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." ...