Johnson and Nixon: Conspiracy Partners
The Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War is a brilliant explanation of a national tragedy that engulfed the nation for an entire decade. The documentary offers profound insights about the flawed decision making processes of even the best and brightest. The key insight pertains to the connection between paranoia, a belief in conspiracy theories, lying, and hypocrisy.
Paranoia is an unfounded distrust of others, sometimes reaching delusional proportions. Paranoid individuals constantly suspect the motives of others, believing that certain individuals or groups are ‘out to get them’. Politicians develop their own special brand of paranoia. It’s related to having power, and knowing that your opponents want to take that power away from you- so the paranoia has some basis in reality. This realistic concern about losing power becomes unrealistic paranoia when it is attached to a conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of a plot by a secret, powerful group; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group. Paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories go hand in glove. It is an easy psychological jump for a paranoid person to believe that certain distrusted individuals are conspiring together in order to facilitate the downfall of the paranoid person. Conspiracy theories are especially believable if the conspirators are assumed to be members of a completely unified, all-powerful, impenetrable, brutal organization, such as worldwide Communism. Furthermore, true conspiracy believers desperately seek evidence to support their beliefs. Paranoia makes this search process even more desperate, because both paranoia and conspiracy belief require rationalization, and rationalization is a major motive for lying.
Presidents Johnson and Nixon, despite being from different political parties, both became ensnared in this disastrous psychological sequence. They both believed in a 2-stage conspiracy theory. First, they both believed that Communism was monolithic, and so powerful that all small weak countries would become Communist, like falling dominoes. In their minds Communist ideology was so powerful that it overcame ancient nationalistic xenophobic ‘Us vs. Them’ hatreds, such as the hatred between the Russians and the Chinese, and between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Therefore the United States and our allies were confronted with a unified enemy with only one goal- taking over the world for Communism. Second, they both believed that Moscow/Beijing-directed monolithic Communism created, directed and controlled the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States. This portion of their conspiracy belief was exacerbated by their paranoia that the Communist-directed antiwar movement was infiltrating the Democratic Party, and therefore becoming a direct threat to both administrations.
To admit that the antiwar movement was not Communist-controlled, and was instead a spontaneous homegrown reaction to the war, was to have to admit the stunning ineptness of the strategies and tactics used both to prosecute the war and to withdraw from the war. And neither Johnson nor Nixon were willing to admit this. Instead they both lied to the American people, issuing positive reports about the war’s progress, and ultimate successful conclusion.
The Burns documentary also reveals a forth element to this incredibly dangerous sequence: hypocrisy. Taped conversations between Lyndon Johnson and his Cabinet members conclusively show that, while lying to the American people about the progress of the war, they privately acknowledged among themselves that the war was unwinnable, even as early as 1965 and 66! So the end result of the paranoia fueled belief in the all-powerful monolithic Communism conspiracy was not only lying, but hypocrisy, which shows that neither Johnson nor Nixon was completely insane. They could both recognize reality, which makes their actions criminal rather than psychotic.
Unfortunately this sequence is all too common among national leaders, particularly dictators. For them, paranoia, belief in conspiracies and lying are inherent parts of the job description. Sadly, The Vietnam War shows that democratic leaders are also susceptible to this sequence, which means that we cannot count on our executive leaders to be completely rational decision makers. Perhaps the checks and balances the Founding Fathers placed into our governance process need to be activated sooner with greater influence.
Anthony Stahelski can be reached at [email protected]
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