Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson

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Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson
In office
November 22, 1963 – January 20, 1969
Preceded byKennedy presidency
Succeeded byNixon presidency
Other information
SeatWhite House, Washington, D.C.
Political partyDemocratic

The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson began on November 22, 1963, when Johnson became the 36th President of the United States upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ended on January 20, 1969. He had been Vice President of the United States for 1,036 days when he succeeded to the presidency. A Democrat, he ran for and won a full four-year term in the 1964 election, winning by a landslide over Republican opponent Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Following the 1968 presidential election he was succeeded by Republican Richard Nixon. His presidency marked the high tide of modern liberalism in the United States.

Johnson expanded upon the New Deal with the Great Society, a series of domestic legislative programs to help the poor and downtrodden. After taking office, he won passage of a major tax cut, the Clean Air Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the 1964 election, Johnson passed even more sweeping reforms. The Social Security Amendments of 1965 created two government-run healthcare programs, Medicare and Medicaid. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial discrimination in voting, and its passage enfranchised millions of Southern African-Americans. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" and established several programs designed to aid the impoverished. He also presided over major increases in federal funding to education and the end of a period of restrictive immigration laws.

In foreign affairs, Johnson's presidency was dominated by the Cold War and the Vietnam War. He pursued conciliatory policies with the Soviet Union, setting the stage for the détente of the 1970s. He was nonetheless committed to a policy of containment, and he escalated the U.S. presence in Vietnam in order to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. The number of American military personnel in Vietnam increased dramatically, from 16,000 soldiers in 1963 to over 500,000 in 1968. Growing unease with the war stimulated a large antiwar movement based especially on university campuses in the U.S. and abroad. Johnson faced further troubles when summer riots broke out in most major cities after 1965. While he began his presidency with widespread approval, public support for Johnson declined as the war dragged on and domestic unrest across the nation increased. At the same time, the New Deal coalition that had unified the Democratic Party dissolved, and Johnson's support base eroded with it.

Though eligible for another term, Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek renomination. His preferred successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination but was defeated by Nixon in the general election. Though he left office with low approval ratings, polls of historians and political scientists tend to have Johnson ranked as an above-average president. His domestic programs transformed the United States and the role of the federal government, and many of his programs remain in effect today. Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War remains broadly unpopular, but his civil rights initiatives are nearly-universally praised for their role in removing barriers to racial equality.


Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One by Judge Sarah Hughes as Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy look on

Johnson represented Texas in the United States Senate from 1949 to 1961, and served as the Democratic leader in the Senate beginning in 1953.[1] He sought the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, but was defeated by John F. Kennedy. Hoping to shore up support in the South and West, Kennedy asked Johnson to serve as his running mate, and Johnson agreed to join the ticket. In the 1960 presidential election, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket narrowly defeated the Republican ticket of Vice President Richard Nixon and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.[2] Johnson took office as vice president in 1961.[3] Johnson played a moderately important role in the Kennedy administration, advising Kennedy on various matters, especially regarding the space program.[4]

Johnson took the presidential oath of office at 2:38 pm on November 22, 1963, aboard Air Force One at Love Field, in Dallas, Texas, soon after the death of President Kennedy.[5] Earlier that day, Kennedy had been assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dallas. Johnson was convinced of the need to make an immediate transition of power after the assassination to provide stability to a grieving nation. He and the Secret Service, not knowing whether the assassin acted alone or as part of a broader conspiracy, felt compelled to rapidly return to Washington, D.C.. Johnson's rush was greeted by some with assertions that he was in too much haste to assume power.[6]

Taking up Kennedy's legacy, Johnson declared that "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long."[7] The wave of national grief following the assassination gave enormous momentum to Johnson's legislative agenda. On November 29, 1963, Johnson issued an executive order renaming NASA's Launch Operations Center at Merritt Island, Florida, as the Kennedy Space Center, and the nearby launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as Cape Kennedy.[8]

In response to the public demand for answers and the growing number of conspiracy theories, Johnson established a commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, known as the Warren Commission, to investigate Kennedy's assassination.[9] The commission conducted extensive research and hearings and unanimously concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination. Since the commission's official report was released in September 1964, other federal and municipal investigations have been conducted, most of which support the conclusions reached in the Warren Commission report. Nonetheless, a significant percentage of Americans polled still indicate a belief in some sort of conspiracy.[10][11]


The Johnson Cabinet
PresidentLyndon B. Johnson1963–1969
Vice Presidentnone1963–1965
Hubert Humphrey1965–1969
Secretary of StateDean Rusk1963–1969
Secretary of TreasuryC. Douglas Dillon1963–1965
Joseph W. Barr1968–1969
Henry H. Fowler1965–1968
Secretary of DefenseRobert McNamara1963–1968
Clark M. Clifford1968–1969
Attorney GeneralRobert F. Kennedy1963–1964
Ramsey Clark1966–1969
Nicholas Katzenbach1964–1966
Postmaster GeneralJohn A. Gronouski1963–1965
W. Marvin Watson1968–1969
Larry O'Brien1965–1968
Secretary of the InteriorStewart Lee Udall1963–1969
Secretary of AgricultureOrville Lothrop Freeman1963–1969
Secretary of CommerceLuther Hartwell Hodges1963–1965
Cyrus Rowlett Smith1968–1969
Alexander Buel Trowbridge1967–1968
John Thomas Connor1965–1967
Secretary of LaborW. Willard Wirtz1963–1969
Secretary of Health,
Education, and Welfare
Anthony Celebrezze1963–1965
Wilbur Joseph Cohen1968–1969
John William Gardner1965–1968
Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development
Robert Clifton Weaver1966–1968
Robert Coldwell Wood1969
Secretary of TransportationAlan Stephenson Boyd1967–1969

When Johnson assumed office following President Kennedy's death, he asked the existing cabinet to remain in office.[12] Among the notable Kennedy appointments when Johnson took office were Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's brother.[13] Robert Kennedy stayed on as Attorney General, despite his having a notoriously poor relationship with the new president, but only for 10 months. He resigned in September 1964 in order to run for the U.S. Senate.[14] Others stayed for a few years before leaving for various reasons. Four of the Kennedy cabinet members Johnson inherited—Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman, and Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz—served until the end of Johnson's presidency.[15] After the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965, Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver as the head of that department, making Weaver the first African-American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.[16]

Over the course of his six years in office, Johnson greatly expanded the size and role of the White House staff in supervising departmental policy, personnel, and legislative decisions.[17] Many of the most prominent Kennedy staff appointees, including Ted Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., left soon after Kennedy's death. Other Kennedy staffers, including National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Larry O'Brien, played important roles in the Johnson administration.[18] Johnson did not have an official White House Chief of Staff. Initially, his long-time administrative assistant Walter Jenkins presided over the day-to-day operations at the White House,[19] but Jenkins left office in October 1964 due to a sex scandal.[20]Bill Moyers was the youngest member of Johnson's staff; hired at the outset of the Johnson presidency, he quickly rose into the front ranks of the president's aides.[21] He played a key role in organizing and supervising the 1964 Great Society legislative task forces, was a principal architect of Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign, and acted as the president's informal chief of staff from October 1964 until 1966.[22] George Reedy, another long-serving aide, assumed the post of White House Press Secretary,[23] while Horace Busby, a valued aide to Johnson at various points in his political career, served primarily as a speech writer and political analyst.[24] Other notable Johnson staffers include Jack Valenti, George Christian, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Richard N. Goodwin, and W. Marvin Watson.[25]

Vice presidency[edit]

The office of vice president remained vacant during Johnson's first (425-day partial) term, as at the time there was no constitutional provision for filling an intra-term vacancy in the vice presidency. During this vacancy, the Speaker of the House, John William McCormack of Massachusetts, was next in line to the presidency. Johnson selected Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota as his running mate in the 1964 election, and Humphrey served as vice president throughout Johnson's second term.[26]

Led by Senator Birch Bayh and Representative Emanuel Celler, Congress, on July 5, 1965, approved an amendment to the U.S. Constitution addressing succession to the presidency and establishing procedures both for filling a vacancy in the office of the vice president, and for responding to presidential disabilities, and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification. It was ratified by the requisite number of states (38) on February 10, 1967, becoming the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[27]

Judicial appointments[edit]

Appointed in 1967, Thurgood Marshall was the first African American on the Supreme Court

Johnson made two appointments to the Supreme Court while in office. Anticipating court challenges to his legislative measures, Johnson thought it would be advantageous to have a close confidant on the Supreme Court who could provide him with inside information, and chose prominent attorney and close friend Abe Fortas to fill that role. He created an opening on the court by convincing Justice Goldberg to become United States Ambassador to the United Nations.[28] A second vacancy arose in 1967 due to the retirement of Tom C. Clark. Johnson appointed Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall to the Court, and Marshall became the first African American Supreme Court justice in U.S. history.[29] In 1968, Johnson nominated Fortas to succeed retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren; he also Homer Thornberry to succeed Fortas as an associate justice. Fortas's nomination was defeated by senators opposed to his liberal views and close association with the president.[30]

In addition to his Supreme Court appointments, Johnson appointed 40 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 126 judges to the United States district courts. Here too he had a number of judicial appointment controversies, with one appellate and three district court nominees not being confirmed by the U.S. Senate before his presidency ended.

