Lyndon Johnson and Europe

Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam by Thomas Alan Schwartz 

Thomas Schwartz’s Lyndon Johnson and Europe is an admirably direct and straightforward book. It has two closely tied arguments: that LBJ’s foreign policy was more just about Vietnam and war in Southeast Asia and that this broader foreign policy was, mostly, successful and humane. Schwartz is arguing against the ubiquitous image of Johnson as combination of the ultimate “Ugly American,” a warmonger, and an empty headed leader who took his lead from his much brighter aides and advisors.

Schwartz’s makes his revisionist case by focusing to Johnson’s policy towards Europe, NATO, the Soviet Union, and international monetary policy. Johnson’s accomplishments in this realm are many and quite laudable; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the beginnings of détente with Soviet Bloc, greatly strengthening NATO after the French withdrawal, working to having West German take a larger role in its own defense, reforming the Bretton Woods system and moving towards abandoning the gold standard, successfully massaging the tense US/French relationship (wisely acting against his advisor’s position), and helping delay the devaluation of the pound and British withdrawal from the Suez. Schwartz suggests that many of the foreign policy accomplishments of Johnson’s successor, Nixon, so often lauded by historians and other commentators have their origins in the Johnson years. In Schwartz’ final assessment, LBJ was not a man without foreign policy convictions, instead he was driven by a “universalism” which saw  “people everywhere-despite their cultural or racial differences-had the same aspirations for peace, economic betterment for their families, and education for their children.”[1] If Franklin Roosevelt’s – Johnson’s hero – foreign policy was a New Deal for the World, than LBJ’s was a Great Society for the World.

Schwartz is arguing for a broad reconstruction of the historical image of Johnson – where the president’s domestic policy victories and his broader foreign policy successes outweigh his miserable failure in Vietnam. He wants us to bring LBJ’s reputation out of the shadow of Vietnam. As new generations of historians enter the field, with no memory of the war or its immediate fallout, such an intellectual move may be possible. Yet, there is a reason the shadow of Vietnam is so large and is nigh inescapable. The damage Vietnam inflicted on the national psyche, the American left, the politics of national security, and Americans’ trust in their governmental institutions runs deep. While the years have led to that wound scarring over, underneath claims that the “long national nightmare is over” it festers. As the last time these tensions exploded unto the national scene, during John Kerry’s 2004 campaign (just shy of 40 years after Johnson Americanized the war), more than clearly shows, Americans still have yet to fully recover from the war Johnson helped unleash. Thus while Schwartz’s revisionist account should cause us to rebalance our assessments of one of the 20th century’s most divisive figures, the shadow of Vietnam still needs to loom large in our analysis.

TIE-IN: Schwartz’s assessment of LBJ is a direct attack on the position of Fredrick Logevall’s Choosing War. Logevall is directly cited in the text and notes as a key example of the school Schwartz is arguing against.

[1] Thomas Alan Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In The Shadow of Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 229.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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