David Fromkin is Chairman of the International Relations Department, Director of the Center for International Relations, and Professor of Law, of History, and of International Relations at Boston University. His book about America's role in the modern world, In the Time of the Americans, will be published this spring.
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?
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 Asia: the failure of the attempted communist takeover of Indonesia in 1965 and the fact that the fall of much of Indochina was not followed by other dominoes: Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore. There is even the view that, in losing the Vietnam War, the United States actually won. General William Westmoreland, the
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