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American President Essays: Lyndon B. Johnson

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Lyndon B. Johnson: Life in Brief

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The event thrust Lyndon Johnson into the presidency. A man widely considered to be one of the most expert and brilliant politicians of his time, Johnson would leave office a little more than five years later as one of the least popular Presidents in American history. The man who had risen from the poor Hill Country of Texas to become the acknowledged leader of the United States Senate and occupant of the Oval Office would return to Texas demoralized and discredited. He died four years later, a few hundred feet from the place of his birth.

As a man, Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his place in history, consumed by a voracious appetite for life, and often cast between emotional extremes. He was a natural politician, and to many people who knew him, he seemed larger than life. As a President, Johnson revealed that he was even more complex and ambitious, unveiling a sweeping collection of legislative and social initiatives he called "The Great Society." Elected in his own right by a landslide victory in 1964, he seemed unsinkable but soon floundered amid the Vietnam War. Vietnam—perhaps the most divisive event in American life since the Civil War—polarized the country and transformed political, strategic, and moral debates. President Johnson was unable to devise a strategy for victory, withdrawal, or peace with honor. In 1968, facing strong opposition to his renomination, Johnson declined to seek a second term. He left to his successor the problems of Vietnam, racial unrest, and unresolved issues of income inequality and erratic economic performance.

Education and Marriage

The Johnson family had been in Texas for generations. Farmers and ranchers, they had helped to tame the state and had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Lyndon's father had the gregarious gifts of a politician, and three years before Lyndon's birth, at the age of twenty-seven, he began serving as a Texas state representative. The elder Johnson, however, was less fortunate as a farmer and businessman. During Lyndon's early teenage years, his father piled up enormous debts, lost the family farm, and spiraled into financial crisis that rarely relented the rest of his life. The experience affected Lyndon throughout his own life and likely contributed to his commitment to improving the lot of the poor.

He did badly in school and was refused admission to college. After a brief period of doing odd jobs and getting into trouble, Johnson managed to enter Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1927. He taught briefly, with a stint at a poor school in Cotulla, Texas, but his political ambitions had already taken shape. In 1931, he won an appointment as an aide to a congressman and left the teaching profession. The experience was electrifying: he had found his natural environment. He would not return to Texas full-time until 1969.

In 1934, he met Claudia Alta Taylor, "Lady Bird," and the two were married three months later. She was a perfect balance for him: charming and refined where he was raw and boisterous. She also had family money, which the Johnsons would eventually use to build a broadcasting and real estate empire.

Fast Political Track

In 1937, Johnson resigned as the state director of the National Youth Administration and won election to Congress, representing his home district as an ally of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was just twenty-eight years old.

He was an activist congressman, bringing electricity and other improvements to his district, but in 1941, he lost his first bid for the U.S. Senate, being defeated in an expensive and controversial election by W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel. Johnson remained in the House, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt helped him win a commission in the Naval Reserve.

On a tour of the southern Pacific, he flew one combat mission, and it provided an ironic moment in presidential history. Before takeoff, he left one B-26 bomber, the Wabash Cannonball, to use the restroom and on his return, boarded another plane, the Heckling Hare. During the bombing mission, the Heckling Hare was forced to run back to base, while the Wabash Cannonball crashed into the sea, killing all on board. Johnson received the prestigious Silver Star for his participation. Later, when President Roosevelt insisted that members of Congress leave active service, Johnson returned to his duties in Washington. In 1948, he was finally elected to the Senate by winning the controversial Democratic primary by 87 votes. Embittered by alleged instances of voter fraud, his opponents thereafter derisively referred to him as "Landslide Lyndon."Once in the Senate, Johnson advanced rapidly. Within two years, he was the Democratic whip; then, when the Republicans won a majority in the Senate on President Eisenhower's coattails, he became minority leader. In 1955, he was elected majority leader and transformed the position into one of the most powerful posts in American government. He worked ceaselessly and is perhaps best known for passage of the watered-down Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such measure in almost a century. He also pushed for America's entry into what would become known as the Space Race. By 1960—after two failed attempts at the vice presidential nomination—he set his sights on the White House.


That year, however, belonged to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young, handsome, rich, and witty, the Senator from Massachusetts piled up one primary win after another. Despite Johnson's announcement of his own candidacy, Kennedy was nominated on the first ballot at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Facing a seasoned Republican contender in Vice President Richard Nixon, Kennedy turned to Johnson to bring political and geographical balance to the ticket. Johnson delivered the South—including several states that had voted Republican during the Eisenhower years—and the team of JFK and LBJ won the election by the smallest popular margin of the century.

Although Johnson never seemed comfortable in the vice presidency, he headed the space program, oversaw a nuclear test ban treaty, and worked toward equal opportunity for members of racial minorities. He also publicly supported the young President's decision to send American military advisers to the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam, whose corrupt but friendly government was threatened by a Communist insurgency. Johnson was not, however, in Kennedy's inner circle and seemed frustrated by his lack of influence, particularly on legislative matters.

