The Good Old Days

I have just read two books about the good old days, “The Politics of Rage” by Dan T. Carter (a biography of George Wallace) and “The Unmaking of a President” by Herbert Y. Schandler (the story of the Vietnam War and the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson). The good old days.

Dan T. Carter was a history professor at Emery University, and later went to the University of South Carolina, from which he retired in 2007. His book on George Wallace, published in 1995, is highly regarded, and rightly so. Not only is it a fascinating biography of former Alabama governor and two-time presidential candidate Wallace, but provides a broader history of the 20th century civil rights movement in the United States, and serves as a reminder of all the people and all of the events which so many of us lived through. Wallace as a poor, small town southern boy, as a boxer, a soldier and finally a politician, and how his politics turned more and more segregationist as time went to, becoming so influential that the Republican party, during the second Nixon campaign, began to emulate him, thus birthing the Southern Strategy. Only after Wallace was shot at a political rally in 1972 did he begin to slow down and realize his limits and, eventually, perhaps even to realize the wrongness of his earlier ways, as he toned down his rhetoric and sought forgiveness from many of his former targets. But it is the picture of America that is really important to remember, much more so than the personality of Wallace. For it is America that allowed Wallace to become a fairly series candidate, and certainly an influential politician. Thinking of himself first, perhaps, as a southern states-rights advocate for whom segregation was one important facet of a states rights campaign, he changed his mind when he began to campaign in the North – in Wisconsin and and Indiana, and when he gave the speech at Harvard that I remember so well boycotting. Then, it was that he discovered, to his great surprise, that all of American was the South. And to a significant extent, he was correct.

Schandler’s book is less well know, written in 1977 as an expanded Ph.D. thesis at Harvard and published by the Princeton University Press. It is an account of the politics of the Vietnam War during the Johnson years. Not an account of the war itself (although certain important trends and events are discussed), but an account of the discussions that went on between the White House, Defense Department, Military and State Department about how the war should be carried out – do you expand the bombing or curtail it and for what reason, with what expectations; how do domestic concerns affect the way you fight the war; how does the ability of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to fend for itself influence your actions; can you continue to avoid a call up of the Reserves, and should you; how thinly stretched in the American army; what are the ultimate goals, possibilities and expectations. Much sounds like what must be happening now, as the government ponders Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are differences – clearly the media (with all its focus on body kill counts, etc.) was not privy to the discussions in the way they seem to be today, and the highly partisan nature of today’s debate was notably absence in the 1960s. Again, it was reliving the past, reading about (in new ways) those familiar names: Johnson, Humphrey, Clifford, Vance, McNamara, Rusk, Westmoreland and all the others.

Why did Johnson decide not to seek reelection in 1968? For one thing, his polling numbers had dropped dramatically; it would not be easy. For another, he probably did believe that the need to campaign and to posture for votes would affect both the decisions about the war, and about various competing domestic issues. For a third, he was simply worn out (and in fact, he lived only about four more years, dying at the relatively young age of 64).

This was a very well researched book, and probably is not easy to find today. But it is working looking for, and reading.

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