Monday, March 15, 2010

What's In A Word?

Forty-five years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on national television, urging them to pass legislation that guaranteed the voting rights of all Americans regardless of color. A determined and pugnacious Johnson rocked back and forth like a heavyweight looking for an opening as he admonished Congress for taking eight months to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and demanded that it pass voting rights legislation expeditiously. He got his wish: The 1965 Voting Rights Act passed both houses in less than four months.

The immediate impetus for Johnson's speech was the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, which deteriorated into mayhem before it got out of Selma. An appalled nation watched televised accounts of police attacking peaceful marchers with clubs, police dogs, and fire hoses. Johnson seized the opportunity to deliver one of the most momentous speeches of the American presidency. In the first five minutes of the speech, Johnson cut to the chase: "There is no Negro problem...there is only an American problem." About a minute into the speech, he framed the events in Selma as a pivotal event in the American fight for freedom:
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

To southern politicians, Johnson's reference to Appomattox must have felt like a battering ram to the solar plexus. By invoking Lee's surrender to Grant, he sent the message that the Civil War had not been about states rights; it had been about ending slavery and extending freedom to all Americans. With that single word, he undercut the white South's entire rationale for opposing civil rights legislation, aligning it with slavery and injustice. With that single word, he forged a connection between the ideals of the Revolution, the fight to end slavery, and the fight to extend political rights to all. In effect, Johnson exposed the southern deification of states rights as a lie to rationalize injustice.

Worse for them, Johnson was a southern politician himself, so no segregationist could complain that a carpetbagging northerner was imposing his values on a southern way of life. That, combined with the images from Selma, swept away the fiction -- the lies, really -- that the south had and would continue to have racial harmony if only they were left to their own devices.

Johnson was nothing if not a masterful politician who well understood the import and effect of political language. He had alternatives to Appomattox: He could have selected from among such uncontroversial and more immediate patriotic locales as San Juan Hill, Chateau-Thierry,  and Normandy. But by choosing Appomattox, he sent a message to the white south: From here on in, they had a choice of being on the right side of history or the wrong side of history. But they should be under no illusions that they were on the moral side of events...

My father remembers the speech well. We lived in Columbus, Ohio at the time, little knowing that soon we would be Texans ourselves. Dad watched it on television and thought it was great. He listed Johnson's many accomplishments in education, civil rights, and health care, then -- like almost every liberal of his generation -- lamented that Vietnam had destroyed a potentially great presidency...

No one knew it then, but 1965 was to date the historical high water mark for the liberal presidency. Johnson was immensely popular: When he flew to Detroit for a speech, cheering throngs lined his route from the airport. In addition to the Voting Rights Act, 1965 saw major federal initiatives in education and the passage of Medicare/Medicaid...

You can write to the Texas Education Agency to express concern about the content of Texas textbooks, which will ripple out to many other states. The link is here...


Cowtown Pattie said...

I am not sure our country could ever replicate a Lyndon Johnson. He did not come from wealth, no silver spoon, and his parents valued education. Lyndon, himself a teacher, put that teacher mentality to good use as a US President. He was truly from the "school of hard knocks", though his personal charm opened many doors for sure.

Progressive conservative? I think that's how I've heard him described. No argument, Johnson was ambitious, maybe even a little ruthless at times.

He was a larger than life character for sure.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

thanks for this thoughtful, knowledgeable post and for remembering this important anniversary.

let us hope that wars in iraq and afghanistan don't have the same effect on the obama presidency that the vietnam war had on johnson's. many have tried to expose the parallels between vietnam and iraq for over 8 years (yes, it has been eight years since shrub started gunning for iraq in his 2020 state of the union address) - but few in washington have really listened!

now we are nearing the 7th anniversary of the invasion and occupation of iraq.


peace bro!

thanks again

Foxessa said...

I'm not sure about putting it this way, that Vietnam destroyed his presidency. The way it appeared at that time to so many is that he destroyed his presidency with maintaining an unjust, undeclared war.

But in any case, with what he did via the War on Poverty and Civil Rights, the south was after him.

The same forces have brought down president after president.

They never got over owning the Presidency for so many administrations, with so very few exceptions, up to the Civil War.

Then they had to wait until Woodrow Wilson to get it again.

Love, C.

K. said...

American involvement in Vietnam goes back to Truman. No president, except for maybe Kennedy, was enthusiastic about it. (Who knows what went through Richard Nixon's tortured mind?) In The Best and the Brightest and The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam does as good a job as anyone in outlining the political context of the American part of the war.

Conservatives successfully blamed Truman and Franklin Roosevelt for the Communist triumph in the Chinese civil war. That combined with the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe opened the door for Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare of the 50s. Ten years after the fact, the party that had successfully prosecuted WW2 found itself painted as soft on communism.

Kennedy determined that, to get elected president, he had to run as a sort of New Democrat to the right of the Republicans on national defense and foreign policy issues. He chose Vietnam, where there was already a small American military presence, as the place to prove his cojones when it came to fighting communism. Escalation began under him.

There's some evidence that just before his death Kennedy had begun to sour on fighting in Vietnam, but we'll never know. As VP, Johnson had been mostly supportive of Kennedy's policy. As president, he decided to prosecute the war even more intensely, but as American commitment grew, his enthusiasm waned and he came to regard the war as unwinnable.

I don't think anyone knows why he continued to ask for (and get) more troops in the service of a futile cause. My father thinks Johnson had to show that he was as tough as the Kennedys. He certainly didn't want to become the first president to lose a war and greatly feared the political fallout of leaving without "victory." (Although as with Iraq, no one actually knew what "victory" meant, since internally it was clear by the mid-60s that the corrupt South Vietnamese regimes would never win in the field.) The hope in the end was that escalation would force the Viet Minh to a negotiated peace, but it was a thin hope. None of it adds up to justification.

Nixon's conduct of the war was criminal. He had the advantage of having the internal studies and of being new on the scene. He chose to withdraw troops and crank up the bombing to a scale exceeding that of WW2 in pursuit of an electoral promise of "peace with honor." Nixon's invasion of Cambodia widened the conflict and helped transform the Kmer Rouge from a fringe organization into the fanatics who organized the killing fields. Peace with honor indeed.

Watergate left it to Gerald Ford to conclude the American part of the war. On April 30, 1975, the last Americans in Vietnam clambered on to a helicopter hovering about the embassy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), pushing back collaborator Vietnamese desperate to evade the tender mercies of the victors. Thus the Vietnam war came to an ignoble and dishonorable end.

Foxessa said...

Still an undeclared war to the end.

Love, c.

K. said...

Sadly, it was worse than an undeclared war. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- in which North Vietnamese boats twice allegedly engaged the U.S. destroyer Maddox -- LBJ sought and received Senate approval to officially engage in Vietnam. This gave him the political cover he needed to escalate.

However, the second attack did not happen; the Maddox responded to "ghosts" created by vagaries of sea conditions, weather, and radar. This was known almost immediately. And the first attack may have been a matter of self-defense, as the U.S. destroyer appears to have opened fire first. Plus, there's the whole question of what the Maddox was doing in the first place (support covert land operations) even though it remained outside of territorial waters.