Legislative and World Impact " target="_blank">Address to Joint Session of Congress (November 27, 1963)

Presidential Speech Archive

Johnson was only two cars behind Kennedy on the day the President was shot to death in Dallas. He was sworn in as President aboard Air Force One later that afternoon. A few days later, he spoke to a joint session of Congress. Seizing on Kennedy's inaugural plea to "let us begin anew," he asked Congress to "let us continue." Over the next year, he endorsed the late President's programs even as he announced his own. He pushed for passage of Kennedy's tax cut and civil rights bill and declared a "War on Poverty." When he ran for election against the Republican conservative Barry Goldwater in late 1964, he won by the biggest popular vote margin in history. During his presidency, Johnson engineered the passage of the Medicare program, poured money into education and reconstruction of the cities, and pushed through three civil rights bills that outlawed discrimination against minorities in the areas of accommodations in interstate commerce, voting, and housing.

But in the meantime, the conflict in Vietnam was intensifying. By 1965, the American "advisers" were a thing of the past as Johnson began an escalation of American commitment to more than 100,000 combat troops. Within three years, the number would swell to more than 500,000. As American casualties increased, an antiwar movement gathered momentum. The North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front kept winning, even as Johnson poured more money, firepower, and men into the war effort. Ultimately, the President came to be identified personally with a war that seemed unwinnable. As a result, his popularity sagged drastically, dipping below 30 percent in approval ratings. Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Minnesota Democrat, announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination and did surprisingly well in the New Hampshire primary. President Kennedy's younger brother Robert also joined the race. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination. After a relatively short period in restless retirement, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. His grave lies in a stand of live oaks along the Pedernales River at the LBJ Ranch.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Life Before the Presidency

Lyndon Baines Johnson was pure Texan. His family included some of the earliest settlers of the Lone Star State. They had been cattlemen, cotton farmers, and soldiers for the Confederacy. Lyndon was born in 1908 to Sam and Rebekah Baines Johnson, the first of their five children. His mother was reserved and genteel while his father was a talker and a dreamer, a man cut out for more than farming. Sam Johnson won election to the Texas legislature when he was twenty-seven. He served five terms before he switched careers and failed to make a living solely as a farmer on the family land seventy miles west of Austin.

Education and Teaching Career

In 1913, the Johnsons abandoned the farm and moved to nearby Johnson City. The family house, while comfortable by the standards of the rural South at the time, had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. Lyndon, like his father, wanted more for his future. In fact, when he was twelve, he told classmates, "You know, someday I'm going to be president of the United States." Later in life, Johnson would remember: "When I was fourteen years old I decided I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop from forty cents to six cents and destroy the homes of people like my own family." The climb out of the Texas Hill Country, however, would be a steep one. School, at first, was a one-room, one-teacher enterprise. Johnson City High School was a three-mile mule ride away from home. Lyndon graduated in 1924, president of his six-member senior class.

Sam Johnson's financial troubles took a toll on his health and his family. The Johnsons scrimped to send Lyndon to summer courses at Southwest Texas State Teachers College to supplement his meager rural education. But the boy did not do well, and he was not allowed into the college after finishing high school. This led to a "lost" period in Lyndon's life, during which he drifted about. With five friends, he bought a car and drove to California, where he did odd jobs and briefly worked in a cousin's law office. Lyndon then hitchhiked back to Texas and performed manual labor on a road crew. He fell into fights and drinking that eventually led to his arrest. In 1927, he refocused his energies on a teaching career and was accepted to Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

Johnson was an indifferent student, but he eagerly pursued extracurricular activities such as journalism, student government, and debating. He excelled in his student teaching and was assigned to a tiny Hispanic school in a deeply impoverished area. Johnson literally took over the school in Cotulla, pushing the long-neglected students and giving them a shred of hope and pride in their achievements. He earned glowing references. When Johnson graduated in 1930, however, America was just entering the Great Depression. His first teaching job paid $1,530—for the year. Johnson again did an exemplary job, but the unpaid political work he had been doing in his free time had fueled other ambitions. Not surprisingly, his teaching career was brief.

Tirelessly, he helped a political friend of his father in some local campaigns, and by late 1931, he had won a job as an aide to U.S. Congressman Richard Kleberg of Corpus Christi. In Washington, Johnson's work ethic was astounding. He poured over every detail of congressional protocol. No mail from Kleberg's constituents went unanswered. He was, in short, a model assistant. His drive, ambition, and competence made him stand out among the young people in Washington at that time. When he returned to Texas in 1934 to visit family, he met a twenty-one-year-old woman named Claudia Alta Taylor, a recent University of Texas graduate and a member of a wealthy East Texas family. They married three months later.

Marriage and Congressional Career

As a baby, Claudia's nanny had described her as "pretty as a lady bird," and the nickname stuck. Deeply shy but genuine and charming, Lady Bird became a refining balance to her boisterous, hyperactive husband and was a gracious hostess to Johnson's powerful new friends. The new President, Franklin Roosevelt, was fighting the Depression with dozens of social programs. Johnson, with the support of future Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, won appointment as Texas director of the National Youth Administration, a federal youth-employment program. Again, his work was superb, and when James Buchanan, the congressman in his home district, died in 1937, Johnson quickly moved to grab the job. He tapped his new wife's inheritance and her increasing assets as owner of a local radio station, aligned himself with Roosevelt's sweeping social policies, and won election in Texas's Tenth District. He was just twenty-eight years old.

