Lyndon Johnson

1908 - 1973

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States (1963-1969). Johnson was the first candidate from a Southern state to be elected president of the United States for more than a century. He became president on November 22, 1963, hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Texas. In 1964 Johnson was elected to a full four-year term by the largest popular majority in modern U.S. history. His triumph represented a victory for the average voter in U.S. politics, with which Johnson, as a congressman, Senate leader, and vice president, had identified himself.

Johnson was one of the most masterful politicians in the history of the Congress of the United States. He was a champion of bipartisan and consensus politics. His positions on public issues were always in line with what he believed to be the middle ground of popular opinion. He excelled in getting things done. He was not an innovator of programs or ideas. His domestic program, which he called the Great Society, was an extension of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s. In foreign affairs, Johnson pursued the basic U.S. postwar policy of containing Communism. His belief in consensus politics and his unquestioning devotion to accepted political beliefs were both a strength and a weakness. With these attitudes he won passage of far-reaching domestic legislation, but the same beliefs occasionally trapped him in policies that were no longer relevant to the rapidly changing world. President Johnson hoped that his administration would be evaluated by the success of his Great Society program. Johnson also hoped to improve the climate of international affairs, chiefly by reaching an understanding with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). At the end of his term, however, it seemed more likely that the frustrations of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War throughout his presidency would overshadow his impressive domestic record and his somewhat less successful efforts to improve relations with the USSR.

Early Life

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on a farm near Stonewall, Gillespie County, Texas, in 1908. His grandfather, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Sr., born in Georgia, had been taken by his parents to Texas in 1846. He became a cattle rancher in the Pedernales River valley, in the Hill Country west of Austin, and in 1867 married Eliza Bunton. Their son, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., served five terms in the Texas legislature. In 1907, while serving in the legislature, he married Rebekah Baines, the daughter of another Hill Country ranching family. They had five children, of whom Lyndon was the eldest.

The Johnson family abandoned the family farm after failing to grow cotton on it and moved to the nearby town of Johnson City in 1913. Lyndon Johnson attended the local schools and graduated from Johnson City High School, one of six seniors in the class of 1924. His father managed to support his growing family through dealings in real estate, but his chief interests were always political, and young Lyndon came naturally to his passion for politics, as well as to his conviction that government exists to help the people.

For a considerable time after graduation from high school Johnson drifted about. With five friends he bought an automobile and drove to California. He did odd jobs on the West Coast, picking fruit, washing cars, and helping in restaurants. He eventually hitchhiked back to his home and took a job doing manual labor on a highway crew.


Johnson’s mother had long sought to impress on him the need for a college education, but it was not until 1927 that he decided to follow her advice. With a small sum borrowed from a local bank, he went to nearby San Marcos and enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Many of his friends were already there, and it seemed the logical place to go to prepare for a schoolteaching career.

In September 1928 Johnson interrupted his education to take his first professional job, as principal of a school for Mexican children in the town of Cotulla. In this task he was energetic, aggressive, and highly successful. The following year he returned to San Marcos to complete his college work. He was confident of his ability to teach and to administer and had a strong respect for the Mexican-American people. Johnson graduated with a degree in history in August 1930 and took a position as teacher of public speaking at Sam Houston High School, in Houston, where his uncle was chairman of the history department. As a teacher, Johnson was self-confident and virtually tireless. He drove himself hard and was intensely demanding of his students. However, he had scarcely begun his second year of teaching at Houston when he accepted a political appointment.

Johnson’s first political position was that of private secretary to the newly elected Congressman Richard M. Kleberg of Corpus Christi. Although Johnson had not taken part in Kleberg’s campaign, he was a member of a politically powerful Hill Country family and had been recommended to Kleberg by mutual friends. Johnson arrived in Washington, D.C., to witness the last months of the administration of President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) and the return to national power of the Democratic Party under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). Johnson’s drive and energy soon brought him to prominence among the many young people in Washington during the early days of the New Deal.


In 1934 Johnson married Claudia Alta (“Lady Bird”) Taylor, a recent graduate of the University of Texas and a member of a prosperous eastern Texas family. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, in 1944, and Luci Baines, in 1947.

Johnson left the service of Congressman Kleberg in 1935 to become Texas state director of the National Youth Administration, a newly established relief organization headed by Aubrey Williams, a controversial reformer with whom Johnson established a lasting friendship. In his new position, with headquarters in Austin, Texas, Johnson soon put an elaborate program into effect. He also built up a large number of important political friendships.

Political Career

United States Congressman

The sudden death of the incumbent congressman in Johnson’s central Texas district required a special election in 1937 to fill the office, and Johnson decided to run. With $10,000 borrowed by his wife and aided by his many local friends, Johnson put on an aggressive campaign against nine opponents. While several of the candidates were better known in the district, only Johnson ran as an all-out supporter of Roosevelt. He even endorsed the president’s controversial and ill-fated plan to enlarge the Supreme Court of the United States. On April 10, 1937, Johnson won 8280 votes, 3000 more votes than the next highest candidate. Soon after the election, President Roosevelt, in Texas for a fishing cruise, talked with the 28-year-old congressman-elect and took him for a trip aboard the presidential train. Soon after Johnson was sworn in, he learned that he had been appointed to the Naval Affairs Committee, a very important position, thanks to the intercession of the president and to the firm support of his father’s old friend, House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn.

