Johnson’s Great Society
The Guns and Butter Trap
by Jeffrey W. Helsing
Jeffrey Helsing represents his book, Johnson’s War/Johnson’s Great Society, as the first time in which the subject of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s [LBJ] well-known, much discussed, and often maligned Viet Nam era policy of “Guns and Butter” has ever been thoroughly exposed to a complete in-depth examination. Johnson’s Guns and Butter was the aptly named policy in which LBJ intended to utilize one of the most vibrant economies the nation had ever known in order to simultaneously provide for both the continued militaristic Cold War containment of Communism around the world and the expansion of U.S. social programming domestically. Helsing challenges the simplistic and myopic notion commonly held that the Viet Nam war resulted from a nefarious collaboration between the various elements of government as a whole, including the executive, legislative, and military.
Allowing for the passage of a quarter of a century, Helsing was able to take advantage of the release of certain information which heretofore was unavailable to scholars. To debunk the dominant story line of the prior thirty years, he made a detailed analysis of conversations, minutes, dispatches and other pertinent data from Johnson’s Vietnam War era. Evidence gathered was used in a fact based assessment for determining the political, economic, and military consequences of actions taken, and not taken, prior to and during the escalation of direct U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam war between 1964 and 1967.
As a result of his assessment, Helsing arrived at two major conclusions. First, the decision making process was corrupted by being confined to Johnson and some key members of his administration who “…engaged in a major pattern of deception in how the United States committed its military force in Viet Nam”1 as part of his very limited and most trusted inner circle. Helsing’s research also led him to present what he considered an innovative second assertion that not only were Congress and the public kept in the dark about war planning, but so were government economic and domestic planners. This deception resulted in those planner’s perspectives and consequent plans for American society being critically skewed at a time when the nation’s greatest needs were clarity and credible leadership.
Johnson’s dilemma in 1964-1965, reflected the contradictions within the man himself. War Hawk, “Progressive” Southerner, compassionate school teacher, and consummate American politician were all qualities that could be found in the President. Like his post-World War Two predecessors, LBJ the American politician was determined to prevent the spread of Communism and followed the codified policy of Containment. Emerging as the central element of the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the success of Containment policy in meeting its global commitment to stem the tide of Communism was the primary measure of U.S. Cold War credibility.
Various U.S. foreign policy failures during the two decades following World War Two, including China, Korea, and Cuba, led to the prevalence of the “Domino Theory” which foretold of neighboring countries falling in succession to Communism. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations drew a line in the sands of Southeast Asia to bolster and preserve U.S. credibility while forming a bulkhead against so-called Communist “aggression”. In the midst of the Cold War, placing a check on Communism, where ever it could be found, represented an inviolable commitment to the world that was embraced by “…most members of Congress, the bureaucratic elite, private industry, public opinion, and the press.”2 The Johnson administration set its course by replacing key advisors from the Kennedy administration who were doves in State, Defense, and the NSC that resisted escalation. Moves such as this made escalation more plausible. 3
However, as the book title suggests, Johnson’s War/Johnson’s Great Society infers that LBJ was far more than a Cold War Hawk. His experiences of living with and teaching the children of the poor in South Texas, made an indelible mark on his social consciousness and domestic agenda, manifesting itself in his Great Society program. Helsing highlighted the fact that in an economic environment of low unemployment, stable prices, low defense spending, and high productivity and profitability, Johnson was determined to utilize the abundant resources and progressive mood of the country to pass legislation that would enhance access to opportunity for all citizens. His administration created the War on Poverty, Medicare, and improvements in education, housing, and urban transportation. Perhaps most importantly, LBJ’s embrace of equal rights for all American citizens led to his Great Society. This program was indeed visionary and comprehensive in both its scope and potential impact, but as Helsing pointed out, it was critically dependent on continued economic growth and stability, and keeping conservative legislative opposition at bay.
In Helsing’s opinion, Johnson had two great failings. His administration functioned through the consistent use of political deception and while misdirecting and deceiving the American people, the Congress, and members of his own administration, he failed in providing clear, decisive leadership. He minimized budget cost and, with McNamara, personally managed the escalation of the war in a manner that made it appear not to be a major escalation. LBJ concealing his true intentions by shrewdly avoiding acknowledging “…the heavy costs in order to avoid a debate in the United States that would force him to choose between guns and butter.”4 In this way, the President could manipulate Congress by getting funding for the Great Society in place before they realized the staggering costs of the war effort.
Helsing indicated that one of LBJ’s greatest concerns was a war funding debate that would lead to Southern Dixiecrats and other social conservatives mounting an effective opposition to the Great Society. Though an overheated economy and high inflation resulted from his deception, LBJ’s minimizing of war costs led to his success in securing the commitment and funding for both the War on Poverty and the War in Viet Nam. He initially got Guns and Butter, without having to make the highly charged political choice between the two.
