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‘protect’ the region around Shanghai, and declaring a ‘neutral zone’ in which British and French forces pounded the Taiping. It proved the most shattering civil conflict of the nineteenth century. In fact, as Platt shows, it was probably the ‘deadliest civil war in all of human history’: Chinese historians now estimate that seventy million people perished.
The Times reader in 1853 knew of the rebellion, but today, outside China, it is largely forgotten. Platt’s book redresses this stunning lacuna in Western knowledge. It is a finely written narrative, crisply telling how the rebellion grew, how foreign observers held out early hopes for it, and how some missionaries went to Nanjing to try to shape the movement, by making the Taiping see Christian sense and abandon their belief in the divinity of Hong Xiuquan. This proved a fruitless task, so the missionaries abandoned the rebels too. Platt also describes the massive efforts of the Manchu state to rebuild itself from the ground up, allowing provincial officials to design new types of taxation to support the forces required to grind down and beat the Taiping. It was a long hard slog, but the walls of Nanjing finally fell in 1864.
Understanding the Taiping rebellion is vital if we are to understand the making of modern China. Here, at the start of a new era of Sino-European relations, a foreign religion had been taken up by Hong Xiuquan and wielded as a sword that almost decapitated the dynasty. Hong had learned of Christianity from a convert working for the London Missionary Society, who had distributed religious tracts outside examination halls. The rebellion was first and foremost Chinese, but it was a rebellion influenced by Western ideas and beliefs. And in choosing not to side with the rebels, the British and other foreign powers also decided not to destroy the Qing, for in the midst of the great rebellion the British and French carried the Second Opium War to the gates of Peking, humbling the Manchus in the autumn of 1860. At that moment, they could have toppled the dynasty themselves, but instead they decided that Qing order was better than the evil they had seen brought to central China by their own religion. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41
m i c h a e l b u r l e i g h
Cornpone in Camelot The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4: The Passage of Power
By Robert A Caro (The Bodley Head 712pp £35)
Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–73) is not the usual decorative pap we get from chroniclers of kings and queens, and the power and scale of US politics makes books about Dalton, Macmillan or Heath seem like small change, however amusing the snide and snooty anecdotes. There has certainly been much excitement about this book among the British political class, with several political columnists lavishing praise on Caro’s work. Fans include Michael Howard, George Osborne and William Hague. Even Bill Clinton reviewed The Passage of Power in glowing terms for the New York Times.
Caro’s massive biography is the book many politicians would take to their desert island. They will need a big bag, for so far there have been three brick-sized volumes, with the most recent instalment taking LBJ just over the threshold of the Oval Office by about three months. At seventy-six years of age, Caro promises just one final volume on LBJ’s presidency, but his publisher should probably steel himself for more.
It is not difficult to see why this is the politicians’ political book of choice. It is not some ephemeral confection that evaporates in the mouth like blancmange or candyfloss; rather this is the literary equivalent of a mouthful of chewing tobacco, politics as it is experienced blow by blow, hour by hour. It’s a slow, vaguely narcotic chew.
The book begins when John F Kennedy half-heartedly invites Johnson to become his running mate, so as to guarantee the southern Dixiecrat segregationist vote. Bobby Kennedy tried and failed to rescind the job offer. Johnson did the hard canvassing graft, on a train that boomed out ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, although in one southern town called Greer the microphones picked up LBJ saying: ‘God bless you, Greer. Bobby, turn off that fuckin’ “Yeller Rose”.’ JFK regarded LBJ as a figure of fun, with Rufus Cornpone and Riverboat being the favourite nicknames for him among the Camelot clique that LBJ
called the ‘Harvards’. There were snickers around Georgetown when LBJ rendered ‘hors d’oeuvres’ as ‘whore doves’ and wore a grey morning coat to a white tie ball.
While the older Texan overcame his contempt for a president he regarded as a lazy, spoilt playboy (‘weak and pallid – a scrawny man with a bad back, a weak and indecisive politician, a nice man, a gentle man, but not a man’s man’), he never overcame his detestation of Bobby Kennedy. The feeling was mutual. Johnson had made the mistake of slighting ‘Sonny Boy’ around the Senate, unaware of old Joe Kennedy’s dictum that ‘when Bobby hates you, you stay hated’, a quality the pint-sized ‘Torquemada’ demonstrated as counsel to Joe McCarthy and then during the campaign against the Teamsters leader, Jimmy Hoffa. Liberal journalists dubbed Bobby ‘a fascist at work’, though in truth he was part Irish-American street thug, part extreme Catholic moralist, who was at the dark heart of eight plots to kill Fidel Castro. Worse, Johnson had publicly criticised Joe Kennedy, the crook of a father, as a ‘Chamberlain umbrella man’ and then denied having done so to Bobby – unforgivable in Bobby’s eyes.