Because of his age and ambition for even higher office, Johnson's early congressional record produced few results. By the late 1930s, however, he was winning federal housing projects and dams for his district. He managed to bring electrical power to the lonely Texas Hill Country of his youth, something he claimed for the rest of his days as his proudest achievement. When one of Texas's two U.S. senators died in 1941, Johnson seemed certain to inherit the job, but a conservative former radio star-turned-governor named W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel entered the race late. It was widely alleged that both candidates used fraudulent votes, but O'Daniel finagled more than Johnson and carried the election.

Still a member of the House, Johnson used his contacts with Roosevelt to obtain an officer's commission in the Naval Reserve. When the U.S. entered World War II, Johnson was appointed congressional inspector of the war's progress in the Pacific, thus maintaining his seat in the House. He went on a single bombing mission, securing the "combat record" and a Silver Star for serving under hostile fire. Observing wartime industrial and technological trends, Johnson invested and became well-to-do for the first time. Lady Bird, meanwhile, gave birth to two daughters, one born in 1944 and another three years later.

By the time the war ended, the world was a very different place—and so was America. Its uneasy ally from the war, the Soviet Union, refused to withdraw its armed forces from Europe. The Cold War had begun. Many of Johnson's countrymen were weary of the New Deal's activist social policies at home and the threat of more war overseas; the new communist expansion abroad frightened them. The Democrats were losing their longtime grip on Congress and the White House. While Johnson easily won a sixth term in 1948, his opponent painted him as an old-style liberal, a career politician who had profited from the war while exposing himself to little risk. The charges lingered into the following year, when Johnson tried once again to enter the U.S. Senate.

Yet again a popular Texas governor was in the way. His name was Coke Stevenson, and his presence and character were so impressive that he was widely known as "Mr. Texas." Johnson and Stevenson battled endlessly for the Democratic nomination and forced a runoff. The young congressman then waged an all-out, rough-and-tumble Lone Star State campaign and showed that he had learned lessons since his earlier Senate defeat. Three counties in the southern portion of the state provided highly suspicious vote tallies that gave Johnson the victory in the Democratic primary—crucial in those days to a general election, since Republicans were few and far between and could never win the subsequent election—by 87 votes out of a 250,000 cast. He easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election and won the Senate seat, but the cost to his credibility was steep. Everyone knew the election had been rife with fraud, and his slim, questionable margin of victory was certainly no popular mandate. Critics began calling him "Landslide Lyndon," and the new senator found their disdain hard to shake for a long time.

Senator par Excellence

As a senator, Johnson found his true calling. The Senate, with only a quarter of the membership of the House, gave him a higher national profile. Johnson's ascent to power was startling; by the end of his first term, he was one of the most powerful senators in America. He used strategies that had enabled his fast climb in the House: wooing powerful members, angling for spots on important committees, and outworking everyone. Because both Senate Democratic leaders had been defeated by the resurgent Republicans in the recent election, it was a time of rapid advancement for newcomers. Just two years into his Senate term, Johnson was named the whip, or assistant to his party's leader, in charge of rounding up votes. Two years after that, Republicans won a majority in the Senate on the coattails of the new President, Dwight Eisenhower. Once again, Johnson's Democratic superiors were election casualties, so he became minority leader. In the fall 1954 elections, the Democrats had regained control of the Senate, and when the Senate convened in 1955, Johnson became majority leader. It was a dizzyingly fast climb.

Early in LBJ's Senate career, he had championed military preparedness, but as he rose to power, he increasingly turned his attention to domestic issues. Already contemplating a White House run of his own, he strategically sought to work with, not against, the popular Eisenhower. Laboring almost around the clock, begging and berating to get his way, Johnson was the Senate's master, perhaps its most powerful leader ever. Working with fellow Texan and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Johnson was able to compile an impressive record of legislative achievement. LBJ did his homework and had an uncanny ability to know how to approach other senators. He became known for the "Johnson Treatment," in which he leaned close in on a senator, towering over his prey, speaking softly and cajoling, flattering, even bribing, until he won the senator's vote.

Unfortunately, his drive and ambition almost killed him. In mid-1955, he suffered a massive heart attack in the bucolic Virginia countryside. Not yet fifty, he reassessed his life; he quit smoking, lost weight, and tried to delegate more of his work. He was instrumental in winning passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, working closely with Eisenhower while soothing southern colleagues who were suspicious of such social change. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite that year, he led the way to get America into the race for space. By 1958, Johnson sensed that he had gone as far in the Senate as he ever would. He turned his sights on the prize of prizes: the presidency.

A Heartbeat from the Presidency

Being from the South was still a handicap to a presidential candidate in 1960; the region had not yet assumed the kind of power that would put Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the White House in later years. In 1952 and 1956, Johnson had tried but failed to be named vice president on the Democratic ticket, referring to himself as a "western" candidate. In 1960, his primary foe for the nomination was his Senate colleague, John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts. For the only time in his life, Johnson was out-campaigned. Kennedy announced his candidacy early, spent lavishly, worked local political machines with corporate efficiency, and piled up one primary win after another. Johnson held back, waiting for Kennedy's youth and Catholicism to take its toll. It never did. The young man from Boston won the party's nomination on the first ballot.

