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We Are Still Living with LBJ's Legacy (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 26, 2014: A certain number of years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, books began to appear detailing the excesses of his sexual life. At a still late time, historian Robert Dallek detailed JFK's health history in his book AN UNFINISHED LIFE: JOHN F. KENNEDY (2003).

However, up until recently, biographers of President Lyndon B. Johnson, including Dallek and also Robert Caro, have presented mostly sanitized versions of LBJ's life. Yes, to be sure, we have had a number of books about the tragic Vietnam War. See, for example, Nick Turse's book KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES: THE REAL AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM (2013). But there is far more to LBJ's life than just that tragic war.

But Philip F. Nelson's new 630-page book LBJ: FROM MASTERMIND TO "THE COLOSSUS": THE LIES, TREACHERY, AND TREASONS CONTINUE (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014) carries forward the project that Nelson had undertaken in his 650-page book LBJ: THE MASTERMIND OF THE JFK ASSASSINATION (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).

In both of his lengthy books, Nelson discusses an extraordinary number of people, both well-known people and relatively unknown people. Now, I turned 16 in the year in which Senator Kennedy was elected as the first Irish American Roman Catholic president of the United States. So I actually lived through the times that Nelson discusses in such detail. However, at the time, I had not heard of some of the relatively unknown people he discusses in his two books. Nor have I undertaken to study the presidencies of JFK and LBJ in the kind of detail that Nelson goes into in his two books. As a result, I am not as familiar with all the people in the large cast of characters that he discusses. Moreover, I am not the only potential reader who is not familiar with all or most of the people he discusses. For example, I have to wonder if younger Americans who were not alive in the 1960s will be interested enough in his two books to try to follow the large cast of characters he discusses in them. I will return to this point below.

Not surprisingly, in his second book Nelson revisits and amplifies certain aspects of the central argument in his first book.

Briefly, Nelson argues that LBJ was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate JFK. Perhaps LBJ was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate JFK. In my estimate, LBJ was also a megalomaniac. The best book about JFK's assassination is still James W. Douglass' JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE: WHY HE DIED AND WHY IT MATTERS (Orbis Books, 2008). However, like Nelson's two books, Douglass' book is not easy to follow because of the large cast of characters. For a readable and insightful study of JFK's character, see Barbara Leaming's book JACK KENNEDY: THE EDUCATION OF A STATESMAN (2006).

In addition, Nelson argues that certain people in the CIA were involved in JFK's assassination. Perhaps certain people in the CIA were involved in JFK's assassination. See Peter Janney's cogent book MARY'S MOSAIC: THE CIA CONSPIRACY TO MURDER JOHN F. KENNEDY, MARY PINCHOT MEYER, AND THEIR VISION FOR WORLD PEACE (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012).

But I want to call attention to something Nelson mentions in connection with President Richard M. Nixon -- who in 1968 succeeded President Lyndon B. Johnson. Nelson first refers to Nixon's supposed "unrestrained curiosity about the secrets known only to a few, mostly in the CIA" (page 494).

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Then Nelson mentions "the secrets of the vaults in Langley" (page 494). In the context of Nelson's discussion of Nixon, "the secrets of the vaults in Langley" appears to refer to supposed secrets about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Earlier, Nelson says that LBJ knew that Nixon "would protect his [LBJ's] secrets if he should find out the hidden truths in the vaults at Langley" (page 201).

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the plot to assassinate JFK was as devious as Nelson suggests it was. The sheer deviousness of the plot suggested by Nelson suggests to me that the key plotters must have been smart enough not to have left seriously incriminating evidence anywhere, if they could possibly avoid it.

But apart from President Nixon, does Nelson really think that there are supposed "secrets [in] the vaults in Langley"? I don't. After all, it doesn't seem likely that they would want the historical record to reveal what they had done.

I understand that Nelson is weighing in in the court of public opinion, where the rules are not as demanding as the rules in law courts are. But it strikes me as being unlikely in the extreme that the key plotters in JFK's assassination would have allowed significant evidence of any kind to be stored in "vaults in Langley."

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Please don't misunderstand me here. I am not saying that there is no evidence whatsoever locked up in vaults in Langley. There may be evidence of some sort in vaults in Langley. But there is probably no significant evidence locked up in vaults in Langley that would decisively link LBJ to the plot to assassinate JFK. Yes, to be sure, LBJ orchestrated the Warren Commission's misguided conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the "lone nut" involved in JFK's assassination. Perhaps certain members of the Warren Commission knew more about who had really been involved in JFK's assassination. But I seriously doubt that any members of the Warren Commission understood that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had been involved as the mastermind of JFK's assassination, even though they knew that it had made LBJ into President Johnson. Arguably all the members of the Warren Commission were motivated by a protective and paternalistic desire to close the case fast to avoid unrest and perhaps instability. But they probably did not know LBJ's dark secret role in masterminding JFK's assassination.

Next, I want to turn to the new theme that Nelson discusses extensively in his new book: the Vietnam War. Nelson says, "One of the premises of this book is that the real reason the Vietnam War was fought was because the new president (President Johnson] was intent on pushing through major initiatives on all fronts as a way to redirect the attention of the American people away from the calamity that brought him into the White House [the assassination of President Kennedy], and secure his [LBJ's] position -- at least in his own mind -- as 'the greatest American president'" (pages 360-361).

Evidently, LBJ believed that a great American president had to be a war president. Evidently, his landmark civil rights legislation and his so-called Great Society legislative were also aimed to establish him as "the greatest American president" -- at least in his own mind.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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