President Johnson’s Moron Corps

President Johnson’s Moron Corps January 8, 2014


All this talk of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty has got me remembering Johnson’s real legacy – the Vietnam War.

It’s so funny how the lack of institutional knowledge can warp the future. I heard folks talking on NPR about how much Johnson hated poverty. How he lived beans-to-mouth as a young boy and how the insecurity of that upbringing made him vigilant in his fight against poverty.

Perhaps that explains a lot of things, specifically how Johnson was willing to sell out our nation’s  most vulnerable for a personally financially-rewarding relationship with corporate America. Johnson and his CEO cronies were the only real beneficiaries of a war so ill-conceived it overshadow all other American wars.

His familiarity with the desperation that poverty produces likely explains why Johnson was so keen on exploiting urban blacks and poor white boys from the mountains of Kentucky & Tennessee, West Virginia & Alabama and sending them en masse to Vietnam to serve as cannon fodder.

No matter who takes to the airwaves to praise Johnson for his fight on poverty, I will always consider Johnson and his carny sidekick, Robert McNamara, as men without souls. My buddy Joe Galloway shares this opinion. Joe says there is a special place reserved in hell for these two. I wonder if such thoughts doesn’t do the devil an injustice. I’m not sure Satan would keep company with them. 

Those touting Johnson’s War on Poverty often fail to recall one of the key components for employing the unemployed:  Project 100,000.

Johnson and McNamara sold a plan to the American public that would allow for a change in the standards maintained by the Armed Forces. This change would grant the “uneducated”  a special exemption to join the Armed Forces. The year was 1966. The year my father was KIA in Vietnam. The year of the build-up to the Tet Offensive.

McNamara needed warm bodies on the war front. Johnson figured Project 100,000 would be great PR for his War on Poverty plan. Together, they implemented “New Man Standards”.

Has such a GQ ring to it, doesn’ t it? Almost sounds like they were raising the requirements for those enlisting or being drafted.

In fact, the New Man Standards lowered the requirements. McNamara was hoping to get an additional 100,000 bodies. He got far more than he anticipated. Nearly 350,000 men were either drafted or volunteered under Project 100,000. Many of them had low IQs, some as low as 75, earning them the name “Moron Corps.”

Despite the mythology one reads online, these men were not required to meet all the standards of performance required of others. They were given special ID numbers so that their superiors would understand that they were part of the “slow” brigade. Men who couldn’t read at a fourth-grade level or do long-division were sent to the front lines, where they were killed at an average four-times higher than their soldiers who were not part of the New Man Standards. McNamara and Johnson patted themselves on the back for giving what they undoubtedly considered bottom-feeders an opportunity at a better life.

Winston Groom didn’t think Forrest Gump up out of thin air. Groom knew this ugly side of Johnson’s history. And while Bubba and Gump make for a charming movie, the truth is Johnson sent men who would be considered mentally handicapped by any educational standards to the front lines where they were, in essence, lambs to the slaughter.

So spare me the praise for Johnson and his plans to build a prosperous nation. Johnson’s primary concern was always on making himself and his Texas pals richer. 


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  • Darian G. Burns

    Karen have you ever considered writing a book on the political side of Vietnam and the human cost? You are very educated and well read on it and I assume you know hundreds if not thousands of stories about the human cost from those you have met. we are now at least two generations removed and many people need to know the truth.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Plenty of books written about Vietnam. The last one I wrote about it was read only by those already connected to it — veterans, military families, Gold Star families. The general public simply isn’t interested. They would rather read something that helps them forget.

      • AFRoger

        Yes, many books. Just read a new one that is different from anything I’ve read before: Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini. It describes to a tee the moral wilderness that a good friend Iraq vet has found himself in for years. My hat goes off to these women seminary faculty who are at last doing the work left derelict by the faith community for too long.
        RE Lydon Johnson. The external story was that he feared accusations by the GOP of being soft on Commies. Probably one of many, many factors but not the first time in history that massive amounts of blood have been shed in the service of ego and political careers.
        RE CCC camps and universal service. As a veteran, I have always been for some type of universal service. I have reservations, though. If the CCC camps worked fairly well, it was partly due to the poverty and privation that affected much of the country at the time. I wonder if people today accustomed to abundance and instant gratification would find anything close to the same level of engagement or be self-disciplined enough to make it work. It could easily devolve into a nightmarish baby-sitting camp laced with sex and substance issues.
        RE the issue of some kind of reverence and respect for the nation and the community emerging from modern CCC camps or national service… maybe. But it’s the job of every parent, every neighbor and every institution in this country to be teaching citizenship. it never was, and I pray it never will be, primarily the job of the military or any kind of paramilitary organization.

