Bringing About Presidential Authority:

Johnson and Vietnam

Derek Wilson



            During periods of national crisis certain conditions will inevitably arise facilitating an increase in Presidential authority.  Crisis periods that coincide with a high public rating of the President, an intergovernmental elite consensus, and foreign threats to the nation will allow the President to assume a level of authority which far exceeds Constitutional status.  For the purposes of this paper, Presidential authority refers to the ability of a President to conduct foreign affairs with few restrictions and without the fear of domestic repercussions.  In the paragraphs that follow, I point to at least three criteria and the strong correlation between their development and an increase in Presidential power.

            The apparent relationship between these certain criteria and Presidential authority has a strong implication on the structure of United States democracy.  The American political-domestic system allows for the fluctuation of Presidential authority from situation to situation, based upon the degree, or extent, to which these criteria occur.  For example, a small foreign threat will probably warrant a small increase in the President’s power, if the other two criteria are present.  However, a large substantial threat, like the large scale proliferation of nuclear weapons among many of the United State’s enemies, will inevitably allow the President to assume a vast amount of power in order to quell such a threat.   

            This pattern of Presidential power is appropriate and necessary in democratic systems.  In the domestic sense, the executive should have numerous restrictions to ensure the proper production of democracy.  However, once a nation is threatened by crisis, that nation will need a strong centralized leader.  The American foreign-domestic political dichotomy is fascinating.  For domestic politics the American system requires a weak role from the executive balanced against other branches of the Government.  Foreign politics on the other hand call for a more centralized role from the executive; a role that will allow the President to make decisions effectively.  The presence of certain criteria, i.e. high public opinion, an  elite consensus, and a crisis situation, serve to further facilitate the contrasting roles the President must take the part of in foreign and domestic politics.


            The vast majority of research shows evidence that verifies at least three criteria which almost always accompany an assumed increase in Presidential power.  We use the term “assume” in consideration that acts of deploying troops overseas without Congressional consent, seizing domestic industries, conducting peace agreements in the absence of Senatorial consent, etc. are all actions that past Presidents have accomplished even though these powers are not stated in the Constitution.  This increase in power often pertains to the President’s ability to conduct war.  During a war or crisis, the nation will usually be willing to forfeit some Constitutional checks and balances.  An example of this occurred in 1951 during the conflict in Korea, when President Truman seized steel factories to avoid a strike and assure the continued production of steel (Neustadt, 1980).  Had the United States not been engaged in a war, Truman would probably not have intervened.  Truman’s actions here exemplify an increase in Presidential power.  The criteria that facilitate such power are: a high public opinion rating, an elite consensus, and the occurrence of foreign threats to the nation.

Public Opinion

            Public opinion is most efficiently measured in polls.  Most Presidents have closely monitored surveys and polls in order to gauge their standing in public opinion.  Governmental officials may or may not respond to public opinion depending upon its necessity in accomplishing goals (Sobel, 2001).  A liberal theory approaches public opinion with the understanding that the public’s approval of policies is absolutely necessary in conducting those policies.  In contrast, a realist theory disregards public opinion as an influence on policy.  Jacobs and Shapiro (1999) argue that the intent of leaders with a realist notion of public opinion is not to respond to opinion, but rather direct the public in to agreeing with that leader’s policies.  Regardless of whether or not a President has a liberal or realist notion, history has proved tat policy is influenced by public opinion.  Now with the understanding of how public opinion is measured and how Presidents may perceive that opinion, a few examples will be discussed to illustrate how public opinion my affect a President.

            Research has shown that the Truman administration constantly receive a low approval rating from the public.  During the Korean War, Truman and General MacArthur met head-to-head in opposition which eventually led to MacArthur’s removal.  Despite the Truman administration’s interest in a negotiated settlement with Korea, General MacArthur was demanding n unconditional surrender by the enemy (Neustadt, 1980).  Due to MacArthur’s insubordination, Truman had him relieved, and since Truman was disliked by the public, he received much criticism for this action.  This event shows the difficulty Presidents with low public support may run into when trying to achieve certain goals.

            In 1949, the Defense department battled against President Truman’s budget plan.  However, in 1954, when President Eisenhower proposed a weak “New Look” budget plan, the Army Kept quiet even though better plans had been proposed (Neustadt, 1980).  Superficially, the 1949 and 1954 cases appear to be similar.  Why then was one President successful while the other failed?  The answer lies in public opinion.  Eisenhower had public opinion to use to his advantage, because the public approved of his policies and actions.  Truman on the other hand suffered from a low public approval; therefore he had more trouble in accomplishing his goals.