Domestic affairs[edit]

Despite his political prowess and previous service as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson had largely been sidelined in the Kennedy administration. He took office determined to secure the passage of Kennedy's unfinished domestic agenda, which, for the most part, had remained bottled-up in various congressional committees.[31][32] By the spring of 1964, he had begun to use the name "Great Society" to describe his domestic program; the term was coined by Richard Goodwin, and drawn from Eric Goldman's observation that the title of Walter Lippman's book The Good Society best captured the totality of president's agenda. Johnson's Great Society program encompassed movements of urban renewal, modern transportation, clean environment, anti-poverty, healthcare reform, crime control, and educational reform.[33] To ensure the passage of his programs, Johnson placed an unprecedented emphasis on relations with Congress.[34]

Clean air initiatives[edit]

The Clean Air Act of 1963, which Johnson signed into law on December 17, was the first federal act regarding to address air pollution control. It established a federal program within the U.S. Public Health Service and authorized federal funding for air quality research into techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution.[35][36] The act was first amended in 1965, by the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, which directed the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish and enforce national standards for controlling the emission of pollutants from new motor vehicles and engines. regulations were enacted on March 30, 1966, for crankcase and exhaust emissions beginning with 1968 model year vehicles.[37] This was the federal government's first active role in clean air policy. In 1967, the Air Quality Act was enacted in order to expand federal government activities in the area of air pollution reduction. In accordance with this law, enforcement proceedings were initiated in areas subject to interstate air pollution transport. As part of these proceedings, the federal government for the first time conducted extensive ambient monitoring studies and stationary source inspections. The act also authorized expanded studies of air pollutant emission inventories, ambient monitoring techniques, and control techniques.[35]


Federal finances and GDP during Johnson's presidency[38]
Year Income Outlays Surplus/
GDP Debt as a %
of GDP[39]
1963 106.6 111.3 -4.8 619.3 41.0
1964 112.6 118.5 -5.9 662.9 38.7
1965 116.8 118.2 -1.4 710.7 36.7
1966 130.8 134.5 -3.7 781.9 33.7
1967 148.8 157.5 -8.6 838.2 31.8
1968 153.0 178.1 -25.2 899.3 32.2
1969 186.9 183.6 3.2 982.3 28.3
Ref. [40] [41] [42]

Early in 1963, President Kennedy had proposed a significant tax reduction bill to Congress. After overcoming much resistance, Kennedy's bill was passed by the House in September. Despite his hopes for quick Senate approval, Harry Byrd of Virginia insisted that it needed to have "full and careful deliberation" by the Senate Finance Committee.[43] It was only after Johnson succeeded to the presidency, and agreed to decrease the total federal budget to under $100 billion, that Byrd dropped his opposition, clearing the way for the Revenue Act of 1964 to pass. Signed into law on February 26, 1964, the act cut individual income tax rates across the board by approximately 20%. The act also slightly reduced corporate tax rates and introduced a minimum standard deduction.[44] Movement of this long-stalled initiative facilitated efforts to move ahead on civil rights legislation.[45]

In 1968 Johnson signed a second tax bill, the Revenue and Expenditure Control Act of 1968, into law. The product of months of negotiations, he reluctantly signed it to pay for the Vietnam War's mounting costs. The bill included a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.[46]

Civil rights[edit]

Civil Rights Act of 1964[edit]

Meeting with civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (left), Whitney Young, and James Farmer in the Oval Office in 1964

Though a product of the South and a protege of segregationist Senator Richard Russell Jr., Johnson had long been personally sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement,[47] and felt that the time had come to pass the first major civil rights bill since the Reconstruction Era.[48] President Kennedy had submitted a civil rights bill to Congress in June 1963, which was met with strong opposition.[49][50] Kennedy's bill had already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, but still faced opposition in the House Rules Committee and the Senate.[51] Historian Robert Caro notes that Kennedy's civil rights bill faced the same delay tactics that had prevented civil rights legislation from passing during previous administrations; Southern congressmen and senators used congressional procedure to prevent it from coming to a vote.[52]

Since becoming chairman of the House Rules Committee in 1954, Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, an opponent of racial integration, had successfully used his power as chairman to keep several civil rights initiatives from coming to a vote on the House floor. In order for Johnson's civil rights bill to reach the House floor for a vote, the president needed to find a way to circumvent Smith. First, he opened his January 8, 1964, State of the Union address by publicly challenging Congress, "Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined;"[53] he then worked to build support among House members for a discharge petition to force it onto the House floor, and he and his allies worked to persuade uncommitted Republicans and Democrats to support the petition.[43][54] Facing a growing threat that they would be bypassed, the House Rules Committee approved the bill and moved it to the floor of the full House, which passed it on February 10, 1964, by a vote of 290–110.[55] Before the bill's passage, Smith proposed an amendment that added protection from gender discrimination to the bill, in a sly attempt to prevent the bill's passage.[56] However, Smith's maneuver backfired, as the House still voted to approve the bill; 152 Democrats and 136 Republicans voted in favor of it, while the majority of the opposition came from 88 Democrats representing states that had seceded during the Civil War.[57]

Johnson convinced Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to put the House bill directly into consideration by the full Senate, bypassing the Senate Judiciary Committee and its segregationist chairman James Eastland.[58] Since the tax bill had already passed and bottling up the civil rights bill in a committee was no longer an option, the anti-civil rights senators were left with the filibuster as their only remaining tool. Overcoming the filibuster required the support of over 20 Republicans, who were growing less supportive of the bill due to the fact that their party was about to nominate for president a candidate who opposed the bill.[59] Mansfield and Senator Hubert Humphrey led the effort to pass it in the Senate, and one of their major tasks was to convince Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and other Midwestern conservatives to support it.[43][60] Johnson and the conservative Dirksen reached a compromise in which Dirksen agreed to support the bill, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's enforcement powers were weakened.[61] After months of debate, the Senate voted for closure in a 71–29 vote, narrowly clearing the 67-vote threshold then required to break filibusters.[62] Though most of the opposition came from southern Democrats, 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, and five other Republicans also voted against the bill.[62] On June 19, the Senate voted to 73–27 in favor of the bill, sending it to the president.[63]

Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2. Legend has it that as he put down his pen Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation", anticipating a coming backlash from Southern whites against Johnson's Democratic Party.[64] The act banned racial segregation in public accommodations, banned employment discrimination on the basis of race or gender, and strengthened the federal government's power to investigate racial and gender employment discrimination.[65] The law later upheld by the Supreme Court in cases such as Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.[43]

Biographer Randall B. Woods has argued that Johnson effectively used appeals to Judeo-Christian ethics to garner support for the civil rights law. Woods writes that Johnson undermined the Southern filibuster against the bill:

LBJ wrapped white America in a moral straight jacket. How could individuals who fervently, continuously, and overwhelmingly identified themselves with a merciful and just God continue to condone racial discrimination, police brutality, and segregation? Where in the Judeo-Christian ethic was there justification for killing young girls in a church in Alabama, denying an equal education to black children, barring fathers and mothers from competing for jobs that would feed and clothe their families? Was Jim Crow to be America's response to "Godless Communism"? [66]

