Elders are considered wisdom keepers in most of the world's cultures, perhaps just not our own. They are repositories of important lessons, keepers of the collective memory, and as such, usually revered. In our own midst, in our own time, one man deserves all praises due for the role he's chosen to play as the sage of the electronic stage, as our educator in chief, as the voice of the national conscience, as the best journalist on television.
His name is Bill Moyers and he proved again on Friday night why he is such a giant and national treasure.
On the very day that the world's media honored one of their richest and most powerful TV brands, Queen Oprah, who announced "the show was my life" but that she was stepping down two years hence, Bill Moyers delivered one of the most important programs of his career in an effort to call our young President to account, to prevent another similar tragedy in the making. As she reveled in the headlines as a a celebrity goddess, he went back to work.
Alas, like Oprah, Moyers will also be stepping down next year, not in 2011. Who got all the media attention? Ms. O, not Mr. M!
He aired this report on this weekend of the anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination to remind us what happened to the leader who replaced that generation's young prince. I am talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the master of the Senate, who succeeded John F Kennedy on that terrible day in Dallas.
LBJ came to office with many heavy burdens, including a war raging in South East Asia. His Presidency would be defined by how he handled it, or failed to handle it. As fate would have it, a 30 year old Bill Moyers was one of Johnson's aides and an eyewitness to the tragedy that followed that original sin.
On his Journal, Moyers went back to the historical record, to selected but revealing tapes of Johnson's own phone calls with his colleagues and appointees-yes he wiretapped himself the way Nixon did years later-and those calls showed how he agonized over whether to escalate the war, a course of action he knew could not succeed. The parallels with the present day, and the upcoming decision by President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan are unmistakable and undeniable.
There was the cunning LBJ boiling down the options to getting out or going in deeper, or perhaps "neutralizing" the situation with trainers and economic aid. He, of course opted for the third choice at first-just as Obama has-until it was clear it was not working and we and that our corrupt client state was losing. As his perceived options narrowed, so did his course of action.
As Republicans then demanded "victory," as the military (The Joint Chiefs) clamored for a higher draft and more troops, LBJ began to fear being accused of tucking tail and running, a big no-no in a culture in which Americans see themselves as perpetual winners, the toughest guys on the block. He could not, in his view, be the President who "lost" Vietnam the way his predecessors were accused of losing China-as if those countries were ours to lose!
And so slowly-as we saw, or rather hear, Johnson escalated, stage by stage, often on the basis of false "intelligence" as in the Tonkin Gulf incident that wasn't. Step by step, the third option was abandoned and the military option was embraced. One infusion of troops was followed by another as the war worsened with tens of thousands of US deaths and casualties and millions of Asian victims.
Trapped by his own limited logic, and cautiously pragmatic style. LBJ gave up his principles, compromised on his convictions, and his "Great Society" and Presidency became a disaster. He later quit politics, a broken man.
Will it happen again?
Moyers clear point in the poorly watched PBS Public Affairs Friday Night Ghetto was clear-it is about to happen again.
"We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson said no," he concluded. "We do know what happened because he said yes."
It was brilliant television, informative journalism of the kind we rarely see, all driven by the words and voice of the man who was once his own "boss." We saw how the logic of escalation supplanted all other logic and, then, logic itself.
This program is being repeated on SUNDAY NIGHT. I think at 7. Check local listings YOU ALSO CAN WATCH IT ON LINE RIGHT NOW AT PBS.ORG Please watch it as you have watched few other shows. Let us urge Barack Obama to watch it too. Remember history repeats itself as farce.
Moyers himself told me about the subject of the show when I stopped by his office at New York's Channel 13 on Friday afternoon. I was there to comment on Oprah's announcement for the BBC which has its bureau just down the hall. (I also learned, sadly, that BBC will soon be closing the NY bureau and moving staffers to Washington-a big loss!) As it is, I am on the air more in other countries than my own.
Moyers was putting the final touches on the show yesterday but, graceful as usual, took a minute out to say hello. I wrote to him after last night's show ended praising his work.
He responded almost immediately:
"Thanks, Danny. I was pleased to see you, too. You're a brave and gutsy journalist - your columns on the media clear and strong and courageous; they are also true. Why is it our press is immune to criticism? Nothing seems to faze them."
That is a crime as serious as the one The Bill Moyers Journal documented.
FROM THE TRANSCRIPT: Go online to LISTEN to the actual calls.
February 3, 1964 President Johnson has been in office only three months, and is told the situation in Vietnam is deteriorating. Here, Johnson sounds out an old friend's opinion - newspaper publisher John Knight.