            Other examples show how public opinion affects policy decisions.  During the Contra funding issue, President Reagan was searching for ways to get a considerable amount of aid to the Contras.  Because the public was in opposition to this particular policy, Sobel (2001) argues that Reagan had a difficult time in passing legislation for Contra funding.  Actually, the public was powerful enough against the funding to force the administration to secretly aid the Contras; inevitably leading to the Iran-Contra Affair.  During the Gulf War, 75% of the public supported Operation Desert Shield, which was the initial insertion of American troops in the Persian Gulf (Rourke, 1994).  As the war dragged on though, President Bush Sr. lost the public’s support and became greatly restricted in conducting the war.  These examples show how public opinion is a source of influence of Presidents (Neustadt, 1980).

Elite Consensus

            Elites are experts in government who often serve to advise the President on things like foreign affairs.  Historically, whenever an administration experiences an elite consensus, the President will assume more power.  For example, during the Cold War, there was an elite consensus concerning Communism.  It was understood that Communism was expansionist and preventing Communism was in the national interest of the United States (Hook & Spanier, 2004).  Due to this understanding, Cold War Presidents were able to expand their authority in fighting Communism, which resulted in the nuclear arms race, the suppression of revolutionary governments, etc… (Hook & Spanier, 2004).  It was not until this elite consensus was challenged that the President began to experience a reduction in authority.

            With that in mind, why does an elite consensus lead to an increase of Presidential authority?  Sobel (2001) stresses, that the attitudes of the elites strongly influence intervention policy.  In one sense, if a nation expresses a consensus regarding the suppression of Communism, then a President will easily be able to increase his authority in order to battle Communism.  Another sense concerns the President’s advisors, which are also referred to as elites.  A President’s advisors are experts in things like foreign policy, so a consensus among the President’s elites may potentially influence that President’s policies (Sobel, 2001).  For example, during the Cold War administrations, most Presidential advisors agreed that Communism should be contained (Hook & Spanier, 2004).  Therefore, Cold War Presidents could do things like intervene in Third World revolutions, which exemplify an increase in power.


            During periods of national crisis, historical evidence shows that the United States’ public will usually become rather supportive of their President.  Rourke, Carter, and Boyer (1994) refer to this phenomenon as the rally syndrome.  During phases of crises or military conflict a sense of patriotism makes people, including Congress, reluctant to criticize the President (Rourke, 1994).  As a result, the President inevitably assumes more freedom in him policies.  For example, immediately after Japan ruthlessly attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was granted by Congress a declaration of war.  Likewise, following the attacks of September 11, President Bush received a joint resolution authorizing him to do whatever was necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks.  In addition to the resolution, President Bush as also successful in passing the Patriot Act which essentially reduced the rights given to every American.

            Almost every crises since World War II, has been accompanied by a significant increase in the President’s popularity (Rourke, 1994).  Rourke, Carter, and Boyer (1994) provide a few examples as evidence; for instance, in 1980, President Carter attempted a mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.  Even though the mission ended disastrously, Carter’s approval ratings increased ten points.  In 1983, when President Reagan chose to invade Grenada, he in turn experienced a four point increase in approval ratings.  Lastly, the 1989 invasion of Panama led to a nine point approval increase for President Bush Sr.

            The evidence above leads to the conclusion that in the occurrence of a supportive public opinion, an elite consensus concerning governmental objectives, and a national crisis, the President will be able to assume more authority.  A case study relating these three criteria to the period involving the Vietnam War will give some explanation as to how President Johnson was able to increase his authority in sending America to Vietnam.


            America has bestowed responsibility for its failure in Vietnam upon the shoulders of Lyndon Johnson.  As President, Lyndon Johnson led this country straight into Vietnam, which was a “one-way” path to despair and ultimate failure.  While the blame may be rightly placed with Johnson, the historian or political scientist must ask, “How could one man unilaterally send an entire nation into the inevitable failure of the Vietnam War?”  Despite the ongoing debate concerning the constitutionality of the practice, the President has the final say regarding the deployment of US military troops.  Although there was a United States military presence in Vietnam prior to Johnson’s presidency, it was under President Johnson when the United States fully committed them selves militarily to South Vietnam’s cause.  However, the decision to escalate American intervention in Vietnam was not made solely by Johnson.  An escalation of this type would have been impossible if certain criteria had been lacking from the American domestic environment.  Johnson was able to increase his war powers as a result of three characteristics which were: a supportive public opinion, an elite consensus, and national crises.

