Billy Graham became great friends with Lyndon Johnson; but, in 1966, after a Christmas time visit to Viet Nam, Graham told reporters that the war in Viet Nam—Johnson’s War—was “complicated, confusing, and frustrating.” Later, he went so far as to say that he wasn’t sure he’d have gotten involved in Viet Nam, but it wasn’t “all President Johnson’s fault.”
In 1968, Graham preached nearly 25 times in the war-torn country, sometimes on the same stage as Bob Hope. And Billy changed his tune. Perhaps wanting to say what Johnson wanted to hear, he told reporters that morale was “unbelievably high” among American soldiers. “The war is won militarily,” said Graham.
Of course, 1968 was also the year that Johnson announced he would not be running for a second term as President. The Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey for President, and Humphrey’s Republican opponent—Richard Nixon—won the election.
Billy Graham and Richard Nixon went way back. They had first met in 1952 in the Senate dining room, and Graham had supported Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. During his presidency, Nixon frequently talked to Graham. In fact, Nixon gave a standing order to put Graham through to the White House whenever Billy phoned Nixon.
Graham supported Nixon’s Vietnamization of the War. In fact, he had suggested just such a strategy before Nixon announced it as public policy. This was a way for the U.S. to withdraw its forces while the South Vietnamese took on the burden of fighting their own war. When, in May of 1970, Vietnamese and American forces invaded Cambodia, Nixon suddenly seemed to be widening the War instead of winding it down. Massive protests ensued, and Billy Graham felt the need to help his old friend politically.
Billy invited Nixon to speak at his Crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee. He called the Cambodia invasion “a courageous act” and referred to Nixon as “our President.” The Nixon campaign later ran ads showing Graham and Nixon together. Billy had become deeply involved in partisan politics—not that this was anything new for him. He had even once predicted that the religious right was destined to be a powerful political force.
After winning a second term in 1972, Nixon was politically ascendant until the Watergate scandal erupted. Prior to the election, five Nixon campaign operatives had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building. Nixon subsequently attempted to cover up his administration’s involvement in the affair and was forced to resign when that cover-up was exposed by audio tapes of presidential conversations.
At first, Graham refused to read the transcript of the tapes. He couldn’t believe that Nixon was personally involved in Watergate. Nixon had always presented himself as a conservative, moral person. And Billy had believed him. When he did finally read the transcripts, Graham said, “I just vomited.” The Watergate tapes were “profoundly disturbing and disappointing.” For a time, Billy Graham retired from public life and spent considerable time walking in the North Carolina woods, trying to work through the implications of his misplaced faith in the disgraced President.
After Watergate, he focused his evangelism on Europe. Graham was surprised to find that Catholics in Poland accepted him and his message. His perspective broadened, and his new ecumenicalism—unpopular among the religious right—caused him to become less adamant in his preaching to Eastern Europeans. This was when Graham decided that “all those Chinese babies” were not necessarily condemned to Hell.
In a 1997 interview with evangelist Robert Schuller, Graham said:
I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ ... [God] is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.
Thus, in 1979 Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority, explaining,
I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.
Toward the end of his long life, Billy’s sister asked how he wanted to be remembered at his funeral. After a long pause, Billy Graham answered, “He tried to do what he should.”
(Sources include Wikipedia, the PBS film Billy Graham, and William Martin’s Billy and Lyndon from the November 1991 Texas Monthly.)
~ Richard Russell
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