Thursday, June 25, 2009

False Saviors - LBJ

Without superior air power America is a bound and throttled giant, impotent and easy prey to any yellow dwarf with a pocket knife.

-----Congressman Lyndon Johnson, 1948

I'll always remember LBJ as a demented half-drunk mockery of manliness, a dirty young, middle-aged and old man who called in secretaries to give him head and generals to give him body counts with equal relish.

-----Journalist Andrew Kopkind

He was vain, vindictive, and ignorant. Years went by without his reading a book, and he never read if he could avoid it. Though he preferred to receive information orally, he rarely listened.

The prototypical extrovert, he was devoid of scruples but gripped by a passion to "get things done." From his earliest days the shallowest of status markers captivated him: to enlarge his reputation, surpass the achievements of all his rivals and friends, to gain greater power, to earn more money than anyone else. In pursuit of these ends he became a long-winded bore, endlessly repeating cliches about freedom, especially the entrepreneurial freedom to pile up money. In fact, money and power were all he thought about.

His ideological moorings were nationalist, racist, and sexist. He rated the white race superior to all others, Americans superior to other nationalities, and men superior to women. He held doubters in contempt, even as he questioned his own masculinity, and he yearned to be judged a manly man by John Kennedy's "Best and Brightest," who he feared found him lacking in balls.

He divided males into men and boys. Men were activists and doers who forged business empires and preferred action to talk. Their aggression and can-do optimism gave them the edge in a tough and savage world of other men, and earned them the respect of dominant men. Boys were talkers and writers and intellectuals. Like women, they sat around thinking and criticizing and doubting instead of acting. When he discovered that a member of his administration had turned dovish on Vietnam, Johnson once complained, "Hell, he has to squat to piss."

Elected to the House in 1937 as a New Dealer, he quickly joined forces with anti-labor Southerners. In 1943, he voted to override FDR's veto of the anti-labor Smith-Connally Act, which allowed the government to seize industries threatened by strikes, and four years later he did the same to override Truman's veto of Taft-Hartley, which required union leaders to take an anti-Communist loyalty oath. When he ran for the Senate in 1948 he launched his campaign with Herman Brown of Brown & Root, one of the most anti-labor employers in the country, sitting approvingly on the platform behind him. Once elected he advocated "right-to-work" laws, i.e., illegal to unionize. His anti-labor record proved so extreme that Texas unions were induced to endorse Johnson's right-wing opponent,"Coke" Stevenson, the first time Texas labor had endorsed a candidate for the Senate in half a century. Remembering his friends, Johnson removed a fair labor standards provision in an $8 billion highway bill during his first term as Senate majority leader.

Though Vietnam was his greatest crime, Johnson was also responsible for a series of other coups or interventions that ultimately slaughtered thousands of civilians. In 1964, for example, the Johnson Administration overthrew the democratically elected government of Brazil. The administration of Joao Goulart had committed the grave sin of introducing agrarian reform, ending capital flight, and nationalizing a subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph, which they ungratefully complained was "bleeding the Brazilian economy." Washington quickly sounded the alarm at Brazil's "anti-Americanism" and "drift to the left."

The coup began with the U.S. Sixth Fleet standing by offshore while Brazilian troops and tanks advanced on Rio de Janeiro. Encountering only scattered resistance, the Army seized power with U.S. approval, cutting short a Brazilian investigation of C.I.A. bribery. U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon cabled Washington that the Generals had carried out a "democratic rebellion," which constituted "a great victory for the free world," one that "should create a greatly improved climate for private investments."

General Castelo Branco emerged as the president of Brazil's new neo-Nazi national security state. He shut down the Congress, murdered his political opponents, suspended habeas corpus for "political crimes," outlawed criticism of the president, placed labor unions under government control, and maintained internal security by death squad. As protests against his dictatorship mounted, his security forces fired into crowds, burned down homes, and tortured disobedient priests defending the poor. Washington and Wall Street applauded his program of "moral rehabilitation."

The result was the usual free market "miracle." Income distribution shifted sharply upward, the investment climate improved, the World Bank came running with loans, and U.S. aid increased in tandem with torture, killing, hunger, disease, infant death, and profits. A 1975 World Bank study - the high water mark of the economic "miracle" years - reported that 68% of Brazilians had less than the minimum caloric requirement for normal physical activity and that 58% of children suffered from malnutrition.

