Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



The Best Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy,

Johnson and Nixon. By Irwin Unger. (New York: Doubleday, 1996. 399p.;

notes, index. $27.95.)

Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. By Irving Bernstein. (New

York: The Oxford University Press, 1996. x + 606p.; illustrations, notes, in-

dex. $35.00.)


Irwin Unger's The Best of Intentions and Irving Bernstein's Guns or Butter offer

timely accounts of the Johnson years, tracing the ideas, programs, and agencies

that have become a rallying point for current conservative attacks. Unger and

Bernstein move easily through the major features of the Great Society, detailing

the origins of the War on Poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act, Medicare, the

1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, federal aid to education, the

Housing and Urban Development Act, Model Cities, various environmental bills,

the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and other important re-

forms initiated by Johnson before Vietnam unraveled his presidency.  While

Unger's work is narrower in scope than Bernstein's, neither book suffers from

brevity. Both authors provide thorough, if not daunting, accounts of the Johnson


The narratives of both books are straightforward and easy to follow. Unger of-

fers richer analyses and interpretations than Bernstein, and his critique of the War

on Poverty is more thorough and convincing. Bernstein implies that LBJ's anti-

poverty programs were destined to fail because the President diverted needed funds

to the war. Johnson was "oblivious to the risk of imposing the cost of the war on

an economy close to full employment . . . Johnson could never get himself . . . to

admit that Vietnam was a real war" (pp. 377-78). The choice between guns and

butter, Bernstein concludes, "was the key to the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson's

presidency. . ." (p. 527). Unger, however, argues more persuasively that many an-

tipoverty programs such as the Community Action program and the Job Corps

were mismanaged and poorly administered to begin with. These and other pro-

grams, he writes, "were exemplary; their means and execution were flawed" (p.

350). While both Unger and Bernstein show vividly how the Great Society often

failed to achieve its goals, they generally admire its reform spirit. "However im-

perfect the results," Unger writes, "theirs was the best of intentions" (p. 366).

Bernstein devotes greater attention to the Vietnam War than Unger. He is par-

ticularly effective in detailing LBJ's effort to conceal the war's escalation, and he

is correct in criticizing the President's failure to communicate the goals of the war

to the public. Both authors concur that, with growing opposition to the war, even

LBJ's most modest proposals met resistance. Unger shows that by early 1967,

Johnson was "distracted and depleted," his staff discouraged, and ideas "largely

drained" (p. 244). Urban riots were misinterpreted by conservatives and liberals

alike as proof of the Great Society's failure. Unger is more mindful than Bernstein

of historical context. He extends the discussion beyond the Johnson years and

evaluates Richard Nixon's New Federalism. He successfully discredits historian

Joan Hoff's attempt to redefine Nixon as a covert progressive, arguing that she

had seriously misinterpreted Nixon's flirtation with 1960s liberalism.  Great

Society programs survived despite Nixon's efforts, not because of them.