On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin while riding through the streets of Dallas, Texas in an open motorcade. A little more than two hours later Lyndon Johnson recited the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One. Johnson had arrived at the pinnacle of his political career under the worst possible circumstances.
Lyndon Johnson wasted little time in distinguishing himself as a skillful leader who would transform Kennedy's vision into a reality. To Johnson, the essence of leadership lay in building consensus among diverse groups. He opened his White House to mayors, businessmen, union leaders, congressmen, and academics. He directed dozens of task forces to design programs that embodied his vision of a benevolent government that cared for the poorest and most helpless of its citizens.
One issue above all would test Johnson's ability to forge consensus -- civil rights. Johnson supported a bill JFK had sent to Congress in 1963, making the practice of racial segregation in public facilities illegal. The bill also outlawed discrimination in employment and mandated strict controls over state voting laws. Faced with a filibuster by Southern senators, who accused him of supporting civil rights solely to increase his national following, the president exerted the full force of the fabled Johnson "Treatment." Political columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described the "Treatment" as "an incredibly potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, and reminders of past favors and future advantages." After 83 days of debate, Congress passed the most sweeping civil rights bill in the nation's history. Johnson knew passage of the bill might cost him Southern votes in the 1964 election, but he maintained that some issues transcended politics. Lyndon Johnson had begun to set his sights on higher goals.
On May 22, 1964, Johnson declared "we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society." Johnson had been searching for a phrase that would capture the spirit of his administration's ambitions, finally deciding upon "Great Society." The label described an America where poverty and racial injustice would have no place, where the elderly would be cared for, where education would be placed at a premium, and where the nation's natural resources would be cherished and protected.
The landslide election of 1964 gave Johnson the mandate to realize his vision of a Great Society. The Democrats held two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress. In his inaugural address Johnson expressed his unbounded enthusiasm for a grand future -- "Is our world gone? We say farewell. Is a new world coming? We welcome it, and we will bend it to the hopes of man." He was now more than just the custodian of JFK's legacy.
Emboldened by his election by more votes than any president in history, Johnson prepared to inundate the 89th Congress with a flood of legislative proposals. Out of this congressional session came passage of a series of landmark programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, immigration reform, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, among dozens of others. By the end of 1966 Congress had passed nearly 200 pieces of major legislation proposed by Johnson. The Great Society appeared to be within reach.
But no package of legislation could address the growing anger and resentment building in America's largest cities. The pace of change in the inner cities was slow. Summer riots erupted in Watts, Detroit, and Newark.
The violence was a sign of the darker days in store for the Johnson administration. The luster of the Great Society would be tarnished by racial divisions and economic disparity at home and a growing war in Southeast Asia.
On April 7, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first major speech on the war in Vietnam. Opposition to the war had been growing as a result of Operation Rolling Thunder, an expanded U.S. bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese that began the previous month. LBJ ordered his staff to compose an address that would appease his detractors. In the speech Johnson, attempted to do what he had done so successfully throughout his long and colorful political career -- make a deal.
The president announced plans for an ambitious $1 billion development program along the vast Mekong River that would benefit not only Vietnam, but all of Southeast Asia. The program was intended as an offer to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Flying back to Washington after the speech, Johnson confidently predicted to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, "...old Ho can't turn me down." But the next day, Ho did just that. The rejected Mekong River development proposal was one of many instances in Vietnam where Lyndon Johnson's formidable skills as a consensus builder and deal-maker would fail him. Lyndon Johnson did not initiate American involvement in Vietnam. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy laid the groundwork for U.S. intervention. But the Vietnam War would come to be seen as Johnson's war. It would dominate not only his entire foreign policy, but overshadow his ambitious domestic programs.
Since the close of the 1954 Geneva Convention, when Vietnam was split in two, the Vietnamese Communists had been conducting what they termed a battle for liberation. Their stated goal was a Vietnam unified under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Military strategists in the U.S., however, saw a creeping Red menace, poised to envelope all of Southeast Asia. China had already been "lost" to the Communists. Visions of falling dominoes haunted the Pentagon and the White House.
As vice president, Lyndon Johnson privately advised President Kennedy to minimize escalation. But at the time of Kennedy's death, the extent of U.S. involvement was increasing, not lessening. By the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency on November 23, 1963, 16,700 American troops had already been committed to the unstable and unreliable government of South Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson never fully understood Vietnam's fierce determination to endure whatever was necessary to prevent foreign domination. Equally significant, Johnson's sense of patriotism and manhood would not allow him to even consider the possibility of the most powerful nation on earth being bested by what he termed a "damn little pissant country."
