The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave President Johnson the power to 'wage war' in Vietnam. Considered by many to be his grave mistake, have the years been kind and gentle to his legacy?
I think that history focuses more on LBJ's domestic policies, Civil Rights, the Great Society, War on Poverty, creation of the welfare system and Medicare than it does on our involvement in Vietnam. Rightly or wrongly, he gets pretty high marks for his domestic policy, and not everyone blames him for the Vietnam War's failure, rather they look at it as an inevitability of the Cold War and a legacy of Eisenhower and Kennedy.
I agree that Johnson should be seen for contexts larger than Vietnam. His social legislation in terms of both Civil Rights and fighting for the rights of the underprivileged was staggeringly powerful. Having said that, I think that Vietnam will be an inseparable part of his legacy because of the impact that the war had on both the 1960s and the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps, this is an issue between what should be versus what actually is.
When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, I sat in my car and listened on the radio. I was deeply moved and knew I was experiencing a pivotal moment in our history. Unless you were alive to personally witness the shocking hatred and violence of the backlash against the civil rights movement in 1962 and the following years, it is hard to understand how monumental the Civil Rights Act really was. Johnson's name will always be linked with the tragedy of Vietnam, but his enduring legacy throughout American history to come will be his leadership in establishing civil rights in this country when it was a time of such turmoil and social change.
I disagree with akannan with regard to President Johnson's legacy. It is Johnson's social reformist agenda that ultimately led to the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, a feat that I and many of my generation (late 40s) wondered if we would live to see accomplished.
Had Johnson not pressed forward with the Civil Rights Act, this country would have become even more mired in racism and Jim Crow than it was in the late 1960s. Having said this, however, I do concede that the Vietnam War literally sank Johnson's bid for re-election. Vietnam will always color Johnson's legacy, but I believe that his social reform agenda will define it.
I think that this is fascinating, as LBJ is probably one of the most complex presidents we have had. Indeed, Vietnam is a challenge to a positive legacy on his presidency. I think that reading the memoirs and analysis of his Defense Secretary, one gains much insight into both the mentality of the White House at the time and the ideas that drove it. The contradiction between America's view of Vietnam as part of the Domino Theory and the Vietnamese belief in the self autonomy represented the essence of miscommunication. Had this been made clear- that the Vietnamese probably would not have rolled over to becoming tools of the Russians and perceived American intervention as an extension of the French imperialist control- I think that once the situation had proven too difficult to manage, there is much to suggest that American forces' presence might have deescalated. Having said this, the reality is that Vietnam is probably going to determine more of President Johnson's legacy than his social reformist agenda. In a setting where the type of liberalism championed by Johnson is discouraged in the modern political setting, perhaps even this would be viewed with skepticism and doubt.
Johnson was a great man with a great deal of compassion for people. One has to take into account, however, that aside from the continuation and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, many of Johnson's social promotions in his famed "Great Society" were much too liberal for his constituents and nay-sayers alike. Johnson was very short-sighted with many of his policies and did not consider how they might impact the nation years later. In fact, many of his Great Society acts were overturned, ended, or modified during his administration and afterwards.