Johnson, Lyndon B.

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Lyndon B. Johnson

Henry F. Graff

NOT since the first President Johnson took office in 1865 has a presidency begun amid such tragedy and turmoil as Lyndon Baines Johnson's did when he took the oath of office on 22 November 1963 aboard Air Force One, parked on Dallas' Love Field. It was the plane that earlier in the day had brought President John F. Kennedy to the city on a trip that was to end with his assassination. In its somber aftermath, when President Johnson received at the White House the dignitaries from around the world who had traveled to Washington for Kennedy's funeral, he stood in a brighter limelight than any incoming president had ever had to endure. He faced the daunting challenge of succeeding a martyr figure and of competing instantly with that memory for the public's approbation.

In attaining the White House, Johnson had fulfilled his life's ambition (as a mere twelve-year-old he had told his classmates, "Someday, I'm going to be president of the United States"), but he soon knew he would not inherit with his office the people's esteem. Many of the Kennedy faithful immediately and forever regarded Johnson as a "usurper" of Camelot, unworthy to sit in JFK's chair. Indeed, to them, the new man, notably less handsome and boyish than Kennedy, and "with a few gray hairs in his head" that Johnson liked to say were necessary in a chief executive, seemed virtually an impostor-president. They could not adjust to the Texas drawl hitherto unheard in the Oval Office, where it abruptly replaced the Boston-Harvard accent the nation had become accustomed to. Johnson even indulged a brand of humor that they found offensive: it was not witty and literary like their hero's, but often coarse and sometimes scatological.

The keepers of the Kennedy flame gave the appearance of awaiting impatiently the advent of another of the Kennedy brothers to the presidencyand behaving meanwhile as if they represented a kind of government-in-exile. An extremely sensitive man with deep personal insecurities despite the macho image he projected, Johnson felt demeaned, as suggested by his often-repeated reminder, "I'm the only president you have." He lived with his nightmare that in the line of the presidents he would be remembered as sandwiched between two Kennedys.

To be sure, Johnson had a host of admirers, too. Almost immediately he brought a new style to the White House, symbolized by the ending of haute cuisine dinners and their replacement by homelier American fare. Millions appreciated hearing about it. And many people everywhere seemed ready to see in Johnson's older, craggy face and in his long experience in Washington likely evidence of valuable experience and maturity. Finallyand not least of allLady Bird Johnson, the president's articulate and tactful wife, quickly won favorable attention which helped give reassurance to the country that this presidential couple was a satisfactory successor to the Kennedys.

Johnson, who for years had been a dominating voice in the Senate, was immensely proud of his reputation as a legislative giant justly compared to the likes of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Yet he believed that as vice president, during the thousand days of the Kennedy administration, his talents had been forced to lie fallow. Now, by a sudden turn of fortune, he had the levers of power in his grip, and he fairly lusted to work themaiming to make his page in history glow as brilliantly as any other president's.

Early Years

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas, on 27 August 1908. His father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had been a member of the Texas House and had recently lost several thousand dollars speculating in cotton. His mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, raised on the outskirts of the little town of Blanco, was the daughter of Joseph Wilson Baines, an attorney. He had previously occupied the seat that Sam Johnson held in the House. Rebekah worked her way through Baylor College at Belton, where she found encouragement for her lively literary and cultural interests.

When Lyndon was five years old, the family moved to Johnson City. Sam Johnson struggled to earn a living while Rebekah Johnson worked diligently to make ends meet. But there was never enough money, and Lyndon would often speak with disdain of the steady diet of grits, greens, cornbread, and fat-back of his early years. Although the family was never as hard up as Johnson later liked to say it had been, he developed what proved to be a lifelong sympathy for ordinary people whose lives were blighted by economic insecurity and deprivation. As a boy, Johnson resented having to wear homemade clothing that once included, to his unspeakable embarrassment, a Buster Brown suit. His mother did private tutoring in elocution in order to pay for dancing and violin instruction for him. He detested the training in both and eventually refused to have any more lessons. He would not be marked a "sissy." Ironically, in the White House his accomplished and tireless social dancing at public functions charmed and sometimes astonished his guests.

Even as a youth, Johnson yearned to have a share in the rising wealth around him, which was based chiefly on the booms in oil and beef. Still he despaired of gaining even a foothold. He put in time working for farmers in and around Johnson City. For a period he was a printer's devil at a local newspaper. He also shined shoes in a barber shop. As he grew up he appeared to be both ambitious and aimless.

Politics had begun to draw the boy's interest when Sam Johnson won back his old seat in the state legislature in 1919. Lyndon became a familiar sight at his father's side on the floor of the Texas House. Soon the youth was bent on becoming a politician as well as a millionaire. After a trip to California with some friends when he finished high school, he yielded to his mother's nagging advice to seek more education. He enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, from which he was graduated in 1930. To support himself, he had interrupted his studies to take a teaching job at a "Mexican" school in Cotulla, Texas. One day, voting analysts would credit Johnson's close ties with the Mexican-American community with helping to put Texas in the Kennedy-Johnson column in the election of 1960. Johnson also taught briefly in Pearsall and Houston, where he won acclaim training students in public speaking and debating.

But the world of politics proved irresistible. Johnson avidly seized an opportunity in 1931 to become private secretary to Richard Kleberg, son of the owner of the fabled King Ranch, who had just been elected to Congress. In Washington, Johnson quickly became as familiar with the labyrinths of the bureaucracy as he was with the landscape of his Texas hill country. Then, in 1934, he was married in San Antonio to Claudia Alta Taylor of Karnack, Texas, known invariably by her nickname, Lady Bird. Not yet twenty-two years old, Lady Bird Johnson brought much-needed stability to Johnson's life; her winsomeness combined with her shrewd judgment of people from the start helped significantly in furthering his career.

Politically, Johnson was a child of the new opportunities that the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt opened for office seekers eager to have a hand in enlarging and redistributing the nation's resources. After a creative stint as director of the National Youth Administration in Texas, Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937 to fill the unexpired term of James P. Buchanan in the Tenth District. Already inured to the ways of Congress, Johnson took worshipful counsel from Speaker Sam Rayburn, also a Texan. In turn, Rayburn, who was unmarried, treated Johnson like a son and turned him rapidly into an "insider" despite his lack of seniority. Johnson served in the House until 1948, having been reelected five times on an ever-growing reputation for his craft in directing to his constituents a goodly share of the bounty that New Deal economic programs provided.

Johnson interrupted his tenure in the House shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve as a lieutenant commander, having been commissioned in the Naval Reserve in 1940. He was the first member of Congress to go on active duty in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Silver Star for "gallantry in action" when the patrol bomber Johnson was flying in was fired upon by Japanese Zeros near Port Moresby, in New Guinea. (Critics would later say that Johnson's political prominence rather than personal valor had won him the decoration. For the rest of his life, however, Johnson proudly wore the insignia of the medal in his lapel.) Almost immediately after receiving the award, Johnson responded to Roosevelt's directive that members of Congress leave military service and resume their legislative duties. After six months in uniform, Johnson was pleased to be back at his desk in Washington.

Johnson won election to the Senate in 1948 (he had failed in a bid in 1941) by a margin of eighty-seven votes, a squeaker that earned him the sobriquet "Landslide Lyndon." He held the seat until he became vice president in 1961. He was minority leader for two years and majority leader from 1956 to 1960, acquiring formidable fame among supporters as a legislative statesman and among detractors as a wheeler-dealer. His selection by Kennedy to be vice president, despite much opposition in the Kennedy camp, was the outcome of a disappointing effort to obtain the nomination for president.

As vice president, Johnson was ignored by many of the administration's prominent figures and was idle much of the time, his vaunted knowledge of Congress largely unused. Although he chaired some significant public committees and was sent on some missions abroad, he was convinced that most of his assignments were little more than busywork. He hid his smoldering resentment even as he made his initial appeal to the people as president an assurance of continuity of policies. Where Kennedy had urged in his inaugural, "Let us begin," Johnson, on 27 November 1963 in his first address to Congress, exhorted, "Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue."

Unfinished Business

What Johnson lacked in Kennedy's urbanity, he made up for in energy so uncommon that one aide credited him with having "extra glands." Despite a severe heart attack in 1955"the worst a man could have and still live," he liked to tell peopleJohnson gave himself unstintingly to his work. Although he climbed into bed for a nap each afternoon, his long hours at his deskspent mostly on the telephonetopped by his "night reading" left no doubt that he withheld nothing in fulfilling his duties. His desire to be embraced by the people and his constant sense of being unloved drove him to the limit relentlessly as he tried to earn his way into the company of the country's greatest presidents. He was tied to the reputation of Kennedy for his popularity in the beginning, and he struggled to create a devoted following of his own.

The desire to show he was in charge made his first month in office frenetic. From 23 November to 19 December he saw in his office almost seven hundred people alone or in small groups. Possibly to suggest that the new chief executive was economy-minded, the White House let it be known that he went about turning out unused electric lights every nightcausing him to be dubbed for a time "Light Bulb Johnson." Still shaken by the circumstances of his own elevation to the presidency, Johnson consulted with Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts, next in line of succession, regarding any unexpected turnover of the White House.

About fifty pieces of proposed legislation were languishing in congressional committees, but the civil rights bill was the focus of Johnson's labors in the first several months. Its passage as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would thenceforth be the key-stone of Johnson's claim to fame as inheritor and keeper of the urban liberal base of the Democratic party. In seeking support for the bill's passage, he had beseeched Congress on sentimental grounds: "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill." In short order, the bill that Kennedy had prepared had been made stronger by a number of amendments proposed by ardent advocates. The House passed the revised bill on 10 February. In the Senate it met a filibuster by southerners that lasted eighty-three days, ending on 10 June only with the enactment of a cloture resolution. The bill finally became law on 2 July.

Johnson, feeling special responsibility as a southerner, had made the bill's passage a personal crusade. His efforts can only be called Herculean, for he cajoled and pulled strings to round up support from early in the morning to late at night, day after day, week after week. On more than one occasion in the White House, he upbraided opponents or fence-sitters by fairly screaming as he faced them downoften nose-to-nose, "Do you know what it is to be black?"

The act set in place some of the most fundamental social changes in American history. Among its provisions, it forbade discrimination on account of race in places of public accommodation. It contained protection of the right of blacks to vote. It forbade discrimination on account of race or sex by employers and labor unions. Moreover, to help monitor the law's operation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established. To accelerate the desegregation of schools, the new law empowered the attorney general to challenge local discriminatory practices in court.

The Great Society

Johnson, having pushed through what he considered Kennedy's bill, now went to work on his own legislative program. He began with the Economic Opportunity Act, the first salvo of a concerted "war on poverty," as he called it, that would become one of the hallmarks of his presidency. The act, signed into law on 20 August 1964, was funded with an appropriation of $948 million. It eventually authorized ten programs under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) established as part of the White House office. The programs included a "domestic Peace Corps" to operate in depressed areas of the country, known as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA); the Job Corps, designed as a make-work program for the hard-core unemployed; Head Start, to help deprived children compensate for their cultural disadvantages; and community-action programs to give poor people a hand in running government programs. When the session of Congress ended, Johnson, competing in his mind with the legislative achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Hundred Days," declared grandly, "This session of Congress has enacted more major legislation, met more national needs, disposed of more national issues than any other session of this century or the last."

Johnson was now hitting his stride in the work he was touted to be expert inpersuading Congress to act. The difficulties between the executive and legislative branches that Kennedy had been unable to surmount were apparently vanishing. As they did, so did the memory of Kennedy's New Frontier. Speaking at the University of Michigan on 22 May, Johnson unveiled his own vision of America: "In your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time."

The possibility of giving life to such a vision brought popular support to the intense new president, who apparently was indeed able to fill Kennedy's shoes. The opinion polls showed Johnson more popular than his predecessor had been at the comparable time in his presidency. An uncommon feeling of confidence and unity seemed to pervade the nation, even though perceptive people could see that the excitement connected with the spate of legislation masked the troubles that were brewing in Vietnam. There the Communists in the northern part of the country were bent on overrunning the southern part, which the United States was committed to support.

The Campaign of 1964

With these eventsfavorable and portentousas a backdrop, the presidential campaign of 1964 got under way. It was a foregone conclusion that Johnson would have the Democratic nomination, which he received at Atlantic City late in August amid much hoopla over the selection of a vice presidential candidate. Johnson, who played a cat-and-mouse game with several possible candidates (he had already ruled out Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late president), was searching for a man, he said, who was "attractive and prudent and progressive." He believed he had found him in Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who had been his colleague in the Senate from the time they were both elected to it in 1948. (Johnson would keep Humphrey very busy, but on a short tether. When Winston Churchill died in 1965, Johnson could not attend the funeral because of illness. But he would not dispatch Humphrey in his place for reasons he never made public.)

Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated the conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as they shunted aside the liberal, internationalist, eastern wing of the party, whose leaders included Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. One of only six Republicans who had voted against the civil rights bill, Goldwater was hoping to win the election by cobbling together support in the South and in the West and by providing the nation with what he spoke of as "a choice, not an echo." When eastern Republicans sought to denounce conservative extremists in the partyespecially the John Birch SocietyGoldwater assured fellow Republicans in his acceptance address that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" The alarm of moderates was heightened when Goldwater told a reporter that if he could, he would "drop a low-yield atomic bomb on Chinese supply lines in Vietnam."

Johnson campaigned as an experienced man whose restraint and judgment in military matters could be relied upon. It seemed unremarkable in July when five hundred more troopsso-called adviserswere dispatched to Vietnam because Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had already been increasing gradually the American military presence there. And the general public seems not to have become exercised when, on 2 and 4 August, in murky circumstances, North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin near North Vietnam's coast. Johnson ordered massive air attacks on targets in North Vietnam in retaliation. Moreover, on 7 August he obtained a congressional resolutionever since known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolutionsupporting the president in whatever action he deemed necessary "to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" in Southeast Asia. It was not unlike the resolution that Congress had given Eisenhower in 1958 when he sent marines into Lebanon, and its passage was widely approved in the country at large.

Johnson had the support of the middle sector of American political sentiment, which was eager both to avoid a nuclear confrontation and to leave untouched the major domestic reforms, to which people had grown accustomed. Goldwater's broadside attacks on the Social Security Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the graduated income tax played into Johnson's hands. The president could appear the solid man, continuing in international affairs the tried-and-true policies of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years. He had shown he was in the tradition of the New Deal by putting Humphrey on the ticket. He showed he was the peace candidate by saying of the conflict rapidly heating up in Vietnam, "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Furthermore, where Republicans were saying of Goldwater, "In your heart, you know he's right," Democrats were responding, "In your heart, you know he might." Unlike his opponent, Johnson could be counted on, the country was assured, not to press the button that would start a nuclear war. The unabashed way in which Goldwater referred to the Soviet Union as "the enemy" also alarmed many voters, who concluded that Goldwater regarded open war with the Soviets as unavoidable.

In domestic matters Johnson seemed a wizard. Having staunchly supported and pressed upon Congress early in 1964 Kennedy's $80 billion tax cut proposal despite dire predictions by business people of its likely effect, economic activity flourished. All of the usual indicatorsconsumer spending, gross national product, and federal tax receiptsshowed the success the Democrats had predicted.

Johnson received the election results at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. Amid his closest friends he reveled in the greatest popular victory in American history. With 43 million votes, he had run 16 million ahead of Goldwater, carrying 44 states and losing only Arizona and 5 states of the Deep South. The immense triumph had the effect of changing the politics of America, giving Johnson what he labeled "a mandate for unity." On his coattails rode to victory hundreds of Democratic candidates for lesser offices throughout the country. In the House of Representatives the Republicans lost 37 seats, giving the Democrats 295 places to 140 for the Republicans. The 2 seats the Democrats picked up in the Senate enlarged the margin of the Democrats, making it 68 to 32. The nation could see that one effect of Goldwater's anemic candidacy was to open the way for an expansion of the Great Society programs. Johnson would not have to endure the tug-of-war with Capitol Hill that had been Kennedy's lot.

Consensus Politics

Democratic voters thought that Johnson had earned the support he received because of the deftness he had shown in enlarging Kennedy's constituency of four years earlier. Moreover, following so closely on the heels of the assassination, the victory may have revealed the voters' desire not to have another change of president so soon. Johnson took his triumph to mean that he had a blank check to go ahead with an extensive program of social legislation. The president concluded happily that the national unity he had asked for in the sad days of November 1963 had been achieved.

Johnson's goal as president was to achieve consensusto occupy that common ground on which the general citizenry and Congress alike could stand with him. One of his favorite sayings, "Come, let us reason together," became a rallying call to his banner. As a leader in the Senate he had already made known his fondness for consensus government even across party lines in the close working relationship he established with President Eisenhower. Now he would rely on the force and influence of his own personality rather than on the Democratic party itself. His persuasiveness with erstwhile colleagues on Capitol Hill, often involving psychological arm-twisting that long ago had been labeled the "Johnson treatment," would now be a feature of the relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Already Johnson's first year in office had revealed him a master, too, at self-advertising. Whether holding press conferences, walking his dogs on the White House lawn, or greeting new appointees with lavish fanfare, he was a constant item on the television screen. A photograph of him baring his new surgical scar (he had had his gall bladder removed) seemed undignified to many people, although it stamped him a down-to-earth man for countless others. He was at first an uncertain performer before the television camera, the now indispensable tool of politics, but he nevertheless conveyed a picture of strength. He projected a sense that with his bare hands he could seize the country's problems and subdue them.

The inauguration on 20 January 1965 was itself a symbol of national consensus. The first president elected from the South since Zachary Taylor in 1848, Johnson was serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." His inaugural address was a ringing call for national unity and noble deeds couched in almost biblical language. The president declared that "the oath I have taken before you and before God is not mine alone but ours together." And in rhetoric that evoked Franklin Roosevelt, he stated, "For every generation there is a destiny. For some, history decides. For this generation the choice must be our own." The destiny was to fulfill the American "covenant with this land"to achieve justice, liberty, and union. In speaking of the toil and tears that each generation must expend, he unashamedly echoed Winston Churchill. A sentence that called to mind Kennedy's full-throated call four years earlier to defend freedom wherever it was threatened was soon to prove prophetic: "If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, then that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant."

The new Congress was soon at Johnson's beck and call. It established two new cabinet posts: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to which Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver, the first black to hold a cabinet post, and the Department of Transportation. Johnson soon appointed the first solicitor general who was black, Thurgood Marshall (and elevated him in 1967 to the Supreme Court).

The special messages that Johnson sent to Capitol Hill began to inundate the lawmakers, even before the inauguration. On 7 January 1965 he called for Medicare, federally supported medical health services for the elderly, and improved health services for children, the mentally retarded, and the disabled; and he insisted upon millions of dollars for medical research. He traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign the Medicare bill in the presence of former president Harry Truman, whom Johnson saluted as the law's true progenitor.

Before Congress could catch its breath, he sent it a billion-dollar proposal that became the Education Act of 1965 to aid elementary and secondary public schools, provide preschool programs for young children, grant subsidies to school libraries, finance scholarships and loans to needy students, and extend a variety of help to small colleges. He put his signature on the bill in the one-room schoolhouse he had attended as a boy near Stonewall, Texas. At his side sat "Miss Katie," his first teacher.

Soon the president was pressing Congress to pass a revision of the immigration laws, liberalizing the national origins quota system. Johnson journeyed to the Statue of Liberty to sign the bill into law on 3 October. Meanwhile, under the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson had approved on 6 August, federal examiners went to work immediately, removing impediments to the registration of black voters in the South. No field of reform seemed beyond the interest and reach of the president, and his zeal in dramatizing his concerns was limitless.

Committed to enlarging the "quality of life," Johnson supported legislation for the beautification of highways that Lady Bird Johnson ardently sought. In the field of the arts, Johnson established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, with a wide agenda of unprecedented duties. The variegated list of laws the administration pursued included the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Johnson reserved special earnestness for the continuing War on Poverty. The Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 authorized $1.1 billion to rehabilitate and develop the mountainous region from Pennsylvania to Alabama and Georgia, which was experiencing severe social and economic hardship. The far-reaching Housing Act of 1965 made possible the construction of 240,000 low-rent public-housing units and provided $3 billion in grants for urban renewal. In May 1966, Johnson approved a supplementary appropriation bill to make possible the subsidization of rents for low- and moderate-income families. Said the president as he signed the act, "While every man's house cannot be a castle, it need not be a hovel." Under the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966, Johnson hoped to see large-scale rebuilding of the total economic and social environment of depressed urban communities. The law recognized, he said, "that our cities are made of people, not just bricks and mortar." The Eighty-ninth Congress completed under Johnson's baton the agenda of liberalism opened originally by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Speaker McCormack, who also had formed his views in the 1930s of the role of the federal government, shared Johnson's enthusiasm: "It is the Congress of accomplished hopes. It is the Congress of realized dreams."

Johnson never received the public adulation for his labors that he believed he had earned. In the private quarters of the White House, he had placed on the wall an old photograph of himself facing Roosevelt. Johnson had captioned it, "I listen." And unquestionably he had gone to school to FDR. Johnson's close aide Bill Moyers once said that to Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt was a book to be read and reread. Now, as a reform president, Johnson had "out-Roosevelted Roosevelt," but the beneficiaries did not make Johnson their hero as once they had deified Roosevelt.

By the 1960s the United States had become a welfare state. The largesse of government was no longer a gift but a due. Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere and general prosperity of Eisenhower's time had made it impossible to rekindle enthusiasm for a reforming president. Perhaps, too, many Americans saw Johnson as building a monument to himself as well as sweeping away the problems of industrial America. Where thoughtful people had once hoped to create a good society, Johnson had decided that his legacy to the nation would be Texas-size: the Great Society. He aroused not so much division as disbelief, a contaminant in the brew for immortality.

The liberalism Johnson espoused had been bred into his bones, so he could not see that its time might be drawing to a close. From his father, who taught the young Lyndon how to put his arm on people and serve the cause of social justice in the bargain, he acquired a model and the confidence to go and do likewise. When Johnson was imploring northern city bosses and southern cronies to take his way on civil rights, his nose almost on top of theirs, Texas old-timers could see Sam Johnson alive again.

From his mother the future chief executive acquired a sense of what he could make of himself. Even in his most rebellious time as a destructive and occasionally violent youth, Johnson must have had a picture in his mind's eye of a better young man who one day would please his mother. He later would say that he never made a major decision in his career without consulting her. It is not too much to guess that when Johnson said he wished to be remembered as "the education president," he could feel the influence of his mother who would accompany him to the front gate of their house each morning, reviewing with him the stuff of his lessons for the day.

Finally, Johnson was stamped by the models he took for himself from among the affluent cattlemen and oilmen he admired and envied. They tended to see the world through red-white-and-blue glasses and to regard physical power as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. Moreover, the Texas cowboy tradition of fiction and fact left its impress on Johnson. It reinforced his determination to plump for what was right and to be quick on the draw.

In a nation addicted to television, Johnson's personality became an object of public scrutiny. His penchant for secret conferral and for needlessly refusing to show his hand, which sometimes could seem conspiratorial, grated on associates and, after he entered the White House, on representatives of the media. Many of them began to see a "credibility gap" between the truth and certain White House utterances. The habit of dissimulating thwarted Johnson's hope to be loved by the people. The eager heartiness with which he embraced others by seeming to take them into his confidence may have been an indication of his awareness that he was not really loved in return, although this mannerism may have been accentuated by his considerable deafness, which he never acknowledged publicly.

