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LBJ: Architect of American Ambition

Reviewed by Jacqueline E. Whitt

Randall Woods, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, Harvard University Press (paperback edition), 2007, 1007 pp, $19.95

Lyndon Baines Johnson was never supposed to be president, at least according to the Kennedys, yet he presided over one of the most volatile decades of the twentieth century. Both reviled and revered, Johnson maintains a conspicuous place in the imagery and sound bites of the 1960s, and Randall Woods in LBJ: Architect of American Ambition joins a long and distinguished cadre of historians to tackle Johnson's biography. Even with several excellent biographies available, notably Robert Caro's multivolume work, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which remains unfinished, and Robert Dallek's two-volume Lone-Star Rising and Flawed Giant. Woods relies on these impressive and provocative works, but he also stakes out some new ground in order to offer something new both to the casual reader and the historian of the period. From the beginning, Woods understands Johnson as deeply enigmatic and frequently embodying at once contradictory and complementary characteristics.

Ultimately, the biography must explain the presidential Johnson who took office in the mid-1960s when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so the book begins there and then engages the reader in an extended flashback to Johnson's family and early life. Throughout the book, Texas, as a place and as a symbol, looms large in Woods' analysis; Johnson's ambitions and personality matched the landscape from which he hailed. In the first part of the book, Woods sets out a careful chronological study of Johnson's childhood, and whereas other scholars have focused on the impact of Lyndon's father, Sam Ealy, Woods pays similarly close and detailed attention to Lyndon's mother Rebecca Baines Johnson's influence on his development. Ealy had a discernible populist streak and the ruggedness of a Westerner, which LBJ certainly inherited, but his mother's religion and idealism left indelible marks on him as well.

As Johnson matured, his skills as a politician and his larger-than-life personality cemented itself. Perhaps surprising to those familiar with the “Johnson treatment,” Woods paints Johnson as a not-particularly-natural politician; he had trouble connecting with large crowds and was not an especially skilled debater or public speaker. Yet Johnson's ambitions and work ethic far outstripped these liabilities. If something didn't come naturally, Johnson worked at it doggedly — he would shake more hands, visit more places, and learn more policy than his opponents. His dogged determination and demanding schedule ran both him and his staff ragged — throughout his early political career, Johnson suffered from repeated bouts of pneumonia, kidney stones, and a massive heart attack. Through all of his political campaigns and terms, Johnson was always more concerned with the minutiae of policy and the political fallout from decisions than he was with making historically or otherwise academically informed decisions. It was this character trait — simultaneously an asset and a liability — that would contribute mightily to his decision-making strategies in Vietnam, but which also enabled him to push civil rights legislation and poverty programs through a sometimes-obstinate Congress.

Woods continues a careful chronological story until Johnson became president in November 1963. Because of the complexity of the times — dealing with a president's death (and his younger brother), civil rights, growing tension and unrest in Vietnam, federal budgets, and reelection — Woods offers a series of topically-based chapters about the first two and a half years of Johnson's presidency. Unfortunately, this section, which is most challenging in terms of chronology and context, is possibly one of the book's most important in establishing Wood's understanding of Johnson's greatest legacies. This organization demands that the reader hold multiple timelines in his or her head — for example matching the timeline of the 1964 election to the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, one wonders if such an organization doesn't allow Woods to fully explore the intense connections between those challenges — readers are never quite offered a clear answer about how Johnson may have understood the interplay between his Great Society programs and the Vietnam War. Woods' organization forces such considerations into isolated paragraphs about Johnson's political considerations and machinations, rather than Woods' (or others') scholarly analysis of the cultural, social, or economic consequences.

In this middle section, Woods reintroduces Johnson's religion briefly. Guided by a commitment to equality tinged with paternalism, Woods paints Johnson as wholeheartedly Niebuhrian. He had socially liberal tendencies, with a Christian view that saw the reality of evil in the world. Humans were both complicit in the immorality and responsible for confronting evil. These religious leanings informed both Johnson's views on civil rights and poverty and his initial thoughts on Vietnam. Though the Niebuhrian realists would eventually come to vocally protest the Vietnam War, Johnson's religion was certainly a major influence on his outlook and policies. Unfortunately, these mentions of Johnson's spirituality appear somewhat sporadically — Woods does not deal with Johnson's religion during his early career or as the war in Vietnam took more and more of Johnson's attention in the late 1960s. Whereas other aspects of Johnson's personality, for example, his voracious sexual and physical appetites and crude language and behavior, saturate this account — evidence of Johnson's larger-than-life and forceful personality — Johnson's inner spiritual world never permeates the narrative to sufficient effect.

