Lyndon Johnson and Bismarck’s Seal
He could be forgiven for calling South Vietnam a bastion of freedom if he were only placating the electorate or soothing the consciences of his country’s allies and satellites. And he can hardly avoid pretending that the American forces in Vietnam are defending a small but gallant democracy against a powerful and ruthless aggressor, even when this pretense compels him and his government to invent a “Republic of Vietnam” as purely imaginary as Zenda or Graustark. In this era of mass-produced ideology, all heads of state are required to talk that kind of nonsense. What’s terrifying is that Johnson thinks he’s telling the truth.
This tough Texan has fought and schemed his way from a country schoolhouse to the White House. Where practical politics are concerned, he could give lessons to Machiavelli. Yet so powerful is the American Dream, so all-pervasive is American idealism, that he has somehow managed to retain the awful innocence of a high school valedictorian or a Woodrow Wilson.
And, God help us, Goldwater was even more of an innocent, a fugitive from Little Orphan Annie. Rockefeller and Romney have yet to qualify for their tenderfoot scout badges. And, in the background, astride a white horse, six-guns strapped low on his hips, looms the greatest and most dangerous innocent of them all, Wild Ron Reagan, sheriff of Tombstone, successor to Kit Carson and Babe Ruth.
What’s needed is a Bismarck — or, at the very least, a Grover Cleveland or a Louis Philippe, a man who can distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary and who knows words are not things but symbols.
The United States is doomed to be an empire.
The day the western frontier reached the Pacific Ocean it was inevitable that the United States would become a power in Asia. For more than a century, the United States has been extending and strengthening its Asiatic empire. Under Chiang Kai-shek, China was as much an American possession as India was a British. George III went mad when he lost his thirteen American colonies; the United States went a little mad when it lost China.
This is not a moral judgment, although it will be taken as such because, for complex historical and ideological reasons, both of today’s great empires, the American and the Russian, indignantly deny that they are imperialistic.
Actually, if moral standards can be applied to the effects of geographical and economic necessity, it can be argued convincingly that American imperialism is the most benevolent in history. It is quite possible that Vietnam would be better off, in most respects, as a colony or protectorate of the United States than as an independent country. Certainly, our own politicians and economists assure us that Canada, as an economic satellite and military protectorate of the United States, is wealthier than it could hope to be as a sovereign state.
The trouble is that since the United States has never admitted that its empire exists, the president, who is emperor of half the world, must act as if he were still the head of a little agrarian republic along the Atlantic seaboard. Lyndon Johnson carries this attitude to the extreme when he speaks as though the thirteen colonies, having expelled the Redcoats and the Hessians, were now defending themselves against an invasion from Vietnam. He seems to suggest that the day after the Americans withdraw from Saigon, Mao Tse-tung will lead an army into Washington.
Worst of all, this isn’t just the way he talks. It is the way he thinks. That’s what makes him so dangerous.
Consider what such a man might learn from old Bismarck, who knew what empires were all about. Imagine the two of them, the Primitive Baptist idealist and the noble Prussian cynic, sitting down together in the White House.
Bismarck: Mr. President, the economists and the general staff have explained most carefully the advantages of our annexing Indochina to our empire. Economically —
Johnson: Pardon me, Prince, but let’s get one thing straight, right from the beginning. The United States is only interested in maintaining the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of our good neighbours in Southeast Asia. As I’ve said many times before —
Bismarck: I stand corrected, Mr. President. Now, if I may continue. The economists and the general staff have explained in painstaking, almost painful detail why it is important that we, ah, maintain the territorial integrity of our Indochinese protectorates —
Johnson: No, no, no, Prince. Not protectorates, the free people of the great Republic of South Vietnam. We must honour our commitments to the distinguished Prime Minister — er, his name slips my mind right at the moment, but we can look it up later. Whenever there’s a new one they run his picture on the cover of Time. Big Minh, I think the fellow’s name is. Or Little Minh or something. Anyway, he’s a great friend of the free world, and this great nation is pledged —
Bismarck: To be sure, to be sure, Mr. President. But to speed up our discussions might it not be better if we spoke English and had our decisions translated later by the state department or one of Life’s editorial writers?
Johnson: Prince, that’s exactly what we want: a frank exchange of viewpoints at the summit level, a —
Bismarck: Quite. Now, Mr. President, I have prepared some estimates similar to this which I used in the matters of Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace-Lorraine — both highly profitable real estate operations undone by my idiotic successors. I would estimate, first of all, that Vietnam is worth a maximum of $5,000,000 per square mile per month. No more. I would further estimate that we might well afford to spend 250 dead per month. Under certain circumstances, I would be willing to spend 300 dead, but that would be the absolute maximum. Note that the $5,000,000 I quoted includes the cost of napalm, phosphorous, bribing native politicians, hiring mercenary troops, etc. Later, we can consider each item separately, if you like.
Johnson: Hold on a minute, Prince. We’re talking about this as though it were a business deal. I want you to know America is involved in a holy crusade against the forces of godless communsim. We’re —
Bismarck: Please, Mr. President, wait until I’ve finished. If you examine the figures, you will see that Vietnam is already costing us more than $5,000,000 per square mile per month and is likely to cost still more. Furthermore, we are spending more dead than we can well afford. Logic suggests that we cut our losses and invest elsewhere — perhaps in Cambodia or Thailand or even in Aden. personally, I lean towards Thailand, which is still a reasonably cheap commodity. I shouldn’t wonder if we could get it for less than $2,000,000 per square mile per month and, oh, perhaps, twenty-five dead per month for the next twenty-five or thirty years — a trifling price to pay, just enough, really, to inspire the proper patriotic fervor ….
Johnson: But, Prince, you’re talking as though these matters were decided by common sense. We don’t use common sense in deciding the foreign policy of the United States.
Bismarck: Alas, Mr. President, what you have said is only too true. I believe, on second thought, that I will return to the relative calmness and sanity of Valhalla.
Nowlan, Alden. “Lyndon Johnson and Bismarck’s Seal.” The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. Ed. Al Purdy. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968. 106–09.