Aftermath – The Vulgarity of Empire

The morning after Kennedy was buried, the country awoke to find a stranger in its bed. The indefatigable vulgarity of Lyndon Baines Johnson made unfavourable comparison inevitable. As I.F.Stone put it,

“He is a sharp drop from Kennedy. He has hardly read a book in years; never reads when he can help it; prefers to get information by ear, but rarely listens. He is one of the most long-winded men in Washington… with a remarkably small stock of basic ideas….

“Money and power have been the motivating passions of his life. He was a New Dealer when that was the road to power; he became a conservative when that was the way to stay in. … He is the perfect extrovert, with no convictions and a passion for getting things done, anything. … [¶]… His vanity, his thin skin and his vindictiveness make even the mildest criticism … dangerous. …

“Johnson is not a racist or a reactionary. … As a shrewd politician, he knows he must move slightly leftward and make civil rights his number 1 issue… if he is [to become more] than a Southern politician with a basically stand-pat philosophy. … The hope is that men change and grow. The sense of role, the maturing effect of responsibility, the consciousness of duty and love of country, the sense of humanity and history, all have their effect. … There may be surprises in Johnson and we wish the new President luck.” (Vol XI, No. 24 12/9/63; www.ifstone.org)The sting of Stone’s portrayal gives it a taste of truth and he was true in his prediction that the “level of literacy and civilization will fall again, as it did after F.D.R.”

But it is a tad unfair to subject public figures to too much light. Men do not accomplish anything without power and do not get into power by being poets. Politics is the art of the sordid.

If Kennedy was — as his ghost writer once put it — the author of his poetry, it was only because his father, Joe Sr., had authored all the sordid deals for him. Jack was untouchable because he hadn’t touched a damn thing. Johnson, a true nobody from nowhere, had to claw his way in and clawing is never pretty.

Johnson was a figure cut from Shakespeare, at once the bumbling peasant and the despicable overseer promiscuously out of place in the Court of Savoir Faire that did not know how.

And so, in a curious and indirect way, the country also awoke to an awareness of the stricken hero’s imperfections. The whispered coda on everyone’s lips was: “but maybe now things can get done.” Johnson stood for the drudge work of a dream Kennedy could evoke but not accomplish.

It was Johnson who pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even if, as he said, it would be the act that destroyed the Democratic Coalition, which it did and which more than anything else enabled Nixon and Reagan to come to power.

It was Johnson who pushed through Medicare which is the one programme which keeps senior Americans from literally dying in gutters including those who once chanted “Hey, Hey, LBJ – How many Kids Have you Killed Today.”

It was Johnson who enacted a slew of small social and economic programs which in small but real ways made the difference for small but real people.

It is unfair to excoriate politicians for impurity of motive as if they should do good without the slightest hint of egotistical drive or satisfaction. No one can pass such a test. It was Johnson’s misfortune that, following upon the pseudo saintliness of Jack Kennedy, his ordinary vices and even his virtues appeared for the worse.

Beneath the vulgarity and ambition Johnson retained simple but humane instincts. He really had wanted to bring rural electrification to Texas and he really did want to make the United States a more fair union.

The tragedy of Lyndon — and it was a tragedy — was that he had embraced power with the notion of doing something good and found that Power had embraced him for her own ends.

Johnson might fix and finagle things in what I.F. Stone called “the decayed underside” of the U.S. Senate. What Johnson could not fix was the decayed underside of Kennedy’s lofty Inaugural Address. Vietnam was the pustule of America’s status as a world power. The war was no more avoidable than America’s chosen “manifest destiny.”

The unending slew of homiletic pieties which passes for American rhetoric has convinced us that America is a basically good and decent land which from time to time makes atrocious mistakes. Rubbish.

Ever since 1776, when the Colonists revolted against the Quebec Act which had forbidden westward expansion (and which Jefferson denounced as inciting the “merciless Indian Savages” against us), the country has been about expansion and empire. The endeavour reached its culmination in 1945 when the United States stood astride a devastated world which it more than anyone else had blasted into rubble. Americans are wont to think of themselves as liberators but such self-massaging is one thing that doesn’t waft beyond our shores. Any European understands that the United States no more liberated Europe than Rome liberated Greece.

With the success achieved in 1945, U.S. policy became one of consolidation and extension. The aim was to erect a cordon sanitaire around the Communist world (what Churchill, in a delirium tremens of projected accusation, called the Iron Curtain) and then to foster what were called “zones of democratic freedom” in the no-man’s land of the “third world.” The Cold War consisted in ongoing skirmishes over “push points” in the Congo, Cuba, Laos or Iran — outposts, colonies and satrapies tied to one or the other of the blocs by “shared values” and trade.

