Tuesday, January 25, 2011

“Extremism In The Defense of Liberty": The Vietnam War And The 1964 Presidential Race

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe how the Vietnam War affected the 1964 presidential campaign.

President Lyndon Johnson wanted to win big in the 1964 presidential election. He sensed that voters saw his ascendancy to the White House as illegitimate, an accident created by a tragedy. He worried about living up to the already mythic memory of his martyred predecessor. He obsessed over the possible political challenge within his own party by the late president’s brother Robert Kennedy, who made no secret of despising Johnson. He felt acutely the prospects of a major political realignment represented by the surprising success of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, in Northern states’ primary elections. Archconservative Wallace voters, resenting Johnson’s civil rights efforts, could not be counted on to vote for LBJ in November. Johnson also refused to appear less anti-communist or less manly than the far right-wing presidential nominee of the Republican Party that year, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Goldwater famously said in his acceptance speech in San Francisco in July that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Until November, he would hammer the Democrats for being soft on communism, arguing that past Democratic presidents like Franklin Roosevelt had handed over domination of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, that Harry Truman had “lost” China to the communists and failed to “win” the Korean War, and that the Kennedy-Johnson team had bungled the liberation of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and were losing the Vietnam War. Johnson sought to politically neutralize Vietnam as an issue.

Aides spent the first half of 1964 drafting a congressional resolution they hoped to have introduced and approved during the summer that would give the president an unlimited free hand to conduct the war in Southeast Asia. Johnson believed that the resolution would enhance his credibility on the world stage, particularly in dealing not just with the North Vietnamese but the Soviets and the Chinese as well. The resolution would also get congressional Republicans, including Goldwater, on board as publicly supporting the president’s actions in Vietnam. It would be a bipartisan war, and Goldwater would be tied in knots, unable to oppose the resolution because it would make him look soft on communism, but unable to criticize the actions of an administration he had just handed a blank check. Even before the resolution had been debated, the Pentagon drew up plans for an extensive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, identifying 94 key targets.

The Johnson administration began intense lobbying of congressional leaders seeking support for the war powers resolution. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, later to become a chief critic of the war, even suggested that in a nuclear age the president’s war powers granted by the U.S. Constitution might have to be expanded – even to the point of removing from Congress the exclusive power to declare war. “I wonder whether the time has not arrived, or indeed has already passed, when we must give the executive a measure of power in the conduct of our foreign affairs that we hitherto jealously withheld,” he said.

The effort stalled because Johnson decided that he could not risk the resolution’s defeat. Sen. Mike Mansfield, the majority leader from Montana, had favored a negotiated settlement in Vietnam while Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon had spent his career resisting efforts to expand presidential power at the expense of Congress. The two could endlessly delay consideration of the resolution, which National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy warned Johnson would persuade Europeans that Americans were divided over the war and that the United States should begin negotiations with Ho Chi Minh. Events in the far-off Gulf of Tonkin, however, would bring the resolution roaring back to life.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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