Lyndon Johnson’s second Presidential term was both tumultuous and a defining period in Amerikan history. No where was this better evidenced than during his 1966 State of the Union address.
Occurring on January 12th, the difficulties faced by the US, those stressed in the speech, were the related problems of tackling domestic social and economic disparities through social democratic measures embodied in the Great Society programs and similar reforms; defining a reasonable, winnable strategy amidst escalation in Vietnam; and addressing through foreign policy and public rhetoric Amerika’s role in the world.
Reactions to the speech were largely supportive domestically and hostile from those Johnson singled out internationally. In retrospect, while Johnson’s themes and ideas may not have bore fruit immediately, all of the pressing issues of the day would eventually be resolved in a reasonable. yet not entirely permanent way.
Vietnam, the Great Society and Amerika’s Global Role
Of the issues touched upon during the 1966 State of the Union, the war in Vietnam took preeminence. Johnson, before mentioning anything else, references the conflict, calling it “brutal and bitter.” Together with the broader strokes of the US’s global policy, foreign concerns vastly overshadowed other topics and themes of the speech.
Johnson’s address occurred in the context of prepping public opinion for escalating US aggression in Vietnam. Already, there were 190,000 troops in Vietnam and the US was engaged in negotiations with its adversary in what was called a “peace offensive,” yet it was clear that the south Vietnamese government was teetering on collapse. Part of the problem faced by Johnson and his administration, was the inability to articulate a clear winnable strategy to stop Communist succession in a united Vietnam. Nevertheless, Johnson premised increased US involved on a historic legacy put forward by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, stating, “[the ] conflict is not an isolated incident, but another great event in the policy that we have followed with strong consistency since World Ward II.” Promising to “stay until [Communist] aggression is stopped,” eight days later, on January 20th, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced a US troop increase to over 450,000 troops.
Johnson, as the leader of the self-proclaimed free world, spoke appropriately and engaged in no small amount of narrative building. He described the Vietnam People’s Army and the National Liberation Front as attackers and conquerors. Beyond the rhetoric, Johnson was able to articulate the strategic importance of Vietnam, stating that yielding in Vietnam would set the wrong example and embolden Communist forces elsewhere, that if the U.S. did not remain in Vietnam it would mean “abandoning Asia to the domination of Communists.” Had the US not escalated then, he reasoned, Vietnam surely and quickly would be reunited under Communist rule.
During the State of the Union, Johnson also promoted a social democratic domestic policy. Embodied in the ‘Great Society’ programs and other proposed reforms, Johnson conjured up an image of a prosperous Amerika where everyone benefitted.
While there was certainly an amount of mythmaking involved, Johnson’s promotion of social democracy was intended to both showcase Amerika as a capitalist success story and stem an increasing radicalization domestically. Johnson highlighted recent progress already made including rises in wages, employment and corporate after-tax earnings. Additionally, Johnson promoted legislation regarding the “war on poverty,” civil rights, ‘urban renewal,’ the environment, government reform and extending welfare. Though he declared because of the war in Vietnam, “we may not be able to do all we should” and that “time may require further sacrifice,” he stated that Amerikans shouldn’t sacrifice the “hope and opportunities of their poor.” Johnson insisted that the Great Society programs should be carried through during the war, and made doing so a central theme in his speech.
The last theme of Johnson’s third State of the Union address was a familiar one: the Cold War and Amerika’s international role.
Johnson portrayed the US as eternal defenders of freedom and independence against “Communist aggression.” He outlines US foreign engagement as based on what he describes as five continuing lines of policy: military supremacy, maintaining the rhetoric of peace, strengthening ties with non-Soviet-aligned state actors, the selective use of food aid, and a controlled end of colonialism.
At times, Johnson co-opted leftist language to describe US foreign policy aims. He said the US is committed to “national independence” and described the Soviet Union as an eroding “Stalinist empire.” Johnson sought to cast the US as containing a open, fair social system and contrast it to the oppressive, closed, expansionary one embodied by the USSR in defining Amerika’s role in the world. Johnson described the the US in as playing a progressive role globally, fighting for the “self determination” and “freedom” in south Vietnam and elsewhere.
Johnson’s lofty language and the empahsis he place on Amerika’s progressive role seemed in almost direct correlation with the amount of violence, destruction and subjugation the US was dishing out. Whilst Johnson’s claimed he was fighting for independence, he made clear what places needed US-imposed “independence” the most: Berlin, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. In reality, “independence” and “freedom” carried little weight and were applied selectively within US foreign policy. For example, the year prior, the US invaded the Dominican Republic in order the prevent the overthrow of the ruling, CIA-installed military junta by leftists; and in another event, allowed a military coup to overthrow the popular Indonesian Sukarno-led government while supplying a list of 5000 soon-to-be-executed Indonesian communists to the coup-mongers.