The bawdy language that notably peppered his conversation suggests that he harbored a deep feeling of inferiority, which even his sizehe stood six feet, three inches, and weighed two hundred poundscould not overcome. The frustration of his youth that there were people richer and luckier than he appeared never to have left him. It seemed to show in his frequent comment that he came from "the wrong part of the country"an irascible reference to the eastern establishment, which steadfastly regarded him as an outsider. Possibly he compensated for the felt deprivation in his remarkable love of creature comforts and especially in the fervor with which he outfitted his ranch on the Pedernales River.

Never far from his thoughts was the fear that his presidency, like Wilson's, might be destroyed by his physical incapacity. He later wrote, "Whenever I walked through the Red Room and saw Woodrow Wilson hanging there I thought of him stretched out upstairs in the White House, powerless to move, with the machinery of the American government in disarray around him." Johnson may have felt unconsciously that he had no time to lose, that the clock was running against him. Possibly his concern over his health helps explain the frenzy of his presidential activity. Or possibly with his eyes on history's judgment of him he simply wanted to "do it all." The White House staff was aware of Johnson's expressed concern that he might run out of problems to solvenever out of solutions.

Foreign Affairs

In international politics, Johnson was unschooled, and he seemed to lean on precepts gleaned from personal experience. "I know these Latin Americans," he told some newspaper reporters when he had been in the White House only a short while. "I grew up with Mexicans. They'll come right into your yard and take it over if you let them.. . . But if you say to 'em right at the start, 'Hold on, just a minute,' they'll know they're dealing with somebody who'll stand up. And after that you can get along just fine." Still, Johnson was no hothead or saber rattler. The besetting concern over Fidel Castro's regime gave Johnson an opportunity to show his mettle early in his administration. The Cuban dictator was demanding the return to Cuba of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay. To underscore his determination, he shut off the water to the American installation. Johnson countered the move immediately by instructing the navy to establish its own water supply. The Cubans working on the base were simply ordered to spend their wages there or be dismissed.

Johnson also showed moderation and self-control when nationalistic rioting took place in the Panama Canal Zone in early 1964. As demonstrators screamed, "Gringos, go home," President Roberto Chiari insisted that the time had come to revise the treaties governing United States-Panama relations. After the violence ended, Johnson agreed to enter into negotiations, declaring afterward that "it was indeed time for the United States and Panama to take a fresh look at our treaties." A United States-Panama treaty was finally signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, providing for Panama to assume full control of the canal at the end of 1999.

Latin America presented persistent problems. The Alliance for Progress had created high expectations throughout the region, but it was not yielding the improved standard of living the masses of people had been led to expect. Trouble broke out in the Dominican Republic on 24 April 1965. The civilian government of Donald Reid Cabral came under attack from liberal and radical followers of Juan Bosch. Bosch, heading a reform party, had received 60 percent of the votes in a national election in 1962, but he had been ousted in a coup d'état. The new regime under Reid Cabral received the support of the Department of State, although its leader apparently had little popular support. Moreover, the country was in increasing economic difficulties. In April 1965 a group of young army officers raised the banner of revolt, aiming to restore the exited Bosch to the presidency. Civil war ensued as the senior army officers, backed by conservative elements, opposed the insurgents. In the fierce fighting that followed, the military seemed to be winning. But the pro-Bosch forces gained strength by arming civilians in the city. As the struggle raged on, more than a thousand Americans became trapped in the Embajador Hotel. Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, concerned for their safety, expressed anxiety over a possible Castro-like government emerging. He cabled President Johnson, urging that troops be landed immediately in order to protect American citizens. On 28 April marines waiting offshore aboard an aircraft carrier were landed and quickly established a cease-fire in Santo Domingo. The following month the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed to station a peacekeeping force in the Dominican Republic to replace the marines.

Johnson had possibly saved American lives and had prevented the rise of a Communist government. He was able, moreover, to withdraw the American forces gracefully when the OAS troops moved in. Still, he had lost some credibility as he sought to justify the steps he had taken. Two days after the dispatch of troops, he explained his actions on the ground that "people trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control." On 2 May he identified the cause of the trouble as a "band of Communist conspirators." In private conversation Johnson stated that "we took out 5,641 people from forty-six nationswithout even a sprained ankle.. . . If I hadn't acted, Castro would have had them all." Some Americans were inclined to agree with Bosch's assessment: "This was a democratic revolution smashed by the leading democracy of the world." Johnson had acted on his conviction that "the last thing the American people wanted . . . was another Cuba on our doorstep."

Under Johnson, relations with the Soviet Union seemed less menacing than did those with the People's Republic of China, although Johnson himself was not afraid of China. In 1967 he said: "Why would the Chinese want to take on the United States of America? . . . It would be like an eleven-year-old colored girl from Tennessee going up against Jack Dempsey." And he added, "One way to avoid [war with China] is to quit talking about it." Johnson's dour view of the Soviets possibly had been modified by the cordial meeting he held at Glassboro, New Jersey, with Premier Aleksey Kosygin in June 1967, which may have accelerated progress in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty the president was seeking.

Vietnam: An Entangling Alliance

Despite a folksy manner and intonation, which some Americans took as proof that he was only a regional man, Johnson knew that there was beyond the Pedernales a vastly different world full of treacherous risks. He sensed, too, that his place in history might ultimately depend on how he managed foreign affairs. He was no reader of history, but he had watched intently the doings of his predecessors and had an elephant's memory for their mistakes, particularly those that were politically expensive. He had seen how Truman's experience in "losing" China had hounded the Missourian to the end of his administration. He had pondered the frustration that Castro's coming to power had caused the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Moreover, Johnson could vividly recalland the details were constantly at the tip of his tonguethe efforts of Franklin Roosevelt and his people to buck the isolationist tide in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For Johnson that experience was like a remembered time of terror he did not wish to relive. Forthright steps like those he had taken in the Dominican Republic would help prevent it. They became linked with the war in Vietnam when he called upon Congress on 4 May 1965 for the sum of $700 million in additional military appropriations for both undertakings.

The Vietnam situation was a time bomb in the administration. Inherited from Kennedy and Eisenhower, like most of the problems Johnson faced, it gradually became an overwhelming force. During the campaign of 1964, it was beginning to move to the center of public attention. It had been creeping up slowly for years. At the time of Kennedy's assassination more than sixteen thousand Americans were stationed in Vietnam, and the danger of deeper involvement enlarged as the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem began to cause widespread unrest.

Johnson himself had visited South Vietnam as vice president and had seen at first hand how heavily American prestige was already committed there. Scarcely become president, though, he was privately telling confidants (which we now know from his telephone taping), "I don't think it's worth fighting for." Johnson, nevertheless, was about to become "the Vietnam president," unable to win the war the way he understood it had to be fought and unable to extricate the United States on terms he believed acceptable. Still, he was determined: "I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went."

Hardly settled into his own term of office in 1965, Johnson confronted on 6 February a Vietcong attack on the American barracks at Pleiku. Two days before the election a costly attack on the American installation at Bien Hoa had gone unanswered. Now American B-52 bombers assaulted North Vietnam, the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, the program of gradually intensified air attacks. Johnson ordered that American dependents be evacuated from Saigon. At the same time, the American military presence in Vietnam was beefed up.

At a news conference on 27 April, Johnson stated the issue as he saw it. The United States, he declared, is "engaged in a crucial issue in Vietnam.. . . Defeat in South Vietnam would deliver a friendly nation to terror and repression. It would encourage and spur on those who seek to conquer all free nations that are within their reach." The "domino theory" of the Eisenhower era received new reinforcement. If North Vietnam succeeded in taking over South Vietnam, said the president, "our own welfare, our own freedom would be in danger." He added: "This is the clearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today we have learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats and brings even more destructive war." He was certain that "this is the same battle which we [have] fought for a generation." He stood ready, he declared, to enter into unconditional discussions with the North Vietnamese. Even as he spoke so resolutely, the process was under way that would erode the Johnson administration and gradually turn the nation against him in scenes of fitful violence unprecedented in the history of the presidency. From the beginning of his presidency he was anguished over his plight, musing privately that "when I land troops they call me an interventionist [referring to his move in the Dominican Republic], and if I do nothing I'll be impeached." So, the troubling buildup in Vietnam continued. There were 33,500 American soldiers and marines in Vietnam in April 1965; there were 75,000 by the end of June. And the mission of the troops was gradually broadened from static defense to permit patrolling of the countryside.

Even as the American troop commitment was growing, Johnson had grave doubts about the course he had set the country on. Anxiously, he asked former President Eisenhower: "[Do] you think that we can really get beat out there?" And he was saying to Lady Bird Johnson, his most trusted confidante: "Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It's like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing with the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute."

In June, American forces took on an active role against the Vietcong in a zone northwest of Saigon. Nevertheless, the troops were instructed not to initiate offensive action. The air strikes, furthermore, were confined to nonindustrial targets some distance removed from Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, and Haiphong, its principal port.

In July the military situation in South Vietnam worsened noticeably. The government was shakier than ever, and the Vietcong were pressing the attack. On 28 July the president announced that 50,000 more Americans would be sent to the war zone immediately. And he was looking further down the road: "Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested." Johnson talked once again of the stakes: "If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or in American protection." By the end of 1965, there were almost 185,000 uniformed Americans in Vietnam, and the end was not in sight.

The war, moreover, was spreading beyond Vietnam. The United States felt free to take action in Cambodia if necessary to protect American troops in South Vietnam. The bombing of infiltration routes in Laos was being intensified. And the bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail leading from North Vietnam was raising the specter of possible Chinese intervention in the war. Johnson and his intimates were unable to define what a victory would be, and they were terrified of "another Korea"a war with an indecisive outcome. Instead of victory, they preferred the phrase favorable settlement defined by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara as coming about when the North Vietnamese ceased feeding "the fires of subversion and aggression in South Vietnam" so that South Vietnam could gradually "expand its control and shape the outcome." The president continued to use the words winning and losing. Until early 1968 he believed what he had been saying in mid-1965: "I know the other side is winning; so they do, too. No man wants to trade when he's winning." So he concluded that the United States would have to "apply the maximum deterrent until [the enemy] sobers up and unloads his pistol." Johnson persisted in a mistaken conviction that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, was, like most other politicians, ready sooner or later to make a deal.

At Christmastime 1965 the president conducted a worldwide effortthe "Johnson peace offensive"aimed at commencing negotiations. Vice President Hubert Humphrey sped off to meet with Soviet Premier Kosygin in New Delhi; Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg visited with Pope Paul VI, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk conferred in Saigon with South Vietnamese officials. The veteran diplomatic troubleshooter Averell Harriman went behind the Iron Curtain to present the position of the administration to ranking officials in Warsaw and Belgrade. The good offices of U Thant, the secretary general of the United Nations, were also earnestly enlisted. The peace offensive, launched with a dramatic and well-publicized halt in the bombing of the North, ended after thirty-seven days on 31 January 1966an unmitigated failure.

Protest at Home

The war was beginning to threaten Johnson's prized consensus. The first sign had been the votes of Senators Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But during 1965 other leading senators went into opposition. Two of the best known were William F. Fulbright of Arkansas and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Fulbright, who was opposed to the resumption of bombing after the temporary halt, voiced his fear of an "ever-increasing escalation in the fighting." Morse, the most caustic of the critics, boldly and angrily predicted that the American people "will repudiate our war in Southeast Asia."

Johnson's response was more and more rancorous and hostile. He saw Americans as divided simply "between cut-and-run people and patriotic people." With deep sarcasm he said of his critics: "They have a real feeling for danger.. . . They see a fire and they turn off the hose because it is essential that we not waste any water." Mindful of Fulbright's opposition to the civil rights movement, Johnson pointedly explained the senator's opposition to the war as racist, asserting that the senator from Arkansas "cannot understand that people with brown skins value freedom too."

Johnson never accepted the widely held view of the Democratic "doves" (opponents of the war) that the conflict was a civil war and that the Vietcong had won the allegiance of most South Vietnamese even before the North Vietnamese had began their large-scale infiltration. While Johnson and his people insisted that China was the puppeteer manipulating the assault on South Vietnam, the doves scoffed, maintaining that if the United States restrained itself and did not force North Vietnam to seek Chinese assistance, an independent Communist Vietnam might evolve. The doves rejected, too, Johnson's insistence that the United States had a solemn obligation to act under the provisions of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Johnson was adamant, taking pains to point out that Mike Mansfield of Montana, who had succeeded him as majority leader in the Senate and was increasingly opposed to the war, had been a signatory of the treaty establishing SEATO.

A serious defection from the phalanx of Great Society supporters was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King had concluded that the prosecution of the war was assuming a higher priority than the pledged expansion of civil rights. But Johnson remained adamant, at increasingly heavy cost to the nation's tranquillity and to the base of power that had carried him to his recent electoral victory.

By the end of 1966, the momentum of Johnson's Great Society program was slowing. Worse, the tide of domestic troublesinflation, a price-wage squeeze, and mounting strikeswas rising, mostly because of the war in Vietnam. Yet the problems could not be managed unless the war ended. Besides, Johnson, having widened the war without calling for public sacrifice, continued to act as if the country could have "both guns and butter." The situation called for a cutback in domestic spending or an increase in taxes, but Johnson was unwilling to break up his immense majority in Congress by asking for either.

The air war in Vietnam had clearly not produced the results sought. Johnson, increasingly testy, even became disenchanted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman, General Earle G. Wheeler, also a victim of heart trouble, he felt kin to. "Bomb, bomb, bomb, that's all you know," Johnson several times complained in frustration. The search-and-destroy operations of the troops under General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, did not seem to put a strain on enemy manpower. "Westy" now had almost 500,000 men in Vietnam, more than 3,000 helicopters, 28 tactical fighter-bombers, and large numbers of giant B-52 bombers. The Vietnam landscape was so heavily pockmarked by the aerial assaults that experienced pilots could fly to their targets by following bomb craters whose configuration had become familiar to them.

In early August 1967, Johnson formalized to the generals his response to their latest request for troopsfor 100,000 more. He would allow them 45,000 and thus bring to 525,000 the strength of the force in Vietnam by the middle of 1968. But he knew that progress in the war was not taking place. He asked Westmoreland, "When we add divisions, can't the enemy add divisions? If so where does it all end?" Expanding the war by calling up the reserves seemed out of the question. The American death toll was rising: by the end of 1967 it was approaching 500 a week. The cost of the war in 1967 was $25 billion, fueling what would prove to be a long cycle of inflation. Moreover, television news was for the first time in American history bringing the battlefield into the living room regularly. Millions were appalled at the use of napalm on villagers who seemed innocent victims of forces they could not comprehend. In the eyes of the world, the United States was Goliath mercilessly pummeling David.

The war had significantly changed the public's judgment of Johnson. Once seen as a political magician with a sure mastery of people and circumstances, he now seemed battered by events out of his control and beyond his ken. His vaunted capacity for wearing out his young aides was being enlarged by a fury regarding any form of dissent within the ranks. And the people saw a president who wearily wrestled with the politics of the nation's problems rather than with the problems themselves. His ill-temperedness, sometimes combined with disingenuousness, made his public persona unattractive to many Americans. It stood in the way of bringing Johnson the public sympathy a beleaguered president traditionally receives, as Kennedy had received it after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. Not even Lincoln in the darkest days of the Civil War had faced such intense dissent and public doubts about his course of action.

The opposition to the Vietnam War was given its most powerful expression by college students. One of their first responses had been the device of the teach-inhours-long discussions of the war with many participantsthe first of which took place on the campus of the University of Michigan on 24 March 1965a one-day school moratorium during which professors spoke on the war instead of offering their regular lectures. The teach-in became familiar throughout the country. Moreover, it provided an opportunity for students to vent other grievances: against the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), against academic support of scientific work for defense purposes, against the exclusion of students from college decision making, and against a medley of real and imagined irritations. The public demonstrations, which may have been an important stimulus to draft resistance, seemed to merge with the uprising known as the youth movement. Johnson, who had never given up the fond hope of being remembered as a friend of education, was publicly taunted at student rallies, often with the stinging refrain, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

Concurrently Johnson's relationship with the black community cooled noticeably. Some part of the disaffection was owing to the unpopular war, involving as it did the disruption of a land inhabited by people of color, but it also grew out of the alienation from a generally prosperous society of its black people, who did not share in the bounty, and out of a natural evolution of the civil rights movement from a call for integration to a demand for "black power." The neighborhoods of tenements and slums occupied by poor blacks in the North, now denominated ghettos, were notably marked by high unemployment and run-down schools. Even as the presidential campaign had gotten under way in 1964, a riot in New York erupted and lasted five days.

In the next few years the nation experienced "long, hot summers"riots and the threats of riots in major cities. The Watts district of Los Angeles burst into flames in 1965, and black communities exploded in Cleveland in 1966, in Newark and Detroit in 1967, and in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Anxiety over possible race war gripped many cities as the words "Burn, baby, burn" were reported to be the battle cry of the rioters. The nation was reaping a whirlwind resulting from its long neglect and indifference to the needs of the black poor. As the destruction, including looting and attacks on white policemen, firemen, and National Guardsmen, rent the air, it was easy to find a scapegoat: Johnson and his war in Vietnam. Both he and the struggle in Asia became more unpopular than ever.

The president's response was to appoint the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto D. Kerner of Illinois. The report delivered to the president on 2 March 1968 blamed white racism for the troubles. The country, it declared, was dividing into two societies, one white, one black"separate and unequal." Its recommendations included a call for open housing and other "massive" programs. Johnson praised the report, but it distressed him, too, for he said: "They always print that we don't do enough. They don't print what we do." Johnson felt stymied: the War on Poverty he had designed had spent more than $6 billion from 1964 to 1967, and poverty had not disappeared. Indeed, there was extensive proof of widespread malnutrition and even hunger in the country. Fresh evidence came to public attention just as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that he was proposing a new antiballistic missile defense system that would cost $5 billion. Johnson was now the object of the new accusation that he was unable any longer to discern the nation's true priorities. Many Americans insisted that poverty could be wiped out if the money being spent on the war were diverted to the home front.

In October 1967 a mass protest by a group calling itself the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam descended upon Washington. The administration was torn: Should it call a new bombing halt to satisfy the growing opposition at home, or should it intensify the war in order to satisfy the "hawks," who were eager to smite North Vietnam decisively? Before the end of November, a public opinion poll showed that confidence in Johnson's management of the war had dropped to 23 percentthe lowest point yet. Nevertheless, public support of the war effort itself remained at about 45 percent between November and March 1968.

The president and his principal spokesmen were finding it harder each week to avoid the chanting protesters, who seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in history, a president was unwelcome in public in most parts of the country, making him a veritable prisoner in the White House, "hunkered down" there, to use one of his favorite expressions. At the end of 1967 he traveled to Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan in four and a half days, returning to the White House on Christmas Eve after stopping off for a surprise meeting with the pope in the Vatican. Johnson was once again attempting to placate the doves. One means was to state a willingness to accept Vietcong representatives in discussions of the war at the United Nations. The immediate effect was to disrupt relations with South Vietnam, where President Nguyen Van Thieu expressed cold anger at Washington for seeming to have truck with the enemy.

In his State of the Union message of 17 January 1968, Johnson could report that "Americans are as prosperous as men have ever been in recorded history." Still, he took note of the disarray in the country, as he added, "Yet there is in the land a certain restlessness, a questioning." Privately the president was gloomy and depressed. By now, even McGeorge Bundy, who as Johnson's first special assistant for national security affairs had been an architect of the first phase of the war, had come out against its continuation.

The nation's discontent intruded into the White House itself when, on 18 January 1968, Mrs. Johnson held a luncheon for a group of white and black women who had been invited in order to discuss crime in the streets. One of the guests, Eartha Kitt, a prominent singer, rose shortly after the president had spoken briefly, to assert that young people were rebelling and smoking marijuana because of the war. "Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy. They figure [that] with a [prison] record they don't have to go off to Vietnam." Johnson was furious over what he regarded as an affront to the presidency delivered in the White House itself and over the extensive coverage of the incident in the press and on television.

The Final Days

Johnson's political world was soon a shambles. In November 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy had announced his audacious intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. McCarthy was opposed not only to the war but also to what he saw as the excessive power of the presidency under Johnson. For a brief time Johnson assumed that McCarthy was only a stalking-horse for Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, which incensed him all the more. The Kennedys, he had come to think, regarded themselves as superior people to himself.

In March 1968, Clark Clifford, Johnson's long-time informal adviser and widely regarded as a hawk, became the secretary of defense. The president did not want another doubting Thomasas McNamara had becomeserving in his cabinet. Nevertheless, events soon overwhelmed traditional categories. On 23 January the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering vessel, was seized by North Korean gunboats while on patrol off the North Korean port of Wonsan, and the crew of eighty men imprisoned. The president, provoked and exasperated, restrained himself despite a public outcry for quick military retaliation. He responded by calling to active duty fifteen thousand air force and navy reservists and ordering the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to assume a station off the coast of South Korea. His desire was to give assurance that despite the war in Vietnam, he continued to exercise freedom of military action. Following frustrating negotiations, the crew was freed eleven months later, after the United States admitted culpability for violating Korean waters and apologized. Apparently by prearrangement, the "confession" was repudiated after the men's release, for it obviously had been wrenched out of the United States under duress.

A week after the seizure of the Pueblo, critical developments changed the scene in Vietnam. While Saigon was celebrating Tet, the lunar new year, the Vietcong had launched an attack on the city, including the vital Tan Son Nhut Airport. Within two days every significant city or provincial capital in South Vietnam was under assault. General Westmoreland said that the concerted attack had been expected but not its size and destructiveness. The United States and South Vietnamese forces, caught by surprise, recovered quickly. Yet the recapture of the beautiful old capital of Hue, which contained many architectural treasures, took three weeks and some of the costliest fighting of the war. In the end, the city lay in ruins.

The administration insisted that in blunting the Tet offensive it had gained a victory, but the public generally perceived the outcome of the battle as a defeat. In truth, the struggle was a prelude to a decision in Washington to wind down the war. Johnson insisted at a press conference on 2 February that basic United States strategy would remain unchanged. He was relying heavily upon the assessment of the military situation by his generals. He and they, ever mindful of the decisive defeat that the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had inflicted on the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, were determined that a similar disaster would not befall the American forces. When crack North Vietnamese units laid siege to the marine garrison and South Vietnamese regulars at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border in late 1967, fear of such an outcome ran high. Johnson anxiously followed the fierce encounter from the war room in the White House. The beleaguered troopssubstantially reinforced in response to Johnson's order to hold at all costlifted the siege in early April. They had been given the heaviest air support ever accorded to ground forces. Johnson, temporarily relieved by the reports of these momentous battles, continued to rally support in the nation. He even personally bid farewell to a contingent of troops being hurried to the war zone.

The war was entering a new phase. General Wheeler, who had rushed to Vietnam after the Tet offensive, returned with a request from General Westmoreland for additional troops206,000 of them. To raise and support that many men would require calling up reservists and adding $10 billion to the federal budget. Johnson, seemingly aware now that his goal of "carrying forward the Nation's struggle against aggression in Southeast Asia" was not going to be achieved, instructed Secretary Clifford to undertake a close study of the Westmoreland request. Clifford became the instrument through which the policy of constantly expanding the American presence in Vietnam was eventually reversed.

