What's another year?
Quite a challenge, actually, if it’s 1965 and you’re Lyndon B Johnson, with a war raging in Vietnam, plus race and student riots at home, and you ‘don’t know what the hell to do’
The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America
James T Patterson
James T Patterson, author of this elegantly written and finely nuanced work on the US in the 1960s, is clearly no fan of Philip Larkin, or he would know that 1963, not 1965, was the year that changed everything (“though just too late for me”). In fact, as Patterson makes clear in his pithy introduction, this is just the kind of reaction that books of this kind are supposed to provoke.
Publications are piled high that identify a particular year as the transformative moment of the era, from Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed to (surprise, surprise) 1969: The Year Everything Changed, by Rob Kirkpatrick. Authors have thrown their caps after any number of other years, most obviously 1968, which included the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon.
For Patterson, however, the events of 1968, “awesome though they were”, pale in significance beside those of 1965, “the time when America’s social cohesion began to unravel and when the turbulent phenomenon that would be called ‘the Sixties’ broke into view”.
Picking up more or less where Robert Caro left off in the latest volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Patterson makes a convincing case that the US was a fundamentally different place at the end of 1965 from what it had been a year earlier. At Christmas 1964, Lyndon B Johnson, recently elected president in his own right, had turned on the holiday lights of the national Christmas tree in Washington DC and made the bold assertion that “these are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem”.
It was a different story by the following Christmas. Race riots, student demonstrations and the fateful escalation of the war in Vietnam had eroded any sense that the US might be on the verge of a new golden age. Instead, many were already “bewailing the materialism, militarism and racism of American society”, a view reflected neatly by the singer Barry McGuire in the number-one hit Eve of Destruction.
One of the many strengths of this graceful book by Patterson, an emeritus professor of history at Brown University, in Rhode Island, is that the author never overstates his case. In fact, and rather pleasingly, he is always keen to challenge it. He reminds us that not everything changed in 1965. “Most Americans, enjoying unparalleled prosperity, attended primarily to matters near to home,” he writes. Consumers flocked to buy their first colour television sets. Sports fans filled wonderful new stadiums, such as the Houston Astrodome. Maria Callas was back at the Metropolitan Opera. Feelgood songs, such as Eight Days a Week by The Beatles, dominated the charts more often than Barry McGuire.
On March 2nd, the day that Operation Rolling Thunder launched a campaign of aerial bombardment against North Vietnam, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music opened in cinemas across the country. One of the leads, Christopher Plummer, ungratefully renamed it The Sound of Mucus, but audiences flocked to theatres, happy to climb every mountain with Julie Andrews and her guitar.
For others, however, 1965 seemed more like a perilous descent in the company of a guide of dubious quality. “In the single year of 1965,” Richard Goodwin, special assistant to the president, later reflected, “Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.”
Johnson stands at the heart of Patterson’s story, and the president does not emerge well from it. Life with LBJ was never going to be one of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Much of the tale is familiar: the needy personality, the mastery of knowing exactly when to cajole and when to threaten, the lack of consideration towards staff, including, famously, calling them in for conversations while he was “in the can” with the door wide open.
Already by 1965 the signature achievement of the Johnson era, “the Great Society”, was under attack from across the political spectrum. “Not only Johnson but also his successors in the White House were to discover that rapid governmental growth – and overblown rhetoric – would incite opposition from the Right as well as the Left,” concludes Patterson wearily, with an eye on today as much as the 1960s. “Bigger government could and did help people in need, but it could also be a mixed political blessing.”
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who resigned from the Johnson administration in 1965, noted at the end of the decade, it was “the great Liberal failing of this time . . . constantly to overpromise and to overstate”.
The revisionist case for Johnson’s presidency has rested on the legacy of the Great Society and his civil-rights legislation. The case for the prosecution inevitably lies with the Vietnam War. Johnson himself understood that only too well, even at the time. “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved,” he reflected bitterly when out of office. “If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home . . . but if I let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward.”
Patterson’s shrewd analysis of LBJ and Vietnam is the real gem of The Eve of Destruction. With skill and care he reveals the limits of Johnson’s ability and judgment, showing how in the end the president was unable to rise above his own insecurities. His situation was not so much one of catch-22 as a question about his own sense of manliness.
LBJ was “fearful of being called an appeaser” if he did not take up the fight against communism. Yet he did have options. “Realists” such as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann were providing enough cover with their argument that war with Vietnam was an expensive overcommitment and not in the national interest of the US. “In hindsight,” Patterson writes, “given the horrors that followed American military engagement in the war, it is evident that he should have resisted the incremental but ultimately vast American escalation that followed.”
“I can’t get out,” LBJ told his wife, Lady Bird, in 1965, “and I can’t finish it with what I have. And I don’t know what the hell to do.”
That, in a nutshell, was the Johnson doctrine in Vietnam, and it would destroy his presidency. It’s a point worth remembering when today so many in Washington DC are urging the current president to emulate LBJ’s political style. Opponents of Barack Obama may criticise him for lacking Johnson’s Machiavellian skill in dealing with a vexatious US Congress, but not even his worst enemy would charge that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.