Intelligence and Complexity: Another View of LBJ
Randall Woods leans back in his desk chair in Old Main, surrounded by books, journals and numerous stacks of paper. Some of these piles are impressively high — one rises about three feet off the floor. Another has taken what looks to be the exact angle of the Tower of Pisa. An avalanche of paper — documents, notes, some hunks of The Congressional Record — seems to be mere seconds away.
“This is what my mind looks like,” says Woods, laughing, and gesturing at the stacks. “But believe it or not, this is a really orderly mess.”
Woods, the John A. Cooper Professor of History, looks to be very much at home with this evidence of thousands of hours of scholarly research. I’ve come to ask him about his Lyndon Johnson book, a nearly 1,000-page biography titled LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (2006), which was 10 years in the making and garnered excellent reviews in both scholarly journals and the popular press. It is immediately obvious that Woods loves talking about Lyndon.
“Lyndon Johnson was an extremely complex man,” Woods begins. “He was intelligent, despite having a limited formal education. He was bipolar. Born in a small farmhouse in the Texas hill country, he became involved with some of the most powerful people in this country, like the Roosevelts. A Southerner, he pushed through the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’65. Johnson loved Lady Bird but at the same time had long-term relationships with other women, which she knew about.”
Woods became interested in LBJ when the historian was researching and writing a biography of Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1996. Fulbright, perhaps the most powerful man in the Senate, was known for his criticism of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam during his tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position that frequently put him at odds with President Johnson.
Woods also wanted to write a comprehensive biography of LBJ because he thought the available biographies of Johnson were “unsatisfactory.” Especially problematic for Woods is the multi-volume Johnson biography being written by Robert Caro.
“His basic approach to Johnson has been an ongoing indictment,” says Woods. “Caro believes that anybody who seeks power is automatically suspect, that they have selfish motives. Well, if you take that approach to Johnson, you’re going to inevitably demonize him. I had a real problem with the myth that Caro has created and that the Kennedys have created—that Johnson wasn’t a man of principle or value, but was mostly in love with wielding raw power.”
But isn’t it common knowledge that when Johnson was trying to get commitments for a vote and would meet one-on-one with a congressman or congresswoman in the oval office or at his Texas ranch, a trial-by-fire termed the Johnson Treatment, that he would say anything or do anything to get that person to support him?
“This is what Robert Caro would have you believe. It’s all part of the Johnson myth that’s been fabricated,” Woods says. “There was—and still is—the widespread notion that for LBJ the ends justified the means. And look where this has led. Just over a decade ago the History Channel was running a program that included the accusation that Johnson was implicit in JFK’s assassination! Mrs. Johnson stepped forward when she found out about this and said ‘enough,’ so the History Channel backed down and stopped running the program.”
The Lyndon Johnson that emerged for Woods through his research wasn’t without faults, but was, above all, a man of vision and a strong supporter of the most marginalized Americans, the poor and the black.
“Probably the most interesting thing I found out about Johnson was how intelligent he was,” says Woods, his tone softening. “McGeorge Bundy, dean of the college at Harvard, said Johnson was the smartest man he’d ever known. He had a voracious ability to acquire and retain information, and may have been the greatest intelligence gatherer Washington has ever known. LBJ wanted to know everything — attitudes, prejudices, philosophies, history, as well as just raw data.”
Civil Rights: LBJ’s Landmark Legacy
At the core of Johnson’s attitude toward African Americans was the bedrock belief that blacks must be part of the body politic. He strongly believed that if some fair degree of justice and opportunity were not offered to blacks, our republic might not survive.
“During Kennedy’s administration, the Civil Rights Act, along with several other progressive measures, was introduced into Congress, but the bills were stalled,” Woods says. “Johnson knew that Kennedy’s death created an emotional window of opportunity to move the civil rights bill along, so he built on that.”
In trying to push civil rights legislation, Johnson faced a major obstacle — Sen. Richard Russell, a powerful legislator from Georgia. Russell, a white supremacist, had repeatedly blocked and defeated civil rights legislation by using the filibuster and had co-authored the Southern Manifesto in opposition to civil rights.
“Johnson knew Russell couldn’t vote for civil rights legislation, but in several long one-on-one discussions finally convinced him to at least not obstruct the bill,” Woods explains, “and to try to convince other segregationists in Congress to not obstruct the bill. ‘I’d only take this from you, Lyndon,’ Russell said. This was a huge moment in civil rights history in this country. Only a Southern president with the persuasive powers of Lyndon Johnson could have gotten this bill through Congress.”
