March 23rd, 2016


Presidents Behaving Badly: LBJ Manhandles a Prime Minister

Lyndon Johnson had a style of interpersonal relations that could vary from being ingratiating to being bullying, depending on which would better suit his purpose. His tactic of trying to physically intimidate those he was trying to convince or trying to intimidate was known on Capitol Hill as "the Johnson Treatment" or simply "the Treatment". Johnson was 6 feet 3.5 inches tall, and used his height as a tool to tower over the subjects of his intention to cajole. One contemporary journalist described the Johnson Treatment as follows: "It was an incredible blend of badgering, cajolery, reminders of past favors, promises of future favors, predictions of gloom if something doesn't happen. When that man started to work on you, all of a sudden, you just felt that you were standing under a waterfall and the stuff was pouring on you."


In 1965, opinion polls showed that the public supported the war effort by margins of 40 to 50% for and 10 to 25% against. Johnson closely followed opinion polls. But support began to erode. On April 2, 1965, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia and called for a pause in the American bombing of North Vietnam, so that a diplomatic solution could be pursued. Pearson had an international reputation as a diplomat and had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. While Pearson was more amenable to working with the United States on a number of issues than was his predecessor, John Diefenbaker, Pearson resisted U.S. requests to send Canadian combat troops into Vietnam.

By some accounts, Pearson's speech wasn't all that critical of the American position on the war. Pearson had been most critical of the North Vietnamese. He said in his speech:

This situation cannot be expected to improve until North Vietnam becomes convinced that aggression, in whatever guise, for whatever reason, is inadmissible and will not succeed. No nation could ever feel secure if capitulation in Vietnam led to the sanctification of aggression through subversion and spurious wars of national liberation. Aggressive action by North Vietnam to bring about a Communist liberation of the South must end. Only then can there be negotiations.

But it was Pearson's call for a halt to the bombing that really irked the President. When Johnson learned about Pearson's criticism of American foreign policy on American soil, he was furious. He summoned Pearson to Camp David, Maryland for a meeting. The summons came while Pearson was giving the speech. Pearson attended the meeting the next day, on April 3, 1965. Reportedly Johnson ignored Pearson for much of the meeting, but later, when speaking directly to the Canadian Prime Minister, Johnson is said to have grabbed the much shorter Pearson by the lapels, lifted him off the ground and shouted, "Don't you come into my living room and piss on my rug."

Ever the diplomat, Pearson did not complain publicly about how he was treated. In a press conference given after the incident, Pearson said "I haven't much to say except it has been a very pleasant couple of hours and I am grateful to the President for giving me the chance to come to Camp David while I was in Philadelphia and having an exchange of views with him." Later in the press conference, Pearson was asked about Vietnam:

Q. Mr. Prime Minister, did you take up the question of Viet-Nam about which you talked in Philadelphia last night?

PRIME MINISTER PEARSON. We talked about Viet-Nam and a view that I expressed last night. I don't want to say anything about that except to reiterate in our government we have tried to understand the position of the United States in Viet-Nam as I underlined last night and support that position. I have said before, and I don't mind repeating, it is the responsibility of the international community--not only of the United States which is bearing the responsibility at the moment. We wish to continue that support.

Q. Do you see any obstacle to continuing that, Mr. Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER PEARSON. No, I would just want to say we would want to continue supporting the United States' effort to bring peace to the people of Viet-Nam which is the only thing that concerns the United States in this matter. As I said last night, the intervention of the United States in Viet-Nam was at the request of the Government of the country. It was an honorable intervention, we should remember this, not inspired by any mean or nationalistic motive or imperialistic motive. That was the spirit of the intervention and that is the kind of intervention we think ourselves and other countries should support. It is designed to bring peace and freedom to the country, and we support that.

Q. Is that satisfactory to you, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. It is not a matter for me to pass judgment on what other governments do. It is his expression and he has expressed it very well.

Q. Mr. President, since the subject has been raised here about the Prime Minister's speech last night, is what he said figured in your talks today ?

PRIME MINISTER PEARSON. We were talking about the situation generally. I only made this speech last night. The President has other things to do than read my speech. Believe me, I would have been very glad to come down here and have a talk with the President about the state of the world.

THE PRESIDENT. His visit has nothing to do with Viet-Nam. That wasn't the purpose of it or anything else or anything you could blow up and make look big or dramatic. He has told you about all he knows and I have too and we are glad to have seen you.

Reporter: Thank you, sir.


The story came to light almost a decade later, in 1974, when former Canadian Ambassador in Washington Charles Ritchie wrote about the incident.