Johnson, meanwhile, had come to the conclusion that with the military force the United States had in Vietnam the Americans were not going to be able, as he put it, "to nail the coonskin to the wall." Political developments no doubt were determinative in leading Johnson to reexamine his position on staying the course. On 12 March, McCarthy, whom the president personally scorned, won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Robert Kennedy, no doubt emboldened by McCarthy's victory, entered the presidential race too.

The next two weeks were decisive for the president. He had reached certain conclusions, which he announced on 31 March in an address to the nation. He was halting the bombing of North Vietnam in the hope that the step would lead to peace, and he was going to give higher priority than ever to expanding the size of the South Vietnamese forcesthat is, to "Vietnamizing" the war once againand he was authorizing a small increase in the American forces in Vietnam.

At the end of his address he dropped a political bombshell: he would not be a candidate for reelection. He declared, "I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year." In his memoirs he later reported that he had decided even as he took the oath in January 1965 that he would never take it again. His health, he had concluded, would not stand the punishment of another term. Johnson did not mention that already the public opinion polls, which he followed intensely on all matters throughout his presidency, showed he would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of McCarthy in the upcoming primary election in Wisconsin. Following the announcement, Johnson's political fortunes revived briefly as Congress passed his proposals for fair housing (embraced in the Civil Rights Act of 1968) and also a tax increase. But his presidency was soon in the doldrums again as the peace talks seemed to be going nowhere. In October his nominee for chief justice, Associate Justice Abe Fortas, was turned down by the Senate, the first time a president had been thus humiliated since 1795, when Washing-ton's nomination of John Rutledge as the second chief justice was rejected.

Event had piled upon event. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on 4 April. The riots that ensued added to the dismay of the American people at the low state to which public order and morale had fallen. Two months later Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. When the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in August to choose a presidential candidate amid violence in the streets, as police and antiwar protesters battled each other, the party named Vice President Hubert Humphrey to carry its banner. Johnson's hold on the party had slipped so badly that he did not even attend the convention.

Humphrey, who felt deeply obligated personally to Johnson, was unable to shake the albatross of Johnson's dealings with the North Vietnamese, now negotiating in Paris with American negotiators. The Republicans had nominated Richard Nixon, who insistedwithout specifying his meaningthat "new leadership can end the war in the Pacific and bring peace." The crowning disappointment of the summer of 1968 was the need to cancel Johnson's long-planned trip to Moscow for talks on the limiting of antiballistic missiles. All had been in readiness when, on 20 August, at the height of the tumultuous Democratic convention, 200,000 Russian and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress a movement to liberalize society in that Iron Curtain country. The ratification of a proposed treaty was postponed. The president seemed trapped in a maze without an exit.

In retirement, Johnson worked on plans for his presidential library (dedicated in May 1971) on the campus of the University of Texas, in Austin. He devoted time, too, to the preparation of his memoirs, published under the title The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 19631969. Meanwhile, his heart condition worsened, and it was increasingly difficult for him to exert himself. In considerable physical distress, he presided over a memorable symposium on civil rights at his library only a few weeks before he died on 22 January 1973. He was buried on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

The war remains the dark side of Johnson's moon; domestic legislation is the shining side, particularly the civil rights laws that remain his monument. As his administration drew to a close, Johnson must have felt betrayed by history and by his close associates, whom he had regarded as his choicest inheritance from Kennedy, and by old friends like Senator Fulbright, the carping chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Johnson's wondrous hopes for America were not going to be realized in his time. The civil rights struggle had not yet completely moved from the streets into the courts, although, despite the burning cities of the late sixties, that process was clearly under way.

Johnson came to recognize that he was at the wrong point in history. Although his dream to re-make life for the deprived and underprivileged and to be recalled forever as their benefactor had been shattered by the awful bloodletting ten thousand miles from home, the ideal of a land without poverty or racial division remains his legacy to America. Possibly he sensed this when, in an unusual move, he delivered a State of the Union message on 14 January 1969, just before leaving office. His words were a last call for the passage of Great Society legislation. He plainly had not run out of problems requiring attention, as he once had feared he would.

Americans will continue to ponder the incomplete triumph at home and the unfinished and losing war abroad of its first cowboy president, who came out of the hill country of Texas, certain of how society's wrongs could be put right. As he left office to return to his ranch and to the other substantial interests that his political successes had given him the opportunity to acquire, he rested his case with history. And he could hope that one day Americans with a longer perspective on the Vietnam War would judge more favorably than had his contemporaries what he had attempted in Asia and the central role he had played in the tragic epoch that shook the nation to its roots.


Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 19631969 (New York, 1971), is the president's memoirs, a team effort with loyalist writers. His My Hope for America (New York, 1964) is a campaign document containing his philosophy of government culled from some of his speeches. Lady Bird Johnson, A White House Diary (New York, 1970), is an impressive book of reminiscences based on the First Lady's daily talks into her tape recorder. Johnson's exchanges with members of the media are found in The Johnson Presidential Press Conferences, 2 vols. (New York, 1978).

Irving Bernstein, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New York, 1996), is the best one-volume treatment, elaborating masterfully how the Vietnam War undermined the Great Society. Vaughn Davis Bornet, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lawrence, Kans., 1983), covers the ground, although it is turgid in style. A lively and penetrating one-volume biography is Paul K. Conkin, Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson (Boston, 1986). Robert A. Caro, The Path to Power (New York, 1982) and Means of Ascent (New York, 1990), are the first two volumes of a planned four-volume study, The Years of Lyndon Johnson ; it is sharply critical and enormously detailed. Ronnie Dugger, The Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate (New York, 1982), also critical, is based substantially on many interviews with LBJ; it is the first volume of a projected study entitled The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson. Outstanding on Johnson's early career, and elegantly written, is Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 19081960 (New York, 1991). Leonard Baker, The Johnson Eclipse: A President's Vice Presidency (New York, 1966), is devoted to the most disappointing years in Johnson's public life.

Philip Reed Rulon, The Compassionate Samaritan: The Life of Lyndon Baines Johnson (Chicago, 1981), evaluates the man with fervent praise. Alfred Steinberg, Sam Johnson's Boy: A Close-up of the President from Texas (New York, 1968), concludes that LBJ failed to grow in office. Merle Miller, Lyndon: An Oral Biography (New York, 1980), brings Johnson to life through taped recollections of friends and associates. Louis Heren, No Hail, No Farewell (New York, 1970), is a judicious evaluation of the Johnson presidency by the chief Washington correspondent of the Times of London. William S. White, The Professional: Lyndon B. Johnson (Boston, 1964), is a compelling portrait that served as a campaign biography. The best account of Johnson's election to the presidency is Theodore H. White, The Making of the President: 1964 (New York, 1965). For the family background, books by Johnson's mother and brother are available: Rebekah Baines Johnson, A Family Album (New York, 1965), and Sam Houston Johnson, My Brother, Lyndon (New York, 1970).

George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 19501975, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1986), is the best brief English-language history of the struggle. Herring's LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Austin, Tex., 1994), using newly released materials, exposes freshly some basic flaws in Johnson's management of the war. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, rev. ed. (New York, 1991), is a spirited, on-the-battlefield recounting. Another instructive review is Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York, 1991). Henry F. Graff, The Tuesday Cabinet: Deliberation and Decision on Peace and War Under Lyndon B. Johnson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), presents the administration's rationale for fighting in Vietnam, based on extensive conversations over a period of years with the principal architects of the war. Frank E. Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson's Wars (College Station, Tex., 1997), is an accounting of LBJ's performance as commander in chief. David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers (Lawrence, Kans., 1993), aims to disentangle the sources of Johnson's policies. For a contemporaneous evocation of the atmosphere in which Johnson and his chief lieutenants made decisions, there is none better than David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, 1972).

The role of Johnson's secretary of state in the shaping of the Vietnam War is set forth unemotionally in Dean Rusk's memoir, As I Saw It (New York, 1990). The secretary of defense's belated recounting of the failure of the Johnson policies and of how early he knew they were wrong is in Robert S. McNamara, with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York, 1995). Clark Clifford, with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York, 1991), recounts the author's labors as LBJ's second secretary of defense to begin winding down the war. Jack Valenti, A Very Human President (New York, 1975), is one of the best of the insiders' accounts, showing Johnson always reaching for lofty goals. Harry McPherson, A Political Education (Boston, 1972), is a superior set of recollections by a special assistant and counsel to the president. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., A Presidential Nation (New York, 1975), illuminates problems of the presidency as he saw them while serving as presidential assistant for domestic affairs. Califano's The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years (New York, 1991) gives an unsurpassed recital of Johnson at work on his legislative agenda. Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York, 1976), is based on the author's experience as a White House fellow; psychoanalytically oriented, it purports to shed light on LBJ's relations with his mother. A penetrating appraisal of Johnson by his first press secretary is George Reedy, Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir (New York, 1982). George Christian, the last press secretary, covers sensitively Johnson's final hundred days in office in The President Steps Down: A Personal Memoir of the Transfer of Power (New York, 1970). Eric F. Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (New York, 1969), derives from his experience as "intellectual-in-residence" at the White House and tells persuasively of the changes that overtook Johnson as the war progressed.

Specialized studies on significant aspects of the Johnson years include Kathleen J. Turner, Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam and the Press (Chicago, 1985), and Bruce E. Altschuler, LBJ and the Polls (Gainesville, Fla., 1990). The series on the administrative history of the Johnson White House published by the University of Texas Press contains W. Henry Lambright, Presidential Management of Science and Technology: The Johnson Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1985); James E. Anderson and Jared E. Hazleton, Managing Macroeconomic Policy: The Johnson Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1986); Neil D. McFeeley, Appointment of Judges: The Johnson Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1987); David M. Welborn and Jesse Burkhead, Intergovernmental Relations in the American Administrative State: The Johnson Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1989); Paul Y. Hammond, LBJ and the Presidential Management of Foreign Relations (Austin, Tex., 1992); and David M. Welborn, Regulation in the White House: The Johnson Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1993). William E. Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan (Ithaca, N.Y, 1983), brilliantly illuminates LBJ's connection to Roosevelt in chapter 4. A good brief discussion of Johnson's economic policies by a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford is in Herbert Stein, Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond (New York, 1984).

Only slightly out of date is Lyndon B. Johnson: A Bibliography, 2 vols. (Austin, Tex., 19841988). Invaluable still is Robert A. Divine, ed., Exploring the Johnson Years (Austin, Tex., 1981), which discusses in eight essays by Johnson scholars the available literature on LBJ and the resources of the Johnson Library in Austin.

A variety of finding aids, selected oral history transcripts, and descriptions of available recordings of Johnson's telephone conversations may be found by consulting the home page of the Johnson Library at

Recent works include Michael Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: The Secret Johnson White House Tapes, 19641965 (New York, 2001); Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York, 2002), the third of Caro's planned four-volume study The Years of Lyndon Johnson, detailing LBJ's rise in the legislative body; Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago, 1995); Robert Mann, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York, 1996); H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York, 1997); and Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade (New York, 1997).

Johnson, Lyndon Baines

views updated May 18 2018

JOHNSON, Lyndon Baines

(b. 27 August 1908 near Stone-wall, Texas; d. 22 January 1973 near Johnson City, Texas), premier American politician who became the thirty-sixth president of the United States (1963–1969).

Some people said that Johnson was like a colossus looming over the land. Others said that he was an "elemental force" in twentieth-century American politics. Indeed, he was a legendary titan who strode onto the pages of American history determined to fashion a political career that would have meaning long after his death. South Koreans once called him the "King of Kings," and they called his wife "Blue Bird." The television commentator Bill Moyers once suggested that he could walk on water. Society women in Dallas called him a Communist, spat on him, and hit him and his wife on their heads with placards, while pundits in Washington, D.C., called him a conservative. He stood six feet, four inches tall, and his legacy is equally huge. For good or ill, he changed America forever. With his massive reform program, he challenged Americans to be better than they were; he challenged them to care about the lowly, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden. While he strove for a Great Society, his administration was ruined by the Vietnam War.

Johnson was the eldest of five children of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a politician, farmer, cotton speculator, and newspaper owner, and Rebekah (Baines) Johnson, a homemaker and sometime newspaper editor. Until the age of five, he grew up on the family farm in the hill country of Texas, but in 1913 the family shut down the farm and moved to Johnson City, a town of about 350 residents that was named after one of Johnson's ancestors. After attending the town's public schools, Johnson graduated in 1924 from Johnson City High School, one of a class of six.

Believing that he could find fame and fortune in California, Johnson, along with four friends, headed west. He ended up working as a clerk for an attorney who was one of his relatives. Without the fame and fortune that he sought, young Johnson decided to return home a year later. Back home, he worked on a highway construction crew for a time but eventually listened to his mother's advice that he attend college. In 1927 he enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teacher's College (SWTSTC) in San Marcos, Texas, a town just south of Austin and not far from Johnson City. Johnson worked his way through school and eventually came to the attention of Cecil Evans, president of SWTSTC. Johnson worked his way up from building janitor to Evans's student assistant.

After his junior year, when he was almost totally without funds, he took a temporary nine-month teaching job at Cotulla in southern Texas, a place about midway between San Antonio and Laredo. When he arrived in Cotulla, he was surprised and shocked by what he observed. The town had a population of about three thousand; Mexican Americans numbered 2,250. In fact, the place was a slave-labor camp, where the majority of Hispanics labored long to produce wealth for the white community of the region. The Tejanos received in return poverty, segregated slum housing, and a segregated school, the one that hired young Johnson as a teacher-principal. Hispanics lived in one-room shacks, amid open sewers and incredible filth. The white community largely viewed the Hispanics with derision, and some even denied them their humanity by treating them like inferiors and insulting, humiliating, and abusing them day in and day out. Although Johnson had about two hundred Tejano children in his school, the majority of underage youth labored long in the fields rather than attending school. Many times Johnson observed even tiny Mexican-American children digging in garbage cans for food.

At his school, Johnson saw hopeless children every day. The school did not even schedule a lunch hour, for most students had no food to bring from home. His school did not have playground equipment; indeed, the playground was just an empty dirt lot. Johnson spent part of his first paycheck buying recreation equipment for the children. He also found enough money in the Hispanic community to begin a lunch program in which all children received hot food. Johnson hated how the area Anglos treated the Tejanos. Reflecting later, Johnson said that the biggest problems for a free nation were ignorance and poverty and that both were simply bad habits that could be stopped.

After his nine months in Cotulla, young Johnson returned to college and finished his B.S. degree in 1930, with majors in government and history. After teaching in Houston for a year, he received the proverbial chance of a lifetime when Congressman Richard Kleberg hired him as congressional secretary. They arrived together in Washington, D.C., in 1931, and Johnson quickly learned that Kleberg, a rich southern Texas rancher, had no intention of doing the work of a congressman. He excelled as a golfer and also loved high-stakes poker games. Kleberg was an all-around playboy who found many diversions, and he wanted only the prestige that came with the job of congressman. Consequently, Johnson soon became a de facto congressman, doing all the work that Kleberg would not. That Kleberg cared not at all was probably for the best. An archconservative, Kleberg criticized the Herbert Hoover administration as an overly activist organization that was going to drive western civilization into permanent decline. As for the depression, Kleberg knew what really had precipitated it: the gangster Al Capone and other bootleggers had caused it by "draining billions of dollars from legitimate trade."

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Dealers arrived in Washington in 1933, Johnson quickly became known as one of "Roosevelt's boys." He was like many a young New Deal optimist who was ready to devise social programs that would help the people cope with the depression. Johnson supported all the programs of the First New Deal (1933), while his boss, Kleberg, opposed most of them. The congressman believed that the New Deal agenda was only barely veiled socialism or Communism. Still, the congressman did not hamper the New Deal: Johnson always told him how to vote. When Kleberg rebelled, Johnson threatened to resign. He also told Kleberg that he would never win reelection if Kleberg did not help the Hispanics in his Texas district. The fellow who thought that Al Capone had started the depression ended up voting for most of the major reforms of the New Deal.

In 1934, while on a trip home to visit his family, Johnson met Claudia Alta ("Lady Bird") Taylor, a beautiful twenty-one-year-old woman who recently had graduated from the University of Texas. Only a day after he met her, Johnson proposed to her. Although Lady Bird took some time to consider Johnson's proposal, she finally agreed. They married in San Antonio, Texas, on 17 November 1934 and had two daughters.

Helped by Sam Rayburn, a longtime friend of the Johnson family and an influential Texas congressman, Johnson escaped Kleberg in 1935 when Aubrey Williams, with Roosevelt's approval, named young Johnson as the Texas state director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a program that Williams was tapped to administer nationally. The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Williams never lost his reforming zeal. He became an ardent New Dealer, and like Johnson, he believed that the power of the federal government could be used to help the people cope with the depression. The young Texan quickly went to work and became recognized as the best state director in the nation. In proportion to the population, Hispanics and blacks received more aid than whites, as Johnson focused on the lower class, not the middle class as did many state directors. Daily, Johnson held the fate of the poor in his hands, and he offered help. He was evolving as a neopopulist-nationalist who believed that government must work to improve the lives of its citizens, especially those living in harsh circumstances. Breaking with many southerners, he believed that flaws in the capitalistic socioeconomic system caused poverty, that the state governments cared not a bit, and that the federal government had to take control to get the country out of the depression.

Johnson left the NYA in 1937 to run in a special election to replace the congressman from his home district, the Tenth Congressional District, who had died suddenly. Running as a Roosevelt supporter, Johnson won the election for the house seat and headed back to Washington, where he continued to support all New Deal initiatives, including the Judicial Branch Reorganization Plan of 1937 that Congress refused to pass. Shortly after taking office, he faced a tough political task, one that helped define his career. The Fair Labor Standards Act was bottled up in a House committee. Many Republicans and southern "Dixiecrats" (conservative Democrats from the South who often sided with Republicans to slow the pace of change, politically, socially, and economically) opposed the bill. They argued that a minimum wage and maximum work-hour law would wreck capitalism and would steer the country toward Communism, in addition to destroying all that was good in human life and western civilization. Opponents threatened Johnson, telling him that he would be tossed out of office if he supported the bill. Following his neopopulist leanings, the freshman congressman became one of only twenty-two southerners who voted to force the bill out of committee. Subsequently, the measure became law. A new day was coming for the lowly; now there would be a wages floor below which they could not fall. Some southerners, including several Texans, who supported the bill were indeed defeated for reelection, but Johnson survived.

As America's entry into World War II approached, Johnson supported Roosevelt's foreign policies, including his massive war-preparedness campaign. But Johnson did more. With various associates helping him, he began Operation Texas an illegal plan to rescue Jews in Germany and Poland. In 1938 an Austin friend asked Johnson to help get a noted Jewish musician out of Europe. In complex maneuvers that involved several Latin American countries, false passports, and false visas, Johnson smuggled the man into Texas and hid him in an NYA work project for a time. The success encouraged Johnson to continue Operation Texas, even though the project continued to bend a few laws. By the end of 1938 he had imported forty-one more Jews, and between 1939 and 1941 he smuggled scores more Jews into Texas.

In addition to helping the Jews, once the United States entered World War II, Johnson volunteered to serve in the navy. He served briefly as a lieutenant commander, receiving a Silver Star for service on a hazardous aircraft mission before Roosevelt called him home to continue his term in Congress. After returning to Washington, D.C., Johnson continued to work for his district. Washington insiders said that he secured more federal programs than any congressman in the nation during the war years. Although Roosevelt's death shook Johnson, he gave Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, the same loyalty that he had given Roosevelt. In 1948, when Dixiecrats bolted the party, Johnson spurned their appeals, instead helping hold Texas for the president and thus playing a prominent role in Truman's miracle win.

When Johnson moved into the Senate in 1949, political winds in Texas forced him to move to the right; yet he supported almost all of Truman's Fair Deal, especially when programs for the poor were involved. He continued that course through the years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, working with the president and the Republicans to secure additional programs once he realized that Eisenhower accepted most of the programs of both the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Becoming majority leader in 1954, he continued to cooperate with Eisenhower's agenda, especially if the poor, the elderly, or the lowly had a chance to benefit. In 1957 and 1960 he also pushed through the Senate the first civil rights acts since Reconstruction. He did what he thought was right while knowing that he would take political heat in Texas and the larger South.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy secured the Democratic nomination for president even though Johnson wanted and halfheartedly campaigned for the nomination. Kennedy surprised many people when he offered Johnson the second spot on the ticket. Johnson accepted and began working immediately to hold the South for Kennedy, the urban Catholic northeasterner. Johnson held a number of states, including the much-needed Texas, and the Democratic ticket won by a very narrow margin. After inauguration day, Johnson was not buried in the vice presidency. Instead, he participated actively in the administration's decisions. Most important, he continued to work in the area of civil rights. He also became a goodwill ambassador, visiting thirty-three countries to represent the United States.

Johnson became president on 22 November 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy while he and Johnson were on a goodwill trip to Dallas. At first Johnson was deeply shocked, but he recovered in time to present a calm demeanor to the American public and to assure them that the business of government would continue even as people tried to understand and deal with the tragedy. To ensure continuity, Johnson (in what may have been a mistake) retained most of the Kennedy people in his new administration, although several gave him only lukewarm support. Some, in fact, worked against him. Johnson publicly committed himself to reforms that Kennedy espoused while adding new goals for his own administration.

The new president was not a perfect man. He had his weaknesses and flaws, defects that the presidency seemed to magnify. He could be crude and vulgar, and he sometimes offended even his closest advisers and friends. His personality was such that in any situation he wanted to be in complete command. The presidency gave him a grand stage to act upon, and he sometimes exploited his power on a personal level. Many of his aides had to take a severe tongue-lashing at one time or another. During his days with the NYA in the 1930s, he drove one such aide to a nervous breakdown. Johnson was also such a hard worker that he logged eighteen-to twenty-hour days. He demanded as much from others in his administration, often driving them to exhaustion.

Despite his flaws, Johnson also had positive traits. He remained loyal to his personal and political friends and on numerous occasions extended many kindnesses to people in his circle who suffered personal or political problems. He never forgot the old New Dealers and did what he could to help them. For example, the Alabamians Clifford and Virginia Durr lobbied in the 1930s and 1940s for repeal of poll taxes that effectively disfranchised many poor whites and blacks in the South. Into the 1950s and 1960s the Durrs continued to work, often arguing with their friend even after he became president. Johnson always said that he must wait until "we have the votes." And when he got the votes, he made the Durrs happy, for he initiated the drive that led to the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the poll tax in federal elections. As president, Johnson also campaigned for what became the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

Johnson brought skills to the presidency that many previous presidents, including Kennedy, had not mastered. First, Johnson was the consummate politician. Even in his student days at SWTSTC, he lived and breathed politics. Then, beginning with his stint as a congressional secretary, he studied politics until he learned how Washington worked. He learned how to get things done—what to do, whom to see, and what to say. Once he had a goal, he never gave up. As a congressman, and especially as Senate majority leader, he studied his colleagues—what they wanted and what they did not want, what they would do and what they would not do. He was an excellent negotiator, especially in small groups, and he learned how to "count the house"; that is, any time a bill came up for a vote, he already knew how the senators would vote. As president, he used his political skills learned over the years to push programs through Congress. Most important, he led the forces that brought about a partial revolution in race relations in the United States.