Johnson and Public Opinion

            Two crucial events in terms of Vietnam occurred during the 1964 Presidential election.  One was the triumph of Lyndon Johnson over Goldwater to retain his Presidency, while the other was Johnson’s overwhelming public support he gained in the election.  These two crucial events coincided with one another, i.e. Johnson defeated Goldwater by a landslide because he experienced a great amount of public support, and it was this very support that allowed Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam.  Without a crushing victory like the one experienced in 1964, Johnson would never have been able to send America to Vietnam.  In order to understand how Johnson acquired so much of the public’s approval we need to evaluate two things: what occurred in the 1964 election and the public’s view of the containment of Communism.

            Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential campaign was certainly not unilateral.  Goldwater may have in fact thrown himself more blows than what Johnson ever considered throwing, and this all resulted from the fact that Goldwater was running on a doomed platform.  During the Cold War the topic of foreign policy was decisive factor in voting behavior.  Unfortunately for Goldwater, he played his cards wrong.

            In Cold War elections, at least prior to 1964, Americans looked for two particular qualities in their President: (1) the determination to stop the spread of Communism and (2) prudence in choosing when to use force (Matthews, 1997).  Even before his nomination, Goldwater advocated a radically strict containment policy.  In 1961, he was complaining that the Kennedy administration needed to be more aggressive in stopping Communism (Matthews, 1997).  This type of tough conservatism was gaining Goldwater much support in the public which was supplemented with a decrease in support for Kennedy.  Even after the assassination of Kennedy, Goldwater was persistent in his badgering of the Democratic leadership.

Clearly Goldwater possessed the determination to stop Communism.  Goldwater’s faults however, became relevant in his lack of prudence in using force, which was the second requirement concerning voters.  Goldwater chose to attack his opponent by showing Americans that he simply had more guts than Johnson.  He opposed negotiation, rejected neutralization, and advocated “strong, affirmative action” to end the fighting in Vietnam (Matthews, 1997).  The media showed no mercy for Goldwater as headlines appeared claiming that he wanted to end social security and attack Fidel Castro (Matthews, 1997).  Another new source reported that Goldwater advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.  Goldwater’s shortcoming as a national candidate was his very own policy.  Simply stated, he advocated absolute victory in Vietnam, which would have involved the unconditional surrender of North Vietnam, and such a victory would have taken time when the country was currently weary with war.  Once the American public understood the extent to which Goldwater was willing to escalate the Vietnam War, they turned their support to Johnson in hopes that he would be more cautious with the military.

Johnson gained public support by fostering a peaceful image during the campaign (Lerner, 1995).  According to Lerner (1995), there was decline in the amount of talk from Johnson concerning Vietnam during the campaign.  By doing this, i.e. keeping quite while his opponent committed political suicide from stressing the Vietnam issue, Johnson ushered in an enormous amount of support.  Johnson was easily able to exploit Goldwater’s careless attacks on “peaceful coexistence” and his borrowed Eisenhower policy of “peace through strength” (Matthews, 1997) to effectively pull voters to his side.  The 1964 election results show that Johnson won a total of 486 electoral votes and these results are a clear indication that President Johnson had public opinion to use at his advantage (Lerner, 1995).

Besides the election, Johnson was also able to rally public support to his benefit because the country as a whole bought in to the domino theory, or Communist expansionism.  This realist elite theory was not restricted from the public.  The Gallup Organization measured the public’s fear of Communism throughout the Cold War.  In October of 1964, a month prior to the election, 65% of Americans surveyed claimed they were concerned a great deal about “combating world communism.”  Also, in 1964, a Gallup survey concluded that 20% of Americans surveyed were afraid of the consequences of Communism.  Even before the threat of war in Vietnam materialized for the public, Americans showed a concern for Communism.  In 1959, 43% of Americans thought Communism was the most important problem facing the United States.  The results of these surveys measure the extent to which regular Americans bought into the realist elite consensus, i.e. that Communism was a real threat to the United States.  Their belief that Communism should be contained allowed President Johnson to make pro-war decisions that involved sending more and more American troops to Vietnam.

            At the beginning of the war, public opinion served to Johnson’s advantage.  However, the public was not entirely responsible for the way Johnson decided to deal with Vietnam.  A president’s advisors are the most influential factors in the executive’s decision making process.  Before Johnson actually decided to send American to Vietnam, he was constantly around advisors that encouraged the Americanization of Vietnam.

