Worsencroft on Woods, 'Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism'

Randall B. Woods
John Worsencroft

Randall B. Woods. Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 480 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-05096-3

Reviewed by John Worsencroft (Louisiana Tech University) Published on H-War (July, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=46584

The Great Society and the broader politics of the 1960s are familiar subjects to Randall B. Woods, who has written a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson and one of J. William Fulbright (nominated for a Pulitzer). He is also a scholar of the Cold War and US foreign policy and served as president of the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations. In Prisoners of Hope, Woods returns again to this well-worn topic in order to rehabilitate Johnson’s legacy and to chronicle his signature domestic legislative agenda. Woods believes that “academics of [his] generation” never got the story right, because they could never forgive the Texan for the war in Vietnam. He laments that “volumes have been written on the mainsprings of other great American reform efforts ... but next to nothing on the forces and factors responsible for the Great Society” (p. 2). That claim is dubious, but thankfully Woods leaves the histrionics in the introduction and ends up writing an approachable book that reaches many of the same conclusions found in the historiography he claims does not exist.

Woods argues that the Great Society, like the reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, fundamentally transformed the social and political landscape of the United States, but unlike those earlier moments, which happened during times of upheaval, Johnson pursued his agenda at a time of relative peace and economic prosperity. Woods provides nine interlocking reasons why: five engines of change, or what he calls “power sources for the Great Society,” and four contextual conditions unique to 1960s America that made the time ripe for reform (p. 4).

The two most important engines were the civil rights movement and the Cold War. As the African American freedom struggle grew into a mass movement in the postwar era, it became impossible for elected officials and policymakers in Washington to ignore. And the Cold War put the project to reform American society on an ideological battlefield, one that pitted liberal democratic ideals against those of Marxism-Leninism. Of the three other engines driving reform, two were generational. Using the moniker bestowed upon them decades later by Tom Brokaw, Woods argues that the greatest generation’s “supreme achievement” may well have been the Great Society. “How fitting that those who had saved capitalism and defeated Hitler and Hirohito,” he writes, “should secure freedom at home and abroad and establish a society in which each individual could realize his or her potential” (p. 5). Pulling against the engine of the greatest generation was their children, the baby boomers, some of whom rejected the promises of liberalism in favor of more radical change. The final power source was, of course, Johnson himself. To Woods, the towering figure from the Texas Hill Country possessed the right kind of “reform leadership” (p. 6).

John F. Kennedy’s assassination at the end of 1963 provided the most significant contextual factor, priming a mourning American public for Johnson’s promise to carry on the legacy of the fallen president. Interestingly, Woods also credits the influx of European intellectuals who fled fascism and who formed a “critical mass, producing such breakthroughs as the Salk vaccine to eradicate polio, solid-fuel rocket propulsion, and social engineering models that promised to solve problems ranging from entrenched poverty to juvenile delinquency to institutional racism” (pp. 5-6). It should be pointed out that much of the recent scholarship on Great Society social engineering has implicated those very reformers in the perpetuation of institutional racism as much as it has given credit for their efforts to solve those problems. Too often, the solutions to juvenile delinquency and poverty were the very ones that created the punitive mechanisms and state capacities for the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.

The final two contextual factors—religion and the Vietnam War—are instances in which Woods manages to push beyond conventional historiographical interpretations of the Great Society. The standard interpretation is that the Vietnam War limited the administration’s domestic reform agenda, because the war drained resources and diverted attention away from these domestic concerns, not to mention tearing the country apart in the process. Woods posits, but does not altogether prove, that “guilt over the war led to a need to compensate” at home. “Progress in the fight against poverty, racism, ill health, and ignorance” might have been offered “in propitiation for the death and destruction being wrought in Southeast Asia” (p. 8). Religious Americans, particularly evangelical Christians, usually play spoiler in the story of liberal reform in the twentieth century. Woods does not reject the backlash thesis, but he does remind us that Americans were “in a God-fearing mood” in the 1960s. “The forces of conformity, so strong during the early postwar period, coupled with the anxieties of the Cold War, had led to a religious revival that was simultaneously intense and pervasive” (p. 7). Woods shows how Johnson was attuned to this sentiment and peppered many of his speeches with religious messaging to appeal to them.

