Seeking Peace: One Step at a Time

A Review of Chief of Staff
by Marvin W. Watson

Author Biography

Marvin Watson was born on June 6, 1924, in Oakhurst, Texas. He attended Baylor University on a music scholarship, receiving his BBA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. Watson headed the Democratic Party in Texas and became White House Chief of Staff from 1965 to 1968. In 1968, Johnson named him Postmaster General. He is currently the only living cabinet-level Postmaster General and works as an official with Occidental Petroleum.

The political career of Lyndon Baines Johnson erupted after his first political appearance as a Congressman in 1937. Johnson’s unyielding dedication to equality and contagious energy carried him into the hearts of many Americans and eventually to a reform-driven presidency in 1963. Although the “favorite son” of Texas considered himself a true child of the South, Johnson favored liberal-minded humanitarian efforts. Attempting to eliminate poverty, Johnson “never ceased pushing for the enactment of the greatest possible number of legislative bills in pursuit of his dream for a Great Society,” and he utilized his influence in Congress to pass civil rights legislation—Democratic milestones many citizens had dreamed, but no prior president had attempted to enact.1 Hardly a conservative war giant, Johnson relied on his unbreakable will and faith to overcome his numerous presidential battles—particularly his obsession with Vietnam.

Following graduation from Southwest State Teachers College, Johnson joined the House of Representatives in November 1931. That year, Congressman Richard Kleberg invited Johnson to work as his secretary in Washington, an experience that introduced him to the functions of Congress. Serving Kleberg until 1935, Johnson became the elected speaker of “Little Congress”, an inter-congressional organization, in 1933. Johnson proceeded to attend Georgetown University Law School during the fall of 1934. After the death of Congressman James P. Buchanan the next year, he entered and won the special election for the 10th Congressional District. Elected to the Senate in 1941, Johnson replaced Senator Morris Sheppard until June 28. He served in the U.S. Senate for an additional fourteen years, filling the ranks of Majority Whip, Minority Leader, Majority Leader, Chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, Democratic Conference of the Senate, and Chairman of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee. Johnson’s rise to prominence in the Senate qualified him for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. At the Democratic convention that year, John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his vice president, because he “desperately needed him to win the general election…Johnson would make a strong candidate, indeed the strongest candidate; his place on the ticket was essential, especially for carrying Texas; and of course Johnson was entirely qualified to succeed Kennedy as President.”2 During the campaign, Johnson also ran for a third term as Senator, after an alteration to Texas law to accommodate his dual campaigning. Despite reelection with 1,306,605 votes (58 percent) to Republican John G. Tower’s 927,653 (41.1 percent), Johnson lost political influence after Kennedy’s presidential election. Ignoring Johnson’s popularity in Congress and in the Senate, Kennedy reduced Johnson’s duties to heading the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, limited diplomacy, observing Cabinet and National Security meetings, managing the civil rights program, and chairing of the President’s Ad Hoc Committee for Science. In April 1961, the Soviets succeeded in sending the first man into space. Among Johnson’s more important vice presidential tasks, Kennedy pressured Johnson to find a space project that would show U.S. scientific superiority. Johnson supported the promising Project Apollo and NASA programs, and he suggested a project for landing a man on the moon.

Assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy left America focused on defending South Vietnam. That day, federal judge Sarah T. Hughes swore Johnson into the presidency aboard Air Force One in Dallas at Love Field Airport. When Johnson assumed the presidency—and with the presidency, the Vietnam War—about 22,000 troops occupied Vietnam. Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that success in South Asia depended on South Vietnam’s independence, so he continued Kennedy’s engagement in Vietnam. A strong advocate of the “Containment Theory”, Johnson attempted to combat communism to prevent its spread to other areas of South Asia. His 1964 campaign reinforced his aggressive foreign policy and capitalized on his experience: “he had good judgment…and, above all else, he could be trusted;” Johnson’s opponent, Goldwater, on the other hand, “was mercurial, untested, and beyond all else, he was a man who could never be trusted with his finger on the nuclear trigger.”3 Johnson won the election with 61 percent of the popular vote—the greatest majority in American history. Careful about protecting his reputation, Johnson approved National Security Action Memoranda (NSAM) 273 on November 26, 1963, ensuring assistance against communism to foreign countries. On January 16, 1964, Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34A called for improved communication between the CIA and the military, followed by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Passed on August 10 with a 98 to 2 vote in the Senate and a unanimous vote in the House, the resolution granted the president the authority to protect troops by whatever means necessary. Johnson used it to begin the Vietnam War, though he never officially declared war. Despite his pro-war sentiments, Johnson did not plan further involvement in Vietnam. Although mainly preoccupied with Vietnam, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote, to use public facilities, and to withhold federal funds when discriminated against. He also signed the Economic Opportunity Act on August 20, including educational, employment, and training programs.