Early in 1964, Johnson had his staff draw up a congressional resolution that would allow him to expand the war as he deemed necessary. In August, the U.S.S. Maddox, an American destroyer patrolling the Tonkin Gulf in Vietnam, reported that it had been the target of a torpedo attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Two days later, a highly disputed second attack was alleged to have taken place. Such supposed provocation on the part of the North Vietnamese was all Johnson needed to present his resolution to a compliant Congress. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution sailed through Congress in 40 minutes. It passed unanimously in the House and encountered only two dissenters in the Senate. Commenting on the broad scope of the resolution, Johnson said, "It's like grandmother's nightshirt. It covers everything."
Johnson's response to the Tonkin Gulf incident was moderate -- only select military targets in North Vietnam were bombed. Johnson had no desire to exert the full force of his presidency on Vietnam. In 1964, he still considered the conflict an annoyance. Soon it would become an obsession.
In July 1965 General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, requested 175,000 to 200,000 additional soldiers. Johnson denied the full request, but ordered an additional 50,000 troops into combat. The president repeatedly expressed how difficult it was for him to send American boys half-way around the world to fight the battles of "Asian boys." But Johnson maintained that the U.S. had made commitments to South Vietnam that had to be honored. By the end of 1965, nearly 200,000 Americans were serving in Vietnam. The U.S. bombing campaign continued to be expanded as well.
By early 1968, one-half million American troops were bogged down in jungle warfare. Over 25,000 Americans had already been killed. Relentless bombing had failed to break the will of the North Vietnamese. Bombing halts had failed to produce meaningful negotiations. Johnson, the would-be architect of a Great Society, was now routinely vilified by protesters as a "baby killer."
On March 31, 1968, Johnson's presidency became a casualty of the Vietnam War. Johnson announced to a nationwide television audience that he would not seek re-election. He would instead devote his remaining time in office to the advancement of peace talks. As the nation convulsed in a tumult of assassinations and riots, a lame-duck Johnson remained in office for ten more months. The war in Vietnam would continue to rage for five more years and claim an additional 33,000 American lives.
The presidency of Lyndon Johnson is described as having all the characteristics of a classic tragedy. Johnson aspired to be "the greatest of them all," and for a moment greatness seemed within his grasp. But his fall was as swift and as sure as that of any tragic literary figure.
Few dispute that Johnson was a master of the art of the deal, but in matters of deal-making is not the same as leadership, especially in matters of foreign affairs. And bold leadership is exactly what Johnson lacked during the most crucial junctures of his tenure as president. Johnson was not an ideologue, he was a politician. He was the swaggering Texan who lived most of his life within the urban confines of cosmopolitan Washington, DC. He took boastful pleasure in parading about in cowboy hat and boots, yet spent the vast majority of his days in specially-tailored suits.
Johnson spoke often about wanting to be the "president of all the people." He had great skill in crafting decisions that offered up something for everyone. In Vietnam increased bombing raids were conducted to appease the "hawks," while gradual troop increases and intermittent efforts at negotiation were touted to please the "doves." Johnson's efforts at consensus building on Vietnam often meant avoiding the more difficult decisions inherent in leadership positions.
If the record of Lyndon Johnson's presidency were to end in 1965, his would surely be ranked among our nation's finest. Thrust into the role of Chief Executive on that tragic day in Dallas in November 1963, Johnson reassured an emotionally devastated public by pledging to honor, and build upon, the legacy of his slain predecessor -- "John Kennedy's death commands what his life conveyed -- that America must move forward." Johnson did indeed move forward, presenting a program of domestic reforms originally crafted in the mold of the New Deal and imbued with the vigor of the New Frontier. By 1965, Johnson had devised and signed into law more than 200 pieces of major legislation, including a sizable tax cut, a billion dollar anti-poverty program, and a groundbreaking civil rights bill. But the promises of his Great Society were swallowed up in the quagmire of Vietnam.
The boldness with which Johnson moved on the domestic front was undermined by his own hesitance and duplicity concerning Vietnam. By March 1968 a Gallup poll recorded that only 26 percent of the American people approved of his handling of the war. Most damaging to the man and to the presidency itself was the opening up of a "credibility gap." Lyndon Johnson, who had done so much to fulfill the idealism of the Kennedy era, was blamed for ushering in an era of increased public cynicism toward official Washington.
LBJ Reading Questions
What are “Domestic Politics” or issues?
How did LBJ become president?
What was the main domestic concern that he focused on?
What is a “filibuster?”
What was LBJ’s “treatment?”
What was the significance of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
What was the “Great Society?
Which groups of people were targeted by the “Great Society?
What was the result of the 1964 election?
What other programs were passed under LBJ?
What is “Foreign Policy?”
W hat was “Operation Rolling Thunder?”
Who was Ho Chi Minh?
Which president initiated American involvement in Indochina?
Why did the US get involved in the war?
What did LBJ call Vietnam?
What was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?
How did LBJ “escalate” the War?
How many Americans were involved in the War?
What did LBJ decide to do regarding the 1968 election?
What are some of the positive legacies of LBJ’s presidency?
What are some of the negative legacies of LBJ’s presidency?
What do you think the overall lasting legacy of LBJ is?