Woods' analysis of Johnson's Vietnam policies offers little new to the vast (and ever-growing) literature on the Vietnam War, but it offers non-specialists in particular a thorough and sensible explanation of American involvement between 1963 and 1968. On Vietnam, Woods' greatest strength is demonstrating Johnson's deep ambivalence, even anguish, over the correct or proper course of action in the early stages of Vietnam. Woods writes that after Johnson announced the Mekong development program, which would commit the United States to a $1 billion appropriation for development projects in the delta, he “could take some psychic comfort in the war. The United States was fighting not merely for geopolitical reasons, but to feed, clothe, and educate the underprivileged. Vietnam now could be seen as a piece of the Great Society, along with the civil rights movement, the poverty program, Medicare and Medicaid” (608). Yet on Vietnam, unlike civil rights or the Great Society, Johnson never seemed to locate his instinct that his prosecution of the war was fundamentally good or right.

Though ambivalent about the correct course of action in the early years, Johnson was consistently driven by a focused Cold War ideology that demanded he view the situation in stark geo-political terms, where the consequences of failure in Vietnam were too great to contemplate. As a result, Johnson was unable to even consider the effects of global and domestic public opinion on prosecuting the war or that the costs of a drawn-out war in Vietnam would outweigh the cost of a failed South Vietnamese state or a unified Communist Vietnam. Even as other one-time supporters of American action in Vietnam turned their backs on the war and its prosecution, Johnson held steadfastly to his belief that Vietnam could not be allowed to fall. As public opinion, and the opinion of his advisors and political insiders, declined, Johnson took these losses personally. He was especially angered by Robert Kennedy's reversal, convinced that Bobby had set out to delegitimize and undermine his presidency from the start. Here, Woods' sympathetic portrayal of Johnson clouds the facts that by 1967 and 1968, the war in Vietnam was on an increasingly ruinous course — many who had supported the war in the mid 1960s could not conscionably do so by the decade's later years.

When Johnson determined that he would not run for reelection to the presidency in 1968, he was a broken man — physically and mentally. While he had frequently threatened to leave politics earlier in his career, his close confidants always persuaded him to do otherwise. This time, there would be no such protestations. Johnson no longer believed he knew the best course of action for the country. Johnson died just four years after leaving office, convinced that Vietnam had ruined him, his presidency, and the Great Society. It was a short but undistinguished fall from the highest office in the land. Woods' treatment of Johnson's last years allow readers glimpses of the man's great tragedy, but also glimpses of Johnson's political accomplishments and ambitions.

In this way, then, Johnson may stand proxy for the wider American public. Johnson's ambitions — both personal and political — were indeed great. He wished to secure the promise of America's founding for all people and was relentless in working toward that goal. At the same time, Johnson was crude and mercilessly demanding of his staff and intimates. Johnson set out to save Vietnam from a communist enemy, and he pursued that goal with such single-mindedness as to set the nation down a course of military disaster and social and cultural upheaval. Progress in securing civil rights and reducing poverty were limited by paternalism and lingering cultural patterns as well as the economics of war. Ambition was checked by political and personal limits, yet it stopped neither Johnson nor his country from trying.

Finally, at just under 900 pages of text, Woods' book feels precisely the right length. It is sufficiently detailed to be of value to professionals, yet engagingly written and brief enough to hold the attention of a wider audience. Woods' characterization of Johnson is charitable, though certainly not laudatory of the president's legacy, and in that regard, it offers readers a new lens through which to evaluate not only Johnson but the whole of the long 1960s. Woods is a sympathetic biographer, but more than 40 years after the Tet Offensive, and assassinations, and the civil rights movement, it seems that we — as historians and citizens — can finally look with some distance on those tumultuous years and the leaders who presided over them.


Jacqueline Whitt received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008, where she worked under the direction of Richard Kohn. Her dissertation is titled, "Conflict and Compromise: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War." In 2007-2008, Whitt received a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the U.S. Army Center of Military History. She received her MA from UNC in 2005 and her BA from Hollins University in 2003. She has presented papers on the military chaplaincy and the rhetoric of sacrifice in warfare at national and international conferences. Her ongoing research interests include the military chaplaincy and the broad connections between religion and war.

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