Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were presidents during one of the most turbulent periods in American history. Both grappled with significant social unrest and the question of whether to continue involvement in the Vietnam War. Although these two presidents faced similar problems during their presidency, their presidential style and approach to these problems was fundamentally different. However, Johnson and Nixon shared a willingness to mislead the public and their associates in order to pursue their own course of action.
Johnson and Nixon had fundamentally different presidential styles which explains much of the differences in their approaches to domestic and foreign policy. Johnson had a grandiose and domineering political style which he learned in part from his father who was a local politician in Texas. He was gifted at persuading people to his point of view, often relying on heavy-handed tactics that have been referred to as ?The Treatment.? The Treatment included:
supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat . . . Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken . . . Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless . . . . (Dallek).
Johnson used deception, charm and coercion to achieve the support of persons with very different opinions. Achieving political consensus was something Johnson did well, and he sharpened these skills while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas. Although Johnson sought to control the actions of those who were necessary to achieve his will, he also suffered from a deep-rooted ?neediness,? a desire to be liked by everyone, to outdo his predecessors, and to be known as the best president in American history. He always wanted the approval of his advisors and the American public, and he viewed criticisms of his policies as personal attacks which led him to double his resolve and intensify his efforts. Johnson?s modest upbringing and exposure to crude, wheeling and dealing Southern politics influenced his style and caused him contempt for those with pedigreed backgrounds. He was also influenced heavily by his exposure to poverty and discrimination in the South, particularly while teaching Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas. These experiences and his desire to be needed and praised gave him a strong desire to help the least advantaged in society.
Nixon, like Johnson, was heavily influenced by his middle-class background ground. He grew up assisting his father with running a grocery store in Los Angeles. Because his family was not wealthy, he was not able to attend Ivy League colleges, and as a result, Nixon was tormented by a feeling of insecurity and by a need to prove himself to those of the privileged class throughout his political career. Although both Nixon and Johnson shared a need to prove themselves, Nixon was not comfortable with traditional political methods as was Johnson. Whereas Johnson had a larger-than-life political style, Nixon was shy and shrank from the limelight. He was awkward and uncomfortable in front of people, and many described him as ?stiff.? While Johnson was a master at persuasion, Nixon was uncomfortable with ?glad-handling and pressing the flesh.? (Wicker 24). Rather than relying on these extroverted tactics to prove himself, Nixon believed in the power of discipline and in unceasing effort. Nixon felt that he could overcome the snubs and slights of the privileged class ?by excellence [and] personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.? (Wicker 9). Nixon was introverted and self-reliant. Whereas Johnson used persuasive tactics to build a consensus among his dissenters, Nixon shunned the help of his advisors and cabinet members, and instead contemplated issues privately in isolation. The differences in character between Johnson and Nixon influenced the course of their policies.
Johnson?s domestic policy was characterized by massive social legislation and a desire to effect sweeping reforms of America?s social problems. Upon taking office in 1963, Johnson took advantage of the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to push for the passage of civil rights and economic legislation that Kennedy had supported. Although Johnson had not always supported this legislation, viewing it as political suicide, he recognized the opportunity that the emotional reaction to Kennedy?s assassination created, as well as the need to present himself as a leader to the mourning nation. He employed the expert consensus building skills that he had learned as Senate Majority Leader, and within months after taking office, ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Tax Act of 1964 and the Economic Opportunity Act. The Tax Act enacted a tax cut during a boom economy to enhance spending and production, while the Economic Recovery Act focused on training those who were unemployed and problems such as health, education and medical care that affected the poorest Americans. However, Johnson?s desire to outshine those who came before him led him to define his own domestic policy that was not tied to Kennedy. In typically grandiose fashion, Johnson announced to the country his vision for a ?Great Society? in which all Americans would enjoy equality, freedom and economic prosperity. After he was reelected in 1964, Johnson ensured the passage of more social legislation than occurred even during the New Deal. This legislation had ambitious goals and resulted in the creation of federal aid to education, medicare, housing subsidies to low income Americans, Operation Headstart, new mental health facilities and aid to urban mass transit. Johnson was obsessed with greatness and with solving all of America?s problems. One White House correspondent wrote that Johnson viewed himself as a ?great popular leader, something like Franklin Roosevelt, except more so, striding over the land and cupping the people in his hand and molding a national unity that every President dreams about but none is ever able to achieve.? ( Chafe 245). Because Johnson?s vision was so large, however, it led him to settle for less than the most effective solution. He was concerned with his image as a great leader which often led him to place a greater emphasis on propaganda than carefully thought programs. In the end, Johnson spent more time creating the illusion of unity and consensus then addressing the underlying tensions and divisions that American society was grappling with. Furthermore, the resources and attention that his programs would have required to be successful were increasingly diverted to the war in Vietnam. Despite the fact that Johnson had devoted more energy to social problems and to brining Americans together than had any other American President, his presidency ended in the midst of great social protest and upheaval. His presidency saw the emergence of a strong civil rights movement, anti-war movement and women?s rights movement. Ironically, although Johnson desperately sought to achieve unity, his presidency ended in the midst of divisiveness and civil unrest.