Voting Rights Act[edit]

During the 19th century, most Southern states enacted laws designed to disenfranchise and marginalize black citizens from politics so far as practicable without violating the Fifteenth Amendment. Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the January 1964 ratification of the 24th Amendment, which banned poll taxes, many states continued to effectively disenfranchise African-Americans through mechanisms such as "white primaries" and literacy tests.[67][68] Shortly after the 1964 elections, Johnson privately instructed Attorney General Katzenbach to draft "the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can".[69] He did not, however, publicly push for the legislation at that time; his advisers warned him of political costs for vigorously pursuing a voting rights bill so soon after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, and Johnson was concerned that championing voting rights would endanger his other Great Society reforms by angering Southern Democrats in Congress.[69]

President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965

Soon after the 1964 election civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began a push for federal action to protect the voting rights of racial minorities.[68] They organized numerous voting-rights marches and demonstrations in Alabama, which were broken-up violently by police; hundreds of African-Americans were jailed. On March 7, these organizations began the Selma to Montgomery marches in which Selma residents proceeded to march to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, to highlight voting rights issues and present Governor George Wallace with their grievances. On the first march, demonstrators were stopped by state and county police on horseback at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. The police shot tear gas into the crowd and trampled protesters. Televised footage of the scene, which became known as "Bloody Sunday", generated outrage across the country.[70]

In response to the rapidly increasing political pressure upon him, Johnson decided to immediately send voting rights legislation to Congress, and to address the American people in a speech before a Joint session of Congress. Johnson's speech, written by Richard Goodwin, was, noted TIME magazine's correspondent afterward, "so startling, so moving, that few who saw it or heard it will ever forget it."[70] He began:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause. ... Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, 'what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'[70][71]

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress on March 17. The Senate passed the bill two-and-a-half months later, by a vote of 77 to 19, and the House approved it in July, 333–85. This landmark legislation, which Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965, outlawed discrimination in voting, thus allowing millions of Southern blacks to vote for the first time. In accordance with the act, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia were subjected to the procedure of preclearance in 1965.[72] The results were significant; between the years of 1968 and 1980, the number of Southern black elected state and federal officeholders nearly doubled.[71] Perhaps most impressively, between 1964 and 1967, the voter registration rate of Mississippi African-Americans rose from 6.7% to 59.8%.[73]

In late March 1965, following the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, Johnson went on television to announce the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen implicated in her death. He used the opportunity to angrily denounce the Klan as a "hooded society of bigots," and warned them to "return to a decent society before it's too late." He also ordered a federal investigation into the Klan's activities, and, when the men charged with Liuzzo's murder were set free by an all-white jury, Johnson ordered the Department of Justice to use the 1964 Civil Rights Act to bring charges against them. A federal jury convicted three of Liuzzo's murderers, and they were given 10-year prison terms.[74] In doing so, Johnson became the first president in over 90 years, since Ulysses S. Grant, to prosecute members of the Klan.[75]

1968 Civil Rights Act[edit]

Johnson chose to pursue a housing discrimination bill as his final major legislative goal of the 89th Congress.[76] In April 1966, Johnson submitted a bill to Congress that barred owners from refusing to enter into agreements on the basis of race; the bill immediately garnered opposition from many of the Northerners who had supported the last two major civil rights bills.[77] Though a version of the bill passed the House, it failed to win Senate approval, marking Johnson's first major legislative defeat.[78] The law gained new impetus after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil unrest across the country following King's death.[79] On April 5, Johnson wrote a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives urging passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.[80] With newly urgent attention from legislative director Joseph Califano and Democratic House Speaker John William McCormack, the bill passed the House by a wide margin on April 10.[79][81] The Fair Housing Act, a component of the bill, outlawed housing discrimination, and allowed many African-Americans to move to the suburbs.[82]

War on Poverty[edit]

In his 1964 State of the Union Address, Johnson stated, "this administration today, here and now, declares an unconditional war on poverty in America."[83] In April 1964, Johnson proposed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which would create the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO would be charged with overseeing local Community Action Agencies that dispensed aid to those in poverty.[84] The act would also create the Job Corps, a work-training program, and AmeriCorps VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps.[85] The bill reflected Johnson's belief that the government could best help the impoverished by providing them with economic opportunities.[86] Johnson was able to win the support of enough conservative Democrats to pass the bill, which he signed on August 20, 1964.[87] Under the leadership of Sargent Shriver, the OEO developed programs like Head Start and Neighborhood Legal Services.[88] Johnson also called upon Congress to make permanent the food stamp pilot programs initiated by President Kennedy in 1961. After much trading of political favors, Congress approved the Food Stamp Act of 1964, which appropriated $75 million to 350,000 individuals in 40 counties and three cities. The president hailed food stamps as "a realistic and responsible step toward the fuller and wiser use of an agricultural abundance."[89]

In August 1965, Johnson signed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 into law. The legislation, which he called "the single most important breakthrough" in federal housing policy since the 1920s, greatly expanded funding for existing federal housing programs, and added new programs to provide rent subsidies for the elderly and disabled; housing rehabilitation grants to poor homeowners; provisions for veterans to make very low down-payments to obtain mortgages; new authority for families qualifying for public housing to be placed in empty private housing (along with subsidies to landlords); and matching grants to localities for the construction of water and sewer facilities, construction of community centers in low-income areas, and urban beautification.[90][91] Four weeks later, on September 9, the president signed legislation establishing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.[92]

Johnson took an additional step in the War on Poverty with an urban renewal effort, presenting to Congress in January 1966 the "Demonstration Cities Program". To be eligible a city would need to demonstrate its readiness to "arrest blight and decay and make substantial impact on the development of its entire city." Johnson requested an investment of $400 million per year totaling $2.4 billion. In late 1966, Congress passed a substantially reduced program costing $900 million, which Johnson later called the Model Cities Program. Changing the name had little effect on the success of the bill; the New York Times wrote 22 years later that the program was for the most part a failure.[93]


Johnson, whose own ticket out of poverty was a public education in Texas, fervently believed that education was a cure for ignorance and poverty.[94] In the 1960s, education funding was especially tight due to the demographic challenges posed by the large Baby Boomer generation, but Congress had repeatedly rejected increased federal financing for public schools.[95] Johnson made education the top priority of the Great Society agenda, and placed an emphasis on helping poor children. After the 1964 landslide brought in many new liberal congressmen, LBJ launched a legislative effort which took the name of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The bill sought to double federal spending on education from $4 billion to $8 billion.[96] The bill passed the House by a vote of 263–153 on March 26, 1965, and then that same bill passed the Senate, 73-8, without going through the usual conference committee.[97] In practice ESEA meant helping all public school districts, with more money going to districts that had large proportions of students from poor families.[98] The bill prevented school districts that practiced segregation from receiving federal funding, and offered funding to parochial schools indirectly. The federal share of education spending rose from 3 percent in 1958 to 10 percent in 1965, and continued to grow after 1965.[99] The act also contributed to a major increase in the pace of desegregation, as the share of Southern African-American students attending integrated schools rose from 2 percent in 1964 to 32 percent in 1968.[100]

Johnson's second major education program was the Higher Education Act of 1965, which focused on funding for lower income students, including grants, work-study money, and government loans. College graduation rates boomed after the passage of the act, with the percentage of college graduates tripling from 1964 to 2013.[82] Johnson also signed a third important education bill in 1965, establishing the Head Start program to provide grants for preschools.[101]

Medicare and Medicaid[edit]

Former president Truman and wife Bess at Medicare Bill signing in 1965, as Lady Bird and Hubert Humphrey look on.

