Discuss the historical significance of Lyndon B. Johnson
‘LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?’ Was one of the principal protest chants of the 1960s in the United States. It was directed at President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was about the war in Vietnam that the American government under the Johnson administration had been steadily become more involved in each passing year after he came to office following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. One can only imagine how this must have hurt for a man of Johnson’s pride and character. Being accused of killing children is not something that anyone takes lightly.
His reputation as a connoisseur of Washington hid visionary leadership qualities. He knew how to get what he wanted and when. He realized that American society had to change as the first post-World War Two generation was clamouring for a greater voice in society. His election in 1964 was one of the biggest majorities ever.
It is hard to find a historical figure that does not have more than one facet or side to their political legacy and life, and Lyndon Johnson was no exception, but in his case, it was so much more pronounced. Yes, he was historically significant. Itis impossible to argue that he was not. This significance is firstly in his ‘Great Society’ legislation and philosophy, and secondly in his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Each of these will be discussed in turn.
Part A) Visionary: Kennedy’s footsteps and ‘Great Society.’
Any president who comes to office following the death, accidental or not, of another president finds himself or herself in that shadow of that person. The position of vice-president is not an easy one in American government and politics. It carries no power and limited stature. One constantly feels second to holder of the office of president. Naturally, the vice-president is part of the cabinet and provides advice, but the political ideals and program belong to the current president. Looking at Kennedy and Johnson, one can only see differences, but the political need of Kennedy for Southern votes in 1960 made him choose Johnson. His victory created the myth of Camelot, which still stands to this date. He believed in civil rights for all Americans and wanted a more peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union. He was young and handsome, which generated a huge amount of charisma. His death robbed the United States of a leader of great potential. On November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson stepped into his shoes following his assassination. He lacked Kennedy’s charisma, but soon showed confidence. His reputation as a master of the Senate was proof of competence and knowledge. These skills would be soon into great demand as he was immediately confronted with the need to resolve multiple societal problems, such as race relations in the South and health care; issues that Kennedy had started looking at in his brief tenure as president. Johnson felt he had to bring the solutions to fruition, both for the country and Kennedy, and lastly for himself, which meant putting his imprint on them.
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The United States of the 1960s was in the throes of racial tensions and economic retardation. Southern states were resisting and ignoring federal attempts to impose civil rights for blacks. The result of which was the low voting levels and harassment of blacks in the American Deep South. There were periodical racial riots requiring at times the intervention of federal National Guard to quell them. Unemployment was rising and many Americans had no kind of medical coverage. The American constitutional order placed checks and balances on every level of power, but as the source of the racial inequalities was being ignored for very many reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion, although one of them was that many presidents were reluctant to rock the boat fearing electoral and legislative setbacks. Such fears did not scare Johnson, as he had earned and cherished a Senate reputation of bending and cajoling other lawmakers to his way of thinking. He could be many things to many people. His birth in the Southern state of Texas gave him the image of a ‘good ol’boy,’ which could be utilized to great effect. This appeal and experience would be highly beneficial as he was able to push through many legislative reforms by the end of 1965.
Every January, the current American president gives a State of the Union address during which he or she proposes various ideas and programs for that year. At this point, Johnson declared a ‘War on Poverty’ and called for the passing of Kennedy’s tax cut and civil rights bill; the first easily passed its hurdles, while the second quickly got delayed. Part of his ‘war’ on poverty involved creating jobs through massive government aid and intervention, very much on the scale of Roosevelt’s Great Deal in the 1930s, which served as his inspiration as he understood that the state could not stand by while the people suffered. This realization was in stark contrast to his view of the United States as the true representative of freedom in the world, which meant bringing violence and suffering to people around the world as everyone had their own There were two other major legislative elements of the ‘Great Society,’ namely Medicare and Medicaid, and the Higher and Elementary and Secondary Education Acts in 1965;the former two set up health care funding for the elderly and the needy, while the latter two provided federal aid to schools. Some of his opponents argued that these reforms were federal involvement in state affairs and fought court cases to resist or delay them.
A country of the stature of the United States could not claim to be torch bearer of democracy and freedom, when a quarter of citizens were denied their rights and many governmental institutions either colluded in their denial or stood by while it occurred. Kennedy recognized this horror, although his predecessor Eisenhower had started redressing the ill when he ordered the National Guard to intervene during the Little Rock crisis in 1957. The Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964, while the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The riots and violence soon became things of the past except when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968resulting in riots across 100 cities. A new Civil Rights Act was passed later that year.
On a more personal level, he was the first American president to nominate a black person to the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, who were Thurgood Marshall previously having served as the solicitor-general of the United States in 1967 and Robert Weaver as secretary of housing and urban development in 1966. Both decisions opened some of the last bureaucratic rooms to racial integration despite the racist cringing of many Southern senators and governors.
Part B) Ideologue: Cold War and the quicksand of Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam would become Johnson’s undoing. Like almost any other project or idea that he had, he wanted to fight and win it. His major pieces of legislation had been passed by early 1965 or were on their way. This ‘freedom’ permitted him to increase the American presence in Vietnam. He ordered the first combat troops into Vietnam reversing a Kennedy policy of pulling out of Vietnam as he believed in the ‘Domino Theory’ whereby if one country fell to Communism, others would follow, so a stand had to be made and Vietnam fulfilled that role. This geo-political theory developed in the 1950s and soon became a guiding principle of many elements of American foreign policy, but sadly it was very blinkered way of thinking, because the theory soon became the reality as facts were manipulated, or even created, to fit into it. The inability to grow beyond it would hamper much of Johnson’s thinking on Vietnam. The initial American involvement in Vietnam dated from 1955 after the French had been defeated atDien Bien Phu when the United States under Eisenhower felt it had to buttress non-Communist forces in South East Asia.
