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In The Great Society, We Get a Marvelous, If Painful, Look at LBJ and the War that Won’t Go Away

Hey, hey, LBJ

How many kids did you kill today!

That was one of many protest chants used against President Lyndon B. Johnson and his war in Vietnam, a tragic conflict that resulted in the deaths of some 58,000 American soldiers, plus some 200,000 South Vietnamese troops dead, and was the first war that America lost. It created a nationwide wrath against LBJ and his government and television news programs were filled for years with coverage of huge and loud protest marches against the war, especially after the 1968 Tet Offensive. The scalding story of the war, and Johnson’s heralded Great Society, is being told in a brilliant new play by Robert Schenkkan, The Great Society, that opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, at New York’s Lincoln Center.

I tried to think of ways to explain the war and its awful legacy, but the best way to describe it is to quote a man I heard at the intermission of the play. “All of the good things Johnson did with his great society, all of his programs. were wrecked by Vietnam., and it wrecked the American people and tore the country apart,” he muttered angrily.

That it did. The war began in the early 1960s and did not end until a peace agreement was reached in 1975. Johnson’ advisers, military and political, led by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, argued that the loss of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese would mean the loss of all Southeast Asia to communism. Johnson sent in a few thousand advisors, then 30,000 combat troops, then more and more and more and left office with nearly 300,000 American fighting in Vietnam. He bombed the hell out of North Vietnam, thinking that would force the North, and the tens of thousands of Vietcong in Southeast Asia, to quit the war. They did not and the bombing, that killed so many women and children, merely spurred the North on to fight harder. The U.S. military became angry at the North Vietnamese resistance, and so did LBJ. He was stubborn, political, short sighted and relied too much on his advisors, but, as Schenkkan points out in the drama, he made all of those final decisions and it washis fault. All of it- every single explosion, every destroyed village.  and every single cemetery grave – on both sides.

A key point in the Vietnam story, as Schenkkan notes, is that the tragedy of Vietnam unfolded just as Johnson’s tremendous Great Society package of programs, and Civil Rights advances, was taking place. He had a great ally in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of Senators, such as Everett Dirksen, and Congressmen. Johnson did not understand that success in those domestic programs did not translate to success in Southeast Asia but he kept trying to make it so - to no avail.

This powerful play is a painful reminder of history lost, of all those brave Americans who fought so gallantly for their country in that war, and came home battered and defeated.

One nice addition to the play is its “scorecard” program insert. On it, the theater lists all of the historical characters in the show, the actors who play him/her and a brief explanation of their role in the story. It makes the drama easier to follow. Without it, all of these people might wind up as just so much historical clutter.


The director, Bill Rauch, does a superb job of putting enormous amounts of drama on to a small stage surrounded on three side by the audiences He has slow motion police violence against marchers, protestors beaten up, chanters all over the place, short lines of actors that he deftly turns into long lines of marchers in a few seconds. He utilizes hundreds of videos and huge photos that play out against a backstage wall. Rauch gives the show a vivid historical-as-it-happened look and feel.

Cox gets much support from a splendid, strong corps of skilled actors.

Brian Cox IS Lyndon Johnson. I thought that Bryan Cranston had mastered LBJ n the previous play about the 36th President, All the Way, but here Cox is just as good. He showcases that big Texas drawl and schmoozes as magnificently as he threatens. He gives long speeches full of platitudes and then, when that does not work, reminds Senators that they might lose military bases in the next round of cuts (that does the trick, Johnson argues). He persuades. He cajoles. He is warm and cuddly and cold and ruthless. He has aa big, open arm embrace for all and a terrifying “I’ll kill you” hug for others. He trades bills votes and programs masterfully. If you can’t find a good documentary on LBJ and want to see what he was really like, see this play. Cox is a wonder.

Other fine performances are turned in by Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr., who shows you the real Martin Lither King Jr., a wise religious man who also knows how to plot and scheme and can go for the jugular with the best of them,  Marc Kudisch as a dim witted, spiteful Mayor Daley of Chicago,  Bryce Pinkham as a forceful Bobby Kennedy, whom LBJ hates with a passion. There is Gordon Clapp as a hateful and oafish J . Edgar hoover, who comes off (rightfully so) as the villain of the era. There is  Marchant Davis as the activist Stokely Carmichael, who turns Dr. King’s peaceful marches violent and makes King shudder.  David Garrison is George  Wallace, a truly evil figure who later mellows.  Ty Jones is effective as Ralph Abernathy, King’s chief lieutenant, Matthew Rauch is the brilliant Robert McNamara, the leader of the hawks in the LBJ administration. 

There is a magnificent scene at the end of the play that sums it all up. LBJ, near tears in his wife’s arms, laments that everything that went so well for his Presidency turned to ashes over Vietnam and admits to her that he does not understand how it went wrong and certainly does not understand how to fix it. He complains that everybody from Republicans to the press has turned against him, and sees no way out except not to run for re-election. The shaken LBJ at the end is just as effective as the garrulous, arm twisting, aggressive LBJ at the beginning.

Then, as we know Richard Nixon became President and Vietnam still dragged on for several more years until it ended.

Just as big a tragedy that there was no salute for all those Vietnam vets who came home, no big thank you parade for what you did and tried to do at such a high price. That was a shame. There have been many “than you” tributes and movies and documentaries over the years, and we hope that made up for the disgraceful shunning they received from their country in the 1970s.

Looking back on Vietnam, you ask “How did this mess all happen?” This play tells you, and does so amid the several crises that beset the nation in those years and all of the political storms.  It is history brought back for those over 50, chillingly, and a history lesson on how not to run a country for those under 50. Either way, it is splendid drama and sizzling history.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Louise L. Gund, Rebecca Gold, Jayne Baron Sherman, others. Scenic Design: David Korins, Costumes: Linda Cho, Lighting: David Weiner, Music: Paul James Prendergast, Sound: Paul James Prendergast, Marc Salzberg. The play is directed by Bill Rauch.