Putin Should Study Lyndon Johnson's Folly

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government, via a video conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis (Red Teaming) at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

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A president elected by a record-setting margin stumbles into an ill-advised war. Soon, he is abandoned by allies foreign and domestic. His army -- once considered to be one of the best in the world -- lapses into chaos. An antiwar movement advises young men on how to avoid the draft by various means, including leaving the country. If this sounds like Vladimir Putin, it is. But it could also describe Lyndon Johnson's fate a half-century ago.

In 1964, Johnson won the presidential election in a landslide, promising to expand on the legacy of his martyred predecessor, John Kennedy, and by painting his opponent -- Barry Goldwater -- as a saber-rattling warmonger. Vladimir Putin was elected by acclamation due to a largely battered democratic system; but both men began their respective terms supported by most of their fellow citizens, and both were looking for legacies. In both cases, war seemed like a reasonable way to cement reputations as strong leaders. In both cases, the wars went terribly wrong.

The parallels continue from there. Both Putin and Johnson were prisoners of history. Johnson was haunted by the failure of the Truman administration to keep China out of Communist hands and an inability to bring the Korean War to a decisive solution. Putin feels saddled with the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the Russian failure in Afghanistan. For years, Republicans pounded on Democrats for being soft on Communism, and Putin obviously feels compelled to distance himself from the legacies of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, which he views as disgraceful.

Both also tried to emulate two giants of World War II, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, who led their respective nations to victory and superpower status. Johnson admired Roosevelt's ability to balance a progressive domestic agenda with strategic wartime leadership. Putin obviously aspires to Stalin's ruthlessness in pursuit of his objectives. What both apparently failed to see was that, while Stalin and Roosevelt fought unlimited wars forced upon them, Putin and Johnson waged limited wars voluntarily.

Both Johnson and Putin were saddled with badly flawed military leadership. Johnson's lamentable secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, mistook proper strategic and tactical leadership with managerial efficiency. Putin began the war with a military that was rotten from the top down.

In both cases, their armies looked good on paper but were ill-prepared for the wars they were thrown into. When the ground forces of both proved incapable of achieving decisive victory, Putin and Johnson resorted to limited air wars designed to break the enemy's will; Johnson used F-4 Phantoms and B-52s while Putin resorted to rockets, missiles and detonating drones. Johnson failed miserably. Putin appears to be headed down the same path.

Both men came under pressure from hardliners to use tactical nuclear weapons. Some even urged Johnson to use more powerful nukes. Gen. Curtis LeMay went so far as to urge bombing North Vietnam "into the Stone Age." Johnson wisely demurred. So far, Putin has done the same. He probably realizes that the dispersed nature of emerging Ukrainian doctrine would render tactical nukes to be of marginal value while turning Russia into a true international pariah.

Both men tried unsuccessfully to balance guns and butter. Johnson inadvertently set off waves of stagflation that would baffle both political parties for a decade. A Washington Post article on Nov. 26 revealed that Putin is facing the same pressures.

History seldom repeats itself exactly, and there are significant differences between the situations of Putin and Johnson. It took Johnson's army nearly four years to reach a point of near collapse; Putin's has sunk to that level in less than 10 months.

At the height of the American antiwar movement, protesters were advising draft-age men how to avoid conscription or go to Canada. Their modern Russian equivalents are going so far as to recommend how best to surrender to the Ukrainians. American soldiers knew how badly they would be treated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Most Russians understand that Ukrainian policy is to abide by the Geneva Convention.

As the American media turned largely against the war after the Tet Offensive, Johnson's popularity declined. Putin still largely dictates press coverage, and he remains popular because he has been able to deflect much of the blame to the army and intelligence services. However, as body bags flow home -- particularly ferrying unwilling conscripts -- spin control will become more difficult.

By 1968, President Johnson knew he would lose the upcoming election. Despite many personal flaws, he believed in our democratic system and wisely chose not to run again. Putin is not widely responsible to an electorate because he controls the electoral machinery. However, Putin does need the elites in the oligarchy, the military and the other security services. There are indications of many cracks in the wall of unity. Johnson was allowed to retire in peace. Conversely, Russia has not been kind to former leaders who mismanage wars; the fate of the Romanovs should not be lost to Putin.

Although Johnson should provide a cautionary tale for Putin, there are also examples of leaders who survived ill-fated military adventures politically by cutting their losses and following them up with domestic successes. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton extracted themselves from Lebanon and Somalia, respectively. Both were reelected handily. Even Gorbachev survived the Afghan withdrawal and went on to oversee Russia's first peaceful transition of power. Putin would do well to study these examples as well as the results of Johnson's folly.

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