How Vietnam Killed the Great Society

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From left: Gen. Earle Wheeler, Gen. William Westmoreland, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, July 1967. Credit Associated Press

President Lyndon Johnson surely felt a bitter sense of recognition when he opened The Washington Post on Aug. 1, 1967. There, on Page A12, appeared a political cartoon — the latest by the brilliant cartoonist Herbert Block, better known as Herblock. The sketch showed a beleaguered Johnson flanked by two female suitors. To his right stood a voluptuous seductress bedecked with jewels and a mink stole bearing the words “Vietnam War.” To his left was a scrawny, disheveled waif labeled “U.S. Urban Needs.” The Johnson figure reassured them, “There’s money enough to support both of you,” but readers could hardly fail to grasp the president’s hesitation. The cartoon left no doubt that the flow of resources toward Vietnam might starve Johnson’s domestic agenda.

Such a distraction from priorities at home was Johnson’s nightmare. Since assuming the presidency, he had committed himself to the most ambitious program of domestic reform since the New Deal, a broad array of measures aimed at creating what he called the Great Society. And he had achieved remarkable success. During his first three years in the White House, Johnson signed major legislation to expand civil rights, fight poverty, improve education, establish Medicare and Medicaid, and clean up the environment, among other things. He aimed to accomplish still more in 1967.

But that year brought the president face to face with the rapidly diminishing possibility of new achievements — and possibly even of protecting what he had already won — while fighting a costly and divisive war on the other side of the globe. He could not, as the old cliché put it, have both butter and guns.

This realization marked a breaking point in Johnson’s presidency and, more broadly, a watershed in the history of the 1960s. The liberal early ’60s, when Americans enthusiastically embraced government activism to address social ills, were giving way to a new era of political fragmentation and diminished expectations.

From the outset of his presidency, Johnson appreciated that enacting the Great Society depended on careful handling of the Vietnam problem. On the one hand, he believed that failure to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam would expose him to withering political attack and kill any chance that Congress or the public would back his domestic program. On the other hand, he believed that he had to play down the crisis in Vietnam to prevent alarm about a looming war in Southeast Asia from eclipsing all interest in his domestic priorities. The implications, he believed, were clear: He had to escalate in Vietnam, but do so with as little fanfare as possible.

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