The story that Woods tells is top-down, one that rarely strays far from key figures in Johnson’s orbit, important members of Congress, and a handful of civil rights leaders. Woods clearly has command of the sources from the Kennedy and Johnson Presidential Libraries. He makes good use of oral histories that were taken with high-level officials. A recurring motif in the book is the use of presidential speeches to frame chapters—for example, Johnson’s January 1965 State of the Union address for the chapter on education reform and Medicare and the 1965 Howard University commencement speech for the chapter on northern cities and the War on Poverty. Woods never loses sight of the broader context, but this is a story of the Great Society told from thirty thousand feet. For example, the chapter on the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act recounts Martin Luther King Jr.’s concurrent efforts to register voters in Alabama, but the story of Selma is told from the vantage point of a frustrated Johnson, who worried that protests and marches would upset his intricate legislative maneuvering. With few exceptions, the book sticks to the chronology of Johnson’s time in the Oval Office, starting with Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963 and ending with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.

Rehabilitating Johnson’s legacy is at the heart of the book, but exactly who Woods is writing for is hard to pin down. In the beginning, he cites academics of his generation for getting it wrong, but in the conclusion, he points fingers at conservative actors like William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich who “have misrepresented” the Great Society as “creeping socialism” (p. 391). I am not sure either group will be satisfied with the book. Because it fails to engage with the arguments of other historians, academics and graduate students, I think, will have a hard time finding a place for the text in their graduate seminars and undergraduate courses. And if the culture warriors of the Right were going to read a book on Johnson and the lasting legacy of Great Society, they would probably pass on such an unabashed defense of a man and an era they so completely revile.

Citation: John Worsencroft. Review of Woods, Randall B., Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46584

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Possibly a blessing from above, but without invoking the celestial power, an earthly thanks for this publication and Review by Woods and Worsencroft as they combined here to set a more accurate understanding and record of the Johnson Administration and years before both the bar of history and the more general audience for those who can and do pay attention to such matters.

Have found for many decades, am much in agreement with Woods on the legacy of Johnson's years concerning the Great Society and its achievements; just as have long been in agreement, the detraction of Vietnam has tarnished and misdirected understanding of Jonson's Administration and efforts on behalf of the American people. Possibly, as a little biased having spent my own early years in that Govt. and having a few contacts with it efforts
That does not mean one cannot be objective about those contributions realized by this most important historical and political experience set down during the 1960s.
Woods five key areas are quite accurate and Pres. Johnson's tremendous support for Civil Rights went considerable to advance the questions of equality in America as then they were known. His political support helped persuade the South to give greater leeway and ground, despite that violent and vicious attack upon Civil Rights Leaders which attempted to halt progress in creation of a more fair and equal American society. Those mentioned right wing and conservative politicos whose attempts to distort and misinterpret, as Wood indicated, did a greater disservice to themselves and the American public.
As the Review calls it, the 'standard interpretation' of Vietnam as limiting domestic reforms and progress is quite accurate and historically correct. Division of resources between the war effort and domestic needs became far more a hindrance than a benefit.
Consider that 3,5 percent unemployment in the late 1960s was achieved only then, in a limited war economy, and financed with what amounted to buy now, pay later economics.

The Great Society was not creeping Socialism and that misinterpretation whether deliberate for political advantages or outright misunderstanding should be rejected out of hand. Woods volume and Worsencroft's Review go a long distance toward setting forth a sound and accurate historical record to understanding those years and that Govt., especially now in the face of so many differences over and between the Govt. and the American public.
To paraphrase, Woods and Worsencroft, 'have gotten it right'.