On Friday, January 18, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a discussion on the recently published series The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson, Toward the Great Society, February 1-May 31, 1964. The event featured the editors of the three volume set, Dr. Kent Germany, assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Guian McKee, assistant professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, and Dr. David Shreve, formerly an assistant professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Following an introduction by HAPP Program Associate Mircea Munteanu, Dr. Kent Germany spoke about the significance of the LBJ tapes and the opportunities that they provide for new perspectives on history. The presentation included several audio clips from the tapes, recorded between February 1 and May 31, 1964.
Germany provided context for these conversations by explaining the international and domestic environments which prevailed at this time: conflict over the Panama Canal was one of Johnson's first foreign policy crises, and the January coup in Vietnam had just caught the United States off-guard. Within the US, the Civil Rights Act and a tax cut bill were under consideration in Congress. Johnson was eager to push toward the Great Society and also faced the pressures associated with the looming campaign. President Johnson's struggle to formulate a coherent foreign policy was reflected in his conversations with Sargent Shriver (February 1) and Robert McNamara (February 25). Vietnam was just beginning to come to the forefront, as was Johnson's effort to make his War on Poverty program a reality.
Shreve remarked that the tapes show the development of ideas and policies and the way Johnson dealt with crises. They also reveal Johnson's reliance on advisors, particularly McNamara, who helped him juggle a number of foreign policy issues at one time, including situations in Cuba, Vietnam, and Brazil. Successive clips show Johnson seemingly deferring to McNamara when discussing US policy on Vietnam (April 2). The emerging view contrasts with the commonly held image of a more assertive president. McNamara suggests to a reluctant LBJ that Gen. William C. Westmoreland should be appointed ambassador to Vietnam when Lodge retires, leaving the MACV command either to his deputy or combining both responsibilities.
McKee noted that these tapes, used critically with other sources, can contribute to historians' understanding of Johnson's thought processes and responses to international events. An April 19 conversation with McGeorge Bundy shows a very hawkish LBJ responding to developments in Latin America. McKee also noted the personal nature of LBJ's policy-making process. Conversations such as the May 2 discussion with Senator Hubert Humphrey, or the May 4 discussion with Speaker John McCormack, show Johnson as fully invested in moving his agenda forward…using the power of his personality to do so. With the 1964 election looming, Johnson is conscious of the need to build a bipartisan coalition in order to advance on domestic issues such as civil rights and the Great Society.
The tapes also provide evidence of Johnson's internal turmoil over important policy decisions. His doubt over US policy on Vietnam comes to life.
The discussion was followed by a question and answer session. To listen to the clips that were featured during this event, please follow the link to the Miller Center's website.
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Drafted by Rachel DeHart and Mircea Munteanu