Lyndon Baines Johnson became the 36th president of the United States on the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. A skilled promoter of liberal domestic legislation, he was also a staunch believer in the use of military force to help achieve the country's foreign policy objectives. His escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War eroded his popular standing and led to his decision not to run for reelection to the presidency in 1968.

Early Life

Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, near Johnson City, Tex., the eldest son of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., and Rebekah Baines Johnson. His father, a struggling farmer and cattle speculator in the hill country of Texas, provided only an uncertain income for his family. Politically active, Sam Johnson served five terms in the Texas legislature. Lyndon's mother had varied cultural interests and placed high value on education; she was fiercely ambitious for her children.

Johnson attended public schools in Johnson City and received a B.S. degree from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. He then taught for a year in Houston before going to Washington in 1931 as secretary to a Democratic Texas congressman, Richard M. Kleberg.

During the next 4 years Johnson developed a wide network of political contacts in Washington, D.C. On Nov. 17, 1934, he married Claudia Alta Taylor, known as "Lady Bird." A warm, intelligent, ambitious woman, she was a great asset to Johnson's career. They had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House. Johnson greatly admired the president, who named him, at age 27, to head the National Youth Administration in Texas. This job, which Johnson held from 1935 to 1937, entailed helping young people obtain employment and schooling. It confirmed Johnson's faith in the positive potential of government and won for him a coterie of supporters in Texas.

In 1937, Johnson won a Texas seat in Congress, where he championed public works, reclamation, and public power programs. When war came to Europe he backed Roosevelt's efforts to aid the Allies. During World War II he served a brief tour of active duty with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific (1941-42) but returned to Capitol Hill when Roosevelt recalled members of Congress from active duty. Johnson continued to support Roosevelt's military and foreign-policy programs.

During the 1940s, Johnson and his wife developed profitable business ventures, including a radio station, in Texas. In 1948 he ran for the U.S. Senate, winning the Democratic party primary by only 87 votes. (This was his second try; in 1941 he had run for the Senate and lost to a conservative opponent.) The opposition accused him of fraud and derisively tagged him "Landslide Lyndon." Although challenged, unsuccessfully, in the courts, he took office in 1949.

Senator and Vice-President

Johnson moved quickly into the Senate hierarchy. In 1953 he won the job of Senate Democratic leader. The next year he was easily reelected as senator and returned to Washington as majority leader, a post he held for the next six years despite a serious heart attack in 1955.

The Texan proved to be a shrewd, skillful Senate leader. A consistent opponent of civil rights legislation until 1957, he developed excellent personal relationships with powerful conservative Southerners. A hard worker, he impressed with his attention to detail and his willingness to compromise.

In the late 1950s, Johnson began to think seriously of running for the presidency in 1960. His record had been fairly conservative, however. Many Democratic liberals resented his friendly association with the Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; others considered him a tool of wealthy Southwestern gas and oil interests. Either to soften this image as a conservative or in response to inner conviction, Johnson moved slightly to the left on some domestic issues, especially on civil rights laws, which he supported in 1957 and 1960. Although these laws proved ineffective, Johnson had demonstrated that he was a very resourceful Senate leader.

To many northern Democrats, however, Johnson remained a sectional candidate. The presidential nomination of 1960 went to Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy, a northern Roman Catholic, then selected Johnson as his running mate to balance the ticket. In November 1960 the Democrats defeated the Republican candidates, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, by a narrow margin.

Kennedy appointed Johnson to head the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, which enabled him to work on behalf of blacks and other minorities. As vice-president, he also undertook some missions abroad, which offered him limited insights into international problems.

Presidency

The assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, elevated Johnson to the White House, where he quickly proved a masterly, reassuring leader in the realm of domestic affairs. In 1964, Congress passed a tax-reduction law that promised to promote economic growth and the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the program called the War on Poverty. Johnson was especially skillful in securing a strong Civil Rights Act in 1964. It became a vital source of legal authority against racial and sexual discrimination.

In 1964 the Republicans nominated Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona for president. Goldwater was a conservative in domestic policy and an advocate of strong military action to protect U.S. interests in Vietnam. Johnson had increased the number of U.S. military personnel there from 16,000 at the time of Kennedy's assassination to nearly 25,000 a year later. Contrasted to Goldwater, however, he seemed a model of restraint. Johnson, with Hubert H. Humphrey as running mate, ran a low-key campaign and overwhelmed Goldwater, who won only his home state and five others in the Deep South.

Johnson's triumph in 1964 gave him a mandate for the Great Society, as he called his domestic program. Congress responded by passing the Medicare program, approving federal aid to elementary and secondary education, supplementing the War on Poverty, and creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also passed another important civil rights law - the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At this point Johnson began the rapid deepening of U.S. involvement in Vietnam; as early as February 1965, U.S. planes began to bomb North Vietnam. American troop strength in Vietnam increased to more than 180,000 by the end of the year and to 500,000 by 1968. Many influences led Johnson to such a policy. Among them were personal factors such as his temperamental activism, faith in U.S. military power, and staunch anticommunism. These qualities also led him to intervene militarily in the Dominican Republic - allegedly to stop a Communist takeover - in April 1965.

While the nation became deeply involved in Vietnam, racial tension sharpened at home, culminating in widespread urban race riots between 1965 and 1968. The breakdown of the interracial civil rights movement, together with the imperfections of some of Johnson's Great Society programs, resulted in Republican gains in the 1966 elections, thus thwarting Johnson's hopes for further congressional cooperation.

It was the policy of military escalation in Vietnam, however, that proved to be Johnson's undoing as president. It deflected attention from domestic concerns, resulted in sharp inflation, and prompted rising criticism, especially among young, draft-aged people. Escalation also failed to win the war. The drawn-out struggle made Johnson even more secretive, dogmatic, and hypersensitive to criticism. His usually sure political instincts were failing.

The New Hampshire presidential primary of 1968, in which the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing, revealed the dwindling of Johnson's support. Some of Johnson's closest advisors now counseled de-escalation in Vietnam. Confronted by mounting opposition, Johnson made two surprise announcements on Mar. 31, 1968: he would stop the bombing in most of North Vietnam and seek a negotiated end to the war, and he would not run for reelection.

Johnson's influence thereafter remained strong enough to dictate the nomination of Vice-President Humphrey, who had supported the war, as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1968. Although Johnson stopped all bombing of the North on November 1, he failed to make real concessions at the peace table, and the war dragged on. Humphrey lost in a close race with the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon.

Retirement

After stepping down from the presidency in January 1969, Johnson returned to his ranch in Texas. There he and his aides prepared his memoirs, which were published in 1971 as The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. He also supervised construction of the Johnson presidential library in Austin. Johnson died on Jan. 22, 1973, five days before the conclusion of the treaty by which the United States withdrew from Vietnam.

 

James T. Patterson

Bibliography

Bernstein, Irving, Guns or Butter: Lyndon Johnson's Presidency (1995)

Beschloss, M. R., ed., Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (1997)

Brands, H. W., The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power (1995) and, as ed., The Foreign Policies of Lyndon Johnson: Beyond Vietnam (1999)

Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson, 2 vols. (1982-90)

Dallek, Robert, Flawed Giant (1998) and Lone Star Rising (1991)

Divine, R. A., The Johnson Years, 3 vols. (1994)

Dugger, Ronnie, The Politician (1982)

Miller, Merle, Lyndon: An Oral Biography (1980)

Russell, Jan Jarboe, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson (1999)

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