However, Kennedy was a decided underdog to win the White House. The Republicans had nominated a skilled and compelling candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon. The Democrats needed a running mate who would appeal to those that JFK made uneasy. Lyndon Johnson—southern, Protestant, mature, and the ultimate congressional insider—would be a perfect contrast to the northeastern, Catholic, youthful Democratic nominee. Kennedy was both amused and awed by the larger-than-life Texan and was mildly surprised when Johnson not only accepted the offer but campaigned hard for the ticket. It paid off because 1960 was the closest presidential race of the century. Several southern states that had defected to the Republicans during the Eisenhower years returned to the Democratic fold and helped Kennedy win. (See Kennedy biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.)Kennedy relegated Johnson to the outer circles of the New Frontier but did give him some significant responsibilities. Johnson headed the space program, played a key role in military policy, and chaired the President's Committee for Equal Employment Opportunity. In foreign policy, Johnson had much less influence, though he did encourage acceptance of a diplomatic "trade" of Russian missiles in Cuba for American ones in Turkey. Kennedy typically did not rely on LBJ for advice in these matters, however. Overall, Johnson was frustrated as vice president, particularly when the New Frontiersmen around Kennedy ignored him and refused to take advantage of his expertise.

In late November 1963, Kennedy decided to travel to Texas to shore up support for his upcoming reelection bid. Johnson was riding two cars behind Kennedy's in the motorcade when the bullets struck the young President. By the time Johnson reached the hospital, Kennedy was dead. Aboard Air Force One, before its return to Washington, Johnson was sworn in as President; Lady Bird and Kennedy's widow were at his side. When the plane landed, he gave a brief speech to his dazed nation, promising, "I will do my best—that is all I can do." Two weeks later, Johnson moved into the White House. One adviser never forgot the image of a mover packing Kennedy's trademark rocking chair—while another carried in Johnson's cowboy saddle."All that I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," Johnson told a joint session of Congress when he outlined his plans for governing. He kept Kennedy's cabinet and top aides, telling them that he and the nation needed them to provide continuity. Within days, Johnson firmly grasped the reins of government. His grief at Kennedy's tragedy was balanced by the demands and responsibilities of the Oval Office. " target="_blank">Address to Joint Session of Congress (November 27, 1963)

Presidential Speech Archive

Lyndon B. Johnson: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1964:

Lyndon Johnson's nomination for the top spot on the Democratic ticket in 1964 was a foregone conclusion, with his glittering legislative success and stellar approval ratings. At his party's convention, he introduced his running mate, Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal senator from Minnesota who gave the ticket geographic and ideological balance.

In sharp contrast, the Republicans were torn by the intense divisions between its old-guard, eastern, moderate base and the upstart, conservative insurgents from the South and West. Barry Goldwater, a deeply conservative senator from Arizona, took the nomination after a hotly contested fight. Senator Goldwater promised to reorient the party rightward, offering "a choice, not an echo" for conservatives. In his nomination speech, he appealed to conservative "purists" and threw down the gauntlet to Republican moderates with the famous words "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."By rejecting any unity gestures toward Republican moderates, Goldwater alienated much of the party; only one-fifth of its voters was comfortable with his nomination. Goldwater's slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," seemed to imply that liking him was something to be ashamed of: Democratic wags countered, "In your guts, you know he's nuts." Goldwater's television advertising was outdated and inept while Johnson's, on the other hand, was state of the art. One little-shown Johnson campaign spot has proven to be one of the most memorable political ads ever. It featured a little girl in a meadow, playfully pulling the petals off a daisy, counting down from ten to zero until she is blotted out by a nuclear explosion. Johnson, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a moderate and a peacemaker.

When all the votes were tallied, most Democratic voters remained with their party, and large numbers of Republicans joined independent voters in the Democratic column. Johnson reveled in this "frontlash" that counteracted the white "backlash" caused by his support of the Civil Rights Act. Only in the Deep South did Goldwater win over large numbers of Democrats, and that was by virtue of his opposition to Johnson's integrationist agenda. Johnson won by the widest margin of popular votes in American history. Additionally, he enjoyed a huge 10 to 1 victory in the electoral college. For Republicans, it was an electoral disaster of monumental proportions. For Johnson and the Democrats, the election gave them an opportunity that they had not enjoyed since the early days of the New Deal: the opportunity to pass a comprehensive liberal program.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Domestic Affairs

The Lyndon Johnson presidency marked a vast expansion in the role of the national government in domestic affairs. Johnson laid out his vision of that role in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. He called on the nation to move not only toward "the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society," which he defined as one that would "end poverty and racial injustice." To that end, the national government would have to set policies, establish "floors" of minimum commitments for state governments to meet, and provide additional funding to meet these goals.Click to listen to the Johnson's remarks at the University of Michigan (May 22, 1964).By winning the election of 1964 in a historic landslide victory, LBJ proved to America that he had not merely inherited the White House but that he had earned it. The election's mandate provided the justification for Johnson's extensive plans to remake America. Large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, along with Johnson's ability to deal with powerful, conservative southern committee leaders, created a promising legislative environment for the new chief executive.

The Great Society

Johnson labeled his ambitious domestic agenda "The Great Society." The most dramatic parts of his program concerned bringing aid to underprivileged Americans, regulating natural resources, and protecting American consumers. There were environmental protection laws, landmark land conservation measures, the profoundly influential Immigration Act, bills establishing a National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Highway Safety Act, the Public Broadcasting Act, and a bill to provide consumers with some protection against shoddy goods and dangerous products.