In 1965, half of Americans over the age of 65 did not have health insurance.[102] Since 1957, many Democrats had advocated for the government to cover the cost of hospital visits for seniors, but the American Medical Association and fiscal conservatives opposed a government role in health insurance.[103] Johnson supported the passage of the King-Anderson Bill, which would establish a Medicare program for older patients administered by the Social Security Administration and financed by payroll taxes.[104] Wilbur Mills, chairman of the key House Ways and Means Committee, had long opposed such reforms, but the election of 1964 had defeated many allies of the AMA and shown that the public supported some version of public medical care.[105] Mills suggested that Medicare be fashioned as a three layer cake—hospital insurance under Social Security, a voluntary insurance program for doctor visits, and an expanded medical welfare program for the poor – Medicaid.[106] The bill passed the House in April on a 313–115 vote, and the Senate passed a more liberal version of the bill on July 9.[107] After a conference committee session, the House and Senate passed identical versions of the bill, and Johnson signed it on July 30, 1965.[108] Johnson gave the first two Medicare cards to former President Truman and his wife Bess after signing the Medicare bill at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.[109] Medicare and Medicaid covered one-fifth of the population by 1976, but large segments of the United States still did not have medical insurance.[110]


Johnson himself did not rank immigration as a high priority, but congressional Democrats, led by Emanuel Celler, passed the sweeping Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The act repealed the National Origins Formula, which had been established as permanent law by the Immigration Act of 1924 to restrict emigration from countries outside of Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Those who wrote the law expected that it would lead to more immigration from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, as well as relatively minor upticks in immigration from Asia and Africa. The law did not greatly increase the number of immigrants who would be allowed into the country each year (approximately 300,000), but it did provide for a family reunification provision that allowed for some immigrants to enter the country regardless of the overall number of immigrants. Largely because of the family reunification provision, the overall level of immigration increased far above what had been expected. Additionally, the main source of immigrants shifted away from Europe; by 1976, more than half of legal immigrants came from Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, Cuba, Taiwan, India, or the Dominican Republic.[111] The percentage of foreign-born in the United States increased from 5% in 1965 to 14% in 2016.[112] Johnson also signed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which granted Cuban refugees an easier path to permanent residency and citizenship.[113]


During the mid-1960s, various consumer protection activists and safety experts began making the case to Congress and the American people that more needed to be done to make roads less dangerous and vehicles more safe. They argued that there were things the federal government could do, and that automakers, with all their technology and know-how could do, to bring about the desired outcomes.[114] This sentiment crystallized into conviction following the 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader. Early in the following year, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings regarding highway safety, and ultimately approved two bills—the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (NTMVSA) and the Highway Safety Act (HSA)—which the president signed into law on September 9, thus making the federal government responsible for setting and enforcing auto and road safety standards.[114] HSA required each state to implement a safety program supporting driver education and improved licensing and auto inspection; it also strengthened the existing National Driver Register operated by the Bureau of Public Roads.[115] NTMVSA set federal motor vehicle safety standards: it required seat belts for every passenger, impact-absorbing steering wheels, rupture-resistant fuel tanks, door latches that stayed latched in crashes, side-view mirrors, shatter-resistant windshields and windshield defrosters, lights on the sides of cars as well as the front and back, and "the padding and softening of interior surfaces and protrusions."[114]

In March 1966, Johnson sent to Congress a transportation message that included proposed legislation creating a Cabinet-level department that would coordinate and manage federal transportation programs, provide leadership in the resolution of transportation problems, and develop national transportation policies and programs.[116] This new transportation department would bring together the Commerce Department's Office of Transportation, the Bureau of Public Roads, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Coast Guard, the Maritime Administration, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the Interstate Commerce Commission. The bill passed the Senate after some negotiation over navigation projects; in the House, passage required negotiation over maritime interests. Johnson signed the Department of Transportation Act into law on October 15, 1966.[117] Altogether, 31 previously scattered agencies were brought under the Department of Transportation, in what was the biggest reorganization of the federal government since the National Security Act of 1947.[116]

Domestic unrest[edit]

Anti-Vietnam War movement[edit]

A female demonstrator offers a flower to a soldier during a 1967 anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia.

The American public was generally supportive the Johnson administration's rapid escalation of U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam in late 1964, with 48 percent favoring stronger measures in Vietnam and only 14 percent wanting to negotiate a settlement and leave.[118] In spite of this, a small peace movement was emerging on various college campuses across the country; and doing so at a time of unprecedented student activism.[119] Many anti-war activists identified as members of the "New Left," a broad political movement that distrusted both contemporary mainstream liberalism and Marxism.[120] Rather quickly, Johnson found himself pressed between those favoring stronger military measures (hawks), and those favoring negotiation and disengagement (doves). Polls showed that beginning in 1965, the public was consistently 40–50 percent hawkish and 10–25 percent dovish. Johnson's aides told him, "Both hawks and doves [are frustrated with the war] ... and take it out on you."[119] Politically astute as he was, Johnson closely watched the public opinion polls.[121] His goal was not to adjust his policies to follow opinion, but rather to adjust opinion to support his policies.[citation needed]

Although other groups and individuals attacked the Vietnam War for various reasons, student activists emerged as the most vocal component of the anti-war movement. Membership of Students for a Democratic Society, a major New Left student group opposed to Johnson's foreign policy, tripled during 1965.[122] Despite campus protests, the war remained generally popular throughout 1965 and 1966.[123] Following the January 1967 publication of a photo-essay by William F. Pepper in Ramparts magazine, depicting some of the injuries inflicted on Vietnamese children by the U.S. bombing campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the war publicly for the first time.[124] King and New Left activist Benjamin Spock led an Anti-Vietnam War march on April 15, 1967, in which 400,000 people walked from New York City's Central Park to the headquarters of the United Nations.[125] On June 23, 1967, while the president was addressing a Democratic fundraiser at The Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, police forcibly dispersed about 10,000 peaceful Vietnam War demonstrators marching in front of the hotel.[126]

A Gallup poll in July 1967 showed that 52 percent of the country disapproved of Johnson's handling of the war,[127] Johnson's approval rating dropped from 70 percent in mid-1965, but just two years later 66 percent of the country said they had lost confidence in the president's leadership.[128] He rarely campaigned in public after the Century Plaza Hotel incident, except for appearances at safe places like military bases.[129] Convinced that Communists had infiltrated the anti-war movement, Johnson authorized what became known as Operation CHAOS, an illegal CIA domestic spying operation, but the CIA did not find evidence of Communist influence in the anti-war movement.[130]

Urban riots[edit]

Soldiers of the California's 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from an area of South Central Los Angeles burning during the 1965 Watts riot.

The nation experienced a series of "long hot summers" of civil unrest during the Johnson years. They started in 1964 with a riot in Harlem, which was followed by a riot in the Watts district of Los Angeles; both events were fueled by accusations of police brutality against minority residents.[131] In 1966, rioting broke out in Hough, a predominantly African-American community in Cleveland. The following year, in what is known as the "Long hot summer of 1967," 159 riots erupted across the United States. In Newark, New Jersey, six days of rioting left 26 dead, 1500 injured, and the inner city a burned out shell. In Detroit, Governor George Romney sent in 7,400 national guard troops to quell fire bombings, looting, and attacks on businesses and on police. Johnson finally sent in federal troops with tanks and machine guns. Detroit continued to burn for three more days until finally 43 were dead, 2250 were injured, 4000 were arrested; property damage ranged into the hundreds of millions.[132] Though whites took part in the riots, most of the rioters were African Americans who objected to discrimination in housing, employment, and education.[133]

In the immediate aftermath of Newark and Detroit, Johnson formed an 11-member advisory commission, informally known as the Kerner Commission, to explore the causes behind the recurring outbreaks of urban civil disorder, and to provide recommendations for future action.[134] The commission's 1968 report concluded that the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." Unless remedies were implemented, the commission warned, the U.S. would be faced with a "system of apartheid" in its major cities.[134] The report also admonished white middle-class Americans for isolating and neglecting African Americans, and suggested legislative measures to promote racial integration and alleviate poverty.[134] The president, fixated on the Vietnam War and keenly aware of budgetary constraints, barely acknowledged the report.[132]

One month after the release of the Kerner Commission's report, the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked another wave of violent protests in more than 130 cities across the country.[135] A few days later, in a candid comment made to press secretary George Christian concerning the endemic social unrest in the nation's cities, Johnson remarked, "What did you expect? I don't know why we're so surprised. When you put your foot on a man's neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what's he going to do? He's going to knock your block off."[136] Congress, meanwhile, passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which increased funding for law enforcement agencies and authorized wiretapping in certain situations. Johnson considered vetoing the bill, but the apparent popularity of the bill convinced him to sign it.[137]

