johnson isn’t blood kin to LBJ. But, from his start as a White House fellow in October 1965, through his time as deputy press secretary and up to the day he announced the former president’s death at the LBJ Ranch in January 1973, he was as close as anybody to the 36th president.
“I was the note taker at the most sensitive, the most top secret of all the meetings, and those notes never were circulated, they are not a part of the Pentagon Papers, and, 50 years later, some of them are still classified,” said Tom Johnson, who would go on to become publisher of the Los Angeles Times, chief executive of CNN and the 30-year chairman of the LBJ Foundation, which supports the LBJ Presidential Library.
He will participate in a Tuesday panel on the roles played in the Vietnam War by commanders in chief from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford. He prepared for the summit by poring over redacted versions of some of those notes — including one that still makes him shudder.
That note described a contingency plan drawn up in early 1968 by Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam, and Adm. Ulysses S. Grant Sharp Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, to use tactical nuclear weapons to save Marines under siege in Khe Sanh.
“When that suggestion reached higher authority, it was quickly killed,” said Tom Johnson, who was nonetheless astonished. “I just can’t believe that we might be considering the use of nuclear weapons.”
But, as Westmoreland would write in his memoir: “If Washington officials were intent on ‘sending a message’ to Hanoi, surely small tactical nuclear weapons would be a way to tell Hanoi something, just as two atomic bombs spoke convincingly to Japanese officials during World War II.”
LBJ might be best remembered for escalating what became an unpopular and ruinous war.
But he also prosecuted the war restrained by his fears of provoking World War III by stumbling into a wider conflict with China or the Soviet Union. And despite its epic failure, the war’s ultimate outcome bore some semblance to America’s original ambition of keeping other Southeast Asian countries from following Vietnam and falling like dominoes into communist hands.
“I met with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore during my years at the L.A. Times, and he told me that he believed in the domino theory. He felt that Singapore could very well have been communist had America not stood against Hanoi,” Tom Johnson said. “He told me that because of ‘your boss,’ his country was able to remain democratic and flourish.”
“I think basically the American public and the policymaking world — and especially the political world — are still pretty divided over the key lessons of the war,” said Mark Lawrence, a University of Texas historian who will moderate a Thursday panel on lessons from the war.
Joining Lawrence will be LBJ’s son-in-law, Virginia’s former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, who won a Bronze Star commanding a Marine rifle company in Vietnam; Nebraska’s former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, who lost a leg and earned a Medal of Honor as a Navy SEAL officer; and Bill McRaven, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and chancellor of the University of Texas System.
“There are people who argue that the key lesson is that the United States needs to be very careful about how it involves itself. It needs to be cautious and do everything it can to understand the nature of the problems elsewhere in the world,” Lawrence said.
“And then I think there are other people who say the key lesson of Vietnam is once you decide to intervene overseas, you need to do it boldly and with full backing of the American public, and make sure you have everything you need to accomplish the job,” he said.
“For the first category of people, the war was fundamentally unwinnable. There was nothing the United States could do to achieve its objective in Vietnam because the political situation there was such a mess and wasn’t really subject to American power or persuasion,” Lawrence said. “On the other hand, there are people who argue the basic problem in Vietnam was the United States forces didn’t fight long enough, didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t fight with the appropriate methods, and so squandered an opportunity for victory.”
Lawrence said he and most academics would put themselves in the first camp. “The other camp is well-represented in the political world and public opinion, but I think has very few adherents in the academic world,” he said.
No deal to make
Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play, “All the Way,” showcases LBJ’s gargantuan political skills in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — skills that eluded him on the world stage. It will premiere as an HBO movie on May 21.
On Wednesday, Schenkkan will moderate a discussion of “the war at home” with Tom Hayden, who, along with then-wife Jane Fonda, was the most famous and polarizing of anti-war activists. Author David Maraniss of The Washington Post and New York University historian Marilyn Young will round out the panel.
“We’re just far enough now from the events and the trauma — it really was trauma — of the Vietnam War, which has certainly not gone away, but receded somewhat. Enough, perhaps, so we can really discuss the events of the ’60s with a little more light and a little less heat,” said Schenkkan, who grew up in Austin.
LBJ, Schenkkan said, always thought there was a deal to be made, if only he could get everybody into one room.
“It was just a complete misunderstanding of what the Vietnamese were about,” he said. “This was part of an ongoing war of self-determination that had been going on for 1,200 years against the Chinese, the French and now the Americans. There was no deal to be made.”
LBJ wasn’t alone in misreading the situation. “It had been true for Eisenhower, been true for Kennedy,” Schenkkan said. “It had been very much part and parcel of American foreign policy.”
‘I don’t want to kill’
LBJ was pessimistic about Vietnam from the get-go.
