“LBJ’s War” Lets Us Eavesdrop on a President’s Mighty Fall

In our surreal political era, listening to “LBJ’s War,” a podcast about how the President went so ruinously astray in Vietnam, offers unusual pleasures and pains.

Illustration by Linda Huang; Source Photograph by Bettmann / Getty

“An assassin’s bullet has thrust upon me the awesome burden of the
Presidency,” we hear Lyndon B. Johnson say in the trailer for the new
podcast “LBJ’s War,” in a clip
from November 28, 1963. Johnson was addressing a joint session of
Congress, six days after the death of John F. Kennedy. He sounds sombre,
solemn, humble, capable—aware of history and his place in it. Later, in
a clip from his 1965 Voting Rights Act speech to Congress, we hear
Johnson say, with similar gravitas, “I want to be the President who
helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.” In its six
episodes, “LBJ’s War” shows us Johnson’s public persona and, in audio
clips, another side, which many of us know only from biographies. “I
remember Johnson the way everybody of my age bracket remembers him,”
Steve Atlas, the podcast’s producer, told me recently. “As this kind of
lugubrious, mournful figure with big ears, who spoke painstakingly
slowly in public but was capable of some eloquence. On the phone, he’s
another character entirely.”

“LBJ’s War” traces, in episodes tied to stories from each year of
Johnson’s Presidency, how Johnson, the gifted Senate dealmaker who, as
President, not only guided the country through the aftermath of
Kennedy’s assassination but had extraordinary legislative successes,
went so ruinously astray in Vietnam. It tells the story through archival
audio, much of it little known and little heard. On the phone, Johnson
could be candid, cajoling, flamboyant. He could also be vulnerable. In a
1966 phone call with Eugene McCarthy, we hear Johnson say, “I know we
oughtn’t to be there. But I can’t get out.” He’s talking about Vietnam.

Atlas, a longtime Boston-based public-television producer, had not
tried audio production until a couple of years ago. He told me that,
while he was working on a project at the J.F.K. Presidential Library, he
“stumbled across this cache of quite extraordinary oral-history
recordings in the basement”: recordings of friends and associates
talking about Kennedy, not long after his death. In the oral-history
world, Atlas explained, audio is chiefly a means to a printed
transcript. “The recordings get stashed somewhere—literally in the
basement, in most cases—and the original voices become extraneous,” he
said. But the voices themselves are wonderful and revealing, and Atlas
wanted to explore what could be done with them. He got a grant from the
Carnegie Corporation and made an hour-long radio documentary, “We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives,” hosted by Robert MacNeil. (In 1963, MacNeil was a White House
correspondent, covering Kennedy. “I was in the Dallas motorcade when he
was shot,” he tells us. “In fact, I ran into the Dallas Book Depository
looking for a phone, apparently as Lee Harvey Oswald was leaving.”)

After making “We Knew JFK,” Atlas, fired up about the possibility of
discovering other such treasures, reached out to the L.B.J. Presidential
Library, in Austin. The fiftieth anniversary of Johnson’s Presidency was
looming, and the library, he soon discovered, “had an enormous
collection, into the many hundreds, of long-form oral histories,” he
said. “And beyond that was this really extraordinary, just jaw-dropping
collection of Johnson’s phone calls, which he secretly recorded without
the knowledge of the people he was talking to on the phone.”

The calls aren’t locked away somewhere; you can listen to them online. (And it seems safe to assume that we will hear some in the forthcoming
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series “The Vietnam War.”) “But as far
as I know nobody had yet tried to take this vast pool of material and
somehow tease a narrative out of it, construct a real story out of it,”
Atlas said. Johnson, he said, played the phone “like a violin. He was a
virtuoso phone guy. And brilliant and mercurial and complicated and
really compelling.” Atlas got an N.E.H. grant to do an hour-long radio
piece about Johnson, as well as six podcasts. PRI, which gave him
production support, encouraged him to explore the unfamiliar podcast
realm. “PRI said from the beginning we have to do podcasts—this is the
future here now, not broadcasting, so we need to be working in this
field,” he said. “So I cluelessly agreed to do a batch of podcasts,
figuring, how complicated can that be?”

It’s complicated, yes, and a huge amount of work. And the results are
terrifically fascinating; I hope to hear more well-produced
archive-plundering podcasts in the future. Listening to “LBJ’s War” in
our surreal political era offers unusual pleasures and pains. Early on,
it inspires a complicated wistfulness. We’re struck by the intelligence
and eloquence that we hear in White House recordings of Kennedy and
Johnson, even as they make decisions that will end badly and wreak great
destruction. Aurally, it’s as if we hear eras coming together: Lady Bird
Johnson, in her quietly spellbinding daily audio diaries, sounds like a
movie star of the golden age, with a Texas accent; newsreel audio about the Gulf of Tonkin is delivered in rat-a-tat tones that I associate with the Second World
War. (“Swift and sure has been U.S. retaliation for Communist P.T. boat
attacks on the high seas!”) The American columnist Joseph Alsop, a
friend of both Kennedy and Johnson, speaks in regal tones and keeps a
flock of lively pet birds in his D.C. town house. “The trouble with
Johnson in Vietnam is that he was too clever by half,” he says,
pronouncing “half” the British way. The birds coo. “Characteristically,
the decision was made not all at once but in the most ridiculous kind of
salami-slicing way.”

