Lyndon B. Johnson was a great man. He fought against racism and sexual discrimination.
He was a vice-president, president, and a senator. Some people say he was the best president we
have ever had. Others don't like him at all. Like him or dislike him either way he made a big
impact on the United Sates.
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. His 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 Byrd, 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 group
of supporters in Texas.
In 1937, Johnson sought and 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. The opposition accused him of fraud and tagged him
"Landslide Lyndon." Although challenged, unsuccessfully, in the courts, he took
office in 1949.
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 6 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 colleagues with his
attention to the details of legislation 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 Senator John F. Kennedy of
Massachusetts. Kennedy, a northern Roman Catholic, then selected Johnson as
his running mate to balance the Democratic ticket. In November 1960 the
Democrats defeated the Republican candidates, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Cabot
Lodge, by a narrow margin. Johnson was appointed by Kennedy to head the
President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, a post that enabled
him to work on behalf of blacks and other minorities. As vice-president, he
also undertook some missions abroad, which offered him some limited insights
into international problems.
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, elevated Johnson
to the White House, where he quickly proved a masterful, 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. In the years to come
it proved to be a vital source of legal authority against racial and sexual
discrimination. In 1964 the Republicans nominated Senator Barry M. Goldwater
of Arizona as their presidential nominee. Goldwater was an extreme
conservative in domestic policy and an advocate of strong military action to
protect American 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 his
running mate, ran a low-key campaign and overwhelmed Goldwater in the election.
The Arizonan 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, which provided health services to the elderly, 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 anti-communism. These qualities also led him
to intervene militarily in the Dominican Republic--allegedly to stop a
Communist takeover--in April 1965. Like many Americans who recalled the
"appeasement" of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Johnson thought the United States
must be firm or incur a loss of credibility.
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 and effectively thwarted 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 began to counsel a
de-escalation policy 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 for the 1968 election. 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.
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, 5 days before the conclusion of the
treaty by which the United States withdrew from Vietnam.