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Does Nixon's "Treason" Boost LBJ's Legacy?

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Source: Consortium News

President Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson
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A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times cited complaints from Lyndon Johnson's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, and veterans of LBJ's administration that the late president's legacy was excessively tarnished by the Vietnam War, obscuring his landmark social legislation advancing civil rights, medical care for the elderly, and environmental protections.

Pegged to Presidents' Day weekend -- and the upcoming half-century anniversary of many LBJ accomplishments -- the article cites a recent CNN/ORC poll asking Americans how they rated the last nine presidents and putting Johnson at number seven behind Jimmy Carter and ahead of only George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.

But what isn't addressed in the article is how Americans might have assessed Johnson if his plan for ending the Vietnam War in 1968 had not been sabotaged by Nixon's presidential campaign, a reality now well established by documents and tape-recordings declassified by the National Archives but still outside the frame of most mainstream journalists and ignored by conventional historians.

I encountered this "lost history" when doing research at the Lyndon Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, in 2012 and published a lengthy account at Consortiumnews.com and in my latest book, America's Stolen Narrative. After my reporting, the BBC published an account in 2013 recognizing the significance of the new evidence.

But there appears to be a stubborn refusal at places like the New York Times and among establishment historians, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, to acknowledge this new material. Perhaps they're waiting for the ponderous LBJ authority Robert Caro to bless the information in his final volume on the 36th  President.

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Or perhaps it would embarrass them too much for having missed this crucial material in their own writings about Johnson. Or maybe they think the evidence seems too conspiratorial, including the fact that many of the documents are contained in a file that LBJ's national security adviser Walt Rostow labeled "The 'X' Envelope" and that researchers at the library privately call their "X-File."

Whatever the reason, the failure to address this remarkable cache of evidence has distorted how Americans regard Johnson. It would seem to me that if the people knew that Johnson really was committed to bringing the war to an end before he left office, they might view him more charitably and regard Nixon with even greater contempt.

Reluctant Warrior?

That wouldn't mean that Johnson would -- or should -- escape blame for his decisions that sent a half-million U.S. combat troops to Vietnam and inflicted unspeakable carnage on the people of Indochina. More than 30,000 American soldiers died during LBJ's presidency along with possibly a million Vietnamese.

While Johnson's defenders have called him a reluctant warrior -- his daughter was quoted as saying "nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson" -- he nevertheless signed off on the decisions that dispatched the troops and ordered the bombing campaigns. Even if he felt cornered by the ghosts of Joe McCarthy and other anti-communist zealots, Johnson still was the chief executive principally responsible for the catastrophe.

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Yet, what is also clear from the new evidence is that Johnson genuinely wanted to bring the war to an end before he left office. Many Americans, including myself, had long doubted Johnson's sincerity. After all, there had been many lies that paved the way into the hell of the Vietnam War -- and Johnson had told his share of them.

However, when I began listening to the audiotapes of Johnson phone conversations from fall 1968 and began reviewing the documents from Rostow's "The 'X' Envelope," I couldn't escape the conclusion that Johnson was committed to ending the war as quickly as possible.

When Johnson learned of Nixon's sabotage of the Paris peace talks -- by getting South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to boycott them in exchange for promises of a better deal under a Nixon administration -- LBJ referred to the maneuver as "treason" and fumed to his confidantes, including Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.

And among the White House inner circle, Johnson seemed the most inclined to go public with the evidence before the 1968 election, but he was dissuaded by several top aides, including Defense Secretary Clark Clifford who told Johnson, "Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I'm wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected."

Impact on Watergate

This new history on Nixon's "treason" also changes our understanding of the Watergate scandal, which began to take shape nearly three years later. The fact that Johnson in January 1969 secretly ordered Rostow to take with him the file on Nixon's peace-talk sabotage -- what Rostow then labeled "The 'X' Envelope" -- clarifies the longstanding mystery of why Nixon launched his "Plumbers" operation in June 1971, thus setting in motion what would become the Watergate scandal.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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