History Lesson

The President, the War, and the Military Base

A compelling, new, and entirely mistaken comparison between George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson.

A prisoner of his own device?

A well-known psychology test demonstrates that when we hear a list of words associated with a concept like sleep— bed, pillow, night, rest—we recall the word sleep even if that word isn’t on the list.

That may explain why many journalists—myself included—thought we saw a link between President Bush’s recent Iraq speeches to armed forces audiences and an earlier president struggling with an unpopular war. When Bush spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy, at an Army depot in Pennsylvania, and at an Air Force base in Alaska, wasn’t he doing exactly what President Lyndon Johnson did when the Vietnam War was at its peak? Didn’t LBJ try to rally the country while standing in front of reliably supportive men and women in uniform?

That was the assumption in much of the analysis. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, noting Bush’s fondness for military audiences, wrote that “four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’sJoel Connelly wrote that, as with LBJ during Vietnam, “uniformed personnel are used for props for speeches.” Blogger Joe Gandelman, of Themoderatevoice.com, wrote that Bush’s appearances “are starting to seem a bit reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson at the height of the Vietnam War, who made many key speeches at military installations, partly out of fears that he’d be met with screeching anti-war demonstrators.” This was the same memory I had of the second half of LBJ’s presidency.

But that’s not the way it was, according to Randall Woods, University of Arkansas history professor and author of the forthcoming LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. With one exception, Woods says, Johnson did not go to military bases to rally public opinion or tout his war policy.

“When he went to bases,” Woods says, “it was to talk to troops informally … he didn’t stage media events there.” The exception, he notes, was a visit to Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam in October 1966. The major speeches Johnson made in defense of his Vietnam policy were all at nonmilitary venues: the TV statement on the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964, a speech at John Hopkins University in April of 1965, his “escalation” press conference in July of that year, and a September 1967 speech at the Texas National Legislative Conference in San Antonio. He also defended his policies in detail in his State of the Union messages.

In fact, it would have been politically dicey for Johnson to give speeches in front of the troops.

“He didn’t regard military bases as congenial venues,” professor Woods says. “Remember, he was getting a lot of criticism from the right for not going all out.” Throughout the war, Johnson would personally approve or veto bombing targets and rejected ideas such as invading North Vietnam. Moreover, the press and public tolerance for public relations was less developed back then: The political press did not yet engage in drama criticism, judging a politician’s public appeal by the stagecraft or the setting rather than the message. The idea of a president standing in front of troops backdropped by slogans and banners was not yet even a gleam in young Karl Rove’s eye.

“I ain’t no Johnson. For one thing, I’ve got banners.”

So, where did the notion of a Bush-LBJ historical parallel come from? Woods has a hunch that “those who want to criticize Bush would like to draw on a nightmare legacy of Vietnam.” But there’s another explanation. There is an analogy, just not the military one. Both presidents were imprisoned by their war. Just as President Bush tends to appear before carefully selected, friendly audiences, so, too, did a beleaguered President Johnson duck the public at large.

“He had a fear of anti-war protestors,” Woods says. “Not a personal fear, but a fear of being humiliated. He didn’t go to a lot of public venues.”

So, combine the memory of Lyndon Johnson as a “prisoner” in the White House, retreating from the public square, with the memory of Johnson visiting informally with troops, and what do you get? A vivid, almost wholly inaccurate “memory” of a Lyndon Johnson vainly trying to rally the public behind his policies at friendly military installations.