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Two Burn Holes in a Blanket

by James McManus |  Published: Jun 25, 2008


And it's one, two, three, what're we fightin' for?

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.

- Country Joe and the Fish

Massachusetts Congressman Thomas "Tip" O'Neill was no peacenik or Viet Cong sympathizer. Although his congressional district included 22 colleges, with more students and professors than any district in America, the majority of this burly Irish Democrat's votes came from the working-class precincts of Boston and Cambridge, where in the mid-1960s support for the war was close to unanimous. The result was that very few members of Congress spoke up for President Johnson's troop escalation more strongly.

O'Neill recalled being briefed on the latest numbers and tactics by Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the White House in 1966. When Rusk was finished, O'Neill "moved that all of us at the briefing should stand and give him a rousing vote of confidence for the way he was handling things. A few hours later, the president called me to express his appreciation." After that, O'Neill was regularly briefed by Rusk and Gen. William Westmoreland, especially before he was to speak on college campuses, where the questions were increasingly hostile. That way, O'Neill's replies to the antiwar students could be backed up by valid claims of having new information from the most highly placed sources.

When he got home at night, O'Neill's college-age children continued to pepper him with questions. A few of his son Tommy's friends had recently fled to Canada to avoid being drafted, and O'Neill told Tommy that he thought such decisions were shameful. "You'd be breaking my heart if you did that."

"I wouldn't be breaking your heart," Tommy shot back. "I'd be hurting you politically."

When challenged by Tommy or other young constituents, he'd say, "I think I know more about this situation than you do. I've been briefed 43 times. I've been briefed by Robert McNamara. I've been briefed by General Westmoreland. I've been briefed by the CIA. I've been briefed by Dean Rusk. And I've been briefed by the president of the United States."

"That's a lot of briefings," one student, Pat McCarthy, sardonically remarked. "But how many times have you been briefed by the other side?"

McCarthy's question kept O'Neill awake that night. He couldn't fall asleep until he'd promised himself to take "a good look at the other side of the issue." The other side made itself heard soon enough during a poker game that week at the Army and Navy Club. One player, Gen. David Shoup, had recently retired as commander of the Marine Corps because he disagreed with Johnson's approach to the war. O'Neill believed that he could rely on Shoup's opinions because he obviously had high-level inside information, untainted by pacifist ethics.

Born in Battle Ground, Indiana, of all places, he led the attack on Betio Island, the first amphibious assault of World War II. For this and other heroics, he'd received the Medal of Honor and two Purple Hearts. Time correspondent Robert Sherrod called him a "squat, red-faced man with a bull neck, a hard-boiled, profane shouter of orders [who] would carry the biggest burden on Tarawa." Another writer described Shoup as "a Marine's Marine," a leader the troops "could go to the well with." Sgt. Edward Doughman called him "the brainiest, nerviest, best soldiering Marine I ever met." Shoup wrote poetry to relax between battles and was also considered the most formidable poker player in his division, a man who stared down opponents with eyes "like two burn holes in a blanket." Jane Fonda or Abbie Hoffman he wasn't.

He also had earned the respect of three presidents. Appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps by Eisenhower in 1959, he was later known as the "favorite general" of O'Neill's friend Jack Kennedy. As a trusted military advisor, Shoup told the young president, "The commonest mistake in history is underestimating your opponent — happens at the poker table all the time." When LBJ pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on Shoup in '64, he described him as "strong enough to prevent a war and wise enough to avoid one."

Retiring two years later in protest over LBJ's measured approach, Shoup said, "Every senior officer that I knew said we should never send ground forces into Southeast Asia." He went on: "I believe if we had, and would, keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for … Not one crammed down their throats by the Americans." This is pretty much what he told Tip O'Neill during that poker game and afterward. "It curdles my blood to think we're sending our boys on a mission we're not out to win," he also confided. "But that's what's going on. The will to win just isn't there. The president is afraid that if he pushes too hard, he'll start the next world war."

Nor was Shoup the only military leader who felt this way. O'Neill was soon meeting with Pentagon and CIA experts who supported their commander in chief in public, but over beers or across the poker table, said the war was unwinnable. Several complained that their memos to Johnson were screened by McGeorge Bundy and other top advisors. They wanted O'Neill to relay their memos to Speaker John McCormack, one of most avid hawks in Washington.

Then there was South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, who played poker with reporters during the 13-hour flight from Saigon to Honolulu, where he conferred with Johnson and his admirals in 1966. He later said, "The U.S. was and is the world's leading naval power, but, fearing to offend the Soviets, failed to blockade Haiphong. A river of munitions flowed through that port to be used against South Vietnam and its allies."

By September 1967, O'Neill had made up his mind that "the Vietnam conflict was a civil war, and that our involvement there was wrong." In a letter to his constituents, 85 percent of whom still supported the war, he wrote, "We were paying too high a price in both human lives and money." We should instead "promote an Asian solution to what was essentially an Asian problem."

