Under a stand of old oak, Lyndon Baines Johnson lies buried -- in some ways the 58,023rd casualty of the Vietnam War. At the boyhood house in town and at the grander one at the ranch, the tourists come. They stare and take their pictures, but a guide says they almost never ask about Vietnam. The visitors, he says, are "young families and senior citizens." Like Europe after the slaughter of World War I, an entire generation is missing.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the war -- 10 years since the helicopters snatched the last Americans off a Saigon rooftop and the incomprensible simply happened: America lost a war. You can choose your spot for this anniversary -- the always fitting and always moving memorial in Whington, or Vietnam itself, or a college campus where little pieces of this very strange war were fought, or even a foreign embassy where some went to inquire about leaving the country.
But Johnson City and the little white Johnson house with the roses blooming on the trellis is as good a spot as any. You could argue whether the Vietnam War would have happened without Lyndon Johnson, whether it was his war or it was inevitable -- our war. History will, as usual, take its time rendering a judgment, and then, even when it does, it will revise and hedge. So why wait? The truth about Vietnam is that it was the American War -- the American War with which to end Henry Luce's American Century.
It is all here -- here in the life story of Lyndon Johnson and the people of his region. They were mostly poor and the federal government brought them water. It gave them electricity, and in the Depression it gave them jobs too. There is a little one-room schoolhouse not too far from the LBJ Ranch, and it was there that Johnson went to school. Years later, he returned as president to sign one of the Great Society education bills. His old teacher was at the ceremony. The message was implicit: See teacher, see what the federal government can do.
In some ways, that view of the government, of its power and its obligation, was a generational phenomenon. That was the generation that fought the Second World War. It fought it all over the globe, Murmansk to New Guinea, and it won it -- won it big. There was nothing that generation and its government could not do.
The white Lincoln automobiles still sit behind the house at the LBJ Ranch, only now they are enclosed in glass. The landing strip that could accommodate a small jet from the White House fleet still stretches out toward the hills. There is room for helicopters, but there are none. Still, you can imagine what it was like to be a president of the United States, running for the chopper, listening to men who knew so much, but not enough to doubt their own wisdom.
For Johnson, there were many accomplishments. He advanced civil rights. He put money into education. He tried like hell to end poverty, and while he did not succeed totally, he succeeded a bit. In the end, though, all the good got lost in the war.
It is spring in the Texas hill country. The wild flowers bloom, the air is sweet and the Pedernales is full and flush. On the tour bus you can hear the recorded voice of Lyndon Johnson as he tells what he wanted for his nation. But even after a decade the words of the president are muffled by the silent waving of red wild flowers. To the Vietnam generation, they look like poppies.