The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Vietnam War comes up several times in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (Simon & Schuster, 641 pp., $32.50), a sprightly written account by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that examines the relationships of former U.S. presidents to sitting presidents beginning with the Eisenhower administration.

Gibbs and Duffy, who are TIME magazine editors, include an entire chapter on former President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence on Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War during the tumultuous last four years (1965-68) of Johnson’s presidency. LBJ invited Ike to address his top Vietnam War policy makers in February of 1965, the authors report, and the former five-star general who did not escalate the war in Vietnam during his eight years in the White House (1953-61), made a case to use America’s military might to mount “a campaign of pressure,” as Ike put it.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Gibbs and Duffy say, asked Ike if that including using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Eisenhower replied that if China intervened, the U.S. should “hit them from the air, using whatever force was necessary, including nuclear weapons.” Ike “doubted that would happen,” the authors note, “But the United States [had] to put its prestige into keeping Southeast Asia free; if that takes [quoting Ike] ‘six to eight divisions… so be it.'”

Eisenhower later became disenchanted with Johnson’s handling of the war.  Ike was particularly bothered by LBJ’s public assertions that he escalated the war because of promises that Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had made to come to South Vietnam’s defense. Ike “had never made a unilateral military commitment to defend Vietnam, he insisted; he had only promised [South Vietnamese Premiere Ngo Dinh] Diem ‘economic and foreign aid.'”

Despite his disenchantment with Johnson, Eisenhower never publicly disagreed with Johnson on Vietnam War policy. Ike espoused a hawkish stance up to his death in March of 1969.

There’s also a chapter on the interaction during the election year of 1968 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and LBJ, who on March 31 had announced that he would not run for re-election and would seek peace with the Vietnamese communists. Gibbs and Duffy show that Nixon continually promised Johnson that he—Nixon—would not “do anything to undercut the U.S. position” in bargaining with North Vietnam, and then worked to do the very opposite.

Nixon, in essence, helped sabotage the budding peace talks, making LBJ and his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, look weak and indecisive in the process. Nixon used allies such as Henry Kissinger (who served as an adviser to Johnson on Vietnam War policies) and Republican bigwig Anna Chennault to all but subvert the peace process. The historian Robert Dallek said that the moves that Nixon made behind the scenes with regard to shaping the peace process in 1968 contributed to “a fall campaign that would produce as much skullduggery and hidden actions as any in American history.”

It is also worth nothing, the authors say, that with the missed opportunity for the start of peace talks in 1968, the Vietnam War “would continue and widen, the death toll mount, the damage deepen for years, until it finally ended on terms very much like the ones tentatively agreed to in October of 1968.”

—Marc Leepson

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