History Essays - Lyndon B Johnson

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Discuss the historical significance of LyndonB Johnson

LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?!? wasone of the principal protest chants of the 1960s in the United States. It wasdirected at President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was in reference to the war inVietnam that the American government under the Johnson administration had beensteadily become more involved in each passing year after he came to officefollowing Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. One can only imagine how thismust have hurt for a man of Johnson's pride and character. Being accused ofkilling children is not something that anyone takes lightly.

His reputation as aconnoisseur of Washington hid visionary leadership qualities. He knew how toget what he wanted and when. He realized that American society had to change asthe first post World War Two generation was clamouring for a greater voice insociety. His election in 1964 was one of the biggest majorities ever.

It is hard to find ahistorical figure that does not have more than one facet or side to theirpolitical legacy and life, and Lyndon Johnson was no exception, but in hiscase, 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 ofthe war in Vietnam. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

Part A) Visionary: Kennedy's footstepsand 'Great Society.'

Any president who comes tooffice following the death, accidental or not, of another president findshimself or herself in that shadow of that person. The position ofvice-president is not an easy one in American government and politics. Itcarries no power and limited stature. One constantly feels second to holder ofthe office of president. Naturally, the vice-president is part of the cabinetand provides advice, but the political ideals and program belong to the currentpresident. Looking at Kennedy and Johnson, one can only see differences, butthe political need of Kennedy for Southern votes in 1960 made him chooseJohnson. His victory created the myth of Camelot, which still stands to thisdate. He believed in civil rights for all Americans and wanted a more peacefulrelationship with the Soviet Union. He was young and handsome, which generateda huge amount of charisma. His death robbed the United States of a leader ofgreat potential. On November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson stepped into his shoesfollowing his assassination. He lacked Kennedy's charisma, but soon showedconfidence. His reputation as a master of the Senate was proof of competenceand knowledge. These skills would be soon into great demand as he wasimmediately confronted with the need to resolve multiple societal problems,such as race relations in the South and health care; issues that Kennedy hadstarted looking at in his brief tenure as president. Johnson felt he had tobring the solutions to fruition, both for the country and Kennedy, and lastlyfor himself, which meant putting his imprint on them.

The United States of the1960s was in the throes of racial tensions and economic retardation. Southernstates were resisting and ignoring federal attempts to impose civil rights forblacks. The result of which was the low voting levels and harassment of blacksin the American Deep South. There were periodical racial riots requiring attimes the intervention of federal National Guard to quell them. Unemploymentwas rising and many Americans had no kind of medical coverage. The Americanconstitutional order placed checks and balances on every level of power, but asthe source of the racial inequalities was being ignored for very many reasons thatare beyond the scope of this discussion, although one of them was that manypresidents were reluctant to rock the boat fearing electoral and legislativesetbacks. Such fears did not scare Johnson, as he had earned and cherished aSenate reputation of bending and cajoling other lawmakers to his way ofthinking.He could be many things to many people. His birth in the Southern state ofTexas gave him the image of a 'good ol'boy,' which could be utilized to greateffect. This appeal and experience would be highly beneficial as he was able topush through many legislative reforms by the end of 1965.

Every January, the currentAmerican president gives a State of the Union address during which he or sheproposes various ideas and programs for that year. At this point, Johnsondeclared a 'War on Poverty' and called for the passing of Kennedy's taxcut and civil rights bill; the first easily passed its hurdles, while thesecond quickly got delayed. Part of his 'war' on poverty involved creating jobsthrough massive government aid and intervention, very much on the scale ofRoosevelt's Great Deal in the 1930s, which served as his inspiration as heunderstood 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 thetrue representative of freedom in the world, which meant bringing violence andsuffering to people around the world as everyone had their own There were twoother major legislative elements of the 'Great Society,' namely Medicare andMedicaid, 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, whilethe latter two provided federal aid to schools. Some of his opponents arguedthat all of these reforms were federal involvement in state affairs and foughtcourt cases to resist or delay them.

A country of the stature ofthe United States could not claim to be torchbearer of democracy and freedom,when a quarter of citizens were denied their rights and many governmentalinstitutions either colluded in their denial or stood by while it occurred.Kennedy recognized this horror, although his predecessor Eisenhower had startedredressing the ill when he ordered the National Guard to intervene during theLittle Rock crisis in 1957. The Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964, whilethe Voting Rights Act in 1965. The riots and violence soon became things of thepast except when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968resulting in riots across 100 cities. A new Civil Rights Act was passed laterthat year.

On a more personal level, hewas the first American president to nominate a black person to the SupremeCourt and the Cabinet, who were Thurgood Marshall previously having served asthe solicitor-general of the United States in 1967 and Robert Weaver assecretary of housing and urban development in 1966. Both of these decisionsopened up some of the last bureaucratic rooms to racial integration despite theracist cringing of many Southern senators and governors.

Part B) Ideologue: Cold War and thequicksand of Vietnam.

The war in Vietnam wouldbecome Johnson's undoing. Like almost any other project or idea that he had, hewanted to fight and win it. His major pieces of legislation had been passed byearly 1965 or were on their way. This 'freedom' permitted him to increase theAmerican presence in Vietnam. He ordered the first combat troops into Vietnamreversing 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 guidingprinciple of many elements of American foreign policy, but sadly it was veryblinkered way of thinking, because the theory soon became the reality as factswere manipulated, or even created, to fit into it. The inability to grow beyondit would hamper much of Johnson's thinking on Vietnam. The initial Americaninvolvement in Vietnam dated from 1955 after the French had been defeated atDien Bien Phu when the United States under Eisenhower felt it had to buttressnon-Communist forces in South East Asia.