Other issues[edit]

Cultural initiatives[edit]

Johnson created a new role for the federal government in supporting the arts, humanities, and public broadcasting. His administration set up the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, to support humanists and artists (as the WPA once did).[138] In 1967, Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act to create educational television programs.[139] The government had set aside radio bands for educational non-profits in the 1950s, and the Federal Communications Commission under President Kennedy had awarded the first federal grants to educational television stations, but Johnson sought to create a vibrant public television that would promote local diversity as well as educational programs.[139] The legislation, which was based on the findings of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, created a decentralized network of public television stations.[139]

Space program[edit]

While Johnson was in office, NASA conducted the Gemini manned space program, developed the Saturn V rocket and its launch facility, and prepared to make the first manned Apollo program flights. On January 27, 1967, the nation was stunned when the entire crew of Apollo 1Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in a cabin fire during a spacecraft test on the launch pad, stopping the program in its tracks. Rather than appointing another Warren-style commission, Johnson accepted Administrator James E. Webb's request that NASA be permitted to conduct its own investigation, holding itself accountable to Congress and the President.[140] The agency convened the Apollo 204 Accident Review Board to determine the cause of the fire, and both houses of Congress conducted their own committee inquiries scrutinizing NASA's investigation. Through it all, the president's support for NASA never wavered.[141] The program rebounded, and by the end of Johnson's term, two manned missions, Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 (the first to orbit the Moon), had been successfully completed. Six months after leaving office, Johnson attended the launch of Apollo 11, the first Moon landing mission.[citation needed]

Gun control[edit]

Following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson signed two major gun control laws. In addition to the assassinations, Johnson's push for gun control was also motivated by mass shootings such as the one perpetrated by Charles Whitman.[142] On October 22, 1968, Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, one of the largest and farthest-reaching federal gun control laws in American history. The measure prohibited convicted felons, drug users, and the mentally ill from purchasing handguns and raised record-keeping and licensing requirements.[143] Johnson had sought to require the licensing of gun owners and the registration of all firearms, but could not convince Congress to pass a stronger bill.[144]

Tobacco advertising[edit]

Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a detailed report (Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States) linking smoking and lung cancer on January 11, 1964. The report "hit the country like a bombshell," Terry later said. "It was front page news and a lead story on every radio and television station in the United States and many abroad." The report marked a major shift in the tides of public opinion regarding smoking. Terry's report prompted Congress to pass the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act in July 1965, that required cigarette manufacturers to place a warning label on the side of cigarette packs stating: "Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health." In 1970 that warning was strengthened through the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which also banned cigarette advertising on television beginning in 1971.[145][146]

Foreign affairs[edit]

Cold War[edit]

Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin (left) next to Johnson during the Glassboro Summit Conference

Johnson took office during the Cold War, a prolonged state of tension between the United States and its allies on the one side and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. Johnson lacked Kennedy's enthusiasm for foreign policy, and he prioritized domestic reforms over major initiatives in foreign affairs.[147] Though committed to containment, Johnson pursued a non-confrontational policy with the Soviet Union itself, setting the stage for the détente of the 1970s.[148][149] The Soviet Union also sought closer relations to the United States during the mid-to-late 1960s, partly due to the increasingly worse Sino-Soviet split. Johnson attempted to reduce tensions with China by easing restrictions on trade, but the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution ended hopes of a greater rapprochement.[150]

Johnson was extremely concerned with averting the possibility of nuclear war, and he sought to reduce tensions in Europe.[151] The Johnson administration pursued arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, signing the Outer Space Treaty and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and laid the foundation for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.[148] Johnson held a largely amicable meeting with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at the Glassboro Summit Conference in 1967, and in July 1968 the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which each signatory agreed not to help other countries develop or acquire nuclear weapons. A planned nuclear disarmament summit between the United States and the Soviet Union was scuttled after Soviet forces violently suppressed the Prague Spring, an attempted democratization of Czechoslovakia.[152]


The Indochina Wars had been raging since the Japanese invasion of French Indochina during World War II, as France struggled to re-establish control over its former colonies after that World War II. The Communist Viet Minh successively opposed Japanese and French forces in Vietnam, and established a Communist North Vietnam following the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The Vietnam War began in 1955 as North Vietnamese forces, with the support of the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist governments, sought to reunify the country by taking control of South Vietnam. On taking office, Johnson made clear that he was not planning any major changes regarding the American role in Vietnam.[153] At Kennedy's death, there were already 16,000 American military personnel in Vietnam, supporting the nominally democratic South Vietnamese government.[154]

Johnson had relatively little interest in foreign policy, and he was aware of the deteriorating state of the government of South Vietnam. Nonetheless, he ultimately came to support escalation of the U.S. role in Vietnam.[155] He feared that the fall of Vietnam would hurt Democratic credibility on national security issues and undermine Johnson's domestic initiatives, much as the "Loss of China" and the Korean War hurt Democrats in the 1950s.[156][157] He also wanted to carry on what he saw as Kennedy's policies, and believed that the U.S. owed South Vietnam support after the 1963 South Vietnamese coup.[158] Finally, like the vast majority of U.S. political leaders in the mid-1960s, he was determined to prevent the spread of Communism.[159] Johnson's presidency ultimately saw a massive build-up of the American presence in Vietnam, with troop levels reaching a peak above 500,000 by the end of his tenure.[160]

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution[edit]

In August 1964, allegations arose from the U.S. military that two U.S. destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in international waters 40 miles (64 km) from the Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin; naval communications and reports of the attack were contradictory. Although Johnson very much wanted to keep discussions about Vietnam out of the 1964 election campaign, he felt forced to respond to the supposed aggression by the Vietnamese, so he sought and obtained from the Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7. Johnson, determined to embolden his image on foreign policy, also wanted to prevent criticism such as Truman had received in Korea by proceeding without congressional endorsement of military action. The resolution gave congressional approval for use of military force by the commander-in-chief to repel future attacks and also to assist members of SEATO requesting assistance. Johnson later in the campaign expressed assurance that the primary US goal remained the preservation of South Vietnamese independence through material and advice, as opposed to any US offensive posture.[161] By the end of 1964, there were approximately 23,000 military personnel in South Vietnam.[154]


Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland in Vietnam 1965

Rejecting the advice of those who favored an immediate and dramatic escalation of the U.S. role in Vietnam, Johnson waited until early 1965 before authorizing a major bombing campaign.[162] The subsequent eight-week bombing campaign became known as Operation Rolling Thunder.[163] The bombing campaign had little apparent effect on the overall course of the war, and General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu seized power in South Vietnam after a military coup.[164] In March, McGeorge Bundy began to urge the use of ground forces, arguing that American air operations alone would not stop Hanoi's aggression against the South. Johnson responded by approving an increase in soldiers stationed in Vietnam and, most importantly, a change in mission from defensive to offensive operations. Even so, he defiantly continued to insist that this was not to be publicly represented as a change in existing policy.[165] In late July, Secretary of Defense McNamara wrote an influential memo laying out three options in South Vietnam: total withdrawal, the maintenance of current U.S. troop, or an increase in troop levels. McNamara recommended the third option, calling for an increase from 75,000 soldiers to over 200,000 U.S. soldiers in order to convince North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to seek a negotiated peace. Bundy, Secretary of State Rusk, Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor, General William Westmoreland, and General Earle Wheeler, the key Johnson advisers on Vietnam, all agreed with McNamara's recommendation.[166]

After consulting with his principals, Johnson, desirous of a low profile, chose to announce at a press conference an increase to 125,000 troops, with additional forces to be sent later upon request. In order to mute his announcement, Johnson at the same time announced the nomination of Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court and John Chancellor as director of the Voice of America. Johnson described himself at the time as boxed in by unpalatable choices—between sending Americans to die in Vietnam and giving in to the communists. If he sent additional troops he would be attacked as an interventionist and if he did not he thought he risked being impeached.[167] By October 1965, there were over 200,000 troops deployed in Vietnam.[168] Most of these soldiers were drafted after graduating from high school, and disproportionately came from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds.[169]

