The Legacy of Lyndon Johnson

Dean Rusk, Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara in Cabinet Room meeting, February, 1968 (Public Domain)

By Ryan Hamilton

March 31st marked the 50th anniversary of the symbolic end of one of the longest and most fascinating careers in American history–that of Lyndon Johnson. On March 31st 1968, in a televised address that shocked his country, he announced he would not seek re-election in 1968. Despite his best efforts and his noble intentions, he left behind a country that seemed on the verge of tearing itself apart, with American troops dying overseas, American cities burning and American icons falling to assassins.

His presidency was book-ended by tragedy, but in the middle were some magnificent victories, victories that were drowned in the blood of Vietnam. He life exemplified the quote of his successor Richard Nixon: “only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be at the highest mountain.”

Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant and complex man who changed America. In addition to everything he left behind, his legacy teaches us about the complexities of history, for if Lyndon Johnson was anything, he was a man who defied labels with a passion: the poor kid who became President, the Southern who embraced civil rights, the powerful majority leader who became a powerless vice-president. But perhaps he has escaped no labels better than the labels of good or bad.

Lyndon Johnson grew up poor in rural Texas. After time in the House of Representatives, he won the 1948 Senate election, an election with significant evidence of fraud (It’s worth noting that Johnson lost a Senate race in 1941 after his opponent stuffed more ballot boxes than him). Johnson’s time in the Senate was remarkable. He made valuable alliances with powerful senators, such as Richard Russell, the Southern Democratic Leader, and fought the seniority system, the old method of gaining power in the Senate. After being elected Democratic Leader in 1952, he assumed the powerless post of Majority Leader in 1954, an extremely fast rise, and, using his unmatched political mind and ambition, took the power from senior senators who’d always had it and made the office of Senate Majority Leader powerful and enviable. The Senate was an ancient body that resisted change to itself and the country. Lyndon Johnson changed the Senate.

Lyndon Johnson had a mixed record on civil rights. A large source of his power in the Senate were southern senators who were opposed to civil rights. He supported them and opposed civil rights for years. Johnson’s personal perspective was shaped by his own upbringing in poverty and his experiences as a teacher in poor parts of Texas. He had a desire to help, but it was a desire he hid until 1957. Then, he seized the moment and did something that no one had managed to do since the aftermath of the Civil War: pass a civil rights bill. It was a weak compromise, but it was something that others had tried and failed to do. Johnson passed it.

Johnson ran for President in 1960, but he hamstrung his own campaign after a fear of rejection caused him to delay the start. He lost the Democratic nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy. Kennedy offered him the Vice Presidential nomination, knowing that Johnson’s popularity in the south would be vital for victory, and he accepted it, but only after an attempt by Kennedy’s brother Bobby to talk him out of it. That was one of the starting incidents for their long rivalry. Kennedy beat Vice President Nixon for the Presidency and Johnson was sworn in as Vice President on January 20, 1961 by Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a long-time mentor and friend.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson was miserable. As Majority Leader, he was one of the most powerful men in the country. As Vice President, he was powerless. He believed he could reshape the Vice Presidency, a belief exemplified by his phrase, “power is where power goes.” He was wrong. The power of the Vice President comes from his role as an advisor to the President. Therefore, a Vice President without a close relationship to the President is powerless. Kennedy was not close to Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, now Attorney General, became Kennedy’s closest advisor and maintained his hatred of Johnson.

On November 22, 1963, he accompanied President Kennedy to Texas. In Dallas, President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President aboard Air Force One. He entered the Presidency in a time of tragedy and used the force of that tragedy to turn 1964 into one of the most important years in American history. He used all of his political skills to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an act that, unlike 1957, was not a weak compromise but one of the most important pieces of legislation in American History. Johnson and his allies overcame a southern filibuster, led by his old friend Richard Russell, with Republican aid as the filibuster was the southern trump card to previous attempts to pass civil rights. Johnson also won re-election with the largest share of the popular vote in American history.

In his second term, Johnson pushed for the Great Society, his liberal vision for an America that takes care of all people. He passed the Voting Rights Act, one of the main forces against discrimination in democracy. He passed Medicaid and Medicare, guaranteeing healthcare to some of the most vulnerable in America. Many programs that take care of the vulnerable in America were created by Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson’s second term also saw the decision that defined his legacy for a long time, his escalation of the Vietnam War. Johnson was not the first President to send troops to South Vietnam. Eisenhower and Kennedy both sent aid to South Vietnam before him. But Johnson listened to his advisors and his advisors failed him; Johnson failed as well, as he took their advice without question, ignored repeated warning that the strategy was doomed to failure and failed to recognize that no progress was being made. Johnson’s popularity fell as American deaths mounted and Americans realized that victory was not achievable. Johnson and his advisors failed to realize that the Vietnamese were not a typical enemy and overwhelming strength was not the way to win. The Vietnamese were motivated by a belief that they were fighting for freedom against a tyrannical superpower, a dark mirror of what made Washington’s army so hard to beat in the American Revolution.

