Randall B. Woods has written a remarkably comprehensive and insightful biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, one that compares favorably with Robert Dallek's five-volume biography of Johnson. Woods, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas and a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, is respected for his scholarship, especially his lengthy study of the career of Senator J. William Fulbright. LBJ: Architect of American Ambition is based on extensive research in Johnson's papers and other relevant primary sources as well as the large body of secondary material on the subject.
Woods is at his best in examining the complex and tormented Johnson, a man whose ambition, vision, and political acumen were undermined by insecurity, pettiness, and intellectual limitations. In his pursuit of power, Johnson played many roles—Johnson the Humble, Johnson the Warrior, Johnson the Crusader, Johnson the Magnanimous, Johnson the Vindictive, among others—and his behavior was at once charming and attentive, uncouth and vulgar. Johnson craved approval and could not understand why others questioned his purposes and judgments. As the war in Vietnam began to unravel by 1966, Johnson's inability to get Ho Chi Minh to the bargaining table, to silence Fulbright and other critics, and to control the media accentuated his unfulfilled ambitions and personal shortcomings. Woods writes, “He felt it was his duty, if not his destiny, to take on the burdens of the nation—throwing off two hundred years of racism, obliterating poverty, protecting the free world from communism without leading it into Armageddon—and it whipsawed his already conflicted personality” (p. 647).
Woods also deals at some length with Johnson's relationship with the Kennedys. He provides a detailed account of the vice presidential selection in 1960, but pinpointing the motivations and actions of the key players is still difficult. Woods notes that Johnson was so dissatisfied with his irrelevance as vice president that, prior to the fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963, he was planning to inform John F. Kennedy that he did not want another term. After Johnson was thrust into the presidency, his distrustful relationship with Robert F. Kennedy deteriorated into profound animosity. In telling the tale of President Johnson and the Kennedy entourage, Woods suggests that although there was plenty of culpability on both sides, in this instance at least, Johnson's paranoia was well-founded. The Kennedy family and their minions were petty and vindictive, refusing to recognize Johnson's legitimacy and portraying him basically as a usurper whose Great Society stole the ideas of the New Frontier.
These insinuations were baseless. As Woods thoroughly documents, Johnson's domestic reform program reflected deeply held convictions blended with a determination to become a genuinely “great” president. His dedication to civil rights, reflected in the sweeping legislation of l964–1965, is unquestioned. He had come to believe that desegregation would liberate both Southern whites and blacks. Early in his presidency, when advisers suggested that he temper his support of civil rights, Johnson retorted, then why have a president? The Great Society, which Johnson regarded as an extension of the New Deal (he remarked that Franklin Roosevelt was watching over and judging him), was, of course, derailed by the war in Vietnam. Whatever Johnson's strengths as a domestic leader, he was ill-equipped by training, interest, and temperament for the demands and nuance of international diplomacy. U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic in the spring of l965 led to political stability but came at a considerable political price for U.S. stature in the Western Hemisphere and in support among the foreign policy elite, notably the erosion of his relationship with Fulbright, the powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The impulsiveness in the Dominican intervention had been evident earlier in Johnson's response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, culminating in his decision, on the basis of sketchy information, to launch a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam and to gain congressional approval of an open-ended war resolution. When assessing Johnson's role in the road to war, Woods seems to side with historians who see the president “pulled” by events rather than “choosing” war. After effectively Americanizing the Vietnam conflict in the summer of l965, Johnson sought to control a war that had become “a distinct entity with momentum of its own” (p. 619). His Christmas bombing halt in l965–1966 alienated military leaders and failed to achieve its goal of stimulating negotiations. Then with Fulbright about to hold hearings on Vietnam, Johnson hurriedly called a meeting in Honolulu—unsurpassed, according to Newsweek, for “helter-skelter improvisation” (p. 717)—with U.S. military commanders and South Vietnamese leaders. Predictably, that well-publicized session had no effect on the war, which continued on its path toward a stalemate in Vietnam and mounting divisions at home. By the time the Tet Offensive confounded official assurances of progress, Johnson had already decided privately to withdraw from the 1968 presidential race, a decision he announced, along with a cessation of almost all bombing of North Vietnam, in his dramatic televised address on 31 March 1968. When discussing the disengagement decision, Woods, unlike some other scholars, sees Johnson moving in that direction even before he received the counsel of his key advisers and rewrote his speech.
Given the richness of the material, it is regrettable that Woods offers neither many judgments throughout the text nor a concluding chapter. Clearly sympathetic toward Johnson while acknowledging his many shortcomings, Woods has written a monumental biography of a president whose legacy influences U.S. politics to this day.