Regarding Vietnam, Johnson drew upon Cold War themes and engaged in a fair amount of narrative building surrounding the history of the conflict:
“Not too long ago Vietnam was a peaceful, if troubled, land. In the north, was an independent communist regime. In the south a people struggled to build a nation, with the friendly help of the United States.
“There were some in the south who wished to force Communism on there own people. But their progress was slight. Their hope was dim. Then, little more than six years ago, north Vietnam decided on conquest.”
Here Johnson omits that in 1955, the south Vietnamese government, led by Deim, canceled national elections and began the ‘Denounce the Communists” campaign in which Ho Chi Mihn’s supporters in the south were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed. The next year, Diem, who was receiving direct US aid to maintain power, instituted the death penalty for communists.
Through rhetoric, Johnson kept peace on the US’s side. Johnson claimed that the US was at the forefront of efforts to control, reduce and eliminate arms proliferation and the spread of nuclear weapons. This claims is made shortly after Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a broad bombing campaign which dropped over 850,000 tons of bombs onto Vietnam between May of 1965 and December of 1967. Such is the ability of the US President to craft reality from rhetoric.
Johnson also focused on aid to the Third World, claiming that the US would “conduct a worldwide attack on the problem of hunger and disease and ignorance.” Johnson promoted the idea of earmarking 1 billion to this global cause, 4.8 billion short of what he was expecting to spend on Vietnam that year.
The idea that aid is in and of itself peaceful is not entirely true. Afterall, the same type of nominal aid delivered by the Soviets and Chinese would have been looked at skeptically and in conjuction with military support would be seen as evidence of Communism trying to extend its influence. This is no different in the US’s case.
Aid itself was seen by some in policy-making circles as economically beneficial to the US in that it provided an immediate market for US exports and helped orient national economies along the lines most favorable to US Capital. . More importantly, Johnson hoped it would place the US in an altruistic light and saw foreign aid as part “peace offensive.” During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon would be more frank, stating, “the main purpose of US aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves.” The effects of US aid come into display in 1974, when Bangledesh, a country which had become dependent of Western grain shipments, suffered upwards of 100,000 deaths in a man-made famine, caused when the US intentionally delayed, then canceled, food aid in order to secured concessions over trade deals. Though Johnson highlighted food aid as part of a humanitarian commitment, the idea of gaining cooperation on the part of foreign governments was never far behind.
Global reactions to Johnson’s 1966 address ranged from supportive to hostile and accusatory.
On the supportive side, the vast majority of US society rallied around the themes presented Johnson’s addressed. This included the media, Time Magazine for example, and Republican congressmen, who found little in the way of fundamental objections. On the accusatory side, the Peking Review, the Chinese state-ran national publication, acted as a global focal point of opposition to the United States and ran no less than two articles in response to the state of the Union address. Ho Chi Mihn too challenged Johnson’s narrative surrounding the Vietnam conflict in a letter years later.
Republicans in the United States congress registered no large complaints with the speech from the president, who Time Magazine described as “aloof from partisan politics.”
In a televised “little State of the Union,” the Senate Republican Leader, Everitt Dirksen, commented that the US “should continue to seek peace and wage war– intensified war if that is necessary– in Vietnam.” Dirksen largely parroted Johnson, stating the US would stay ” until aggression has stopped,” and characterized Amerika’s role in Vietnam as guaranteeing “freedom and independence for the Vietnamese.” Dirksen questioned the effectiveness of foreign aid and called for an auditing of such programs to see whether there would be “dividends in the form of good will and real devotion to peace and freedom.” Gerald Ford shared the camera, expressing his “loyal dissent” and more vigorously attacking Johnson on domestic issues. He challenged government waste and inefficiency, the size of the federal budget and the top-down approach of many of Johnson’s reforms. “We must liberate the war on poverty from waste, controversy and the bad odor of political bossism,” he was quoted as saying.
In its reporting, Time Magazine described the speech as somber and straightforward, one in which Johnson stated “his belief that the US has the strength to fight the war and simultaneously improved its society at home.” Yielding much of there own reporting to Johnson’s remarks on the escalating conflict on Southeast Asia, Time states, “He managed to discuss a white-hot situation without so much as a hint of belligerence. Yet there was an unmistakable undertone of strength and determination.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Peking Review, the weekly magazine published in the People’s Republic of China. Globally at the time, communist-led national liberation movements sought to overthrow colonial and neo-colonial rule, radical youth and civil rights movement disrupted the status quo within Western societies and the Soviet system came under criticism within the International Communist Movement. The Peking Review, though not fully representative of the diversity of each of these trends, did support them at one time or another, was the single most influential publication covering them and was the furthest removed from, or most hostile to, the themes of Johnson’s message. Whereas Johnson’s State of the Union role could be described as building public opinion in support of US interests, the Peking Review was one of the main institutions, at the time at least, propagating worldwide opposition to US imperialism and war.
