Professor of History at NYU and specialist on Vietnamese history. Author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 and most recently co-editor of Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or How Not to Learn from the Past.
Forty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the country when he announced he would not seek a second term as president. His popularity had reached an all-time low because of the Vietnam War. Two months earlier, North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong attacked the US embassy in Saigon and over a 100 other targets in South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive. We speak with Vietnam war historian, Marilyn Young. [includes rush transcript]
As we continue our look back at 1968, it was forty years ago this week when President Lyndon Johnson stunned the country when he announced that he would not seek a second term as president. The date was March 31, 1968.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: With American sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office, the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
President Lyndon Johnson was speaking at a time when his popularity had reached an all-time low because of the ongoing war in Vietnam. Two months before Johnson dropped out of the presidential race, North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong attacked the US embassy in Saigon and over 100 other targets in South Vietnam. This came to be known as Tet Offensive. The US won the battle in military terms after twenty-four days of fighting and inflicting heavy casualties on the Vietnamese forces. However, for the American public, the Tet Offensive marked the beginning of the end of the war.
Marilyn Young is professor of history at New York University, author of several books, including The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. Most recently, she co-edited a volume published by New Press called Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or How Not to Learn from the Past. Professor Young joins us now in our firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Go back to that moment forty years ago this week. Where were you? Were you surprised by President Johnson pulling out of the Democratic primary, the race for president?
No, I really wasn’t. I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan then, and I wasn’t surprised, because he had already — it was clear that he would just be trashed if he ran. McCarthy had won the New Hampshire primary — big shock, big surprise. Bobby Kennedy had entered the race. There was no question that Johnson was out of it, politically. He couldn’t possibly.
So this was a rather brilliant move to recoup himself and his reputation politically and historically to say, as he did, from this very high, moral position, I have to devote all my time to this war. Of course, he had been devoting all his time to the war; that was part of the problem. But so, the withdrawal was a very smart political move.
It was also — his hand was completely forced by this group called the Wise Men, who said this is nuts, you’ve got to have a bombing halt, you’ve got to start negotiations, and you have to do both of those things now. And he did. He wasn’t bad at taking good advice, or at least not always.
Who were they?
Clark Clifford was very important in that group, Arthur Goldberg, Harriman, I think. I’m not sure. I can’t remember all the names. But they were called, collectively, the Wise Men. And in this instance, in this limited way, they were.
And in terms of this period of time, in particular, not only his resignation, obviously a few days later Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Kerner Commission Report had come out around the same time talking about the racial divide in the nation. To what degree did the American public’s recognition that the country was losing the war in Vietnam — to what degree did that effect the political change that was — that obviously culminated later on in Chicago in the riots of the Democratic convention?
Oh, it was fantastic. I mean, John Prados, whose just — his new book on Vietnam will soon be out, called Tet “shock and awe” for the American public. The public had been assured — I mean, those of us who were following the war very closely were not surprised at the capacity of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese troops to pull this off. Still, it was stunning. The American embassy held for a couple of days? And then this string of provincial capitals, Hue, held. It was absolutely counter to what the public had been assured would happen.
Professor Marilyn Young, in this last minute, the Tet Offensive — and especially for young people, and you’re a professor of young students — we hear the word “Tet Offensive,” what did it mean?
It meant a surprise attack that took both the American military, the American civilian leadership, the Saigon military, the Saigon political leadership, such as it was, completely by surprise, demonstrating enormous strength, planning, control by the National Liberation Front and Hanoi. And the credibility, the loss, the total loss of credibility of the United States government, which had been assuring the public and the world that it was on top of the situation, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and so on, was what was most significant about it. And as the poet Robert Lowell said, “The light at end of the tunnel turned out to be the light of the oncoming train.” And it really was.
And then, in a short wrap, the lessons of our current war in Iraq? And you say lessons not learned so far?
Well, I mean, the surge was working, right? And then Basra. So what’s going on? The same sense of a lack of real understanding of the country in which you’re fighting; your goals presumably for that country not possibly attainable; and the ongoing deliberate misleading of the public — those are similar. Iraq and Vietnam are very different places, but the United States government, unfortunately, remains rather the same.
Professor Young, I want to thank you for being with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Marilyn Young teaches history at New York University, a specialist on Vietnamese history, author of The Vietnam Wars and Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or How Not to Learn from the Past.