To address issues of inequality in education, vast amounts of money were poured into colleges to fund certain students and projects and into federal aid for elementary and secondary education, especially to provide remedial services for poorer districts, a program that no President had been able to pass because of the disputes over aid to parochial schools. Johnson, a Protestant, managed to forge a compromise that did provide some federal funds to Catholic parochial schools. He signed the bill at the one-room schoolhouse that he had attended as a child near Stonewall, Texas. With him was Mrs. Kate Deadrich Loney, the teacher of the school in whose lap Johnson sat as a four-year-old.

To deal with escalating problems in urban areas, Johnson won passage of a bill establishing a Department of Housing and Urban Development and appointed Robert Weaver, the first African American in the cabinet, to head it. The department would coordinate vastly expanded slum clearance, public housing programs, and economic redevelopment within inner cities. LBJ also pushed through a "highway beautification" act in which Lady Bird had taken an interest. For the elderly, Johnson won passage of Medicare, a program providing federal funding of many health care expenses for senior citizens. The "medically indigent" of any age who could not afford access to health care would be covered under a related "Medicaid" program funded in part by the national government and run by states under their welfare programs.

The War on Poverty

LBJ's call on the nation to wage a war on poverty arose from the ongoing concern that America had not done enough to provide socioeconomic opportunities for the underclass. Statistics revealed that although the proportion of the population below the "poverty line" had dropped from 33 to 23 percent between 1947 and 1956, this rate of decline had not continued; between 1956 and 1962, it had dropped only another 2 percent. Additionally, during the Kennedy years, the actual number of families in poverty had risen. Most ominous of all, the number of children on welfare, which had increased from 1.6 million in 1950 to 2.4 million in 1960, was still going up. Part of the problem involved racial disparities: the unemployment rate among black youth approached 25 percent—less at that time than the rate for white youths—though it had been only 8 percent twenty years before.

To remedy this situation, President Kennedy commissioned a domestic program to alleviate the struggles of the poor. Assuming the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson decided to continue the effort after he returned from the tragedy in Dallas. One of the most controversial parts of Johnson's domestic program involved this War on Poverty.

Within six months, the Johnson task forces had come up with plans for a "community action program" that would establish an agency—known as a "community action agency" or CAA—in each city and county to coordinate all federal and state programs designed to help the poor. Each CAA was required to have "maximum feasible participation" from residents of the communities being served. The CAAs in turn would supervise agencies providing social services, mental health services, health services, employment services, and so on. In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity to run this program. Republicans voted in opposition, claiming that the measure would create an administrative nightmare, and that Democrats had not been willing to compromise with them. Thus the War on Poverty began on a sour, partisan note.

Soon, some of the local CAAs established under the law became embroiled in controversy. Local community activists wanted to control the agencies and fought against established city and county politicians intent on dominating the boards. Since both groups were important constituencies in the Democratic Party, the "war" over the War on Poverty threatened party stability. President Johnson ordered Vice President Hubert Humphrey to mediate between community groups and "city halls," but the damage was already done. Democrats were sharply divided, with liberals calling for a greater financial commitment—Johnson was spending about $1 billion annually—and conservatives calling for more control by established politicians. Meanwhile, Republicans were charging that local CAAs were run by "poverty hustlers" more intent on lining their own pockets than on alleviating the conditions of the poor.

By 1967, Congress had given local governments the option to take over the CAAs, which significantly discouraged tendencies toward radicalism within the Community Action Program. By the end of the Johnson presidency, more than 1,000 CAAs were in operation, and the number remained relatively constant into the twenty-first century, although their funding and administrative structures were dramatically altered—they largely became limited vehicles for social service delivery. Nevertheless, other War on Poverty initiatives have fared better. These include the Head Start program of early education for poor children; the Legal Services Corporation, providing legal aid to poor families; and various health care programs run out of neighborhood clinics and hospitals.

Overall government funding devoted to the poor increased greatly. Between 1965 and 1968, expenditures targeted at the poor doubled, from $6 billion to $12 billion, and then doubled again to $24.5 billion by 1974. The billions of dollars spent to aid the poor did have effective results, especially in job training and job placement programs. Partly as a result of these initiatives—and also due to a booming economy—the rate of poverty in America declined significantly during the Johnson years. Millions of Americans raised themselves above the "poverty line," and the percentage under it declined from 20 to 12 percent between 1964 and 1974. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the War on Poverty hurt the Democrats, contributing to their defeat in 1968 and engendering deep antagonism from racial, fiscal, and cultural conservatives.

Civil Rights and Race Relations

Johnson was from the South and had grown up under the system of "Jim Crow" in which whites and blacks were segregated in all public facilities: schools, hotels and restaurants, parks and swimming pools, hospitals, and so on. Yet even as a senator, he had become a moderate on race issues and was part of efforts to guarantee civil rights to African Americans. When Johnson assumed the presidency, he was heir to the commitment of the Kennedy administration to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ending segregation in public facilities. As a result of his personal leadership and lobbying with key senators, he forged a bipartisan coalition of northern and border-state Democrats and moderate Republicans. These senators offset a coalition of southern Democrats and right-wing Republicans, and a bill was passed. It made segregation by race illegal in public accommodations involved in interstate commerce—in practice this would cover all but the most local neighborhood establishments.

