The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997 Page: 270
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
with glowing, and usually superficial, character sketches of liberal politicians and
activists whom Bernstein greatly admires. When an occasional conservative like
Wilbur Mills wins Bernstein's praise, the departure from his predictable judg-
ments is welcome. As for Johnson, he appears as a strangely shadowy figure on
the periphery of the legislative action. Bernstein never fulfills his stated purpose
of giving Johnson all the credit he deserves, but the author's assessments are not
consistently negative or unfair; they simply lack depth. Any reader who is inter-
ested in exploring Johnson's impressive skills as a legislative strategist and tacti-
cian or understanding his complex motives must turn elsewhere.
When Bernstein addresses the issue of Vietnam, he so simplifies the history of
the conflict and the conditions that Johnson and his advisers faced in 1965 that
their decisions to transform the war appear utterly delusional. Even though
Johnson's war policies led to disaster, many of the reasons that shaped his com-
mitment to escalation were compelling: the horrors that Communist rule had in-
flicted on the populations of the Soviet Union, China, and various satellite
nations; the past success of the containment policy in both Europe and Asia; the
defeat of guerrilla insurgencies in the Philippines and Malaya; the high level of
tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 196os; the
avowed commitments of both China and the Soviet Union to wars of national
liberation as a way of weakening the West; the need to reaffirm the strength of
American commitments abroad as NATO, the bedrock of our whole security sys-
tem, experienced severe stress; the example of Cuban communism as a national-
istic force that became a projection of Soviet power and a threat to the United
States. Neither the nationalistic character of Vietnamese communism nor the
Sino-Soviet split erased the threats that a communist victory in Southeast Asia
posed to American interests. Whether those dangers or interests justified the im-
mense human and material costs of the war is another matter, but Bernstein fails
to give any serious consideration to the difficult choices that confronted John-
son. Instead, Bernstein attributes Johnson's Vietnam policies to his failings as a
person and a leader.
If only Johnson had been a wiser leader, Bernstein argues, the United States
could have escaped the agony of Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 196os.
Prosperity, stability, and benevolent liberal rule would have persisted into the fore-
seeable future. What Bernstein overlooks with his simplistic speculation is the dis-
ruptive effects of the liberal policies that he so strongly endorses and the sources
of unrest beyond the control of Johnson or any other leader. African American
anger, white backlash, and youthful rebellion had become almost irresistible
forces by the mid-196os. Johnson's actions certainly contributed to the turmoil,
but he did not stand in the way of a liberal promised land. In fact, he pushed this
nation further along the road of liberal reform than any other president, with the
possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt. While acknowledging Johnson's legisla-
tive productivity, Bernstein is unable to understand fully this flawed but still re-
markable politician and to evaluate persuasively his role in history.
University of Texas at Arlington
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997, periodical, 1997; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/m1/322/: accessed June 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.