- Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America
The Oklahoma Western Biographies series attempts to "provide readable life stories of significant westerners" that "show how their lives illuminate a notable topic, an influential movement, or a series of important events in the history and cultures of the American West" (ix). Kevin J. Fernlund's Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America achieves these goals. This slender volume is well written, effectively organized, and, in its examination of Johnson's political career, details the emergence of the modern West. The recurrent theme throughout the larger-than-life Texan's years in elective office, according to the author, was his aggressive pursuit of federal monies to transform his state and region in order to end their historic economic and political subservience to the northeastern section of the nation.
As a freshman congressman during the late Depression years, he utilized New Deal programs to complete the construction of hydroelectric dams and finance rural electrical cooperatives providing both flood control and cheap power throughout the lower Colorado River valley. World War II offered even greater opportunities for Texas. Washington, D.C. constructed army posts and air bases, paid for shipyards and naval facilities, and purchased a cornucopia of Texas-made products that transformed the state's economy. As Johnson climbed the ladder to the Senate and beyond, spending necessitated by the Cold War confrontation with the communist world continued to alter the West, bringing more air bases and the aeronautics industry, interstate highways crucial to economic development, as well as various components of the nation's space industry. The West that Johnson and other major political figures of the region crafted laid the foundations for the Sunbelt phenomenon of more recent years. Although introduced and developed in greater depth by other biographers, Fernlund's argument is nonetheless solid.
Less so are the author's assertions that Johnson erred in leaving the Senate to become Vice President in 1961 and compounded the mistake by walking away from the Oval Office in 1968. According to Fernlund, the Texan was "one of the nation's great senators" and, had he remained on as Majority Leader, his presence "would have no doubt continued to be as constructive and as stabilizing as it had been during the Eisenhower years" (161). This is at best debatable. Most [End Page 221] importantly, it would have meant that someone other than LBJ—"the single most qualified man in the country to serve as president" (101)—would have taken over the chief executive's responsibilities following John Kennedy's assassination. The decision to abandon the presidency, however, was, the author opines, "the worst decision of his political career" (143). In so doing, Johnson abandoned hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform, left the Vietnam War unfinished, and opened the door for Richard Nixon and the war's continuation for another five years. Fernlund argues that Johnson could not only have won both the battle for his party's nomination and the general election but that a second term might well have produced a negotiated settlement on Vietnam sooner rather than later. The author admits that this is pure conjecture and many a reader would agree.
Designed for a general readership, Lyndon B. Johnson and Modern America has much to commend it. Political historians and others familiar with the Johnson literature, however, will find little that is new and the decision to forego documentation unfortunate.