“He pursued it with immense reluctance, what he called ‘this bitch of a war,’” Young said.
In a June 1964 telephone call with his Senate mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia, LBJ recounted a conversation with his old friend, Blanco County Judge A.W. Moursund.
“I don’t want to kill these folks,” LBJ recalled telling Moursund. “He said, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ He said, ‘I didn’t want to kill ’em in Korea.’”
If you stand up for America, Moursund added, the country will forgive you for everything “except being weak.”
“It’d take a half-million men,” Russell replied with eerie prescience. “They’d be bogged down in there for 10 years.”
Three weeks later, Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, defying his party’s conservative barons, upending the old racial order, delivering five Deep South states to GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that November and dimming Democrats’ prospects in the South to this day.
Whatever his misgivings about Vietnam, the domino theory and Cold War politics held sway in the run-up to Johnson’s election as president, a landslide victory.
Fear for ‘my boys’
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall — a half-size replica of which will be on display outside the LBJ Presidential Library this week — bears more than 58,000 names and extends nearly 500 feet.
Listing the 3 million or more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the war would require a wall nearly five miles long.
“My God, what we did to Vietnam, what Johnson let the military do,” said Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of the Texas Observer and a Johnson biographer who had extraordinary access to LBJ. “And the Johnson administration’s enormous lying about the war. I’ve got all the material in my file under the letter ‘D’ for deceit.”
“Doing my interviews in ’67 and ’68, he would pace back and forth in the Oval Office talking about ‘my boys.’ He was worried about ‘my boys,’ talking about the pilots bombing Vietnam, but never expressing a concern about the civilian casualties,” said Dugger, who lives in Austin but isn’t part of the summit.
“We have not learned the lessons of Vietnam,” Dugger said. “We continue not to intellectually comprehend or be penetrated by the lessons of Vietnam, which are, for God’s sake, don’t get into stupid wars.”
Nothing off the table
On Tuesday, Tom Johnson will introduce Kissinger — who he said provided LBJ with a secret channel to Hanoi when he was president.
“Kissinger called me a couple of days ago,” said Updegrove, who will engage Kissinger in conversation. “He said nothing’s off the table.”
Steve Sherman, a Houstonian who was a Green Beret in Vietnam in 1967-68 and founded Vietnam Veterans for Factual History, will attend the summit but thinks that, despite its strengths, it lacks adequate balance for the likes of Hayden and Kerry, who returned from service in Vietnam and testified against the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously asking, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
“You don’t fight a war to come to a draw. You win the war, and then you help pick up the pieces when it’s all done, like we did with the Marshall Plan in Europe,” Sherman said.
“We paid a horrible price, and we ought to learn some lessons from it,” said Robert Turner, co-founder of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia Law School, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an Army captain.
“The lessons are not that we should never try to stop aggression or tyranny or that we cannot win unconventional wars,” Turner said. “The reality is that by the early ’70s, American troops were winning the military war.”
The American people, however, had had enough, he said.
The communists, Turner said, didn’t win on the battlefield but prevailed in the court of public opinion.
“They didn’t think they could defeat the American military,” Turner said. “They thought they could tie us down and use propaganda to turn our people against our government and persuade Congress to throw in the towel.”
A return to Vietnam
The most prominent Vietnamese participant in the summit will be Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador.
For many in the Vietnamese-American community, mostly refugees from the communist regime, his presence will be a particularly bitter pill.
“He’s simply a cheerleader for a communist regime that continues to suppress people, that continues to jail dissidents, that continues to jail bloggers, that continues to violate human rights and religious freedom,” said Anh “Joseph” Cao, who left Vietnam in 1975 at age 8, leaving behind his mother and father, an officer in the South Vietnamese Army who was sent to a communist re-education camp. (Years later, Cao’s parents joined him in the United States.)
Cao, who was the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, serving one term representing a New Orleans district, said he appreciates Kerry’s service in Vietnam but not his turn against the war or his leadership toward rapprochement with Vietnam.
In May, President Barack Obama and Kerry will visit Vietnam, where, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2014, 76 percent of the people hold a positive opinion of the U.S. — a higher opinion of the U.S. than held by any country surveyed in Europe with the exception of Italy.
That might be hard to fathom, but amid this week’s contemplation of a conflict so scarred with acrimony, it is a turn of mind that could prove a salve for a war and a president’s legacy that still crave understanding.
The Vietnam War Summit
Tuesday through Thursday at the LBJ Library in Austin.
Tickets are required and have already been distributed.
The program includes appearances Tuesday night by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Wednesday night by Secretary of State John Kerry, and a series of afternoon panel discussions on various topics Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
All events will be streamed live on video at www.vietnamwarsummit.org/live.