When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his top priority was the large-scale program of domestic-policy reform that he would call the Great Society. As his term progressed, however, he found his attention and that of his advisers increasingly commanded by the war in Vietnam. In Stephen Sestanovich’s telling in Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, while Johnson was deeply skeptical about the utility of increased US involvement, his advisers largely were not: they unanimously favored escalation, differing only on the degree. Thus, the leader of the free world ended up feeling trapped in a policy he didn’t really believe in, one that would ultimately consume his presidency.
The intimate relationship between presidents and their closest foreign-policy advisers is Sestanovich’s subject in Maximalist. This is not a conventional history, nor a diplomatic history, but an extended interpretive essay. The questions Sestanovich asks are straightforward and revealing: What did these presidents want to achieve in office with regard to national security and foreign policy? To what extent did events and external circumstances constrain them? How did their closest advisers influence them? And finally, were they successful, in achieving their objectives and in doing well by the country they led? Continue reading