Lyndon B. Johnson

Contents

Overview
Born: August 27, 1908; Stonewall, Texas... Lyndon Johnson was the first president to appoint an African American to the Supreme Court. On June 13, 1967, Johnson named Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, to sit on the highest court in the land...Visions of a Great Society swallowed up in the quagmire of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson exploited his mastery of the legislative process to shepherd a collection of progressive programs, rivaling those of FDR's New Deal, through Congress with astounding success. An unpopular and costly war, however, eroded his political base and left him an exile within his own White House... Died: January 22, 1973.

Did you know? - Read some fun facts about Lyndon B. Johnson

The Era

  • Passage of Civil Rights Act (1964)
  • Warren Commission issues report on Kennedy assassination (1964)
  • PLO formed (1964)
  • Cesar Chavez organizes farm workers (1965)
  • National Organization for Women is formed (1966)
  • Indira Gandhi becomes prime minister of India (1966)
  • Israel wins Six-Day War (1967)
  • Shirley Chisholm becomes first black woman elected to Congress (1968)
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinated (1968)

World Timeline - See a timeline of world events during Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.


Early Career

Looking
Portrait of LBJ young man
back on his childhood, Lyndon Johnson would recall that "poverty was so common, we didn't know it had a name." The Johnson home on the banks of the Pedernales River in Stonewall, Texas lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. But the Johnson family chose not to define themselves in terms of what they lacked.

Lyndon Johnson was an early witness to his mother's idealism and his father's commitment to rural populism. Young Lyndon would eagerly accompany his father, Sam, who held a seat formerly occupied by his father, to meetings of the Texas legislature. On the campaign trail, Lyndon learned to mimic the gestures of the glad-handing politician. The political arena was the place where his father seemed to come alive, much to the delight of his constituents, and to the consternation of Lyndon's mother.

Rebekah
LBJ in uniform
Baines Johnson was ambitious, yet genteel, and life in the rural Texas backwaters left her feeling isolated, physically and intellectually. "My mother soon discovered that my daddy was not a man to discuss higher things. His idea of pleasure was to sit up half the night with his friends, drinking beer, telling stories, and playing dominoes," Lyndon Johnson recalled. As Lyndon grew, he became the object of his mother's attention, someone who could live out her unrealized expectations. In this environment, LBJ developed the skill of bringing conflicting parties together and acquired his lifelong taste for the spotlight.

Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers' College, in San Marcos, Texas. A reluctant student, he studiously worked to curry favor with Cecil Evans, the college president. His aggressive, self-promoting tactics earned him the nickname "Bull Johnson." But his work paid off. Through his connection to Evans, he was able to secure campus jobs for himself and his friends. He later admitted, "I sure didn't learn a whole lot in classes...but I made a lot of contacts and sure learned to get ahead."

In
Lady Bird and LBJ in car
1931, Johnson took a leave of absence from his teaching job at Sam Houston High School to work in Washington, D.C. as the secretary of newly elected Democratic congressman Richard Kleberg. Almost immediately, Johnson was running Kleberg's office. He quickly learned to master Capitol hill's intricacies and arcane operations. While his work was satisfying and served to fuel his growing ambition, Johnson began to tire of life as a Washington bachelor.

Claudia Taylor, nicknamed "Lady Bird" by a childhood nanny, was Johnson's opposite in demeanor and background. While no less ambitious and disciplined than her suitor, Lady Bird possessed a refinement and interest in culture that LBJ lacked. He was smitten immediately, asking for her hand in marriage on the day they met. The wedding took place in November 1934. Under Lady Bird's skillful cultivation, Sam Rayburn, longtime Texas Congressman, soon became one of LBJ's "political daddies."

-
In 1937, when Congressman James "Ol Buck" Buchanan of the Tenth Congressional District died, Johnson threw his hat in the ring. Running on a pro-Roosevelt platform, he beat out eight more experienced candidates. As he boarded the train for Washington, his father instructed him to "...get up there, support FDR all the way, never shimmy and give 'em hell."

An enthusiastic New Dealer, Johnson won reelection to the House in 1938 and 1940, but was narrowly defeated in his 1941 bid for a Senate seat when his opponent stuffed the ballot box. The loss was instructive for the thirty-three year-old LBJ; the next time around it was Johnson who manipulated the votes. In 1948, Johnson won his race for the Senate by a mere eighty-seven votes against Coke Stevenson, a popular Texas governor. Although never proved, most people were convinced the vote was rigged. From then on, he was derisively referred to as "Landslide Lyndon."

Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson on campaign trail
quickly mastered the complex rules of procedure and debate in the Senate. His ascension was swift: he was named Democratic Whip in 1951, Minority Leader in 1953, and Majority Leader in 1955. As Majority Leader he was an acknowledged master of the legislative process, employing a barrage of flattery, coercion, compromise, and a keen knowledge of Senate rules to attain his legislative objectives. The most remarkable achievement of his Senate career was winning passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, while fending off deep sectional rivalries within the Democratic party. The bill, the first concerning civil rights since Reconstruction, lacked authority to compel significant change, but Johnson saw it as a crucial first step.

