The fourth installment in a planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is vintage Robert Caro: enormously detailed, personality driven, power obsessed. The book begins with Johnson riding high as majority leader in the U.S. Senate during the 1950s, then follows him as he crashes to earth as vice president, shorn of power and, in power's absence, self-respect. Caro lingers on every embarrassment of the vice presidency, a period of humiliation for Johnson that ended only when President John F. Kennedy was killed and Johnson ascended to the Oval Office.

Readers who have followed Caro's work, beginning with The Power Broker, his biography of the grandiose New York City urban planner Robert Moses, have been repeatedly reminded that power is his primary concern. For Caro, Johnson is thus the perfect subject: a man whose entire life was devoted to the pursuit of power. Yet Caro has always been rather vague about what, exactly, power is. He is more concerned with what power does than with what it is. "Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals," Caro writes. He uses Johnson's power as a searchlight to explore the recesses of his subject's character; he is after Johnson the man more than Johnson the leader. And because he is more interested in what power does than in what power is, he is also more interested in what power does to Johnson than in what Johnson does with power.


"A tall, gangling youth, humiliated and ridiculed during an impoverished boyhood in a tiny, isolated Texas Hill Country town," as Caro describes him in the biography's second volume, Johnson began his climb in college, shamelessly cultivating relationships with anyone who could help him get ahead. After graduating, he entered politics, working in Texas state government and ultimately winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937. Throughout his ascent, Johnson demonstrated an uncanny ability to accrue ever more influence and, as Caro writes, "an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal." In a fraud-filled election in 1948, Johnson won a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he later became majority leader and revealed what Caro terms "a genius for manipulation and domination for the sake of his ambition, and for power for its own sake." 

In Caro's telling, power's most consistent purpose for Johnson was to assuage his youthful hurt, to fill an empty place in his soul. In truth, Johnson exaggerated his childhood deprivations; he had never been as poor as he liked to let on. But whether merited or not, his sense of his own suffering inspired in him a strong compassion for others that coexisted with his more venal qualities -- and represented another purpose for his power. In the Senate, Caro writes, Johnson "displayed a capacity for achievement on behalf of the dispossessed." These dual purposes -- Caro uses the image of two threads, one dark and one bright -- drew Johnson forward. The dark thread informed Johnson's siding with southern segregationists until the late 1950s, when the bright thread emerged during the contest for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The fight for that measure fills 500 pages of Caro's third volume, and it shows Johnson at the peak of his legislative skills: wheedling, promising, threatening, cajoling. ("The Great Cause" is what Caro titled that section of the third volume, and the cause was indeed great. But one has to ask whether the result -- a voting rights law so toothless that it barely increased black participation in southern politics -- warrants all the attention.)

In the most recent volume, Caro weaves the dark and bright threads tightly together. The dark Johnson bemoans his emasculation as vice president, longing for the power that will restore his self-esteem. The bright Johnson emerges from Kennedy's shadow ready to act on behalf of those who need his help. In one scene, Johnson huddles with advisers just days after Kennedy's death. He is going to give a speech, and he wants to emphasize civil rights. The advisers explain how stubborn the resistance to civil rights is and how Johnson might break his presidency trying to win a hopeless battle. "Well," Johnson replies, "what the hell's the presidency for?"

Presumably, readers will learn Caro's answer to that question in the fifth and final volume. But given the frequent foreshadowing in the first four volumes, it is reasonable to guess that the bright thread will produce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and certain measures of the Great Society, starting with Medicare. The dark thread will lead Johnson into Vietnam, with dire results for the country and for Johnson's presidency. And the two threads together will continue to define Johnson's character. 


Caro's belief in the revelatory potential of power is a perfectly appropriate viewpoint for a biographer. Caro is not a political scientist, and the fact that his work does not fully address the nature of power is not necessarily a flaw. Yet one of the most fascinating aspects of Johnson's presidency was the way in which it displayed quite clearly what power is, what it can accomplish, and what it cannot.

In domestic politics, presidents rarely wield independent power; what they wield, if they are effective, is influence. Power is the capacity to make people do what they don't want to do; influence is the ability to make them want what you want, at least temporarily. Johnson did the latter, at times too well. Much of the Great Society legislation, for example, now seems to embody the sort of hubris that gave liberalism a bad name, and its overreach paved the way for the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s. But two aspects of the Great Society -- civil rights reform and Medicare -- have lasted, and they would have been much slower in coming without Johnson's remarkable persuasiveness. The first president elected from the old Confederacy since the Civil War, Johnson shamed his fellow southerners into accepting that the days of segregation had passed. On Medicare, Johnson beat back complaints that it was socialistic and lined up interest groups that had a stake in the single-payer program. 

In international affairs, presidents do exercise power, preeminently in their capacity as commander in chief. To have at one's disposal the most formidable military in world history, with the potential to annihilate a large part of the human race, is to wield power greater than that possessed by any emperor, tsar, or dictator. And yet the most striking characteristic of U.S foreign relations during the Johnson years was the diminishing efficacy of American power. 

As Caro makes clear, principally by omission, Johnson's quest for power had nothing to do with foreign policy; his passions and instincts were wholly domestic. This is odd for a man who revered President Franklin Roosevelt, in that Roosevelt's greatest contribution to the institutional power of the presidency was not the New Deal but the postwar international order he guided into existence and the agencies and bureaus he and Congress established to direct it. After 1945, every president was, whether he liked it or not, the most important single figure in world affairs. Johnson understood this at a rational level, but he didn't act on it, and he entered the White House woefully unprepared to lead the U.S. alliance system.

