H-Diplo Review Essay 512: Donaghy on Johns, _The Price of Loyalty_

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30 March 2023

Andrew L. Johns, The Price of Loyalty: Hubert Humphrey’s Vietnam Conflict. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. 186 pp. ISBN: 978-0742544529

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Aaron Donaghy, University of Limerick

“All the Way with LBJ”

When it comes to commentary on the role of the vice presidency of the United States, few statements are more etched in the mind than John Nance Garner’s observation to Lyndon Johnson in 1960 that the office “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.”[1] Johnson listened, but took the post anyway. Though Johnson “detested every minute” of his vice-presidential term, it would ultimately serve his political ambitions, achieved in the most tragic of circumstances (17). Four years later, the affable Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey made a similar calculation. Unlike Johnson, however, Humphrey’s tenure as vice president would cost him everything.

Andrew Johns’s excellent study of Humphrey’s spell as vice president could scarcely be more timely. As I read The Price of Loyalty, which was published before the harrowing events of January 6, 2021, I could not help but wonder whether former vice president Mike Pence had obtained a copy. Johns’s book focuses on Humphrey’s transformation from skeptic to apologist for the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1966, and through to the 1968 presidential election, when the ‘Happy Warrior’ emerged as the Democratic Party nominee. It pivots on the fascinating dynamics between Humphrey and Johnson, which were marked by a very one-sided relationship (on both a personal and institutional level) that shaped Humphrey’s approach to the war during those fateful years.

Johns’s work is more than a ‘what might have been’ story with respect to America’s Vietnam misadventure, or the downfall of a political heavyweight. Meticulously researched and deftly written, The Price of Loyalty is a model study of the fraught relationship between principle and politics, and the profound consequences that can result. The author invites us into three intersecting realms: the public (where policies are framed and championed); the internal (where issues are debated ‘behind closed doors’); and the personal (where the private, innermost thoughts of decisionmakers come under scrutiny). In so doing, Johns reminds us that the answers to the vital ‘how and why’ questions of US foreign policy often lie beyond diplomatic exchanges or head-of-state correspondence. The personal and political motives of those who wield power can illuminate top-level decisionmaking, explaining the roads that were taken and those that were not.[2]

In many ways, Humphrey seemed to be the ideal choice for Johnson’s running mate and vice president. Though much too loquacious for Johnson’s liking, Humphrey was a “political polymath,” with vast Senate experience on a range of foreign and domestic issues (9). The Democratic whip had played a crucial role in ushering through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his credentials would balance the party’s presidential ticket. Just as Kennedy had opted for Johnson four years earlier to help carry Southern Democrats, so Johnson recognized Humphrey’s campaign assets as a Northerner, intellectual, and certified liberal. While Humphrey saw in Johnson a “friend and confidant,” LBJ never really reciprocated those feelings. Their relationship, Johns writes, “was grounded largely in what Humphrey could do for Johnson politically” (16).

Johnson’s penchant for political calculation was rivalled only by a deep-seated insecurity that reveals itself throughout the book. Adrift from the East Coast establishment and the Ivy Leagues, he was “haunted by regional prejudice, and even the attainment of the Presidency did not temper his feelings” (17). According to Johns (echoing David Halberstam’s analysis[3]), it was Johnson’s sense of non-belonging that led him to prize one quality above all else: loyalty. After Humphrey agreed to serve as vice president, Johnson candidly warned him: “You have to understand that this is like a marriage with no chance of divorce. I need complete and unswerving loyalty” (18). For Humphrey, it was on Vietnam that those demands loomed largest.

Humphrey was ferociously anti-Communist—a stance which played well politically in the early Cold War. He supported the Truman and Eisenhower doctrines as part of the containment strategy, and domestic legislation aimed at nullifying Communism within the United States. But this belied a more nuanced approach to international affairs, in which Humphrey generally saw the use of military force as something to be used sparingly, and usually in tandem with a diplomatic track. As Johns points out, Humphrey helped create the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1961 and led the quest for ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty two years later. He lobbied intensively for funds for underdeveloped regions in the Global South, championing major initiatives such as the Alliance for Progress. According to Johns, the duality in Humphrey’s makeup—he was a strident anti-Communist on the one hand, and an avowed liberal on the other—remained consistent. He writes, “the disconnect arose when the two impulses clashed or when other political imperatives interceded. When that occurred, the resulting decisions and rhetoric could make him appear to have adopted contradictory positions” (13). The Vietnam War perfectly encapsulated that dilemma. In the eyes of his critics, Humphrey was trying to be “all things to all men” (112).

A critical turning point was in February 1965, just weeks into the Johnson administration, when the vice president penned a memorandum to Johnson, articulating his views on why the administration should seek to settle—rather than escalate—the Vietnam conflict, and warning of the damaging consequences (domestic and foreign) of a protracted and expanded war.[4] The memo was judicious, well-informed, and tragically prescient. As Johns notes, it offered “a glimpse at the road not taken in Vietnam at a moment when the path to war had not yet been irrevocably chosen” (35).