Upon authorization of Rolling Thunder on February 13, 1965, which permitted continued bombing in Vietnam, America divided into the pro-war “Hawks” and the anti-war “Doves”. Johnson himself remained essentially neutral; he sided with neither group. As objection to the Vietnam War heightened, so did the frequency of demonstrations and protests, which were “unpleasant to a man who needed public approval.”4 By mid-April 1965, Johnson committed the nation to full-scale operations in Vietnam. In November, employed troops numbered 175,000, and, in 1966, almost 300,000. Although he disliked the idea, Johnson sent 535,000 troops overseas by the end of his presidency. At home, both his “Great Society” program and foreign policy focused on the preservation of liberty. Congress targeted education, protection of civil rights, urban renewal, Medicare, conservation, beautification, control and prevention of crime and delinquency, promotion of the arts, and consumer protection. In Vietnam, Johnson worked toward avoiding unnecessary action against the Communists, improving social and economic conditions, fostering inter-regional cooperation among neighboring nations, and resolving Communist disputes. The climax of his ongoing pursuit of justice, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, which enabled African Americans to legally register and vote. However, Vietnam ultimately suspended his equalitarian efforts and his dream of a “Great Society”.

War resistance skyrocketed when the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon in South Vietnam. Largely a result of the “Tet Offensive” and his failing health, President Johnson decided not to run for a second term. The situation in Vietnam ignited even more concern than his health: the press seemed to miss no chance to criticize the “vanishing public support of American policy there,” and Lyndon Johnson himself “despised the war” because “it was killing Americans” and “destroying his dream for a Great Society by sucking up immense amounts of money.”5 The murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy compounded the distress of the already depressed nation. Although his attention to Vietnam caused the postponement of societal improvements like the “Great Society”, Johnson made considerable progress in the advancement of international nuclear cooperation. In January 1967, Johnson signed the Outer Space Treaty with Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin, forbidding the use of nuclear weapons in space. Also, in 1968, the United States adopted the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which banned nuclear assistance to foreign nations.

In Chief of Staff, Marvin W. Watson, Johnson’s confidant and Chief of Staff from 1965 to 1968, presented a first-person account of Johnson’s life, times, and politics. Combining biography with memoir, Watson portrayed Johnson as a godly man who “believed the American people were willing to sacrifice and that there was no limit to what the people of this nation would accomplish.”6 Chief of Staff attempted to qualify Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and actions. For instance, Watson attributed the expansion of the war to ineffective and mistaken counsel, and he vilified Robert Kennedy as a scheming, power-hungry politician who tore apart the Democratic Party during the 1968 presidential election. A true Johnson loyalist, Watson believed that Johnson never acted with any intention other than to “punch holes in the darkness.”7

Marvin Watson published Chief of Staff thirty six years after Johnson’s presidency and thirty two years after his death. In his effort to reveal the warmth, compassion, and level-headed leadership of the President for which he worked, Watson sought to discredit previously popular—but in his opinion inadequate—portraits of the president published just three and thirteen years before his own book. For instance, Watson classified Robert Caro as one such historian to “have fallen victim to the fault that they often rely upon the prejudiced views of unreliable contemporary—and sometimes uncited—sources” and echoed Jack Valenti’s criticism of the three-volume work as a publication “worthy more of publication in a seedy scandal sheet…it has no warranty, no names, confirmed by no witnesses, void of identity of those supposedly involved.”8 He also attacked Michael Beschloss’s book on the Lyndon Johnson tapes, which claims Johnson struggled with mental illness during the time of his presidency. Watson stated that he “never observed him act in any way other than with total normalcy, or, to put it another way, consistent with the power of his personality and the force of his intellect.”9 He also accused Beschloss of misinterpreting Lady Bird Johnson’s tape recorded diary as evidence, in addition to citing Richard Goodwin and Bill Moyers, both of whom involuntarily left the White House.

