Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

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Kennedy's Hopes and Johnson's Tragedy

When they're doing these commemorations of President Kennedy, much of the language was similar to Reagan's. Of course, he hadn't been through the Vietnam experience; we can't fault him for not being 20 years ahead of his time. But the rhetoric, the Cold War rhetoric, the call to arms, willing to pay any price, bear any burden ...

No question, the Kennedy inaugural address is one of the most war-like speeches. It's really the banner-waving speech of the Cold War. But you also have to remember that President Kennedy coming into office on that tide of Cold War rhetoric, nevertheless, is the only president of modern times who's really been deep into a nuclear confrontation -- the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I think, having that experience more directly and more profoundly than any other president affected him deeply, and the evidence is that the man who came into office on that tide of Cold War rhetoric eventually gave us the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which is the first of the major arms control agreements.

Do you take a position, one way or the other, on what difference it would have made had he lived? I mean, just as a hunch, not as a real call. It's impossible to know, obviously; it seems that one can always find something that he said right before he died to help decide to go either way. But what is your hunch about him, had he lived?

Well, I have three hunches, basically. I think first that he would have been reelected, because I think the Republicans would have nominated Barry Goldwater, as they did in any case. And, in that atmosphere, unlike that of 1980, Goldwater would have been defeated still -- though probably not so soundly as Johnson defeated him in the wake of President Kennedy's death.

The other two things are a good deal less certain.

I think that there is at least a possibility, and I wouldn't go any farther than that, at least a possibility that he might have followed a course somewhat different from President Johnson's on Vietnam. And the reason I say that is not because President Kennedy had more insight, or was a better man, or anything of the sort. If anything, I'm one of the few great admirers of President Johnson left around. But I think it was for two reasons, the first being that Johnson felt so deeply on coming into office that he was committed to carrying out President Kennedy's policies, and as far as anybody could see it then, President Kennedy's policy was to make a stand in South Vietnam. There's no question that most of the people that survived over from the Kennedy administration into the Johnson administration told President Johnson that that's what President Kennedy would have done. And they believed that. So there was an imperative on President Johnson that wouldn't have been on President Kennedy.

The other factor is in productivity, and this we can't know about, but in my judgment, going through the Cuban Missile Crisis not only gave him a different view of the world, but [also], in that moment, proved his machismo so to speak, which all presidents need to do. After the Cuban Missile Crisis it was impossible to say that President Kennedy could be pushed around, that he was not a strong president or anything of that sort. So he got past that hurdle that all presidents need to get past.

In the fall of 1963, I recall very well, before the final fatal trip to Texas, he made a swing around the country, a "western swing," and discovered that his Limited Test Ban Treaty was exceptionally popular. And I think there are reasons to suppose, therefore, that he might have gone a different route in Vietnam. I wouldn't want to put it any stronger than that; there are a whole lot of other reasons I could deduce, having to do with the situation there, which I won't get into this morning. Just that there is that possibility.

And the third thing, which I feel somewhat more confident about, is that I believe that he would have pursued arms control agreements more vigorously, had he lived, than his successors were able to do. President Johnson got embroiled in Vietnam so that it was 1970 before we had another significant arms control advance: Mr. Nixon sought one in the ABM Treaty. I believe President Kennedy would have pursued that sort of thing further, and I believe that it's possible that we might have had, in those years, a comprehensive test ban, rather than a limited test ban. He is known to have lamented, after settling for the Limited Test Ban Treaty, that he didn't really push for the comprehensive test ban. We know that the two sides, the Soviet and the American side, at that time were very close together. I think the only real difference was that the Soviets wanted to offer only three on-site inspections, and the U.S. wanted seven; I mean, they were very close. So, I think that probably we would have had some advance in arms control, and what a great thing that would have been if, in the sixties, we could have had a comprehensive test ban treaty. I don't think there's any doubt but that that would have prevented, for example, the development of MIRV missiles, multiple-warhead missiles, which are today regarded as the greatest threat.

You mentioned President Johnson. What do you see as his tragedy as president? Was he destroyed by a foreign policy that he really was not whole-heartedly committed to? What did him in, so to speak?

There's not much doubt that Vietnam did him in, because it also did in what had been a very widespread, broad-ranging domestic program, as you remember, aimed at nothing less than the elimination of poverty -- a typically Johnsonian aim and probably one that's impossible, because I suppose that if we lift everybody's level of income by some degree, there's still somebody at the bottom of the ladder and we'll call them impoverished. But I think he would have had a great social impact on the country without Vietnam to distract him, and I say that knowing that the conventional wisdom is that the Great Society was a failure anyway. I've never fully believed that. I think that properly funded, properly administered, properly seen to by a president who was giving it his full attention, it would have had a great deal more success.

But as to why he got into Vietnam, I think I've given you the first reason -- he thought that he was following President Kennedy's course. Secondly, I think he was a man of his generation who believed in the lesson of Munich, that you've got to stop an aggressor in his tracks, and at that time it was believed that there was kind of a widespread pattern of aggression in Asia -- Asian communism with its headquarters in Peking. I can remember Dean Rusk coining that phrase now. People believed that then.

It's running again, on television in the PBS series.

Yes. And then, President Johnson really was a very strong anti-communist. That didn't come through so much in his speeches; he wasn't a Cold War speaker in that sense. But he was, and I think that you will recall that as Vice President he had visited Vietnam and made a very strong recommendation to President Kennedy that we make a stand there. So I think that all those things led him into that.

And then finally, of course, the factor that became so tragic in both his and the Nixon administrations, that they felt that, once committed there, they really had to win. It was almost like the tar baby, they were stuck to it. They couldn't get away and that was, if not the birth, certainly the dismal flowering of this whole theory about credibility being at stake. "If we pull our Marines out of Lebanon," says President Reagan, "we lose our global credibility." "If we can't manage events in Central America," says Henry Kissinger, "why, nobody will believe us in the Persian Gulf." That kind of thing, I think, reached its real flowering in Vietnam and the ultimate fact of the matter was that that war was carried on for five or six years, not because anybody believed we could win, not even because people necessarily thought that it was vital that we should stay there, but because people said, "Well, if we pull out, you know, our credibility will be destroyed. It'll be shown that we can't help our client states. We've got to stick with this war just to show that we're not going to lose it." Which may be an adequate war aim, but it was not one that persuaded the American people, and certainly not me.

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