Much of Humphrey’s analysis was grounded in domestic politics. Playing to Johnson’s political instincts, he made a compelling argument for 1965 being the year of minimal risk in withdrawing US forces from Vietnam. The president had just won a large electoral mandate, achieved on the back of a campaign in which he had repeatedly vowed not to send American troops to fight in Asia. The Republican Party was still smarting from nominee Barry Goldwater’s defeat, with the divisive GOP candidate having alienated swathes of the public by pushing extreme views on nuclear weapons. And there was still considerable time before a reelection campaign would begin in earnest. Far from being boxed in by the domestic pressures that accompanied the Cold War, Johnson had, by American political standards, considerable room for maneuver in foreign policy during the critical early months of 1965.

True to form, Humphrey did not stop there. He expressed skepticism that the proposed military escalation would be “politically understandable to the American public.” Because the administration had not framed the conflict in terms of the U.S. national interest, a wider war “would not make sense to the American people.” Nor would Johnson’s military plans curry favor within his own party. “Political opposition will mount steadily,” wrote Humphrey. “In Washington and across the country, the opposition is more Democratic than Republican.” For a president reliant on Democratic support to further his new, wide-ranging set of domestic programs, this point must have resonated (35).

Humphrey’s conviction that escalation would be a serious mistake put him at odds with the president and most of the administration’s top foreign policy advisers. Had Johnson heeded Humphrey’s counsel, the trajectory of the conflict in Southeast Asia would have taken an entirely different turn. So too might the American political pendulum in the years that followed. But the vice president’s advice was flatly rejected. So much so, Johns notes, that there is “no explicit account of Johnson’s reaction to the document” (35). But the president’s actions spoke louder than any formal written response. Humphrey “became a pariah in his own White House.” “For one agonizing year,” Johns writes, “Humphrey was excluded from Johnson’s inner circle, specifically banished from foreign policy discussions” (38-39). The vice president was routinely subjected to “the Johnson treatment,” and omitted from the key meetings on Vietnam strategy—Johnson’s Tuesday luncheons with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, CIA Director John McCone, and General Earl Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There were probably two or three reasons for Johnson’s peevish response. First, Humphrey’s astute reading of the political dynamics undercut Johnson’s preferred strategy and that of his chief foreign policy advisers, most of whom pushed for military escalation. Second, Humphrey had (in Johnson’s mind at least) broken his pledge of “complete and unswerving” loyalty to the president by failing to offer his full and unconditional support for the administration’s Vietnam policy. At the same time, Humphrey had flouted Johnson’s warning that the vice president should avoid commenting on issues unless directed to do so by the White House.

Privately, Johnson always remained skeptical that the Vietnam War was winnable. “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. Not a bit,” LBJ commented after the attack at Pleiku in February 1965—the same month in which he dismissed Humphrey’s memo.[5] (In this context, Humphrey’s analysis would have been at once “persuasive and perturbing” to Johnson.) But the president did not consider withdrawal to be a realistic option. To Johnson, cutting his losses and beating a retreat would be a “political humiliation” akin to what President Harry Truman had experienced with China post-1949. And since the status quo was not yielding results, Johns argues, “the only other viable choice was to escalate the conflict” (36). Within two weeks Operation Rolling Thunder commenced. Though the president’s doubts persisted well after the ‘Americanization’ of the war, and the disintegration of the Saigon government, he could not bring himself to withdraw US troops and end the agony. For Johnson, personal and political credibility took precedence. He would not be the president who ‘lost’ Vietnam to the Communists; the dominoes in Asia would not fall on his watch.

So bruised was Humphrey by Johnson’s reaction to his Vietnam memo that, almost immediately, the vice president sought ways to re-enter Johnson’s good graces. Humphrey was liberated from exile only after he made the decision to convert himself from a skeptic and critic of administration policy into a vocal advocate of the war. By the end of 1965, Humphrey was freed from the “presidential purgatory” to which he had been banished since February (49). It is the vice president’s transformation from “apostate to apostle” on the war that occupies much of Johns’s study (63).

How to explain Humphrey’s metamorphosis from skeptic to hawk on Vietnam? In Johns’s view, this was a case of personal and political motives trumping ideals and convictions: “Humphrey made a conscious decision to subordinate his principles, which dictated that he continue to express misgivings on the war, to his commitment to serving Johnson loyally as vice president and privileging political considerations over his instincts about the conflict” (41). But this was not merely loyalty for loyalty’s sake. In Humphrey’s mind, alienating a figure as politically connected (and thin-skinned) as Johnson—both nationally and within Democratic circles—would be detrimental, perhaps even fatal, to his own presidential aspirations.

