Robert Caro has been thinking a lot about the 1960s.
The Pulitzer Prize winning historian shared some observations this weekend — and some insights into his famously thorough research — during a 45-minute address at the New-York Historical Society, where hundreds gathered for a “Weekend with History.” Caro has been immersed in the decade as he writes the fifth, and presumed last, of his Lyndon Johnson books. He spoke of Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act and other domestic programs and of his tragic decision to commit hundreds of thousands of ground troops in Vietnam, a conflict which led to his 1968 announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection.
“What do we mean when we talk about the ’60s?” Caro said at the start. “We mean Selma and Vietnam, civil rights and a terrible war, and great steps toward social justice.”
The 82-year-old historian has been working on the Johnson books for more than 40 years and joked about the long process — one which does not yet have a closing date. He cited a quote from Winston Churchill, who once said that he was working on the fifth of a planned 4-volume history. Caro could top that: He is trying wrap up the fifth of a planned 3-volume set, with the conclusion centering on Johnson’s presidency, the decade he profoundly affected and in turn so profoundly affected him.
“It’s a lot to get in one book,” Caro, known for works that run 500 pages or longer, said to laughter.
The ’60s, he said, began with optimism and ended in disillusion, as the number of ground troops in Vietnam increased from less than 30,000 at the beginning of Johnson’s presidency in 1963, to more than 500,000 some five years later. Caro said the change could be captured in two songs: the hopeful Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and Pete Seeger’s damning anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
He offered a capsule history of “We Shall Overcome,” from its roots in black churches dating back at least to the early 1800s, to its emergence in the civil rights movement and the indelible sounds and images of marchers crossing arms and clasping hands. He then took the audience, many of them old enough to remember the era themselves, into the presidential limousine as Johnson rode from the White House to Capitol Hill and gave his civil rights famous speech from March 1965, when he ended by declaring, “And we shall overcome.”
Caro first noted that civil rights protesters had been standing outside the White House, within earshot of the executive mansion, singing “We Shall Overcome.” As the car passed through the gates, the protesters approached it, “as if to tell Johnson to his face, ‘We’ll win this without you.’” Johnson was riding in the back with three aides: Richard Goodwin, Jack Valenti and Horace Busby. Caro acknowledged pressing the three men, to the point of angering them, for details. “What did you see?” he kept asking. And what, if anything, did Johnson say during the ride?
They rode in silence, the aides recalled.
“Busby knew him (Johnson) and knew his expressions,” Caro explained. “So I said to Busby, ‘Did he hear it?’ And Busby said, ‘He heard it.’”
But even as Johnson was championing equal rights at home, he was preparing for war. For years, Caro has said that LBJ’s story is one about strands of light and dark —calculation and idealism, domestic triumphs and foreign disaster. He spoke briefly about “Waist Deep” and a moment that made it famous: When Seeger sang on it on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967, officials at CBS television refused to air it, but later relented and let Seeger perform it again.
“Waist Deep” has been covered by various artists, and referred to in songs by Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty. But Caro worries that the song, and the time it evokes, is being lost.
“Everybody remembers and sings ‘We Shall Overcome’ but the other song, ‘Waist Deep,’ is pretty well completely forgotten, as I have found is becoming too true of the Vietnam War as a whole” he said. “Vietnam may be something we want to forget. But it’s not the job of the historian to help in forgetting, in my opinion. It’s the job of the historian to help in remembering.”