The world of the 1960s was in the throes of a cooling-off period in the Cold War after having closely brushed with nuclear Armageddon in Cuba in October 1962, and the growing American involvement was perceived as a renewed hot period. Not everyone believed in this war, as they realized that it was a battle between two opposing ideologies, Capitalism and Communism; both of which had their supporters and critics, and the question was why did someone have to choose between them. Many counties did ignore the two superpowers and formed the ‘Non-Aligned Movement. ‘Unsurprisingly, this act angered both superpowers. The nature of this ‘war’ was that the United States and Soviet Union never actually fought each other, but used proxies to fulfil their ideological agendas. Ironically, the political nature of many of these proxies was that they were corrupt, repressive and dictatorial; for instance, in the case of Vietnam, the Diem government in the South supported by the Johnson administration was suppressing opposition to its rule, while Ho Chi Minh in the North was widely praised and respected. In atwist of irony, the repressive policies of the Diem government led the American government to overthrow him, but this only further destabilized the country and accelerated its slide into chaos. The basic Cold War philosophy meant that the legitimate democratic needs and hopes of millions were ignored, and it can be argued that this fact damaged the United States more than it did the Soviet Union as the United States claimed to be leader in world democracy and freedom. Johnson’s belief in the American mission to bring democracy to the world was one of his justifications to get involved in Vietnam. This argument begs belief. In the end, this contradiction could not be resolved, and it became the source of the American military and political loss.
When Lyndon Johnson came to office, there were only about 16000 advisers in Vietnam, but he would raise the number of combat soldiers to almost 50000 by the late 1960s. He increased the number of bomber missions in the hope of crushing the spirit of the Vietnamese. Not only was the cost in lives was enormous, but also in infrastructure, as bridges, dams and building were destroyed. Such destruction put a stop to any development projects by the Vietnamese. One of the consequences of such a massive bombing was the scarring of the landscape whereby huge holes were made across the country creating impediments to agricultural development. One of the more tragic episodes of the Vietnam War was the authorization to use a weed killer to defoliate trees and shrubs in the hope of uncovering supply routes used by the Vietnamese. It was code-named Agent Orange and was sprayed from planes flying over jungles. It was a pesticide and was never thought of as being dangerous to the health of humans. Protests quickly grew as claims were raised that it was causing various forms of cancer in both Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers, and recently studies have slowly tended to support such views. The psychological success but military failure of the North Vietnamese’s Tet offensive in 1968started the American military withdrawal process. In a major reversal, Johnson stopped increasing troops and thought of ways to extricate himself and his country from Vietnam. The failure of Johnson to realize that the war was based on the desire of independence of a people at all costs meant that regardless of how many military victories were achieved, the war never ended. It has been a standing law in American politics to not bring back soldiers in body bags as it is politically damaging. Every death was a nail in Johnson’s political coffin. The chant ‘How, Ho Chi Minh’ shouted by American protesters must have been devastating to Johnson as they cheered his opponent in a war that he supported.
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In other areas of the gloomy world of the Cold War, Johnson was quite forward thinking and deserved credit. The close call of nuclear destruction during the Cuba Missile Crisis meant that a special red phone line was installed so that the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union could talk to each other quickly. To accelerate communication and travel, a new air route was installed between Moscow and New York City. His meeting with Premier Kosygin in June 1967 was another in a recent line of summits between American and Soviet leaders, and their discussions led to proposals to reduce the development of nuclear weapons, which later grew into the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons ratified internationally in March 1970, but unfortunately as this was passed by the American Senate in 1969 after Johnson had left office, much of the credit went to his successor, Richard Nixon. This agreement was one of the first major limitations of nuclear use and was the father of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, otherwise known as SALT.
According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the soul of every person was weighed measuring his or her good and bad deeds to decide their place in the Afterword. This view has both negative and positive aspects as every action has a value, but one huge good or bad act can outweigh a lot of small bad or good ones. Depending on whom you ask, both the Vietnam War and the ‘Great Society’ can be either, but prosecuting an unnecessary war is hard to defend, while programs designed to help the needy is so much easier to do so. The war in Vietnam failed to achieve any of its objectives of liberating people and extending American power in the region, while the ‘Great Society’ opened American society to new levels and made more people feel part of it.
In this regard, a very simple description of Lyndon Johnson’s place in history is that he was a divisive figure. He was the author of two ‘great’ things in American society; firstly the ‘Great Society’ and secondly the Vietnam War, although the present use of the term ‘great’ is in its sense of social grandeur and socially revolutionary. He is remembered affectionately and hated deeply for each of them, but not always in the way that some of us might think. It is a mark of this divisiveness, which he himself recognized, that he stepped aside from running again as president in March 1968. His successor as president was Richard Nixon.
Morris, Errol. The Fog of War. DVD. Columbia Tri Star, 2004.
Johnson, Lyndon. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. Holt, Rinehartand Winston, 1971.
Caro, Robert A. Master of the Senate: the years of Lyndon Johnson. Cape, 2002.
Bernstein, Irving. Gunsor Butter: the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and his times, 1961-1973. Oxford University Press,1998.
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