An assassin’s bullet brought Lyndon Baines Johnson into the Oval Office. During his tenure in office, Americans debated sometimes violently the meaning of citizenship and justifications for war

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An assassin’s bullet brought Lyndon Baines Johnson into the Oval Office. During his tenure in office, Americans debated – sometimes violently – the meaning of citizenship and justifications for war. Under his watch, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam accelerated dramatically. On the domestic front, Johnson’s war on poverty and Great Society programs both changed the nature of the federal bureaucracy and fueled debate about the nature of and solution to poverty in America. An ambitious and deft politician, LBJ’s legislative endeavors and leadership style remain both influential and controversial today.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in 1908 in Stonewall, Texas to Sam and Rebekah Baines Johnson, the first of their five children. 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. When Johnson was born in 1908, however, his branch of the family had fallen on hard times. By his own account, this experience colored his perception of poverty in America.

An uninspired student, Johnson was initially refused admission to college. Then, after a brief period of performing odd jobs and travel, Johnson entered Southwestern State Teacher’s College in 1927. He taught briefly, but his political ambitions had already taken shape, and in 1931 he won an appointment as an aide to a congressman.

In 1934 Johnson met Claudia Alta Taylor and the two were married shortly thereafter. With the help of Lady Bird’s family money, the twenty-eight year old Johnson campaigned successfully for Congress. In Congress, Johnson allied himself with the progressive policies of the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 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 electric power to the lonely Texas hill country of his youth, something he later claimed as his proudest achievement.

After a loss in the election of 1942, Johnson was finally elected to the Senate in 1950 amidst accusations of vote stealing. He advanced rapidly: within two years he was the Democratic “whip”. When Republicans won the majority in the Senate on President Eisenhower’s coattails, Johnson became Minority Leader. In 1954 he was named Majority Leader. Johnson cooperated with Eisenhower to push through some major legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

In 1960, despite Johnson’s announcement of his own candidacy for president, 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 geographic balance to the ticket. Johnson delivered the South – including several states that voted Republican during the Eisenhower years – and JFK and LBJ won the election by the smallest popular margin of the century.

As Vice President, Johnson headed the space program, oversaw a nuclear test ban treaty and worked toward equal opportunity for of racial minorities. He supported Kennedy’s decision to send American military advisors to Vietnam. Johnson was not, however, in Kennedy’s inner circle and appeared frustrated by his lack of influence, particularly in legislative matters.

Kennedy’s death left the nation in the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson retained Kennedy’s cabinet and top aides. At the same time, Johnson endorsed the late president’s programs. There was, Johnson declared, “no memorial or eulogy [that] could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought”.1 In the months that followed he secured passage of the Civil Rights Act and Kennedy’s proposal for a tax cut, a measure that had spent the last ten months stalled in various congressional committees.

With a landslide victory in the election of 1964, Johnson gained his mandate through the electoral process. During the campaign, although far ahead in the polls, Johnson campaigned tirelessly exhausting many of his staff. In November, Johnson swept past Arizonan Barry Goldwater with 61 percent of the vote, better than Franklin Roosevelt had managed in his reelection victory of 1936.

Johnson’s administration and administrative style extended developments during the Kennedy administration. Initially, Johnson retained many members of the Kennedy administration including Dean Rusk, secretary of state; Robert McNamara, secretary of defense; and Robert Kennedy, attorney general. Other Kennedy-appointed cabinet members chose to stay on, among them Lawrence O’Brien and McGeorge Bundy.

Even more so than under the Kennedy administration, however, Johnson’s staff drafted policies, thus shifting influence away from the career officials in the departments and agencies. Many of the social programs that composed Johnson’s Great Society agenda were the product of task forces, composed of government officials and prominent academics, largely immune from outside political pressure. For the creation of foreign policy, Johnson also relied upon his National Security Advisers, McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, and a variety of ad hoc groups and trusted friends. Historians have suggested that it was precisely this governing style and the personalization of the presidency that contributed to both Johnson’s initial legislative success and his ability to build a governing coalition in 1965 that helped to sustain the Americanization of the Vietnam War.2

While his domestic policies reflected the promise and character of Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s agenda of bold new social programs moved beyond his predecessor. As president, Johnson wanted to create a “Great Society”. He announced to an audience of students at the University of Michigan in May 1964 that:

The Great Society . . .demands an end to poverty and racial injustice. . . but that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent. . . where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. . . where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”
To achieve this goal, Johnson supported federal aid for education, especially to provide remedial services for poorer districts. He 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 the department. The legislative agenda also included the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the National Endowment of the Arts and at the prompting of his wife Lady Bird Johnson, environmental protection laws.