First Years in Office

Johnson quickly made a two-fold reputation. He was a firm supporter of Roosevelt’s program, both domestic and foreign, and he was also a tireless worker on behalf of the voters he represented. Often the two activities coincided, as was the case when he helped to bring public power into Texas through the Rural Electrification Administration and the Lower Colorado River Authority. He also secured funds for the building of dams, roads, and other public improvements in his district, such as new post offices, soil conservation projects, and farm credit facilities. These accomplishments marked the young congressman as “the man who gets things done.” He often worked his staff for 12 or 15 hours a day; one of his office rules was that each incoming letter be answered within 24 hours. A friend later recalled, “People who knew Lyndon then were never surprised at his later successes. If there ever was a prototype of a young man going somewhere in politics, it was Lyndon Johnson during his first few years in Congress.” He had access to the president and was close to most of the House leaders.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Representative Johnson concerned himself more and more with national defense. Again he was able to combine his defense policy with getting things done for Texas. Among his local accomplishments were the construction of a large U.S. Naval training station in Corpus Christi, shipbuilding yards at Houston and Orange, and a Naval Reserve installation at Dallas. In 1940 he was, as always, a passionate supporter of President Roosevelt. Placed in charge of the national campaign to keep the House of Representatives Democratic, he had the satisfaction of seeing his party increase its majority.

Unsuccessful Campaign

In the spring of 1941 one of the Texas senators died and Johnson announced his candidacy for the office from the steps of the White House. President Roosevelt went far in giving his blessing, saying three things about the coming campaign: “First, it is up to the people of Texas to elect the man they want as their senator; second, everybody knows that I cannot enter a primary election; and third, to be truthful, all I can say is Lyndon Johnson is a very old, old friend of mine.” Once again, Johnson ran as an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but this time he also emphasized the need to support the president in the world crisis and warned of the danger of aggression by Germany, Italy, or Japan. The June election was very close, and for two days it appeared that Johnson had won. However, rural returns, coming in late, gave the final victory to the conservative governor, W. Lee O’Daniel, by 1311 votes out of nearly 600,000 cast.

War Service

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Johnson became one of the first congressman to go into uniform. He was a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve and went on a seven-month tour of duty as a lieutenant commander. He served as an observer in New Guinea, surviving two nearly fatal airplane crashes and receiving a silver star for gallantry from General Douglas MacArthur.

Back in Washington, Johnson headed a special investigating subcommittee of the Naval Affairs Committee that did important work to help modernize the navy’s procedures. The death of President Roosevelt in April 1945 was a deep personal loss for Johnson. He told a reporter that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been his “second daddy.”

Postwar Activities

After the war, Johnson seemed to grow more conservative. He voted for the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947 and voted to override President Truman’s veto of this measure, which labor unions had called the slave labor bill. He also announced his complete opposition to Truman’s civil rights program; earlier in his career he had been considered a firm friend of blacks, as well as of Mexican-Americans.

In 1948 he ran for the Senate once again, after Senator O’Daniel decided not to seek reelection. Former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, more conservative than Johnson, had the support of labor unions because of Johnson’s vote on the Taft-Hartley Act and ran far ahead in the first primary. In the end, however, Johnson eked out the final victory by a margin of 87 votes. He survived Stevenson’s court challenge and at last entered the Senate, although it took him some time to live down the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.”

United States Senator

Lyndon Johnson had unusual advantages for a freshman when he was sworn into the U.S. Senate in January 1949. He had served in the House for nearly a dozen years and was on intimate terms with many influential people in Washington. His old friend and mentor Sam Rayburn was again Speaker of the House, since the Democrats had regained control after Republican domination of the 80th Congress. Johnson was a link with the New Deal for a number of newly elected liberal Democrats from the North, such as Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. He was also trusted as a moderate by important conservative Southern Democrats, such as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Johnson was at once appointed to the Armed Services Committee, of which Russell was chairman. Since both men firmly believed in a strong and prepared national defense, they had a common bond, in addition to their Southern upbringing.

First Years as Senator

During his first two years in the Senate, Johnson specialized in defense problems. He fought the Truman administration’s defense cuts, which were advocated by Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson. Senator Johnson was especially alarmed at reductions in the U.S. Air Force, and allied himself with Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington. In late February 1950 Johnson spoke out strongly in favor of a defense buildup. The Korean War broke out four months later. The war began when Communist North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) invaded South Korea (Republic of Korea). The conflict quickly spread. Eventually the United States and 19 other nations fought in Korea. The Korean War was one of the by-products of the Cold War, the global political and diplomatic struggle between the Communist and non-Communist nations following World War II (1939-1945). Johnson supported the administration’s intervention in Korea in the strongest terms: “The Communists, not President Truman, were responsible for the invasion of South Korea. The quicker we direct our hostility to the enemy instead of our leaders, the quicker we will get the job done.” Senator Russell appointed Johnson as chairman of a subcommittee to investigate the preparedness program. This group eventually produced a series of 44 detailed reports.