Johnson had attempted to be known for achieving consensus and unity amongst all Americans despite their differences. Although Nixon appeared to share this vision when he promised to ?bring the American people together . . . to bridge the generation gap . . to bridge the gap between the races? during his presidential campaign, during his presidency he exploited the divisions in American society to achieve a political power base.? (Chafe 384). Nixon sought to appeal to those Americans who were by the rapid changes in American society that were reflected by Johnson?s policies as well as by the growing civil unrest. When Nixon was campaigning for president, he promised ?law and order? and claimed to speak for the ?forgotten? and ?silent? Americans. (Chafe 383). Nixon catered to these Americans in his domestic policy by attacking liberal programs. Although he actually achieved the passage of significant progressive social legislation, including welfare reform, strict environmental laws, and consumer protection legislation, Nixon?s legacy was to begin the assault on liberal ideology that has characterized all subsequent Republican administrations. He criticized school desegregation in the South and instead argued for ?freedom of choice? plans which permitted blacks to choose the school they wished to attend. He attacked the liberalism of the Supreme Court and focused on nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Whereas Johnson desired to win the American people by bringing them together through consensus, Nixon sough to achieve a ?conservative ascendancy through polarization.? (Chafe 387). Like Johnson, however, Nixon faced the problem of emerging social unrest, intensified by his policies in Vietnam. Student activism was at an all time high during his presidency and led to draft resistance and campus protest. While Johnson reacted to these tensions with a sense of betrayal, Nixon responded with the covert determinism that characterized his style. He initiated subversive efforts against left wing organizations, and enlisted the aid of the FBI and CIA to infiltrate such organizations. He organized conservative counter-demonstrations. And, he continued to use the tensions in America to his political advantage by mobilizing the disaffected white middle Americans. He catered to the right by vetoing national daycare legislation as ?counterculturish? and by taking a stance against abortion. He openly criticized the ?terrorists of the far left? and claimed that ?[t]he time has come to draw the line, . . . for the Great Silent Majority to stand up and be counted against the appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.? (Chafe 416). Ultimately, the legacy of Nixon?s presidency was to mobilize a coalition of conservative disaffected middle Americans, many in the ?Sun Belt? ? the states in the South plus Texas, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona ? who would later play a significant role in undoing much of the unity that Johnson and his programs had sought to achieve.
Despite the vast differences in their domestic policy, Johnson and Nixon?s approach to foreign policy, and in particular the crisis in Vietnam, was similar in many ways. When Johnson assumed office, he initially planned to maintain the policy of the Kennedy administration which was to continue increasing the American presence in South Vietnam without beginning a major escalation. From the beginning, however, Johnson viewed foreign policy as a manner of commitment, honor and courage, a result of his Southern-style politics. Furthermore, he understood the political importance of maintaining a strong stance on anti-communism in order to continue to have support for his favored domestic policies. Finally, he subscribed to the ?domino theory??that a failure to stop the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam would raise the possibility that all of Southeast Asia would be lost to the communists. For these reasons, Johnson began to authorize secret sabotage missions in Vietnam by ordering the bombarding of coastal bases and sending guerrilla teams into the north. After he had determined that America should begin a more aggressive campaign in North Vietnam, he seized the occasion of the North Vietnamese attack against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in August, 1964 to push Congress to pass a resolution authorizing Johnson to take all military action necessary in Southeast Asia. However, Johnson achieved this broad statement of Congressional support by manipulating the facts of the Tonkin attack and by lying about his true objectives. After this event, Johnson began to severely escalate American troop?s involvement in South Vietnam. He initiated a massive bombing campaign in the North in February 1966, and escalated the presence of American troops in the region. He began to take the war very personally, viewing it as ?his war being fought by his boys, with his helicopters and his guns.? (Dallek). He refused to listen to criticism and concern by his advisors, and would shut out from political debate all those who disagreed with him. As with his domestic policy, Johnson focused on maintaining the appearance of unity and consensus, despite serious tensions in his administration concerning the appropriate course in Vietnam. He misled the public about the success of the increased American mission in Vietnam, despite the fact that private reports indicated that the bombing attacks and enhanced mission had failed to affect the resolve of North Vietnam. Johnson became obsessed with winning the war in Vietnam and engaged in a policy of committing even greater resources in the fact of negative evidence. In order to increase the troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125, 000 in 1965, he lied to the American public and told them that he could do this without increasing taxes or calling upon the reserves. By 1967, 14,000 American troops had died in Vietnam and fifty-seven percent of Americans disapproved of Johnson?s handling of the war. Johnson ended his presidential term bitter and frustrated by the emerging criticism of his policy in Vietnam. He felt betrayed by the American people, and he refused to believe that America could not achieve its will with such ?a little piss-ant country.?(Chafe 291).