The Economic Opportunity Act signed into law in August 1964 established the Office Of Economic Opportunity as an independent federal agency. The OEO provided grants to locally organized community action agencies (CAAs). OEO also administered the Job Corps program, provided loans for struggling farmers and small businessmen and provided provisions for various kinds of “in-kind assistance” such as food stamps.

Johnson’s policies formed part of a larger political vision.

Developments in the civil rights movement also propelled Johnson to pursue electoral reform. 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 much of the South. It also provided for federal registrars and marshals to enroll African American voters.

However, even with these measures, racial tensions increased. Between 1964 and 1968, race riots occurred in many American cities, with federal troops deployed in the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, the Detroit and Washington D.C. riots. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to inquire into the causes of the unrest, and the commission reported back that America had rapidly divided into two society, “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 they were too radical.

Despite his efforts in domestic policy, Johnson is perhaps best known for his foreign policy decisions. In Latin America, the Johnson administration inherited the legacy of Eisenhower’s Act of Bogota in 1960 and the Alliance for Progress under Kennedy. But it was Johnson’s role in a crisis in the Dominican Republic that created a sensation during this administration.

In April 1965 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. Troops from the Organization of American States later 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”. Bosch, although on the left, was neither a communist nor a Castro follower, and the move was highly unpopular in Latin America and in the liberal media in America.

Ultimately, for both political and economic reasons, it was foreign policy concerns -- specifically the escalating war in Vietnam -- that cut short the president’s efforts to create a “Great Society”. Democrats took large loses in the midterm elections of 1966, though they retained majorities in the House and Senate. By late 1966, Johnson could not longer get most of his domestic measures through Congress. Reciprocally, Johnson’s efforts to establish American credibility abroad and reassert both his and the Democratic Party’s political standing at home also encouraged the Americanization of the Vietnam conflict.

In part, Johnson inherited American involvement in the conflict from his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Under the rubric of “assistance”, Kennedy significantly expanded the Eisenhower administration’s assistance to the Saigon regime. The American-sponsored coup against Diem occurred shortly before Kennedy’s death. However, for both personal and political reasons Johnson had little interest in pursuing a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

During the election of 1964 Johnson said that the nation’s commitment would stay at its current level and that the South Vietnamese should fight their own war. The months that followed would prove otherwise, however. By 1965 the American “advisers” were a thing of the past and Johnson began an escalation of American commitment to over 10,000 troops. On February 13, 1965 Johnson authorized the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign of North Vietnam that would last for almost three years. Escalation on the ground followed escalation in the air. By 1968 the number of American troops in Vietnam would swell to more than 500,000.

1968 proved a fateful year for Lyndon Johnson. The Tet Offensive in January 1968 shattered any American illusion that the war was being won. Since 1965, university students had organized teach-ins in protest of the war. With mounting casualties, anti-war protests increased and Johnson became a prisoner in the White House. Meanwhile, the expense of the war set of an inflationary spiral. Johnson managed to fend off a monetary crisis when European speculators began to bid up the price of gold and sell off dollars, indicating their lack of faith in the future of the U.S. economy. When Eugene McCarthy came within a few votes of winning the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, Johnson’s political integrity declined further.

Then on March 31, 1968 in a televised address Johnson made a dramatic announcement. First, he announced a halt in the bombings of most of North Vietnam and a willingness to begin peace talks. At the conclusion of the speech he withdrew his candidacy for president.

During his tenure, Johnson witnessed both the triumph of the Democratic reform program and the breakup of the Roosevelt coalition. The Democratic majority eroded in the face of declining party affiliation and increasing social protests. Both became apparent during the summer of 1968. Unrest on college and university campuses continued. With the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5th in Los Angeles, Humphrey became the strongest contender for the Democratic nomination. The Democratic Convention in Chicago too was marked by violent protests.

Then, in a last attempt at peace before his departure, Johnson ordered a halt to all bombings at the end of October. Despite the timing, Johnson’s announcement did not turn the election. Only George Wallace, who created the American Independent Party, prevented an easy Republican victory. Nixon drew only half a million more ballots than Humphrey (and 43 percent overall) yet easily won a majority of the electoral vote.

Today, Johnson remains a controversial figure. Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam will forever color the public and historians’ assessment of his character, his administration and the legacy of his presidency. Meanwhile, the legacy of the social legislation implemented during the Johnson administration and the resulting expansion of the federal bureaucracy also continues to be debated today. Finally, Johnson extended the authority of the presidential office and expanded the involvement of members of the academic community in government. This personalization of the executive office continues to influence the formation of both domestic and international policy.

1 Quoted in Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 106.

2 See for example Sidney Milkis and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins and Development 1776-1998. 313.

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