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Inglorious Bastards

Can Biden learn anything from LBJ’s missteps in Vietnam?
Side by side portraits of Lyndon Johnson and Joe Biden

In the final hours of March 1968, a special message from President Lyndon Johnson interrupted prime-time programming across the country. The major networks were under the impression it would be a speech about Vietnam, where war had been raging for years, and it was, mostly: Johnson spent forty minutes talking about it. He hoped to make clear to the American public that he was, ample evidence to the contrary, dedicated to bringing about swift and genuine peace in Southeast Asia, so much so that he used the word peace thirty-one times. He then announced he would not seek a second term.

Would that President Biden might consider doing the same.

Like LBJ nearly sixty years ago, Biden risks a total loss of legitimacy at a critical turning point in history. Admittedly, the parallels between the thirty-sixth and forty-sixth presidents are not exact. When LBJ was Biden’s age, he’d been dead for seventeen years, after all. But what does connect the two leaders is their stubborn faith in outdated modes of thinking during periods of historical tumult, as well as their complicity in the failed politics that brought about the tumult in the first place. For Johnson, this most obviously revealed itself in the Vietnam War. For Biden, this has most explicitly and recently revealed itself in his callous, fly-by-night response to Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza, which is now spiraling, unchecked, into a broader regional conflict.

It was clear at least as early as the commencement of the Tet Offensive in January 1968 that the American military was not going to be able to decisively defeat the North Vietnamese, no matter how many bombs were dropped or civilians killed. In the wake of the Viet Cong’s campaign, public approval of LBJ’s handling of the war plummeted to 26 percent, while the percentage of Americans who thought the whole imbroglio was, at best, a mistake soon hit 56 percent. The notion, held since the end of World War II, that America was a force for good, a glorious beacon of capitalism and democracy in a world threatened by the darkness of communism, was being rapidly discredited.

Much as he tried, LBJ could no longer rely on shadowy calculations and scheming to build political capital as he had for his entire career. The war—his war—had obliterated the entrenched political calculus that had worked just fine since the Great Depression. His response to having the political rug pulled from under him was to double down on magical thinking: all was going swimmingly in Vietnam, the White House claimed, when it clearly was not. By late March of 1968, LBJ had no choice but to make certain concessions, but bombing halts in Northern Vietnam were only partial and conditional.

To praise either Lyndon Johnson or Joe Biden as great leaders requires narrow compartmentalization. 

It was in the end all a murderous farce, doomed to failure. Like Sauron’s Ring, the American invasion of Vietnam blinded the self-aggrandizing Johnson and his coterie of whiz kids. It blinded them not only to their irredeemable roles in atrocities and moral abominations but also to the profound strife it was causing at home and all around the world. They were dead center in an abyss, and quite nakedly so. This is where Biden and the entire Democratic Party establishment find themselves right now.

Joe Biden came into the Senate in 1973 at the age of thirty. The Vietnam War, then under the direction of LBJ’s successor, Republican Richard Nixon, raged on. But Biden was in one way at sharp odds with many from his generation: he prided himself as not at all having taken part in the antiwar movement, which he described as being full of “assholes.” He has for years admitted to not feeling a “moral outrage” about the war in Vietnam and has described American involvement in it as merely a good faith mistake executed poorly on the technical level of policy—just one example of how Biden was something of a trailblazer for the technocratic careerists who took all the wrong lessons from the 1960s (or none at all) and came to dominate Washington.

This goes against the conventional wisdom surrounding the Biden presidency. Indeed, Biden is often credited in liberal circles for a supposedly keen political adaptability and instinctive, resonant empathy. Folks making these arguments will cite the “I feel your pain” posturing during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2022 passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, and the surprising results of the 2022 midterm elections as evidence that Biden is in fact a shrewd operator and in touch with people and the world. Some have seen fit to gesture toward an economic doctrine called “Bidenomics,” which they characterize as a sharp break from neoliberal orthodoxy but is really just a series of worthwhile but ultimately incremental reforms. A low bar, but alas.

Johnson, in his own right, has come to be understood as an innovative progressive icon in terms of domestic policy. His Great Society program famously brought about Medicare and Medicaid, numerous environmental protections, and rent subsidy programs. It provided low-income housing, expanded funding for the arts, and provided jobs for the unemployed. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which worked to outlaw segregation and enfranchise Black voters.

What Biden has been able to get done, particularly in the realm of American infrastructure—and with a much narrower margin in Congress than LBJ ever enjoyed—is without precedent this century and some time before that. But this is a lot less impressive when measured against the crises we face. “Clean energy tax credits” and subsidies for electric vehicles are nice enough until one considers the abominable compromises Biden made to get most of his signature legislation passed. Covid poverty relief measures, including an enhanced child tax credit, were useful until he let them expire. Biden calls himself the most pro-union president in American history, and he even became the first sitting president to visit a picket line, but he also quite blatantly blocked a railroad strike in 2022. That the Biden agenda is held up as paradigm-shifting is a miserable indictment of our winnowed political imagination.

To praise either Johnson or Biden as great leaders requires narrow compartmentalization. How, for instance, can we truly reconcile Johnson’s expansion of the American social safety net while mercilessly bombing Vietnam and destroying the lives of millions? And what of Biden’s active support for Israel’s right to kill tens of thousands of Palestinians?

