The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Lyndon Baines Johnson
1908 - 1973

As the thirty-sixth president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson created new programs in health, education, human rights, and conservation and attacked the crushing 20th-century problems of urban blight and poverty with what he called the "War on Poverty."


Most commentators account Lyndon Johnson as one of America's most experienced and politically skilled presidents. He sponsored a flood of new legislation designed to better the quality of life among the disadvantaged and the dispossessed of the nation. In foreign policy he set about to strengthen regional arrangements of power so that new and small nations might develop their own form of political society without fear of intrusion from their more powerful neighbours. He inherited an American commitment in South Vietnam, and his determination to preserve the independence of that beleaguered country led to virulent attacks and, finally, his momentous decision not to seek reelection.

Lyndon Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, near Johnson City, Texas, the small community founded by his forebears. Life was hard and plain in the Texas hill country at this time. Johnson's father struggled to raise his two sons and three daughters. His mother was a gentle woman, who encouraged her children to love books and gave them a sense of duty and responsibility. Johnson graduated from Southwest State Teachers College in San Marcos, Tex., with a bachelor of science degree, having combined his studies with a job teaching Mexican-American children.

Johnson's early teaching assignments were at Pearsall, Tex., and in the Houston high schools. In 1931, politics beckoned. He went to Washington, D.C., as secretary to Texas congressman Richard Kleberg. Almost immediately Johnson's talent for attracting affection and respect became visible. He was elected Speaker of the "Little Congress," an assembly of congressional secretaries on Capitol Hill.

On Nov. 17, 1934, an event occurred which Johnson always described as the most notable triumph of his life: he married Claudia (Lady Bird) Taylor of Karnak, Texas. She became his partner, confidant, and counselor, and from her, Johnson drew strength and love and reserves of support that never faltered.

Johnson's ultimate destiny was beginning to take shape. At age 27, he was already exhibiting his characteristic traits of energy, intellect, and tenacity when he resigned as a congressional secretary in 1935 to become the Texas director of the National Youth Administration. The origins of the later Johnson can be located in his conduct of this office; he surrounded himself with bright, young men and invested his duties with a 24-hour torrent of activity.

Rising through Congress

In 1937, the congressman from Texas's Tenth District died suddenly. When a special election was called to select a successor, Johnson hesitated only slightly. His wife provided campaign funds from her inheritance, and Johnson leaped into a race crowded with eight opponents. The only candidate to support President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan, he did so with such vigor that the eyes of the nation were drawn to the outcome, and none watched it with more intensity than Roosevelt himself. To the amazement of political veterans, the 28-year-old Johnson won the race.

President Roosevelt, in Texas on a fishing trip, was so elated that he invited Johnson to accompany him back to Washington, D.C. Thus, Johnson became his personal protégé. With the aid of the powerful House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and the continuing support of the President, Johnson was brought into the councils of ruling establishmentarians of the House of Representatives.

In 1941, Johnson entered another special election, this time for a Senate seat made vacant by a death. Texans were surprised by the campaign he launched by helicopter. Nearly every community watched the tall, smiling Johnson alight from his helicopter. In a bitter campaign Johnson lost by 1,311 votes to that bizarre political phenomenon Governor W. Lee ("Pass the Biscuits Pappy") O'Daniel.

There was little time for Johnson to lick his wounds. That December he became the first member of Congress to enter active military duty. He joined the Navy and in 1942 received the Silver Star for gallantry in a bombing mission over New Guinea. When President Roosevelt ordered all congressmen back to the capital in 1942, Johnson reentered the House.

In 1948, Johnson's restless quest for higher office was finally successful. In a savagely fought senatorial campaign, he defeated a former governor of Texas by a celebrated margin of 87 votes. The elders of the Senate soon recognized that Johnson was no ordinary rookie senator. He did his homework, was knowledgable on every item that confronted the Senate, and was in instant command of all the nuances and subtleties of every important piece of legislation.

In January 1951, just 3 years into his first term, Johnson was elevated to Democratic "whip" (assistant minority leader). Regarding his age and tenure, no similar selection had ever been made in the history of the Senate. In 1953, when the post of minority leader in the Senate opened up Democratic senators without hesitation chose Johnson to take charge. With the congressional elections of 1954, the Democrats took command of both houses. And with this new alignment, Johnson again set a record as the youngest man ever to become majority leader.

The Johnson legend of leadership now became visible to the nation. Not since the early days of the republic had one man assumed such clear direction over the course and affairs of the Senate. Operating his office around the clock, intimately aware of all that transpired, and firmly fixed in his intent and design, Johnson was the "complete Senate leader." Now one voice spoke for the Democrats, as Johnson became the "second most powerful man in Washington, D.C."

