Power and the Presidency, From Kennedy to Obama

For the past 50 years, the commander in chief has steadily expanded presidential power, particularly in foreign policy

John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother Robert, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (AP Photo)
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When it came to Vietnam, where he felt compelled to increase the number of U.S. military advisers from some 600 to more than 16,000 to save Saigon from a Communist takeover, Kennedy saw nothing but trouble from a land war that would bog down U.S. forces. He told New York Times columnist Arthur Krock that “United States troops should not be involved on the Asian mainland....The United States can’t interfere in civil disturbances, and it is hard to prove that this wasn’t the situation in Vietnam.” He told Arthur Schlesinger that sending troops to Vietnam would become an open-ended business: “It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” He predicted that if the conflict in Vietnam “were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose the way the French had lost a decade earlier.”

Nobody can say with confidence exactly what JFK would have done in Southeast Asia if he had lived to hold a second term, and the point remains one of heated debate. But the evidence—such as his decision to schedule the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers from Vietnam at the end of 1963—suggests to me that he was intent on maintaining his control of foreign policy by avoiding another Asian land war. Instead, the challenges of Vietnam fell to Lyndon Johnson, who became president upon Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

Johnson, like his immediate predecessors, assumed that decisions about war and peace had largely become the president’s. True, he wanted a show of Congressional backing for any major steps he took—hence the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, which authorized him to use conventional military force in Southeast Asia. But as the cold war accelerated events overseas, Johnson assumed he had license to make unilateral judgments on how to proceed in Vietnam. It was a miscalculation that would cripple his presidency.

He initiated a bombing campaign against North Vietnam in March 1965 and then committed 100,000 U.S. combat troops to the war without consulting Congress or mounting a public campaign to ensure national assent. When he announced the expansion of ground forces that July 28, he did so not in a nationally televised address or before a joint Congressional session, but during a press conference in which he tried to dilute the news by also disclosing his nomination of Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court. Similarly, after he decided to commit an additional 120,000 U.S. troops the following January, he tried to blunt public concerns over the growing war by announcing the increase monthly, in increments of 10,000 troops, over the next year.

But Johnson could not control the pace of the war, and as it turned into a long-term struggle costing the United States thousands of lives, increasing numbers of Americans questioned the wisdom of fighting what had begun to seem like an unwinnable conflict. In August 1967, R. W. Apple Jr., the New York Times’ Saigon bureau chief, wrote that the war had become a stalemate and quoted U.S. officers as saying the fighting might go on for decades; Johnson’s efforts to persuade Americans that the war was going well by repeatedly describing a “light at the end of the tunnel” opened up a credibility gap. How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth? a period joke began. When he pulls his ear lobe and rubs his chin, he is telling the truth. But when he begins to move his lips, you know he’s lying.

Antiwar protests, with pickets outside the White House chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” suggested the erosion of Johnson’s political support. By 1968, it was clear that he had little hope of winning re-election. On March 31, he announced that he would not run for another term and that he planned to begin peace talks in Paris.

The unpopular war and Johnson’s political demise signaled a turn against executive dominance of foreign policy, particularly of a president’s freedom to lead the country into a foreign conflict unilaterally. Conservatives, who were already distressed by the expansion of social programs in his Great Society initiative, saw the Johnson presidency as an assault on traditional freedoms at home and an unwise use of American power abroad; liberals favored Johnson’s initiatives to reduce poverty and make America a more just society, but they had little sympathy for a war they believed was unnecessary to protect the country’s security and wasted precious resources. Still, Johnson’s successor in the White House, Richard Nixon, sought as much latitude as he could manage.

Nixon’s decision to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, after an interruption of more than 20 years, was one of his most important foreign policy achievements, and his eight-day visit to Beijing in February 1972 was a television extravaganza. But he planned the move in such secrecy that he didn’t notify members of his own cabinet—including his secretary of state, William Rogers—until the last minute, and instead used his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to pave the way. Similarly, Nixon relied on Kissinger to conduct back-channel discussions with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin before traveling to Moscow in April 1972 to advance a policy of détente with the Soviet Union.


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