A year after the coup in Brazil Johnson sent 23,000 Marines to invade the Dominican Republic and suppress a democratic revival there. In 1963, Dominicans had celebrated the end of 31 years of dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo (who had governed by systematic terror and been shot to death) by electing Juan Bosch en masse. Bosch refused to buy planes for the air force, announced agrarian reform, supported a divorce law, low rent housing, and modest nationalization of business, and raised wages. Fed up with the "Communist" administration after just seven months, Generals Toni Imbert and Wessin and Wessin, both graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas in Panama, deposed Bosch in a barracks revolt at dawn. The Johnson Administration quickly recognized the new regime of generals.

In 1965, the people rose in revolt attempting to restore Bosch to the presidency. Rooftop snipers machine-gunned loyalist troops, rebel units (loyal to Bosch) occupied street corners and patrolled the highways, and ecstatic radio announcements propelled thousands of Dominicans into the streets shouting "Viva Bosch." There they snatched up weapons from arsenals thrown open by the rebel army, and fashioned Molotov cocktails using gasoline donated by filling stations. When Bosch forces took over the public air waves a parade of locals appeared on T.V. denouncing the misery wrought by dictatorship and IMF austerity.

The U.S. Embassy shrieked of ransacked embassies, Castro-style mass executions, and victorious Bosch supporters parading through the streets with their victims' heads on poles. Johnson declared that, “some 1,500 innocent people were murdered and shot, and their heads cut off.” This was pure fabrication. The only large-scale massacres were carried out by loyalist troops with the military and diplomatic support of the Johnson Administration. Thousands of Bosch party activists, local leaders, and members were jailed, beaten, or killed. Declaring he would not permit a second Cuba, Johnson dispatched the Marines, their fifth appearance in the Dominican Republic in the 20th century. Landing at the Generals' air base at San Isidro they fought side-by-side with the junta's troops, blasting through rebel forces on the Duarte bridge with bazookas, 106-mm recoilless rifles, and machine guns. President Johnson brazenly lied to the American people, saying that the U.S. was a neutral arbiter between the contending forces and had "attacked no one."

The U.S. immediately recognized the new police state headed by Donald Reid Cabral, a pro-American businessman who U.S. Ambassador William Taply Bennett fondly called "Donny." The "non-totalitarian" (i.e., anti-Communist) dictator received more money - $100 million - in direct and guaranteed loans from Washington than any Dominican regime in history. The fact that Cabral "had no popular support," according to secret U.S. polls, and that Bosch and his party were still the legally constituted authority of the Dominican Republic, didn't matter at all to LBJ. Nor did the fact that no Dominican lives need have been lost had Washington given support to Bosch's movement.

1965 was also the year that Johnson massively escalated the war in Vietnam, embarking the U.S. and the world on a disaster that would ultimately cost millions of lives. Johnson could never shake his conviction that the U.S. enjoyed a Divine Right to determine the internal politics of Vietnam, and that the series of South Vietnamese dictatorships imposed by Washington deserved "independence" from the overwhelmingly popular National Liberation Front attempting to dislodge them.

LBJ insisted on Hanoi's unconditional surrender in Vietnam. He couldn't stop patting himself on the back for his "generosity" in being willing to let them surrender. If North Vietnam stopped helping the National Liberation Front try to expel the U.S. from the country, LBJ was willing to order his occupying army to cease fire, but not to leave. His moral blindness was so extreme that he never understood that the Vietnamese people had every right to insist on their independence and expel a government imposed on them by a foreign power.

For U.S. troops the war was a pointless slaughter. Battles were a succession of ambushes and fire-fights in mid-jungle. Holding fixed terrain was impossible. Patrols traversed the same ground repeatedly in vicious manhunts for "Vietcong," who were indistinguishable from the civilian population that the Pentagon conceded overwhelmingly supported them. Progress was marked by kill ratio, a statistic that defined massacre as victory.