In early 1966, Robert Kennedy harshly criticized Johnson's bombing campaign, stating that the U.S. may be headed "on a road from which there is no turning back, a road that leads to catastrophe for all mankind."[170] Soon thereafter, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator James William Fulbright, held televised hearings examining the administration's Vietnam policy.[171] Impatience with the president and doubts about his war strategy continued to grow on Capitol Hill. In June, Richard Russell, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reflecting the coarsening the national mood, declared it was time to "get it over or get out."[172]

By late 1966, multiple sources began to report progress was being made against the North Vietnamese logistics and infrastructure; Johnson was urged from every corner to begin peace discussions. The gap with Hanoi, however, was an unbridgeable demand on both sides for a unilateral end to bombing and withdrawal of forces. Averell Harriman was appointed as the president's "Ambassador for Peace" to promote negotiations. Westmoreland and McNamara then recommended a concerted program to promote pacification; Johnson formally placed this effort under military control in October.[173] During this time Johnson grew more and more anxious about justifying war casualties, and talked of the need for decisive victory, despite the unpopularity of the cause.[174]

By year's end it was clear that current pacification efforts were ineffectual, as had been the air campaign. Johnson then agreed to McNamara's new recommendation to add 70,000 troops in 1967 to the 400,000 previously committed. While McNamara recommended no increase in the level of bombing, Johnson agreed with CIA recommendations to increase them.[175] The increased bombing began despite initial secret talks being held in Saigon, Hanoi, and Warsaw. While the bombing ended the talks, North Vietnamese intentions were not considered genuine.[176]


Johnson meets with a group of foreign policy advisors, collectively called "the Wise Men," in November 1967 to discuss the Vietnam War effort.

In March 1967, Robert Kennedy assumed a more public opposition to the war in a Senate speech. The fact of his opposition and probable candidacy for the presidency in 1968, according to Dallek, inhibited the embattled and embittered Johnson from employing a more realistic war policy.[177] McNamara offered Johnson a way out of Vietnam in May; the administration could declare its objective in the war—South Vietnam's self-determination—was being achieved and upcoming September elections in South Vietnam would provide the chance for a coalition government. The United States could reasonably expect that country to then assume responsibility for the election outcome. But Johnson was reluctant, in light of some optimistic reports, again of questionable reliability, which matched the negative assessments about the conflict and provided hope of improvement. The CIA was reporting wide food shortages in Hanoi and an unstable power grid, as well as military manpower reductions.[178]

By the middle of 1967 nearly 70,000 Americans had been killed or wounded in the war, which was being commonly described in the news media and elsewhere as a "stalemate."[179] In July, Johnson sent McNamara, Wheeler and other officials to meet with Westmoreland in order to reach agreement on plans for the immediate future. Westmoreland in turn requested an additional 80,500 to 200,000 reinforcements on top of the 470,000 soldiers already scheduled to be sent to Vietnam.[180] Johnson agreed to an increase of 55,000 troops bringing the total to 525,000.[160]

In August, Johnson, with the Joint Chiefs' support, decided to expand the air campaign and exempted only Hanoi, Haiphong and a buffer zone with China from the target list.[181] Later that month McNamara told a Senate subcommittee that an expanded air campaign would not bring Hanoi to the peace table. The Joint Chiefs were astounded, and threatened mass resignation; McNamara was summoned to the White House for a three-hour dressing down; nevertheless, Johnson had received reports from the CIA confirming McNamara's analysis at least in part. In the meantime an election establishing a constitutional government in the South was concluded and provided hope for peace talks.[182]

With the war arguably in a stalemate and in light of the widespread disapproval of the conflict, Johnson convened a group of veteran government foreign policy experts, informally known as "the Wise Men" to gain a fresh, in-depth view of the war—Dean Acheson, Gen. Omar Bradley, George Ball, Mac Bundy, Arthur Dean, Douglas Dillon, Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman, Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert Murphy and Max Taylor.[183] They unanimously opposed leaving Vietnam, and encouraged Johnson to "stay the course."[184] Afterward, on November 17, in a nationally televised address, the president assured the American public, "We are inflicting greater losses than we're taking...We are making progress." Less than two weeks later, an emotional Robert McNamara announced his resignation as Defense Secretary. Behind closed doors, he had begun regularly expressing doubts over Johnson's war strategy, angering the president. He joins a growing list of Johnson's top aides who resigned over the war, including Bill Moyers, McGeorge Bundy and George Ball.[170][185]


On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese began the Tet offensive against South Vietnam's five largest cities. While the Tet offensive failed militarily, it was a psychological victory, definitively turning American public opinion against the war effort. Iconically, Walter Cronkite of CBS news, voted the nation's "most trusted person" in February expressed on the air that the conflict was deadlocked and that additional fighting would change nothing. Johnson reacted, saying "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America".[186] Indeed, demoralization about the war was everywhere; 26% then approved of Johnson's handling of Vietnam; 63% disapproved.[187]

Clark Clifford, the new Defense Secretary, described the war as "a loser" and proposed to "cut losses and get out".[188] He was supported by most of the "Wise Men," who now believed that further escalation of troop levels would not help bring an end to the war. Johnson was initially reluctant to follow this advice, but ultimately agreed to allow a partial bombing halt and signal his willingness to engage in peace talks.[189] On March 31, Johnson announced that he would halt the bombing in North Vietnam, while at the same time announcing that he would not seek re-election.[190] At the same time, Johnson escalated U.S. military operations in South Vietnam in order to consolidate control of as much of the countryside as possible before the onset of serious peace talks.[191] In April, he succeeded in opening discussions of peace talks and after extensive negotiations over the site, Paris was agreed to and talks began in May. When the talks failed to yield any results, the decision was made to resort to private discussions in Paris, but these were also unproductive.[192] Two of the major obstacles in negotiations were the unwillingness of the United States to allow the Viet Cong to take part in the South Vietnamese government, and the unwillingness of North Vietnam to recognize the legitimacy of South Vietnam.[193]

Despite recommendations in August from Harriman, Vance, Clifford and Bundy to halt bombing as an incentive for Hanoi to seriously engage in substantive peace talks, Johnson refused.[194] In October, when the parties came close to an agreement on a bombing halt, Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon intervened with the South Vietnamese, and made promises of better terms, so as to delay a settlement on the issue until after the election.[195] After the election, Johnson's primary focus on Vietnam was to get Saigon to join the Paris peace talks. Only after Nixon added his urging did they do so. Even then they argued about procedural matters until after Nixon took office.[196]

Johnson once summed up his perspective of the Vietnam War as follows:

I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved‍—‌the Great Society‍—‌in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs.... But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.[197]

Middle East[edit]

Johnson's Middle Eastern policy relied on the "three pillars" of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In the mid-1960s, concerns about the Israeli nuclear weapons program led to increasing tension between Israel and neighboring Arab states, especially Egypt. At the same time, the Palestine Liberation Organization launched terrorist against Israel from bases in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Johnson administration attempted to mediate the conflict, but communicated through Fortas and others that it would not oppose Israeli military action. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched an attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, beginning the Six-Day War. Israel quickly seized control of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Sinai Peninsula. On June 8, the Israeli military attacked a U.S. vessel in what became known as the USS Liberty incident; the reason for the attacks remains the subject of controversy, but the United States accepted an indemnity and an official apology from Israel for the attack. As Israeli forces closed in on the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Soviet Union threatened war if Israel did not agree to a cease fire. Johnson pressured the Israeli government into accepting a cease fire, and the war ended on June 11. In the aftermath of the war, the United States and Britain sponsored UN Resolution 242, which called on Israel to release the territory it conquered in the war.[198]

Latin America[edit]

Under the direction of Assistant Secretary of State Thomas C. Mann, the United States placed emphasis on Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, which provided economic aid to Latin America. Like Kennedy, Johnson sought to isolate Cuba, which was under the rule of the Soviet-aligned Fidel Castro. In 1965, the Dominican Civil War broke out between the government of President Donald Reid Cabral and supporters of former President Juan Bosch. Johnson dispatched over 20,000 Marines to the Dominican Republic to evacuate American citizens and restore order. The U.S. also helped arrange an agreement providing for new elections. Johnson's use of force in ending the civil war alienated many in Latin America, and the region's importance to the administration receded as Johnson's foreign policy became increasingly dominated by the Vietnam War.[199]