As an earlier Texan vice president, ‘Cactus Jack’ Garner, had famously opined, the job of being vice president was not worth a ‘bucket of warm piss’. Johnson exchanged a powerful role, Majority Leader of the Senate (where his suite of rooms was known as the Taj Mahal), for one with few defined powers but a single saving grace – the one heartbeat separating him from the presidency. Before agreeing to run, LBJ had his staff calculate exactly how many vice presidents had succeeded to the highest office (ten) and how many presidents (seven) had died in post. ‘I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’,’ he told Clare Luce on the VIP bus going to JFK’s Inaugural Ball.
Despite the fact that he traded down to a job that resembled a ‘cut dog’, throughout his life Johnson practised the maxim that ‘power is where power goes’. This meant that
Literary Review | j u l y 2 0 1 2 6 h i s t o r y power followed the person. Caro’s biography is not simply about one man, but about the acquisition and exercise of power. We learn about Johnson’s cajoling, wheedling ‘Treatment’, when this very tall Texan came knee to knee and eye to eye with friend and foe alike for hours on end. The biography is an encyclopaedia of dirty tricks that would make Machiavelli seem naive.
In the Kennedys he met his match. They quickly vetoed Johnson’s request for a room next to the Oval Office, but LBJ made a point of sauntering over to the White House every day and whiling away hours with aides and secretaries so as to give the impression of being inside the loop. In fact, he spent ten hours and nineteen minutes alone with JFK in 1961 and one hour and fifty-three minutes alone with him during the whole of 1963. In Cabinet and National Security Council meetings Johnson said little and sulked, though he was so belligerent during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that Kennedy thought him unfit to be president and excluded him from the meetings where the key deal over the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey was brokered.
Oddly, we reach the denouement halfway through this volume. On 22 November 1963 Johnson rode glumly through Dallas, at some distance behind JFK’s motorcade, in a sour mood because he suspected that he was going to be dropped from the ticket as reporters scoured his complex personal finances, or, worse, that five more years of pointless foreign and domestic travel, on low-grade military transport planes – this last point a persistent gripe – lay before him. The crack, crack, crack of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle resolved that. At 1.20pm Kenny O’Donnell told Johnson, ‘He’s gone.’ Almost instantly others gathering at Parkland Memorial Hospital observed the calm but steely determination that transformed LBJ’s face. He was sworn in aboard Air Force One. Despite having survived a massive coronary in 1955, it was game on for the 55-year-old Texan.
Caro possibly overdramatises the importance of the undoubtedly smooth succession process, as Johnson humbled himself before such Kennedy clients as J K Galbraith, and stitched up the composition of the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s death. But he writes wittily about how LBJ soon used his Texas Hill Country ranch to establish a personal style, with state visits involving barbecues and deer shoots rather than performances by the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (though JFK’s tastes were lower than Jackie would have liked). We get glimpses of how Vietnam began to intrude on Johnson’s great legislative programme – against poverty and for ‘nigrah’ civil rights – that would inaugurate the Great Society. Right from the outset, South Vietnam was misconstrued as potentially another ‘lost’ China.
But with the installation of a private phone line bypassing the White House switchboard, which LBJ used to manage the huge wealth he had ‘isolated’ in trusts, and threats to block bank mergers if their owners did not guarantee perpetually favourable coverage in newspapers they owned, Caro’s book also anticipates the era of Watergate. British politicians are presumably carefully reading these passages, along with the stuff about how to knife an opponent (or friend) in the back with an easy smile. All the praise already heaped on this book and its predecessors is entirely justified, even though it is far too long. To order this book for £28, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41
Master’s inModernWar Studies
Military History and Practice from 1945 to the Present Day October 2012 to September 2013
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Directed by Professor Lloyd Clark, one of Britain’s leading authorities in modern warfare, this one-year course, starting in October 2012, examines major themes in modern military history and contemporary warfare.
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Sir Max Hastings General the Lord Dannatt Lord Ashdown General Sir John Kiszely Professor Hew Strachan Those who wish to attend the seminars and dinners, but not to undertake a dissertation, may join the course as Associate Students, at a reduced fee. For further details Google: ‘Buckingham War Studies’ or see the website: www.buckingham.ac.uk/humanities/ma/warstudies Course enquiries: Professor Lloyd Clark Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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