Correcting history

Francis L. Loewenheim

March 31, 1992|By Francis L. Loewenheim

CAN THE PRESENT ever catch up with the past? Can journalists be expected to know what professional historians have long known?

Those questions come to mind anew after reading the syndicated Germond-Witcover column (Evening Sun, Feb. 20) mistakenly asserting that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were forced out of the 1952 and 1968 presidential campaigns by faring poorly in the New Hampshire primary.

And no sooner had the widely read Germond-Witcover column appeared than its error was repeated by Cokie Roberts on "This Week With David Brinkley" and numerous other programs and publications from coast to coast.

But the Truman-Johnson story isn't so, gentlemen. And what's more, it's been known for years that it isn't.

In Truman's case, we've known since 1972, when Margaret Truman first published, in her illuminating biography of her father, a long memorandum he wrote on April 16, 1950.

"I am not," Truman wrote, "a candidate for nomination by the Democratic Convention.

"My first election to public office took place in November 1922 . . . I have been in public office well over 30 years, having been president of the United States almost two complete terms.

"Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, as well as Calvin Coolidge, stood by the precedent of two terms. Only Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR made the attempt to break that precedent. FDR succeeded.

"In my opinion, eight years as President is enough and sometimes too much for any man to serve in that capacity.

"There is a lure in power. It can get into a man's blood, just as gambling and lust for money have been known to do. . .

"Therefore . . . although by a quibble I could say I've only had one term, I am not a candidate and will not accept the nomination for another term."

On Nov. 19, 1951 -- as Robert J. Donovan confirmed in his 1982 Truman biography -- the president read the memorandum to top aides at a meeting at Key West. He swore his listeners to absolute secrecy, which, remarkably enough, they observed.

In Lyndon Johnson's case, since it's considerably more recent, the evidence isn't as ample, but it's no less convincing. What persuaded LBJ against seeking another term in 1968 was first and foremost his deteriorating health, which had been far from good since he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in July 1955.

Johnson probably made more trips to the hospital than Eisenhower and by 1967 had reportedly been told by top specialists that he wouldn't, or likely wouldn't, survive another term in office. The president took such advice seriously, as the available evidence clearly shows.

In an oral history memoir in 1969 -- for some years available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at the University of Texas at Austin -- former Secretary of State Dean Rusk discussed Johnson's 1967 decision to withdraw, and in his memoirs, "As I Saw It," published in 1990, he elaborated:

"Although I was not consulted about Johnson's decision not to run [again], I was not surprised by it. In 1967 he talked with me about withdrawing not because of Vietnam but because of health."

Rusk's statement is corroborated, moreover, both by Gen. William C. Westmoreland's memoirs, "A Soldier Reports," published in 1976, and by Prof. Larry Berman, a staunchly anti-Vietnam historian, in his book, "Lyndon Johnson's War," published in 1989.

So please, gentlemen, let's put those old New Hampshire stories to rest at last. And at your next columnists' convention -- or whenever you formally or informally get together -- please pass the word.

Francis L. Loewenheim is professor of history at Rice University.

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