Minority Leader

Johnson moved ahead rapidly in the Senate, in part due to the loss of leading Democrats in 1950 and 1952. In 1950 Everett Dirksen defeated Scott Lucas of Illinois, the Democratic majority leader of the Senate. The Democratic whip (assistant leader), Ernest McFarland, replaced Lucas, and Lyndon Johnson became Democratic whip. In 1952 McFarland lost his senatorial seat to Barry M. Goldwater and Johnson was chosen by his fellow Democrats to replace McFarland. Since the presidential victory in 1952 of Dwight D. Eisenhower had given the Republicans control of Congress, Johnson was only minority leader.

Many Democrats wanted to oppose the new administration at every point; these were chiefly Northern liberals, who wanted the government to take the lead in social reform. Johnson, however, did not share their views. “The role of a minority party is to hammer out a program that will solve the problems of America—not just to obstruct the work of the majority party.” His emphasis was on what he termed “responsibility.” He explained this position well at a Democratic dinner in New York City in 1953: “Our dedication must be to the politics of responsibility—to a statesmanship which is based upon the realization that we cannot survive unless our country survives.” In foreign policy he encouraged the Democrats to continue working with the Republicans to develop a policy that both parties could support in order to provide a united front in the Cold War.

Johnson quietly changed one of the old Senate traditions in 1953. He made certain that all of the junior, or beginning, Democratic senators received at least one desirable committee assignment. To do so, he had to persuade a number of senior senators to give up choice committee positions. A number of freshmen were thus pleasantly surprised, and a number of skeptical liberals were won over by their new leader. He was also successful in persuading his followers to judge issues on their merits, rather than on their origins. Thus, he was able to assist the Eisenhower administration when it ran into opposition from conservative Republicans over such issues as trade barriers. At the same time, Johnson vigorously fought the administration’s cuts in defense spending.

Majority Leader

Johnson was reelected to the Senate by an overwhelming margin in 1954, thus wiping out some of the embarrassment over his narrow victory in 1948. He campaigned in behalf of Democratic candidates in nine Western states, stressing the “politics of responsibility.” The Democrats won control of both houses of Congress and kept control for the remaining six years of Eisenhower’s presidency. Johnson became Senate majority leader at the age of 46. Rayburn was again Speaker of the House. The Johnson-Rayburn team, although unable to win Texas for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, managed the affairs of the Democratic Party in Congress with relative ease. The political commentator Walter Lippmann observed, “I do not think it is any exaggeration to say that Mr. Eisenhower’s success as president began when the Republicans lost control of Congress and the standing committees. In his first two years he had suffered an almost unbroken record of frustration and of domination by the senior Republicans, and particularly the Republican committee chairmen in the Senate.”

Johnson drove himself harder than ever during the first half of 1955, and he very nearly lost his life as a result. On Saturday, July 2, he suffered a massive heart attack while being driven to a friend’s country home in Virginia. He was rushed to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where he spent weeks resting and dieting; afterward he went to his Texas ranch to recuperate. By December a team of six specialists who examined him reported that his recovery had been rapid. His blood pressure was normal and his heart undamaged, although his doctors urged him to delegate some of his work to others and to get more rest.

Johnson was able to resume his duties at the 1956 session of Congress. He had kept his weight down and had permanently abandoned cigarette smoking, but he soon showed that his energy had not decreased. He was the traditional Southern candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1956, and as head of the Texas delegation he was instrumental in throwing the state’s votes to Senator and later President John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for the vice-presidential nomination. Both Johnson and Kennedy lost, but they loyally supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver ticket in the 1956 election. Despite Eisenhower’s second victory, the Democrats retained control of Congress. Johnson and Rayburn frustrated the efforts of the Democratic national committee to assume party leadership through the device of a Democratic advisory council. Most members of Congress stood firmly with their leaders on this question, but the controversy created a considerable amount of bitterness. Johnson secured Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in a modified form to make it more palatable to his Southern colleagues. He was also active as chairman of his defense-investigating subcommittee, which, after the success of the Soviet Sputnik 1 satellite in October 1957, speeded up the U.S. missile program (see Space Exploration).

Johnson obviously relished his Senate role, developing the politics of responsibility in close cooperation with Speaker Rayburn. He was a master of parliamentary procedure, he knew the attitudes of his colleagues on every issue, he enjoyed the exercise of power, and he loved to be able to decide issues on what he believed were their merits. In a 1958 statement he presented “My Political Philosophy,” flatly refusing to be categorized: “I am a free man, an American, a United States Senator, and a Democrat, in that order. I am also a liberal, a conservative, a Texan, a taxpayer, a rancher, a businessman, a consumer, a parent, a voter, and not as young as I used to be nor as old as I expect to be—and I am all these things in no fixed order.” Never noted for his eloquence, Johnson could be and frequently was blunt in his speeches and private conversations.

