Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam


397 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1392-2
DDC 959.704'3373




Reviewed by Graham Adams, Jr.

Graham Adams, Jr., is a professor of American history at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.


No hostilities in the 20th century so rocked America as the Vietnam War.
Blema Steinberg believes that the personality traits of Lyndon Johnson
and Richard Nixon led them to make errors in judgment that served to
exacerbate this tragic conflict.

As a result of childhood experiences, Steinberg states, both Johnson
and Nixon displayed unhealthy narcissistic tendencies that made them
especially vulnerable to fears of being humiliated and shamed. Concerned
that he might become the first American president ever to lose a war,
Johnson escalated America’s participation in order to avoid any
suggestion that he acted out of cowardice. Nixon had suffered a series
of humiliations that culminated in his failure to win the 1960
presidential campaign and his defeat in the 1962 California
gubernatorial race. Acting on unconscious impulses, Nixon sanctioned the
bombing and invasion of Cambodia to bolster his self-esteem. In
contrast, according to the author, Eisenhower exhibited a robust
self-confidence that allowed him to refuse commitment of U.S. troops to
Vietnam despite the urgings of some advisers.

Steinberg’s thesis raises more questions than it answers. If
Johnson’s decisions stemmed from his distorted personality, why did
such close advisers as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, and
William Westmoreland share, if not exceed, his militancy? If dark
unconscious drives impelled Nixon to attack Cambodia, then why did he
eventually withdraw all American troops from Vietnam? And why was he the
first president to reach a détente with Communist China? What happened
to his unwholesome aggressiveness in these instances?

Steinberg concludes that we should pay more attention to the hidden
personality characteristics of our leaders, but she suggests no
practical way to accomplish this. Should politicians be compelled to
submit to psychoanalysis? This book reveals the difficulties inherent in
psychohistory, a discipline that attempts to reconcile the criteria,
standards, and language of two very different fields of study.


Steinberg, Blema S., “Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,