The Peking Review ran two notable articles in response to Johnson’s speech. The first, entitled ‘Johnson’s Challenge, Comments on US President’s State of the Union,’ and another a week later, ‘Johnson Administration’s Self Exposure.’
The first article, a commentary, summarized Johnson’s message as two-fold: ” for expanding the aggressive war in Vietnam [and] intensifying the attacks on the Amerikan people.”
The Peking Review described the US war in Vietnam as one of “military adventure” for control of Asia. “The United States wanted to ‘stay’ in Vietnam because it would not abandon Asia,” it noted. “From the State of the Union message,” the Peking Review stated, “one can only draw the conclusion that Johnson is determined to switch the US war machine into high gear and speed it along the road of a wider war of aggression.” The article remarked of Johnson’s “peace offensive,” stating “‘peace’ tactics are always used to cover up and help war tactics.”
The Peking Review described the Amerikan people as under attack and burdened by the war. Despite steady rises medium income since the ’50’s and a reduction of poverty which lasted decades, Chinese commentators described Johnson’s message as one of pulling the wool over the Amerikan public’s eyes in preparation for more “fascist” measures.
‘Johnson’s Challenge’ also noted Johnson’s message of expanding trade with Eastern Europe’s Soviet-bloc countries, and used it is as evidence of political “revisionism” and a conciliatory attitude towards the US on the part Khruschev.
Peking Review’s second article, ‘Johnson Administration’s Self-Exposure,’ written after the announcement that US troop build-up would increase to 480,000, made the claim that Johnson is pursuing and aggressive war. It stated, “facts have again irrefutably proved that the louder the U.S. aggressors sing the tune of “peace,” the more feverish are their efforts to fan the flames of their aggressive war in Vietnam.” Commenting the the Johnson’s ‘peace offensive, the article said that as”‘peace’ tricks failed,” the US would redouble its military focus in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Mihn, the leader of the Vietnamese Communists, also responded to parts of Johnson’s speech, particularly Johnson’s narrative of the coflict, though a year later and in a letter to the US president. “Vietnam is thousands of miles away from the United States. The Vietnamese people have never done any harm to the United States. But contrary to pledges made by its representative at the 1954 Geneva conference, the US has ceaselessly intervened in Vietnam, it has unleased and intesified and war of aggression in North Vietnam with a view to prolonging the partition of Vietnam and turning south Vietnam into a neocolony and a military base of the Unites States. For over two years now, the US government has, with its air and naval forces, carried war to the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, an independent sovereign country.” Ho described the destruction caused by the war and noted the bombings of towns, villages, factories and schools and said the vietnamese people had united for the just cause of “genuine independence, freedom and true peace.”
Though many contemporary critics were soon to find fault with Johnson and rally against him, his presidency was hardly be said to be a failure, especially over the longer run. Of the three major themes of Johnson’s speech that year, the intentions of each were fullfiled in a reasonable, though not always glaring massive. Though the US not be able to stop the Communists from taking over the country, the massive devastation wrought by the US as well as the unfulfilled peace terms effectively prevented the progressive social programs and changes that might have otherwise been instituted, the ‘Great Society’ programs, though many sat aside the next year, were in combination with Civil Rights reforms and general prosperity to close inequalities and mute mass discontent. The US was able to help induce the collapse of the Soviet Union and establish itself as the dominant super power, though a new opposition movement would arrises in the form of Muslim Fundementalism. Johnsons more out there and limited reforms, those related to the environement.
every trend described, did at one time or another
‘Dirksen Asks Peace Efforts Backed by War,” Toledo Blade Jan 18th, 1966
‘The Presidency: the Union and War.” Time Magazine. Jan, 22th 1966. http://www.time.com
‘The Presidency: back in the ring.” Time Magazine. Jan 28th, 1966. http://www.time.com
Renmin Ribao, ‘Johnson’s Challenge, Comments of US President’s State of the Union Message.’ Peking Review. Jan 21st 1966. http://www.massline.info
Renmin Robao, ‘Johnson Administration’s Self-Expousure.’ Peking Review, Jan 28th, 1966 http://www.massline.info
Ho Chi Mihn, Letter to Lyndon Lohnson, Feb 15th, 1967, http://www.massline.info