Patterson, an emeritus professor of history at Brown University, has been down this road before, in his deservedly well-regarded “Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974” (1997), a volume in the similarly well-regarded Oxford History of the United States. “The Eve of Destruction,” though obviously it deals with a small part of the territory covered in that volume, is by no means merely a rehash. My hunch (and it is nothing more than that) is that Patterson came to see that the events of 1965 needed to be discussed at greater length and their significance analyzed more deeply. This is what he has done.
As 1965 began, the United States seemed to be, as Lyndon Johnson said near the end of 1964, living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Typical Johnsonian exaggeration, to be sure, but the economy was booming, and the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress that had been swept into office on LBJ’s coattails in 1964 stood ready to enact his massive Great Society legislative program, presumably extending the benefits of prosperity to many more Americans and lifting the burdens of discrimination from those who labored under them. As one who had turned 25 in the fall of 1964, I was old enough to be starting a career and a family, young enough to be filled with optimism undiminished by hard, instructive experience. Like millions of others, I saw the dawning of the Age of Johnson as a great moment in American history and eagerly awaited all the wonderful things it was sure to bring.
Didn’t quite work out that way, did it? Reading Patterson’s chronicle, I am all too painfully put back in that terrible year, with all the shock and disenchantment it brought. Its central figure, both heroic and tragic, was Johnson, and though Patterson adds nothing of consequence to our understanding of him, he gets him down exactly right in a very short space — without, I am pleased to note, a scintilla of reference to or dependence on Robert Caro’s bloated, wildly overpraised, multi-volume biography. Surely Johnson was the most complex, elusive and troubled man ever to occupy the Oval Office, which is saying something. He “yearned to be loved and honored by all,” and his smashing victory over Barry Goldwater certainly pointed him in that direction, but he was “domineering, deceitful, and needy,” and even though he also could be “charming, compassionate, sentimental, and openhearted,” he was compulsively secretive and a loutish bully. He may have been “a consummate insider and wheeler-dealer as Senate [majority] leader,” but he never mastered the communicative and empathetic skills necessary for a successful presidency.
For all that, his heart was often in the right place. His “determination to effect transformative change” across the whole spectrum of American life arose from his experiences as a poor boy in Texas, and his empathy for the downtrodden was genuine. But neither he nor his advisers nor his allies in Congress understood the incredible complexity of the problems they sought to remedy through the Great Society, so from education to poverty to civil rights they built up a bureaucratic superstructure that not merely threatened to strangle their good intentions but also laid the groundwork for the conservative counterattack: “Was the growth of the federal government leading to bureaucratic deadlock and confusion, thereby calling into question the effectiveness of democratic government?” The appearance in October 1965 of a new journal, the Public Interest, made plain that serious people as well as political opportunists were asking that question:
“In a remarkably quick time, the journal succeeded in appealing to a number of well-educated readers, many of whom swelled the ranks of a ‘neoconservative’ movement, as it became called. Other readers of the journal included policymakers who, like the essayists, were coming to believe that the government was erecting a thicket of regulations, encumbrances, and torts that would baffle federal administrators and clog up the courts. More broadly, they wondered if LBJ and his liberal advisers possessed enough expertise to deal effectively with large and complex socioeconomic problems, such as poverty, inadequate schools, and racial discrimination, and whether the administration was promising more than the federal government — a maze of bureaucracies — could deliver. The success of the Public Interest was a warning sign, one among many as of late 1965, that more conservative approaches to governing were gaining favor in the country.”
In short, the Great Society was too much, too soon, too carelessly thought through. Add to that the disastrous turns the Vietnam War was taking late in 1965 — and LBJ’s angry, secretive, duplicitous response to the war’s critics — and you had a fail-safe recipe for political rancor and stalemate. More and more the country became divided between sharply hostile camps on the left and the right, while the “political center, slowly being squeezed, was one of the many stabilizing forces that were to lose strength in the [years] that followed.” To lay at the feet of Johnson all the blame for the governmental and political mess in which we now find ourselves is unfair, and Patterson is at pains to point out that, especially with regard to Vietnam, “the choices he had to make would have tormented any president.” But actions do have consequences, and what took place in 1965 led fairly directly to the present crisis.
“The Eve of Destruction” should be read, then, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris and, by no means incidentally, the dangers of misreading election returns as mandates. The election of 1964 probably was at least as much a rejection of Goldwater as an endorsement of Johnson, and the rapidity with which Johnson’s poll numbers soon collapsed was evidence enough that the electorate can turn on a political leader with astonishing speed and vehemence. Johnson did see through to enactment the two great civil rights laws of 1964 and ’65, but the rest of his record should be seen as an object lesson in the price of vanity. Nineteen sixty-five was indeed a very bad year, and we’re still counting its costs.