In 1960 Kennedy had promised the black community a civil rights law that would make African Americans "first-class" citizens. Because he needed to mollify white southern Dixiecrats, he took no action—not even after such developments as the sit-in movement, the freedom rides, and the Birmingham crisis of 1962–1963, which horrified people nationwide when their televisions showed them scenes of policemen assaulting little children with batons, attack dogs, tear gas, and high-pressure water hoses. After they witnessed the brutal attacks, many more people, both black and white, began supporting the civil rights crusade.

Next came the protests in Jackson, Mississippi, that cost the civil rights leader Medgar Evers his life. Evers had been leading demonstrations in Jackson, but many whites had no intention of giving blacks even a modicum of equality. Acting for that group, Byron de la Beckwith shot Evers in the back, killing him instantly. In the ten weeks after Evers's assassination, there were 750 racial demonstrations in the United States. Finally, the turmoil convinced Kennedy that he could no longer delay introducing a civil rights bill. His staff, with heavy input from Vice President Johnson, hammered out a bill.

To generate support for the bill and to lobby Congress, A. Philip Randolph and other black leaders organized the March on Washington. In August 1963 between 200,000 and 250,000 people, including about 50,000 whites, assembled near the Washington Monument. Led by such blacks as Randolph and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and such whites as Johnson and Senator Edward ("Ted") Kennedy, the group made the short march to the Lincoln Memorial. Notably, King gave his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech, which riveted the throng. Others, including Johnson, also made remarks. Afterward, many black and white leaders went to the White House, where the president welcomed them and again announced his support for civil rights. Originally billed as a protest, the march turned into a great rally that one reporter characterized as an "exercise in mass decency."

Kennedy's untimely death not only put Johnson in the White House, but it also placed Johnson in the leadership role to make the civil rights bill law. The measure easily passed the House of Representatives, where southern racists did not have the numbers to defeat it, but the measure stalled in the Senate when, as expected, a group of seventeen southern senators began a filibuster. Never in American history had a filibuster against civil rights legislation been broken. Johnson put Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey in charge of the floor fight to vote cloture and thus allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. Meanwhile, the president used all his powers of persuasion and promises of favors to help Humphrey corral votes. After long negotiations, Johnson made a breakthough. Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois threw his political weight behind the bill, and he brought over enough Republicans to end debate and bring up the bill for a vote.

By an overwhelming majority, the Senate passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that began a virtual political and social revolution in the United States. The new law forbade discrimination in all places of public accommodations, prohibited discrimination in employment, protected everyone's voting rights, outlawed discrimination in schools, and called for stiff penalties for anyone who violated the civil rights of another person. Furthermore, a southern senator who hoped to defeat the bill had inserted the word "women" in the appropriate place in the bill. Therefore, the same law that protected racial and ethnic minorities also protected the gender minority. When Johnson signed the new law amid much public fanfare, he turned to an aide and predicted ominously, "I think that I've delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." And, indeed, as the future unfolded, the Republicans gained much more support in the South.

Although Johnson must have congratulated himself for the civil rights victory, the struggle was far from over. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began a massive voter registration drive in the South. Opposition was widespread, and some of the drive's opponents used violence, including murder, to stop the movement. Ultimately, King entered the fray personally, targeting Selma, Alabama, the seat of a county where no blacks had voted since Reconstruction, although they made up a majority in the county. Selma's sheriff, Jim Clark, and his men went to war against the protesters, a war that was televised nationally. What was happening shocked the country. Then, unknown assailants murdered a Detroit housewife who had been a volunteer in the Selma voter registration campaign. That last act inflamed Johnson, who, on national television, could not disguise his anger. His staff already had prepared a voter bill, and now the president demanded that Congress pass the measure. The lawmakers responded, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided federal protection to blacks (and members of any other group) who attempted to claim, but were denied, their right to register and to vote.

As much as Johnson tried, he could not keep up with the black community's rising expectations as the focus of the civil rights movement shifted from political, civic, and social rights to economic improvement. After his 1964 landslide election victory over the archconservative senator Barry Goldwater, Johnson launched his "War on Poverty," and new programs came fast as the president strove to outdo his mentor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Johnson said to an aide, he wanted to "finish the revolution that FDR started." Nonetheless, elements of the African-American community remained unsatisfied. Martin Luther King's nonviolence gave way to "Black Power" and to new leaders who shouted, "Burn, baby, burn"; flaunted the law; and openly carried weapons. From 1965 to 1968 some 150 major urban riots occurred, mostly in the inner cities, where many African Americans were mired in poverty with, seemingly, no way out. As the cities burned, many whites began to desert the civil rights movement, out of either fear or disgust. Johnson had no choice but to call out troops to quell the violence. Almost immediately after its greatest victories, the civil rights movement began to unravel.

King continued to try to hold the movement together, but in April 1968 he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while trying to direct another peaceful protest. Johnson used King's death and the sympathy it engendered to push one more piece of civil rights legislation: the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in renting or purchasing homes. During his brief presidency, then, Johnson did all he could to help minorities, but he became a lighting rod for a vast horde of reform movements engendered partly by idealism and partly by various groups simply demanding what they considered their rights. An environmental movement gathered steam as the decade of the 1960s passed, as did the Native American movement, the gay movement, the free speech movement, the women's movement, the "gray panther" movement for the elderly, and the Hispanic movement. Almost all reformers held Johnson personally responsible when they could not achieve all that they wanted, even though they had in the White House the greatest "establishment" liberal that the country had ever produced.

Johnson's inability to satisfy all demands led to the "New Left" revolution. Spearheaded by such groups as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and by such individuals as the SDS president Tom Hayden, the New Left lambasted political leaders and political institutions for not doing more for the racial, ethnic, and gender minorities or for the elderly and the infirm. In a related development, the country witnessed the rise of the "counterculture." Thousands of Americans, mostly of the younger set and the middle class, rejected the values of the generation that had sired them. Called "hippies," the young people demanded "liberation" from traditional values; espoused spiritual exploration, new forms of music, and experimentation with drugs and sex; and rejected the consumer society and the corporate state that America had become. Establishment politicians—Johnson included—had no hope of reaching the people in the counterculture.

Even Johnson's Great Society could not please everyone, despite such reforms as Medicare, the Job Corps, Medicaid, Volunteers in Service to America (a domestic peace corps), increased federal aid to education, extended benefits for social security, and raises in the minimum wage. Johnson also sponsored national programs related to housing, employment, and other economic measures, most managed by the Office of Economic Opportunity. Many conservatives opposed Johnson's reforms as misguided and expensive. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) resisted health reform, fearing that such reform might lead to socialized medicine, while many businessmen objected to raises in the minimum wage, arguing that such raises would drain them of profits and lead to the downfall of American civilization. Furthermore, some programs of the Great Society bypassed traditional local and state authorities, which complained bitterly and tried to undercut the reform efforts.

Despite such opposition, to a degree, the programs worked. When Johnson became president, almost 25 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line in what was the richest country in the world. When Johnson left office in 1969, the poverty rate had fallen to 11 or 12 percent. Other figures showed that 56 percent of blacks had lived in poverty in 1959, but only 32 percent continued to do so in 1969; 18 percent of whites had been poor in 1959, but a decade later only 10 percent were poor. For his domestic reform programs, Johnson has been called alternately the "Education President," and the "Civil Rights President." Such titles were consistent with two of Johnson's core beliefs: Let very adult vote, and allow everyone to be educated to the level of his or her intellectual capacity, so that people can live meaningful lives and make America a better place as well.

Johnson also threw his support behind America's space program. Kennedy had promised that America would put a man on the moon by decade's end. Johnson accelerated support, and Kennedy's promise came true in 1969 when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.

Despite fashioning a domestic record as a reformer, Johnson left office as one of America's most disliked presidents, and the Vietnam War helped explain why. U.S. involvement in Vietnam had a long history. In the immediate post–World War II years, President Truman used American manpower to help the French retake their colonial possessions. Even as a war for independence raged in Vietnam, Truman continued to give material support to the French effort. Truman saw Vietnam as being in danger of falling to the Communists, something that all cold warriors abhorred. By 1953 the United States was paying for about 50 percent of the French costs to fight the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces. Eisenhower further involved the United States, after the French withdrew from Vietnam, by supporting a pro-French government that the French left behind. While continuing to give material aid to South Vietnam, Eisenhower also sent in American personnel—five hundred "military advisers" to help train the South Vietnamese army. With the ebb and flow of war, South Vietnam became weaker and weaker and was on the verge of collapse when Kennedy took office. He escalated the war by sending in the first American combat troops, approximately twenty-seven thousand men. The enemy seemed only to grow stronger.

When Johnson became president, he faced the same quandary that had bedeviled Kennedy. Again, more American aid was necessary to "save" South Vietnam. At first, Johnson was most hesitant to become more involved. Indeed, he originally questioned whether the United States should be in Vietnam at all. White House tapes that have now been released verify that Johnson's first "gut" feeling was that America should exit the war. Nonetheless, various military and civilian advisers lobbied Johnson to remain steadfast behind South Vietnam, for the war was being fought against the backdrop of the larger, global cold war. America could not afford to let another region go Communist, said most of Johnson's advisers. After securing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave him sweeping authority to pursue the war from an almost unanimous Congress in the summer of 1964, Johnson, like the other presidents before him, escalated the war. By mid-1965, more than 100,000 American troops had been sent to Vietnam, the number rising to about 180,000 by the end of the year. By the end of 1967 between 500,000 and 550,000 had been sent.

Even as Johnson escalated the war, he was getting bad military advice. Always told that just a few thousand more men would spell victory, the president eventually found himself in a quagmire that offered no escape. Indeed, he once said of the Vietnam involvement that he felt like a west Texas rancher caught in his pasture during a hail storm: "I can't run, I can't hide, and I can't make it stop." As the war dragged into 1968, the American public, including many political leaders, proved to be fickle in their support for the war. Originally, Johnson had public and congressional opinion solidly behind him, but he soon began to lose the support of both groups. Then came the Tet offensive on 31 January 1968, which was the first day of the Vietnamese New Year.

During the Tet offensive, the North Vietnamese coordinated attacks on many American positions in South Vietnam. Some cities, including Hue, fell. Others suffered pandemonium. In Saigon, the headquarters of American forces, the enemy even briefly held the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. At home, Americans saw the shocking details, all carried by television networks. They saw bombs exploding and people killing other people. They viewed all the brutality of total war. One scene remained particularly memorable: a South Vietnamese officer executing a captive Vietcong by shooting him in the head while his hands were tied. What the networks did not report was that shortly before this incident, the Vietcong had murdered one of the officer's close relatives.

After the initial assaults, U.S. forces regrouped, attacked the enemy, and inflicted heavy casualties on their foes—so many casualties that the enemy did not recover for many months. Still, the public relations damage had been done. Americans who watched their televisions during the initial assaults perceived the Tet offensive as a major victory for the opposition. Now many more people turned against American involvement in the region and blamed Johnson for getting their country into a war that, in fact, he had not begun. The development amounted to a political defeat for Johnson, even though American forces counterattacked and won a military victory. More and more young protesters joined the chant "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?"

Within a few weeks after Tet, Johnson's popularity rating fell to 35 percent. It was the lowest rating for an American president since the days of Harry Truman when the country was suffering from high inflation, the Red Scare, and accusations of government corruption. Now dissident Democrats were emboldened to challenge Johnson's leadership. They began to look for an antiwar candidate who could challenge Johnson in the 1968 primaries. Senator Robert Kennedy (the brother of the slain president John F. Kennedy) declined, but Minnesota's senator Eugene McCarthy ("Clean Gene") stepped into the fray. After McCarthy recorded 42 percent of the popular vote in the New Hampshire primary against an incumbent president, Robert Kennedy sensed weakness and declared for the presidency. He brought money and a strong political network with him. After New Hampshire, Wisconsin loomed as the next primary, and polls showed Johnson hopelessly behind.

Consequently, in a nationally televised statement on 31 March 1968, Johnson surprised the nation by withdrawing from the presidential race, citing his desire to concentrate on peace negotiations to end the war. He also announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam. What he did not add was that he was shaken by the now tremendous opposition to his policies and that he was also a sick man with serious heart problems. All his adult life he had feared losing, and now the possibility of defeat loomed larger than ever. As a new political race began, Johnson threw his support to his loyal vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who was destined to lose to Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. Upon Nixon's inauguration in January 1969, Johnson and Lady Bird retired to their ranch. The former president spent his last years overseeing the development of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin and in the founding and early management of the new Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, which is attached to the University of Texas at Austin.

Near the end of his life, Johnson expressed bitterness about his political decline. He could not understand why the American voters had forsaken him after he had tried to do so much for the lowly, the downtrodden, and the racial, ethnic, and gender minorities. Johnson remained to the end an American populist-nationalist who was but a New Dealer writ large. He had tried to use federal power as an instrument of good. As he disappointedly told Lady Bird shortly before he died, "Well, at least they know we tried." Johnson died of a massive heart attack at his ranch on 22 January 1973. He is buried on the ranch, only a few hundred yards from his childhood home.

Johnson's voluminous papers, both state and personal, are located at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. The Library of Congress also has a collection of Johnson material. His memoir of his presidency is The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969 (1971). Doris Kearns relies heavily on scores of interviews with Johnson in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976). In his Lyndon: An Oral Biography (1980), Merle Miller relies heavily on interviews of people who knew Johnson. The most exhaustive, objective biography is Robert Dalleck's two-volume study Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960 (1991) and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (1998). A good one-volume biography that is objective and generally favorable to Johnson is Paul K. Conkin, Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson (1986). More critical of Johnson are Ronnie Dugger, The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson—The Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate (1982), and Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982) and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (1990). Fairly balanced is Vaughn Davis Bornet, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1983). Also see Alfred Steinberg, Sam Johnson's Boy: A Close-up of the President from Texas (1968). For the 1960s in general, the classic volume is William L. O'Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s (1971), which captures the essence of the decade.

A number of Johnson's associates have left memoirs about the thirty-sixth president. They include Hugh Sidey, A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House (1968); Eric Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1969); Sam Johnson, My Brother, Lyndon (1970); Liz Carpenter, Ruffles and Flourishes: The Warm and Tender Story of a Simple Girl Who Found Adventure in the White House (1970); Jack Valenti, A Very Human President (1975); Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Governing America: An Insider's Report from the White House and the Cabinet (1981) and The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years (1991); and Clark M. Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (1991).

In addition, various accounts of Johnson and U.S. foreign policy include Chester Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (1970); Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (1991); Tom Wells, The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam (1994); George C. Herring, LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (1994); Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995); H. W. Brands, The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power (1995); and Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (1995).

James M. Smallwood

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated Jun 08 2018

Lyndon B. Johnson

Born August 27, 1908
Stonewall, Texas
Died January 22, 1973
Austin, Texas

Thirty-sixth president of the United States, 1963–1969

Lyndon B. Johnson—or "LBJ," as he was commonly known—endured one of the most difficult presidencies in American history. As successor to President John F. Kennedy (see entry) after his tragic and shocking assassination in 1963, Johnson tried to carry on Kennedy's policies. He also launched ambitious new programs of his own to address civil rights, education, and poverty problems in the United States. These programs were important parts of Johnson's dream of building a "Great Society." But the Vietnam War destroyed his presidency. He supervised America's direct entry into the conflict. But his policies failed to produce victory in Vietnam, and the war triggered great unrest throughout the United States. The unpopularity of his Vietnam policies eventually convinced Johnson to end his presidency voluntarily, as he refused to run for reelection in 1968.

A Texas childhood

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas, on August 27, 1908. He and his one brother and three sisters grew up in economic circumstances that sometimes bordered on poverty. Their father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., worked as a farmer, cattle trader, and local politician. Both he and his wife, Rebekah (Baines) Johnson, labored hard to provide for their family with basic necessities. This modest upbringing had a tremendous influence on Lyndon Johnson's personality. He developed a great sympathy for hardworking people who faced economic insecurity.

The Johnson family's fortunes improved in 1919, when Sam Johnson won an election returning him to the Texas state legislature after an absence of a dozen years. He eventually served five terms as a member of the state House of Representatives. As he grew older, young Lyndon became a common sight in the halls of the building where his father worked. He enjoyed being in the company of his father, but he was also fascinated with the hustle and bustle of the legislature, with its speeches, ceremonial activities, and aura of importance. This early exposure to politics made a deep and favorable impression on Johnson.

After graduating from high school in 1924, Johnson spent a couple of years working at a variety of jobs. He then enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, from which he earned a teaching degree in 1930. Before earning his degree, however, he spent a year teaching Hispanic children in Cotulla, Texas. This experience deepened his conviction that American society should do more to help its poor and disadvantaged members.

Enters the world of politics

Johnson taught briefly in the Texas school system in the 1930s. But he was soon drawn to the political world that had charmed him since childhood. In 1931 Johnson became a special assistant to Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg. He devoted the next four years to learning all that he could about the lawmaking process and political strategy. He also became friendly with several influential lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a fellow Texan. In 1934 Johnson married Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor, the daughter of a prominent Texas businessman.

Meanwhile, America struggled in the grip of the Great Depression. This was a grim period of factory closings, farm failures, and high unemployment that swept through the United States and the rest of the world in the 1930s. Before long, Johnson became directly involved in U.S. government efforts to combat this terrible economic downturn. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Johnson to direct the Texas office of the National Youth Administration (NYA). This agency was established to provide jobs and vocational training to unemployed youths. Johnson excelled in this challenging position. He put together a program that successfully placed thousands of young Texans in jobs building new roads and schools.

After two years with the NYA, Johnson moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives. He defeated a crowded field of contenders to win an open seat in the legislature in 1937. Upon assuming office, Johnson took advantage of his familiarity with the legislative process and his friendships with key lawmakers to make himself a powerful presence in Washington, D.C. He held the seat until 1948, winning reelection six straight times. During that period, Johnson became known as a steady Roosevelt ally and an effective lawmaker who successfully channeled many federal programs and funds to his home district. He also served in the U.S. Navy for six months during World War II, but in July 1942 Roosevelt ordered Johnson and all other members of Congress to return to their lawmaking duties.

An impressive career in the Senate

In 1948 Johnson switched to the U.S. Senate. At this time, Texas was a strongly Democratic state, and everyone knew that the Democratic nominee for the Senate would win the general election. Johnson mounted a strong campaign for his party's nomination, and he earned the spot by a margin of eighty-seven votes (out of nearly one million votes cast) over his nearest competitor.

Johnson quickly gained a reputation as one of the Senate's most energetic and effective members. In 1951 his fellow Democrats elected him "party whip," an important leadership position within the party. Four years later, the Democrats took control of the Senate, and Johnson became the youngest majority leader in the nation's history. A heart attack in 1955 temporarily slowed him down, but he returned to his leadership position within a matter of weeks. He remained the Senate's majority leader until January 1961, when he was sworn in as President John F. Kennedy's vice president.

During Johnson's Senate career, some observers criticized him for making excessive compromises and bargains with other lawmakers in order to get laws passed. But many other legislators praised him for his knowledge of Senate rules, his ability to guide bills into law, and his dedication (he sometimes forced the Senate to work late into the night to conclude important business). He also became known as a strong anti-Communist and, after 1957, as a supporter of early civil rights legislation.

Kennedy's vice president

In 1960 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy invited Johnson to be his running mate in the upcoming fall elections. Johnson accepted the offer, even though he was disappointed that he had not been able to secure the presidential nomination for himself. In November 1960 Kennedy defeated his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon (see entry), to win the presidency. Many historians believe that Kennedy's decision to make Johnson his vice-presidential choice helped lift the Democrats to victory in several important Southern states.

Johnson served as vice president from January 1961 to November 1963. During that time, he remained loyal to Kennedy, who responded by giving Johnson a number of important responsibilities. For example, he served as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which was in charge of America's new space program. Johnson also chaired the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which worked to eliminate discrimination in hiring practices at the federal level.

As time passed, however, the former Texas senator found many aspects of his new job to be quite frustrating. He got along well with Kennedy, but clashed with many of the president's key advisors. These officials had little in common with Johnson and were not sure that he truly supported Kennedy's policies. In addition, Johnson felt less useful as vice president than he had as a leader of the Senate.

Kennedy is assassinated

Johnson's days as vice president ended suddenly on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade (a ceremonial parade of automobiles) through Dallas, Texas. Johnson was riding two cars behind the president when he was shot and killed. The death of Kennedy meant that Johnson was now the president of the United States.

Kennedy's violent death stunned the nation, but Johnson acted decisively to reassure the American people that the government's leadership remained in capable hands. He announced that he would retain key members of the Kennedy administration in the Johnson White House and declared his intention to work hard to fulfill Kennedy's major policy goals. Most importantly, Johnson behaved in a calm and steady manner that encouraged people throughout the mourning nation.

Over the next year, Johnson kept his promise to guide many of Kennedy's policy proposals into law. The most important of these was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbade employers, hotels, restaurants, and other public businesses from discriminating against blacks and other minorities. But Johnson also signed notable laws designed to improve education, economic opportunity, and community health in poor areas of America.

Johnson defeats Goldwater

In November 1964 Johnson easily defeated Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater (see entry) to win another four years in the White House. Many Americans voted for Johnson because they liked his vision of the country's future. "We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society," he declared in a May 22, 1964, speech at the University of Michigan. "The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time."

But Johnson's landslide triumph was also due in part to doubts about Goldwater's temperament. Many voters feared that Goldwater's fierce anti-Communist feelings might lead him to make dangerous foreign policy decisions as president. They worried that he might start a nuclear war with the Communistled Soviet Union. They also worried that he might deepen U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, where pro- and anti-Communist factions were engaged in a war for control of the country.

Vietnam had been a colony of France until 1954, when it won its freedom after an eight-year war with the French. But the country had been divided into two sections by the 1954 Geneva peace agreement. North Vietnam was headed by a Communist government under revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry). South Vietnam, meanwhile, was led by an anti-Communist government that talked about creating a democracy. As a result, the United States threw its support behind the South's political leadership.

The Geneva agreement provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two sections of Vietnam could be united under one government. But U.S. and South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they believed that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. American strategists believed if that happened, all of Southeast Asia might fall to communism, a development that would dramatically increase the strength of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China.

When the South refused to hold elections, North Vietnam and its Viet Cong (Communist guerrillas) allies in the South took up arms against the South Vietnamese government. The United States responded during the late 1950s and early 1960s by sending money, weapons, and advisors to aid in South Vietnam's defense. By late 1964, when Johnson won election, America was regularly shipping weaponry, airplanes, financial aid, and support (noncombat) personnel to the struggling nation.

Johnson dreams of building a "Great Society"

As Johnson began his first full term as president in early 1965, he worked very hard to fulfill his dream of creating a "Great Society" in the United States. In Johnson's mind, this meant that his administration needed to tackle a wide range of problems in American life, including poverty, racial discrimination, inadequate medical care, and pollution.

Armed with Democratic majorities in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives and the support of the American people, Johnson guided numerous "Great Society" bills into law in 1965 and 1966. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated voting laws that discriminated against minorities. The Education Act of 1965, meanwhile, set aside additional funding to school systems, provided preschool programs for young children, and created financial aid programs and scholarships for needy college students. Another Johnson triumph was the creation of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which provided health insurance for elderly and poor people.