Britain and Western Europe[edit]

Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister (1964–1970), believed in a strong "Special Relationship" with the United States and wanted to highlight his dealings with the White House to strengthen his own prestige as a statesman. President Lyndon Johnson disliked Wilson, and ignored any "special" relationship. Vietnam was a sore point.[200] Johnson needed and asked for help to maintain American prestige. Wilson offered lukewarm verbal support but no military aid. Wilson's policy angered the left-wing of his Labour Party.[201] Wilson and Johnson also differed sharply on British economic weakness and its declining status as a world power. Historian Jonathan Colman concludes it made for the most unsatisfactory "special" relationship in the 20th century.[202]

As the economies of Western Europe recovered, European leaders increasingly sought to recast the alliance as a partnership of equals. This trend, along with Johnson's conciliatory policy towards the Soviet Union and his escalation of the Vietnam War, led to fractures within NATO. Johnson's request that NATO leaders send even token forces to South Vietnam were denied by leaders who lacked a strategic interest in the region. West Germany and especially France pursued independent foreign policies, and in 1966 French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO. The withdrawal of France, along with West German and British defense cuts, substantially weakened NATO, but the alliance remained intact. Johnson refrained from criticizing de Gaulle and he resisted calls to reduce U.S. troop levels on the continent.[203]

List of international trips[edit]

Johnson made eleven international trips to twenty countries during his presidency.[204] He flew 523,000 miles aboard Air Force One while in office. One of the most unusual international trips in presidential history occurred before Christmas in 1967. The President began the trip by going to the memorial service for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had disappeared in a swimming accident and was presumed drowned. The White House did not reveal in advance to the press that the President would make the first round-the-world presidential trip. The trip was 26,959 miles completed in only 112.5 hours (4.7 days). Air Force One crossed the equator twice, stopped in Travis Air Force Base, Calif., then Honolulu, Pago Pago, Canberra, Melbourne, Vietnam, Karachi and Rome.

Countries visited by Johnson during his presidency.
Dates Country Locations Details
1 September 16, 1964  Canada Vancouver Informal visit. Met with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in ceremonies related to the Columbia River Treaty.
2 April 14–15, 1966  Mexico Mexico, D.F. Informal visit. Met with President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.
3 August 21–22, 1966  Canada Campobello Island,
Laid cornerstone at Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Conferred informally with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
4 October 19–20, 1966  New Zealand Wellington State visit. Met with Prime Minister Keith Holyoake.
October 20–23, 1966  Australia Canberra,
State visit. Met with Governor-General Richard Casey and Prime Minister Harold Holt. Intended as a "thank-you" visit for the Australian government's solid support for the Vietnam War effort, the president and first lady were greeted by demonstrations from anti-war protesters.[205]
October 24–26, 1966  Philippines Manila,
Los Baños,
Attended a summit with the heads of State and government of Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Vietnam, and Thailand.[206] The meeting ended with pronouncements to stand fast against communist aggression and to promote ideals of democracy and development in Vietnam and across Asia.[207]
October 26, 1966  South Vietnam Cam Ranh Bay Visited U.S. military personnel.
October 27–30, 1966  Thailand Bangkok State visit. Met with King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
October 30–31, 1966  Malaysia Kuala Lumpur State visit. Met with Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman
October 31 –
November 2, 1966
 South Korea Seoul,
State visit. Met with President Park Chung-hee and Prime Minister Chung Il-kwon. Addressed National Assembly.
5 December 3, 1966  Mexico Ciudad Acuña Informal meeting with President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Inspected construction of Amistad Dam.
6 April 11–14, 1967  Uruguay Punta del Este Summit meeting with Latin American heads of state.
April 14, 1967 Suriname (Kingdom of the Netherlands) Suriname Paramaribo Refueling stop en route from Uruguay.
7 April 23–26, 1967  West Germany Bonn Attended the funeral of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and conversed with various heads of state.
8 May 25, 1967  Canada Montreal,
Met with Governor General Roland Michener. Attended Expo 67. Conferred informally with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
9 October 28, 1967  Mexico Ciudad Juarez Attended transfer of El Chamizal from the U.S. to Mexico. Conferred with President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.
10 December 21–22, 1967  Australia Canberra Attended the funeral of Prime Minister Harold Holt.[205] Conferred with other attending heads of state.
December 23, 1967  Thailand Khorat Visited U.S. military personnel.
December 23, 1967  South Vietnam Cam Ranh Bay Visited U.S. military personnel. Addressing the troops, Johnson declares "...all the challenges have been met. The enemy is not beaten, but he knows that he has met his master in the field."[170]
December 23, 1967  Pakistan Karachi Met with President Ayub Khan.
December 23, 1967  Italy Rome Met with President Giuseppe Saragat and Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
December 23, 1967   Vatican City Apostolic Palace Audience with Pope Paul VI.
11 July 6–8, 1968  El Salvador San Salvador Attended the Conference of Presidents of the Central American Republics.
July 8, 1968  Nicaragua Managua Informal visit. Met with President Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
July 8, 1968  Costa Rica San José Informal visit. Met with President José Joaquín Trejos Fernández.
July 8, 1968  Honduras San Pedro Sula Informal visit. Met with President Oswaldo López Arellano.
July 8, 1968  Guatemala Guatemala City Informal visit. Met with President Julio César Méndez Montenegro.


Election of 1964[edit]

Graph of Johnson's Gallup approval ratings

Segregationist Governor George C. Wallace entered several Democratic presidential primaries, taking a large share of the vote in several states. In June 1964, Wallace announced that he would seek the presidency as an independent or member of a third party. Meanwhile, the Republican Party saw a contested series of primaries between conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and liberal Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Rockefeller had appeared to be the front-runner at one point, but a divorce badly damaged his candidacy. Goldwater emerged as the prohibitive favorite in June 1964, and he was formally nominated at the July 1964 Republican National Convention. After the nomination of Goldwater, Wallace heeded the requests of Southern conservatives to withdraw from the race.[208]

The 1964 Democratic National Convention easily re-nominated Johnson and celebrated his accomplishments after less than one year in office.[209] Early in the campaign, Robert F. Kennedy was a widely popular choice to run as Johnson's vice presidential running mate, but Johnson and Kennedy had never liked one another.[210] Hubert Humphrey was ultimately selected as Johnson's running mate, with the hope that Humphrey would strengthen the ticket in the Midwest and industrial Northeast.[118] Johnson, knowing full well the degree of frustration inherent in the office of vice president, put Humphrey through a gauntlet of interviews to guarantee his absolute loyalty and having made the decision, he kept the announcement from the press until the last moment to maximize media speculation and coverage.[211] At the end of the Democratic Convention, polls showed Johnson in a comfortable position to obtain re-election.[212]

1964 presidential election results

Johnson and Goldwater both sought to portray the election as a choice between a liberal and a conservative. Goldwater was perhaps the most conservative major party nominee since the passage of the New Deal.[213] Early in the 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater had appeared to be a strong contender, as his support in the South threatened to flip Southern states to the Republican Party. However, Goldwater lost momentum as the campaign progressed. On September 7, 1964, Johnson's campaign managers broadcast the "Daisy ad," which successfully portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger.[214] The combination of an effective aid campaign, Goldwater's perceived extremism, a poorly-organized Goldwater campaign, and Johnson's popularity led Democrats to a major election victory.[215] Johnson won the presidency by a landslide with 61.05 percent of the vote, the largest share of the popular vote won by any presidential candidate since the 1820 presidential election. In the Electoral College, Johnson defeated Goldwater by margin of 486 to 52.[216] Goldwater's only victories were in his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.[217]

Democrats scored large gains in every section of the country except the Deep South in the 1964 congressional elections.[218] The party's majority in the House grew by 36 seats, and its majority in the Senate by two, giving it a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.[219] These major gains came primarily as a result of the strident tone of Goldwater's campaign and a large sympathy vote cast in honor of President Kennedy.[220] The huge election victory emboldened Johnson to propose liberal legislation in the 89th United States Congress.[221]

Mid-term elections of 1966[edit]