As a podcast, “LBJ’s War” sounds a bit like NPR, or PBS, in mostly good
ways—string music, historians, dignity. The host, David Brown, also the
host of the public-radio program “Texas Standard,” is smooth in a
weekend-NPR way—at times, he sounds a bit like the relentlessly cozy
Scott Simon. Brown tells us that from his office, in Austin, he can see
the L.B.J. Library. “Deep inside the archives of that very library,
there’s a treasure trove of audiotapes, many of them not heard
publicly,” he says. “In fact, if L.B.J. had had his way, these tapes
would have gone to the grave when he did. But his wife, Lady Bird
Johnson, wouldn’t let that happen.” Occasionally, this smoothness can be
jarring, especially when he delivers an awkward line, like this one,
about Kennedy: “Three weeks later, he would meet the same fate in Dallas
that President Diem had met in Saigon.” Or this one, about a First Lady
audio-diary entry: “Lady Bird has this mostly right . . . but, ever
the loyalist, she has erred in her husband’s favor on one point.” In
general, though, Brown is a serious and comfortable presence guiding us
through an era that seems both impossibly distant and depressingly
familiar.

The first three episodes get right down to business. Episode 1, “The
Churchill of Asia,” plunges us into the 1963 overthrow of the Vietnamese
President, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, and their
subsequent assassination. We hear Kennedy dictating a memo for White
House files. “Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place,” Kennedy
says. (We also hear, charmingly, his dictating the commas.) We learn
that Dean Rusk, at the State Department, was in favor of the coup, and
that Robert McNamara, at the Pentagon, was opposed, and how the debate
played out in Washington. But I found myself scrambling to remember what
I knew about Diem and the Vietnamese political situation before the
coup: not enough, and I assume that other listeners, especially younger
ones, might be in the same boat. I felt similarly about the goings on in
“The Tonkin Incident(s)”—I would have welcomed a minute or two of
context about the Gulf, what was happening, and why. The personalities
of the people making the decisions emerge beautifully, but if you’re
rusty about the details of the Vietnam War, or ignorant, you might
struggle a bit to get your bearings. Nonetheless, as the series
progresses, jumping from year to year, you get both a good overview and
a terrible feeling of doom: it’s all progressing very fast. Episode 3,
“The Carrot and the Stick,” shows clearly and devastatingly how domestic
political calculations can start, and sustain, foreign wars. Republicans
often want to assert toughness; Democrats often want to avoid looking
weak. Johnson, it seems, felt that he couldn’t credibly advance
civil-rights policies and other needed progressive legislation with a
nation that saw him as “soft on Communism.” That impulse, which may have
been right, was also tragic.

For Atlas, “LBJ’s War” has two major takeaways. The first is the erosion
of trust between government and the governed. “Johnson increasingly
pulls up the drawbridge and retreats into the White House, into this
blind Shakespearean rage against the press and the nervous Nellies and
the antiwar movement,” he told me. “He becomes increasingly isolated and
bitter in his efforts to manage the narrative and manage the public’s
perception of the war. He has no gift at all for knowing what to do
about the war itself, but he thinks of himself as a brilliant
manipulator of public opinion, which he’s been up until this time.” What
the public is being told officially by the Administration does not match
what begins to come back to the country from reporters like David
Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, and chaos ensues. “The public begins to get
its own sense of betrayal, and thus is born the credibility gap, which
Johnson is really the godfather of,” Atlas said. For decades, he went
on, Pew opinion polls showed that the public overwhelmingly trusted the
government, from Roosevelt on, through Truman, Eisenhower, and beyond.
“And then there’s this moment in about ’65 where the graph just falls
off a cliff, and begins to plummet. And it’s never fully recovered,” he
said. “It all began with Johnson, and it all came out of this. He just
never came clean about what he was doing.”

The other takeaway about Johnson, Atlas said, was, “how huge a role
testosterone played in in the fatal decisions that he made.” Johnson is
often thought to have not understood that Vietnam would be a quagmire.
“And the fact is you learn from the phone calls and from other sources
that Johnson knew almost from the beginning that this almost certainly
would be catastrophic,” Atlas said. In that 1966 phone call with Eugene
McCarthy—“I know we oughtn’t to be there. But I can’t get out”—Johnson
goes on, “I won’t be the architect of surrender.” He did not want to be
the first American President to lose a war. In this, we hear echoes of
many Presidents since. In striving not to lose, he lost more than we
could have ever imagined.

Sourse: newyorker.com