Undoubtedly, Lyndon Johnson was an important president. He came to office under melodramatic circumstances, one of only four men to succeed a murdered predecessor. His landmark civil-rights legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—effectively ended the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era. Medicare was the first post-New Deal leap in construction of the American welfare state, and his War on Poverty the most ambitious federal undertaking of the second half of the 20th century. If you set aside his prosecution of the Vietnam War, Johnson was surely the most influential Democratic president since his political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But in assessing Johnson’s success, setting Vietnam aside is not so easily done; and when his presidency is judged in historical and not strictly political terms, its reputation begins to unravel. It is true that Johnson inherited an American military commitment to the government of South Vietnam from the “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy administration, and that he seems always to have harbored mixed feelings about the enterprise. But he prosecuted the war not out of any sense of strategic conviction but as a political necessity; and his prosecution was so cynical, and ultimately so inept, that he succeeded only in destroying the postwar American consensus in foreign policy and raising a specter of chaos and defeat that still haunts our national discourse.
About the Author
Philip Terzian, literary editor of the Weekly Standard, is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century (Encounter).