James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Lessons Learned: LBJ Announces He Will Not Seek Reelection

by James M. Lindsay
March 28, 2012

A new installment of “Lessons Learned” is now out. This week I discuss Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection as president. In the video, I discuss how Johnson’s decisions on Vietnam derailed a presidency that had accomplished historic success on domestic issues. Here’s a question to consider when thinking about foreign policy: why are presidents so eager to pursue an activist foreign policy when history suggests that it so often hurts them politically? I encourage you to weigh in with your answer in the comments section below.

I hope you enjoy the video.

If you are interested in learning more about Lyndon Johnson, his policies in Vietnam, or the presidential election of 1968, here are some books worth reading:

Irving Bernstein. Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. (1996)

Robert Dallek. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (1999)

Robert Dallek. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960. (1992)

Brian VanDeMark. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. (1995)

Theodore H. White. The Making of the President, 1968. Reissue ed. (2010)

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by BR

    Interesting question, but one might dispute the premise. The defense lobby is fairly powerful, so that should factor into any political considerations. Not only that, but sometimes foreign policy raises a President’s approval ratings (Iraq, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, etc), so it’s difficult to predict how a policy will turn out. This isn’t helped by the fact that Presidents and their political advisers have much less expertise in foreign policy than in domestic policy, making them more reliant on military officials whom one might view as more hawkish. And let’s not forget arrogance as a factor too.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Was this man was blackmailed? I would so love to know why. I read somewhere that LBJ spent his last years in Texas on a ranch obssesively checking in to the “war room” for updates on the casualties … of his chickens. This guy was wigged out on Vietnam.

    - kk

  • Posted by Bill Mortimer

    Good and pertinent question, Mr Lindsay, though perhaps more relevant to the foreign affairs flirtations of the lesser powers like France and UK. In the latter case I would contend that devotion to foreign policy is more of a relief or distraction from the much more challenging social and economic matters — and of course the political backlash from foreign issues is not as strong or as immediate as for domestic issues.
    In the case of the US – particularly in the Cold War era – acting the blind, deaf and dumb barman could never be an option for Leader Of The Free World. This is an abiding burden for all US presidents, even after the fall of communism : a sort of political version of noblesse oblige.
    In the specific case of LBJ, there’s no doubt that he understood the effect that Vietname involvement would have on his popularity : he resisted pressure from Bundy & McNamara until after the ’64 election and only commited in Feb ’65 on foot of a threat of joint resignation from both. More personally, he understood the impact his Vietname campaign would have on the budgets allotable to his unrivalled domestic policies — it effectively strangled them. But he also knew the realpolitik of US elections ; being brandable as “soft on communism” – even some 10,000 miles away – would do for his public esteem. Were the roles reversed, Johnson would surely go for the political jugular of any Nixon or Goldwater administration that would opt out of defending the weakest domino in south east Asia.
    That was the essence of Johnson’s necessity to go to war.
    With George Bush Snr, it was protecting economic and regional stability. With Clinton (in Haiti and Bosnia) it was also politically necessary. Georege Bush Jnr, I’m not so sure if it was publicly necessary to go anywhere near as far as he did — but it did turn a likely re-election loss into a certain victory. Obama’s adhesion to the Afghan campaign seems to me like the military has his prick in their back pocket, as Martin Sheen said in “Wall Street” . . .

  • Posted by QMccallSLHS

    Presidents eagerly pursue an activist foreign policy when history suggests that it so often hurts them politically because it makes them seem as if they’re doing a great job at strengthening their country not only within the country, but also around the world.

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