But times were changing. In 1960, members of the Senate began to complain that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors, that Johnson's hands lay too heavily on the voting process. Johnson nearly admitted as much, saying, "The process itself requires a certain amount of deception. There's no getting around it. If the full implications of any bill were known before its enactment, it would never get passed." Johnson sensed his best days in the Senate were behind him. Besides, he had by now set his sights on the top rung of the ladder: the presidency.

Through
JFK and LBJ
much of 1960, Lyndon Johnson toyed with the notion of running for president. He wanted badly to win the nomination, but feared losing to the more glamorous John Kennedy, whom Johnson resentfully referred to as "sonny boy." Johnson delayed announcing his candidacy and failed to secure the necessary delegates. Whatever remote chance he had of gaining the nomination of his party lay in a fractured Democratic Convention. But it was not to be; Kennedy secured the nomination on the first ballot. Johnson's disappointment was matched only by his dismay when Kennedy asked him to be his running mate.

To Lyndon Johnson, the vice-presidency seemed the surest route to political oblivion. But as with every office he ever held, Johnson hoped to expand its powers. He campaigned vigorously for the ticket, helping to win the election by a razor-thin margin, and ushering in a new decade and a New Frontier. Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who yearned his entire life to occupy center stage, was now relegated to the wings.


Domestic Politics

On
LBJ grimace while on telephone
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
Martin Luther King and President Johnson
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 eighty-three 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
LBJ sign's Civil Rights Bill
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
1965 Inauguration
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
Head Start campaign
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.


Foreign Affairs

On
LBJ speaking
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
Soldiers carry wounded in Vietnam
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
Lyndon Baines Johnson and General Westmoreland
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 forty 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
LBJ in meeting
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
LBJ head down on desk
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.


Presidential Politics

In
1964 Democratic National Convention
July 1964, the Republican party nominated Senator Barry Goldwater as the candidate to unseat President Lyndon Johnson. The ultra-conservative Arizona senator, whose radical right-wing rantings alienated scores of voters, never had a chance. Polls indicated that Lyndon Johnson would retain the White House by a large margin.

Despite the optimism of polls and pundits, Lyndon Johnson appeared unsure about his suitability for the office of the presidency. For months he had expressed to trusted friends and aides his feelings of anxiety about the legitimacy of his presidency. People close to Johnson spoke of how he often voiced grave doubts about his effectiveness and reputation, only to bask in delight as others reassured him of his political brilliance. In her journals, Lady Bird Johnson referred to this pattern of behavior as "the same old refrain." Still, as the summer of 1964 approached, there was much uncertainty as to Johnson's plans for the future

On
Swearing in of President Lyndon B. Johnson
August 25, 1964, the day after the Democratic Convention opened in Atlantic City, Johnson was so troubled he even drafted a speech announcing his intention to pull out of the race. Stunned aides attempted to talk him out of his decision to withdraw. Finally, Lady Bird, appealed to his sense of courage and duty, reminding him of the work left to be done. The country needed him, his wife assured. Lyndon Johnson heeded her advice and accepted his party's nomination.

With the nomination in hand, Johnson turned his attention to the selection of a running mate. Many democrats hoped Johnson would choose Robert Kennedy, the former president's younger brother. But Johnson was faced with a dilemma -- he and Kennedy were political enemies. The disdain the two man held for each other went back to the days when Robert Kennedy was managing his brother's presidential campaign and grew during Johnson's tenure as vice-president. Kennedy felt Johnson's presidency lacked legitimacy and saw LBJ merely as a usurper of his brother's glory. Johnson feared that Kennedy would use the vice-presidency solely to solidify his own base of support for a challenge in 1968. Johnson had to find a way to get Kennedy's name off the "short list" of potential vice-presidential candidates without alienating Kennedy supporters. Kennedy would have to remove his own name from consideration.

President Johnson addresses nation 3/31/68
Johnson and Kennedy, not surprisingly, provided differing accounts about how Kennedy's name was removed from the list of possible vice-presidential candidates. The end result, however, was the same: Robert Kennedy would not be sharing the ticket with Lyndon Johnson.

Following the convention, Johnson appeared re-energized. He barnstormed the nation, greeting enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. The more they cheered, the more animated and impassioned Johnson became. As election day drew near, Johnson decided just winning would not be enough; the "accidental president" wanted a landslide. An overwhelming victory would allow Johnson to step out from under the shadow of John Kennedy. And, he yearned to be president of "all the people." He came quite close: Johnson crushed Goldwater by over sixteen million votes, winning sixty-one percent of the popular vote.

Lyndon
RFK and LBJ
Johnson's resounding election in 1964 was accompanied by the election, or re-election, of 28 Democratic senators and 295 Democratic representatives. The heavily Democratic make-up of the 89th Congress prompted some observers to claim that the U.S. now had a "one-and-a-half party system." Johnson would take full advantage of this lopsided alignment to push for his ambitious Great Society programs.

Almost four years later Johnson retreated from the political spotlight, as he had once threatened to do in 1964. In a nationally televised address Lyndon Johnson startled the country by declaring, "...I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." With that announcement, LBJ ended one of the most colorful political careers in the nation's history.


Legacy

The
LBJ
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
LBJ standing in oval office
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 two hundred 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
LBJ watching helicopters
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% 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.



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