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What L.B.J. Knew

Sometimes the most startling stories barely make it into the papers. Here's one that ran Feb. 15 on an inside page of The Times. It discloses that Lyndon Johnson, as early as 1964, viewed the Vietnam War as pointless.

The twist that makes this a tale for a great fiction writer is Johnson's belief that, pointless though it was, Congress would destroy him if he tried to pull out. So he didn't, and so the war destroyed him instead. And gave us all that death.

Here in a baffling tangle of political detail are the elements of tragedy: the tale of a man destined to be destroyed, no matter the choice he makes.

The news story is based on two tapes of Johnson's 1964 telephone conversations, released by the Johnson Presidential library. In one he was talking to McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser; in the other, with Senator Richard B. Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of Johnson's closest friends.

''The biggest damn mess I ever saw,'' Johnson says of the war on one tape. ''I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out.''

Thus Johnson in the spring of the 1964 election year. He won that election by a landslide while depicting the Republican Barry Goldwater as a war lover too dangerous to be trusted with control of the atomic bomb.

Talent for deception may have been Johnson's fatal hubris. As we know from the Pentagon Papers, the military buildup, which turned out to be the end of him, was being secretly planned even while Johnson was running as the peace candidate.

On one of the 1964 tapes he speaks of a sergeant, father of six, who ''works for me over there at the house,'' and tells Senator Russell, ''Thinking of sending that father of those six kids in there and what the hell we're going to get out of his doing it -- it just makes the chills run up my back.''

Russell, then one of the most powerful men in the Senate, replies: ''It does me, too. We're in the quicksands up to our neck, and I just don't know what the hell to do about it.''

''They'd impeach a President, though, that would run out, wouldn't they?'' Johnson said.

In 1964 he had good reasons to think so. These lay in the long, savage political wars of the 1950's. Starting with their investigations of Communist influences on the Roosevelt and Truman Governments, Republicans found it politically rewarding to accuse Democrats of being ''soft on Communism.'' Richard Nixon was famous for his pioneering toil in this vein, and Democrats hated him for it forevermore.

By the 1950's anti-Communism had become the glue binding an otherwise divided Republican Party in brotherhood. And, oh, how powerful were its juices! The Chinese Communist victory in Asia, happening during the Truman years, encouraged Republicans to ask, ''Who lost China?'' Only a dunce could doubt that the answer was: ''Those soft-on-Communism Democrats, they lost China.''

At the same time -- even more terrifying -- the Soviets had our atom bomb. Had probably stolen the secret of how to make it. Maybe Democrats had made it easy for them, Democrats not being sufficiently worried about Communism to weed Red scientists out of our atom-bomb plants.

Soon more ruthless Republican campaigners were calling the Roosevelt and Truman years ''20 years of treason.'' Johnson had lived through all this and seen the party battered for not matching Republicans in anti-Communist zeal.

And what was the Vietnam War? An anti-Communist attempt to prevent global conquest by Marxism. In 1964 Johnson had sound reason to suppose that pulling out of Vietnam just because it was pointless would have terrible consequences.

The anti-Communist passion of Americans was still too strong for any President to acknowledge that the Vietnam game was not worth the medal. After President Kennedy's death, colleagues said he would have pulled out if re-elected in 1964. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? What we do know now is that Johnson realized from the start that he was marching resolutely to nowhere.

Another decade of pointless dying ensued largely because long-embedded American political passions demanded it.

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