Lyndon B. Johnson

(1908–1973) U.S. president

Lyndon Baines Johnson, nicknamed LBJ, was the 36th president of the United States. Prior to that, he had been vice president during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. He is best remembered for presiding over the United States during the Vietnam War, and also for his efforts in promoting Civil Rights in the southern parts of the United States.

Lyndon Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, at Gillespie County, Texas, the eldest of five children. His father was Sam Ealy Johnson Jr., a businessman who was also a member of the Texas House of Representatives, and his mother was Rebekah (née Baines), who was the daughter of Joseph Baines, another state legislator. Johnson left high school in 1924, and, after three years working in odd jobs, he studied at the Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, Texas, and then taught at Cotulla, Texas.

In 1930 Johnson worked for Democrat Richard Kleberg, who was standing for Congress, accompanying him to Washington, D.C., when he was elected. Four years later he married Claudia Alta Taylor, who became known as “Lady Bird.” It was in Washington that Johnson came to meet Sam Rayburn, the Texan chairman of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Johnson became director of the National Youth Administration for two years and then stood as a Democratic Party candidate for the 10th congressional district, winning his seat.

Johnson won a seat in the Senate in 1948 and spent 12 years there, becoming Democratic whip in 1951, minority leader in 1953, and majority leader in 1955. Johnson survived a serious heart attack in 1955, and became well known for his negotiating talent, using bluster, discipline, persuasiveness, and ruthlessness. In 1960 Johnson lost the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination to Kennedy by 809 to 409 on the first ballot. He then accepted the vice-presidential slot.

As vice president, Johnson found himself unable to do much of the negotiating that he had enjoyed. On November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson took the oath of office as president on Air Force One, the presidential plane, just before it took off from Love Field, Dallas, to take Kennedy’s body back to Washington. Johnson immediately set up a commission to investigate the assassination, appointing Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to chair it.

Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office on Air Force One
following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Johnson had a hard task maintaining the dignity and authority of the office of the president and ensuring some form of continuity. He had long been a supporter of civil rights, and in February 1964 managed to get the Civil Rights Act introduced in Congress. It was passed by the Senate in June 1964. After it was signed into law on July 2, 1964, ending segregation and any discrimination on grounds of race or sex, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court, which found it was valid. Hoping for the success of this legislation, Johnson made his famous speech on May 22, 1964, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in which he announced his plans for the “Great Society.”

In 1964 the Republican Party chose Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to run against Johnson, giving the incumbent an easier election campaign than he had expected. Johnson won 486 of the electoral college seats to 52 for Goldwater, with Johnson taking 61 percent of the vote, the largest percentage ever taken in a presidential election.

The emerging problem for Johnson was, however, the growing war in Vietnam. In August 1964 news stories revealed that North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked a U.S. destroyer and then launched another attack several days later. It subsequently emerged that the second attack had not taken place, and there are many doubts over the nature of the first attack. Nevertheless Johnson did believe that the U.S. destroyers had been attacked and launched a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam. He also managed to get Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him the authority to do whatever was needed to deal with the communists in Vietnam. Public support for the war effort fell as the United States suffered huge casualties. By 1967 there were large demonstrations, and by 1968 Johnson had become increasingly unpopular.

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, an American intelligence-gathering ship, was seized by North Korea after ending up in their waters. The crew of 80 were all captured and held for 11 months until the U.S. government apologized and obtained their release, later retracting their apology. Johnson had ordered the USS Enterprise into the region, but acted with caution.

In the week after the seizing of the Pueblo, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, with television coverage of Vietcong capturing the U.S. embassy. General William Westmoreland had promised that the war was nearly over three months earlier. The United States and South Vietnam quickly managed to defeat the Vietcong attacks, but most people refused to believe the administration’s protestations that victory was close. Johnson decided not to contest the election and on March 31, 1968, in a national address on television, stated that he would neither seek nor accept the Democrat Party’s renomination.

The 1968 election campaign saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the African-American civil rights leader, on April 4, leading to rioting in Washington, D.C., and many other cities. The assassination of presidential candidate and former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on June 6 resulted in widespread political unease. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was guaranteed the Democrat Party nomination when the party convention was held in Chicago, but antiwar protestors converged on the city intent on making their opposition to the war heard.

Johnson tried to help Humphrey, who called for an unconditional U.S. halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and in October, a week before the election, Johnson announced the end of all U.S. bombing to open the way for peace talks. It was too late for many people, and they voted for Richard Nixon.

In January 1969 Johnson retired to his L.B.J. Ranch near Johnson City, Texas. Johnson suffered a heart attack, and died on January 22, 1973, in San Antonio, Texas, only five days before the Paris Peace Accords stopped the fighting in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was buried at his ranch.

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