In the 1966 midterm elections, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House to the Republicans, and also three in the Senate. Despite their losses, the Democrats retained control of both chambers of Congress. Republicans campaigned on law and order concerns stemming from urban riots, Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam War, and on the sluggish economy, warning of looming inflation and growing federal deficits.[222] The devastating losses that Democrats suffered hit the party's liberal wing hardest, which in turn decreased Johnson's ability to push his agenda through Congress.[223] The elections also helped the Republicans rehabilitate their image after their disastrous 1964 campaign.[220]

Election of 1968[edit]

As he had served less than two years of President Kennedy's term, Johnson was constitutionally eligible for election to a second full term in the 1968 presidential election under the provisions of the 22nd Amendment.[224][225] However, beginning in 1966, the press sensed a "credibility gap" between what Johnson was saying in press conferences and what was happening on the ground in Vietnam, which led to much less favorable coverage.[226] By year's end, the Democratic governor of Missouri, Warren E. Hearnes, warned that Johnson would lose the state by 100,000 votes, despite winning by a 500,000 margin in 1964. "Frustration over Vietnam; too much federal spending and... taxation; no great public support for your Great Society programs; and ... public disenchantment with the civil rights programs" had eroded the president's standing, the governor reported. There were bright spots; in January 1967, Johnson boasted that wages were the highest in history, unemployment was at a 13-year low, and corporate profits and farm incomes were greater than ever; a 4.5 percent jump in consumer prices was worrisome, as was the rise in interest rates. Johnson's approval ratings stayed below 50 percent; by January 1967, the number of his strong supporters had plunged to 16 percent, from 25 percent four months before. He ran about even with Republican George Romney in trial matchups that spring. Asked to explain why he was unpopular, Johnson responded, "I am a dominating personality, and when I get things done I don't always please all the people." Johnson also blamed the press, saying they showed "complete irresponsibility and lie and misstate facts and have no one to be answerable to." He also blamed "the preachers, liberals and professors" who had turned against him.[227]

As the 1968 election approached, Johnson began to lose control of the Democratic Party, which was splitting into four factions. The first group consisted of Johnson and Humphrey, labor unions, and local party bosses (led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley). The second group consisted of antiwar students and intellectuals who rallied behind Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota in an effort to "dump Johnson." The third group included Catholics, Hispanics and African Americans, who rallied behind Robert Kennedy. The fourth group included traditionally segregationist white Southerners, who rallied behind George C. Wallace and the American Independent Party. Johnson could see no way to unite the party long enough for him to win re-election.[228][page needed] McCarthy came in a surprisingly close second in the March 12 New Hampshire primary, the first Democratic primary in the 1968 campaign. McCarthy's victory was widely seen as indicative of the strength of the anti-war movement in the Democratic Party, and Kennedy joined the race on March 16.[121] At the end of a March 31 speech, Johnson shocked the nation when he announced he would not run for re-election by concluding with the line: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."[229] The next day, his approval ratings increased from 36% to 49%.[230]

President Johnson meets with Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the White House, July 1968

Historians have debated the factors that led to Johnson's surprise decision. Shesol says Johnson wanted out of the White House but also wanted vindication; when the indicators turned negative he decided to leave.[231] Woods writes that Johnson realized he needed to leave in order for the nation to heal.[232] Dallek says that Johnson had no further domestic goals, and realized that his personality had eroded his popularity. His health was not good, and he was preoccupied with the Kennedy campaign; his wife was pressing for his retirement and his base of support continued to shrink. Leaving the race would allow him to pose as a peacemaker.[233] Bennett, however, says Johnson "had been forced out of a reelection race in 1968 by outrage over his policy in Southeast Asia."[234] Johnson may also have hoped that the convention would ultimately choose to draft him back into the race.[235]

Humphrey entered the race after Johnson's withdrawal, making the 1968 Democratic primaries a three-way contest between Humphrey, Kennedy, and McCarthy. Kennedy cut into McCarthy's liberal and anti-war base, while also winning the support of the poor and working class. Kennedy won a series of primary victories, but was assassinated in June by Sirhan Sirhan, an Arab nationalist.[236] With Johnson's support, Humphrey won the presidential nomination at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in late August. The violent clashes in Chicago between anti-war protesters marred the convention.[237] After the convention, polls showed Humphrey losing the general election by 20 points.[238]

1968 presidential election results

Humphrey faced two major opponents in the 1968 general election campaign. With the support of the Ku Klux Klan and the far-right John Birch Society, George Wallace ran as the candidate of the American Independent Party. Wallace's strongest support came from pro-segregation Southerners, but he also appealed to white working class areas in the North with his "law and order" campaign. As a third party candidate, Wallace did not believe that he could win the presidency, but he hoped to win enough electoral votes to force a contingent election in the House of Representatives.[239] The Republicans nominated former Vice President Richard Nixon, and Nixon selected Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Nixon attacked the Great Society and the Supreme Court, and indicated that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War.[240]

Humphrey's polling numbers improved after a September 30 speech in which he broke with Johnson's war policy, calling for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam.[238] In what was termed the October surprise, Johnson announced to the nation on October 31, 1968, that he had ordered a complete cessation of "all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam", effective November 1, should the North Vietnamese government be willing to negotiate and citing progress with the Paris peace talks. However, Nixon won the election, narrowly edging Humphrey with a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote.[238] Wallace captured 13.5% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. Nixon capitalized on discontent over civil rights to break the Democratic Party's hold on the South. He also performed well in the states west of the Mississippi River, due in part to rising resentment against the federal government in those states. Both the South and the West would be important components of the GOP electoral coalition in subsequent elections.[241] Despite Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election, Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress.[242]

Historical reputation[edit]

Historians argue that Johnson's presidency marked the peak of modern liberalism in the United States after the New Deal era, and Johnson is ranked favorably by many historians.[243][244] Johnson's presidency left a lasting mark on the United States, transforming the United States with the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, various anti-poverty measures, environmental protections, educational funding, and other federal programs.[245] The civil rights legislation passed under Johnson are nearly-universally praised for their role in removing barriers to racial equality.[245] A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Johnson as the tenth best president.[246] A 2017 C-Span poll of historians also ranked Johnson as the tenth best president.[247] Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War remains broadly unpopular, and, much as it did during his tenure, often overshadows his domestic accomplishments.[248][249] A 2006 poll of historians ranked Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War as the third-worst mistake made by a sitting president.[250]

Johnson's persuasiveness and understanding of Congress helped him to pass remarkable flurry of legislation and gained him a reputation as a legislative master.[248] Johnson was aided by his party's large congressional majorities and a public that was receptive to new federal programs,[251] but he also faced a Congress dominated by the powerful conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans, who had successfully blocked most liberal legislation since the start of World War II.[252] Though Johnson established many lasting programs, other aspects of the Great Society, including the Office of Economic Opportunity, were later abolished.[245] The perceived failures of the Vietnam War nurtured disillusionment with government, and the New Deal coalition fell apart in large part due to tensions over the Vietnam War and the 1968 election.[245][156] Republicans won five of six presidential elections after Johnson left office. Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 vowing to undo the Great Society, though he other Republicans were unable to repeal many of Johnson's programs.[245] Historian Kent Germany writes that, "the legacies of death, renewal, and opportunity attached to the Johnson administration are ironic, confusing, and uncertain. They will likely remain that way."[253]


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Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Andrew, John A. (1999). Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 978-1566631853. OCLC 37884743.
  • Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (1991)
  • Brands, H. W. (1997). The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195113778.
  • Cohen, Warren I., and Nancy Bernkopf Tuckerm, eds. Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy 1963–1968 (Cambridge UP, 1994).
  • Colman, Jonathan. The Foreign Policy of Lyndon B. Johnson: The United States and the World, 1963–1969 (Edinburgh University Press, 2010) 231 pp.
  • Dallek, Robert (2004). Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1280502965., Abridged version of his two-volume biography
  • Ellis, Sylvia (2013). Freedom's Pragmatist: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  • Gavin, Francis J. and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds. (2014) Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the New Global Challenges of the 1960s DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199790692.001.0001 online
  • Schulman, Bruce J. (1995). Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0312083519.
  • Vandiver, Frank E. Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson's Wars (1997)
  • Woods, Randall B. Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism (2016), 480pp.
  • Zarefsky, David. President Johnson's War on Poverty (1986).