Lyndon B. Johnson, the Texas-born vice-president who succeeded John F. Kennedy in the turbulent latter half of November 1963, has always held a certain fascination for American movie and documentary makers. A greater contrast with the charismatic son of Massachusetts it would be harder to find. Johnson was a southern member of the Democratic Party, albeit one with little regard for the segregationist politics of the Dixiecrat faction which dominated the organisation in the former states of the Confederacy. However he was every bit a “good ol’ boy” as any of his reactionary rivals in the south, frequently running rings around them and the more cultured – or downright snobbish – elites of Washington and the East Coast. If Kennedy was the leader who inspired others to do things, Johnson was the leader who got things done himself.
I recently re-watched two biographical films on his early, post-assassination presidency, both from HBO. The first was 2002’s Path to War, produced and directed by the late great John Frankenheimer with a bravura performance by our own Michael Gambon. This examined the president’s slow descent into the Vietnam quagmire, partly dragged there by indecision, policy confusion and poor advice. The second was 2016’s All the Way with Bryan Cranston in the lead role, highlighting the Texan’s instinctive genius for political and legislative deal-making (the kind of instinct the present incumbent of the White House could only dream of). Both movies are highly recommended.
However on the issue of the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1963-66, which Lyndon B. Johnson stumbled and fumbled his way through, this recent anniversary article from War on the Rocks is worth noting:
During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. aircraft expended over seven million tons of bombs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, compared to 3.4 million tons dropped by the United States and its allies in all of World War II.
…the American air campaign in the Vietnam war was the heaviest in the history of war, by a very large margin.
U.S. forces used huge amounts of ordnance in the ground war as well…
The scale of those resources is even more astonishing when you compare them with the enemy’s. For most of the period of U.S. involvement, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies used air and ground munitions at a rate several hundred times higher than the Communist side. Pentagon records for 1969, for example, show that U.S. forces expended nearly 130,000 tons of ammunition a month. About three-fifths of that was delivered by air and the rest in ground fire. By comparison, the highest Communist firepower expenditure of the war, not reached until 1972, was about 1,000 tons a month.
That overwhelming superiority in firepower and logistical capability makes it hard to argue that Americans could have won the war by doing more of what they were already doing in Vietnam. The far more logical conclusion is that the American style of warmaking could not win that war.
A lesson still not learned.