LBJ and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
As the carriers of Lyndon Baines Johnson's torch prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his landmark Great Society legislation, they are asking us -- or people like myself of a certain age, anyway -- to do the impossible: Reconcile the Vietnam War, an atrocity that wasted nearly 60,000 American lives and millions more Vietnamese lives that he never understood and from which he never backed down, and achievements like the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, and the Clean Air Act.
The torch carriers, including daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Linda Bird Johnson Robb, are not asking Americans to put aside memories of the war as the LBJ Presidential Library prepares for a year of celebrations, but rather judge their father for more than the quagmire that sank his presidency, ushering in the nightmare era of Richard Nixon, and has indelibly tarnished his legacy.
To which I say, let's revisit that in another few decades when the history of the era will be easier to rewrite.
That is when I and other Baby Boomers will be gone and the wounds of Vietnam have begun to heal, while nevertheless celebrating in the here and now the extraordinary domestic agenda that LBJ pushed through in the five years after the Kennedy assassination -- an agenda that has withstood the test of time, as well.
Still, it is the 36th president's polarizing image -- a tragic consequence of which was the echo chamber in which only LBJ's sycophantic aides were listened to as the war became an unmitigated disaster -- that has resonated most loudly down through the decades since his premature death at age 64 in 1973 of a broken heart, as some people will have it.
Beyond Johnson's daughters and surviving inner circle, some historians believe that acknowledging his achievements is long overdue.
"I absolutely think the time has come,"Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Johnson biographer, told The New York Times. "When he left office, the trials and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam. The country fundamentally changes as a result of L.B.J.’s presidency."
Indeed, it is easy to forget that Johnson was a true populist who believe that it was government's responsibility to reach out to and help Americans, a concept that today's Republican Party has thrown under the bus and even many Democrats seem to shy away from.
All of this begs a couple of questions:
First, while the Civil Rights Act empowered African-Americans, weren't they disproportionately the victims of Vietnam? Absolutely, and in that regard the war was a deadly discriminator.
Second, if Kennedy had lived, would he have become as unpopular as Johnson because of Vietnam and his own more modest domestic achievements would have gone unrecognized?
Yes, but this assumes that Kennedy would have expanded the war as LBJ did, and on this note the record is mixed. Some historians believe that he would have and others do not, noting the great reluctance with which he supported the modest buildup of then infinitesimal American presence, which followed his Bay of Pigs disaster.