The Election of 1960

In 1960, with Vice President Richard M. Nixon the certain Republican candidate for the presidency, Johnson decided to try once more for the Democratic nomination. Nixon was an old opponent, in part because of what Johnson considered Nixon’s partisanship, his tendency to value party victories above all else. As majority leader, Johnson decided that he should not enter the primaries, since the other leading candidates were all Senate colleagues: John Kennedy of Massachusetts, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Stuart Symington of Missouri. However, a group of enthusiasts began to campaign for Johnson, especially in the South and West. The majority leader’s campaign was based on the assumption that no candidate would be able to win on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and that he might well become the second choice of many delegates after the deadlock. However, he did not count on the superbly managed Kennedy campaign, which resulted in the first-ballot nomination of the young senator from Massachusetts.

Kennedy then surprised many people, including Johnson, by offering him the vice-presidential nomination. Johnson caused even more surprise by accepting it. It was generally believed that Kennedy, although on record as having called Johnson the next-best-qualified candidate for president, had fully expected to be turned down. Johnson and his wife threw themselves into the campaign, working especially in the South to counteract the traditional Protestant suspicion of a Roman Catholic candidate for president. (Many Protestants suspected that a Roman Catholic president might listen too closely to the advice of the Pope.) The election was very close, and it may well be that Johnson’s work saved the Carolinas for the Democratic ticket and brought Texas and Louisiana, both of which had gone Republican in 1956, back into the Democratic fold. Kennedy had reason to be grateful to Johnson, but many wondered how Johnson would settle down in such a low-pressure position as the vice presidency.

Vice President

John Kennedy, well aware that in many ways his vice president was more experienced in practical politics than he was himself, made use of some of Johnson’s energy. The two men, in the words of Kennedy’s assistant and biographer, Theodore Sorensen, “to the astonishment of many and somewhat to the surprise of them both, got along famously.” Johnson had several official assignments: He was president of the Senate (under the Constitution of the United States), a member of the National Security Council, chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Johnson pursued each of these official tasks aggressively, with the exception of his role in the Senate, where he was limited to casting a vote to break a tie. He played an important part in helping to speed up the vast and expensive space program and took a native Texan’s pride in seeing its headquarters moved to Houston. As a Southern white, he was peculiarly effective on the equal-employment committee and took satisfaction in its progress.

Kennedy relied on Johnson for advice on personnel appointments, on political strategy and tactics, and on policy matters, both domestic and foreign. The president took care to inform his vice president of major actions well in advance. While he did not delegate decision-making power, he asked for Johnson’s assistance on nearly all major subjects. The president seems to have valued his vice president’s advice second only to that of his own brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The Kennedy staff, consisting mostly of persons closer in age to the president than to the vice president, seems to have held Johnson in considerably lower esteem than did the president himself. Despite frequent rumors that Johnson would be dropped from the ticket in 1964, John Kennedy twice made it clear in public that it was not his intention to do so.

There can be no doubt that Johnson, accustomed to wielding immense power himself, felt frustrated as vice president, especially when he must have believed that he could have been of enormous help in getting the Kennedy program through Congress if he had been asked to do so more frequently. Nevertheless, he did not complain publicly. Indeed, Johnson admitted to one reporter, “I believe he is more considerate of me than I would be if the roles were reversed.”

Foreign Travel

Of particular importance for the future was the great amount of foreign travel Johnson did on behalf of the administration. Johnson visited 33 countries and made about 1500 speeches on these journeys. He had not seen much of the world before, and the experience opened his eyes to some of the enormous problems in underdeveloped areas, as well as to some of the difficulties involved in carrying on diplomatic relations with traditional U.S. allies. Johnson took pride in his rather folksy type of personal diplomacy, for he soon found that he was as fond of mixing with foreign peoples as he was of “politicking” back home. He learned a great deal from his private conversations with political leaders wherever he went, and he later put these impressions to use as president in his own right. He even managed to keep up with French President Charles de Gaulle. When the somewhat distant French president asked him, “Now, Mr. Johnson, what have you come here to learn from us?”, Johnson smilingly replied, “Why, General, simply everything you can possibly teach me.”

As near as can now be determined, Johnson usually recommended in foreign affairs a slightly more militant policy, but he gave full support to Kennedy’s decisions once they were made. He helped secure the ratification of the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited nuclear explosions above ground or underwater, and fought for Kennedy’s proposed new civil rights and tax reduction legislation. He gave wholehearted backing to the defense buildup and to Kennedy’s decision to commit U.S. military advisers to the war in Vietnam.

