Johnson on Gavin and Lawrence, 'Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the New Global Challenges of the 1960s'

Francis J. Gavin, Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds.
K. C. Johnson

Francis J. Gavin, Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds. Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the New Global Challenges of the 1960s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. x + 301 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-979069-2; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-979070-8.

Reviewed by K. C. Johnson (Brooklyn College)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Re-framing LBJ’s Foreign Policy

Few administrations have as rich an array of sources related to foreign policy than Lyndon Johnson’s. The combination of accessible presidential tapes and an unusually scholar-friendly presidential library enhances the typical range of sources for diplomatic historians. Beyond the Cold War, a collection of essays on foreign policy during the Johnson years, makes good use of these sources.

Edited by Frank J. Gavin and Mark Atwood Lawrence, Beyond the Cold War contains eleven essays designed to explore what the editors term the “new security challenges” emerging in the 1960s—issues of long-term importance, largely divorced from the immediate Cold War crises that the president faced during his time in office. In this respect, the book “is inspired by the pressing concerns of the twenty-first century and traces those concerns back into the past” (p. 2). The editors note that the 1960s constitute a particularly fruitful period for such an exploration, given the dramatic expansion of activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to new international questions.

The volume, however, has a second goal: it seeks to reevaluate Johnson’s foreign policy, moving beyond an overwhelming focus on Vietnam to present a more nuanced view. In this respect, the book builds off of Thomas Alan Schwartz’s Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam (2003), which provides a balanced and mostly favorable interpretation of European issues during the Johnson administration. (Schwartz is a contributor to the volume.) Beyond the Cold War shows that Johnson had aims beyond containment in the international arena; the result, the editors observe, was a “conflicting and often mixed” legacy (p. 8), but one that should compel historians to look at issues other than Vietnam or other Cold War dramas.

The book is divided into four sections, addressing themes of moving beyond an East/West approach to foreign policy; internationalizing the Great Society; adopting to a world of scarcity (environmentalism, raw materials); and shifting moralities (human rights, religion). The volume begins with three essays urging scholars to look beyond the East/West divide to analyze LBJ’s foreign policy. Daniel Sargent explores how LBJ approached the issue of “economic globalization”—a term he defines as market integration, which had the effect of eroding nation-states and promoting interdependence. Sargent argues that LBJ confronted choices that recent presidents would find familiar, having to choose between short-term domestic priorities and safeguarding the international economy on which U.S. prosperity ultimately depended. Patrick Cohrs suggests that LBJ envisioned a New Deal for the world—even as he approached foreign policy through lessons derived from his handling of domestic politics. This, it seems to me, is one of the most important differences between Johnson and virtually any other Cold War president; I am less convinced by Cohrs’s suggestion that Franklin Roosevelt’s Latin American policy provided a model for how LBJ would handle international affairs.

This section concludes with an excellent essay from Schwartz, who crystallizes many of the themes from his book on LBJ and Europe. Schwartz convincingly argues that LBJ, as part of a broader commitment to détente, saw reducing the threat of nuclear weapons emerge as an “overriding objective [that] influenced his foreign policy decisions” (p. 79). Schwartz’s essay also calls for re-periodizing LBJ’s foreign policy, noting that while Vietnam temporarily distracted the pursuit of détente (especially in 1965), the president returned to the goal, notably, in his handling of France’s departure from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But, Schwartz concedes, the suppression of the Prague Spring discredited LBJ’s efforts to improve relations with the USSR.

Four essays explore LBJ’s efforts to internationalize the Great Society. Most interesting are Nick Cullather’s piece on LBJ and the war on hunger and Erez Manela’s essay on smallpox. Cullather posits that LBJ was “powerfully drawn” to the “visionary ambition” of development theory (p. 120)—despite his general distaste for governing through theory—but frustrated by the difficult politics of foreign aid. Though this essay could have more aggressively explored the fascinating contest between LBJ and the key opponent of foreign aid during the 1960s, Louisiana congressman Otto Passman, Cullather does focus on food aid and U.S.-Indian relations during the Johnson administration. These topics usually receive scant attention in surveys of Johnson’s foreign policy.

Manela, meanwhile, argues that Johnson’s commitment to the Smallpox Eradication Program “may well have been one of the administration’s most significant decisions in terms of its global human impact” (p. 166). Manela notes that the smallpox program fits most comfortably not into a traditional nation-state narrative, but instead into an analysis of international affairs focused more on the role of NGOs and other transnational factors, an approach pioneered by Akira Iriye. The United Nations, American internationalists, and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection worked together—with LBJ’s support—on behalf of the program. In Manela’s presentation, much as Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam represents the dark side of Wilsonianism (to borrow Frank Ninkovich’s term), the smallpox eradication effort exemplified Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic vision of an interdependent world in which nations set aside their selfish interests to advance the common good.

The volume’s final two sections address themes related to the role that natural resources played in 1960s foreign policy and the manner in which the Johnson era integrated moral concepts into international questions. Perhaps the book’s most traditional essay is a well-done piece from Christopher Dietrich, who traces LBJ’s efforts to ensure Israel’s oil supply amid the tumult that culminated in the Six Days’ War. Dietrich concludes that the military commitment to Vietnam and other Cold War hotspots severely constrained U.S. options in resolving the crisis—previewing some of the present problems the United States would have in the region, as the George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have squarely confronted the limits on U.S. power.

Sarah Snyder’s essay correctly notes how—even though the conventional wisdom traces the beginning of human rights diplomacy to the Carter administration—the Johnson years featured important debates about the relationship between human rights and the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Snyder’s chapter focuses on the Greek coup of 1967 and U.S. policy toward Southern Rhodesia, two issues that generally, and unfortunately, receive minimal attention in surveys of LBJ’s foreign policy. She suggests that both crises previewed significant debates about the tension between respecting human rights and protecting U.S. security concerns that would occur in the 1970s and 1980s.

As is the case with any volume of this type, it is easy to speculate on topics that might have been included. Apart from Snyder’s piece, for instance, the volume devotes relatively little attention to Congress and virtually none to international law. Given the editors’ admitted presentism, the latter issue stands out in a Supreme Court term with two critical cases—Bond v. United States (2014) and Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital (2014)—dealing with international law. Moreover, as the editors concede, an interest in the historical background of current matters of importance might distort the past, causing contributors to overstate the historical importance of their topics.

But these are quibbles. In general, this is an impressive volume, providing a fresh look at 1960s foreign policy through scholars asking a host of questions that diplomatic and international historians often avoid.

Printable Version:

Citation: K. C. Johnson. Review of Gavin, Francis J.; Lawrence, Mark Atwood, eds., Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the New Global Challenges of the 1960s. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2014.

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