U.S. soldiers fought in defense of a military junta that had had ten changes of government between 1963 and 1965. At the Honolulu Conference in the latter year, Johnson told then South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, (who declared that Hitler was his only hero) that "when you talk about building schools instead of beheading teachers, and when you speak of erecting clinics instead of firing mortars and destroying them, you speak our language." Bertrand Russell, with far greater realism, called LBJ's war policy "a barbaric . . . aggressive war of conquest." LBJ never realized that backing Hitler enthusiasts could hardly produce any other kind of war.

Anyone who was insufficiently optimistic about the prospects for U.S. "victory" in Vietnam, let alone those who opposed Washington's war policy regardless of its prospects for "success," Johnson quickly condemned as unwitting dupes of Communist conspiracy or outright traitors. In 1965 he told his staff that "the communists already control the three major networks and the forty major outlets of communication." He ordered the F.B.I. to spy on Congress. He described the Soviets as being "in constant touch with anti-war Senators." He said the wayward Senators "ate lunch and went to parties at the Soviet embassy; children of their staff people dated Russians. The Russians think up things for the Senators to say." Faced with massive protests in the spring of 1967 he told Time Magazine's Hugh Sidey that "most of the protests are Communist-led." He had every government intelligence agency investigate, spy on, and undermine anti-war activists. He rejected a C.I.A. analysis that concluded that the peace movement was not under Communist direction.

He never questioned the wisdom of basing economic "health" on massive war spending. During Johnson's time in office the U.S. spent about $50 billion a year in pump-priming war expenditures, nevertheless he never declared that his "Great Society" required putting an end to these gargantuan allocations in support of imperial war. Quite the contrary. He agreed that "the business of America was business" and no business was better than the war business.

Johnson also gave support to one of the greatest massacres of the 20th century. In 1965, after an alleged Communist coup attempt in Indonesia, pro-U.S. General Raden Suharto launched a bloodbath that killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, while hundreds of thousands more were jailed in terrible conditions and held for years without trial. A National Intelligence Estimate in September 1965 pinpointed the source of the problem, warning that if the efforts of the mass-based PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) "to energize and unite the Indonesian nation" were to succeed, "Indonesia would provide a powerful example for the underdeveloped world and hence a credit to communism and a setback for Western prestige." The threat was overcome via mass slaughter and the installation of the Suharto dictatorship. With the massacre underway Johnson's Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green that the "campaign against PKI" must continue and that the Indonesian military was the "only force capable of creating order" and must continue doing so with Washington's help for a "major military campaign against PKI."

H.W. Brands, author of a work claiming that "The United States did not overthrow Sukarno, and it was not responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths involved in the liquidation of the PKI," concedes however that it did what it could to encourage the Indonesian army to wipe out the only mass popular organization in Indonesia; subsequently hesitated to become directly involved only because it feared such efforts might prove counterproductive; and finally, greeted reports of accelerating massacre as "good news," after which U.S. aid to Indonesia flowed freely and Washington eagerly turned to assisting Suharto's military dictatorship. In 1967, Robert McNamara told LBJ privately that U.S. military assistance to the Indonesian army had "encouraged it to move against the PKI when the opportunity was presented." Especially valuable, he said, was the program bringing Indonesian military personnel to the U.S. for training at American universities, where they apparently learned lessons of great usefulness at home. A U.S. Congressional report concluded that U.S. training and continued communication with Indonesian military officers had paid "enormous dividends."

As if this were not enough, Johnson was also a fervent Zionist who knew that nuclear bomb materials were being diverted from a U.S. plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania to Israel, but did nothing to stop it. And he covered up Israel's involvement in the attack on the clearly marked U.S.S. Liberty, which was sailing off the Gaza Strip in international waters during the Six Day War. Johnson referred to the strike as a "deliberate attack" in an off the record press briefing, and his ambassador to the U.N. Arthur Goldberg told Israel's ambassador to the U.S. that U.S. tape recordings revealed that the Israeli pilots knew they were attacking an American ship. Thirty-four men were killed and seventy-five wounded. Johnson helped insure the American public never heard about it.

