NEMESIS: Truman and Johnson in the Coils of War in Asia by Robert J. Donovan

NEMESIS: Truman and Johnson in the Coils of War in Asia

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Two presidents of unique personality and toughness brought down by ""limited"" wars in Asia, to contain communism: the parallels tempted former New York Herald Tribune and Los Angeles Times newsman Donovan (author of a fine, two-volume account of the Truman presidency). Unfortunately, intertwining the two tales is less enlightening than the parallels suggest. Donovan draws a comparison between Truman's Fair Deal and Johnson's Great Society to show that the Asian wars undermined the two social programs. But Johnson's Great Society was on a scale and of an endurance far beyond anything Truman dreamed of: the real story of the Vietnam War and the Great Society is the toll the two took in combination, a toll registered after Johnson left office and still with us. Other juxtapositions fall apart. True, both took office after the death of a president and then won reelection, ""two dazzling victories, each in its own way."" But Truman won unexpectedly by a slight margin, while Johnson won overwhelmingly; his fall was far greater. The Chinese attack on MacArthur's troops in northern Korea is paralleled with the Tet Offensive; but the first was, as Donovan notes, one of the worst defeats in American military history, a defeat made all the more staggering because the Chinese attack was prompted by US and UN victories in pursuing the war beyond the 38th parallel. The Tet Offensive, too, resulted in a shock to American expectations of victory--but it was not, in military terms, a defeat. What makes it interesting is that it seemed a defeat nonetheless, undermining US military credibility in Vietnam and Johnson's at home. By placing the two wars in such close contact, Donovan actually winds up obscuring the unique character of each. (The first was fought in the afterglow of WW II in conventional terms, and raised the specter of battlefield use of atomic weapons; the second was fought in the context of decolonization under the terms of guerrilla warfare and the devastation of conventional air power.) Either of the two narratives could stand on its own as a concise history of a war and its domestic consequences--and it's a pity they wound up together.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1984
Publisher: St. Martin's