Johnson and Elite Consensus

            The attitudes of Johnson’s advisors were best illustrated in three areas: Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and the Wise Men (Anderson, 2002).  Secretary of Defense, robbery McNamara, was one of the most influential advisors to Johnson.  His plan to engage in the Vietnam War included an expansion of United State military pressure against the Vietcong (Anderson, 2002), while simultaneously working towards negotiations.  Upon returning form a trip to Vietnam to assess the situation, McNamara warned President Johnson of the collapse of Vietnam.  In a report following his visit, McNamara again stressed the importance of expanding a United States military presence in Vietnam (Berman, 1993), a proposal that Johnson would eventually decide to act upon.

Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, also advocated the use of United States military force in Vietnam, however he viewed the situation as defensive rather than offensive.  In a memorandum to Johnson, Rusk claimed that United States military force would only be necessary to combat Northern Vietnamese aggression (Berman, 1993).  The excuse of “Northern aggression” would eventually be used to describe the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, thereby justifying the Americanization of Vietnam.  Rusk also warned Johnson that the United States’ commitment to stopping communism must not become unreliable in order to prevent catastrophic war (Berman, 1993).

            Anderson (2002) stressed the importance of an elite group, referred to as the Wise Men, with whom Johnson frequently consulted from 1965 to 1968.  In 1965, when Johnson was forced to make a decision upon whether or not to commit combat troops to Vietnam, this group supported a commitment (Anderson, 2002).  Throughout Vietnam, the Wise Men supported Johnson’s decisions until the Tet Offensive, after which they informed Johnson that he “should wind the war down” (Anderson, 2002).

            McGeorge Bundy was not an appointed advisor to Johnson, but he was a member of the Wise Men.  According to Isaacson (1996), Bundy took a detached centrist position on Vietnam however, after a trip to Pleiku; McGeorge Bundy became unequivocally influential in getting American troops to Vietnam.  Bundy’s visit coincided with the North Vietnamese attack on the US Army barracks at Pleiku (Berman, 1993).  Bundy’s witnessing of the Pleiku attack encouraged him to advise Johnson to send more American troops to Vietnam.

            The US ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, was also a member of the Wise Men.  As ambassador, Lodge’s assessment of the situation was vitally important, in that his analysis of the United States’ progress in Vietnam would influence Johnson’s decisions whether or not to escalate.  Unfortunately for America, Lodge saw the United States’ effort in Vietnam to be inefficient.  In a hearing against George Ball, Lodge claimed that there was a greater threat to start World War III if the United States did not enter the war in Vietnam (Berman, 1993).  While Lodge and Bundy do not exemplify the Wise Men in their entirety, their perceptions of Vietnam illustrate the majority opinion shared by the group.  Even though opposition to the Americanization of Vietnam was scarce within the Wise Men, it was definitely still present.

            Undersecretary of state and Wise Man, George Ball, represented one of the very few opposing opinions among Johnson’s advisors.  According to Berman (1993), Ball stressed the need for Johnson to be cautious.  He also hinted that the conditions of the Hanoi government would in fact be favorable in comparison to Saigon by claiming that “the government in [South Vietnam] is a travesty” (Berman, 1993).  Ball’s warnings that a war in Vietnam would be long and protracted were muffled out by the overwhelming majority of advisors that supported a war.

            The decision to escalate the war was supported even by those outside the realm of Johnson’s advisors.  Nobody was better equipped to give Johnson information and advice concerning Vietnam than the leading military advisor serving in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland.  General Westmoreland was picked by Johnson in 1964 to command the US troops in Vietnam (Parshall, 1998).  In a report to Johnson, General Westmoreland informed him that “South Vietnam would fall unless the United States [expanded their military presence there]” (Berman, 1993).  Westmoreland measured the Northern Vietnamese pressure on the South to be overpowering.  Johnson obviously held Westmoreland in high esteem otherwise the General would never have been placed in Vietnam therefore Johnson found little doubt in Westmoreland’s assessments.

            The evidence above indicates that there was an elite consensus among Johnson’s advisors and informants, which supported an escalation of the war.  Even though Johnson monitored his public opinion status, Jacobs and Shapiro (1999) suggest that Johnson was mostly influenced by his advisors.  According to their research, there was evidence of a negative correlation between Johnson’s decisions and public opinion (Jacobs & Shapiro, 1999).  Apparently Johnson showed little regard for how the public viewed his actions.  Instead, Johnson adopted the realist notion of leadership (Jacobs & Shapiro, 1999), in that he felt like he could manipulate the public into agreeing with his policy choices.  Therefore, Johnson never brought the issue of Vietnam to the public in its full form.  He downplayed the issue to garner the public’s support (Jacobs & Shapiro, 1999) which allowed Johnson and his advisors to conduct the war behind the scenes.