Five decades later, all that really changed was the unvarnished candour with which the policy got stated. The aim of Dick Cheney’s doctrine of ongoing “power projection” operations was to “preserve and extend American preeminence” and “to secure and expand” “zones of democratic peace;” “in line with American principles and interests.”

The unvarnish was inadvertent. It resulted from the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was nothing left to contain and the U.S. could no longer cast itself in the shining armour of freedom’s guardian. Thus, the essential thrust of NeoCon doctrine was a colossal “Who Gives A-Fuck.” America was top dog and would stay top dog by kicking ass around the world. Containing Communism transmuted into Maintaining Preeminence.

It is pointless to ask whether John Kennedy would have gone that far. The answer is, no; but only because Kennedy was not president that far along on history’s trajectory. It is a different question altogether whether Kennedy would have seen the “need” to “contain and push” in Vietnam. The answer is, yes.

It is worth remembering that it was Kennedy who first institutionalised the use of “full spectrum” forces and “special operations.” That was what the Green Berets were all about, even if they were decked out as some kind of uber-athletic bivouacking team, replete with their own best-selling, pre-Weider, fitness manual.

Vietnam was the first muddled test of the new strategy. It began with black ops (an assassination) was carried on by “pacification” programs (the murdering and concentration of entire villages) and ended in all out aerial and chemical bombing short of nuclear war.

Vietnam was a “necessary” war because (as Kissinger would later say) it was necessary not to be perceived as weak — in other words to be seen as ever-ready, ever-eager to project power. That was the entire dynamic of the post-war construct.

The notion that Kennedy was back-tracking from engagement in Vietnam is too pretty for words. It was Kennedy who had loftily intoned that we would “pay any price, bear any burden, …. oppose any foe, in order to assure …. he success of liberty.” His administration was already implementing the play-book Johnson would continue to use. To think that Kennedy would call the whole thing off two years later, one has to believe that Kennedy would have ignored the very same cadre of cabinet officers and advisers who stayed on to advise Johnson. It is possible but not probable.

Even to say as much erroneously presupposes that leaders exist independently of the forces that thrust them forward and sustain them. They do not. As President of “the most powerful nation on earth” Johnson had to serve the cause of power once in power himself. There was no way out from that Faustian embrace and he was just as trapped as Kennedy would have been.

The difference between Johnson and Kennedy was that Saint Jack would have let loose a noble and inspiring War Whoop which would have had an entire generation marching off to war under fluttering flags instead of half of it being surreptitiously shipped off to slog around in rice paddies while the more privileged half sloshed around in mud-fields protesting and what-not.

At bottom, Kennedy was a jock. Although he had the good sense to keep it within limits, he relished a good fight. As he said in his Inaugural,


Only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.

For all his physical presence, Johnson never spoiled for a fight. Some said he was a physical coward. He had lusted for power with the idea of improving the lot of poorer Americans. Vainglorious as it might have been, he did want to go down in history as the Great Benefactor of a Great Society.

Caught between the demands of power and the empowering of his dreams, Johnson pursued an ambivalent course. The disaster of his “guns and butter” policy was that it succeeded at neither and drove a permanent wedge into the country between those who got the guns and those who got the butter. That was something Kennedy would not have permitted.
But Kennedy’s crusading spirit did not mean that the war would have ended sooner or bankrupted the country less. The war was unwinable because it was the kind of war that cannot be won, even by Green Berets! Only convention wars have conventional endings. The idea that you can “win” an unconventional war is an oxymoron because there is no one around to admit defeat. The best one can do (as was said of Rome) is to “create a desert and call it peace.”
It would take U.S. policy makers 40 years to realise that it did not matter if you won or lost because power projection was an end in itself. But in 1964 U.S. policy makers were still tied to the tinsel of “democratic values,” to the notion that nation building mattered and to the idea that “winning” (over what was not very clear) was a possible outcome.

Was it possible to alter the historical trajectory the nation had embarked upon in 1776? No; and no one wanted to. But Kennedy had led us to think that our undoubted preeminence could be used for good,

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. …. [T]he trumpet summons us again– to struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

It was stirring stuff. The Inaugural beckoned to the idea of a beneficent empire. It was America’s Ara Pacis — a New Rome uniting the Free World within New Frontiers of peace, progress and prosperity. We thrilled to the challenge and thought it possible.

But despite the friezes and phrases, no empire is beneficent because the essence of empire is exploitation. There is no such thing as “gentle power.” Empires are what they are and they exact their price from rulers and ruled alike.
Kennedy was the noble fraud, the way we wanted to see ourselves. Johnson was the ugly truth and we hated in him what we did not want to acknowledge about us. His tragedy will be ours.