Why the US’s Great Society wasn’t really so great at all

Biography: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Thomas Dunne Books €19.99

In his seminal 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell opined that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”: especially when those vague words are used by powerful elites to justify violence.

In Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin takes Orwell’s seductive argument and exemplifies it through the life of a US president, focusing most of her attention on Lyndon Johnson’s greatest career blunder: the Vietnam War.

At one stage it looked as if history might look kindly on the 36th President of the United States. There was much to write home about, after all, in the progressive philosophy his administration labelled The Great Society: a left-leaning government policy of similar values to Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964: which put its neck out for racial equality. But pretty quickly Vietnam overshadowed domestic affairs. And any legislation passed by the Johnson administration, for the most part, simply amounted to empty promises.

First published in 1976, this current reissue feels especially appropriate to digest living through the present Trump era: perhaps the most confusing, paradoxical, and uniquely isolationist US administration in living memory. With the benefit of historical knowledge to our advantage, it’s also possible to draw a direct line between Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, and later wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: all three conflicts have the paradoxical agenda of disaster capitalism looming as the elephant in the room. Goodwin puts it more directly: “Johnson was celebrating the possible reconstruction [of Vietnam] even before his orders brought mounting destruction.”

Johnson made the transformation from vice-president to commander-in-chief following JFK’s murder in November 1963. The increase in troop numbers in Vietnam during his watch speaks volumes. In 1960, 800 American troops were stationed in South Vietnam. Four years later, it had risen to 23,000. Two years after that, it ballooned to half a million. The bombing techniques of the Johnson administration, meanwhile, were as brutal as they were inaccurate. Trying to distinguish innocent children from possible Viet Cong sympathisers was, in the words of the author, “like trying to weed a garden with a bulldozer”.

Orwellian euphemisms still ensued. Where “military structures” had been hit, or “an enemy sniper” had been taken, a village or two was usually razed to the ground.

What, then, was Johnson’s take on the conflict?

It’s hard to know if his delusional descriptions were based on blind naivety, or an infallibility complex that believed western values were intrinsically universal to all of humanity. Goodwin suggests it was the latter. Take, for instance, a speech Johnson gave at John Hopkins University in April 1965. American soldiers “will help the Vietnamese to stabilise the economy, to increase the production of goods, to spread the life of education and stamp out disease”, Johnson declared like a medieval Christian crusader on his way to civilise a group of noble savages, extolling the power and glory of Christ. Messianic tone notwithstanding, such oxymoronic rhetoric also needs some historical context.

This, after all, was two decades deep into the American Century: when the United States possessed more military capability – and capital – than any nation or empire in human history.

This last point is especially important because, in a circuitous way, it also ties in with the other central message of this first-rate political biography: Johnson hadn’t the cosmopolitan intuitive outlook, nor the multidimensional kind of intellect that was needed to grasp that there might be such a thing as cultural diversity, or, say, other nations that were in possession of a value system that was wholly alien to the individualistic, hyper-capitalist-spirit of the United States. Understanding this argument helps one understand why the US was eventually defeated in Vietnam after nearly two decades, and, why the Middle East is still reeling from the disastrous post 9/11 conflicts in which Uncle Sam embroiled itself in when nobody asked it to.

As is healthy in almost every functioning democracy, when the game was up for Johnson in 1968, the media turned on him. Like his successor, Richard Nixon, though, Johnson took it personally: aiming the blame at anyone but himself. Typically, towards writers, journalists, and intellectuals. And when the chips were really down, like Nixon too, Johnson turned his attention towards daft conspiracy theories. Predominantly, these focused on the Kennedy dynasty. No matter how hard he tried, Johnson didn’t seem capable of ignoring their ubiquitous presence in American public life.

Hitherto, Goodwin has written biographies on four other US presidents. The experience stands to the writer. Her tone is authoritative, yet equally measured, responsible, philosophical, analytical and reasoned too.

The biographer also has invaluable insider’s knowledge: she worked as a member of the White House staff during the last month’s of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, spending a further three years working with Johnson on his own memoir, The Vantage Point. The reader is thus treated to a fascinating up-close psychological analysis of Johnson’s persona; which is then juxtaposed against a number of informal interviews Goodwin conducted with the president. Many of these appear to be given in the knowledge that they were off the record. Journalism ethics aside, the contrast works well. The reader is left to make up their own mind as they switch between Johnson’s subjective opinion, which is often self-righteous and insufferably pious, against the raw facts of history, which are devastatingly violent and brutal in their sobering reality.

The book is not a carpet-bomb assault on Johnson’s personality altogether, though. Where the president had strengths and leadership skills, Goodwin praises them accordingly: rating Johnson’s personal touch; his incredible work rate, and his mastering of how the Machiavellian levers of power in both the US Congress and Senate actually work. Still, the author understands that a political biographer’s duty is two-fold: to hold their subject to accountability, and secondly, to construct that narrative in a frame that is interesting and intellectually rewarding too.

On both counts, the author passes the task with flying colours.

Sunday Indo Living


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