During the 1960s, that system was in special need of creative leadership. Johnson inherited a daunting portfolio of U.S. commitments to Cold War allies in every region of the world and to international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. No one had designed this new international system whole; it grew by accretion. But its foundational premise was that U.S. resources were effectively infinite: that Washington would appropriate whatever was necessary to meet the country's commitments and that the U.S. economy could deliver what the government appropriated. Presidents occasionally worried about overcommitment; Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" emphasis on nuclear weapons over conventional arms was intended to contain defense spending lest it unduly burden the economy. But Eisenhower lost his battle with the Pentagon, and military spending continued to rise.

By the time Johnson became president, the country's commitments were greater than ever and still growing. South Vietnam was a resource sinkhole that got deeper and wider by the month. Israel was becoming an ally in all but name. The weapons judged necessary to maintain the credibility of the United States' treaty promises were growing ever more expensive. At the same time, the United States' share of the world economy was shrinking. 

Every generation gains its impressions of the world at a formative age. In private life, this typically occurs in childhood. In public life, it happens in early adulthood. Johnson's generation came of age in the 1940s, when the United States dominated the global economy as no country ever had before (or would after). In 1945, the United States' industrial output roughly matched that of the rest of the world combined. This heady position owed much to the prowess and ingenuity of American industrialists and workers in constructing the most powerful economic engine in world history. But it owed equally to the efficiency of U.S. soldiers (and of the soldiers of the United States' wartime allies) in destroying the industrial plants of the Axis countries. Power is always comparative, and American power at the end of World War II was so commanding because the United States' potential competitors were so weak. Germany and Japan were devastated; France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were exhausted.

Such an anomalous condition couldn't last, and it didn't. Germany and Japan recovered to become direct economic competitors to the United States. The Soviet Union competed militarily -- and hence economically, in an indirect manner, by prompting Washington to devote resources to defense that might have been employed otherwise. By the 1960s, the United States had to work harder and harder simply to keep from sliding backward.


That was the world Johnson inherited on Kennedy's assassination. It was a world he largely ignored during the transition period described in the final portion of Caro's latest volume, which concludes with Johnson's State of the Union address in January 1964. Yet through Vietnam, the world soon forced itself on his attention, ultimately derailed his domestic plans, and, in effect, ended his presidency.

That Vietnam is Johnson's main foreign policy legacy is all the more unfortunate because he proved, on the whole, an able custodian of the American-made international order. He failed as commander in chief; the Vietnam War was a debacle for which he bore primary responsibility. Yet in the grand scheme of world affairs, Vietnam turned out to be a sideshow: a tragic one, disrupting and prematurely ending many thousands of lives, but a sideshow nonetheless. The United States lost the war, but defeat produced none of the terrible global or even regional consequences Americans had fought to avert. American power had proved unavailing, but the world, after a moment of silence, yawned.

Johnson fared much better elsewhere, responding to an anti-American rebellion in the Dominican Republic in 1965, a war between India and Pakistan that same year, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in ways that affirmed the credibility of U.S. power without provoking the Soviets into testing it head-on. Perhaps the greatest challenge to Johnson's international leadership came from within the heart of the Western alliance. Charles de Gaulle had chafed at the dominant role of the United States in Europe since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. After becoming president of France a decade later, he began to look for ways to knock the United States down a few notches. In 1966, he announced that France would withdraw its armed forces from NATO's unified command. As a result, NATO would have to remove its headquarters from Paris, and all foreign troops, particularly U.S. ones, would be forced to evacuate the country.

Johnson's top advisers urged him to strike back at the French president. "De Gaulle is trying to gut us," warned Walt Rostow, his national security adviser. Secretary of State Dean Rusk drafted a strongly worded speech for Johnson condemning the French move as jeopardizing Western unity and defense. But Johnson refused to take de Gaulle's bait. "When a man asks you to leave his house, you don't argue," he said. "You get your hat and go." Johnson understood that de Gaulle was within his legal rights in asserting French sovereignty. More to the point, he appreciated that de Gaulle's move was mostly political theater. The United States remained as vital to France's security as ever. Should a war with the Soviet bloc break out, Johnson's military advisers assured him, the French would quickly recoordinate with NATO.

In fact, they never uncoordinated. Johnson's public patience with de Gaulle spared other NATO members from having to choose sides, and it allowed French military officials, through a series of quiet agreements with their U.S. counterparts, to continue to plan jointly with NATO. The Atlantic alliance outlived de Gaulle, Johnson, and finally the Soviet Union, which had been the aim all along.

Johnson's several successes in foreign policy and his one big failure point to two conclusions. The first is that military power can easily be overrated. U.S. leaders, including Johnson, deployed massive military force in Vietnam to no avail. The second conclusion, a corollary to the first, is that diplomacy often works better than force. The immediate rejoinder to this is that the threat of force is what gives diplomacy its bite. But Johnson's experience shows that this is not always the case. When India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, both sides fought with weapons provided by the United States, a shared dependency that ultimately allowed Johnson to force the two sides into a cease-fire. But neither country worried that the United States would actually use its military force to prevent it from going to war or to stop the fighting. Likewise, U.S. diplomacy was an important factor in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but the specter of U.S. military force had no effect on Arab or Israeli thinking during the conflict. And if U.S. military power moved de Gaulle, it was merely to provoke him to take destabilizing actions.

Americans like to think of their country as the most powerful in the world, and so it has been for three-quarters of a century. But being the most powerful is a far cry from being omnipotent. Johnson discovered this in the 1960s and made the best of it -- which, on balance, was surprisingly good. Compared to then, the United States today is even less powerful relative to the rest of the world, which makes Johnson's lesson all the more pertinent.


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  • H. W. BRANDS is Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • More By Hal Brands