Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency by David Zarefsky

“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Coming at the end of a 45-munite speech on the Vietnam War on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s words sent a shockwave through America. Veteran reporters, including Roger Mudd, were speechless. Given the day before, many believed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. In the days before DVRs, viewers couldn’t rewind to watch what they’d just heard, and incredulously turned to each other asking, “What did he just say?

The origin story of the speech is the basis for David Zarefsky’s new book, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency: The Speech of March 31, 1968 (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp., $45). Zarefsky is a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author or editor of twelve books, including President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History.

My first thought is that the title and subtitle ought to be reversed since as the book is an in-depth analysis of the March 31 speech. This is a minor quibble, though, about this well-researched and accessible volume of 190 pages of text and 36 pages of end notes. Zarefsky divides the work into seven chapters. The first two provide the historical context of the speech and the subsequent ones detail the design of the speech and its three main components: the bombing halt over much of North Vietnam, the limited increase in the number American troops, and Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race. The conclusion examines the speech’s afterlife.

Zarefsky’s contextualizing of the speech suffers from a few unforced errors: after World War II, there was no widespread consensus on avoiding nuclear war, but rather a nuclear arms race; President Kennedy did not send the first military advisers to Vietnam, President Truman did in 1950; and though Kennedy was shocked at the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, there is no record of him weeping after he learned about it.

Zarefsky hypothesizes that when Johnson became president he believed the American people would simply support his actions in Vietnam. But that is belied by LBJ’s obfuscations and his refusal to place the country on the war footing. Johnson proved that a skeptical warrior can be a committed warrior.

The analysis of the speech is where Zarefsky is on surer ground, expertly tracing the development of it through eleven drafts. Johnson ultimately decided upon a “peace” speech over a more belligerent “war” speech. The analysis goes into granular detail on the disagreements among his advisers and the conflict within Johnson himself, providing a thorough analysis on how the sausage was made.

Due to declining health, LBJ was considering withdrawing from the race as early as the fall of 1967. But Zarefsky may be too deferential to Johnson in discounting the importance of the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire Democratic party presidential primary and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into the race soon thereafter.

Johnson believed that withdrawing from the race would provide gravitas to his Vietnam War policy, and he did enjoy a brief boost in the pools and in the media. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days after his speech and the country erupted in a violent spasm.

Johnson’s speech proved to be a temporary salve for his fractured psyche. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam in April and May of 1968 was greater than that in February and March. By December, the military had dropped more bombs in the eight months since his speech than the prior three years combined.

A broken Johnson then all but handed the presidency over to Richard Nixon.

–Daniel R. Hart