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Celebrating LBJ Amounts to Imperial Myopia

STF/AFP/Getty Images

David Greenberg is a good friend and an excellent historian. But he has completely missed the point I was trying to make in my piece. Of course, LBJ did more “to effect positive liberal change” in the U.S. than did any president who followed him—although Greenberg ignores such factors as a healthy economy, faith in liberal governance, the GOP’s nomination of Barry Goldwater, and the public’s good feelings for the man who succeeded a martyred hero, all of which were at least as important as Johnson’s “immense political skills.”

But the achievements of the Great Society, by design, only benefitted Americans. Greenberg has nothing to say about the millions of Vietnamese who did not get the chance to experience LBJ’s “compassion.” For them, his government’s “largesse” consisted mainly of such gifts as an invasion by hundreds of thousands of foreign troops and more tons of bombs dropped on their country than the U.S. dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II.

To award LBJ a place in the liberal “pantheon,” one has to be afflicted with a kind of nationalist, if not imperial, myopia. Sure, Johnson destroyed the lives of countless people in another country. But he did excellent things for us, so let’s admire him for that. David Greenberg is a wonderful fellow, without a racist synapse in his brain. But his response did remind me, uncomfortably, of a statement made by William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam during nearly all of LBJ’s time in the White House: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”