Courtesy Reuters

Lyndon Johnson and Foreign Policy: What the New Documents Show

Lyndon Johnson should have been a great president. He was better than anybody alive at getting things done in Washington. He proved it in his first few years as president, when he persuaded the hitherto squabbling branches of government to work together. Freed for a time from checking and balancing, the president and Congress dealt with a long overdue domestic agenda; the result was the more than 200 laws and programs constituting the "Great Society" initiative. The United States witnessed the rare spectacle of its system of government actually working. A Republican business leader remarked, "Now that Americans have seen what a really professional politician can accomplish, they’ll never elect an amateur again."

A broad consensus supported the goals to which Johnson devoted his amazing energies and persuasive powers. At home, he acted to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination and to improve education—a closely related goal. Abroad, he tried to achieve a working relationship with the Soviet Union so the two superpowers could conduct their disagreements peacefully. In L.B.J., the United States seemed to have found a leader who knew both where to go and how to get there.


What went wrong was Johnson’s foreign policy: foremost, the disaster of Vietnam. That seemed evident at the time. Now, recent and forthcoming studies question that verdict. Not everybody regards the outcome of the Vietnam War as a complete loss. Some point to the successes that (arguably) flowed from the U.S. stand in Southeast

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In This Review

The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power
H. W. Brands
Oxford University Press, 1995
304 pp. $27.50
L.B.J. and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War
George C. Herring
University of Texas Press, 1994
228 pp. $29.95
The Johnson Years: A Vietnam Roundtable
Edited by Ted Gittinger
Lyndon Baines Johnson School for Public Affairs, 1993
192 pp. $15.00
Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy, 1963-1968
Edited by Warren I. Cohen and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker
Cambridge University Press, 1994
320 pp. $54.95

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