GUNS OR BUTTER The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson By Irving Bernstein Oxford University Press. 606 pp. $35

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Architect of the Great Society

By Herbert Mitgang

Feb. 11, 1996

Two presidents - Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon - were unhinged by the Vietnam War, and a third - John F. Kennedy, who introduced the first 16,000 "military advisers" there - might have been had he continued to follow his own defiant inaugural words "to pay any price, bear any burden . . . oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Whether Kennedy would have escalated further remains a controversial unknown, but there is no question that Johnson inherited, and heeded, Kennedy's principal war hawks and that Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry M. Kissinger, are responsible for many thousands of additional names on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.

One of the values of Irving Bernstein's clear-eyed study of the Johnson presidency, Guns or Butter, is that he provides the background for the executive decisions that led to the longest war in American history. He links the escalation of the war not only to Johnson but also to his predecessor and successor in the White House. Bernstein, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, has put a shorthand title on his book that makes it sound much too simple-all the more so because Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributes the origin of "guns or butter" to a 1936 speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief.

Guns or Butter is not a full-fledged biography. It's a professorial rather than a reportorial book, with its main source of information the documents in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex. Here and there, the reader misses anecdotal voices that can dramatize facts found below the scholar's lamp. The rich details of Johnson's life and career almost demand multivolume works that untangle his Texas origins (as future biographers of President Clinton will have to delve into the culture of Arkansas politics) and his years as a congressman, senator, vice president and president.

What Guns or Butter does well is show how a near-great presidency on domestic affairs became wounded in the deep muddy of an unnecessary and unpopular war. A young generation unfamiliar with the full Johnson record will be surprised by the author's main point: The 36th president (1963-69) was responsible for most of the great legislative achievements of the Great Society that many Americans cherish and live by today. Bernstein is quite upfront about his book's theme. In a preface, he writes:

"Lyndon Johnson has been short-changed. He has been charged with what went wrong and he has not been credited with what went right. This book seeks to redress this unfair balance."

In this respect, Guns and Butter succeeds. The book is clearly organized for the reader who wishes to discover or recall Johnson's achievements in almost every area of American life. There are separate chapters on the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the war on poverty; Medicare; the Voting Rights Act; updating minimum wages and Social Security; the environment-from conservation to anti-pollution; Model Cities; and (surprisingly for a president who was regarded as anything but a Medici) the creation of new agencies to foster the arts, humanities and public broadcasting.

The original struggle to get Medicare through Congress in the 1960s echoes down to the present time of Gingrichian contrarians and blame-Hillary scapegoaters on the issue of a federal health program. The author rightly calls Medicare "the jewel in the crown" of the Johnson presidency. The American Medical Association spent $50 million and used platoons of lobbyists in its unsuccessful battle to defeat the Medicare legislation, which was approved in 1965. The author declares that Roosevelt's Social Security and Johnson's Medicare were the lasting benchmarks of their administrations.

Johnson's self-defeating role in trying to win the unwinnable Vietnam War-at home and abroad-occupies a comparatively small portion of the book. The role of the unwise "wise men" around the president is a familiar tale best summed up in the titles of David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and Barbara W. Tuchman's The March of Folly. How to explain the brilliance of Johnson on Capitol Hill and his wrongheadedness on Vietnam? The author answers, "Hubris." He concludes that the same arrogance that aroused the anger of the Greek gods destroyed Lyndon Johnson's Alamo adventurism in Asia.

Bernstein's authoritative Guns or Butter makes a strong case for the notion that-considering only his remarkable domestic achievements-Johnson ranks as one of the handful of major 20th-century presidents.

Herbert Mitgang, a journalist and historian, is the author, most recently, of "Words Still Count with Me: A Chronicle of Literary Conversations."

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