In addition, Johnson emerged as a strong protector of the environment in the months following his election victory. He signed several major antipollution measures, including the Water Quality Act of 1965, the Clean Air Act of 1965, and the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966. Finally, Johnson fulfilled his promise to declare a "War on Poverty" as president. He signed a series of laws that provided Americans in poor and minority communities with greater assistance in such areas as job training, housing, day care, and education.

Johnson's success in 1965 increased his confidence that he could successfully treat many of American society's greatest ills. He knew that eliminating poverty, prejudice, pollution, and other problems would require great determination and dedication. But he repeatedly expressed his belief that his vision of a "Great Society" was within reach. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War destroyed Johnson's dream.

Johnson increases the U.S. commitment in Vietnam

When Johnson first became president, he vowed to help South Vietnam defend itself from the Viet Cong. He was certain that if the United States let the Communists take over in Vietnam, then the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union would view it as a signal that they could threaten other parts of the world without U.S. interference. "I felt sure they would not stay their hand," Johnson recalled in his memoir The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. "If we ran out on Southeast Asia, I could see trouble ahead in every part of the globe—not just in Asia but in the Middle East and in Europe, in Africa and in Latin America. I was convinced that our retreat from this challenge would open the path to World War III."

Despite increased U.S. aid, however, the situation in South Vietnam continued to worsen throughout 1964. Widespread corruption and a series of military coups took a heavy toll on the nation's political leadership and stability. Mean-while, the Viet Cong seized control of ever-larger sections of the countryside. These grim developments convinced Johnson to increase America's military commitment in the region.

In August 1964 Johnson announced that two North Vietnamese torpedo boats had on two recent occasions attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, an area of the South China Sea bordering Vietnam. Johnson used reports of the second attack as an excuse to expand U.S. military involvement in the conflict, even though doubts were raised about whether an attack actually took place (historians now believe that North Vietnamese forces probably did not launch a second attack). He asked Congress for a resolution that would give him authority to escalate military activity in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed overwhelmingly.

The Gulf of Tonkin vote symbolized strong support for increased military operations in Vietnam. After all, Johnson's desire to keep South Vietnam out of Communist control was shared by a majority of lawmakers and ordinary Americans alike. But as the fall 1964 presidential election approached, he assured the nation that he would not introduce U.S. combat troops into the war. "Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict," Johnson said in August 1964. "They call upon us to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do . . . . Such action would offer no solution at all to the real problem of Vietnam. America can and America will meet any wider challenge from others, but our aim in Vietnam, as in the rest of the world, is to help restore the peace and to reestablish a decent order."

Johnson sends U.S. combat troops into Vietnam

In early 1965 the situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate. Johnson responded by ordering a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This operation, nicknamed Rolling Thunder, started in March 1965 and continued with only brief interruptions for the next three-and-a-half years. Johnson hoped that the Rolling Thunder campaign would force the Communists to end their activities against the South. But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese remained defiant, and in the spring of 1965 Johnson ordered American ground troops into South Vietnam. He decided that America's political interests and international reputation would not allow him to pull out of the war-torn country.

Johnson and his political and military advisors hoped that by increasing American military involvement in Vietnam, they could eliminate the Communist threat and stabilize the South Vietnamese government. But the dedicated Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces refused to give up, and Johnson was forced to steadily increase the size of the U.S. commitment. He instituted a military draft to expand the size of the armed forces and sent thousands of American soldiers to serve in the war. In 1965 the number of American soldiers in Vietnam increased from 23,000 to 181,000. This number continued to swell throughout Johnson's term, reaching 535,000 in 1968. And still the war dragged on.

By 1966 the war had become a major problem for Johnson. Some lawmakers, advisors, and military experts assured him that he was taking the right course of action in Vietnam. But others harshly criticized his war policies. Some claimed that he needed to order more punishing military measures against North Vietnam in order to claim victory. Others argued that he should withdraw all American troops from the divided country and let the Vietnamese people decide things for themselves.

Johnson faced even greater criticism from America's antiwar movement. The membership of this movement expanded dramatically from 1965 to 1967, as Americans learned more and more about the brutal, deadly war. Antiwar protest was especially strong on college campuses, where student activists charged that the United States was waging an immoral war against the Vietnamese people. By the end of 1966, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was a common chant at many antiwar rallies across the country.

Johnson struggles to pay for the war

Johnson refused to consider withdrawal from Vietnam. "The road ahead is going to be difficult," he stated in a May 1966 press conference. "There will be some 'Nervous Nellies' and some who will become frustrated and bothered and break ranks under the strain, and some will turn on their leaders, and on their country, and on our fighting men. There will be times of trial and tension in the days ahead that will exact the best that is in all of us. But I have not the slightest doubt that the courage and the dedication and the good sense of the wise American people will ultimately prevail. They will stand united until every boy is brought home safely, until the gallant people of South Vietnam have their own choice of their own government."

Johnson's decision to continue expanding America's military involvement in Vietnam soon triggered another big problem at home. The U.S. military effort cost billions of dollars in new airplanes, helicopters, military salaries, supplies, and other expenses. But Johnson refused to cut funding for his "Great Society" programs so that he could pay for the new military expenses. Instead he tried to support both his war policies and his social programs. This decision triggered an economic phenomenon known as inflation. During periods of inflation, the cost of food, clothing, and other goods and services rise sharply, making them less affordable. Johnson eventually called for tax increases so that the government could cover both its domestic and military spending. But this move failed to calm the country's economic troubles and increased the public's opposition to the war.

Years later, Johnson wrote that he felt that the nature of the Vietnam War left him without any good strategic options. "I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved," he told Doris Kearns, author of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. "If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that [terrible] war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser [someone who gives in or surrenders to demands]."

A crippled presidency

In 1967 Johnson continued to express public confidence about his Vietnam policies. In fact, he joined military and political officials in declaring that U.S. forces were finally on the verge of victory in Vietnam. In private, however, he expressed great frustration about the war and its impact on his presidency. Indeed, the war had become so expensive and controversial that other issues, like education and antipoverty programs, fell by the wayside. In the meantime, his efforts to persuade North Vietnam to enter into peace negotiations were repeatedly brushed aside.

Johnson also confessed to feeling anger and sadness about the deep hatred that many Americans had come to feel for him. This animosity was due not only to the Vietnam War itself, but also to Johnson's conduct. Many Americans—and almost all opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—believed that Johnson had misled the public about his intentions and actions throughout the conflict. "To some extent . . . LBJ was the victim of his own considerable political acumen [skill]," said George C. Herring, author of LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. "He took the nation to war so quietly, with such consummate [great] skill (and without getting a popular mandate) that when things turned sour the anger was inevitably directed at him."

In early 1968 North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of the South. This attack, called the Tet Offensive, failed to produce a lasting Communist victory. Instead, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces pushed back the enemy offensive. But Tet further increased public distrust of Johnson, for it showed that the president and other key officials had either lied or completely underestimated the strength and determination of the Communists.

On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he had ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. He explained that he called the halt in hopes of spurring peace discussions with the North's leadership. He then stunned the American public by announcing that he would not seek reelection in the upcoming 1968 presidential elections. He declared that he made this decision so that he could devote all of his time to ending the war in Vietnam.

Public reaction to Johnson's retirement announcement was very positive. "Johnson's colleagues, friends, and political observers unanimously viewed his decision as a positive, forward, and constructive step for national unity and peace in Vietnam," observed Larry Berman in Lyndon Johnson's War. "Stepping aside brought Johnson more praise than any of his actions in the past year . . . . Johnson's decision to remove himself from the renomination race represented the ultimate recognition that the Vietnam War had become interwoven with his personality and his presidency."

Final years

During Johnson's last few months in office, he canceled the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign for good in hopes that the action would help bring peace. He left the presidency in January 1969, hopeful that ongoing negotiations might finally be bringing the vicious war to a close. But U.S. military involvement in Vietnam continued for another four years, and the war itself did not end until 1975, when the Communists seized control of the South.

After leaving office, Johnson retired to his ranch in Texas. In late 1969 and early 1970 he agreed to a series of television interviews with news journalist Walter Cronkite, but he stayed out of the public eye for the most part. In 1971 he published a memoir of his White House years, called The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969. He died on January 22, 1973, of a severe heart attack.


Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson's War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Bernstein, Irving. Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. New York, 1996.

Califano, Joseph A., Jr. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Conkin, Paul K. Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Kaye, Tony. Lyndon B. Johnson. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Signet Books, 1976.

Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978)

Hubert Humphrey was one of the national leaders of the Democratic Party for nearly three decades, from the 1950s through his death in 1978. During that time, he built a record of distinguished public service that was highlighted by his leadership in the realm of civil rights. But the Vietnam War cast a dark shadow over his career during the 1960s. As vice president to President Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey struggled to find a balance between his loyalty to Johnson and his growing doubts about the war. And in 1968 his inability to separate himself from Johnson's unpopular Vietnam policies cost him the presidency.

Humphrey was born in Wallace, South Dakota, on May 27, 1911. He attended college at the Denver College of Pharmacy, the University of Minnesota, and Louisiana State University. In the early 1940s he taught political science at a college in Minnesota, and in 1945 he became the youngest mayor ever to lead the city of Minneapolis.

In 1948 Humphrey entered the national spotlight when he fought to add a strong civil rights position to the Democratic Party's national platform. "The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights," he said. One year later, he won election to the U.S. Senate. He spent the next sixteen years representing Minnesota in the Senate, where he became known for his strong support of civil rights and education legislation.

In 1964 Humphrey agreed to serve as vice president in the Johnson administration. But his years in the Johnson White House turned out to be frustrating and unhappy ones. In 1965 Humphrey suggested that the United States call a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and negotiate a settlement to end the war. Johnson interpreted the vice president's remarks as disloyal. In fact, he angrily excluded Humphrey from Vietnam policy discussions for the next year. Humphrey responded by becoming a vocal defender of Johnson's Vietnam strategy. But his support angered Democratic opponents of the war, and it failed to repair his relationship with Johnson. In fact, many historians have noted that the president often bullied or mistreated Humphrey.

In 1968 Humphrey won the Democratic nomination for the presidency. But that year's Democratic convention badly tarnished his campaign. Inside the Chicago convention hall, differences over Vietnam policy triggered bitter splits within the party. Outside, ugly and violent clashes erupted between antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police officers.

Over the next several months, Humphrey tried to close the gap between himself and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon (see entry). This effort, though, was hindered by the independent candidacy of George Wallace, who attracted some traditional Democratic voters. Humphrey's campaign also was hurt by the fact that many voters associated him with Johnson's failed policies. Humphrey finally distanced himself from LBJ a few weeks before the election. His announcement that he was willing to scale back U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and pursue new peace talks was greeted very favorably, and the gap between Humphrey and Nixon narrowed dramatically. But Humphrey's rally fell short, as Nixon defeated him by less than one percent of the national vote.

After failing in his quest for the presidency, Humphrey returned to the Senate. He made another bid for the job in 1972, but he lost the Democratic nomination to George McGovern (see entry). In 1976 Minnesota voters returned him to the U.S. Senate, even though he had recently been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Humphrey resumed his Senate duties for a time, but his cancer gradually worsened. He died on January 13, 1978, in Waverly, Minnesota.

President Johnson Defends American Intervention in Vietnam

Throughout his presidency, Lyndon Johnson strongly defended his decision to send American troops into Vietnam. In the following excerpt from a July 28, 1965, press conference, Johnson explained his belief that Vietnam was a key to preventing the expansion of Communism throughout Southeast Asia:

This is a different kind of war. There are no marching armies or solemn declarations. Some citizens of South Vietnam, at times with understandable grievances, have joined in the attack on their own government. But we must not let this mask the central fact that this is really war. It is guided by North Vietnam, and it is spurred by Communist China. Its goal is to conquer the South, to defeat American power, and to extend the Asiatic dominion of communism.

There are great stakes in the balance. Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian communism. Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promises or in American protection.

Johnson Announces His Decision Not to Seek Reelection

On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson gave a historic television address in which he announced a temporary halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. He then shocked the American people by declaring that he had decided not to seek reelection in the upcoming fall presidential elections.

Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

No other question so preoccupies our people. No other dream so absorbs the 250 million human beings who live in that part of the world. No other goal motivates American policy in Southeast Asia.

For years, representatives of our government and others have traveled the world—seeking to find a basis for peace talks . . . . There is no need to delay the talks that could bring an end to this long and this bloody war.

Tonight, I renew the offer I made last August—to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam. We ask that talks begin promptly, that they be serious talks on the substance of peace. We assume that during those talks Hanoi will not take advantage of our restraint. We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations.

So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict. We are reducing—substantially reducing—the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once . . . .

Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only. For thirty-seven years in the service of our nation, first as a congressman, as a senator, and as vice president, and now as your president, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship [radical support for one's own political party]. And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.

There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as president of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and prospect of peace for all peoples . . . .

I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political years. With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace—and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause—whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.

Lyndon B. Johnson's Speech Declining to Seek Re-Election (31 March 1968)

views updated May 08 2018


The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) had supported a gradual escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam crisis. After the disastrous Tet Offensive in 1968, however, Johnson and his advisors concluded that a cutback in the bombing of North Vietnam was a better course of action. In a surprisingly dramatic televised speech to the nation on March 31, Johnson announced that he was no longer seeking re-election so that he could work full-time on achieving peace in Vietnam.

The speech not only introduced a fundamental shift in the administration's Vietnam policies, but also served a larger political purpose. By aligning himself with the movement for peace, Johnson undercut the ability of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to critique Johnson's war policies; he also failed to give an expected endorsement of his party's other candidate, Hubert Humphrey.

Mark D.Baumann,
New York University

See also Vietnam War .

The President's Address to the Nation Announcing Steps To Limit the War in Vietnam and Reporting His Decision Not To Seek Reelection. March 31, 1968

Good evening, my fellow Americans:

Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

No other question so preoccupies our people. No other dream so absorbs the 250 million human beings who live in that part of the world. No other goal motivates American policy in Southeast Asia.

For years, representatives of our Government and others have traveled the world—seeking to find a basis for peace talks.

Since last September, they have carried the offer that I made public at San Antonio.

That offer was this:

That the United States would stop its bombardment of North Vietnam when that would lead promptly to productive discussions—and that we would assume that North Vietnam would not take military advantage of our restraint.

Hanoi denounced this offer, both privately and publicly. Even while the search for peace was going on, North Vietnam rushed their preparations for a savage assault on the people, the government, and the allies of South Vietnam.

Their attack—during the Tet holidays—failed to achieve its principal objectives.

It did not collapse the elected government of South Vietnam or shatter its army—as the Communists had hoped.

It did not produce a "general uprising" among the people of the cities as they had predicted.

The Communists were unable to maintain control of any of the more than 30 cities that they attacked. And they took very heavy casualties.

But they did compel the South Vietnamese and their allies to move certain forces from the countryside into the cities.

They caused widespread disruption and suffering. Their attacks, and the battles that followed, made refugees of half a million human beings.

The Communists may renew their attack any day.

They are, it appears, trying to make 1968 the year of decision in South Vietnam—the year that brings, if not final victory or defeat, at least a turning point in the struggle.

This much is clear:

If they do mount another round of heavy attacks, they will not succeed in destroying the fighting power of South Vietnam and its allies.

But tragically, this is also clear: Many men—on both sides of the struggle—will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on.

There is no need for this to be so.

There is no need to delay the talks that could bring an end to this long and this bloody war.

Tonight, I renew the offer I made last August—to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam. We ask that talks begin promptly, that they be serious talks on the substance of peace. We assume that during those talks Hanoi will not take advantage of our restraint.

We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations.

So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict. We are reducing—substantially reducing—the present level of hostilities.

And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once.

Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area north of the demilitarized zone where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens allied forward positions and where the movements of their troops and supplies are clearly related to that threat.

The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam's population, and most of its territory. Thus there will be no attacks around the principal populated areas, or in the food-producing areas of North Vietnam.

Even this very limited bombing of the North could come to an early end—if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi. But I cannot in good conscience stop all bombing so long as to do so would immediately and directly endanger the lives of our men and our allies. Whether a complete bombing halt becomes possible in the future will be determined by events.

Our purpose in this action is to bring about a reduction in the level of violence that now exists.

It is to save the lives of brave men—and to save the lives of innocent women and children. It is to permit the contending forces to move closer to a political settlement.

And tonight, I call upon the United Kingdom and I call upon the Soviet Union—as cochairmen of the Geneva Conferences, and as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—to do all they can to move from the unilateral act of deescalation that I have just announced toward genuine peace in Southeast Asia.

Now, as in the past, the United States is ready to send its representatives to any forum, at any time, to discuss the means of bringing this ugly war to an end.

I am designating one of our most distinguished Americans, Ambassador Averell Harriman, as my personal representative for such talks. In addition, I have asked Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, who returned from Moscow for consultation, to be available to join Ambassador Harriman at Geneva or any other suitable place—just as soon as Hanoi agrees to a conference.

I call upon President Ho Chi Minh to respond positively, and favorably, to this new step toward peace.

But if peace does not come now through negotiations, it will come when Hanoi understands that our common resolve is unshakable, and our common strength is invincible.

Tonight, we and the other allied nations are contributing 600,000 fighting men to assist 700,000 South Vietnamese troops in defending their little country.

Our presence there has always rested on this basic belief: The main burden of preserving their freedom must be carried out by them—by the South Vietnamese themselves.

We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts—on their determination and resourcefulness—the outcome will ultimately depend.

That small, beleaguered nation has suffered terrible punishment for more than 20 years.

I pay tribute once again tonight to the great courage and endurance of its people. South Vietnam supports armed forces tonight of almost 700,000 men—and I call your attention to the fact that this is the equivalent of more than 10 million in our own population. Its people maintain their firm determination to be free of domination by the North.

There has been substantial progress, I think, in building a durable government during these last 3 years. The South Vietnam of 1965 could not have survived the enemy's Tet offensive of 1968. The elected government of South Vietnam survived that attack—and is rapidly repairing the devastation that it wrought.

The South Vietnamese know that further efforts are going to be required:

—to expand their own armed forces,

—to move back into the countryside as quickly as possible,

—to increase their taxes,

—to select the very best men that they have for civil and military responsibility,

—to achieve a new unity within their constitutional government, and

—to include in the national effort all those groups who wish to preserve South Vietnam's control over its own destiny.

Last week President Thieu ordered the mobilization of 135,000 additional South Vietnamese. He plans to reach—as soon as possible—a total military strength of more than 800,000 men.

To achieve this, the Government of South Vietnam started the drafting of 19-year-olds on March 1st. On May 1st, the Government will begin the drafting of 18-year-olds.

Last month, 10,000 men volunteered for military service—that was two and a half times the number of volunteers during the same month last year. Since the middle of January, more than 48,000 South Vietnamese have joined the armed forces—and nearly half of them volunteered to do so.

All men in the South Vietnamese armed forces have had their tours of duty extended for the duration of the war, and reserves are now being called up for immediate active duty.

President Thieu told his people last week:

"We must make greater efforts and accept more sacrifices because, as I have said many times, this is our country. The existence of our nation is at stake, and this is mainly a Vietnamese responsibility."

He warned his people that a major national effort is required to root out corruption and incompetence at all levels of government.

We applaud this evidence of determination on the part of South Vietnam. Our first priority will be to support their effort.

We shall accelerate the reequipment of South Vietnam's armed forces—in order to meet the enemy's increased firepower. This will enable them progressively to undertake a larger share of combat operations against the Communist invaders.

On many occasions I have told the American people that we would send to Vietnam those forces that are required to accomplish our mission there. So, with that as our guide, we have previously authorized a force level of approximately 525,000.

Some weeks ago—to help meet the enemy's new offensive—we sent to Vietnam about 11,000 additional Marine and airborne troops. They were deployed by air in 48 hours, on an emergency basis. But the artillery, tank, aircraft, medical, and other units that were needed to work with and to support these infantry troops in combat could not then accompany them by air on that short notice.

In order that these forces may reach maximum combat effectiveness, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended to me that we should prepare to send—during the next 5 months—support troops totaling approximately 13,500 men.

A portion of these men will be made available from our active forces. The balance will come from reserve component units which will be called up for service.

The actions that we have taken since the beginning of the year

—to reequip the South Vietnamese forces,

—to meet our responsibilities in Korea, as well as our responsibilities in Vietnam,

—to meet price increases and the cost of activating and deploying reserve forces,

—to replace helicopters and provide the other military supplies we need,

all of these actions are going to require additional expenditures.

The tentative estimate of those additional expenditures is $2.5 billion in this fiscal year, and $2.6 billion in the next fiscal year.

These projected increases in expenditures for our national security will bring into sharper focus the Nation's need for immediate action: action to protect the prosperity of the American people and to protect the strength and the stability of our American dollar.

On many occasions I have pointed out that, without a tax bill or decreased expenditures, next year's deficit would again be around $20 billion. I have emphasized the need to set strict priorities in our spending. I have stressed that failure to act and to act promptly and decisively would raise very strong doubts throughout the world about America's willingness to keep its financial house in order.

Yet Congress has not acted. And tonight we face the sharpest financial threat in the postwar era—a threat to the dollar's role as the keystone of international trade and finance in the world.

Last week, at the monetary conference in Stockholm, the major industrial countries decided to take a big step toward creating a new international monetary asset that will strengthen the international monetary system. I am very proud of the very able work done by Secretary Fowler and Chairman Martin of the Federal Reserve Board.

But to make this system work the United States just must bring its balance of payments to—or very close to—equilibrium. We must have a responsible fiscal policy in this country. The passage of a tax bill now, together with expenditure control that the Congress may desire and dictate, is absolutely necessary to protect this Nation's security, to continue our prosperity, and to meet the needs of our people.

What is at stake is 7 years of unparalleled prosperity. In those 7 years, the real income of the average American, after taxes, rose by almost 30 percent—a gain as large as that of the entire preceding 19 years.

So the steps that we must take to convince the world are exactly the steps we must take to sustain our own economic strength here at home. In the past 8 months, prices and interest rates have risen because of our inaction.

We must, therefore, now do everything we can to move from debate to action—from talking to voting. There is, I believe—I hope there is—in both Houses of the Congress—a growing sense of urgency that this situation just must be acted upon and must be corrected.

My budget in January was, we thought, a tight one. It fully reflected our evaluation of most of the demanding needs of this Nation.

But in these budgetary matters, the President does not decide alone. The Congress has the power and the duty to determine appropriations and taxes.

The Congress is now considering our proposals and they are considering reductions in the budget that we submitted.

As part of a program of fiscal restraint that includes the tax surcharge, I shall approve appropriate reductions in the January budget when and if Congress so decides that that should be done.

One thing is unmistakably clear, however: Our deficit just must be reduced. Failure to act could bring on conditions that would strike hardest at those people that all of us are trying so hard to help.

These times call for prudence in this land of plenty. I believe that we have the character to provide it, and tonight I plead with the Congress and with the people to act promptly to serve the national interest, and thereby serve all of our people.

Now let me give you my estimate of the chances for peace:

—the peace that will one day stop the bloodshed in South Vietnam,

—that will permit all the Vietnamese people to rebuild and develop their land,

—that will permit us to turn more fully to our own tasks here at home.

I cannot promise that the initiative that I have announced tonight will be completely successful in achieving peace any more than the 30 others that we have undertaken and agreed to in recent years.