The habits of work and discipline that would later confound the nation when Johnson became president were now on display in the Senate chamber. He handled the Senate with confidence and skill. The Republican opposition found it impossible to outflank this majority leader; legislation opposed by Johnson rarely found acceptance by the Senate. He encouraged new, young senators and found coveted spots for them on important committees.

Johnson led the first civil rights bill in 82 years through the Senate. He guided to final victory the first space legislation in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. In 1958, designated by President Dwight Eisenhower to represent the United States at the United Nations, he presented the resolution calling for the peaceful exploration of outer space. He exposed wastes in defense procurement during the Korean War and conducted defense hearings that were a model of accuracy and dispassionate scrutiny.

In 1960, Johnson briefly opposed John F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination; then Kennedy electrified the country by choosing Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate. While some Kennedy supporters grumbled, experts later agreed that Johnson's relentless campaigning in Texas and throughout the South had provided Kennedy with his winning margin.

Serving as Vice President

As vice-president, Johnson had important assignments. One of his principal tasks was the burgeoning space program, which was overshadowed by Russian triumphs with Sputnik and subsequent innovations that put the United States in an inferior role. Regarding civil rights, as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity forces, Johnson surprised many critics by putting uncompromising pressure on American industry. At the President's request, he made fact-finding trips to Berlin and to the Far East.

On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Aboard the plane Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Johnson took the presidential oath of office on November 23. Giving orders to take off seconds later, the new president flew back to Washington to take command of the government, while the nation grieved for its fallen leader.

Filling the Presidency

Five days after taking office, President Johnson appeared before a joint session of the Congress. Speaking with firmness and controlled passion, he pledged "we shall continue." Important legislation submitted by President Kennedy to the Congress, currently bottled up and seemingly stymied in various committees of both houses, was met by Johnson's deliberate and concentrated action. The new president - meeting round the clock with staff, Cabinet, and congressmen - unbuckled key legislation, so that within a few short months the tax cut and the civil rights bills were passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Six months after assuming the presidency, Johnson announced his concept of the "Great Society." The areas he considered vital were health and education; the whole complex of the urban society, with its accompanying ills of ghettos, pollution, housing, and transportation; civil rights; and conservation.

Johnson took his innovative domestic programs to the nation in the election of 1964. Meanwhile, the American involvement in Vietnam, sanctioned by three presidents, became an issue. Senator Barry Goldwater chastised Johnson for his liberal approach to domestic problems and suggested a massive step-up in the bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson traversed the nation and convinced it that his leadership was of such caliber that the voters could not afford to drive him from office. He won by a margin of almost 16 million votes, more than 61 percent of the total vote, the widest margin in totals and percentage of any presidential election in American history.

Administration Achievements

Barely pausing, the President, reinforced by this clear mandate, began a legislative program which was rivaled in scope and form only by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal a generation earlier. Between 1965 and 1968 more than 207 landmark bills were passed by the Congress.

In education, Johnson's administration tripled expenditures. By the end of 1968, 1.5 million students were receiving Federal aid to help them gain their college degrees; over 10 million people learned new skills through vocational education; and 19,000 school districts received special help under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. More than 600,000 disabled citizens were trained through vocational rehabilitation programs. Head Start and other pre-school programs brought specific assistance to more than 2 million children.

In the area of health, Johnson's administration increased Federal expenditures from $4 billion to $14 billion in 4 years. More than 20 million Americans were covered by Medicare, and more than 7 million received its benefits. About 31 million children were vaccinated against four severe diseases, reducing by 50 percent the number of children who suffered from these diseases, and more than 3 million children received health care under Medicaid in one year. Some 286 community mental health centers were built. More than 390,000 mothers and 680,000 infants received care through the Maternal and Child Health programs. Some 460,000 handicapped children were treated under the Crippled Children's Program.

Fighting poverty, the Johnson administration lifted more than 6,000,000 Americans out of the poverty depths. Over 100,000 young men and women completed Job Corps training; 2.2 million needy Americans were helped under the Food Stamp Program; school children benefited from the School Milk and School Lunch programs.

In the area of human and civil rights, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and within 3 years nearly 1 million Negroes registered to vote in the South. More than 98 percent of all the nation's hospitals agreed to provide services without discrimination. More than 28 percent of all Negro families by 1968 earned about $7,000 a year, doubling the 1960 figure. Some 35 percent more Negroes found professional, technical, and managerial jobs between 1964 and 1968.

In housing, in 4 years the Johnson administration generated the construction of 5.5 million new homes. Direct Federal expenditures for housing and community development increased from $635 million to nearly $3 billion. Two million families received Federal Housing Administration improvement loans. Federal assistance provided housing for 215,000 families earning less than $7,000 a year. Nearly $427 million was spent for water and sewage facilities in small towns. More than 3.5 million rural citizens benefited from economic opportunity loans, farm operation and emergency loans, and watershed and rural housing loans.

