Diplomatic Immunity

As Thomas Alan Schwartz notes in his excellent Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson became the personification of the ugly American for many of his countrymen during Vietnam. Johnson was routinely portrayed as a fool, a provincial who was innocent of the complexities of international relations. The anecdotes are legion: In a remark that Yogi Berra might have appreciated, Johnson, returning from a trip to Asia, tells reporters, “Boys, I don’t understand foreigners. They’re different from us.” Henry Kissinger observed, “President Johnson did not take naturally to foreign relations.”

Schwartz will have none of this. As historians are wont to do, he seeks to rehabilitate what has been condemned. He does not go so far as to describe Johnson as a diplomatic mastermind, but it seems safe to say that something more than grudging admiration suffuses his book. He depicts a Johnson who overcame his initial clumsiness and learned in office to protect and assert American interests in Europe: “Lyndon Johnson emerges … as an astute and able practitioner of alliance politics, a leader who recognized how to assemble cross-national coalitions and work toward his overriding goals and objectives.” In other words, he wanted to win.

What about Vietnam? Schwartz treats Vietnam only as the backdrop to Johnson’s attempts to hold NATO together and reach a detente with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Schwartz reminds us–and it is an important reminder–that Johnson was less hidebound than the Germans in seeking to reach an accommodation with the Kremlin.

In Schwartz’s telling, Vietnam is only part of the reason that Johnson has gotten such a bum rap. He detects a kind of reverse racism against Southerners. Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, he reminds us, showed Johnson as a white slave master whipping the White House staff. Contrasted with the urbane John F. Kennedy, Johnson was a vulgarian unfit for Georgetown salons. Schwartz is probably on the mark. A.J. Liebling observed that “Southern politicians travel badly, like sweet corn. By the time they reach the cities of the north they have become overripe, offending delicate Northern palates. That is what happened to Johnson.” Some, not all, of the hostility to Bill Clinton probably also derived from the sense, at least among the Georgetown set, that he was a bumpkin who was soiling the city with his peculiar mores and cronies. Recall David Broder’s comment that it wasn’t Bill Clinton’s town to trash. But whether a southern pedigree is entirely responsible for such snobbery is questionable. Richard Nixon was not exactly welcomed in Georgetown either, while Henry Kissinger was feted by the Washington elite.

Some of Schwartz’s passages will be of interest only to financial historians. His accounts of dealings with the British and Germans over balance-of-payments matters are detailed, but not the stuff of high drama. It’s probably the plight of financial historians that the real excitement belongs to the diplomatic types writing about the grand drama of negotiations on missile agreements and wars. Still, Schwartz deftly evokes the financial worries of Johnson’s advisers. He might have made more of them. It seems clear that the United States was already headed for fiscal trouble before Vietnam had really heated up.

Schwartz is at his most interesting in detailing Johnson’s approach to the Cold War. He compellingly shows that Johnson was prodding conservative Christian Democrat chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger to ease up on the Cold War rhetoric and reach out to the East Germans. In light of later U.S. worries about the Social Democratic Ostpolitik, or dtente, pursued by Willy Brandt these sections make for rather amusing reading.

Schwartz emphasizes that Johnson was something of a dove when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union. He put heart and soul into negotiating the 1968 non-proliferation agreement. He told Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin that he was under tremendous pressure from Congress to deploy a defensive missile system, but sought a “mutually acceptable and stable balance of forces, verifiable to the maximum extent possible by our national means.” In Schwartz’s view, Johnson set the stage for the Nixon administration pursuit of dtente and arms control with the Soviet Union. In 1968, Johnson declared, “the old antagonisms which we call the ‘Cold War’ must fade–and I believe they will fade under stable, enlightened leadership.”

Still, Schwartz can’t completely evade the issue of Vietnam. The tack he takes is to argue that it was one strand of Johnson’s foreign policy. At the same time, he bravely cites Michael Lind’s contention that Vietnam was a “necessary war,” in the context of the times is likely “much closer to the truth than the perception that the war was pointless or even immoral.”

As the rehabilitation of Johnson continues, it’s striking that George W. Bush, also depicted as a rube, has largely taken the opposite tack from Johnson. He’s spurned the Atlantic Alliance as he pursues a small foreign war abroad. Bush has torn up the alliance and turned against the United Nations. Or has he? Books like Schwartz’s that turn the conventional wisdom on its head offer a reminder that a gulf always ends up separating contemporary judgments from historical ones.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.