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  • Conquering the Hearts of the People: Lyndon Johnson, C. Vann Woodward, and “The Irony of Southern History”
  • Mitchell Lerner (bio)

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President Lyndon B. Johnson Campaigning, 412-8-WH64, White House Photo Office collection, LBJ Library & Museum (Austin, Texas).

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“An old friend of Lyndon Johnson’s once remarked that if Johnson had ever permitted himself, as a young man, the sort of fantasy dream which most of us pursue as we drift to sleep, his had probably been the fantasy that he was the true heir of Frank-lin D. Roosevelt; but that when Johnson woke in the morning, he woke to the knowledge that he was really the heir of Huey Long. For the Johnson style was shaped in the Old South, where, if the courthouse machines have not locked the race up in advance, one man runs against one man, with victory going to the man who can out-shout, out-dramatize, out-campaign, out-smile, and out-entertain the raw voters until they feel in their hearts that . . . . he understand them, he is one of them.” 1

In his 1952 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association, entitled “The Irony of Southern History,” C. Vann Woodward suggested that the distinctive history of the American South left it in a unique position to help the nation meet future challenges. Recent decades, he argued, had immersed much of the country in what he termed the “American legend of success and victory.”2 In this celebratory atmosphere, many of the negative aspects of the past had been forgotten, replaced by a basic conviction that the inherent superiority of the American way of life ensured a bright future. Woodward, however, was not so laudatory. He warned of serious consequences resulting from this belief system, which he argued [End Page 155] was dangerously isolating Americans from the rest of the world by rendering them both unwilling and unable to empathize with the feelings of frustration, poverty, and defeat that so often marked the experiences of those living in other countries. This sense of American exceptionalism, he concluded, had already begun to alienate many in the emerging Third World. “While we see ourselves as morally sound and regard our good fortune as the natural and just reward of our soundness,” Woodward warned:

these views are not shared by large numbers of people in many parts of the world. They look on our great wealth not as the reward of our virtue but as proof of our wickedness, as evidence of the ruthless exploitation, not only of our own working people but of themselves. For great masses of people who live in abject poverty and know nothing firsthand of our system or of industrialism of any kind are easily persuaded that their misery is due to capitalist exploitation rather than the shortcomings of their own economies.3

At the height of the Cold War and the competition for Third World loyalty it engendered, such views struck Woodward as particularly dangerous. He warned against those Americans who, “in competing with our opponents for the favor of uncommitted people, would urge upon them institutions and abstract ideas of our own that have little or no relevance to their real needs and circumstances.”4

Woodward looked to the American South to help avert this potential catastrophe. Only in the South, he argued, a region that had experienced poverty and defeat in ways the rest of the nation had not, could the United States find leaders capable of relating to the struggles of the world’s poor. Only in the South could be found people who remembered the feelings of helplessness that accompanied outside domination and understood the hostility that inevitably accompanied interactions with those who arrogantly viewed them as backwards and primitive. Fifteen years later, with American prestige around the world plummeting at the height of the Vietnam War, Woodward returned to these themes in “A Second Look at Irony,” and reached similar conclusions. “If there ever was a time when Americans might profit from the un-American heritage of the South, he wrote, “it would seem to be the present.”5 Yet, a quiet sense of resignation...


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pp. 154-171
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