On the evening of Sept. 14, as headlines such as "O'Neill Splits With LBJ Over Vietnam" began rolling off the presses, O'Neill's poker game at the University Club was moved at the last minute to the Metropolitan Club. But it wasn't because O'Neill wanted to avoid reporters; Iowa Congressman Ben Jensen "had been losing more than he could afford … so for a few weeks we played hide-and-seek with him." The new location was so secret, even the president couldn't reach the players that night. An angry LBJ had tried to put through four calls to O'Neill, who, as it happened, was just across the street from the White House at the corner of 17th and H. When O'Neill finally got home from the game at around 2 a.m., Secret Service agents were waiting in his driveway with orders to be in the Oval Office at 9 o'clock sharp. He had some explaining to do.

The man who had summoned him was a poker player himself. According to David Halberstam, LBJ "always liked to talk in poker terms and analogies." Robert Caro's multi-volume biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson is only now making clear the extent to which the game influenced LBJ and his forebears and colleagues. On an 1867 cattle drive, writes Caro, "the Johnson boys loved poker." As both card players and ranchers, "the poker-playing Johnsons shoved into the pot their whole pile." Lyndon's father, Sam, taught him to play when he was 5, and he soon "more than held his own" against much older boys. But it was as a networking tool that Lyndon found poker most useful. In 1946, the up-and-coming Texas congressman tried to get himself invited into President Truman's game on the Williamsburg. When those efforts failed, he started his own game, though he did play with Truman "two or three times" at the home of Treasury Secretary Fred Vinson. Since access to your party's president was politically crucial, Johnson understood that a seat in his regular poker game would have been an indispensible asset.

Sworn in as president after Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Johnson was elected on his own in a landslide the following year. After decades as a power broker in the House and Senate, he was able — as Kennedy had not been — to maneuver their civil rights and Great Society initiatives through both houses and sign them into law. By 1966, the voting rights of black citizens in the South had expanded dramatically, U.S. wages were the highest in history, and unemployment was at a 12-year low. Johnson's only serious political error was his belief — shared by both Kennedy and Nixon — in the Domino Theory. "If we allow Vietnam to fall," he would say, "tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week in San Francisco." He believed this in spite of Oskar Morgenstern's clear explanation back in '61 that the game the superpowers were engaged in was poker, not chess or knock-over-the-dominoes.

"Tip, what kind of a son of a bitch are you?" Johnson demanded to know when O'Neill appeared in the Oval Office the morning after his poker game. "You, of all people! You and I have been friendly since the day you came to Washington. I expect something like this from those assholes like Bill Ryan [a New York congressman who had long opposed the war], but you? You're one of my own." He brought O'Neill over to a high-tech map of Vietnam with American positions indicated by colored lights. Pulling rank in much the same way that O'Neill had with antiwar students, Johnson said, "Tell me, do you think you know more about this war than I do?"

O'Neill's response echoed what Gen. Shoup had told him. "You can't win this war if you're not mining the harbors and knocking out the bridges and the power plants."

"I can't do those things," Johnson protested. "They're just too dangerous. I can't risk involving the Soviets or the Chinese." He was thereby admitting that the larger, more strategic poker game — the one dominated by John von Neumann's MIRVed warheads — took precedence over tactics for defeating the North Vietnamese insurgents.

"Then let's get out of there," O'Neill responded. "If we really can't win, we shouldn't be there in the first place."

While insisting the war was still winnable, Johnson told O'Neill they would always be friends and thanked him for explaining his new position. If either man suspected it would help turn the public against Johnson's war, both were also aware that several congressmen had already been voted out of office because their opposition to the war was branded "anti-American." While O'Neill's change of heart — originally triggered by Tommy O'Neill's and Pat McCarthy's questions — cost him plenty of support, he picked up at least as much on campuses within his district. In the highest political circles, Shoup's conversion of O'Neill snowballed into an avalanche of skepticism about LBJ's war policy. It had nothing to do with Flower Power or "Street Fighting Man."

On March 31, 1968, after narrowly defeating one antiwar senate Democrat, Eugene McCarthy, in the New Hampshire primary and watching another, Robert Kennedy, launch an immensely popular candidacy, Johnson stunned the country by going on television to announce, "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

Sometimes it's poker strategy, such as the nuclear bluffing deployed by U.S. and Soviet leaders throughout the Cold War, that alters the course of events. Other times, it's poker-table camaraderie, as it was between Shoup and O'Neill. The game has long been a networking tool, with poker tables serving as less genteel clubs for students, workers, businessmen, and politicians of every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways 50 feet apart from each other, or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all night, competing and drinking and talking. The experience can tell them a lot about the other fellows' ability to make good decisions, whether fiscal or military, tactical or strategic.

Poker tactics had also informed the masterful parliamentary horse-trading that enabled passage of LBJ's most far-reaching social legislation, though he would have been even more successful if he wasn't bogged down by the war. O'Neill's opinion was, "If it hadn't been for Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson could have gone down in history as another Roosevelt." Halberstam makes clear that Johnson got plenty of good advice about withdrawing from Vietnam, but that by 1968, he was "too deep into the war and he was not anxious to admit that this ally [the government of South Vietnam], for whom he and his country had sacrificed so much (an ally which had in effect cost him his Presidency), was not a worthy ally." Halberstam concluded: "with so many more chips already in the poker game that it was too painful for Johnson to accept the argument of cutting his losses."


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