The Assassination of Kennedy


On November 21, 1963, President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, flew to Texas for a pleasure and political visit. The president hoped to patch up the quarrel between the conservative Democrats, led by Johnson’s former assistant, Governor John Connally, and the liberals, led by U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough. The continued infighting among Texas Democrats had allowed important Republican gains in the state. The Johnsons joined the Kennedys when they got to Texas and were riding in separate cars in the motorcade in Dallas the next day, when an assassin’s bullets struck the young president. Johnson was shielded by a Secret Service agent who had been assigned to guard him. Johnson rushed to the hospital, where John Kennedy died. Next he was sped to the presidential airplane, aboard which he was administered the oath of office as the 36th president. Then the plane, bearing both the new president and the body of his predecessor, flew back to Washington, D.C.

President of the United States

Domestic Affairs

During the official month-long period of mourning for John Kennedy, the new president quickly took command of the United States. He placed great emphasis on continuity, both in policy and personnel; he asked Kennedy’s Cabinet and staff to stay on in their jobs. On November 27 he began his first address to Congress with these words, “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.” He pledged to carry on the Kennedy policies, foreign and domestic, reminding his audience that the late president had asked for solutions to the great problems of the nation. “Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.” He asked particularly for the passage of the civil rights and tax reduction legislation for which Kennedy had fought. He also pledged that he would attempt to implement more of Kennedy’s New Frontier program of domestic legislation.

Yet, it was soon evident that Lyndon Johnson was determined to be his own president. New faces, many of them from Texas, began to appear on his staff, although most of the key Cabinet officers stayed on for at least a year and some for much longer. Of more fundamental importance was the revision of the federal spending program.

Johnson had long been identified with gigantic spending programs while he was in Congress. He fought for public-works projects, for larger expenditures for those in need, and for great increases for defense. Then, as president, he decided to keep projected spending under $100 billion, an almost magic figure that had seemed certain to be exceeded at the current rate of expenditure. This decision seemed to be politically advantageous, since it might enable him to break the loose coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans that had largely controlled Congress since the 1938 elections. A fondness for minimizing federal spending seemed to be the chief element these two groups had in common. Johnson’s efforts to slash the federal budget were well publicized. Some $2 billion was cut, chiefly from Defense Department and Atomic Energy Commission projects, while small sums were added to projects that supported the poor and the elderly. Perhaps the symbol of all this cutting was the president’s much-derided switching off of “unnecessary” lights in the White House.

In his first State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964, Johnson made much of his economy program but even more of a new spending plan. He announced that his administration “today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America, and I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.” His program called for a systematic effort in “chronically distressed areas” of the country, a youth employment (“job corps”) plan, expansion of the food stamp and unemployment relief systems, and special aid to schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes. Thus, with supreme cleverness, Johnson was able to make cuts in spending in some areas and expand spending in others at the same time.

Johnson, the master of the machinery of Congress, was exceedingly active in the early months of his presidency, with impressive results. Of crucial importance was Johnson’s detailed knowledge of the personality and local concerns of nearly every member of Congress. Equally effective was his untiring use of the prestige and power of his office. Kennedy had been the first president to work for passage of specific programs by personal telephone calls to key legislators. Johnson carried this practice much further. When even a minor amendment to his tax-cut bill threatened to pass the Senate finance committee, he called up enough committee members to defeat it. Legislators were invited to informal dinners at the White House, and the president made visits to Capitol Hill. Johnson’s unique understanding of congressional politics gained in his long apprenticeship was vital for these maneuvers. As he said on his first address to Congress as president, “For 32 years, Capitol Hill has been my home.”

Legislative Progress

Johnson wanted Congress to adopt his legislation, for passing laws seemed to him, a man who had spent nearly all his political life as a legislator, to demonstrate definite progress in a way that nothing else would. Within three months of his assumption of office the new president had the satisfaction of seeing the civil rights bill pass the House and the tax cut bill get through the Senate. Other key measures were moving along through previously recalcitrant committees. In February he asked for two further measures: a law to protect consumers from unsafe products and deceptive packaging; and a program known as Medicare, an extensive scheme for hospital and nursing-home care for the elderly through social security (see Medicare and Medicaid). In March and April 1964 he sent special messages detailing his antipoverty proposals. The president’s greatest legislative triumph was the passage on June 19 of a sweeping civil rights bill outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations and by employers, unions, and voting registrars. Earlier the House had passed the tax cut bill by a decisive margin. The government would receive about $11.5 billion less in revenue, but proponents argued that because individual citizens would stimulate business by spending more money, tax revenues would eventually increase as the size of the economy increased.

Other major parts of the Johnson program were enacted by the second session of the 88th Congress. Many of these measures were passed with help from the Republicans, and it appeared that the 25-year legislative logjam had at last been broken.

The 1964 Campaign

That the Democratic Party would nominate Johnson for president in 1964 was never in doubt, in spite of signs of support for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and of a substantial protest vote cast in the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland primaries for the governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Wallace believed that the federal government should not intervene in the affairs of the individual states, particularly not to change the states’ segregation policies, which were designed to separate black and white people. Johnson supporters controlled all delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, except those of a few Southern states. The only excitement provided by the president came in the way he announced his choice of a running mate. On July 30 Johnson said “ … it would be inadvisable for me to recommend to the convention any member of my Cabinet or any of those who meet regularly with the Cabinet.” He thereupon specifically mentioned six of those thereby eliminated, notably Attorney General Kennedy and Adlai E. Stevenson, ambassador to the United Nations. At the convention late in August, Johnson introduced his choice for vice president, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who was nominated by acclamation.