Then, at the end of January 1968, North Vietnamese forces staged a massive offensive throughout South Vietnam on the holiday called Tet. While North Vietnamese forces suffered massive loses, the fact that the North Vietnamese could carry out the attack cast major doubt on Johnson’s repeated promises that victory was imminent. Tet fuelled the anti-war movement, which fuelled Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy’s primary challenge to Johnson. Johnson was not on the ballot in the New Hampshire Primary, but he won the primary through write-in votes. However, McCarthy won 42% of the vote. Bobby Kennedy, Johnson’s old rival and now Senator from New York, also launched a presidential bid.

Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the race was not, as commonly believed, prompted by a belief that Vietnam would ensure that McCarthy or Bobby would beat him, though that was an important factor. He had thought about withdrawing for months, before McCarthy’s good result in New Hampshire. His health was another concern, as Johnson’s men regularly died young of heart attacks and Johnson had already survived a major heart attack in 1955. In fact, Johnson would die of a heart attack on January 22, 1973, two days after the completion of the term he would have been elected to in 1968. As being President is a stressful job, especially during wartime, Johnson’s death was very possible if he ran for re-election. Johnson was also concerned about his legacy. He knew the damage that Vietnam was doing to his popularity and hoped that a push for peace in the final months of his presidency could save his legacy. The speech announcing his withdrawal from the race also announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and a diplomatic initiative. Tet had caused Johnson to reevaluate his strategy for the first time. More evidence that Bobby and McCarthy were not the only reason Johnson withdrew was that Johnson hated Bobby and would not give the Presidency to him if he could do anything about it.

The rest of 1968 did not get better for him. His attempt to nominate his friend Abe Fortas as Chief Justice failed. An attempt to hold a diplomatic summit with the Soviet Union fell apart after Soviet tanks crushed a push for democracy in Prague. The murder of Martin Luther King resulted in riots that left American cities in flames.

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey secured the Democratic nomination at the convention in August, beating Eugene McCarthy. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, before the convention. Anti-War riots dominated the convention and the whole world watched as the protesters were dispersed with tear gas and riot police. Johnson’s last attempt for peace in Vietnam failed after Republican candidate Richard Nixon urged South Vietnam to hold off on negotiations until after the inauguration. A week later, Nixon narrowly beat Humphrey and was sworn in on January 20, 1969. Johnson retired to Texas and died of a heart attack four years later.

Why is Lyndon Johnson important, 50 years later? He is an example of the fact that not only angels can do good and that, sometimes, fallen angels can do better. Personally, his flaws are some of the things that I find most interesting about him. It makes him far more interesting than apparent angels.

Lyndon Johnson was not a good man. He was a foul-mouthed bully. He treated those around him awfully. He cheated on his wife and in some elections. While a champion of civil rights, he had some bigoted bones in his body. And, of course, his mistakes in Vietnam helped lead to over 50 000 American deaths and over 1 000 000 Vietnamese deaths by the end of the war in 1975.

Lyndon Johnson’s legacy is divided. The good parts of his legacy are the Great Society and the Civil Rights movement. Those acts and actions touched the lives of millions of Americans and made their lives safer, healthier and happier. Modern American society and its battlefields, voting rights, racism, healthcare, big government vs. small government, are all battles that Lyndon Johnson started. His legacy is not perfect and, instead of light blemishes, his legacy is filled with dark spots. In addition to the large human toll, the lies that Johnson told about Vietnam damaged trust in government. It was followed by Watergate, and trust in government has never recovered. Despite all the good he did, at the end of his presidency, he listened to protestors outside the White House chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Perhaps that is the most important question from Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. How do we reconcile good with bad? How do we view bad people who do good? How do we view the good of people’s actions against the flaws in their actions. Does Vietnam deserve to be remembered over Civil Rights and the Great Society?

The answer is that everyone deserves to answer those questions themselves by learning about the full complexity of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson is a perfect example of the fact that history is complex. It is nuanced and full of grey, with little black or white. Anyone’s first impression of Lyndon Johnson will likely be wrong, for his contradictions are hard to see at first. Any judgement we make about the man will be qualified to the extent that labelling him good or bad is beyond pointless.

Only by studying history can we appreciate that history is filled with good and bad, often in the same face. History is entertaining if we think about it as a story, but forgetting to view it as the story of real people leads to incorrect judgements that strip the complexity of real people’s lives from it. Complexity shouldn’t be a scary thing. It should be embraced in the teaching of history, for it enables us to think critically, ask questions and search for more information. Those are perhaps the most important skills that can emerge from history.


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