Could Biden be said to demonstrate moral leadership? Since the latter stages of the 2020 Democratic primaries, he has maintained a minimal public presence by the standard of recent presidents. This puts him glaringly at odds with the demands of the present moment. When he bothers to deliver one of his rare prime-time addresses, it’s like no one in the White House wants people to actually watch them. He has stubbornly refused to employ tactics such as circumventing the Senate parliamentarian to get popular pieces of legislation passed, though he’s proven perfectly willing to abandon standard operating procedure to sell weapons to Israel—circumventing Congress to do so not once, but twice. And, frankly, I cannot think of one especially brave substantive stance Biden has taken on anything that was not merely symbolic, otherwise watered down, or morally compromised.

But it has ultimately been Biden’s involvement in the Israeli invasion of Gaza that has created the “emperor has no clothes” affect à la LBJ in the late 1960s. Given his established technocratic disregard for morality in war policy, we cannot be surprised by his actions around and rhetoric regarding Israel and Palestine, nor about his slowness to truly grasp the widespread unpopularity of Israel’s genocidal campaign. Many, including Biden himself, compared the events and aftermath of October 7 to 9/11, and the administration’s initial response was very much in the Bush-era mold: strict adherence to binaries of (white) good and (not-white) evil, the dehumanization of those in “enemy” territory and those opposed to the war around the world, and the seemingly unrepentant spread of outright falsehoods, including publicly calling into question the death toll into Gaza. Like the Johnson administration before him, Biden and the Democratic Party are creating a “credibility gap” of their own as they ramble endlessly about a nation’s “right” to “defend” itself while the civilian death toll in Gaza mounts. Meanwhile, public support for a ceasefire only grows.

Examples of zombified attempts to deal with widespread opposition to Israel’s war have included the announcement in November of the creation of a “comprehensive” and “detailed” National Strategy to Combat Islamophobia. What we find here is the same compartmentalization inherent to the Great Society, only with much less substance. As Jamila Osman pointed out in article for Truthout, the idea that haphazard, suspiciously timed policy directives nominally protecting American Muslims can even remotely reconcile the indiscriminate murder of Palestinian life is offensive and indicative of moral failure. As Osman writes, “What the Biden-Harris administration fails to realize is that the current wave of Islamophobia cannot be separated from the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people.” One prominent Muslim American activist named Yasmine Taeb was quoted in Al Jazeera as saying, “Now finally in the midst of a genocide that’s happening in Gaza, because they want to mitigate the backlash that they have been getting, they try to now rollout this strategy to say they care about Muslim lives here. The whole thing is just nonsense.”

Israel’s campaign against Gaza has for many represented a tipping point—the final undoing of the establishment’s legitimacy.

Recently, Biden has started to change his approach, if only rhetorically. The administration has started to bemoan Palestinian civilian casualties in public—while continuing to provide material support to Israel. Even more absurd are claims by Biden, such as one he made in a recent South Carolina speech that was interrupted by anti-war protesters, that he has been “quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.” If this is the case, then Biden better explain why the United States military is actively expanding conflict by launching airstrikes on Houthis in Yemen. It is exactly the kind of doubling down familiar to Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Biden’s poll numbers since October 7 have plummeted accordingly. If recent polling is to be believed, Biden’s numbers have crashed with members of the non-white working class. Also startling is Trump’s apparent lead with voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine in head-to-head polls. Anything short of a Biden landslide victory with young voters will represent an earthquake realignment and unraveling of a taken-for-granted staple in Democratic party politics since Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. This is a distinct possibility and one that is not being taken seriously. Biden and the Democratic Party are sleepwalking over a cliff and don’t entirely realize it.

For those fearful of Trump but unmoved to vote for Biden, the problem is exactly what I have been highlighting in this piece. Those of us born in the 1980s and early 1990s witnessed the collapse of what Yale professor Timothy Snyder termed the “politics of inevitability,” an illusionary framework synonymous with the consensus of the late twentieth century, which was grounded in grandiose delusions that so-called liberal capitalism represented the ultimate achievement in the organization of human society. Says Snyder of the ongoing collapse of this framework: “Our whole sense that things are automatically going to get better has been challenged, or undermined, or overthrown” in the years that have followed 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq. We’ve witnessed one economic disaster after another and a near continuous state of war.

The end result is an ingrained sense of instability, hopelessness, and jaded melancholy. Israel’s campaign against Gaza has for many represented a tipping point—the final undoing of the establishment’s legitimacy. Frightening and catastrophic as it would be, the threat of Trump returning to the White House is not going to be enough to scare many young voters from staying home or voting third party—even those belonging to demographic groups squarely in the MAGA crosshairs. And yes: there is a marked difference between the violent, incoherent neo-fascism of Trump and the violent, traditionalist kinda . . . sorta . . . no . . . maybe . . . but actually neoliberalism of Biden. But when volatility and collapse are the internalized norm, it all starts to blur together.

The consequences of LBJ’s moral failures in Vietnam were far-reaching. A messianic self-obsession coupled with postwar American exceptionalism led Johnson to believe that he could make America’s quixotic campaign in Vietnam work politically. (As he told his biographer Doris Kearns, “Deep down I knew—I simply knew—that the American people loved me. After all I’d done for them and given to them, how could they help but love me?”) This led him down a murderous spiral that took millions of lives and left him exposed to the deep polarization his war wrought. Johnson ceded the White House to reactionary opportunists. The Great Society crumbled.

The failures of Joe Biden could have more disastrous ramifications. If polls are correct, the collapse of Democratic party support with young voters, Arab Americans, and the non-white working class would represent dramatic paradigm shifts not witnessed in decades. It is hardly just Biden though: he is enabled by a corrupt political and media establishment that refuses to let go of the past. This is a deep systemic problem that requires a deep systemic analysis and reclamation. Short of that, politicians only hasten our descent into MAGA authoritarianism.