Presidents and Protesters: Political Rhetoric in the 1960s

By Theodore Otto Windt Jr. | Go to book overview
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also created the genuine problems of maintaining public support for the war. Johnson did not have a great problem, as some critics have maintained, explaining why we were in Vietnam or what his war aims were. He explained them very well, especially at Johns Hopkins and in his press conference. The problem developed later because few wanted to risk their lives for symbolic purposes. They wanted tangible goals and tangible results. Thus, Johnson later found himself attacked by both liberals and conservatives. The opponents of the war found Vietnam an unworthy place to demonstrate our symbolic efforts and found Vietnam unworthy of the mayhem and death inflicted on Americans, both in the war and on the domestic front. They wanted out. They did not want to be real people in somebody else's symbolic drama. ( President Reagan solved this problem without abandoning the principle by creating a proxy army, the Contras, to fight a proxy war in Nicaragua.) Supporters of the war effort found the symbolic goals insufficient and wanted to increase our effort to achieve victory over the North Vietnamese communists.

Johnson did have rhetorical problems in presenting his policies in Vietnam to the American public. But his real problem came from American strategic and military thinking, with applying the doctrine of credibility to the situation in Vietnam. It did not fit. It did not work. It ruined his presidency. Americans grew frustrated, impatient, and angry to the point that Johnson had to seek a negotiated settlement and withdraw from the 1968 presidential campaign.


President Johnson's press conference of July 28, 1965, was important because it announced a new American policy in Vietnam, a policy of Americanizing the war. In fact, Johnson made no bones about what was happening. In speaking about the dissension in South Vietnam, he said: "But we must not let this mask the central fact that this is really war." To that end, Johnson increased the number of combat troops in Vietnam by 50,000 and doubled the draft, two sure indications that America was going to war. In his opening statement Johnson used the main arguments for American involvement that would be used throughout the war to justify our continuing that effort.

Despite what critics have written, Johnson did lay out the arguments for war in explicit terms, that is, in terms of the anticommunist ideology in America. The goal of North Vietnamese aggression, Johnson said, was the dominion of communism over


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