LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. – Review

LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. – Review – book reviews

Timothy J. Lomperis

LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. By George C. Herring. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Pp. 244. $19.95.)

From a senior scholar on the Vietnam War, comes a new picture of President Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the war. George Herring starts with the premise that Johnson’s contradictory objectives of promoting his domestic Great Society as a policy centerpiece, while prosecuting the Vietnam War internationally in the background, probably made the war unwinnable. Moreover, on top of this policy contradiction, the deficiencies in LBJ’s personality and leadership style put victory utterly beyond reach. It is this latter theme that permeates LBJ and Vietnam. The book, thus, focuses on Lyndon Johnson’s personal management of the war.

Despite this directly negative stance, Herring is surprisingly balanced. With so much blame for what went wrong placed squarely on Johnson’s shoulders, the author nevertheless repeatedly lays out contexts for the president’s actions that evoke sympathy for the beleaguered Texan. The book, in addition, is very well written and rich in fresh insights.

A sampling of these insights illustrates the author’s message that, though clearly obsessed with the war, the Great Society remained Johnson’s priority. He did not want to risk “the woman I really loved” for “that bitch of a war on the other side of the world” (130). But by dealing in half-measures, both the bitch and his lady love were lost. The advisor closest to him was Dean Rusk, who could fight a war in “cold blood” and not arouse “the public ire.” For a time, he also relied on Robert McNamara, who, as a superb secretary of defense but a poor minister of war, never articulated a strategy for Vietnam (37).

Herring’s technique in each chapter is to first present the dilemma posed by each issue, and then show how the dilemma was compounded by LBJ’s own conflictual objectives and self-defeating style. One such dilemma was Johnson’s adoption of a limited war “strategy” that was deliberately so low-key that it lacked any plan for victory. As a consequence, there was “never any systematic discussion … of how the war was to be fought” (36-37). What made this problem worse was LBJ’s consensus-building style that permitted every bureau in the bureaucracy to get in on the act. And everyone got in each other’s way. The bombing campaign, for example, repeatedly destroyed peace feelers as well as railway bridges even as the frequent bombing pauses demoralized the military, which seemed only to strengthen the resolve of Hanoi to rebuff both the feelers and the military pressure. Thus, as Herring observes, Johnson’s inability to bring an end to the war cost him political support, while the very loss of this support corroded his diplomatic position for achieving a settlement (121).

What is poignantly driven home in this book is the dual tragedy of the Lyndon Johnson presidency; specifically, that in fighting an expensive war he would not win, its protracted, inconclusive nature politically obliterated his dreams for a Great Society. Although all Americans are still the worse for this war, we are all better off for the erudition of George Herring’s LBJ and Vietnam.

Timothy J. Lomperis

Saint Louis University

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