Superficially, Nixon?s foreign policy in Vietnam departed from Johnson?s. Upon taking office, Nixon was publicly committed to ending the war in Vietnam (although, he did this in large part based on political necessity, which explained the initial basis for Johnson?s policy as well). Nixon came up with the ?Nixon doctrine? in which he argued that the South Koreans would have to exercise more self-help. Under this proposal, American troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam, and the United States would provide funds to support the takeover of fighting responsibility by the South Vietnamese forces. However, like Johnson, Nixon had private objectives about the war in Vietnam that he was determined to achieve, even if it meant concealing facts and lying to the American people and even to his chief advisors. Privately, Nixon devised a ?secret plan? to escalate the war in Vietnam and to convince the North as well as Russia and China that he was capable of deploying nuclear weapons if provoked. Like Johnson, Nixon shut out all advisors who disagreed with his plan, including the State and Defense department. He relied primarily on Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, to execute his plans. Nixon conducted a massive bombing raid with Kissinger?s assistance against the communist bases in Cambodia, without the knowledge of the American public. Nixon?s need to prove himself to America and to the elite policy advisors who were criticizing him led him to begin to push more publicly for increased American efforts in the region. When he decided to send American troops into Cambodia in 1969 to destroy the headquarters of the North Vietnamese, he attempted to rally the public with courageous rhetoric like that Johnson had repeatedly relied on. Like Johnson, he viewed the war in Vietnam as a test of personal strength and honor. He stated: ?We will not be humiliated . . . It is not our power but our will that is being tested tonight.? (Chafe 397). The raid in Cambodia was not successful and resulted in massive public protest both in the United States and internationally. But it did indicate to North Vietnam and Russia how far Nixon would go to achieve his plan. For the next two years, Nixon continued to withdraw troops while engaging in repeated acts of military intimidation. His final ?secret strategy? involved a massive bombing raid of North Vietnam during Christmas week 1972, in which troops devastated hospitals, residential areas and factories. One week later, North Vietnam agreed to a peace accord that was acceptable to the South. Although Nixon is credited with ending the war in Vietnam, 40% of the U.S. casualties in the Vietnam War and half a million enemy casualties, occurred during his presidency. Like Johnson, Nixon conducted much of his policy in Vietnam in secret and without acknowledging the disagreement of the American public. Both Johnson and Nixon?s personal view of their efforts in Vietnam, and their refusal to lose that war for personal reasons, resulted in casualties of American and Vietnamese soldiers on a catastrophic scale.
At least superficially, the presidencies of Lydnon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon shared little in common. Johnson operated in a domineering fashion, achieving consensus through fast talking and manipulation. Nixon worked in isolation, and executed his will through a few chosen advisors while shutting out the rest of his administration. Domestically, their policies were radically different. Johnson sought to unify the country?s many divisions through activist civil and social legislation, while Nixon sought to exploit the divisiveness in America to gain the support of alienated white middle class Americans. Johnson will be remembered for escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, while Nixon will be remembered for ending that war. Despite such differences, however, Johnson and Nixon shared a fundamental willingness to achieve their own agenda despite public protest or the criticism by their advisors. Both were driven by insecurity and the need to prove themselves, and this led them to rely heavily on duplicity and outright deception to achieve their will. Their presidencies are remarkable examples of the effect that one man?s will can have on shaping the course of American history.