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