The following year, civil rights activists turned to another issue: the denial of voting rights in the South. Since the 1890s, blacks had been denied access to voting booths by state laws that were administered in a racially discriminatory manner by local voting registrars. These included (1) literacy tests which could be manipulated so that literate blacks would fail; (2) "good character" tests which required existing voters to vouch for new registrants and which meant, in practice, that no white would ever vouch for a black applicant; and (3) the "poll tax" which discriminated against poor people of any race. The poll tax was eliminated by constitutional amendment, which left the literacy test as the major barrier. In 1965, black demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, marching for voting rights were attacked by police dogs and beaten bloody in scenes that appeared on national television.

In response to public revulsion, Johnson seized the opportunity to propose the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This piece of legislation provided for a suspension of literacy tests in counties where voting rates were below a certain threshold, which in practice covered most of the South. It also provided for federal registrars and marshals to enroll African American voters. The law was passed by Congress, and the results were immediate and significant. Black voter turnout tripled within four years, coming very close to white turnouts throughout the South. Blacks entered the previously "lily white" Democratic Party, forging a biracial coalition with white moderates. Meanwhile, white conservatives tended to leave the Democratic Party, due to their opposition to Johnson's civil rights legislation and liberal programs. Many of these former Democrats joined the Republican Party that had been revitalized by Goldwater's campaign of 1964. The result was the development of a vibrant two-party system in southern states—something that had not existed since the 1850s.

Even with these measures, racial tensions increased. In addition, the civil rights measures championed by the President were seen as insufficient to minority Americans; to the majority, meanwhile, they posed a threat. Between 1964 and 1968, race riots shattered many American cities, with federal troops deployed in the Watts Riots in Los Angeles as well as in the Detroit and Washington, D.C., riots. In Memphis in the summer of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, was gunned down by a lone assassin. There were new civil disturbances in many cities, but some immediate good came from this tragedy: A bill outlawing racial discrimination in housing had been languishing in Congress, and King's murder renewed momentum for the measure. With Johnson determined to see it pass, Congress bowed to his will. The resulting law began to open up the suburbs to minority residents, though it would be several decades before segregated housing patterns would be noticeably dented.

Although the Great Society, the War on Poverty, and civil rights legislation all would have a measurable and appreciable benefit for the poor and for minorities, it is ironic that during the Johnson years civil disturbances seemed to be the main legacy of domestic affairs. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to inquire into the causes of this unrest, and the commission reported back that America had rapidly divided into two societies, "separate and unequal." It blamed inequality and racism for the riots that had swept American cities. Johnson rejected the findings of the commission and thought that they were too radical. By 1968, with his attention focused on foreign affairs, the President's efforts to fashion a Great Society had come to an end.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Foreign Affairs

The major initiative in the Lyndon Johnson presidency was the Vietnam War. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there. Johnson's approval ratings had dropped from 70 percent in mid-1965 to below 40 percent by 1967, and with it, his mastery of Congress. "I can't get out, I can't finish it with what I have got. So what the hell do I do?" he lamented to Lady Bird. Johnson never did figure out the answer to that question.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a conflict between North and South Vietnam, but it had global ramifications. The North was led by a Communist and nationalist regime that had fought against the Japanese in World War II and against French colonial rule in the late 1940s. In 1954, it won control of North Vietnam when the French agreed to a partition in the Geneva Accords. The South was led by a non-Communist regime; after 1956, it was headed by Ngo Dinh Diem. A Catholic, Diem was unable to consolidate his rule with a predominantly Buddhist population. He governed with the support of a military supplied and trained by the United States and with substantial U.S. economic assistance. By the late 1950s, a Communist guerrilla force in the South, the Viet Cong, was fighting to overthrow the Diem regime. By the early 1960s, it was receiving substantial military and logistical assistance from the Communists in the North.

Thus the Vietnam conflict could be seen through three lenses: (1) it was a civil war between pro- and anti-Diem groups in the South; (2) it was a war of reunification waged by the North against the South; and (3) it was viewed by the United States as part of the conspiracy by the Sino-Soviet bloc to conquer the Third World and install Communist regimes. Throughout the conflict, American Presidents were unwilling to see South Vietnam conquered by Communist forces, and thus each of them made the same commitment to forestall a Communist victory. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had commenced American involvement there by sending military advisers. Kennedy had begun assigning Special Forces military personnel to Vietnam, ostensibly in an advisory capacity as well, and there were about 20,000 there when he was assassinated in 1963.

For Johnson, the decision to continue the Vietnam commitment followed the path of his predecessors. He was committed to maintaining an independent South Vietnam and to achieving success in Southeast Asia. As a senator, he had embraced "containment theory," which predicted that if Vietnam fell to Communists, other Southeast Asian nations would do the same. Johnson was deeply sensitive about the judgment of history, and he did not want to be remembered as a President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism.

When Johnson took office, he affirmed the Kennedy administration's commitments. He quickly approved NSAM 273, a national security agency memorandum, on November 26, 1963, which directed the U.S. government "to assist the people and Government of South Vietnam to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy." When counterinsurgency failed, Johnson began to escalate U.S. commitments. Johnson approved OPLAN 34A-64 on January 16, 1964, calling for stepped up infiltration and covert operations against the North to be transferred from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the military. After operation Hop Tac failed to clear Communist guerillas from areas near Saigon, Johnson approved NSAM 288 in late March 1964, calling for more U.S. involvement in South Vietnamese affairs and a greater use of U.S. force, including planning for air strikes against North Vietnam. In August 1964, after reports that U.S. naval vessels had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson asked Congress for a resolution of support. By a vote of 98 to 2 in the Senate and a unanimous vote in the House, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to take all measures necessary to protect the armed forces. Johnson would later use this as a "functional equivalent" to a declaration of war, though his critics would respond that he should have gone to Congress for a formal declaration.