In 1965, when Humphrey shifted course on Vietnam, the conflict had not yet become the explosive, all-consuming issue that sparked major protests across the United States. Much had changed, though, between 1966 and 1968, when the facts on the ground grew steadily worse for American forces. Each US military escalation brought a robust response from the North Vietnamese. The casualty count increased, as did public opposition to the conflict. Yet it was during this same period that the vice president became Johnson’s chief “recruiting sergeant” for the war (59).

Humphrey now went full throttle, with all the zeal of a convert. Having earlier urged Johnson to disengage from the conflict, and opposed an expanded bombing campaign, the vice president became perhaps the most vocal public supporter of the administration’s policies. “Because of his commitment to be completely loyal to the president, and due to his embrace of political expediency driven by his own ambitions, [Humphrey] tied his political fortune to staying the course with LBJ and his Vietnam policy,” writes Johns (73). He did so in the hope—and that was all it was—that events on the battlefield would somehow turn, that the outcome in Southeast Asia would justify his decision.

The results were disastrous for Humphrey personally. His support from the left eroded, as friends and liberal colleagues looked askance at the vice president’s staunch defense of US policy, and the wilful abandonment of his principles. Tied to an unpopular president, Humphrey’s public approval ratings slumped, even while emerging as the Democratic front-runner after the tragic assassination of Robert Kennedy in June 1968. But then Humphrey’s woes paled into insignificance when compared with horror that was unfolding in Vietnam.

Humphrey, like Johnson, retained private skepticism about the effectiveness of the policies he so publicly championed. Johns paints a portrait of a vice president wrestling with his inner conscience. The Tet Offensive in late January, 1968, afforded Humphrey the ideal opportunity to reaffirm his principles and break ranks with the administration. But having aligned himself so closely with Johnson and the war, the vice president found it nigh impossible to break his pledge of loyalty—even after Johnson decided not to run for reelection. What followed for much of 1968, when Humphrey embarked on his own presidential bid, was a “balancing act between loyalty to the administration, domestic and electoral considerations, and personal principles” (86). Here, Johns reveals the vice president to have been twisting himself into contortions on the war, vacillating and reversing course, desperately seeking to carve out a credible, workable position on Vietnam. Republican Party nominee Richard Nixon was the beneficiary, achieving victory in the presidential election by a margin of only 500,000 votes out of more than 73 million ballots cast (128). Humphrey’s eleventh-hour break with Johnson on Vietnam, effected just five weeks before the election, had simply come too late. His political career never fully recovered.

One could perhaps fault Johns for not offering more international context or further detail on the politico-military dynamics in South Vietnam. There is little discussion of the viewpoints in London and Paris, for example, and next to nothing on the Soviet Union. Yet, in truth, that is not the purpose of the book. (There is, in any case, now a wealth of superb studies adopting international perspectives on the war.[6]) Rather, Johns provides an inside look at the agonizing struggle between principle and politics, between virtue and loyalty, and between idealism and pragmatism—offering important lessons which speak directly to the current political moment. Engaging, insightful, and compelling, The Price of Loyalty is political history at its very best.


Aaron Donaghy (FRHistS) is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Limerick. He is the author of The Second Cold War: Carter, Reagan, and the Politics of Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and The British Government and the Falkland Islands, 1974-79 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


[1] John Nance Garner served as vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941. See: Frank Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson’s Wars (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), 5.

[2] On the importance of domestic politics as a methodological approach in the history of US foreign relations, see for example: Jussi M. Hanhimäki, “Global Visions and Parochial Politics: The Persistent Dilemma of the ‘American Century,’” Diplomatic History 27:4 (September 2003), 423-447; Fredrik Logevall, “Domestic Politics,” in Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 151-167; Thomas A. Schwartz, “‘Henry,...Winning an Election is Terribly Important’: Partisan Politics in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 33:2 (April 2009), 173-190; Melvin Small, Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789-1994 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Robert David Johnson, Congress and the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Andrew L. Johns and Mitchell B. Lerner, eds., The Cold War at Home and Abroad: Domestic Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy since 1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018); Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security–From World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Aaron Donaghy, The Second Cold War: Carter, Reagan, and the Politics of Foreign Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Andrew L. Johns, Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010); and Andrew Johnstone and Andrew Priest, eds., U.S. Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy: Candidates, Campaigns, and Global Politics from FDR to Bill Clinton (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017).

[3] David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 433-435.

[4] For further analysis of Humphrey’s February 1965 memorandum, see for example: Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 346-347; Hubert Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man: My Life in Politics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 236-242; Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 401-408.

[5] Fredrik Logevall, “There Ain’t No Daylight: Lyndon Johnson and the Politics of Escalation,” 103, in Mark Philip Bradley and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 91-108.

[6] For international perspectives on the Vietnam War, see for example: Pierre Asselin, Vietnam’s American War: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Mark Philip Bradley, Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012); Lien-Hang Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). On the politico-military dynamics, see for example: Gregory A. Daddis, Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Gregory A. Daddis, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).