Karl Helicher called Watson’s Chief of Staff “an intriguing but uncritical account of LBJ.”10 Shaped by his service to the president as Chief of Staff, Watson’s unrestrained idolism seemed unavoidable, but ultimately contributed to the book’s excessive sentimentality. While Watson’s memories lent the book a personal touch, at times they tended to overshadow the facts. Instead of elaborating on Johnson’s campaign, for example, Watson listed his duties during the election, marking what Gilbert Taylor considered as a book that “mainly describes his enforcement of political loyalty on the White House Staff.”11

Although it provided a detailed account of the Johnson presidency, Chief of Staff is ultimately overshadowed by Watson’s inevitable bias as Johnson’s Chief of Staff. Watson’s account failed to effectively evaluate Johnson’s presidency; however, it did succeed in illustrating his congressional tact and providing a thorough description of Watson’s role as Chief of Staff. Watson’s rigorous involvement in the Johnson presidency accented his account with disclosure of confidential information. For example, he reveals that Johnson tasked George Ball with arguing against Vietnam Policy “to deal with the best arguments that can be made against what we are doing.”12 The media had mistakenly labeled him as an anti-war hero who defended his opinions against the president.

After granting equal rights to both women and blacks, America finally extended freedom to all of its citizens. Johnson appointed Robert Weaver, the first black Cabinet Officer, Carl Rowan, the first black Director of USIA, Samuel Nabrit, the first black Atomic Energy Commissioner, Hobart Taylor, the first black Director of the Export-Import Bank, Patricia Harris, the first black ambassador to Western Europe, Hugh Smythe, the first black Ambassador to Asia, Lieutenant General Benjamin Davis, the first black Lieutenant General of the Army, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. Other landmark legislation passed during Johnson’s term included Medicare, Project Head Start, Aid to Education, Aid to Higher Education, Highway Beautification Act, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, these measures brought the nation closer to the American ideal—a land without poverty or social discrimination. What began as “[Johnson’s] vision for a greater America”13 eventually became one step closer to “the beginning of a new springtime” that Johnson believed his nation was approaching.14

In contrast to the conservative fifties, the turbulent sixties began a new age of democracy and national politics. The nation heard the cries for peace and equality from the baby-boomer generation. The Voting Rights Act and the amendment of the Civil Rights Act transformed American politics and society by ensuring civil liberties to African Americans and women. To Lyndon Johnson, “that anyone would go to bed hungry or in need of an education in this great land was unforgivable.”15 The decade’s liberal equalitarian spirit brought about an optimistic rebirth of American values, embodied by the American President Lyndon Johnson.

From the War on Poverty at home to the physical strain of old age or the international horror of impending nuclear disaster, struggles throughout Johnson’s presidency ignited nationwide restlessness and loudened anti-war cries from the American public . As the country’s nuclear fear epidemic spread, Johnson became emotionally consumed by the vacuum of unstoppable war and citizen dissent; the gradual recession of the Great Society reflected Johnson’s growing focus on Vietnam.

review by Erin Hughes

  1. Watson, Marvin W. Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency: Thomas Dunne Books 2004, 293.
  2. Watson, Marvin W. 35.
  3. Watson, Marvin W. 69.
  4. Watson, Marvin W. 248.
  5. Watson, Marvin W. 269-270.
  6. Watson, Marvin W. 313.
  7. Watson, Marvin W. 313.
  8. Watson, Marvin W. 141.
  9. Watson, Marvin W. 257.
  10. Helicher, Karl “Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency.” Booklist 1 Sept 2004:100
  11. Taylor, Guilbert “Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency.” Booklist 1 Sept 2004: 44
  12. Watson, Marvin W. 155.
  13. Watson, Marvin W. 313.
  14. Watson, Marvin W. 345.
  15. Watson, Marvin W. 112.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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