Much of the burden of the actual campaigning fell on Humphrey, who had entered the Senate with Johnson in 1949 and had risen to the position of majority whip. Humphrey had built the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of his state and served as mayor of Minneapolis. He had attracted national attention when he convinced the 1948 Democratic National Convention to take a strong stand in favor of civil rights. He was a magnetic, highly energetic person, an expert in debate, as well as in campaign oratory, and a great favorite of Northern liberals. He was also a close personal friend of the president. Each man had had a considerable measure of success in winning over his own associates to friendship for the other.

The Politics of Consensus

It is not surprising that Johnson, a veteran of single-party election campaigning, should have run in 1964 as what might be termed a consensus candidate, a candidate who appealed to a large majority of the population. Like his idol, Franklin Roosevelt, he yearned to be “president of all the people.” Even Humphrey, who was used to the cut and thrust of the intense two-party politics of Minnesota, became something of a consensus politician before the 1964 campaign was over. The character of their opponents on the Republican ticket, Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona and Congressman William Miller of New York, was responsible in part for the kind of campaign the Democrats waged. Democratic slogans were generalities like “Prosperity,” “Unity,” and “Peace.” Moreover, it was able to point with pride to the legislative record of Congress and with sorrow to the tragic loss of the young president who had pledged to attempt so much. Johnson was at the center of the campaign, directing it with his usual vigor and close attention to detail, concentrating on independent and Republican voters.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were floundering. Goldwater, as an experienced party fund-raising speaker and three-time head of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, was accustomed to addressing the party faithful. He had long known that most of these devout Republican workers shared his own conservative views: his doubts about the United Nations, social security, and the federal income tax. From the time of the February primary in New Hampshire, which he lost, to the June primary in California, which he won, Goldwater continued to express these conservative views. At the Republican National Convention more moderate or pragmatic Republicans had been unable to prevent Goldwater’s nomination. These Republican challengers had accused Goldwater of being too extreme in his policy recommendations. In his acceptance speech at the convention, Goldwater indicated that he was going to carry on a campaign that would give the voters, in the words of a current slogan, “a choice, not an echo.” He also said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! … Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Thus, he defied those in his own party who wanted to base the campaign on more moderate policy positions that they believed would appeal to most voters.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the election of Johnson over Goldwater was almost unavoidable. Even so, Johnson made heroic efforts to win by as wide a margin as possible. Leading Republicans were courted and some of them won over. By the end of the campaign only four major newspapers, the Chicago Tribune, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Los Angeles Times, and the Oakland Tribune supported Goldwater. Senator Humphrey’s whirlwind campaign portrayed Goldwater as an enemy of social legislation and as a trigger-happy militarist. Humphrey emphasized Goldwater’s votes against the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson, meanwhile, campaigned as “President of All the People.” As the journalist Theodore White put it, “Never were Republicans denounced as such; the opposition was involved in its own civil war, and the president obeyed Napoleon’s maxim: ‘Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.’”

The result was an enormous landslide. The greatest popular-vote margin ever won in modern U.S. history, 61 percent, went to Johnson. Goldwater carried only five states of the South and his own Arizona. Vermont voted for a Democratic candidate for president for the first time since the Republican Party came into being, and by a margin of two to one. Democrats increased their membership in the Senate from 66 to 68 and in the House from 259 to 295. A number of promising Republican candidates went down to defeat, despite the efforts of some of them to avoid being tabbed extremists. The day following the elections found the Republican Party in a sad state of disarray.

The Great Society


Johnson’s domestic program for his own term, as he apparently liked to think of it, was built around the concept of the Great Society. He had used this expression from time to time, but he had not emphasized it until he gave a speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. In this address, which preceded the party conventions, Johnson described his plans to solve pressing problems: “We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.” Soon afterward he told reporters, “I’m going to get the best minds in the country to work for me.”

Almost immediately 14 separate task forces began thoroughly studying nearly all major aspects of United States society, each working without publicity while it did its job. Presidential assistants Bill Moyers and Richard N. Goodwin helped create these groups, drawing on the expertise of other government officials in selecting the members. During June the task forces were recruited. The average membership was nine, and particular care was taken to include governmental experts, as well as academicians. Each task force was assigned a particular subject: cooperation among government agencies in dealing with financial questions; making the federal government more efficient and less costly; developing policies to prevent economic recessions; developing policies on economic issues related to other countries; and determining how best to help individuals maintain their income. It is notable that only one of these task forces dealt with foreign policy. Many of Kennedy’s committees had dealt with foreign affairs, and he had encountered political problems when their proposals were leaked to the press.

