Two Books: Vietnam and 19th century France

1. Reading Tom Wicker’s 1968 book “JFK and LBJ” was an interesting experience.  Its subtitle is “the influence of personality on politics”, which I am not sure describes the text at all, and the two major sections are called “Kennedy Loses Congress” and “Johnson Loses His Consensus”, which also doesn’t describe the book.  And of course my naming this posting “Vietnam” speaks to only one of the major points discussed in the book.

But let’s look at the two major points made by Wicker, and see what they can teach us.

His section on Kennedy concentrates in fact not on Kennedy, but on Sam Rayburn (Speaker of the House) and other Congressional leaders, as they entered into a major dispute to increase the size of the then powerful House Committee on Rules, with the hope of breaking the conservative Republican/southern Democrat alliance that kept much progressive legislation from ever reaching the House floor.  The upshot was that Rayburn (and therefore Kennedy) won the hard fought battle, but may have lost the war since the resentment by the losers grew sufficiently to stop the progressive legislation that was able to work its way through the restructured Rules Committee.  And he talks about Kennedy’s naivete is his working of Congress, and his utter unfamiliarity of the House.

But this section contains too much detail for a typical 2013 reader (as if there are any besides me). When he gets to Lyndon Johnson, however, his analysis is broader and more relevant. He talks about Johnson the politician and Johnson the man, giving great respect to the way he took over the presidency and committed to carry forward the Kennedy program (including the civil rights legislation that Kennedy hesitated to push all the way, and parts of which he had previously opposed).  He also praises his ability to bring the South and the North closer together, helping to liberate the South from its second class citizen status, and speeches committing to a Great Society and a War on Poverty, and saw how these extremely important efforts were lost in the fog of the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War is another question, and Wicker’s understanding of it is (for 1968) not too different from what is being written today.  He doesn’t know whether Kennedy would have followed the same path had he lived.  He believes that Johnson never anticipated the wide war that he eventually brought about.

He thinks that our reasons for fighting this war were confused from the beginning. Were we fighting to help the people of South Vietnam retain their freedom (as if they were free under the Diem rule)?  Were we simply to assist the South Vietnamese develop the skills to defend themselves?  Were we trying to defeat North Vietnam to rid that part of the country of communism?  Were we conducting a proxy fight  against Communist China to stop the spread of communism before the next domino fell? According to Wicker, you cannot do all of that and maintain a consistent strategy.

Both Kennedy and Johnson had advisers who pushed for increased involvement and carrying the fight from a defense of the South to an attack on the North.  Kennedy, he thinks, learned his lesson about relying to heavily on advisers during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Johnson never had the opportunity to learn that lesson.

At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which Wicker naturally assumes did occur, but which he did not think to be an incident of ultimate importance), Johnson came to Congress with a resolution to respond as need be in order to protect American interests.  There were always questions as to whether or not this resolution was constitutionally required, but it was important to Johnson, says Wicker, to have Congress behind him.  And the Gulf of Tonkin was met with the first bombing in the North.

But, Wicker asks, what was the connection between the bombing of the North, and the increasing guerrilla warfare in the South? What was the goal of bombing.  Again, was there a strategy?  Was it meant to help win a war, or only to punish Hanoi, or perhaps to make it realize that America was serious and that they should think twice before sponsoring (or permitting) further attacks on American interests?

Of course the bombing did neither, but, says Wicker, it put Johnson in a position where he could not ignore further attacks on American forces, being forced to respond to each, as things escalated beyond anyone’s control.  (Interestingly, he believes that a truce could have been reached early in the Johnson years with the help of the United Nations, although the result would have been a “neutral” government in Vietnam, similar to that in Laos.)  When the book was written, Johnson was still president and the war still going on, of course. Wicker was not optimistic as to how it would end up.

2. The other book I read is Francine du Plessix Gray’s “Rage & Fire”, the biography of Louise Colet, French poet and sometime mistress of Gustave Flaubert (and the muse behind, and model for, Emma Bovary).

Well, what you conclude from this book is that the French literary and artistic circles of the 19th century spent most of their time pursuing extra marital sexual arrangements of one or another sort.  That this occurred within a small group of people who all knew each other over a period of many years, and that no one criticized this general life style. But that it wasn’t a particularly happy life, as at least for large periods of time, these people were miserable – sometimes because of their relationships, sometimes in spite of their relationships. And, what is more, they all wrote about both their activities and their feelings, not only in their literary work, but in a continual outpouring of letters and other correspondence, much of which has been preserved for posterity.  It all got a little tedious.

Colet, born into a very dysfunctional family in the South of France, escaped to Paris and a musician/husband with whom she led a life of poverty and extra-marital attachments.  But this did not stop her from being an award winning (if controversial) poet – were her awards base solely on her artistic skills, or on her sexual and other connections?  And eventually, she met Flaubert, who never married, and who was both a mama’s boy and a man with an enormous sexual appetite.  And the rest, as they say, is history (much of which would be just as well forgotten).

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