The story of the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency is essentially one of three parts. You have the beginning, with a man taking over and trying to continue the work of his beloved predecessor. You have the part where Johnson is elected as president in his own right and furthers many important causes. And then there is the part where things start to fall apart, with growing tensions over the Vietnam War and a decline in health and popularity
While it all began as a way to build on the legacy of John F. Kennedy, Johnson would go on to make great progress on major issues. But, few forgave him for the war.
Lyndon B. Johnson takes over the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
On November 22nd, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated while traveling through Dallas in the presidential motorcade. The event would stun the nation and a shocked Vice-President Johnson would be sworn in to take over the role. It was agreed that the sooner Johnson took his role, the better it was for the stability of the nation.
The event led to one of the most famous photos of a swearing-in ceremony to ever take place. Johnson took the oath, placing his hand on Kennedy’s Catholic missal by mistake in the confusion, while on Air Force One. Just over two hours had passed, and yet Kennedy’s widow stood beside him for the process.
Johnson would make sure to honor and memorialize Kennedy in the early years.
The nature of Johnson’s rise to the role of president is one that no vice president wants. Not only was he thrown into power at a time beyond his control, but he had to deal with the nation’s grief and take the place of a well-loved man.
It was, therefore, vital that Johnson set the right tone and worked carefully to make Kennedy as much a part of the rest of the term as possible. He would make sure to honor him with speech and memorials while also fighting for causes and legislation Kennedy had started.
A key example is the decision to rename the NASA facilities at Cape Canaveral as the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
Four days after taking office, Johnson gave a speech to Congress to create a strong platform for this new phase in the presidency and the transition from the Kennedy administration. There was a big focus on the idea of continuing Kennedy’s work and honoring him as best they could.
The speech is known as the “Let Us Continue” speech, and it highlighted the idea that
“no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill”.
The establishment of the Warren Commission.
Another important decision relating to Kennedy occurred just days later. On November 29th, Johnson signed an executive order to establish the Warren Commission. This commission would investigate the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracies surrounding it in order to bring some closure and justice.
There was a unanimous verdict that it was Lee Harvey Oswald that shot the president and that he acted alone. Still, critics remain unconvinced based on some of the evidence.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had begun until the administration of President Kennedy. Kennedy submitted his bill to Congress in June 1963 but was opposed.
On his death, it fell to Johnson to see it through and this became a priority for the rest of the term. It was still strongly opposed but, after a strong fight and great debate, the bill passed. The Senate did so with a vote of 71–29 before it was signed into law on July 2nd, 1964.
Johnson’s ongoing work on civil rights and relationship with Martin Luther King.
Of course, it wasn’t enough for Johnson to simply sign in this law and be done with the civil rights movement. There was still so much more to achieve and so much more that would test the nation with growing tensions and disagreements over African-American rights.
A major piece of legislation during this time was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill gave African-Americans the vote across the country, helping to bring some further equality to those in the southern states.
Johnson knew at the time that the idea was risky in terms of future political support, but also that it was the right thing to do following the Selma to Montgomery marches. He would also go on to pass a further Civil Rights Act of 1968, with great emphasis on housing opportunities, and would prosecute members of the KKK.
While Johnson would make great gains, there were also plenty of challenges. Civil unrest continued throughout the 1960s and again following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
The riots of Harlem in 1964 and Los Angeles in 1965 were particularly violent and disruptive. At first, Johnson would show empathy and sympathy for those involved in the riots.
“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?”.
However, the conditions of the riots and threats imposed meant he would also call in the Army and National Guard to put an end to the conflict. There was even a measure to guard the White House.
Lyndon B. Johnson achieves re-election in 1964.
In 1964, Johnson sought re-election to continue his work and secure the White House for the Democrats for another term. There were concerns that this would not go well in the southern states following the recent signing of the Civil Rights Act. The fear was that this would drive those against the legislation closer to the Republicans that opposed it.
For a while, this appeared to be the case, and there was strong southern support for Barry Goldwater instead.
However, Johnson managed to portray Goldwater as the man you didn’t want with the nuclear code.
The “Daisy” ad with the small child and the mushroom cloud remains one of the most iconic campaign ads.
Johnson would go on to win with 61.05% of the vote and the widest margin in the popular vote in the 20th century.