The world of the 1960s was inthe throes of a cooling-off period in the Cold War after having closely brushedwith nuclear Armageddon in Cuba in October 1962, and the growing Americaninvolvement was perceived as a renewed hot period. Not everyone believed inthis war, as they realized that it was a battle between two opposing ideologies,Capitalism and Communism; both of which had their supporters and critics, andthe question was why did someone have to choose between them. Many counties didignore the two superpowers and formed the 'Non-Aligned Movement.'Unsurprisingly, this act angered both superpowers. The nature of this 'war' wasthat the United States and Soviet Union never actually fought each other, butused proxies to fulfil their ideological agendas. Ironically, the politicalnature of many of these proxies was that they were corrupt, repressive anddictatorial; for instance in the case of Vietnam, the Diem government in theSouth supported by the Johnson administration was suppressing opposition to itsrule, 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 Americangovernment to overthrow him, but this only further destabilized the country andaccelerated its slide into chaos. The basic Cold War philosophy meant that thelegitimate democratic needs and hopes of millions were ignored, and it can beargued that this fact damaged the United States more than it did the SovietUnion 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 wasone of his justifications to get involved in Vietnam.This argument begs belief. In the end, this contradiction could not beresolved, and it became the source of the American military and political loss.

When Lyndon Johnson came tooffice, there were only about 16000 advisers in Vietnam, but he would raise thenumber of combat soldiers to almost 50000 by the late 1960s. He increased thenumber 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, asbridges, dams and building were destroyed. Such destruction put a stop to anydevelopment projects by the Vietnamese. One of the consequences of such amassive bombing was the scarring of the landscape whereby huge holes were madeall across the country creating impediments to agricultural development. One ofthe more tragic episodes of the Vietnam War was the authorization to use a weedkiller to defoliate trees and shrubs in the hope of uncovering supply routesused 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 ofhumans. Protests quickly grew as claims were raised that it was causing variousforms of cancer in both Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers, andrecently studies have slowly tended to support such views. The psychologicalsuccess but military failure of the North Vietnamese's Tet offensive in 1968started the American military withdrawal process. In a major reversal, Johnsonstopped increasing troops and thought of ways to extricate himself and hiscountry from Vietnam. The failure of Johnson to realize that the war was basedon the desire of independence of a people at all costs meant that regardless ofhow many military victories were achieved, the war never ended.It has been a standing law in American politics to not bring back soldiers inbody bags as it is politically damaging. Every death was a nail in Johnson'spolitical coffin. The chant 'Ho, Ho Chi Minh' shouted by American protestersmust have been devastating to Johnson as they cheered his opponent in a warthat he supported.

In other areas of the gloomyworld of the Cold War, Johnson was quite forward thinking and deserved credit.The close call of nuclear destruction during the Cuba Missile Crisis meant thata special red phone line was installed so that the leaders of the United Statesand Soviet Union could talk to each other quickly. To accelerate communicationand travel, a new air route was installed between Moscow and New York City. Hismeeting with Premier Kosygin in June 1967 was another in a recent line ofsummits between American and Soviet leaders, and their discussions led toproposals to reduce the development of nuclear weapons, which later on grewinto the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons ratifiedinternationally in March 1970, but unfortunately as this was passed by theAmerican Senate in 1969 after Johnson had left office, much of the credit wentto his successor, Richard Nixon. This agreement was one of the first majorlimitations of nuclear use and was the father of the Strategic Arms LimitationTalks, otherwise known as SALT.


According to ancient Egyptianmythology, the soul of every person was weighed measuring his or her good andbad deeds so as to decide their place in the Afterworld. This view has bothnegative and positive aspects as every action has a value, but one huge good orbad act can outweigh a lot of small bad or good ones. Depending on whom youask, both the Vietnam War and the 'Great Society' can be either, butprosecuting an unnecessary war is hard to defend, while programs designed tohelp the needy is so much easier to do so. The war in Vietnam failed to achieveany of its objectives of liberating people and extending American power in theregion, while the 'Great Society' opened up American society to new levels andmade more people feel part of it.

In this regard, a very simpledescription of Lyndon Johnson's place in history is that he was a divisivefigure. He was the author of two 'great' things in American society; firstlythe 'Great Society' and secondly the Vietnam War, although the present use ofthe term 'great' is in its sense of social grandeur and socially revolutionary.He is remembered affectionately and hated deeply for each of them, but notalways in the way that some of us might think. It is a mark of thisdivisiveness, which he himself recognized, that he stepped aside from runningagain as president in March 1968. His successor as president was Richard M.Nixon.


Morris, Errol. TheFog of War. DVD. Columbia Tri Star, 2004.

Johnson, Lyndon. TheVantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. Holt, Rinehartand Winston, 1971.

Caro, Robert A. Masterof the Senate: the years of Lyndon Johnson. Cape, 2002.

Bernstein, Irving. Gunsor Butter: the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dallek, Robert. FlawedGiant: Lyndon Johnson and his times, 1961-1973. Oxford University Press,1998.