Johnson’s chief accomplice was his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Under the guise of fighting Communism, McNamara, along with national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, skillfully aided the President in sending out confusing, mixed signals on “…increased involvement by the United States in the internal affairs of South Vietnam….”5 “The rapid, undeclared, and “covert” nature of the major military buildup” created a disjunction between stated military goals and economic planning. This forced budgeting for the escalation into a supplemental ad hoc format, resulting in what Helsing characterized as costs that were “severely underestimated”6
One of the most revealing insights from Helsing was that McNamara and LBJ had pre-determined stalemate rather than victory as the goal of the war. The CIA had warned the administration that even with 500,000 American troops, there was still doubt about being able to win in the jungles of Vietnam. McNamara explained to the Johnson cabinet that even though the U.S. and the South Vietnamese were then “currently” loosing the war, the alternatives to escalation were generally no better. Both withdrawal or defeat, as alternatives to escalation and stalemate, threatened U.S. credibility. With an excerpt from a June 18, 1965 cabinet meeting, Helsing takes readers into the inner sanctum of government where the administration’s deceptive charade was unveiled:
With the cabinet, President Johnson discussed the Vietnam conflict in terms of months, not years: ‘We don’t really anticipate that the prospect is good for settlement or for arriving at any agreement, certainly until the [fall] monsoon season is over …. Our problem is largely one of trying to protect our national interest in the next three or four months, hoping that the conditions and the atmosphere will be better for our position in the fall.7
The policy proposed by McNamara at this cabinet meeting actually became the formal but unstated U.S. foreign policy relative to Vietnam: deceive the American people [and government officials as required] and to pursue stalemate rather than victory as the solution to what was portrayed as a short term problem.8
Based on the prosperity being generated by the great American economic engine, ill-informed domestic and economic advisors were attempting to coerce the final authorizations and commitments out of Congress for the Great Society. Unfortunately, the administration’s foreign policy and defense teams were simultaneously and unknowingly preparing for what was to be an expensive escalation into all out yet undeclared war. But, Helsing makes it clear that a primary policy objective of the “policy of deception” was to prevent generation of discussion and debate on the Hill about Guns versus Butter.
The administration avoided creating a crisis atmosphere and putting the nation on a war footing, which certainly would have been the case had the truth of Vietnam been known. The author points out that “…while most of the authorizing legislation for Johnson’s new programs … had been enacted, … appropriations had not yet been passed, [and] it would have been over appropriations that a major guns-versus-butter battle would have been fought.”9 Surrounded by economic prosperity, and unaware of one another’s vulnerable situation, neither military planners nor economists concerned themselves with one another’s area of responsibility.
In his analysis of the emergence of chronic and endemic inflation in late 1965 and 1966, Helsing identifies the seeds of destruction for the Great Society, outlining them in six stages: soaring demand, rising employment, rising wages, rising labor costs, rising prices, and a leveling of spendable earnings. Adding to these specific woes was a lowering of tax revenues in an overheated war economy. The author’s examination highlighted that for the first time in U.S. history, war did not foster growth and prosperity. The uncontrolled inflation and exploding budget deficits eroded the resources generated by pre-escalation economic prosperity, which would have sustained the Great Society programs of Johnson’s vision for America. In fact, this era witnessed a convergence of these various negative factors that left a legacy of entrenched inflation, endemic unemployment, increased taxation, and a global monetary crisis that threatened world order.10
Helsing’s Johnson’s War/Johnson’s Great Society, does indeed go beyond offering readers the usual evidence and insights not only into the war and administration programs, providing insights into the thinking of Johnson the man as well. Helsing does a truly admirable job delving into the historic evidence and presenting a coherent picture of what was really going on behind the scenes during the simultaneous escalation of the war and implementation of the Great Society. In a very readable narrative, the author clearly lays out a sequence of events gleaned from the evidence, that provides readers with a cogent view of how LBJ and McNamara, whom Bob Buzzanco aptly termed “masters of war”, made use of understatement, coercion, and deception to formulate a plan of war that was palatable to Congress and the American people, yet had the capacity to generate a moral imperative for war.
Though not stated as a central theme of the book, Johnson was truly committed to the American ideals of freedom and democracy both domestically and internationally. This became his driving ideology. His stand against what he saw as the overt threat of Communist aggression in Southeast Asia, and his pursuit of racial and socio-economic equality domestically, were more than mere political opportunities, both were genuine concerns. Johnson by no means emerges as a sympathetic character from Helsing’s examination, but his dilemma and resulting policy of deception can perhaps be best understood as the sole best approach available under the circumstances. Though his tactics may have been questionable, one must consider that if the President was to meet America’s international obligations to promulgate and protect democracy, he had an even greater responsibility to not allow those freedoms being fought for abroad to be abridged or sacrificed at home.
Helsing surmised that as President, “…Johnson failed the nation as a leader, and he failed on his own terms, losing the war and his Great Society.” 11 Yet, as President, he did what he felt he must do to promulgate the America in the Constitution. Perhaps America failed to meet the Presidents expectations, lacking the political and social will to live up to its own creed. In the milieu of the mid 60s, the trap alluded to in the book subtitle was unavoidable. Guns and Butter was truly the sole best option for then President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the American nation.