During the summer and fall of 1964, Johnson campaigned on a peace platform and had no intention of escalating the war if it were not absolutely necessary. "Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict," Johnson warned his audiences. "They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do." But the President was full of reassurances: "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," Johnson explained to his audiences. "We don't want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia." Even so, Johnson was planning for just that contingency if the situation deteriorated—which it did.

On February 13, 1965, Johnson authorized Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, two Marine battalions, 3,500 troops, went ashore near Da Nang to protect the airfields, with orders to shoot only if shot at—this was the first time U.S. combat forces had been sent to mainland Asia since the Korean War. On April 3, Johnson authorized two additional Marine battalions, one Marine air squadron, and an increase in logistical support units of 20,000 men. He also authorized troops to go on active "search and destroy" missions. By mid-April, Marines had moved to full-scale offensive operations. By November 1965, there were 175,000 troops and by 1966, an additional 100,000. The number would surge to 535,000 by the end of Johnson's presidency.

Johnson's decisions were based on complicated political and military considerations. LBJ steered a middle course: The "hawks" in Congress and in the military wanted him to engage in massive bombing of enemy cities, threaten to use nuclear weapons, and even threaten to invade North Vietnam. This might have led to Chinese entry into the war, as had happened in the Korean War, or even Soviet engagement. "Doves" in Congress, the State Department, and even Vice President Hubert Humphrey wanted Johnson to negotiate with Hanoi for a "neutral" South Vietnam and eventual reunification with the North. The President's "middle way" involved a commitment of U.S. ground forces, designed to convince the regime in Hanoi that it could not win, and some punishing bombing campaigns, after which serious U.S. negotiations might ensue. One of Johnson's major problems was that Hanoi was willing to accept the costs of continuing the war indefinitely and of absorbing the punishing bombing. It would do so until the United States decided to give up its commitment to aid the South. McNamara and his "war game" analysts in the Department of Defense failed to account adequately for this eventuality.


Battles at Home

Fissures began to split American society. As so-called "hawk" and "dove" contingents took to constant, bitter debate over the war, antiwar activists began to demonstrate publicly against their country's involvement in the conflict. Another Democrat, Eugene McCarthy, did something all but unheard of: he announced his intentions to try to wrest the nomination from an incumbent wartime President in the 1968 election.

Six weeks into 1968 came the hammer blow to the Johnson presidency: The North Vietnamese, shrewdly discerning that America was losing heart for the endless bloodletting, staged dozens of near-suicidal attacks all over the South. Known as the Tet Offensive, it held some similarities to the unsuccessful strategy attempted by the Japanese two decades earlier with their kamikaze attacks: inflict great casualties regardless of cost to your own forces, sap enemy morale, and force the dispirited foe to adopt your terms. Only this time, the strategy worked. Despite fearsome losses by the North Vietnamese—nearly 100,000—American opposition to the war surged. Although the North Vietnamese Army was never able to defeat U.S. forces on the battlefields of Vietnam, Hanoi's political strategy defeated America's will to continue to escalate the war. Television screens brought images of endless and seemingly pointless battles to living rooms across the nation. Although Americans still supported the goal of a non-Communist Vietnam, public confidence in the President and Johnson's popularity continued their sharp declines.

Just weeks from the early presidential primaries, Johnson was utterly vilified by those opposing our involvement in Vietnam. LBJ complained to his cabinet that the only place he could give a campaign speech now was on an aircraft carrier. A month after the Tet Offensive came New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary: McCarthy ran astoundingly well against the beleaguered President, winning 41 percent of the vote, and John F. Kennedy's brother Robert entered the race as well. A few weeks later, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term as President. A terrible spring and summer ensued. The murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and a bloody confrontation between police and protesters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago sent shock waves through the nation. Just weeks before the elections, Johnson announced a halt in the bombings of North Vietnam in a desperate attempt to portray his administration as peacemakers. In the fall, Richard Nixon won the presidency, defeating the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, by claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the conflict. Meanwhile, the war dragged on.

The Vietnam War cut short the promise of the Great Society. Democrats took large losses in the midterm elections of 1966, though they retained majorities in the House and Senate. By late 1966, Johnson could no longer get most of his domestic measures through Congress.

Superpower Diplomacy

Although Johnson's relationship with the Soviets was colored by the Vietnam War, the President nonetheless made some progress on arms control. In January 1967, Johnson signed the Outer Space Treaty with Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin, which banned nuclear weapons in earth orbit, on the moon or other planets, or in deep space. In 1968, the U.S. became a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to other nations and the assistance to enable other nations to join the "nuclear club."Johnson was able to defuse one potential nuclear crisis: In 1967, after the Arab-Israeli War, the President met with Soviet Premier Kosygin to sort out conflicting U.S. and Russian interests in the Middle East. The two sides agreed to defuse tensions in the area.

Relations in Latin America

Johnson faced a series of minor crises in Latin America, all of which he handled to maximize U.S. influence in the region. When Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist dictator, demanded the return of Guantanamo Naval Base and shut off the water to the installation, Johnson had the Navy create its own water supply. The Cubans backed down. And when Panamanians rioted against U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone, Johnson dealt firmly with the violence, but after it ended, he agreed to negotiations that eventually culminated in the return of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999.