  • radiofreerome

    Thanks for bringing this to light. This is an atrocity.

  • lawrence090469

    Interesting, but not surprising. During Operation Neocon Pornography the army started accepting category IV recruits to fill the ranks. A decade later…heckuva job Rummy, Cheney, Yoo, and the rest of you filthy evil bastards. And yes, radiofreerome, Vietnam was a travesty. America has chosen to treat that wound with more militarism, unquestioning war worship, police brutality, intolerance of dissent, and ‘American Exceptionalism’. Revolting.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Yes. So it seems we have.

  • Hearditallbefore

    Many in America were for the war in Vietnam before they were against it.

  • Hearditallbefore

    The real shame is that during the Vietnam war, and with what’s going on in the Middle East, is that the citizens of America are only involved with the troops is if they have a family member in the services or they hear about it on the news. If you feel strongly enough about whatever it is that concerns you, work to elect a Congressperson or Senator that share those concers.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Amen, Amen. So true. If we had a draft…

      • Donalbain

        If we slavery…

  • axelbeingcivil

    I am not sure you can blame this entirely on business being in bed with politics, or on Johnson. US Foreign Policy at the time was pretty clear, and games were being played to “contain” Communism that cost countless people their lives and freedoms. Johnson was a cog in the machine.

    If nothing else, though, it does send the message that using the military to create a route out of poverty – and the only one the government provides, for many – is utterly heinous and vile.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Oh, I think we can be pretty certain that the Project 100,000 was the genius of McNamara and Johnson. Johnson’s War on Poverty made this an entirely feasible idea to Americans.

      • axelbeingcivil

        I’ve heard much more that it was McNamara than Johnson, but I don’t have much to contend on there. At the very least, we agree that there should be other options for government make-work besides filling body-bags.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Eisenhower predicted this when he warned against the military-industrial complex taking over America. The fight we now have is to make sure that the draft is never again instituted. We do still require only our sons to register with the draft board upon reaching “manhood.”

    My son, when he was eight-years-old, came to me with a look of betrayal, asking me if I knew that he had to sign up to “be killed” when he reached 18. I was ashamed to admit that I did know this, but I promised him that if he remained a man of peace i would help him escape the draft. He is now a successful businessman with a son, and came home in tears upon seeing “Saving Private Ryan.”

    I would much prefer to see mandatory two-years of national service for all citizens once they finish or drop out of high school. This would train our children in skills that could be useful in both war and peace. The CCC camps had a program that worked, and could be used as a model.

    • $84992027

      OTOH, a universal military draft with no exemptions is probably the very best mechanism for ensuring against unnecessary wars. Wealthy folks, who are the only ones to whom the politicians listen, don’t want their children going in harm’s way.

      • Y. A. Warren

        The CCC camps were managed by the Army. National service is not putting one’s child in harm’s way. In fact, it often rescues them from the animalistic anarchy of the streets.

  • Randall

    How can you claim Vietnam was so “ill-conceived it overshadows all other American wars” after the debacle of Iraq? Or that Johnson was somehow more tightly linked to the military-industrial complex that Bush and Cheney? Selective memory is an indulgence the victims of war don’t get to indulge in.

  • Lee Johnson

    I supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … even though I knew better. I had no decision-making power, of course. But I have to remember that I was old enough to know better, and that I didn’t think Iraq would work … but I thought perhaps Bush & Co. knew something I didn’t. Remaking the Middle East seemed to me a neo-colonialist enterprise, and I thought in the end it would result in the previous colonialist enterprises. But I supported the president.

    It makes me wonder what I would have said about Vietnam. I remember it, but I was just a boy. I recall the hostility it was generating. I wanted us to win.

    It’s only now that I feel we never should have gone to Vietnam. I know some leaders in Asia said our 10 years of fighting communism in South Vietnam gave them time to grow stronger and fight it off. The truth was Vietnam must be seen in light of the Cold War, and we won the Cold War. Problem is, we used our own people like pawns. And Americans came to America so we wouldn’t be treated like pawns. It’s a sin to use others like pawns. Not to mention what we did to that country.

    I blame LBJ and McNamara, but let’s also place the blame on the communists. They were pursuing policies that were evil, stupid and foolish, and they were doing so in spite of all evidence it was a murderously repressive failure, and we were trying to stop them. We did, at least for the time being.