Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2020

Fifty-two years ago, President Lyndon Johnson faced a crisis in Vietnam that he could not solve. In 2020 Donald Trump faces a crisis that originated in China and deeply impacts the U.S. economy, a major political asset. In 1968, President Johnson resigned rather than face the voters in November. It's unlikely; however, that Mr. Trump can be persuaded to do the same in 2020.

Johnson and Vietnam War

Vice President Johnson, who rose to the presidency when John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, inherited the Vietnam problem. He had to decide whether to escalate by sending large U.S. forces to Southeast Asia, or gradually withdraw from Vietnam and Thailand. He chose to get the U.S. more heavily involved, even though close friends warned him about being tied down in Asia when the real threat was in Europe from the Soviet Union.

Historians and political pundits differ in their assessments of why Johnson decided to double down in Vietnam. He might have changed course after his landslide victory in 1964 against Republican Barry Goldwater; instead, he sent Marines into South Vietnam's coast and followed this with the introduction of large Army units spread across that country. In addition, he launched Air Force and Navy bombing raids against communist insurgents in South Vietnam and threatened to bomb Communist North Vietnam if Hanoi failed to rein in its proxy insurgents in the south.

Vietnam was not a partisan issue in the U.S. in 1963. President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, had warned John Kennedy that he faced a serious problem in Vietnam and Laos, that the "domino effect" would take hold across Southeast Asia if America pulled out of Vietnam. In 1965, Republicans didn't challenge Johnson for his escalation of U.S. forces. The president became convinced that with a show of American power, North Vietnam's regime would give up its drive to reunify Vietnam under Communist control. Johnson's White House advisers as well as Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara believed in 1965 the war wouldn't last long. They were wrong.

By early 1968, it was clear to most officials in Washington, including Rusk and McNamara, that the war was not winnable, even though the U.S. had half a million American troops and airmen were involved. Meanwhile, large anti-Vietnam protests continued across the U.S., especially on college campuses where students were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Then, in March 1968, President Johnson stunned the country when he announced he wouldn't seek reelection in November. He would also start deescalating the war. His approval ratings were below 40 percent, and prospects for his reelection had greatly diminished.

Trump and coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus, "Wuhan virus" as some call it, originated in China and within a few months spread across the world. As a result, we live with a shutdown in much of the U.S. as states struggle to contain this deadly disease that already claims over 60,000 American lives. It forced governors across America to shutter businesses and mandate that residents stay home.

President Trump has labored relentlessly on TV to show he and his medical team are dealing effectively with the crisis. But the effects on the U.S. economy are devastating, even though trillions in federal aid cushion its effects. Optimists say local businesses will reopen soon, but others question whether colleges will reopen in the fall. Resumption of professional baseball this summer and college football in the fall remains in doubt.

As in 1968, 2020 is an election year. Before the pandemic hit in March, throwing the economy into a downward spiral, Trump seemed destined for victory in November. He turned out huge crowds for his rallies, and the media gave him far more attention than other presidents received. With his approval ratings at near 50 percent, he seemed unbeatable. That changed abruptly in mid-March, and since then Trump appears isolated at the White House.

Is there a parallel between 1968 and 2020 in how two presidents viewed their reelection prospects? In my overview, Trump will not bow out of the November election unless his approval ratings fall well below 40 percent. Unlike Johnson, he has a strong political base. But will it be enough to overcome a dismal economy and growing public frustration with huge unemployment and continuing close down of essential businesses? By September, we should know.

File last modified on Saturday, 02-MAY-2020 07:45 PM EST

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