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TVA on the Mekong: LBJ, the New Deal, and the Tragedy of Vietnam

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 24, Number 4, December 1996
pp. 692-694 | 10.1353/rah.1996.0105

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Reviews in American History 24.4 (1996) 692-694

Lloyd C. Gardner. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995. xv + 640 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $35.00.

With some justification, Republicans accused Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman of trying to "export" the New Deal to Europe via Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan. FDR and Truman's direct political descendant, Lyndon B. Johnson, really did want to export the New Deal to Southeast Asia, according to Lloyd C. Gardner. For Johnson and those who shared his outlook and counsel -- such as Walt Rostow -- fighting communism in Indochina was part and parcel of a vision of global reform, nation building, and progress. In this regard, building the Great Society at home and creating a Mekong Valley Authority that resembled (albeit crudely) the TVA, were two halves of the same walnut of liberal Democratic ideology.

In her highly personal biography, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), Doris Kearns quotes the president at length on this subject.

I knew from the start . . . that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. 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. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. . . . [B]ut if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe. (p. 263)

At greater length and with impressive style and documentation, Gardner expounds on the implications of Johnson's confession to Kearns. LBJ believed he really had no choice but to fight and win in Vietnam to placate both liberals and conservatives in the United States whose support and votes in Congress were vital for enactment of his domestic reform program. Victory abroad provided the only assurance that he could achieve his goal of fulfilling the New Deal promise, Gardner argues. This set of beliefs convinced Johnson, Rostow et al., of both the justice and necessity of their cause. In fact, their determination to promote nation building in Vietnam prompted some administration insiders, most notably Gen. Maxwell Taylor, to complain that in the early period of American escalation (1964-65), "if we made a mistake . . . it was in trying too much in the civil field before an adequate level of security was reached." In a marvelous allusion to the American tradition of frontier violence and subjugation of native peoples, Taylor suggested "We should have learned from our frontier forebears that there is little use planting corn outside the stockade if there are still Indians around in the woods outside" (p. xv).

Throughout this study, which is a departure in both style and focus from the author's previous monograph on Vietnam, Gardner blends political biography, domestic affairs, and foreign policy. Johnson and those around him -- such as Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, George Ball, Robert McNamara, and Clark Clifford -- come across vividly. Shortly after succeeding Kennedy, for example, Johnson compared his decision to hang on in Vietnam to that of a catfish who "just grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it" (p. 95). But before he had time to reflect on such misgivings, Walt Rostow piped in, explaining that the catfish had bitten a double hook which linked Americans' belief in the Cold War to their faith in the U.S. capacity to improve the world. From the first days of his presidency, Gardner argues, "Johnson believed he faced losing the Great Society without going forward in Vietnam. It was not just a matter of votes in Congress . . . [the double hook] held things together in a powerful ideological grip" (p. 95). As the president put his dilemma to a pair of friendly journalists in 1964, "I've got a brazen Communist attempt to conquer Asia on my hands. I've got...