Woods says it’s worth recounting the provisions in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. These measures compelled access to hotels, motels, places of entertainment, stores, restaurants and other public facilities without regard to race, religion or national origin. The act established programs to desegregate public schools; required federal agencies to withhold funds from state and local programs that discriminated; and established a permanent Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity.
“Johnson’s social achievements in five years were monumental,” Woods adds. “Voting rights, fair housing, Medicare, Medicaid, the poverty program, environmental protection, federal aid to education and the wilderness program. But to put his presidency in full perspective, you have to also consider the nightmare of Vietnam.”
“Walking a tightrope” in Vietnam
Woods states in the biography that as America’s involvement in Vietnam deepened, Johnson increasingly tied the war to the civil rights movement and to the Christian idealism that was driving it. No Christian could deny equal opportunity and political freedom to another human being whether in the American South or South Vietnam. So, like his predecessor, LBJ was determined to do everything in his power to make sure that the communist Vietnamese, who would deny such basic human rights, would be defeated.
Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam was also strategic, Woods points out.
“There was pressure, after the failed Cuban invasion [of 1961], for the U.S. to take a stand somewhere, especially against the spread of Chinese communism. And in addition, LBJ believed that if he didn’t fight a limited war, there would be a cascade of events leading to a wider war with the Soviet Union. The Chinese threatened intervention in the event of a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam or bombing of supply lines. It was projected that this could lead to the involvement of the Soviet Union, which had a defensive treaty with China and possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles. So we fought a war that Johnson perceived — and he anguished over it — was the lesser of many evils.”
When it came to Vietnam, “Johnson was walking a tightrope,” Woods says.
Johnson also believed, in terms of the domestic political scene, that withdrawing from Vietnam was not an option. He made the argument that given the strength of anti-communism in this country, pulling out of Southeast Asia would produce a conservative backlash that would destroy the coalition supporting the Civil Rights Movement.
“Johnson’s decisions to escalate in Vietnam were made in the spring and summer of 1965, at precisely the time he was trying to push through the Voting Rights Act in Congress. He understood the delicate balance with Richard Russell and other Southern senators, who were not only segregationists but also very hawkish. LBJ knew he couldn’t ask Southerners to support a lesser commitment in Vietnam and, at the same time, support desegregation.
As casualties mounted during the next three years and success in Vietnam seemed further away than ever, Johnson’s popularity plummeted. College students and others protested and burned draft cards. Johnson could scarcely travel anywhere without facing protests. The Secret Service would not allow him to attend the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where hundreds of thousands of hippies, yippies, a wide range of moderate to liberal college students, and other antiwar activists chanted and screamed their opposition to Johnson’s Vietnam policy. By 1968, with Johnson’s popularity at a low point, his party divided into factions and his health deteriorating, he decided not to seek another four years in the White House.
“LBJ’s legacy is double-edged, at least for liberals and progressives,” Woods says. “The reforms of the Great Society advanced the cause of social and economic justice in the United States in dozens of significant ways: civil rights, health care, education, anti-poverty and anti-pollution programs, and immigration reform. But these achievements will always be overshadowed by the failed experiment in Vietnam. He inherited the conflict, but it was he who was responsible for Americanizing it. Under the circumstances that existed at the time, there may not have been an alternative, but as he observed on more than one occasion, the responsibility was primarily his.”
A Decade of Scholarly Research
In talking about his research for the biography, Woods tosses out some numbers.
“I took more than 50 research trips over 10 years to eight different libraries and archives, including 30 trips to the LBJ library. I read 1,100 oral histories — papers of all Johnson’s cabinet members, all of his correspondence, plus his family’s correspondence. Overall, I probably looked at 4 to 5 million documents and made photocopies of around 750,000.” He takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. “If I’d known how time-intensive this was going to be, I’d probably never have done it.”
Woods points out that his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson was the first to be published after the release of the presidential tapes.
“The tapes are a biographer’s dream. They are just unbelievable as a resource,” Woods says. About 15 percent of Johnson’s telephone conversations had been transcribed; the rest Woods had to listen to and take notes directly. “The 800-plus tapes took me a year to go through.”
In writing such a comprehensive and detailed biography, Woods says the most difficult thing was organizing the mass of information.
“After I collected all the material for this book, it took me a year to organize it in a way that would allow me to begin to write,” he says, gesturing toward half a dozen large, brightly colored plastic bins crammed with documents. “Once I figured out the organization, it took me 11 months to write the first draft.”
When asked what he’s proudest of about his LBJ book, Woods says he’s pleased that it’s a professional biography based on hard research and that it is an interesting and readable story.
“I think historians should be writing more for an intelligent, lay audience than, as too often in the past, writing for each other.”