The blemish on Johnson's record in the region occurred in the Dominican Republic. Johnson backed an unpopular right-wing politician, Reid Cabral, who had taken power over the popularly elected Juan Bosch in 1962. A civil insurrection designed to restore Bosch was quelled when Johnson sent in 20,000 Marines. Later, troops from the Organization of American States replaced the Marines. But Johnson had not simply sent in forces to protect American lives and property, he had done so to quell what he described as "a band of communist conspirators." Johnson had acted to prevent "another Cuba" on the U.S. doorstep. Bosch, although a left-winger, was neither a Communist nor a Castro follower, and the move was highly unpopular in Latin America because of the history of U.S. intervention in the region.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Life After the Presidency

Johnson's health had always been uncertain, and by the time he retired from office, he was not a well man. He spent his remaining years at his beloved ranch in Texas, tending to his investments, preparing his memoirs, and overseeing development of his presidential library. The memoirs, called The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969, were completed in 1971.

The University of Texas in Austin now hosts the presidential library facility, which opened in mid-1971, as well as the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs, one of the premier public policy schools in the nation. Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973, just one day before the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were concluded and two days after what would have been the end to his second term had he run and been reelected in 1968.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Family Life

Both of the Johnson children, Lynda and Luci, were married during their father's presidency, one of them in a simple White House ceremony. With the war overseas, the Johnson family cut back on the lavish entertaining that had been a Kennedy hallmark. There were occasional barbecues at the White House, but most social occasions were used to elicit political support. Johnson's Texas ranch provided the real refuge from the pressures of office, and the family retreated there often, where Johnson could be seen driving the dusty ranch roads in a large Cadillac convertible or relaxing on long walks.

Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Franchise

There is an eloquent irony in the fact that it took a southern President to enact civil rights legislation in America. Lyndon Johnson's triumphs in this critical area emboldened minorities to assert themselves more strongly in society, and he must be considered a major player in it. He also nominated the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, to the Supreme Court and the first African American to the cabinet. During his time, however, a key component of Franklin Roosevelt's coalition left the Democratic fold: white southerners. Many of them were unnerved by the changes wrought by the civil rights movement and began to change their party allegiance away from the Democratic Party.

The 1960s marked a new period of political mobilization and protest. Antiwar demonstrations and civil rights demonstrations in the streets and student demonstrations on campuses all attacked existing authority figures and the legitimacy of existing institutions. There were calls for reform of corporate practices, university governance, political party nominating procedures, and the seniority system in Congress—hardly any American institution escaped from the intense scrutiny of some activist group.

American society in the 1960s entered a period of "personal liberation" in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Women no longer accepted the role of "dutiful helper and housewife," and the women's liberation movement was born. Young people no longer accepted the dominant culture as a given, and a "youth culture" spawned by television advertising and a "counterculture" formed to oppose the commercialization of everyday life competed for the allegiance of young people.

During the Johnson years, the nation experienced "long hot summers" of racial and campus unrest. There were riots in Harlem, New York, in 1964 and in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, both fueled by accusations of police brutality against minority residents. In Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark, in 1967, whole city districts went up in flames. In April 1968, Washington, D.C., erupted in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. "Burn, baby burn" became a slogan of the protesters. In many cities, National Guardsmen or federal troops had to restore control.

In his State of the Union Address of 1968, Johnson observed that "there is in the land a certain restlessness--a questioning." That was, perhaps, the understatement of his presidency. " target="_blank">State of the Union Address (January 17, 1968)

Presidential Speech Archive

Lyndon B. Johnson: Impact and Legacy

Lyndon Johnson's presidency began and ended with tragedy. He came into office after the death of a popular young President and provided needed continuity and stability. He advanced the Kennedy legacy, obtaining far more than Kennedy would likely have gotten out of Congress, and then won a huge landslide victory for himself and his party.

Johnson's administration passed an unprecedented amount of legislation, with much of it designed to protect the nation's land, air, water, wilderness, and quality of life—to keep Americans safer and the United States from becoming uglier and dirtier. President Johnson's administration also extended the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, including aid to education, Headstart, Medicare, and Medicaid—programs that are still significant today and that command bipartisan support for their effectiveness. But many of his initiatives for the arts, for the environment, for poverty, for racial justice, and for workplace safety angered many economic and social conservatives and became the targets of alienated white voters and tax revolters. The reaction to his Great Society and to broader trends helped spawn a dramatic political polarization in the United States that some historians have labeled a conservative counterrevolution.

Further clouding Johnson's legacy was the devastating outcome of the Vietnam War. While his programs kept untold numbers of Americans out of poverty, gave others basic health care, and ensured the fundamental rights of citizenship for minorities, in Southeast Asia, millions of Vietnamese lost their lives and homes, more than 58,000 American military personnel lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more would have their lives permanently altered. At a time when Americans were reshaping the locus of power at home, events in Vietnam were raising serious questions about how America should use its clout abroad. The legacies of death, renewal, and opportunity attached to the Johnson administration are ironic, confusing, and uncertain. They will likely remain that way.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Kent Germany

Professor Germany is an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of South Carolina. His writings include:

New Orleans After the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society (University of Georgia Press, 2007)