President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, arrived at Ōhakea air base at the start of a whirlwind 24-hour visit to New Zealand. He was the first United States president to visit this country.
‘LBJ’, as he was commonly known, had been stationed in New Zealand and Australia during the Second World War, when he flew as an observer on bomber missions in the South Pacific. His return in 1966 was primarily to shore up support for the war in Vietnam.
New Zealand’s National government had been cautious in its approach to Vietnam, initially sending a Civilian Surgical Team to Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh province in 1963. Under continuing US pressure, the Holyoake government provided 25 Army engineers in June 1964. The crucial decision to send combat forces came in May 1965, when Prime Minister Keith Holyoake announced that the Royal New Zealand Artillery’s 161 Battery would replace the engineers.
Johnson’s visit appeared to confirm public support for New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam. LBJ and his wife ‘Lady Bird’ were surrounded by cheering crowds as their motorcade progressed through Wellington. Up to 200,000 Kiwis crammed the streets to get a glimpse of the president and the ‘First Lady’. Johnson was keen to shake hands with as many onlookers as possible, much to the consternation of his security detail. The Otago Daily Times stated that the president ‘may have done much to change the pattern of future Royal visits to New Zealand by the democratic approach he brought to his two-day stay in Wellington’.
When LBJ arrived at Parliament for a state luncheon on the 20th, hundreds of anti-Vietnam war protesters were outnumbered by cheering supporters who tore down some of the protest banners. Newspapers declared the whistle-stop tour an overwhelming success: ‘the anti-Vietnam campaigners have less strength in the country than they imagined’. This conclusion was premature. Although National won the November 1966 election, in which Vietnam policy was a major point of difference with Labour, by the end of the decade thousands were marching against participation in the war, triggering a re-examination of our foreign policy and identity. The 1970 visit of United States Vice-President Spiro Agnew saw violent confrontations outside his hotel between anti-war demonstrators and police.
Image: President Johnson during his visit to NZ in 1966 (National Library)