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Bill Moyers Essay: Listening to History

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The other day, I received an email from another journalist, Greg Mitchell who runs the magazine EDITOR AND PUBLISHER. He forwarded me the tape of a conversation between my old boss, Lyndon Johnson, and the White House National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. I'd never heard it before -- although it occurred while I was in the White House 43 years ago.

The year was 1964. The month was May. The President and Bundy were talking before the Gulf of Tonkin Resoluton, that LBJ later used as a green light to escalate, before the campaign against Barry Goldwater in which the President said, 'We seek no wider war,' and before the fatal escalation of troops a year later. When this conversation took place, there were, if memory serves me, sixteen- to twenty-thousand Americans in Vietnam, only we called them advisors. At the time, the war in Vietnam was only a small dark cloud on the very distant horizon. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation:

LBJ: I would tell you...the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this...and the more that I think of it...I don't know what in the hell...we...looks like to me that we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with...once we're committed... I believe that the Chinese communists are coming into it...I don't think we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anyway on that area...I don't think that it's worth fighting for...and I don't think that we can get out...and it's just the biggest damn mess that i ever saw.

Bundy: It is an awful mess.

LBJ: And we just got to think about...I'm looking at this sergeant of mine this six little old kids over there...and he's getting out my things...and bringing me in my night reading and all that kind of stuff...and I just thought about ordering...ordering those kids in there...and what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? It's damn easy to get into a war, but it's...going to be harder to ever extricate yourself if you get in...

That was May 1964. Two hundred and sixty Americans had been killed in Vietnam by then. Eleven years and two presidents later, when U.S. forces pulled out, 58,209 Americans had died, and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.


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I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

First off, Mr. Moyers, I applaud the fact that you were willing to air this tape 43 years after it was recorded. Before delving into any analysis of President Johnson's fears on the Vietnam quagmire, it's just as important to have a brief bit of background on the quieter man in the conversation, McGeorge Bundy. Mr. Bundy was a brilliant and extremely adept man, shown from his work as Dean of Harvard all the way to his position as the National Security Adviser to Johnson. Bundy had advocated strategic bombing in Vietnam and was in favor, like much of Johnson's Cabinet, of escalation. The fact that Johnson was expressing his qualms about Vietnam to Bundy is fascinating in itself. Bundy did firmly believe, also like many of the time, in the Domino Theory effect, and his main justification for intervention in Vietnam was that America at the very least would be able to propagate the fact that they were defending Democratic interests and opposing Communism in the South.
Even in 1963, before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson seems to have realized that Vietnam is an impossible situation. He realized the inescapable reality that it was an war that was simply not winnable from the start, yet was pinned by Kennedy's commitments, among other things. Kennedy had implemented 18,000 American "advisers" in Vietnam by the time he was killed, and Johnson's ability to detract these forces was extremely limited. First off, for a Democratic president to shrink American presence in a country prone to a Communist invasion would be political suicide. Secondly, America on the whole would look foolish and altogether soft on Communism if Johnson were to pull out. In many ways, Johnson's realization that escalation in Vietnam was the only way to save American "face," so to speak, was a pivotal part of the war. In addition, as a president with such high domestic aspirations, getting the Republican party to go along with his foreign policy goals was crucial. If he was perceived as weak overseas, than he would never gain the political clout needed to pass his Great Society reforms.

Johnson's story truly is a sad one. The fact that he really did not have many options besides escalation is both troubles and sheds insight into how politics work. Johnson knew this war was, from a purely military perspective, not winnable. He also knew that he and his country would suffer greatly if he did not commit. This in many ways is the story of LBJ's presidency, a man caught between morality and reality.
Even today, political climate governs our society much more than the issues that spur our hearts. Mr. Moyers is one of the few that recognize this and is making an effort to, at the very least, make the viewer conscious of what can happen when moral issues are trumped by politics.

Don't forget that President Kennedy was about to reduce the Vietnam commitment when he was murdered… and his body was hardly cold when Johnson announced he was sending more troops.

In Evidence of Revision 1-5 videos, a Deputy Sheriff was one of the first into the Texas School Book Depository after the shooting of John F Kennedy, he witnessed the recovery of a rifle identified as a 7.65 German Mauser… That story was reported world wide and was recanted thirty hours after the event, when the weapon was declared to be a 6.65 Italian Mannlicher Carcano… More shame.

Senator Arlen Specter signed the Warren Report, the official Kennedy assassination document… He should be hauled before a court of capital jurisdiction, and be required to explain why he neglected this and mountains of similar evidence… Like the photo taken moments after the first shot, with the startled birds in flight, of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald standing at the doorway of the TSBD.

Kennedy was murdered to enable the Vietnam war.

With 20/20 hindsight, it is of course a national tragedy that in the end LBJ ignored his own pessimism and deep misgivings (as well as George Ball's)regarding Vietnam, and instead chose to escalate American involvement in accordance with the virtually unanimous advice provided by MacNamara, Bundy, and the rest of the "best and brightest". There were were almost no voices counselling withdrawal in 1964 and 1964.

Of course, LBJ also knew that if did pull the U.S. out of Vietnam in 1964-65, his presidency would been savaged and undermined by the right and, yes, even the left. After all, Robert F. Kennedy, and most American, both Democrats and Republicans, were still supporting U.S. involvement in the war at the time.

Nevertheless, LBJ's tape recordings clearly show that he wasn't the stupid, gunslinging Texas cowboy, itching to get America into a shooting war, that his critics portrayed him during and after Vietnam. I strongly doubt that the latest Texan currently holding the office spent even one second prior to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 contemplating the terrible human, political, and financial cost of unleashing his war.

The irony of LBJ's concerns about getting into a protracted war was not lost on this veteran of 18 months service in RVN.

