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  • Mortgaging the Future: Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, and Vietnam in the 1964 Presidential Election
  • Andrew L. Johns (bio)

At the end of the criminally underrated film Go Tell the Spartans, a title card appears that simply reads “1964.” It is intended to convey to the audience that even this early in the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the trajectory and tragedy of the war was apparent. The historical record clearly demonstrates, however, that the decisions that led to the Americanization of the conflict in early 1965 had not yet been made in 1964, the extensive administration discussions of an expanded military presence in Southeast Asia notwithstanding. Indeed, the missed chances to prevent the Vietnam debacle feature prominently in much of the scholarship on the war.1 The 1964 presidential campaign between Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and President Lyndon B. Johnson represents one of those lost opportunities. This article explores the importance of the Vietnam conflict and domestic political considerations in the presidential campaign between Goldwater and Johnson and argues that the failure of the two candidates to engage in a robust, serious, and open debate on the conflict should be considered a significant contributing factor to the devastating events in the decade that followed. [End Page 149]

John F. Kennedy’s assassination changed the dynamics of the 1964 presidential election. Kennedy had hoped that he would run against Goldwater, who faced a double-digit deficit against the president in opinion polls in October 1963, in his bid for a second term. While Kennedy liked Goldwater personally—the two famously planned to hold joint appearances and travel on the same plane during the campaign—the president and his advisers thought Goldwater to be unelectable and too politically extreme for most Americans. Kennedy’s assessment was accurate on both counts. An outspoken conservative from Arizona, Goldwater came to the Senate in 1952 as an ardent opponent of Harry Truman’s foreign policy, which he labeled as little more than appeasement.2 In the 1950s, Goldwater criticized the Eisenhower administration for its quixotic pursuit of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and considered containment to be an insufficiently aggressive strategy that would not succeed in the long term. His negative appraisal of U.S. foreign policy continued in the early 1960s, as he regularly assailed the Kennedy administration as weak and indecisive in dealing with Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China, and other communist threats. Goldwater’s militant anti-communism garnered significant support within the GOP, particularly with the emerging and increasingly influential conservative wing of the party, but would ultimately cripple his presidential ambitions.3

In the wake of Kennedy’s death, Goldwater would face a much different opponent in Lyndon Johnson. As a Texan, Johnson could blunt Goldwater’s appeal in the increasingly important political battleground states in the Sun Belt. Moreover, the memory of the martyred JFK would serve as an electoral aegis for the new president. Like Kennedy, LBJ approached the 1964 campaign with the intent of claiming the moderate center of the political spectrum, confident that he could defeat any of the potential Republican [End Page 150] candidates—whether the conservative Goldwater or the more establishment candidates like Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. or Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY). Johnson focused primarily on his domestic agenda—notably the Great Society (formally announced in a speech on May 22 at the University of Michigan) and his signature Civil Rights Act (which would be enacted on July 2) in 1964. For LBJ, foreign affairs as an electoral issue would be useful “insomuch as they emphasized the president’s leadership qualities” but were “not envisaged as forming an integral part of the campaign.” 4

Vietnam loomed as the one international issue that could explode in Johnson’s face and on which the GOP could potentially capitalize. But that scenario did not seem overly concerning to Johnson. On January 8, 1964, LBJ spoke to New York Times columnist James Reston following the State of the Union address. The president boasted that he had successfully occupied the political center, leaving Republicans with no issues to exploit in the fall. LBJ joked about what the young Republican said to the old Republican...


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pp. 149-160
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