Power Play

 

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One aspect of the story usually not mentioned at all (or else given short shrift) is covered here comprehensively, and that is the environmental depredations and the response in the late 1950s through the late 1960s. Analyzing foreign affairs, the authors similarly go beyond standard treatments. For example, they expertly handle Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, and they put it into the context of liberals’ belief in the beneficence of American power.

Mackenzie and Weisbrot provide a healthy dose of skepticism regarding two truisms. First, they claim that the influence of social movements on national policymaking is overrated. In this effort, one suspects they would probably have agreed with Hillary Clinton, when she pointed out that without LBJ’s efforts there would have been no Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act, rather than with her critics, who claimed that she was minimizing the key role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “the Movement.” In a chapter mainly devoted to civil rights, the authors link the social movement on the outside with the gamesmanship of Kennedy and Johnson on the inside, and they come up with a balanced account, giving credit where it is due but also pointing out that subsequent violence in cities (due to police brutality during “long hot summers” and after the assassination of Dr. King) significantly eroded white support for civil rights initiatives.

The authors also are skeptical about the expertise of the policy entrepreneurs in domestic wars (such as the war on poverty) and foreign wars (such as Vietnam). The experts did not always have good data, they relied on untested theories, and, once legislation was passed, the White House and Congress gave issues involving implementation little attention, at least until backlashes in public opinion caused legislators to reduce or drop their support for Great Society initiatives.

There were two places in this book where I wished the authors had gone deeper. First, in the discussion of the Cuban missile crisis, their account does not delve into the question of whether Kennedy made an explicit deal with Khrushchev that removal of the missiles in Cuba would be followed by removal of American missiles in Turkey and Italy or whether Bobby Kennedy simply left it as a vague commitment. The answer would help us to understand whether the crisis was settled through crisis management involving the credible threat of force or through political horse trading after crisis management methods failed.

We see how each social and economic change results in new demands, how those demands stimulate both outside protest movements and insider politics, and how the insiders are able to respond with institutional changes and substantive policy.

Second, in discussing Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, the authors do not examine whether Johnson’s policy involved incremental escalations resulting in a “quagmire” or whether he deliberately deceived the American people (and Congress) by deciding on a massive escalation over the summer of 1965 and then implementing it in a series of small steps. Is a president deceived as events unfold, or does he create the deception? This is a central issue in the study of the presidency, as we are reminded when trying to assess George W. Bush’s decision making about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

These quibbles aside, this is a splendid work and an absorbing read. The Liberal Hour gives us both the macro-trends of America in the 1960s and the microanalysis of Washington policymaking in one coherent narrative that truly defines the promise of American liberalism—and explains why the liberal hour was cut short.

Richard M. Pious ’64 is the Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor of American Studies at Barnard College.

 
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