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Who was Lyndon Johnson, from voting rights to Vietnam?
The Selma Moment
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.
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.
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.
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.
historian and author of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and most recently, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.
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.
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.