The Selma Moment

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This week we’re taking the measure of the mystery known as LBJ at the Selma moment: not the cinema bully caught dragging his heels in movie theaters this month in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but the real bully who brought us both the Voting Rights Bill and the disastrous war in Vietnam.

We want to look at the big historical picture — and a strange coincidence. On March 7, 1965, black Southerners, organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, began a rolling series of marches to provoke an outrage and to raise the profile of the drive to vote.

Just a day later, on March 8, the first battalion of Marines landed at Da Nang, quietly announcing the beginning in earnest of the Vietnam war.

King, who had built a relationship with Johnson over the common cause of civil rights, once apologized to the President for seeming to recommend an American withdrawal in the press. But by 1967 King had grown revolted by the war. At the podium he began to offer a deep and stinging critique of war and of modern America itself. Johnson was furious.

It’s been 50 years since Johnson passed the pieces of legislation that would remake American society, 50 years since he started a war that would claim millions of Vietnamese lives. So it’s not just modern-day moviegoers and African-Americans — we’re all figuring out the legacy of the imperial, irascible Johnson, at home and abroad.

Guest List
Christian Appy
professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides and most recently, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity.
Robert Dallek
presidential historian and author of many books on many presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President and most recently, Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.
Chad Williams
associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, and author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.
Reading List
"Selma and Celebrating An American Triumph"
Dick Goodwin, The Washington Post
A defense and a celebration of Johnson's 1965 Selma speech as an "incandescent moment," neither black nor white, by the man who wrote it:
“The real hero of this struggle,” the president made clear, “is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. . . . He has called upon us to make good the promise of America.” The cause of civil rights must be our cause, he continued. “It’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice . . . and . . . we . . . shall . . . overcome.” After a moment’s silence, an electrical charge went through the room. In the well of the House, I tried to control my breathing. Later I heard that in Alabama King wept.
"No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection"
Francis Bator
Bator (a former LBJ staffer) tries to explain why Johnson, whom he considers an intelligent strategist, nevertheless drifted into Vietnam. Well worth reading in its entirety for the curious: Bator's theory is that Johnson wanted so badly to fulfill Roosevelt's legacy that he entered the war to cover his flank, almost in secret, and with a minimal commitment to staying.
What Matters in "Selma"
Jamelle Bouie, Slate
A defense of the depiction of LBJ in Selma; it's not a movie about presidents, it's a movie about people power.

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  • Christian Appy

    Enjoyed being on Christopher Lydon’s show to talk about the broader meanings of “The Selma Moment” and the extraordinary events of that decade–including the Vietnam War. I hope listeners will consider reading my book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “AMERICAN
    POWER AND THE NEW MANDARINS”: JOHNSON’S BRAIN TRUST

    Samuel
    “Sam” Houston Johnson (January 31, 1914 – December 11, 1978) was the younger
    brother of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Sam Johnson
    published a portrait of his brother: My
    Brother Lyndon, 1970

    In this memoir, (serialized in various periodicals) Sam
    Johnson keeps emphasizing that Lyndon, for all his vulgarian and outlandish and
    boorish tendencies, was actually both more perceptive than his academic
    advisors but infinitely “snowed” by their elite school credentials which he
    lacked. We of course cannot reduce foreign policy to personality quirks and
    flaws but we do have to see them as a co-factor in a “causal stew.”

    Lyndon Johnson’s self-inflicted paralysis vis-à-vis advisors
    like Walter Rostow (you’ll remember his “Stages of Economic Growth”, 1960, was
    subtitled “A Non-Communist Manifesto.”)

    “AMERICAN
    POWER AND THE NEW MANDARINS”: JOHNSON’S BRAIN TRUST

    Samuel
    “Sam” Houston Johnson (January 31, 1914 – December 11, 1978) was the younger
    brother of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Sam Johnson
    published a portrait of his brother: My
    Brother Lyndon, 1970

    In this memoir, (serialized in various periodicals) Sam
    Johnson keeps emphasizing that Lyndon, for all his vulgarian and outlandish and
    boorish tendencies, was actually both more perceptive than his academic
    advisors but infinitely “snowed” by their elite school credentials which he
    lacked. We of course cannot reduce foreign policy to personality quirks and
    flaws but we do have to see them as a co-factor in a “causal stew.”

    Lyndon Johnson’s self-inflicted paralysis vis-à-vis advisors
    like Walter Rostow (you’ll remember his “Stages of Economic Growth”, 1960, was
    subtitled “A Non-Communist Manifesto.”)

    Walter and his brother Eugene Rostow were leading examples of
    the phenomenon suggested by Noam Chomsky’s book, “The New Mandarins and
    American Power.”

    In fact, Walter and Eugene Rostow were neocons “avant la lettre”
    and Eugene Rostow spent the last years of his life very active on the ultraright
    fringe of Israeli think tanks and politics which ultimately took us from the
    Vietnam debacle to the Iraq 2003 one and now bids fair to help initiate a war
    with Iran and in the Ukraine (Bill Kristol and his wife are “in bed” with Ukrainian
    superhawks.

    This is a process of what the French writer Julien Benda called “la trahaison des clercs”

    ie. the opportunistic abdication of responsible analysis and advice by the intellectual and academic “mandarins.”

    SEE:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Houston_Johnson

    Richard Melson

  • rick

    People keep voting for the Commander and Chief of the most expensive, most destructive war machine in history and expect different results. Investing in dark ages institutions is hardly a way out of the dark.

  • Potter

    What a show; what a gathering of careful, knowledgeable, thoughtful historians, every one. And what a privilege to hear this discussion!

    This period caused my own political awakening and disgust….”makes you literally sick”…..”deeper than rational analysis” says it. LBJ, KNEW we were sending those boys (many my High School classmates) into what we called, year after year and cynically, a “meat grinder”. WE knew it. We were active about it! LBJ knew it. And yet LBJ could not bring himself to have the courage to admit it publicly and bring us home… the nerve, the cowardliness, the shame, to take his member out to say it because he couldn’t say it in public. THAT was too obscene. This ate away at him, it did. We will suffer from that war and the repercussions of it for long years to come. GW Bush felt we left VN too soon and should have “finished the job”. Yes I mean Viet Nam. Credibility, honor, prestige— we lost it all, and we deserved to, to this day because we have compounded those sins. When LBJ said he was not going to run, I felt relief. You could see how the war’s failure weighed on him. But what a cost we all paid, not the least in feeling for this country: what it is and stands for.

    Every night in the later years of that war we ate dinner with horrific broadcast images coming from that war that burned in.

    Regarding “Selma”, I don’t like to see movies that tell history from Hollywood, but it sounds like this one is not half bad and that it’s about MLK and LBJ’s role in the civil rights movement, I am tempted.

    Thank you so much for this dream team discussion.