The task-force reports, drawn up separately, were turned in to the White House. Moyers then circulated them to the agencies concerned and set up a new group of committees of government officials to evaluate the various recommendations. Experts on relations with Congress were also drawn into the deliberations to get the best advice on persuading the Congress to pass the legislation. Finally, the president went over the refined recommendations at his ranch with Moyers and Budget Director Kermit Gordon. Many specific proposals were included in brief form in Johnson’s State of the Union address delivered on January 7, 1965.

A number of these proposals became laws. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was the first broad federal aid given to education in U.S. history, allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs. The Higher Education Act that same year increased federal money given to universities and created scholarships and low-interest loans for students. The Medical Care Act of 1965 authorized a program, called Medicare, that covered most hospital and nursing costs, as well as another plan to help with the medical expenses of the needy regardless of age. The so-called Model Cities Act of 1966 approved $1.2 billion to improve housing, recreation areas, health, and education in economically depressed areas of cities across the country. In addition, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to assure minority registration and voting. The law suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep blacks off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. Some of the credit for the success of Johnson’s domestic programs must be given to the secret task forces, although most must go to the virtually tireless president, one of the few true masters of congressional politics ever to occupy the White House.

Foreign Affairs

Lyndon Johnson was an unabashed patriot, a fervent advocate of military preparedness, and a firm supporter of the foreign commitments of the United States. On November 27, 1963, in his first address to Congress as president, he pledged: “This nation will keep its commitments from South Vietnam to West Berlin. We will be unceasing in the search for peace; resourceful in our pursuit of areas of agreement, even with those with whom we differ; and generous and loyal to those who join with us in common cause.”

European Policy

Johnson’s European policy was essentially a continuation of Kennedy’s policy. Warm friendship with Great Britain and its prime ministers was balanced by coolness toward France and its enigmatic president, Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had refused to sign the Test Ban Treaty; insisted on keeping Great Britain out of the European Common Market, an organization of European nations to promote economic cooperation (see European Union); demanded the removal from French soil of the elaborate and expensive facilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), thus, in effect, taking France out of that organization; and criticized U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Johnson was clearly not very fond of de Gaulle and his policies, but he reacted calmly to them, perhaps because he was not certain that de Gaulle needed to be taken very seriously.

Relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)

High on Johnson’s foreign policy priorities were his efforts to improve relations between the United States and the USSR. He increased the trade, cultural, and economic exchange programs that had been started during the Kennedy administration, and in 1968 direct passenger flights began between Moscow and New York City.

Johnson’s efforts were moderately successful. In the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which the USSR supported the Arab countries and the United States supported Israel, a potentially destructive situation was avoided by the careful diplomacy exercised by both the Johnson administration and the Soviets. In a situation that could have triggered a much larger war, the leaders of the two great powers were able to come to a mutual understanding that, in effect, banked the fires in the Middle East, at least temporarily (see Six-Day War). Less than a month after the crisis, in fact, relations between the two countries were such that Johnson and Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin were able to meet at a summit conference held at Glassboro, New Jersey. Although no specific agreements were made at that meeting, both leaders stated that they considered it a success and that it had contributed to better relations between the USSR and the United States.

Other important agreements that the Johnson administration made with the USSR include the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, agreed upon in 1968; a treaty, signed in 1967, whereby the parties agreed to ban nuclear weapons from outer space; and an agreement by the two countries to assist and repatriate any astronauts who might land by accident on the other country’s territory.

Near the end of the Johnson administration, relations between the two countries cooled somewhat as the result of the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and four of its Warsaw Pact allies.

Caribbean Crises

Johnson was vitally concerned with the Caribbean area, and he relied on an old Texas friend, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas C. Mann, for advice about the region. The first Caribbean crisis occurred in the Panama Canal Zone in January 1964. American officials had agreed to fly the Panamanian flag in places within the Canal Zone, as a gesture toward Panamanian nationalism. When U.S. students at a high school refused to fly Panama’s flag, Panamanian students marched to the school and a confrontation took place. Riots then broke out, in which U.S. soldiers fired on protestors. In response, Panama broke diplomatic relations with the United States and protested to the United Nations Security Council and the Organization of American States (OAS). Within a few hours a truce was worked out, but it was many months before good feeling was restored. In September 1965 Johnson announced that the two countries had agreed in principle to renegotiate the 1903 treaty that had established the Canal Zone. The new treaty would, at least, provide for integration of the area into Panama, with joint operation of the canal.

The other major Caribbean crisis in the early years of the Johnson administration occurred in the Dominican Republic. In April 1965 supporters of the exiled president Juan Bosch attempted to take over the government. Although businessleaders and landholders disliked his reforms, Bosch had won an overwhelming victory in his country’s first free election. He had been ousted in 1963 by the military, who resisted the effort to restore Bosch, and civil war followed. Johnson, apparently decided that the coup was Communist-inspired, and after announcing that there would be “no more Castros” (referring to the Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro) ordered U.S. Marines to the Dominican Republic. An OAS commission worked out a truce in May, and a peace force containing U.S. troops remained in the republic. In June 1966 new elections resulted in the defeat of Bosch by Joaquín Balaguer, who did not favor reform. Many believed that Johnson had overreacted in 1965 and that the use of U.S. troops would be harmful to U.S. relations with all of Latin America. By 1968, however, the Balaguer government had established a minimum level of stability.