But it is our fervent hope that North Vietnam, after years of fighting that have left the issue unresolved, will now cease its efforts to achieve a military victory and will join with us in moving toward the peace table.

And there may come a time when South Vietnamese—on both sides—are able to work out a way to settle their own differences by free political choice rather than by war.

As Hanoi considers its course, it should be in no doubt of our intentions. It must not miscalculate the pressures within our democracy in this election year.

We have no intention of widening this war.

But the United States will never accept a fake solution to this long and arduous struggle and call it peace.

No one can foretell the precise terms of an eventual settlement.

Our objective in South Vietnam has never been the annihilation of the enemy. It has been to bring about a recognition in Hanoi that its objective—taking over the South by force—could not be achieved.

We think that peace can be based on the Geneva Accords of 1954—under political conditions that permit the South Vietnamese—all the South Vietnamese—to chart their course free of any outside domination or interference, from us or from anyone else.

So tonight I reaffirm the pledge that we made at Manila—that we are prepared to withdraw our forces from South Vietnam as the other side withdraws its forces to the north, stops the infiltration, and the level of violence thus subsides.

Our goal of peace and self-determination in Vietnam is directly related to the future of all of Southeast Asia—where much has happened to inspire confidence during the past 10 years. We have done all that we knew how to do to contribute and to help build that confidence.

A number of its nations have shown what can be accomplished under conditions of security. Since 1966, Indonesia, the fifth largest nation in all the world, with a population of more than 100 million people, has had a government that is dedicated to peace with its neighbors and improved conditions for its own people. Political and economic cooperation between nations has grown rapidly.

I think every American can take a great deal of pride in the role that we have played in bringing this about in Southeast Asia. We can rightly judge—as responsible Southeast Asians themselves do—that the progress of the past 3 years would have been far less likely—if not completely impossible—if America's sons and others had not made their stand in Vietnam.

At Johns Hopkins University, about 3 years ago, I announced that the United States would take part in the great work of developing Southeast Asia, including the Mekong Valley, for all the people of that region. Our determination to help build a better land—a better land for men on both sides of the present conflict—has not diminished in the least. Indeed, the ravages of war, I think, have made it more urgent than ever.

So, I repeat on behalf of the United States again tonight what I said at Johns Hopkins—that North Vietnam could take its place in this common effort just as soon as peace comes.

Over time, a wider framework of peace and security in Southeast Asia may become possible. The new cooperation of the nations of the area could be a foundation-stone. Certainly friendship with the nations of such a Southeast Asia is what the United States seeks—and that is all that the United States seeks.

One day, my fellow citizens, there will be peace in Southeast Asia.

It will come because the people of Southeast Asia want it—those whose armies are at war tonight, and those who, though threatened, have thus far been spared.

Peace will come because Asians were willing to work for it—and to sacrifice for… and to die by the thousands for it.

But let it never be forgotten: Peace will come also because America sent her sons to help secure it.

It has not been easy—far from it. During the past 4 1/2 years, it has been my fate and my responsibility to be Commander in Chief. I have lived—daily and nightly—with the cost of this war. I know the pain that it has inflicted. I know, perhaps better than anyone, the misgivings that it has aroused.

Throughout this entire, long period, I have been sustained by a single principle: that what we are doing now, in Vietnam, is vital not only to the security of Southeast Asia but it is vital to the security of every American.

Surely we have treaties which we must respect. Surely we have commitments that we are going to keep.

Resolutions of the Congress testify to the need to resist aggression in the world and in Southeast Asia.

But the heart of our involvement in South Vietnam—under three different Presidents, three separate administrations—has always been America's own security.

And the larger purpose of our involvement has always been to help the nations of Southeast Asia become independent and stand alone, self-sustaining, as members of a great world community—at peace with themselves, and at peace with all others.

With such an Asia, our country—and the world—will be far more secure than it is tonight.

I believe that a peaceful Asia is far nearer to reality because of what America has done in Vietnam. I believe that the men who endure the dangers of battle—fighting there for us tonight—are helping the entire world avoid far greater conflicts, far wider wars, far more destruction, than this one.

The peace that will bring them home someday will come. Tonight I have offered the first in what I hope will be a series of mutual moves toward peace.

I pray that it will not be rejected by the leaders of North Vietnam. I pray that they will accept it as a means by which the sacrifices of their own people may be ended. And I ask your help and your support, my fellow citizens, for this effort to reach across the battlefield toward an early peace.

Finally, my fellow Americans, let me say this:

Of those to whom much is given, much is asked. I cannot say and no man could say that no more will be asked of us.

Yet, I believe that now, no less than when the decade began, this generation of Americans is willing to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Since those words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, the people of America have kept that compact with mankind's noblest cause.

And we shall continue to keep it.

Yet, I believe that we must always be mindful of this one thing, whatever the trials and the tests ahead. The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.

This I believe very deeply.

Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.

For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.

And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.

There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.

So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.

Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God's, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.

United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.

Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.

Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.

What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.

With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.

But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace—and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause—whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.

Thank you for listening.

Good night and God bless all of you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9 p.m. in his office at the White House. The address was broadcast nationally.

source: U.S. Department of State Bulletin, 15 April 1968.

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated Jun 08 2018

Lyndon B. Johnson

Born August 27, 1908
Gillespie County, Texas
Died January 22, 1973
San Antonio, Texas

U.S. president, vice president, senator

L yndon B. Johnson suddenly became president during one of the darkest times in U.S. history—following the assassination of the popular John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry). Johnson proceeded to fight hard for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but is best remembered for serving during the tumultuous period of the Vietnam War (1954–75). In his 1986 book Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson, historian Paul K. Conkin said Johnson "was confused and almost helpless." The personal toll on the president "was almost overwhelming. He had aged ten years in only two and was now visibly an old man, shaken, ineffective, almost beleaguered in a White House surrounded daily by angry protesters."

During Johnson's presidency, the Cold War (1945–91) grew increasingly violent in Vietnam. The Vietnam experience caused major social upheaval in the United States and would end public support for U.S. efforts to contain communism in faraway places.

Rapid rise from humble beginnings

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born August 27, 1908, in a three-room house in the hills of southwest Texas near the town of Stonewall. He was the oldest of five children born to Sam Ealy Johnson Jr., a businessman and a member of the Texas legislature, and Rebekah Baines, a schoolteacher. One grandfather, Joseph Baines, was also a state legislator. Johnson grew up listening to lively political discussions at home.

Because of poor investments, the Johnson family struggled financially. Johnson often wore homemade clothing as a young boy, and he felt greatly embarrassed about it. Because of these early experiences, he would always have sympathy for ordinary people, particularly those who were struggling financially. Johnson graduated from high school in 1924. After working at odd jobs for three years, he entered Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos. To help pay for his studies, Johnson took a teaching job during the 1928–29 school year in a predominantly Mexican American school in Cotulla. He was profoundly impressed by the extreme poverty of the area. During Johnson's presidency, easing poverty would be one of his top priorities.

Johnson graduated in 1930 and briefly taught debate and public speaking at a Houston high school. Also in 1930, he took part in the successful congressional campaign for Democrat Richard Kleberg (1887–1955). Leaving his teaching job in early 1931, Johnson accompanied Kleberg to Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant. Johnson found the Washington political scene captivating and worked tirelessly. Youthful and energetic, he soon caught the attention of Texas congressman Sam Rayburn (1882–1961), who became his mentor.

In 1934, Johnson met Claudia Alta Taylor (1912–), better known as "Lady Bird," of San Antonio, Texas. Within twenty-four hours, he proposed marriage to her. They would have two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci. Lady Bird proved a shrewd judge of people and would be an invaluable stabilizing factor for the often feisty Johnson throughout his political career. In 1935, Johnson was appointed director of the National Youth Administration (NYA) in Texas, where he served for two years. The NYA was a federal agency created in 1935 to provide job training and education to unemployed youths during the Great Depression (1929–41), the worst financial crisis in American history. Johnson proved an exceptionally able administrator.

A life in Congress

Encouraged by Rayburn and others, Johnson decided to enter politics himself and ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936. Returning to Washington, D.C., he would serve in the House for twelve years. When the United States entered World War II (1939–45) in December 1941, Johnson became the first member of Congress to enter the armed services in active duty. With the rank of lieutenant commander, he served in the navy for six months in the Pacific. Johnson flew in one combat mission in a patrol bomber over New Guinea and came under attack by Japanese fighters. He was awarded the Silver Star, which he proudly wore the rest of his political career. After Johnson's six months of service, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) called all congressmen back to fill their political roles. Johnson happily returned. It was also at this time that the Johnsons spent Lady Bird's inheritance to purchase a radio and television station in Austin, Texas. This investment would become very profitable for them, gaining in worth by several million dollars.

In 1948, Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate. Amidst charges of ballot-stuffing and after legal battles to determine the victor in the Democratic primary, Johnson won by only eighty-seven votes out of almost one million cast. He went on to handily win the fall election in the heavily Democratic state of Texas. Johnson would serve in the Senate for twelve years. He was a shrewd legislator capable of swinging deals to pass legislation. Known for being both tactful and ruthless, he would psychologically strong-arm his fellow legislators, giving them what came to be known as the "Johnson treatment." He became minority leader of the Senate in 1953, and when the Democrats became the majority party in the Senate in 1955, he became the youngest majority leader in U.S. history at age forty-six. A severe heart attack in 1955 did little to impede his career or effectiveness. In 1957, Johnson guided the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress, the first since the 1870s.

The presidency

In 1960, Johnson hoped to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. However, U.S. senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts won the party's nomination instead. In a surprise move, Kennedy offered the vice presidential running mate position to the man he had just defeated—Johnson. In another surprise, Johnson in essence settled for second place—and accepted. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic from the East Coast, was greatly aided by Johnson's Protestant Texas background; it gave the campaign some balance. Having Johnson as a running mate probably made the difference in Kennedy's narrow victory over the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; see entry).

Johnson's time as vice president, from 1961 to 1963, was very unsatisfying. For the six years prior to becoming vice president, he was used to being in a position of power as Senate majority leader. But Kennedy largely ignored Johnson's ability to work with Congress. With his Texas country upbringing, Johnson felt inferior to the polished, educated New Englanders who controlled the White House. In contrast to Kennedy's easy, witty style, Johnson had a tendency to appear stiff and speak too loudly in front of television cameras. He suffered a degree of deafness that he never publicly acknowledged. Johnson was clearly outside the inner circle.

This all changed on the afternoon of November 22,1963. While traveling with Johnson on a political tour in Texas, President Kennedy was assassinated as he rode through the streets of Dallas. Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One, the presidential plane, minutes after leaving the Dallas airport. The transition in power needed to be rapid and smooth to show the world, particularly the Soviet Union, that the United States remained prepared for any confrontation.

Immediately focusing on domestic issues, Johnson pressed a major legislative agenda that Kennedy had been un-successful in passing. Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was Johnson's greatest achievement. The act banned racial segregation, or separation of the races, in public places such as schools and in the workplace. Johnson then declared a war on poverty. He established a number of federal programs that greatly expanded the U.S. government's responsibility to assist the poor. These programs included Job Corps for training the unemployed; Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic volunteer organization to help impoverished areas; and Head Start, a preschool program for children living in poverty. In 1965, another major piece of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act, prohibited federal, state, and local governments from using racial discrimination to restrict voting rights. The Johnson administration also established health care programs, including Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. Other programs and legislation ensured federal funding for education, low-income housing, urban renewal, transportation improvements, and environmental conservation. Johnson called his domestic program the Great Society.

The Vietnam War

Johnson's attention was soon drawn away from his domestic agenda to Cold War foreign policy—namely, containing communism around the world. Vietnam in particular dominated Johnson's presidency. The situation in Vietnam was a longstanding, complicated problem. Former presidents Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry) had made commitments to defend the government of South Vietnam against the communist forces of North Vietnam and the Vietcong, guerrilla forces within South Vietnam who supported the communist cause. (Communist-supported revolutionaries had earlier revolted against French colonial rule until a 1954 peace settlement was reached in Geneva, Switzerland. The settlement partitioned Vietnam into North Vietnam, controlled by the communists, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States.) U.S. officials feared that if South Vietnam fell to communism, other countries in the region would follow; this idea was called the domino theory. U.S. assistance to South Vietnam began in January 1955, and by 1960 there were seven hundred U.S. military advisors in the country.

In May 1961, Johnson personally visited South Vietnam as U.S. vice president. He became convinced that full U.S. backing was the right thing to do. At the time of Kennedy's death in November 1963, there were sixteen thousand military advisors in Vietnam. By early 1964, Johnson and his aides were secretly planning an increased military effort

in Vietnam. However, they needed to build congressional support to finance the military buildup.

In August 1964, two U.S. destroyers off the coast of North Vietnam were allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was the evidence Johnson needed to persuade Congress to support his military plan; the alleged attack could be presented as a threat to American interests. With congressional support, Johnson ordered U.S. planes to bomb North Vietnamese naval ports in retaliation. Though Johnson promised on national television that there would be no further escalation in the war, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution two days later, giving the president broad powers to conduct a war in Vietnam and surrounding countries.

Ironically, during the presidential campaign of 1964 against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), Johnson accused Goldwater of being a reckless warmonger who would readily resort to nuclear weapons in combating

communism. Representing himself as the peace candidate, Johnson pledged not to commit U.S. ground troops to Vietnam. He resisted any military buildup through the fall of 1964. With the U.S. economy flourishing, Johnson won a record landslide victory, receiving over 61 percent of the popular vote.

In February 1965, only three months after the election victory, Johnson ordered massive bombing raids on North Vietnamese industrial and military sites in response to the death of eight U.S. soldiers at a U.S. military base in South Vietnam. He also sent 3,500 marines to protect the air base; they were the first U.S. combat troops to be sent to Vietnam. In July, Johnson sent another 50,000 troops to begin the ground war in South Vietnam. By the end of 1965, 200,000U.S. troops were in South Vietnam. Johnson steadily increased their number to 536,000 in 1968. The steady escalation failed to bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table; instead, North Vietnam met each U.S. escalation with an escalation of its own. Johnson refrained from invading North Vietnam because Chinese troops were stationed there. He did not want to bring communist China, a powerful rival, into the conflict.

Growing social unrest in America

U.S. casualties in Vietnam climbed at an alarming rate, amounting to five hundred a week by late 1967. Public support for the war began to crumble. Student antiwar demonstrations grew on college campuses in 1965. By 1967, the antiwar movement spread into other segments of society. In October 1967, a mass demonstration against the war was held in Washington, D.C. Eventually, in 1968, Congress began opposing further escalation of the war. Making grim matters worse, the financial costs of waging war were high: In 1967, the United States spent $25 billion on the conflict in Vietnam. Protesters confronted Johnson everywhere he traveled, and he eventually became isolated in the White House. Critics claimed that the United States was wrongfully involved in a Vietnamese civil war. However, Johnson and his closest advisors, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909–1994), remained convinced that they were in the right, fighting a broad global communist movement.

Johnson's cherished Great Society programs were a major casualty of the war; with billions of dollars being spent in South Vietnam, funding for domestic programs was scarce. Johnson began reducing funding for his antipoverty program in 1965. From 1964 to 1967, Johnson had spent over $6 billion in his war on poverty, with only limited successes to show. Inner-city black Americans were frustrated by the lack of improvement in their neighborhoods, and soon blacks rioted in one city after another across the nation—New York City in 1964; Los Angeles, California, in 1965; Cleveland, Ohio, in 1966; Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, in 1967; and Washington, D.C., in 1968. A backlash of rioting by white Americans followed, and it seemed that the United States was on the brink of a race war.

Cold War conflicts around the world

As the war raged in Vietnam, other Cold War conflicts erupted in Latin America, the Middle East, and Korea. In April 1965, Johnson sent thirty thousand U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic to protect the ruling military dictatorship from communist-supported revolutionaries. The international community criticized this U.S. action; even Britain, America's closest ally, complained that the United States was interfering in the internal affairs of the smaller country. Another Cold War confrontation came in the Middle East in June 1967, when Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In this conflict, known as the Six-Day War, the Soviets accused Israel of ignoring United Nations resolutions for a cease-fire. Johnson moved the U.S. Sixth Fleet closer to the Syrian coast to respond to any potential Soviet military involvement. The Soviets made no further moves.

Another incident brought Korea, the center of a Cold War conflict in the early 1950s, back to the forefront. On January 23, 1968, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering ship. Eight men were captured and imprisoned. Johnson sent a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the area. However, North Korea would hold the crew for eleven months until the United States finally apologized for spying. The apology was retracted immediately after the release of the U.S. prisoners.

The end of a presidency

One week after North Korea seized the Pueblo, communist North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces unleashed the Tet Offensive, a massive attack that occurred during the national celebrations of Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year. Numerous South Vietnamese cities were temporarily overrun. Intense fighting spread through South Vietnam's capital city, Saigon, and into the U.S. embassy building. Though the communist forces were soon beaten back, they had accomplished a major psychological victory. The Vietnam War no longer seemed winnable to the United States.

After reassessing the U.S. war commitment, Johnson decided to change course. In a televised speech to the nation on March 31, 1968, he announced major reductions in the bombing of North Vietnam and a renewed offer to North Vietnam to begin peace talks. He also stunned the nation by announcing that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination to run for reelection that fall. Three days later, the North Vietnamese agreed to begin peace talks in May. During 1968, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to begin strategic arms limitation talks; the talks would lead to the 1972 treaty known as SALT I. Negotiations were scheduled to begin in late September in Leningrad. However, in August, Soviet-led forces invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing a popular movement to introduce democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia's communist government. Johnson pulled out of the arms control talks to protest the heavy-handed actions of the Soviets.

The American home front was turbulent in 1968. In April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee; in June, U.S. senator Robert Kennedy (1925–1968) of New York, the late president's brother and the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, was assassinated in Los Angeles. Lyndon Johnson was so embattled as president that he did not even attend the Democratic National Convention that summer in Chicago, where antiwar protesters clashed violently with local police. In the presidential election that fall, the Republican candidate, former vice president Richard Nixon, representing himself as the peace candidate, narrowly defeated the Democratic candidate, incumbent (current) vice president Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978). However, the Vietnam War would continue for another seven years and become the most unpopular war in U.S. history. Besides the major loss of life, Vietnam left a legacy of spiraling inflation, which would undermine the U.S. economy through the 1970s.

Johnson retired to his Texas ranch in January 1969. There, he wrote his memoirs and worked on plans for his presidential library at the University of Texas in Austin. The library was dedicated in May 1971. Johnson died of a heart attack on his ranch in January 1973, only days before a peace agreement was reached in the war. Johnson believed he was a victim of history and poor advice. His dream of helping the underprivileged had been crushed by Cold War world events seemingly out of his control. His presidency represents a tragic period in U.S. history.

For More Information


Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam. New York: Norton, 1989.

Conkin, Paul K. Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1995.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Hunt, Michael H. Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945–1968. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Kutler, Stanley I., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger. LBJ: A Life. New York: Wiley, 1999.

Web Sites

Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum. (accessed on September 5, 2003).

Vietnam Online. (accessed on September 5, 2003).

Dean Rusk

Secretary of State Dean Rusk was a key advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, guiding the president's decisions on the Vietnam War and other Cold War issues. Rusk was an ardent anticommunist and consistently took a hard-line approach in using U.S. military might. Like Johnson, he became a target for antiwar protesters in the United States.

Born in rural Georgia in 1909, Rusk was a Rhodes scholar and attended St. John's College in Oxford, England. Rusk began his career as a college professor, teaching political science at Mills College in Oakland, California, from 1934 to 1940. During World War II, he served as deputy chief of staff in Far Eastern matters. After the war, he joined the State Department as an East Asian expert. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) appointed Rusk as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs in March 1950, just before the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–53). Rusk played an important role in guiding U.S. strategy in the war. He also argued for the first U.S. support to South Vietnam in the mid-1950s.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named Rusk as his secretary of state. Under Kennedy, Rusk would play a fairly restricted role in foreign policy development. However,

when Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 after Kennedy's assassination, Rusk's influence increased. From 1964 to 1968, he defended heavy U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He also argued against formal U.S. recognition of communist China. His characteristic cool and restrained manner proved an inviting target for war protesters. Nevertheless, Rusk vigorously defended U.S. war policy and continued to do so even after major setbacks in 1968. Rusk retired from government service in 1969 and resumed his teaching career. After his final retirement, he published his memoirs, titled As I Saw It (1990). He died in 1994.

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated May 18 2018

Lyndon B. Johnson

Excerpt of "Remarks of Lyndon B. Johnson upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967," delivered November 7, 1967

   Available online at Corporation for Public Broadcasting,

In the early days of television, many people believed that the new technology could become a valuable tool for informing and educating the American people. The first laws affecting the television industry tried to make sure that TV lived up to this potential. The Communications Act of 1934, for example, stated that the airwaves used for transmitting TV signals belonged to the American people. Since television broadcasters used the public airwaves to distribute their programs, they had a duty to create programs that served the public interest.

"The Corporation [for Public Broadcasting] will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting."

When commercial television broadcasting began in the 1940s, however, a combination of factors allowed three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) to gain control of the airwaves. As the popularity of television increased rapidly during the 1950s, these networks competed fiercely to create shows that would attract high ratings. The more viewers that tuned into a given show, the higher the show would place in the weekly TV ratings, and the more money the network could charge advertisers to air commercials during that show. Advertising dollars provided a major source of funding for the networks, allowing them to stay in business and continue producing programs. By the end of the decade, critics were beginning to complain that the networks served their own interests rather than the public interest, and often sacrificed quality in their quest for high ratings and big advertising money.

TV evolves under Kennedy and Johnson

In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see Chapter 6) was elected president of the United States. Kennedy was one of the first political figures to understand and take advantage of the power of television. In fact, his strong performance in the first-ever televised presidential debate was believed to be a deciding factor in his election victory over Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon. Shortly after taking office in 1961, Kennedy appointed Newton Minow (1926–; see Chapter 7) as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating television. Minow outlined his views about the television industry in a famous 1961 speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, called "Television and the Public Interest." In this speech, which is excerpted in this volume, Minow sharply criticized the content of television programming as a "vast wasteland" and encouraged broadcasters to work harder to meet their obligation to inform and educate the American people. Many people believed that the Kennedy administration would challenge the television networks to improve the quality of programming.

In November 1963, Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in the back of an open car in Dallas, Texas. Two hours later, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–68) took the oath of office to become the thirty-sixth president of the United States. Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas. The son and grandson of men who had served in the Texas legislature, he was a born politician. Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers' College and worked as a high-school teacher for several years. In 1931, he moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as an assistant to a newly elected U.S. congressman from Texas.

Once he got a glimpse of the inner workings of government, Johnson became determined to run for office himself. In 1937, he was elected to fill the seat of a Texas congressman who died, and he won reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938 and 1940. Although he was defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1941, he won the seat in 1948. Johnson was a master of the legislative process and moved up quickly through the ranks of the Senate to become majority leader (highest-ranking member of the political party holding the most seats) in 1955. Johnson considered running for president in 1960, but he believed he would lose the Democratic nomination to the more popular Kennedy. Once Kennedy became the presidential candidate, however, Johnson agreed to serve as his vice presidential running mate.

