February 24, 2015

1968. Analyzing Johnson's State of the Union Address

Foreign Policy in 1968
Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin with President Lyndon Johnson at the Cold War summit in Glassboro in June 1967 (source)
Bill Downs Perspective

ABC Washington

January 21, 1968


Official Washington is still wringing the words and issues out of the president's State of the Union message and considering the fact that Mr. Johnson is presumably laying his White House job on the line this year. His address before the joint session of the Congress Wednesday night was not the sod-busting, partisan, ring-tailed howler of a political speech that it might have been.

There was no attempt at soaring rhetoric, no sarcasm to castigate his critics, no ideological thrusts at America's enemies abroad. Compared with his previous State of the Union message, this one was lean. And for a Texas politician, it was almost an understatement.

By now every foreign government around the globe will have translated his speech, and every foreign ministry and military and political intelligence organization will be analyzing the Johnson Administration's view of these United States; taking the message apart, paragraph by paragraph.

The Asian communist leaders of Red China and North Vietnam will find no signs of discouragement or weakening in President Johnson's review of Vietnam policy. There was nothing new in his offer to stop the bombing of the North in exchange for a cessation of communist aggression in the South. In fact, Mr. Johnson pointed out that "the enemy continues to pour men and material across the frontiers of South Vietnam," a warning perhaps that even heavier fighting may be in store in Southeast Asia.

And he took pains to assure the leadership of the newly elected government of Saigon that any peace negotiations would be undertaken only after "consultation with the US allies."

Although the president made no mention of Britain's deliberately reduced role in world affairs, Mr. Johnson had a clear word of assurance for the free nations of Southeast Asia. These countries, he said, stretching from Korea and Japan to Indonesia and Singapore, are increasing their political and economic strength "behind America's shield." With the pullback of British military power east of Suez, the question remains open as to whether that American shield will be extended to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. This is what the foreign intelligence services will be trying to determine between now and the British pullout deadline of 1971.

Mr. Johnson ignored the vituperation and the propaganda insults which have been pouring out of Peking the past year, mentioning only the turmoil and violent disruption in Mainland China and the radical extremism which has isolated the Chinese people behind their borders. The president, obviously without much hope of a favorable response, offered ways of breaking this isolation through an exchange of journalists and cultural and education barters, and again he offered to discuss with Chinese leaders the possibility of exchanging basic food crop materials—an offer which may become significant if China has a crop failure this year.

Mr. Johnson made no mention of the growing danger that Vietnam's war might spread westward to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Nor did he attempt to exacerbate the struggle between Moscow and the Chinese brand of communism.

In fact, in all areas of international confrontation, the president's assessment was so low-key that it might give the impression that he was trying to play down the many foreign policy problems which threaten world peace.

The continuing crisis in the Middle East got only four sentences in the State of the Union message, but they were very significant words underlining the importance of the "hotline" communications with Moscow—pointing out that a ceasefire was achieved without "a major power confrontation." In undiplomatic language, this means that the United States and the Soviet Union avoided starting what could have been World War III by using mutual restraint during last year's dangerous war between Israel and the Arab armies. The White House also knows that the Soviet political and military intelligence experts will read those four sentences about the Middle East as a warning of continued American interest and concern in that area of the world, including the Turko-Greek dispute over Cyprus.

Concerning Europe and Latin America, the president praised the economic developments of the past year, but made no mention of the NATO troubles or communist infiltration south of the border. Mr. Johnson made no mention of his difficulties with French President De Gaulle, choosing instead to ignore him, just as he ignored Cuba's Fidel Castro.

The United States interest in the troubled continent of Africa was rounded up in a sentence in which Mr. Johnson noted that the "spirit of regional cooperation is beginning to take hold in practical ways." Africa's diplomats will undoubtedly feel miffed at the way their huge continent was dismissed with a sentence. However, they will also note that the State of the Union message made no mention of the smoldering governments of India and Pakistan.

President Johnson was deliberately diplomatically sanguine about US and Soviet relations. After last year's Glassboro meetings with Premier Kosygin, there is greater understanding between Moscow and Washington. In Geneva, the two nations are reaching agreement on a draft treaty to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. But Mr. Johnson did not mention that such weaponry already is spreading, with the French development of their own nuclear arsenal, and with communist China developing missiles to carry the hydrogen bombs which she exploded for the first time last year.

Then there was the Russo-American consular treaty and the first commercial airline agreement between the two countries. And shortly, Moscow and Washington concur in yet another space treaty providing for the protection of astronauts and cosmonauts who in the future may be forced to land outside of their national boundaries.

The president also made mention of the first space agreement made with the Soviets—that document which purports to ban weapons of mass destruction from outer space. But Mr. Johnson failed to mention the fact that the Russians put so little reliance in this agreement that they are now building and expanding their own anti-ballistic missile defense system, which forced the US government to begin work on an ABM screen of its own. Also ignored was the fact that Soviet missile scientists are developing a so-called fractional orbital bomb which would violate the very treaty they've already signed. Neither was there a mention of the melancholy fact that the United States has under development a kind of ballistic "space bus" which could drop off a series of nuclear bombs on targets en route to its final destination.

As we said earlier, we have chosen to emphasize the foreign policy aspects of President Johnson's State of the Union message because we think it will largely be ignored in the domestic debate over Vietnam, government spending, and taxes—and the war on crime and poverty.

There is likely to be no major opposition to Secretary McNamara's defense budget, up an estimated three billion dollars over last year. For, despite the hue and cry by the Vietnam critics and pacifists across the country, here in Washington most congressional doves concede that the nation's defenses must be strong. And politically there is no question about giving the Americans fighting in Southeast Asia everything they need to do the job.

Consequently, President Johnson's brief assessment of US foreign policy and posture last Wednesday—accentuating the positive and playing down the negative—was deliberate for two reasons.

First, great care was taken to deprive enemy propaganda machines of material which would be used to portray the United States as a voracious, power-mad, empire-building nation now embarked on the military conquest of the world—beginning, of course, with Vietnam. Everyone knows, of course, that the State of the Union message will somehow be used by America's enemies to do that anyway.

But the second reason is that President Johnson is evidently convinced that foreign policy—and even Vietnam—may not be the vote swinging issues which will determine defeat or victory by the time November election day comes around.

It's increasingly obvious that Mr. Johnson expects to election to be won or lost in domestic challenges in big city slums and the streets of suburbia; at the cash registers in the supermarkets and among parents seeking the best of education and life for their children as well as security for their families, safety for their streets, and most of all, hope for the future.

The candidate who looks most like filling that bill will win the White House in November.

This is Bill Downs in Washington. Now back to Don Gardiner in New York.