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Lyndon Baines Johnson (I)

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Russell Baker of the New York Times described Lyndon Johnson as “a human puzzle so complicated nobody could ever understand it”-a “storm of human instincts: sinner and saint, buffoon and statesman, cynic and sentimentalist, a man torn between hungers for immortality and self-destruction.” Born in 1908 to a strong-willed mother and a father who earned a reputation for integrity in the backroom world of Texas politics, Johnson was educated at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, in San Marcos, Texas. He enjoyed a meteoric rise in politics, winning election to the House of Representatives in 1937 and then to the U.S. Senate in 1948. During his twelve years in the upper chamber, he redefined the position of Senate majority leader. Johnson’s skill in managing Congress played a key role in establishing him as President in his own right. But Johnson assumed office in the midst of the Cold War, a time when the President’s ability to function as commander-in-chief mattered more than his won-and-loss record in legislative affairs. Despite his subsequent performance, Johnson entered the White House sporting a long and capable record in foreign affairs, dating from his service on the House Military Affairs Committee. In the Senate, Johnson’s successful cultivation of Richard Russell earned the freshman senator a slot on the coveted Senate Armed Services Committee. From that position, Johnson chaired two high-profile investigations: of military preparedness during the Korean War and of the U.S. space program following the Soviet launch of Sputnik. At the same time, as majority leader, the Texas senator established a precedent of cooperation with Dwight Eisenhower that maintained the structure of congressional input into foreign policy decisions while respecting presidential authority.

After taking over as chief executive following the assassination of President John Kennedy, Johnson promised to continue his predecessor’s policies in international affairs. But that proved almost impossible to do, since Kennedy’s policies were very much in flux in the fall of 1963. On the one hand, Kennedy had embraced a more hard-line anti-Communist approach in his handling of Latin American and Southeast Asian issues. On the other hand, Kennedy’s American University address seemed to envision an international environment that had moved beyond the Cold War. Johnson himself initially embraced a foreign policy much closer to the former approach than the latter. Throughout 1964, he gradually escalated the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam. In Latin America, he turned matters over to Thomas Mann, who, in the spring of 1964, announced a broad shift in priorities regarding inter-American relations, calling for the United States to focus on anti-communism and protecting U.S. economic interests as the central goals of its hemispheric policy, with a corresponding deemphasis on promoting internal social reform or representative democratic institutions in Latin America. Moreover, Johnson tended to rely for advice on figures in Congress, especially Senator Richard Russell, whose position as chair of the Armed Services Committee made him Congress’s most powerful player on national security matters. Russell combined a consistent support for increased defense spending with an enthusiastic embrace of the Cold War agenda.

Johnson’s foreign policy, of course, remains best known for his handling of the Vietnam War. Throughout his presidency, he remained faithful to one basic goal: doing the minimum possible to ensure that South Vietnam did not become a Communist state. Unfortunately for the President, the “minimum possible” grew to dangerous extremes-U.S. troop totals, around 16,000 when Johnson entered the White House, peaked at 532,000 in early 1968. Johnson’s policies brought the United States no closer to victory in Vietnam, but badly divided the liberal movement at home, paving the way for his decision not to run for reelection in 1968.

Research by Kathleen Johnson
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Sources:

Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (New York: Knopf, 2002).

Fite, Gilbert. Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.)

Kunz, Diane, ed., The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations during the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Logevall, Fred. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Mann, Robert. The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1996).

White, William S. Citadel, the Story of the U.S. Senate (New York: Harper, 1957).

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Lyndon Baines Johnson (II)

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Lynden Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was born in central Texas on August 27, 1908, not far from Johnson City. It was in Texas that Johnson first felt the pain of poverty, both as a child growing up in rural central Texas and as a young man working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College. It was in Texas, also, where Johnson learned compassion for others while teaching impoverished children of Mexican decent.

In 1937, however, Johnson, along with his wife of three years Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, left Texas to serve as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Johnson’s political career was, however, interrupted by the stirring of war. During the Second World War, Johnson served honorably as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, winning the Silver Star for his actions in the South Pacific. However, Johnson did not intend to make the Navy his career. With the end of the war in 1945 Johnson, like the rest of America, tried to return life to normalcy: for Johnson that meant Washington DC. In 1948, Johnson successfully ran for the United States Senate; five years later, in 1953, he would become the youngest person to hold the position of Minority Leader of the Senate in history; the year after that, when Democrats had won control of the Senate, he would become the youngest person to ever hold the position of Majority Leader in the Senate.

Because of his exceptional political skills and his ability to lead the Senate, Johnson was selected as John F. Kennedy’s running mate in the 1960 election. After President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, John son was sworn in as the thirty-sixth President of the United States of American aboard Air Force One. While he finished President Kennedy’s term, Johnson made it a point to push Kennedy’s agenda, including a new civil rights act and a tax cut.

In 1964, Johnson ran for President against Adele Stevens in what turned out to be one of the greatest landslide elections in American history. With sixty-one (61) percent of the vote and a popular margin of fifteen million (15,000,000) votes Johnson was given a clear and unmistakable mandate from the people; during this term, however, Johnson would push his own agenda.

Introduced to congress in January of 1964, Johnson’s “Great Society” program came to define not only his second term, but his Presidency and his entire political career as well. The Great Society program included aid for education, an attack on disease, Medicare, urban renewal of the nations neglected inner-cities, beautification (especially along America’s highways, a program lead by his wife Lady Bird), conservation of the nations resources, development of depressed regions, a wide-scale fight against poverty, control and prevention of crime and delinquency, and the removal of obstacles to the right to vote. The accomplishments of Johnson’s Great Society Program have, however, been overshadowed by two self-perpetuating debacles that during Johnson’s term in office emerged to forefront of the American political spectrum and on to the lips of every American.

Despite, or maybe because of, the vast improvements in America’s policy towards poverty and discrimination the continuing strife between America’s ethnic races exploded into mass rioting and violence throughout the nation. During Johnson’s administration cities burned, people disappeared, and major political figures of the civil rights movement were assassinated.

The other overriding development of Johnson’s presidency was the intensification of the conflict in Viet Nam. In an attempt halt communist aggression in the area, and around the world, Johnson committed hundreds of thousands of American troops to protect the sovereignty of South Viet Nam and to fight to a lasting, meaningful, and peaceful settlement to the dispute. The escalation of the American presence in Viet Nam, however, had the effect of intensifying the anti-war movement within the nation as America’s death toll began to rise. The President Johnson and his administration, however, would never see an end to the conflict in Viet Nam; in 1968, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election for President. In January 1969 he turned over the presidency to Richard Nixon in the midst of continuing civil unrest and an escalating conflict in Viet Nam. On January 22, 1973, with the conflict in Viet Nam still unsettled, Lynden Banes Johnson died at his Texas ranch of a heart attack at the age of sixty-four (64).

By Daniel L. Gordon
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Sources:

www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/lj36.html

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