After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson emerged as a skillful leader who was determined to fulfill Kennedy's vision for the future. Johnson supported the civil rights movement, in which millions of African Americans participated in marches and protests to end segregation (the forced separation of people by race) and gain equal rights and opportunities in American society. He also introduced programs designed to improve education, eliminate poverty, and help senior citizens. Thanks to the success of his ambitious programs, Johnson was reelected president in 1964 by one of the largest margins in history.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967

In the introduction to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967—which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on November 7, 1967—legislators explain the purpose of the bill:

The Congress hereby finds that—it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes; … it furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute [provide] an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all citizens of the nation; it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities; [and] it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967

Although Minow had stepped down as head of the FCC following Kennedy's assassination, Johnson continued to press for improvements in the quality of television programming. In 1967, the U.S. Congress responded by passing the Public Broadcasting Act. This law established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private, nonprofit corporation intended to promote and provide funding for public television and radio services. The act also provided $38 million to build new educational television and radio facilities, and set aside additional funds to conduct a study of educational broadcasting.

After Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, President Johnson signed the bill into law. The signing took place on November 7 in a special ceremony at the White House, and Johnson gave a speech to mark the occasion. In his remarks, which are excerpted below, Johnson expresses his hope that public broadcasting will improve the quality of television programming and enrich the lives of American viewers.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt of "Remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967":

  • In his remarks, Johnson talks about some of the "miracles" of communication technology. He mentions that telephone and telegraph signals were being sent around the world using cables beneath the ocean and satellites above Earth. In addition, the majority of television programs were being broadcast in color rather than black and white for the first time. The president believes that the next challenge facing the U.S. government and the American people is to figure out how to best use these new technologies to improve people's lives.
  • The president presents a forward-thinking view of the future of communication technology. He proposes using radio, television, computer, and satellite technologies to "build a great network for knowledge" that connects people around the world to educational resources. Although Johnson would not live to see it (he died in 1973), the network he describes is very similar to the modern Internet.
  • The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to provide funding for public television and radio services. The CPB is not a government agency, but a private, independent enterprise that receives funding from the federal government. The act specifically made the CPB a separate, nonprofit organization so that it would not be influenced by political pressures. Of the nine-person board of directors appointed by the president, only five were allowed to be from the same political party. Johnson says that he intends to choose highly qualified individuals to serve as CPB directors to ensure that public broadcasting reaches its full potential.

Excerpt of "Remarks of Lyndon B. Johnson upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967"

It was in 1844 that Congress authorized $30,000 for the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Soon afterward, Samuel Morse sent a stream of dots and dashes over that line to a friend who was waiting. His message was brief and prophetic and it read: "What hath God wrought? "

Every one of us should feel the same awe and wonderment here today.

For today, miracles in communication are our daily routine. Every minute, billions of telegraph messages chatter around the world. They interrupt law enforcement conferences and discussions of morality. Billions of signals rush over the ocean floor and fly above the clouds. Radio and television fill the air with sound. Satellites hurl messages thousands of miles in a matter of seconds.

Today our problem is not making miracles—but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought—and how will man use his inventions?

The law that I will sign shortly offers one answer to that question.

It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a "chicken in every pot." We in America have an appetite for excellence, too.

While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit.

That is the purpose of this act.

It will give a wider and, I think, stronger voice to educational radio and television by providing new funds for broadcast facilities.

It will launch a major study of television's use in the Nation's classrooms and their potential use throughout the world.

Finally—and most important—it builds a new institution: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting.

It will get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from [political] party control. It will be free, and it will be independent—and it will belong to all of our people.

Television is still a young invention. But we have learned already that it has immense—even revolutionary—power to change, to change our lives.

I hope that those who lead the Corporation will direct that power toward the great and not the trivial purposes.

At its best, public television would help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.

But in weak or even in irresponsible hands, it could generate controversy without understanding; it could mislead as well as teach; it could appeal to passions rather than to reason.

If public television is to fulfill our hopes, then the Corporation must be representative [of all citizens' viewpoints], it must be responsible—and it must be long on enlightened leadership.

I intend to search this Nation to find men that I can nominate, men and women of outstanding ability, to this board of directors….

What hath man wrought? And how will man use his miracles?

The answer just begins with public broadcasting.

In 1862, the Morrill Act set aside lands in every State—lands which belonged to the people—and it set them aside in order to build the land-grant colleges of the Nation.

So today we rededicate a part of the airwaves—which belong to all the people—and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.

I believe the time has come to stake another claim in the name of all the people, stake a claim based upon the combined resources of communications. I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.

If we are up to the obligations of the next century and if we are to be proud of the next century as we are of the past two centuries, we have got to quit talking so much about what has happened in the past two centuries and start talking about what is going to happen in the next century beginning in 1976.

So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.

Think of the lives that this would change:

  • the student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university….
  • The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital;
  • a scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York;
  • a famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspirations into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.

Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank.

And such a system could involve other nations, too—it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.

A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday's strangest dreams are today's headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.

I have already asked my advisers to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge—and then to draw up a suggested blueprint for it.

In 1844, when Henry Thoreau heard about Mr. Morse's telegraph, he made his sour comment about the race for faster communication. "Perchance," he warned, "the first news which will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

We do have skeptical comments on occasion. But I don't want you to be that skeptic. I do believe that we have important things to say to one an-other—and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius.

In that spirit this morning, I have asked you to come here and be participants with me in this great movement for the next century, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967….

What happened next …

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection as president of the United States. But the move toward public broadcasting continued after he left office. In 1969, the CPB established the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to create and distribute public television programs. PBS first went on the air in October 1970. It eventually grew to include more than 350 member stations across the United States. Many of these stations operated out of colleges and universities. Instead of selling commercial time to make money, PBS stations received funding from individual viewers, businesses, charities, and the CPB. This arrangement freed the PBS stations from worrying about ratings and thus enabled them to air innovative, high-quality educational and cultural programs that did not attract large enough audiences to interest the commercial broadcast networks.

"Our purpose is not to sell to the public. Our mission and purpose is to serve the public—in Lyndon Johnson's words, to manage miracles for the public good," PBS president Pat Mitchell explained to the Carnegie Reporter. "It's not just about using media to sell something or promote something. It's about using the power of our public airwaves to educate, to inform, and to inspire, while giving all of our citizens the opportunity to know more, to achieve more, and be more. There is no better use for the modern miracles of communication than that."

While PBS has developed a number of award-winning programs over the years, it has also created some controversy. Politicians occasionally try to discontinue government funding for PBS, claiming that it should be able to support itself through private donations rather than taxpayer money. Other people argue that PBS should receive more government funding so that it does not have to depend on corporate sponsorships. They claim that corporate sponsors could influence programming choices, which would make PBS move away from educational shows and toward shows with more commercial appeal.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 expired in 1996, although the federal government continued to provide funding for the CPB each year. In 2004, U.S. senator John McCain of Arizona introduced a bill to reauthorize the act, but it was never put to a vote and did not become law.

Did you know …

  • The U.S. government supplies about 15 percent of the total funding for the PBS. In terms of tax dollars, this means that each American citizen pays only about $1 per year to support public television. In contrast, TV viewers in the United Kingdom pay an annual fee of more than $200 per year to support the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • The total budget for PBS's national program service—which provides funding for member stations to create more than 2,000 hours of programming each year—is about the same as the amount that the premium cable channel HBO spends on advertising for just one of its original series.
  • Despite its financial limitations, PBS still manages to reach American television audiences. Surveys show that 70 percent of U.S. households tune in to watch PBS at some point every week. On an average evening, the total audience for PBS member stations is twice as large as the national audience for the top-rated cable channel.

Consider the following …

  • After reading Johnson's speech, do you think that public broadcasting in the United States has lived up to his expectations? Explain why or why not.
  • In many ways, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 grew out of FCC chairman Newton Minow's 1961 "Wasteland Speech," in which he challenged the broadcast industry to improve the quality of American television. Review the excerpt from Minow's speech in Chapter 7. Do you think that PBS was the solution he had in mind?
  • PBS operates as a non-commercial alternative to the traditional broadcast networks. It receives all of its funding from private donations and taxes, so it does not have to worry about earning high ratings, pleasing advertisers, or making a profit. Think about the programs you've watched on PBS. How do they differ from what's available on the commercial networks? Based on your answer, do you think it makes sense to have two separate systems of television in the United States?

For More Information


Barsamian, David. The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting: Creating Alternative Media. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001.

Ledbetter, James. Made Possible By: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. New York and London: Verso, 1998.

McCauley, Michael P., ed. Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest: Media, Communication, and Culture in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.

Witherspoon, John, et al. History of Public Broadcasting, revised edition. Takoma Park, MD: Current, 2000.


McGraw, Dan. "Is PBS Too Commercial?" U.S. News and World Report, June 15, 1998.

Mitchell, Pat. "The Digital Future Initiative: PBS Envisions Tomorrow." Carnegie Reporter, Fall 2005.


"American Experience: The Presidents." PBS. (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Aufderheide, Patricia. "Public Television." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on July 27, 2006).

"Investing in Public TV." Public Radio Exchange, July 22, 2004. (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Johnson, Lyndon B. "Remarks of Lyndon B. Johnson upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967." Corporation for Public Broadcasting, (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Samuel Morse: (1791–1872) Inventor of the telegraph and the system of Morse code used to send telegraph messages.

Prophetic: An accurate prediction of the future.

What hath God wrought: A Bible verse (Numbers 23:23) meaning, "Look what God has made."

Morality: Standards of good behavior.

Ponder: Think about or consider.

Chicken in every pot: Food to meet all people's basic needs.

Trivial: Minor; not important.

Replica: Copy.

Enlightened: Wise and open-minded.

Morrill Act: A law enacted during the Civil War era that granted each state that remained in the Union a certain amount of federal land. The states sold the land in order to raise money to establish a system of 70 "land-grant" colleges.

Rededicate: Set aside or commit for a second time.

Stake a claim: Demand a portion or share.

Enlist: Use or gain the support of.

1976: The nation's bicentennial, or 200th birthday.

Federal Reserve Bank: The central bank of the United States, established by Congress in 1913 to create a more stable monetary system.

Blueprint: Design or map.

Henry Thoreau: (1817–1862) Author and naturalist who promoted a simple way of life.

Skeptical: Doubting or questioning.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

views updated May 17 2018

Lyndon Baines Johnson

As the thirty-sixth president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) created new programs in health, education, human rights, and conservation and attacked the crushing 20th-century problems of urban blight and poverty with what he called the "War on Poverty."

Most commentators account Lyndon Johnson as one of America's most experienced and politically skilled presidents. He sponsored a flood of new legislation designed to better the quality of life among the disadvantaged and the dispossessed of the nation. In foreign policy he set about to strengthen regional arrangements of power so that new and small nations might develop their own form of political society without fear of intrusion from their more powerful neighbors. He inherited an American commitment in South Vietnam, and his determination to preserve the independence of that beleaguered country led to virulent attacks and, finally, his momentous decision not to seek reelection.

Lyndon Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, near Johnson City, Texas, the small community founded by his forebears. Life was hard and plain in the Texas hill country at this time. Johnson's father struggled to raise his two sons and three daughters. His mother was a gentle woman, who encouraged her children to love books and gave them a sense of duty and responsibility. Johnson graduated from Southwest State Teachers College in San Marcos, Tex., with a bachelor of science degree, having combined his studies with a job teaching Mexican-American children.

Johnson's early teaching assignments were at Pearsall, Tex., and in the Houston high schools. In 1931, politics beckoned. He went to Washington, D.C., as secretary to Texas congressman Richard Kleberg. Almost immediately Johnson's talent for attracting affection and respect became visible. He was elected Speaker of the "Little Congress," an assembly of congressional secretaries on Capitol Hill.

On Nov. 17, 1934, an event occurred which Johnson always described as the most notable triumph of his life: he married Claudia (Lady Bird) Taylor of Karnak, Texas. She became his partner, confidant, and counselor, and from her, Johnson drew strength and love and reserves of support that never faltered.

Johnson's ultimate destiny was beginning to take shape. At age 27, he was already exhibiting his characteristic traits of energy, intellect, and tenacity when he resigned as a congressional secretary in 1935 to become the Texas director of the National Youth Administration. The origins of the later Johnson can be located in his conduct of this office; he surrounded himself with bright, young men and invested his duties with a 24-hour torrent of activity.

Rising through Congress

In 1937, the congressman from Texas's Tenth District died suddenly. When a special election was called to select a successor, Johnson hesitated only slightly. His wife provided campaign funds from her inheritance, and Johnson leaped into a race crowded with eight opponents. The only candidate to support President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan, he did so with such vigor that the eyes of the nation were drawn to the outcome, and none watched it with more intensity than Roosevelt himself. To the amazement of political veterans, the 28-year-old Johnson won the race.

President Roosevelt, in Texas on a fishing trip, was so elated that he invited Johnson to accompany him back to Washington, D.C. Thus, Johnson became his personal protégé. With the aid of the powerful House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and the continuing support of the President, Johnson was brought into the councils of ruling establishmentarians of the House of Representatives.

In 1941, Johnson entered another special election, this time for a Senate seat made vacant by a death. Texans were surprised by the campaign he launched by helicopter. Nearly every community watched the tall, smiling Johnson alight from his helicopter. In a bitter campaign Johnson lost by 1,311 votes to that bizarre political phenomenon Governor W. Lee ("Pass the Biscuits Pappy") O'Daniel.

There was little time for Johnson to lick his wounds. That December he became the first member of Congress to enter active military duty. He joined the Navy and in 1942 received the Silver Star for gallantry in a bombing mission over New Guinea. When President Roosevelt ordered all congressmen back to the capital in 1942, Johnson reentered the House.

In 1948, Johnson's restless quest for higher office was finally successful. In a savagely fought senatorial campaign, he defeated a former governor of Texas by a celebrated margin of 87 votes. The elders of the Senate soon recognized that Johnson was no ordinary rookie senator. He did his homework, was knowledgable on every item that confronted the Senate, and was in instant command of all the nuances and subtleties of every important piece of legislation.

In January 1951, just 3 years into his first term, Johnson was elevated to Democratic "whip" (assistant minority leader). Regarding his age and tenure, no similar selection had ever been made in the history of the Senate. In 1953, when the post of minority leader in the Senate opened up Democratic senators without hesitation chose Johnson to take charge. With the congressional elections of 1954, the Democrats took command of both houses. And with this new alignment, Johnson again set a record as the youngest man ever to become majority leader.

The Johnson legend of leadership now became visible to the nation. Not since the early days of the republic had one man assumed such clear direction over the course and affairs of the Senate. Operating his office around the clock, intimately aware of all that transpired, and firmly fixed in his intent and design, Johnson was the "complete Senate leader." Now one voice spoke for the Democrats, as Johnson became the "second most powerful man in Washington, D.C."

The habits of work and discipline that would later confound the nation when Johnson became president were now on display in the Senate chamber. He handled the Senate with confidence and skill. The Republican opposition found it impossible to outflank this majority leader; legislation opposed by Johnson rarely found acceptance by the Senate. He encouraged new, young senators and found coveted spots for them on important committees.

Johnson led the first civil rights bill in 82 years through the Senate. He guided to final victory the first space legislation in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. In 1958, designated by President Dwight Eisenhower to represent the United States at the United Nations, he presented the resolution calling for the peaceful exploration of outer space. He exposed wastes in defense procurement during the Korean War and conducted defense hearings that were a model of accuracy and dispassionate scrutiny.

In 1960, Johnson briefly opposed John F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination; then Kennedy electrified the country by choosing Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate. While some Kennedy supporters grumbled, experts later agreed that Johnson's relentless campaigning in Texas and throughout the South had provided Kennedy with his winning margin.

Serving as Vice President

As vice-president, Johnson had important assignments. One of his principal tasks was the burgeoning space program, which was overshadowed by Russian triumphs with Sputnik and subsequent innovations that put the United States in an inferior role. Regarding civil rights, as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity forces, Johnson surprised many critics by putting uncompromising pressure on American industry. At the President's request, he made fact-finding trips to Berlin and to the Far East.

On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Aboard the plane Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Johnson took the presidential oath of office on November 23. Giving orders to take off seconds later, the new president flew back to Washington to take command of the government, while the nation grieved for its fallen leader.

Filling the Presidency

Five days after taking office, President Johnson appeared before a joint session of the Congress. Speaking with firmness and controlled passion, he pledged "we shall continue." Important legislation submitted by President Kennedy to the Congress, currently bottled up and seemingly stymied in various committees of both houses, was met by Johnson's deliberate and concentrated action. The new president—meeting round the clock with staff, Cabinet, and congressmen—unbuckled key legislation, so that within a few short months the tax cut and the civil rights bills were passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Six months after assuming the presidency, Johnson announced his concept of the "Great Society." The areas he considered vital were health and education; the whole complex of the urban society, with its accompanying ills of ghettos, pollution, housing, and transportation; civil rights; and conservation.

Johnson took his innovative domestic programs to the nation in the election of 1964. Meanwhile, the American involvement in Vietnam, sanctioned by three presidents, became an issue. Senator Barry Goldwater chastised Johnson for his liberal approach to domestic problems and suggested a massive step-up in the bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson traversed the nation and convinced it that his leadership was of such caliber that the voters could not afford to drive him from office. He won by a margin of almost 16 million votes, more than 61 percent of the total vote, the widest margin in totals and percentage of any presidential election in American history.

Administration Achievements

Barely pausing, the President, reinforced by this clear mandate, began a legislative program which was rivaled in scope and form only by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal a generation earlier. Between 1965 and 1968 more than 207 landmark bills were passed by the Congress.

In education, Johnson's administration tripled expenditures. By the end of 1968, 1.5 million students were receiving Federal aid to help them gain their college degrees; over 10 million people learned new skills through vocational education; and 19,000 school districts received special help under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. More than 600,000 disabled citizens were trained through vocational rehabilitation programs. Head Start and other pre-school programs brought specific assistance to more than 2 million children.

In the area of health, Johnson's administration increased Federal expenditures from $4 billion to $14 billion in 4 years. More than 20 million Americans were covered by Medicare, and more than 7 million received its benefits. About 31 million children were vaccinated against four severe diseases, reducing by 50 percent the number of children who suffered from these diseases, and more than 3 million children received health care under Medicaid in one year. Some 286 community mental health centers were built. More than 390,000 mothers and 680,000 infants received care through the Maternal and Child Health programs. Some 460,000 handicapped children were treated under the Crippled Children's Program.

Fighting poverty, the Johnson administration lifted more than 6,000,000 Americans out of the poverty depths. Over 100,000 young men and women completed Job Corps training; 2.2 million needy Americans were helped under the Food Stamp Program; school children benefited from the School Milk and School Lunch programs.

In the area of human and civil rights, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and within 3 years nearly 1 million Negroes registered to vote in the South. More than 98 percent of all the nation's hospitals agreed to provide services without discrimination. More than 28 percent of all Negro families by 1968 earned about $7,000 a year, doubling the 1960 figure. Some 35 percent more Negroes found professional, technical, and managerial jobs between 1964 and 1968.

In housing, in 4 years the Johnson administration generated the construction of 5.5 million new homes. Direct Federal expenditures for housing and community development increased from $635 million to nearly $3 billion. Two million families received Federal Housing Administration improvement loans. Federal assistance provided housing for 215,000 families earning less than $7,000 a year. Nearly $427 million was spent for water and sewage facilities in small towns. More than 3.5 million rural citizens benefited from economic opportunity loans, farm operation and emergency loans, and watershed and rural housing loans.

Most importantly, the Johnson administration presided over the longest upward curve of prosperity in the history of the nation. More than 85 months of unrivaled economic growth marked this as the strongest era of national prosperity. The average weekly wage of factory workers rose 18 percent in 4 years. Over 9 million additional workers were brought under minimum-wage protection. Total employment, increased by 7.5 million workers, added up to 75 million; the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in more than a decade.

In foreign affairs, where risk and confrontation stretched a perilous tightrope throughout the Johnson years, the President made significant achievements. In the Western Hemisphere, at Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Latin American nations agreed to a common market for the continent. Normal relations with Panama were restored and a new canal treaty negotiated. In Cyprus, at the brink of war, the President's special emissaries knitted a settlement that staved off conflict. A rebellion in the Congo, which would have had ugly repercussions throughout the continent, was put down with American aid in the form of transport planes. In the Dominican Republic, an incipient Communist threat was challenged by an overwhelming show of American force, with Latin American allies. Amid tangled criticism from sections of the press and some Latin American nations, the President persevered in the Dominican Republic, where democratic government and free elections were restored and U.S. troops promptly withdrawn.

An outer-space treaty was negotiated with the Soviet Union and a nuclear nonproliferation treaty was formulated and agreed to in Geneva. In June 1967 the President met with Premier Alexei Kosygin of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was successfully realigned after France withdrew, and the vast Western European alliance was restructured and strengthened.

It was the troubled Southeast Asian problem in South Vietnam to which Johnson devoted long, tormented hours. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had declared that the security of the United States was involved in deterring aggression in South Vietnam from an intruding Communist government from the North. However, there was much disagreement in the United States over this venture; some critics claimed the Vietnam war was a civil one, an insurrection, and not an invasion. When Johnson first became chief executive, 16,000 American troops were in Vietnam as advisers and combat instructors. In 1965 the United States decided to increase its military support of South Vietnam and authorized commitment of more American troops. By 1968 there was considerable disaffection over the Asian policy, and many critics in and out of the Congress determined to force the Johnson administration to shrink its commitment and withdraw U.S. troops.

Beginning in April 1965 with the President's speech at Johns Hopkins University, in which he set forth the American policy of reconstruction of the area and the promulgation of the Asian Development Bank as an instrument of peace building, the Johnson administration attempted to negotiate with a seemingly intransigent North Vietnam, whose troops were infiltrating into the South in increasing numbers. A 37-day bombing pause in December 1965 raised hopes for negotiation, but lack of response from the North Vietnamese blotted this out, and the bombing resumed.

Assaulted by fierce and growing criticism, yet determined to fix some course of action which would diminish the war and commence serious peace talks, the President startled the nation and the world on March 31, 1968, by renouncing his claim to renomination for the presidency. Johnson said that he believed that the necessity for finding a structure of peaceful negotiation was so important that even his own political fortunes must not be allowed to stand in its way. Therefore, he stated, he would not seek renomination, so he could spend the rest of his days in the presidency searching for negotiation without any political taint marring a possible response from the enemy.

On May 11, 1968, it was announced that peace talks would indeed begin in Paris, and in November 1968 the President declared that all bombing of North Vietnam would cease.

Johnson retired to his ranch near San Antonio, Texas, where he took a keen interest in the care and sale of his cattle, while nursing a serious heart ailment.

The tragic Vietnam War was in its last days in January, 1973 when a period of mourning was declared to mark the death of President Harry S Truman. Shortly after it began, it also marked the death of Lyndon B. Johnson.

On the afternoon of January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a heart attack while lying down to take a nap. He was flown to a hospital by his Secret Service agents, but was pronounced dead on arrival at 4:33 pm. His body lay in state first at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, then, as is usual for American presidents, in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. until his burial on his beloved ranch.

