“A Uniquely American Display of Excellence”: Lyndon Johnson and Presidential Cultural Diplomacy

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Abstract

This article assesses the personal diplomacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson, focusing on his hosting of foreign leaders at both the White House and at his Texas Ranch. In both settings Johnson often proved adept at courting visitors, utilizing elements of his Texan heritage to create warm, welcoming atmospheres, and maintaining positive relations with many of his contemporaries. This challenges traditional assessments which have portrayed Johnson as temperamentally unsuited to international diplomacy, and hampered by his regional identity. Beyond the focus on Johnson’s reputation, the article also argues for an understanding of presidential diplomacy that considers a wider range of cultural and emotional factors, drawing on established ideas from cultural anthropology and recent developments in the study of US foreign relations. Through key case studies in both Washington and Texas, settings, the symbolic and practical significance of cultural elements such as menus, decorations, gifts and entertainment are established. At the Ranch this was often a gaudy but effective display of Texanhood, whereas White House events served as more understated celebrations of national identity and bonds with foreign leaders. In many cases these elements proved crucial in establishing emotional connections with other leaders, with consequences for global affairs.
A cultural history of presidential personal diplomacy does not explain the entirety of a president’s approach to foreign policy, but provides a starting point for considering human elements of presidential leadership within a wider context of high politics and foreign relations. In doing so, this article provides a fairer consideration of Johnson’s diplomatic abilities and the role, both positive and negative, that personal style, cultural influences, and emotions played in his personal diplomacy. It also highlights the variety of influences, interests, and individuals that help to shape diplomatic interactions and offers a model for future explorations of the cultural history of presidential diplomacy.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)657-687
Number of pages30
JournalDiplomatic History
Volume45
Issue number4
Early online date1 Aug 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2021