May 27, 1964 Beginning in 1959, the North Vietnamese Army moved supplies into South Vietnam using a route along the Cambodian border. In 1964, Johnson approved secret bombing of what was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
In Saigon, where there's been another military coup, Defense Secretary McNamara promises the new government that "We'll stay for as long as it takes. We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents." But he brings back news of an army nearing collapse, and tells the President he needs to increase military assistance quickly. With one eye on that deteriorating situation and another on the coming election, he turns for solace to his old friend and mentor in the Senate, Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee:
May 27, 1964 After speaking with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who inform the President that he has few good options in Vietnam. Johnson discusses the situation with McGeorge Bundy, his special assistant for national security:
June 9, 1964 Congress and the public are increasingly restless about Vietnam. Negative press reports undermine all the positive statements issued by the administration. Below, Johnson and McNamara discuss the bad press and the further deterioration of the situation in Vietnam - Vietcong guerrillas have extended their control of the countryside and South Vietnamese soldiers quit the fight faster than Americans can train them. The president reads McNamara a memo he received from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
June 11, 1964 The Vietcong continue to gain strength, and a corrupt and incompetent government in South Vietnam is tottering again. The U.S. ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican, is resigning, and the president thinks he may be coming home to campaign against him in the fall. Johnson turns again to his trusted friend Senator Russell. He tells him of advice he received from a his neighbor, a Texas rancher, Judge A.W. Moursund:
U.S. Escalates the War
August 2, 1964 The captain of a navy ship, the U.S.S. Maddox reports that his ship has been fired on and is about to be attacked. On August 4, the captain reports a second attack. Though it would later become clear no August 4 attack actually took place, President Johnson orders retaliatory air strikes against two North Vietnamese naval bases and an oil facility. Two American planes are shot down in the attacks.
In the conversations below, the President plans the American response with Secretary McNamara.
August 3, 1964, 10:30 am President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.
August 3, 1964, 1:21 pm President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.
August 4, 1964, 11:00 am In the midst of discussing the American response to the August 2 attack, McNamara informs President Johnson that an American ship is under torpedo attack.
August 7, 1964 Congress passes a joint resolution "to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia." The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that "Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression." In other words, the resolution gave the President the right to pursue military action in Vietnam without a declaration of war. Both Johnson and Nixon would rely on the resolution as legal justification for the war.
Nov 3, 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater, and is elected to the Presidency. There are just over 15,000 American troops in Vietnam.
February 13, 1965 President Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder, a campaign of bombing North Vietnam to force it to cease supporting guerrillas in the south. The raids would persist continually for nearly three years.
April 7, 1965 North Vietnam rejects an American offer of economic aid in exchange for peace.
April 20, 1965 The President's top officials conclude that bombing alone is insufficient. Defense Secretary McNamara explains to President Johnson that the military leaders are requesting additional combat brigades.
June 5, 1965 The American ambassador has called Washington with news that the Saigon government is again in crisis. The Vietcong have launched a new offensive during the monsoon season, making it harder to defend ground forces from the air. The cable is blunt: "It will probably be necessary to commit U.S. ground forces to action." An anxious President calls his secretary of defense:
June 8, 1965 President Johnson calls Senate Majority Leader Mansfield, who has written the president to urge him not to bomb Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Wanting to keep Mansfield aboard, he asks him how he should approach Congress:
June 10, 1965 Another cable has arrived from Saigon, this one from General Westmoreland. He wants 41,000 combat troops in Vietnam and 52,000 more later. And he will need "even greater forces" later to "take the war to the enemy." McNamara says "We're in a hell of a mess."
July 2, 1965 In a June 18 coup, South Vietnam formed its l0th government in 20 months. A few days later Vietcong mortars destroy three U.S. aircraft at Danang. During a conversation with Defense Secretary McNamara, Johnson begins to consider what has to happen to get the troops they will need to stay the course:
July 28, 1965 In a press conference, the president announces his decision to commit more troops to the conflict in Vietnam. I have asked the Commanding General, General [William C.] Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs.
I have today ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested. This will make it necessary to increase our active fighting forces by raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 over a period of time to 35,000 per month, and for us to step up our campaign for voluntary enlistments.
I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men, into battle. I have spoken to you today of the divisions and the forces and the battalions and the units. But I know them all, every one. I have seen them in thousand streets, of a hundred towns, in every State in this Union - working and laughing and building, and filled with hope and life. I think that I know, too, how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow. This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your President. 1965 to 1973
By year's end there would be 184,000 troops in Vietnam, even as 90,000 South Vietnamese soldiers deserted. In response to the deployment of U.S. ground troops in 1965, North Vietnamese army combat units officially entered the war in support of the Vietcong. By the war's end in 1975, 2.5 million Americans would serve in Vietnam.
Johnson would not seek reelection in 1968.
As American's casualties mounted, public opposition to the war grew at home, and President Nixon began decreasing troop levels in 1969. But the war would continue to grind on until a 1973 cease fire. In 1975, North Vietnamese troops took control of South Vietnam and united the country. Some 59,000 Americans died fighting in Vietnam, and more than 1 million Vietnamese.