Johnson's Influence

While historians search the record and evaluate its significance, there seems little doubt that Lyndon Johnson's impress on the form and quality of life in the United States will be seen to be large. In the fields of health, education, civil rights, conservation, and the problem of the elderly, his legislative achievements have left their clear mark. His insistence that the pledges of the four preceding presidents be upheld in Southeast Asia is a subject for debate. But it must be argued that his peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, in the Near East, in Africa, and in Latin America were forceful, remedial, and worthy of praise; the results have proved his policies' merits.

Johnson belongs in the tradition of the "strong president" he dominated the government with his energy and personality and invested his office with intimate knowledge of all government business. He was the target of intense and sometimes virulent criticism, just as all strong American presidents have found themselves ceaselessly and bitterly attacked.

Further Reading

Johnson's The Vantage Point (1971) presents his own perspectives on his White House years. There is not yet an authoritative or comprehensive biography of Johnson. Boothe Mooney, The Lyndon Johnson Story (1956; rev. ed. 1964); and Clarke Newlon, LBJ: The Man from Johnson City (1964; rev. ed. 1966), are journalistic; Sam Houston Johnson, My Brother Lyndon, edited by Enrique Hank Lopez, is a superficial and undocumented account by the President's brother.

Aspects of Johnson's life and presidency are treated in William S.White, Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate (1957); and The Professional: Lyndon B Johnson (1964); Michael Amrine, This Awesome Challenge: A Hundred Days of Lyndon Johnson (1964); Rebekah Baines Johnson, A Family Album, edited by John S. Moursund (1965); Charles Roberts, LBJ's Inner Circle (1965); Theodore H. White, The Making of the President (1965); Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, The Exercise of Power: A Political Biography (1966); Philip Geyelin, Lyndon B. Johnson and the World (1966); Jim Bishop, A Day in the Life of President Johnson (1967); James Deakin, Lyndon Johnson's Credibility Gap (1968); Hugh Sidney, A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House (1968); Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality upon Politics (1968); and Eric F. Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1969); Lady Bird Johnson, White House Diary (1970), is a record of the Johnson presidency as experienced by his wife; for the mid-century political background see James L. Sundquist, Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (1968). □

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated Jun 08 2018

Johnson, Lyndon B. 1908-1973


As thirty-sixth president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson presided over one of the most turbulent periods in American history. His administrations confrontations with both severe domestic turmoil and international conflict highlight the potential and constraints of the modern presidency.

Johnson was born in Stonewall, a poor rural outpost located on the Pedernales River in central Texas. His political education began at an early age, as his paternal grandfather regaled his progeny with stories of his participation in the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, while Johnsons father was active in state and local politics and served in the Texas state legislature during Johnsons youth.

Still, while politics played an important role in Johnsons life in childhood, it was during his attendance at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos that Johnson developed the attitudes and qualities that would suffuse his political career. Upon his arrival at the college, he quickly set about the task of studying the schools internal dynamics and used the information he garnered to place himself close to its centers of power, a pattern he repeated several times during his participation in national politics. It was also at this juncture that Johnson articulatedin a series of editorials in the college newspapermuch of the philosophy that guided his political activities and approach to government later on.

After graduation, Johnson took a high school teaching position in Houston. Shortly thereafter, however, Johnson began to dabble with increasing seriousness in national politics, first as campaign manager for a Texas state legislator and then as a staffer for a newly elected member of the U.S. Congress. This latter position finally brought Johnson to Washington, D.C., where he remained for much of the duration of his political career. And as he had done in San Marcos, Johnson devoted his time to unearthing the sources of influence in the federal legislature and, armed with that knowledge, maneuvering himself as close to its power center as possible.

Johnson entered elective politics in 1937, when he was sent to Congress in a special election in Texass Tenth District. He served in the House of Representatives until his 1948 election to the Senate, where he rose quickly through the Democratic Party ranks to become Senate minority leader in 1953 and majority leader in 1955. It was in these roles that Johnsons political career reached its zenith. Perhaps most notably, it was in these leadership roles that he perfected what quickly came to be known as the Johnson treatment: a repertoire of psychological appeals and talking points that Johnson employed to enforce party discipline and more generally coax and strong-arm recalcitrant colleagues to rally around his legislative agenda.

The Senate leadership roles thus presented an ideal platform for Johnson to exploit the deep understanding of legislative power he had cultivated during his congressional career. As a Texan who brought to politics both pragmatism and a keen awareness of the possibilities for using the power of government to address social problems, Johnson was pivotally poised to mediate between the congressional Democratic Partys liberal and southern factions. In many ways, therefore, being Senate majority leader offered Johnson the opportunity to exert substantial influence over the course of national politics and public policy.

Nevertheless, Johnson left the Senate in 1961 to serve as President John F. Kennedys vice president until November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated during a political tour in Dallas, Texas. Johnson was sworn in as president that same afternoon and served out the remaining year of Kennedys term. Then in November 1964 he was elected president in his own right in a landslide victory against the Republican Partys ultraconservative candidate, Barry Goldwater.

The hallmark of Johnsons presidency was the Great Society program, which, as he described it in his commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1964, sought to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization (Johnson 1965, p. 704). Specific initiatives included the declaration of a War on Poverty; the introduction of various laws aimed at improving education, Social Security, health care, and the environment; and the creation of Head Start, the Job Corps, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities. Civil rights also figured prominently in Johnsons domestic agenda. One of his first acts as president was to fulfill the Kennedy administrations promise to support an antisegregation bill by working tirelessly to secure passage of the omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964. A dramatic wave of protests in Alabama the following winter led him to champion ratification of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And although Congress failed to enact the civil rights legislation he introduced in 1966 and 1967, Martin Luther King Jr.s assassination created favorable conditions for Johnson to push through a Fair Housing Act in 1968.

In foreign policy, Johnson was preoccupied primarily with the United States protracted postwar effort to contain communism, in which the Vietnam War played a particularly prominent role. This conflict, which pitted North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against the southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, began prior to Johnsons accession to the presidency. Nevertheless, his administration was responsible for the sizable escalation of U.S. involvement in the struggle. Johnsons war policies faced considerable opposition on the domestic front, especially from draft-age college students. This unrest contributed to Johnsons decision to retire from politics rather than run for a second term in 1968.

The legacy of Johnsons presidency is mixed. His ambitious agenda had many significant implications for the subsequent dynamics and practice of American politics, particularly with regard to the scope of domestic policy and federal-state relations. Nevertheless, the difficulties he faced in negotiating the highly charged social and political atmosphere of the late 1960s cast doubt on the possibility of effective presidential leadership and inaugurated an era of distrust in government.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Great Society, The; Kennedy, John F.; Marshall, Thurgood; Presidency, The; Vietnam War; Voting Rights Act


Caro, Robert A. 19822002. The Years of Lyndon Johnson. 3 vols. New York: Knopf.

Dallek, Robert. 1998. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 19611973. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Lyndon B. 1965. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 196364, Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Johnson, Lyndon B. 1971. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 19631969. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Milkis, Sidney M., and Jerome Mileur, eds. 2005. The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Shamira M. Gelbman

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lyndon B. Johnson

Born August 27, 1908
Near Stonewall, Texas

Died January 22, 1973
Near Johnson City, Texas

Politician, thirty-sixth
president of the United States

Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the most charismatic and complex leaders in U.S. history. His five-year presidency was marked by accusations of corruption and by the growing nightmare of American military involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). But his administration also made reforms that had a dramatic effect in reducing poverty and improving civil rights. Although some remember Johnson as a warmonger, others regard him as a political giant who improved the lives of millions of poor Americans.

"Almost anything you can say about Johnson had a tinge of truth in it, good or bad. He was vengeful and bullying.… But he was also visionary, energetic, a man whose goal it was to be the greatest American president, doing the greatest amount of good for the American nation."

—Jack Valenti, in The Wilson Quarterly.

Texas childhood

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the eldest of five children. His father was Sam Ealy Johnson, a farmer, local politician, and newspaper owner who served in the Texas state legislature for eighteen years. His mother was Rebekah Baines Johnson, a talented woman who occasionally wrote for local newspapers and produced amateur plays. She also taught neighborhood children elocution, the art of speaking properly. When Johnson was five years old, his mother persuaded his father to move from their isolated farm to Johnson City, a small town 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) west of Austin.

Johnson was always singled out by his parents as special. Even as a child he was known for his confidence, his willingness to argue, and his ability to bring people around to his point of view. By the age of thirteen he was winning debating competitions against older high school students. The family moved back to the farm in 1918. By 1922, the farm had failed, leaving the family in debt and forcing them to return to Johnson City. Johnson graduated from Johnson City High School in May of 1924, before his sixteenth birthday.

Always a rebel, Johnson ran away to California with some friends after graduating from high school. He worked as a clerk for Tom Martin in his San Bernadino law office but returned to Texas in 1925 when it became clear that Martin's business dealings were questionable. Johnson then began working on a construction crew building a highway between Johnson City and Austin.

The ambitious New Dealer

Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers' College and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1930. But he had interrupted his studies at the end of his junior year to teach for nine months in Cotulla, a small town in southern Texas. There, he came in contact with the grinding poverty experienced by poor Hispanic children. He also witnessed segregation—the practice of separating the races. Johnson was shocked by the lack of decent housing and food. This memory stayed with him throughout his political career. After a brief spell as a teacher in Houston, Texas, Johnson became congressional secretary to Richard Kleberg in 1931.

On November 17, 1934, Johnson married Claudia Alta Taylor. Known as "Lady Bird," Johnson's wife became a popular figure on the political circuit and one of Johnson's most important advisers. She was also influential in her own right. Money from her business ventures gave Johnson the freedom to pursue his own political career. By 1934 he was already gaining influence in Washington, D.C. In 1935, he became Texas director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a program designed to provide part-time work to young people. The NYA was part of the New Deal, a set of government programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) to help America recover from the economic depression of the 1930s. Johnson's ability to persuade and coax people into doing what he wanted made him a great success in his new role. In 1937 he was elected to Congress as a supporter of Roosevelt.

By 1941 Johnson felt ready to run in the Senate race against Texas governor W. Lee O'Daniel. It was a close race, but Johnson lost. The results of the election were questioned; some complaints surfaced that the votes were mishandled. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States entered World War II. Johnson quickly volunteered for active duty with the U.S. Navy and began serving two days later. A lieutenant commander, Johnson was injured slightly when his plane was attacked by the Japanese. He served thereafter in a non-combat role and was also awarded a Silver Star. After leaving the service, Johnson finally won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1949. During the tough campaign, he became known, humorously, as "Landslide Lyndon." He also gained a reputation for tough dealing and ruthless ambition.

The Kennedy era

Throughout the 1950s Johnson gained influence in Washington. He became Senate Majority Leader in 1955, the second most powerful position in the government. With a Democratic majority in Congress, he was able to influence the Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) to pass legislation on social security, public housing, and the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Most importantly, the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 became a starting point for more significant civil rights legislation in the 1960s. In 1960 Johnson was a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, but in the end he lost out to John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry).

After Kennedy won the presidential nomination, Johnson accepted the vice-presidential slot on the ticket. He worked the southern states, where Kennedy was less popular. After the Democrats won the election with a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote, Kennedy gave Johnson a powerful role in his administration. Johnson's background made him an ideal figure for pushing forward Kennedy's plan to compete with the Soviet Union in the exploration of space. Johnson was also a committed supporter of the administration's civil rights legislation. The need for civil rights reform grew increasingly urgent as civil unrest became more widespread through 1962 and 1963.

The Kennedy administration was troubled with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the attempted U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. These international crises were related to the long-standing political conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War (1945–91). Kennedy's administration also faced problems while it tried to push legislation through Congress. Yet the combination of Kennedy's youthful charisma and Johnson's tough persuasiveness was an important factor in the administration's successes. When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, a remarkable political alliance was brought to an end. Johnson was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One the following day, in the presence of Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline. Kennedy's body was also aboard the plane.

The Johnson administration

Many commentators in 1963 did not consider Johnson suitable for the presidency. He was almost the exact opposite of Kennedy, his smooth, glamorous predecessor. But Johnson came to be viewed as one of the most accomplished political minds of his generation. He adapted well to his new role, so well, in fact, that he won a comfortable victory over Barry Goldwater (1909–1998; see entry) in the 1964 presidential election that followed.

Many foreign policy problems had been resolved in 1963 with the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Johnson was a strong believer in personal contact with other leaders. He believed that "as long as I could take someone into a room with me, I could make him my friend, and that included anybody, even [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev" (1894–1971), as quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. This attitude served him well on domestic policy as well.

Johnson's friendly, confident style won over the American people. It enabled him to persuade Congress to pass bills that might otherwise have failed. These included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, giving civil rights to blacks and women that had previously only applied to white men. There were also numerous smaller pieces of legislation passed under his Great Society program, including reforms of Medicare and Medicaid, extensions in social security benefits, increases in the minimum wage, and programs to improve housing and employment for the poorest of Americans.

All of this work was achieved despite a Congress that was generally opposed to social reform. Despite conservative sentiments in Congress, Johnson was effective in exploiting the popular mood to get his way. For example, when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968; see entry), was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in April of 1968, Johnson used the public mood to push through the Fair Housing Act, banning discrimination in housing.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

In August 1963 almost 250,000 marchers gathered at the Washington Monument to protest the treatment of blacks in the southern states and to rally support for the Civil Rights Bill. Among their leaders were the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979). However, the marchers also included Lyndon Johnson and Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy (1932–), one of the president's brothers. After marching to the Lincoln Memorial, the leaders met with President Kennedy, who expressed his support for their cause.

The bill came before the Senate after President Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963. It fell to Johnson to pass it into law. Seventeen southern senators attempted a filibuster, an effort to continue a debate so that a vote cannot be taken. Johnson's legendary powers of persuasion were tested in his efforts to persuade Republicans to support the bill. While Johnson negotiated behind the scenes, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) worked to bring the debate to an end so voting could take place.

For the first time in history a filibuster over civil rights legislation was defeated. The Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. The act made illegal any discrimination in employment, in public accommodation (such as hotels), in schools, and most other areas of life. In an accident of legislative procedure it was not only blacks that benefited. As part of the effort to defeat the bill, southern Republicans added women to the list of those requiring civil rights protection. Nobody bothered to remove the word "women" from the final draft, so American women were given much-needed civil rights protection only as an unforeseen side effect of African American civil rights campaigns.

A war president

Since 1954, American military advisers had been stationed in South Vietnam, where their stated mission was to prevent the communist government in the north from expanding south. Opinion was always divided over whether the United States should have become involved in this conflict. In early 1964 Johnson was against the deployment of more American troops to Vietnam. But his position changed later the same year when an American warship was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese forces. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was quickly pushed through Congress, giving the administration support for increasing American involvement in the war, including sending combat troops.

In the following years, military advisers told Johnson that sending more American troops was the answer to the conflict in Vietnam. This advice proved false. Rather than weakening, the North Vietnamese forces seemed to gather strength. Growing numbers of American troops were killed or wounded. Public support for the war collapsed as TV networks carried vivid images of the fighting. Perhaps the turning point in Johnson's presidency came on January 31, 1968, when North Vietnam launched a series of attacks on American forces known as the Tet Offensive. The city of Saigon, where American forces had their headquarters, was overrun and the American embassy was briefly taken. Despite massive and successful U.S. counter-attacks, many Americans turned strongly against the war—and against Johnson.

The timing of America's failure in Vietnam could not have been worse for Johnson's political career, for 1968 was an election year. He realized that he had little chance of beating challenger Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), brother of the deceased president, in the Democratic primaries. As his health was also declining, Johnson withdrew from the race. In the same televised speech in which he announced his withdrawal, Johnson also spoke about an end to the bombing in Vietnam. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in Los Angeles, Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) won the nomination. However, he lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74).

Johnson died from a heart attack on his Texas ranch on January 22, 1973. At the time of his death, most Americans associated Johnson with his mistakes in foreign policy, especially in Vietnam. With the passage of time, however, historians have come to acknowledge Johnson as one of the most successful reforming presidents in U.S. history, with real achievements in economic and civil rights reform.

For More Information


Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dallek, Robert. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Eskow, Dennis. Lyndon Baines Johnson. New York: F. Watts, 1993.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Schuman, Michael A. Lyndon B. Johnson. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.


McPherson, Harry, and Jack Valenti. "Achilles in the White House" (panel discussion). The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000).

Web Sites

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. (accessed August 2004).

Johnson, Lyndon B.

views updated May 18 2018

Lyndon B. Johnson

Born: August 27, 1908
Stonewall, Texas

Died: January 22, 1973
Austin, Texas

American president

As the thirty-sixth president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson created new programs in health, education, human rights, and conservation. He was also aggressive in the fight against poverty, beginning what he called the "War on Poverty."

Early life

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas. Johnson's father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had served in the Texas legislature. After he lost a large sum of money trading cotton, he struggled to raise his two sons and three daughters. Johnson's mother was a gentle woman who encouraged her children to love books and gave them a sense of duty and responsibility. Johnson graduated from Southwest State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas, with a bachelor's degree. While in college, he had combined his studies with a job teaching Mexican American children.

In 1931 Johnson went to Washington, D.C., and worked as secretary to Texas congressman Richard Kleberg (18871955). Almost immediately Johnson's talent for attracting affection and respect became visible. He was elected speaker of the "Little Congress," an assembly of congressional secretaries on Capitol Hill. On November 17, 1934, he married Claudia (Lady Bird) Taylor (1912) of Karnak, Texas. With her, Johnson found constant strength, love, and support. At age twenty-seven Johnson returned to Texas to become the state director of the National Youth Administration.

Rising through Congress

In 1937 the congressman from Texas's Tenth District died suddenly. When a special election was called to select a replacement, Johnson joined a race crowded with seven other candidates. To the amazement of many long-standing politicians, the twenty-eight-year-old Johnson won the race. In 1941 he ran for a Senate seat but lost by a small margin. That December he became the first member of Congress to enter active military duty in World War II (193945; a war in which the AlliesFrance, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and from 1941 the United Statesfought against the Axis powersGermany, Italy, and Japan). He joined the navy and in 1942 received the Silver Star for his contribution to a bombing mission over New Guinea. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) ordered all congressmen in the military back to the capital in 1942, Johnson reentered the House.

In 1948 Johnson finally won election to the Senate. The other senators soon recognized that he was not an ordinary first-term senator. He was knowledgeable about every item that was brought before the Senate. In January 1951 Johnson was named Democratic "whip" (assistant minority leader). In 1953, when the post of minority leader in the Senate opened up, Democratic senators chose Johnson to take charge. After the Democrats won a majority of seats in both houses in the congressional elections of 1954, Johnson became the youngest man ever to serve as majority leader.

At that time, Johnson's leadership became visible to the nation. He led the first civil rights bill in eighty-two years through the Senate. Then in 1958, while representing the United States at the United Nations, he called for the peaceful exploration of outer space. He uncovered waste in defense spending and began an investigation. In 1960 Johnson briefly ran against John F. Kennedy (19171963) for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy later chose Johnson as his vice presidential running mate. While some Kennedy supporters complained, experts later agreed that Johnson's tireless campaigning in Texas and the South led Kennedy to victory in the 1960 election.

Serving as vice president

Johnson had many important assignments as vice president. One of his tasks was to improve the growing U.S. space program, which had been overshadowed by explorations and new discoveries that had been made by the Soviet Union. Regarding civil rights, as chairman of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity forces, he surprised many critics by putting constant pressure on American businesses. The committee had been created by President Kennedy in 1961 to enforce an executive order prohibiting discrimination (unequal treatment) based on race in government employment.

Then on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The next day, aboard the plane Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Johnson took the presidential oath of office. Giving orders to take off seconds later, the new president flew back to Washington to take command of the government while the nation grieved for its fallen leader.

Filling the presidency

Five days after taking office, President Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress. Speaking firmly, he pledged, "We shall continue." The new president, meeting around the clock with staff, cabinet members, and congressmen, helped pass important legislation that had been put before Congress by President Kennedy but had been held up in various committees of both houses. Johnson especially pushed the passage of a civil rights bill that was much stronger than any that had come before, which had been of great importance to Kennedy. On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination (unequal treatment based on race) and segregation (separation based on race) in public places, employment, and voting, into law.

Six months after becoming president, Johnson announced his plan called the "Great Society." The areas he emphasized were health and education; urban problems such as pollution, housing, and transportation; civil rights; and preservation of natural resources. Johnson took his programs to the nation during his campaign for the 1964 election. Meanwhile, American involvement in the Vietnam War (195575; a war in Vietnam in which South Vietnam was fighting against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam) became an issue. Johnson's opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater (19091998), spoke against Johnson's approach to domestic problems and also suggested that the use of force against North Vietnam should be increased. Johnson traveled the nation and convinced voters that they could not afford to drive him from office. He won by the widest margin in any presidential election in American history.

Administration achievements

After his huge victory President Johnson began a massive legislative program. Between 1965 and 1968 more than 207 bills were passed by Congress. During Johnson's presidency education and health spending were increased. Within three years of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which made discrimination in voting illegal, nearly one million African Americans registered to vote in the South. Most importantly, the Johnson presidency was the strongest era of national prosperity (economic success), marked by more than eighty-five months of economic growth. The wages of factory workers increased, millions of workers were brought under minimum-wage protection, total employment increased, and the unemployment rate (the number of people who are unemployed) dropped to its lowest point in more than a decade.

The president also made important gains in foreign affairs. U.S. involvement in Cyprus and the Congo prevented the outbreak of wars in those countries. In the Dominican Republic, the threat of a Communist takeover was ended by an overwhelming show of force by the United States and Latin American countries. As a result, a democratic government and free elections were put back into place in the Dominican Republic, and U.S. troops left the country soon after. Talks on an outer space treaty with the Soviet Union were held, and in June 1967 the president met with Soviet leader Alexei Kosygin (19041980).

Vietnam problem

Johnson devoted the bulk of his time and effort to dealing with the Vietnam War. All three presidents that served before Johnson had declared that the security of the United States was involved in protecting South Vietnam from a communist takeover by North Vietnam. However, there was much disagreement in the United States over the way this problem should be solved. Some critics claimed the situation in Vietnam was a civil war, not an invasion, and they opposed U.S. involvement. In 1965 the United States increased its military support of South Vietnam and sent over more American troops. By 1968 many people who were against U.S. involvement in the war were calling on the Johnson administration to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam.

Bothered by increasing criticism, yet determined to end the war and begin serious peace talks, President Johnson startled the nation and the world on March 31, 1968, by stating that he would not run for election to another term as president. Johnson said that it was so important to resolve the Vietnam situation peacefully that even his own political future should not stand in the way of this goal. He said that he would not seek reelection so he could spend the rest of his days in office working on a settlement. On May 11, 1968, it was announced that peace talks would begin in Paris, France. Then in November 1968 the president declared that all bombing of North Vietnam would end.

At the end of Johnson's presidency, he retired to his ranch near San Antonio, Texas, where he became interested in the care and sale of his cattle. On January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a heart attack while lying down to take a nap, and he died later that afternoon.

Lyndon Johnson was one of America's most experienced and politically skilled presidents. He tried to improve the quality of life for people living in the United States and to help new and small nations develop their own forms of government without fear of invasion from their more powerful neighbors.

For More Information

Califano, Joseph A., Jr. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Reprint, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Eskow, Dennis. Lyndon Baines Johnson. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 19631969. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1971.

Kaye, Tony. Lyndon B. Johnson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger. LBJ: A Life. New York: Wiley, 1999.

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