Johnson was most proud of his domestic social policy. Announcing the War on Poverty in January, 1964, he declared grandly: "This Administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America . . . Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it."(emphasis added) But in reality LBJ had no clue how to end poverty and proved unwilling to commit the resources necessary to waging a serious fight. He naively accepted the anti-poverty "wisdom" of poverty experts, who recommended overcoming the "culture of poverty" by "maximum feasible participation." In other words, they saw nothing wrong with the capitalist system, only with those it oppressed, and as good liberals they could never understand poor people's lack of enthusiasm for "participation" in degrading and exploitative social relations.

Unsurprisingly therefore, LBJ's Great Society programs were premised on the idea that giving a little to the poor - very little - would make it easier to continue giving a lot to the rich. He was quite incapable of seeing the situation with the clarity of writer James Baldwin, who correctly noted that, "the civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo." So it was that LBJ launched his doomed crusade, which as I.F. Stone noted in 1965, even with expenditures doubled, which LBJ called for that year, produced barely $1 billion in new spending for social programs. In short, the "Great Society" had but a microscopic claim on resources compared with the tens of billions of dollars the U.S. was spending annually in its effort to obliterate Indochina. And, when push came to shove, LBJ deliberately held down poverty relief expenditures in order to fund the Vietnam slaughter.

Even on racial matters, supposedly LBJ's crowning achievement, Johnson was no bargain. He proved unwilling to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (mostly black, but open to all races) when it arrived at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 to challenge the segregationist delegation representing Mississippi that year. Johnson attempted to bribe the MFDP by offering them two "at large" seats alongside the white supremacist delegates, but MFDP's Fannie Lou Hamer, indignant at his proposed compromise, protested: "We didn't come all this way for no two seats!" Johnson tried to prevent her from speaking at the convention. Said his Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "The President has said he that he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention." The following year when Johnson declared to a joint session of Congress, "we shall overcome," radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, just back from Vietnam and observing the speech from the House Press Gallery, "grew suddenly dizzy in the head and queasy in the stomach and nearly pitched over the railing." (Kopkind, "The Thirty Years' Wars," p. 251)

Furthermore, when riots exploded in black ghettos, LBJ faulted not his own prioritizing of war over social spending, but black people themselves for being "ungrateful" for the token efforts he had made on their behalf. Even the establishment press saw more clearly than LBJ. The Boston Globe commented in the wake of the 1967 Newark riots that they represented "a revolution of black Americans against white Americans, a violent petition for the redress of long-standing grievances." The Globe insisted that the civil rights laws and antipoverty measures so boasted of by LBJ had actually done little to alter fundamental conditions for blacks, who continued to live in slums, attend inferior schools, suffer high unemployment, and experience pervasive hostility from the wider white society. The Kerner Commission, assembled to investigate the causes of U.S. race riots, agreed, saying that a national commitment to spending large amounts of money on job training, welfare, housing, and anticrime programs was necessary if racism and poverty were to be cured. But the kind of money the Commission was talking about was earmarked for Vietnam.


Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant - Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, (Oxford, 1998)

I.F. Stone, In A Time of Torment, 1961-1967, (Little, Brown and Company, 1967)

Andrew Kopkind, The Thirty Years' Wars - Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist 1965-1994, (Verso, 1995)

William Blum, Killing Hope - U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, (Common Courage, 1995)

Todd Gitlin, The Sixties - Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (Bantam, 1987)

David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, (Penguin, 1969)

Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections - U.S. Staged Elections in The Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador, (South End, 1984)

Noam Chomsky, Year 501 - The Conquest Continues, (South End, 1993)

Noam Chomsky, "Hegemony or Survival - America's Quest For Global Dominance," (Metropolitan Books, 2003)

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, (South End, 1979)

Tad Szulc, Dominican Diary, (Dell, 1965)

Michael Parenti, The Anti-Communist Impulse, (Random House, 1969)

William H. Blanchard, Aggression American Style, (Goodyear, 1978)

Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire - Century of the Wind, (Pantheon, 1988)

Michael Albert, Parecon - Life After Capitalism, (Verso, 2003)

David Harris, Our War (Random House, 1996)

Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, (Ballantine, 1977)

Lawrence Wittner, Cold War America: From Hiroshima to Watergate, (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1978)

Alfred Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection - What Price Peace? (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1978

Tom Segev, 1967 - Israel, The War, And The Year That Transformed The Middle East, (Henry Holt, 2005)


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