Analysis & Opinions - The New Republic

The Cost of Overcorrecting on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam

| Dec. 02, 2023

For years, LBJ was reviled for Vietnam. Then the historical tables turned in his direction. But they turned a little too far.

If you don't like the legacy of an American president, just wait awhile and it will likely change. For that is the iron law of presidential reputations: With rare exceptions, they fluctuate over time.

This is certainly true with Lyndon Johnson. A new documentary that is currently streaming on Hulu, based on the book Lady Bird Johnson by Julia Sweig, provides a mesmerizing look at the president through the words of his wife. Based on an oral diary that Lady Bird maintained during their time in the White House, the film offers affecting personal footage of the first family and an important account of how she moved her husband's administration on key issues connected to conservation, including the Highway Beautification Act.

For all the contributions that the film provides viewers about this period in American political history, it is oddly subdued in its treatment of Vietnam. For much of the movie, the war in Southeast Asia is a creeping problem, something that comes to President Johnson periodically rather than something that he forces on the table. We see the student anti-war protests, and Lady Bird's frustration with the protesters, but the film ghosts the decision-making process that produced the results. While The Lady Bird Diaries captures the historic progress LBJ made on key domestic issues, including race relations, the utterly devastating effects of Vietnam and the direct role that the president made in the escalation are mostly bypassed. Lady Bird herself, at least in the diaries, appears more concerned with her family than the nation at large. As Rhoda Garelick points out in her review in The New York Times, "When discussing the thousands protesting the expanding Vietnam War … Mrs. Johnson says little about the corpses coming home, but worries deeply about the pain it all caused her husband. 'When he is pierced, I bleed,' she says."

As much as this critique is particular to the film, the problem reflects a broader and problematic shift in the way we have remembered LBJ's legacy—one that has downplayed the destructive consequences of the war and Johnson's pivotal role in the escalation that took place in the middle years of his presidency. As much as we laud LBJ's political prowess in moving domestic legislation, some of those same attributes led him and the nation deeper into the jungles of Vietnam....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Logevall, Fredrik and Julian Zelizer.“The Cost of Overcorrecting on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.” The New Republic, December 2, 2023.

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