Another irony not lost on me is that after so many deaths and many more seriously maimed for life that in the end my grandchildren are able to wear Nike "athletic shoes" made in The Peoples Rebublic of Vietnam

To the right wingers who come here to make smarmy remarks about Mr. Moyers and his so-called leftist views I can only say that I stand in amazement that you can continue to embrace a world view that is so out of touch with the realities your ilk has created since the Reagan era.


I don't mind inviting you into my house, however, I do not like your friends.

As always you statistics are informative and shocking. Your guests dance around the truth like the damned on the hot sands in Dante's Inferno.

The Ethics reform is total crap just like Mertha said. If you are not going to gut the dead animal it will corrupt the meat. You need a guest who is willing to say that - not to passively accept 'small victories'.

And then, suffering through Kerrey who explained his plan that was no plan for a half an hour is just about enough to make me turn you off and you are our only best hope Obi Wan.

Get somebody on the show who will Speak Truth to Power and stop blowing smoke up our skirts.

Wow. Heartbreaking stuff.

I ask, as did Dave previously, what happened to change his mind? How, from being so right in the analysis shown here, did LBJ go so far wrong?

End the occupation now....but...reamin their ally and continue to do what we can for them. What is Mr. Kerrey say will be any different? I guess we should be thankful, he is the Dean of the New School and not in Congress anymore. He sounded like a Bush supporter and that is a no brainer for me!

I just watched your interview with Bob Kerrey. Engrossing. But in the spirit of his Wall Street Journal commentary entitled "The Left's Iraq Muddle" I would have to describe it as Bob Kerrey's Iraq Muddle. What exactly did he say? End the occupation now . . . but don't pull out? Even among thoughtful observers it appears there are no easy, clearcut or good options to the Iraq debacle.

During this entire debacle I have been haunted by the words of the poet and philosopher George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I am tempted to send your find to the White House for review. I am not confident, however that the person who could benefit the most from it would read it.

Even though he is married to a librarian, someone who admits to having received Gentleman C�s in college probably didn�t read about these events in the first place. A more appropriate quote to describe this lack of intellectual curiosity would be, One who never bothered to learn history is destined to lead his country into a war without an exit strategy.

I stumbled across the program tonight while flipping channels and luckily caught the whole show. I enjoyed the show. It was nice to see that there is still an outlet for the failed philospophical opinions of the old CBS team. Watching Bill's old body and face shudder with a mixture of feigned indignation and disgust as he urged the various guests to respond as he wanted was as entertaining a performance as I have seen in ages. Please Bill don't ever stop. You remind me of many of the professors that I was entertained by in college with their sense of liberal urgency. Don't give up the ghost.

Its painful to have to hear what LBJ must have foreseen in the early years of Vietnam. One can only imagine what he went through mentally as the casualties mounted. Its been said that nobody ever wins in a war, only one side loses less than the other. I think we should think about this as we reflect on our current conflict at hand. Should we have gone to war in Iraq or Vietnam? Hindsight is 20/20. This is why war should only be the very, very last of resorts. The US public has become spoiled by our earlier military campaigns in Desert Storm and the quasi-conflict in Bosnia. This is real war. Mean, ugly, brutal. Every war has its own flavor. But they are all in some way foul. Can we afford to pull out or Iraq? That depends on how you view the pricetag. Is the purpose of our military policy to defeat al Qaeda or is it to save the lives of our troops? I'll leave that one up to you.

Bill -
That's a hell of a find.
But tell us...what changed? What happened to change his mind? Do we have an equivalent recording of what he was REALLY feeling the day after the Tonkin incident? (Which, as the world turns, was not that big an incident to begin with).

Our Century's Slow, Silent, Successful Enslavement of the People's Minds

Ed's adage: That which a politician most obdurately proclaims and protests is that which he most egregiously transgresses.

When their duplicity on an issue is exposed, the most adroitly Machiavellian politicians reveal themselves as the most accomplished equivocators.
With the triumph of the mesmerizing boob tube, audiences have increasingly become unreflective spectators while politicians have become increasingly successful at deceiving them.

It has been said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."
Tragically, we live in an era of ‘spin’.
When there is no truth available to make you free, freedom is just another word for slavery.
When the meaning of truth has become restricted to meaning individual ‘authenticity’, those who shape public policy are handed a license to exploit the populace with impunity.

The art most needed today by audiences is the art of avoiding being fooled.
The responsibility most needed today is responsibility for community, for fellow man, for the world.
Having a voice on the internet is not the same as having a hand in the work. E-voice creates the illusion of being socially responsible through acts. It supplants the reality of the act.

Unfortunately, this art and this responsibility have been lost and no one knows where to find them. What is worse, however, is that ‘the audience’ is no longer aware of having lost any such things.

The twentieth century inaugurated the enslavement of mind. The twenty-first will devour it as though it were a cheap commodity.

Ironically, the screen actors, professional purveyors of illusion and escape, have become a sole, small vanguard for recovery of public truth and socially responsible acts, while politicians, elected for their gifts as entertainers (or actors), have become mind enslaving, mind numbing, purveyors of illusion, prevarication, and exploitation of humanity.

We Peacefully Sing the Lullaby of Lost Souls

Just wanted to say how happy I am that Bill Moyers is still around. He is the most well informed, honest, and thoughtful journalist out there. Never afraid of controversy, and always on the side of truth and getting that information out. I only wish there were a few more like him. I fell in love with his style when he did the Joseph Campbell interviews and have remained a loyal and impressed viewer ever since. I make sure he is on my "wishlist" for TIVO - just in case I am out of town and can not catch whatever show he is doing. Love you Bill.
Nancy LaValley

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