Most importantly, the Johnson administration presided over the longest upward curve of prosperity in the history of the nation. More than 85 months of unrivaled economic growth marked this as the strongest era of national prosperity. The average weekly wage of factory workers rose 18 percent in 4 years. Over 9 million additional workers were brought under minimum-wage protection. Total employment, increased by 7.5 million workers, added up to 75 million; the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in more than a decade.

In foreign affairs, where risk and confrontation stretched a perilous tightrope throughout the Johnson years, the President made significant achievements. In the Western Hemisphere, at Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Latin American nations agreed to a common market for the continent. Normal relations with Panama were restored and a new canal treaty negotiated. In Cyprus, at the brink of war, the President's special emissaries knitted a settlement that staved off conflict. A rebellion in the Congo, which would have had ugly repercussions throughout the continent, was put down with American aid in the form of transport planes. In the Dominican Republic, an incipient Communist threat was challenged by an overwhelming show of American force, with Latin American allies. Amid tangled criticism from sections of the press and some Latin American nations, the President persevered in the Dominican Republic, where democratic government and free elections were restored and U.S. troops promptly withdrawn.

An outer-space treaty was negotiated with the Soviet Union and a nuclear nonproliferation treaty was formulated and agreed to in Geneva. In June 1967 the President met with Premier Alexei Kosygin of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was successfully realigned after France withdrew, and the vast Western European alliance was restructured and strengthened.

It was the troubled Southeast Asian problem in South Vietnam to which Johnson devoted long, tormented hours. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had declared that the security of the United States was involved in deterring aggression in South Vietnam from an intruding Communist government from the North. However, there was much disagreement in the United States over this venture; some critics claimed the Vietnam war was a civil one, an insurrection, and not an invasion. When Johnson first became chief executive, 16,000 American troops were in Vietnam as advisers and combat instructors. In 1965 the United States decided to increase its military support of South Vietnam and authorized commitment of more American troops. By 1968 there was considerable disaffection over the Asian policy, and many critics in and out of the Congress determined to force the Johnson administration to shrink its commitment and withdraw U.S. troops.

Beginning in April 1965 with the President's speech at Johns Hopkins University, in which he set forth the American policy of reconstruction of the area and the promulgation of the Asian Development Bank as an instrument of peace building, the Johnson administration attempted to negotiate with a seemingly intransigent North Vietnam, whose troops were infiltrating into the South in increasing numbers. A 37-day bombing pause in December 1965 raised hopes for negotiation, but lack of response from the North Vietnamese blotted this out, and the bombing resumed.

Assaulted by fierce and growing criticism, yet determined to fix some course of action which would diminish the war and commence serious peace talks, the President startled the nation and the world on March 31, 1968, by renouncing his claim to renomination for the presidency. Johnson said that he believed that the necessity for finding a structure of peaceful negotiation was so important that even his own political fortunes must not be allowed to stand in its way. Therefore, he stated, he would not seek renomination, so he could spend the rest of his days in the presidency searching for negotiation without any political taint marring a possible response from the enemy.

On May 11, 1968, it was announced that peace talks would indeed begin in Paris, and in November 1968 the President declared that all bombing of North Vietnam would cease.

Johnson retired to his ranch near San Antonio, Texas, where he took a keen interest in the care and sale of his cattle, while nursing a serious heart ailment.

The tragic Vietnam War was in its last days in January, 1973 when a period of mourning was declared to mark the death of President Harry S Truman. Shortly after it began, it also marked the death of Lyndon B. Johnson.

On the afternoon of January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a heart attack while lying down to take a nap. He was flown to a hospital by his Secret Service agents, but was pronounced dead on arrival at 4:33 pm. His body lay in state first at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, then, as is usual for American presidents, in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. until his burial on his beloved ranch.

Johnson's Influence

While historians search the record and evaluate its significance, there seems little doubt that Lyndon Johnson's impress on the form and quality of life in the United States will be seen to be large. In the fields of health, education, civil rights, conservation, and the problem of the elderly, his legislative achievements have left their clear mark. His insistence that the pledges of the four preceding presidents be upheld in Southeast Asia is a subject for debate. But it must be argued that his peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, in the Near East, in Africa, and in Latin America were forceful, remedial, and worthy of praise; the results have proved his policies' merits.

Johnson belongs in the tradition of the "strong president" he dominated the government with his energy and personality and invested his office with intimate knowledge of all government business. He was the target of intense and sometimes virulent criticism, just as all strong American presidents have found themselves ceaselessly and bitterly attacked.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008