Johnson and Crises

            As in most scenarios, the public will instinctively adopt a sense of national pride once their country has been harmed.  All of a sudden once an attack occurs, the President is immediately given more authority to retaliate against the aggressors.  Even though President Johnson kept his people in the dark for much of the Vietnam War, he never missed an opportunity to exploit anything that may appear as Northern Vietnamese aggression against the United States.

            On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer Maddox engaged in hostile fire with Northern Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin (Anderson, 2002).  The Maddox was running intelligence missions that were kept secret by the White House.  Then on August 4, 1964, another incident occurred in the Tonkin Gulf.  However, the weather conditions caused a great amount of confusion concerning the authenticity of the incident.  Radio transmitters were being disrupted by the weather and messages between the White House and the Maddox were being confused.  Despite the confusion, Johnson presented the incident to the public with the clear indication that the American military had been attacked by North Vietnam (Anderson, 2002).  Whether or not Johnson was aware of the public’s deception, the administration had been searching for a reason to use force more aggressively and the Gulf of Tonkin incident provided that reason.

            Johnson used the public’s rallying support to receive a resolution from Congress.  On August 7, only five days after the Tonkin Gulf Incident, Johnson received the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was the functional equivalent of a declaration of war (Nathan, 1995).  The Resolution vastly increased the President’s war making abilities to far exceed his Constitutional authority.  With the Resolution, Johnson was authorized “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the [United States military] and to prevent further aggression” (Anderson, 2002).  The Resolution also authorized Johnson to go beyond Vietnam and “assist any member of the Southeast Collective Defense Treaty” (Anderson, 2002).  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution could never have succeeded through Congress without the attack on the Maddox.

            Although Johnson had the authority to escalate the war to his own delight, he still waited for opportunities to rally more and more public support, opportunities that would arise at Pleiku and Qui Nhon.  On February 7, 1965, eight Americans were killed in the bombing at Pleiku (Berman, 1993).  Then three days later on February 10, the Vietcong killed twenty-three members of an aircraft repair unit at Qui Nhon (Berman, 1993). With the attacks at Pleiku and Qui Nhon, which killed Americans, Johnson was now able to utilize his increased authority in a large scale operation called Rolling Thunder, implemented only three days after Qui Nhon.  As Berman (1993) puts it, Operation Rolling Thunder was the systematic and expanding bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam.  Once the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed, Johnson saw no limit to the expansion of Vietnam, and during crises like Pleiku and Qui Nhon, the public was looking for an expansion in Vietnam in terms of retaliation.


            Throughout this paper, evidence has been presented and applied to a prominent case in history in order to show that certain criteria do arise that will lead to an increase of presidential power.  After terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, the nation immediately changed forever.  The criteria discussed throughout this paper were prevalent in America immediately after September 11.  Similar to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a foreign country harmed us and our nation was in search for revenge.  President Bush had public support, United Nations support, and congressional support, in the form of a joint resolution to go after bin Laden.  All the criteria were present when President Bush sent troops to Afghanistan, and his power indeed exceeded its constitutionality.  Even now the Bush administration tries to keep the crises alive with possible terrorist threats and due to the fact that Republicans just won re-election in 2004, some components of the criteria are still present even today, three years after September 11.  President Bush is beginning to lose some of the public’s support that followed September 11, which allowed him to invade Afghanistan.  Also, there appears to be a lack of any direct crisis, meaning the United Sates has not declared an official new enemy after the fall of Iraq, even though the “war on terrorism” continues.  However, there still remains an elite consensus within Bush’s administration and indeed Bush has kept the power he received following September 11.

            As I stated in the introduction of this paper, the American system allows the President to assume more power in foreign affairs, which is essential for the production of democracy.  Although, a problem may possibly arise once a nation allows its executive to extend his or her authority and I believe that problem is indeed with the Bush administration.  When an executive is granted power that exceeds constitutionality, it seems essential that the executive should be prudent in deciding whether or not to exercise such power, and it is here that President Bush has failed.  The current administration has been successful in detaining American citizens and forfeiting their Constitutional rights.  President Bush also decided unilaterally to invade Iraq despite the lack of Security Council authorization and also in the absence of any immediate threat being imposed by Iraq.  Therefore the United States continues to conduct adequate democracy at home and preaches democracy abroad while the current administrations foreign policies appear to be anything but democratic.  This trend may seem beneficial to the American democratic system, nevertheless, it is detrimental to the global democratic system.  So what will it take to bring President Bush back within the realm of the Constitution?  Will the Executive ever reduce its newfound power?  During the Cold War and after, Congress often stepped in and reduced the President’s authority.  When President Bush loses a consensus among elite or public support, or the threat of terrorism dies, only then will his authority begin to decrease.




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