John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933-41, famously described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To the engaging, optimistic, and dedicated Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a beguiling and tragic figure of the Cold War, being Lyndon Johnson’s vice president from 1965-69 proved to be worth even less than that.
For if that warm bucket is worthless, at least it does not cost anything. For Humphrey, being Johnson’s vice president cost him just about everything.
That is the argument set forth by the historian Andrew Johns in The Price of Loyalty: Humbert Humphrey’s Vietnam Conflict (Rowman and Littlefield, 186 pp., $48, hardcover; $45.50, Kindle). Johns, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is one of the leading practitioners of the study of American Cold War foreign policy and the author or editor of six books, including Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War. The Price of Loyalty is a meticulously researched, concise book.
In February 1965, just one month into the Johnson-Humphrey administration, Vice President Humphrey wrote LBJ a memorandum that set out his thoughts on why the new government should extricate itself from the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam. Though the topic was foreign policy, the memorandum was rooted in domestic politics, as Humphrey argued that 1965—following the ticket’s landslide triumph at the polls the previous November—would be the year in which there would be minimal political risk in withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam.
Though the memo would prove to be sagacious and prescient, there were two big problems: Humphrey had been told not to write such policy memoranda and the policy Humphrey espoused was in conflict with Johnson and his chief advisers. After he read the memo Johnson exiled Humphrey from all the big debates on the Vietnam War. Considerably chastened, and in an effort to gain favor with the President, Humphrey became one of the leading spokesmen for LBJ’s Vietnam War policies.
Johns sketches Humphrey’s metamorphosis from “apostate to apostle” on the Vietnam War, from a skeptic in 1964, that is, to a hawk in 1966. This transformation is the central thesis of the book, as Johns attempts to understand why Humphrey, after having his advice rejected and suffering personal humiliation at the hands of Johnson, would attach himself so closely to the President and his war policies. Johns contends that Humphrey ignored his own principles out of a combination of political expediency, ambition, and allegiance.
When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Party frontrunner for the nomination, but during the campaign he struggled to convey a coherent political strategy on Vietnam. Johnson was of no help to his beleaguered Vice President, believing Richard Nixon would be a better successor.
Johns describes Johnson’s behavior toward Humphrey as part of the “Johnson treatment,” LBJ’s proclivity to humiliate his subordinates. But Johnson did not treat his inherited staff that way, underscoring that the “treatment” may have had more to do with Humphrey’s willingness to take the abuse.
Johns also posits that it is a “great irony” that Humphrey struggled so mightily with the war, when two other liberal anticommunist Democrats, Kennedy and Johnson, escalated the war and sent in the first U.S. combat troops. Earlier in the book, Johns astutely notes that these two impulses, liberalism and anticommunism, created a disconnect when the they conflicted. It was not ironic, but endemic.
In his conclusion, Johns, in an effort to provide a foil to Humphrey, makes a case for Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican first elected to Congress in 1967, being an exemplar of placing principle over politics. But that is an iffy comparison. Though an admirable politician, McCloskey never wavered about his position on the war after being elected as an antiwar candidate. McCloskey was also one of 435 Representatives, so–unlike Humphrey–he had little risk of overexpressing his views and no practical responsibility in shaping foreign policy.
Johns’ work is an overdue, a significant addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War, and one that elucidates a relevant lesson for contemporary politics on the struggle over virtue and loyalty. Only someone as skilled as Andrew Johns could have written such an accessible and compelling book in such a succinct manner.
“Dump the Hump?” Perhaps, but first read the book.
–Daniel R. Hart