“Revisiting” LBJ: Rehabilitating a War Criminal, Training the People in Complicity

March 17, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

History matters!

Whether to get it right, to face up to what really happened, or to cover up and distort history, has everything to do with how people view, and how they act in relation to, what is happening now and what will be happening in the future.

On February 15 of this year, the New York Times published an article titled: “Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy.” The article focused on, and also fully endorsed and never in any way questioned or challenged, efforts by the surviving family of former U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) and by political and intellectual supporters of his, to rehabilitate Johnson’s very negative “historic legacy.” In their view, Johnson was actually a “near-great” president who was unfairly tainted by what his supporters refer to as the “failed war”in Vietnam. In fact, to them, LBJ was yet another tragic casualty of that war.

These efforts and this article say that really, the most important thing about Johnson is that he fought for pathbreaking legislation that was good for the American people, and in particular was good for poor people and oppressed nationalities. They point to the passage of major civil rights and anti-poverty legislation under Johnson, to the establishment of PBS (government-funded “educational” TV) and other reforms, and say this is what should mainly be remembered about LBJ, but “that it has been overwhelmed by the tragedy of the Vietnam War.” In order to cast Johnson in the most favorable light, they contrast his legislative accomplishments to the blatant hostility to the poor and to minorities of the current U.S. Congress.

They are looking forward eagerly to a national “Civil Rights Summit” at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, which will be attended by former presidents Clinton, Carter, George W. Bush, and they hope Barack Obama. They see this as a nodal point in the resurrection of LBJ’s image.

Let me say this plainly—this is an effort to prettify a monstrous war criminal, and, even worse, it is an effort to train people in the thinking that says that the lives of Americans are more precious than those of other people, and that any horrors should be supported, or at least “understood” and overlooked, as long as they are carried out in the service of strengthening America, and in the name of helping its people.

Let’s look at the real history, let’s examine just who were the real casualties of the Vietnam War.

Fifty years ago, the streets of every major American city and many smaller ones, as well as college campuses, rang out with the deafening roar of thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of youth and others chanting: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”

This captured the dawning realization of a whole generation that our leaders were not “good and wise men fighting for freedom and justice,” or even venal and stupid men chasing after votes, money, and careers. They were the monstrous heads of a monstrous system that rained death and destruction on innocent people and sought to violently crush any resistance to their rule.

This chant resonated with the pictures of Vietnamese children, their clothes and much of their skin burned off by U.S. napalm attacks, running down a road, with the reports of savage massacres of hundreds of villagers by U.S. soldiers, of mass rapes, of the practice of soldiers making necklaces of the body parts of women and children they had killed, of the “carpet bombing” of the fields and villages of the Vietnamese peasantry, of the “body counts” (a U.S. military term at that time that measured their “successes” in the war) that mounted, and mounted, and mounted until at least two million—yes, two million civilians had been slaughtered by the U.S. war machine.

This was a chant that concentrated a growing sense that the interests of the oppressed in this country were bound up not with the rulers of the U.S., but with those of the victims of the U.S. empire, with growing support for liberation struggles against the U.S., and with the de-legitimization of the U.S. ruling class as a whole in the eyes of millions in this country. It was bound up with the rise of revolutionary sentiment and revolutionary organization right here “in the belly of the beast,” as people would say back then.

For five years, Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ, was the commander-in-chief of that military machine, as it grew from a few thousand troops to over half a million, engaged in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to crush Vietnamese resistance to U.S. rule, or at least to make an example of them to any other people who might think of standing up to the U.S., a warning that the price they would pay was too terrible to even consider.

The towering, almost unimaginable crimes of the U.S. in Vietnam, and the truly heroic and inspiring resistance to them of people around the world, from Vietnam to the streets of the U.S., is something that we should never, ever forget, and in fact should keep very much in mind as the U.S. again wages military actions in its imperialist interests around the world, again, always, under the banner of “freedom.”

I strongly recommend that people read Revolution’s review of Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (February 17, 2013) for a fuller picture of all this, and a deeper understanding of why and how the U.S. carried out these barbaric crimes.

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