Johnson could then return to the White House after this short period as Kennedy’s replacement as elected President. Now he had the public support to continue the work of the Democratic party and to continue with several important causes besides the civil rights movement.
Johnson’s plan for The Great Society.
A new term meant a chance to bring forward a range of new policies and ideas for social reform. A lot of this was mentioned in a speech back in May 1964 on the road to re-election. He spoke of The Great Society and the chance to make massive improvements in various areas.
This included education reform, improvements to urban infrastructure through modern transportation, a cleaner environment, better policies on crime and gun control, as well as measures to reduce poverty and improve healthcare.
Johnson and education.
Education was an important part of the Johnson agenda. Johnson himself had started out as a teacher before turning to politics. He worked in a small Hispanic school on the Mexican border while a student at the Southwest Texas State Teachers College. His time there is sure to have had an impact on both his desire to improve education standards but also to work on social causes for different races.
Which leads to his impact on immigration.
The Immigration and Nationality Act came into force in 1965. This lead to massive reform in the immigration system and changes to the quotas that had been in place since the 1920s. This led to a doubling of numbers entering the country between 1965 and 1970, with many entering from Mexico, Latin America, and Asia.
Johnson and gun control.
It should come as little surprise that gun control was a big part of policies related to crime. The use of firearms in the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations drove Johnson to see greater restrictions in place. On October 22, 1968, Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was one of the most problematic issues of the Johnson presidency. Johnson was left to deal with the situation created by Kennedy but was unable to bring the country back out.
He initially reversed the decision to bring 1000 military personnel out of the area and was convinced by advisors not to withdraw until there was a stronger base in place.
The conflict would drag on for years with no end in sight and large casualty numbers. 1964-65 saw a bombing campaign to continue to resist the communist takeover of South Vietnam.
Retaliation by the Viet Cong at the Pleiku Air Base led to the deaths of 8 advisors and would spark Operation Rolling Thunder – all while trying to underplay any sign of advancement to the American public. Yet, the number of American ground forces would increase by 150%, before reaching 200,000 in October 1965.
Back in the US, there was growing support for the anti-Vietnam movement. Many Americans wanted the war to be over and for Johnson to bring the troops out of Vietnam entirely. Thousands would attend marches and protests, including a march at the Pentagon and a protest at Johnson’s hotel during a visit to Los Angeles.
The war would continue and it wasn’t until the Nixon administration that it finally ended. The ongoing conflict and failure to listen to the public meant that Johnson’s popularity would decline dramatically.
The 1968 presidential election.
Failing health and concerns over the war meant that Johnson could not seek another term. He was eligible to do so, because of the shortness of his time in the White House during his first term. But, there was great opposition from anti-war Democrats and the knowledge that the public was no longer on Johnson’s side. He reached a low approval rating of 36%.
Johnson’s personal concerns about his health were another major factor in the decision not to stand again. He had taken part in a study that predicted his death at the age of 64, so feared he might not make it through a full four-year term. He would announce that he would not seek re-election to the public at the end of March 1968. Interestingly, his approval rating shot up after this announcement to 49%, suggesting he has finally made a call the public agreed with.
Lyndon B. Johnson dies in 1973 on his ranch.
Incredibly, Johnson would die at the age of 64. He was dealing with heart issues, had taken up smoking again, and had put on weight since leaving office. A series of heart attacks lead to tests that revealed the need for bypass surgery, although it was felt that he would not survive the procedure.
He suffered a final fatal heart attack on January 22nd, 1973. A state funeral then followed, with his body lying in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol.
The legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson as the man that finished Kennedy’s work.
Whether or not you agree with the policies and choices made by Johnson over his time in the White House, there is no denying his impact on several important social justice causes.
The length and the handling of the Vietnam War were regrettable.
Johnson does not have the same legacy as Kennedy regarding public image, memorials, or other dedications. This is largely down to the nature of Kennedy’s death, but also the work of Johnson himself to honor his colleague and attach Kennedy’s name to so much work.
Johnson is often seen as the man that got Kennedy’s ideas signed into law, rather than the man that made significant changes of his own. But, the laws on gun control, immigration, and more show that he was no caretaker president. Furthermore, it is fitting that after Johnson created the John F. Kennedy Space Centre, The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center was created in 1973.