The Vietnam War

It was in Southeast Asia that Johnson ran into his greatest difficulties. The Vietnam War, a military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975, had begun when Communist-led nationalists rose in opposition to the government of South Vietnam. They sought the reunification of Vietnam, which had been temporarily divided in 1954 by the Geneva Accords. These nationalists formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was supported by the Communist government of North Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a conflict involving other nations in Southeast Asia. Unlike conventional wars, the war in Vietnam had no defined front lines. Much of it consisted of hit-and-run attacks, with the NLF guerrilla fighters striking at government outposts and retreating into the jungle.

Johnson had inherited a pledge from the Eisenhower administration that the United States would not permit South Vietnam to fall to the Communists. He had also inherited a commitment of several thousand U.S. “advisers” in South Vietnam from the Kennedy administration.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

In 1964 Johnson reported that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin and asked Congress for a resolution to increase U.S. military involvement. The measure was passed by both houses. In February 1965 U.S. planes began regular bombing raids over North Vietnam. Johnson stopped the bombing in May to support peace talks, but when North Vietnam rejected all negotiations, the bombings were resumed. U.S. troop strength continued to increase in South Vietnam. On March 6, 1965, a brigade of American marines landed at Ðà Nang, and by year’s end U.S. combat strength was nearly 200,000.

While continuing the military buildup in Vietnam, Johnson made another attempt to end the war. In December 1965 he again halted the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to achieve a peaceful settlement. Again negotiations failed, and the raids were resumed. In June 1966 U.S. planes began bombing targets near Hanoi, the capitol of North Vietnam, and the neighboring port of Haiphong, both of which had previously been spared.

In October 1966 representatives from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines—which all had troops in South Vietnam—met in Manila and promised to withdraw within six months if North Vietnam abandoned the war. The offer was rejected by North Vietnam. In June 1967, when Johnson met with Soviet Premier Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, he unsuccessfully sought Kosygin’s help in bringing North Vietnam to the peace table.

The war continued, and casualty figures rose. In November 1967 the Defense Department announced that total U.S. casualties in Vietnam since the beginning of 1961 had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. With the mounting toll sentiment grew within the United States for an end to the war, the cost of which, apart from the loss of life, was estimated by the president at $25 billion per year. A peace movement developed and gathered momentum, and marches were organized against the war in major U.S. cities (see Pacifism).

The Tet Offensive

In December 1967 Johnson visited foreign capitals in search of support for his war policies, announcing “The enemy cannot win, now, in Vietnam.” A month later, however, the NLFlaunched the Tet Offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese targets that almost cut South Vietnam in half. Despite its psychological effect, the campaign failed, and the Communist forces were driven back from most of the positions they had gained, having lost 85,000 of their best troops.

In spite of this U.S. victory, however, by the early spring of 1968 much of the American public had concluded that the war was unwinnable. Repeated predictions of victory from U.S. generals and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had proved wrong, and as the U.S. commitment grew, so did opposition to the war and to Johnson personally. By 1967 Johnson began avoiding public appearances because of demonstrations and threats to his life.

The Decision to Retire


As criticism of the Vietnam War reached its height, one of the most vocal of the Vietnam critics, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, announced that he could not support the president for reelection and entered the race for the Democratic nomination. After McCarthy made a strong showing in the March 1968 New Hampshire primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York also entered the race (see United States of America: The Vietnam War Period).

Virtually every political observer believed that Johnson would run for a second full term, and most believed that, despite the opposition to the war and his poor showing in the polls, he would have little difficulty in gaining the Democratic nomination. Therefore, it came as a shock to the nation when the president announced on March 31 that he was going to devote his full efforts to trying to end the war and that, consequently, he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination for another term. In the same speech, he announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam as a gesture aimed at getting peace talks started with the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam responded to the gesture, and, after preliminary negotiations, peace talks began several weeks later in Paris.

It was widely assumed that Johnson’s preference for his successor was Vice President Humphrey, although Johnson made no formal statement of support. The assassination of Senator Kennedy in June threw the contest for the nomination into a complete turmoil. Despite the closeness of the views of Senators McCarthy and Kennedy, McCarthy was not able to obtain the late senator’s base of support. The Democratic National Convention was held in August in Chicago, which was the scene of widespread demonstrations by critics of the war, mostly young people, and of bloody clashes between them and the Chicago police. After narrowly approving a platform plank that defended Johnson’s Vietnam policies, the convention went on to nominate Humphrey on the first ballot.

Although Johnson endorsed Humphrey, he did not actively participate in the 1968 election. Humphrey lost the election to Republican Richard M. Nixon by a narrow margin. After Nixon’s inauguration, Johnson returned to his Texas ranch to write his presidential memoirs, published in 1971 as The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, on the University of Texas campus, was dedicated in May 1971. Johnson died in 1973 and was buried at the LBJ Ranch, in Johnson City, Texas.