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Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters

Lyndon B. Johnson (2010)

by Charles Peters

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When it comes to the The American Presidents series, Lyndon Johnson had to be one of the most challenging of US presidents to write about in brief. This is not just because the man himself was such a complex figure, but because his legacy is so strongly mixed, and viewed so differently according to one's political opinions. Nevertheless, Charles Peters has proven himself up to the challenge. In writing his account, Peters relied heavily on the major biographies by Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Randall Woods, and Doris Stearns Goodwin, as well as Michael Beschloss' transcripts of the audiotapes from the Oval Office, histories of the war in Vietnam, and numerous other secondary and tertiary sources.

In 160 pages (plus endnotes), Peters manages to capture the life history, activities, accomplishments, and personality of this towering figure. Peters' work is no hagiography -- we get LBJ, "warts and all", with his ambitions, goals, passions, fears, and compassion. The reader sees a masterful politician at work, committed from the outset to using government to provide a better life for the least fortunate (as an extension of FD Roosevelt's legacy), and passionately committed to extension of civil rights to all. We also see the bully, the sycophant, the adulterer, and the deeply insecure man who (when it came to foreign policy) feared to be labelled a weakling, and justifiably worried about the opposition party (the Republicans), a leader of whom had proposed use of nuclear weapons. One result was Johnson's military escalation of the Vietnam War, which ultimately cost millions of lives and prevented Johnson from fully enacting his domestic agenda. That this war ultimately defeated him (as he long feared it would) gives his presidency elements of a Greek tragedy.

Having read four substantive biographies of Johnson before this one, I noted no major inaccuracies herein; in fact, Peters arguably adjusts the historical record in noting that Coke Stevenson (LBJ's rival for the Senate) was no hero (as implied in a previous Johnson biography), but an unrepentant racist. Likewise, Peters carefully reconstructs the actual events in the confusing Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964 (when North Vietnamese ships may or may not have attacked a US ship), which Johnson cynically and dishonestly used to obtain congressional authorization for US military action What's more, Peters contributes a footnote to the historical record about the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson and Robert Kennedy had favored trading the removal of US missiles from Turkey in return for removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. President John Kennedy adopted this very plan, but secretly, and Peters concludes from consultations with Ted Sorenson and Robert McNamara that Lyndon Johnson was never informed, an issue that may have had consequences (see below).

Peters speculates elaborately that Johnson might not have escalated US military involvement in Vietnam if he had realized that his own suggestions had been followed in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In particular, he conjectures that if Johnson had known of Robert Kennedy's support for the plan, that Johnson would have been willing to take a more dovish stance towards North Vietnam (since Kennedy would be unlikely to oppose him). This odd line of speculation lacks supportive evidence and fails to consider the militant stance of the opposing political party. Here Peters seems to be playing the role of apologist for Johnson (analogous to the way defenders of John Kennedy speculate that he would not have pursued war in Vietnam had his administration not been cut short by assassination). After Johnson retired from public life and moved back to Texas, he grew his hair quite long. Peters bizarrely speculates that he did so to appear attractive to his young biographer, Doris Kearns (Goodwin) who was living at the ranch.

Beyond the above, there are a few points of clarification that appear warranted. In discussing history of the Vietnam conflict, Peters notes that while free elections were to be held according to the 1954 Geneva Convention agreement, that "an election was never held". He neglects to explain that this was because South Vietnam's government violated the Accords by refusing to hold elections (with support from the West), knowing that Ho Chi Minh was certain to win. On another issue, Peters states that Abe Fortas would have been the first Jewish chief justice of the Supreme Court, had his appointment been confirmed by Congress. Since Peters thinks the point significant enough to mention, he might have noted that two Jewish justices had previously served on the court, Louis Brandeis (who joined the court in 1916), and Benjamin Cardozo (in 1932).

Charles Peters' biography of Lyndon Johnson is a fine contribution to the American Presidents series -- balanced, fair, and (although Peters' sympathies are not hidden) written without an obvious political agenda. As a brief biography, it provides a worthy introduction to this most complex of historical figures, one who despite his administration's disastrous military adventurism, did leave a lasting legacy on the domestic front through a beneficial reshaping of American society. ( )
4 vote danielx | Jan 17, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805082395, Hardcover)

The towering figure who sought to transform America into a "Great Society" but whose ambitions and presidency collapsed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War

Few figures in American history are as compelling and complex as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who established himself as the master of the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963.

Charles Peters, a keen observer of Washington politics for more than five decades, tells the story of Johnson's presidency as the tale of an immensely talented politician driven by ambition and desire. As part of the Kennedy-Johnson administration from 1961 to 1968, Peters knew key players, including Johnson's aides, giving him inside knowledge of the legislative wizardry that led to historic triumphs like the Voting Rights Act and the personal insecurities that led to the tragedy of Vietnam.

Peters's experiences have given him unique insight into the poisonous rivalry between Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, showing how their misunderstanding of each other exacerbated Johnson's self-doubt and led him into the morass of Vietnam, which crippled his presidency and finally drove this larger-than-life man from the office that was his lifelong ambition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:55 -0400)

Documents the 36th president's term in office and the legacy of his achievements, revealing the insights he gained while serving in the Senate and throughout the Kennedy-Johnson administration and discussing how factors including the Vietnam War drove him from office.… (more)

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