The Johnson Presidency (1963-1968)

Figure 1.--

Lyndon Johnson in the 1960 campaign was John F. Kennedy's running mate, and was elected Vice President. Most political analysts believe that Johnson's presence on the ticket enabled Kennedy to carry some southern states, especially Texas, and narrowly defeat Vice President Nixon. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was sworn in as President. "A Great Society" for the American people and their fellow men elsewhere was the vision of Lyndon B. Johnson. In his first years of office he obtained passage of one of the most extensive legislative programs in the Nation's history. Maintaining collective security, he carried on the rapidly growing struggle to restrain Communist encroachment in Viet Nam.

Civil Rights

Johnson obtained enactment of the measures President Kennedy had been urging at the time of his death. Most notable here was --a new civil rights bill in 1964. This was followed by an even more importan law in 1965, the Voting Rights Act which removed obstacles to the right to vote. This law has probably affected American political life more than any other Government action since the abolition of slavery. Johnson pursued civil rights in many other ways such as appointments of minorities and the use of Federal law enforcement personnel to protect civil rights workers and arrest Klan leaders and sympethizers terrorizing black citizens. The Great Society programs like Head Start and others had major consequences in the area of civil rights.

Economic Program

Johnson also secured another program that had been advocated by President Kennedy, a tax cut.

The Great Society

Johnson urged the Nation "to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor." In 1964, Johnson won the Presidency with 61 percent of the vote and had the widest popular margin in American history--more than 15,000,000 votes. The Great Society program became Johnson's agenda for Congress in January 1965: aid to education, attack on disease, Medicare, urban renewal, beautification, conservation, development of depressed regions, a wide-scale fight against poverty, control and prevention of crime and delinquency. Congress, at times augmenting or amending, rapidly enacted Johnson's recommendations. Millions of elderly people found succor through the 1965 Medicare amendment to the Social Security Act. Programs that liberals had sought since the New Deal were enacted in the first years of the Johnson presidency. Large Democratic Congressional majorities and Johnson's political insights allowed his administration to enact one of the far reaching programs of reforms in American history. Despite the beginning of new antipoverty and anti-discrimination programs, unrest and rioting in black ghettos troubled the Nation. President Johnson steadily exerted his influence against segregation and on behalf of law and order, but there was no early solution. The inter-city riots had the impact of sapping the support of middle America for further liberal programs in civil rights and anti-poverty. Capped with the failed Viet Nam War policies, the Johnson Administration would be the high point of liberalism in America and the beginning of a return to conservatism that dominated the American electorate at the turn of the 21st Century. Despite sometime viterolic conservative attacks against Johnson, the Great Society, and liberalism. the Great Society reforms have largely continued intact, some have even been expanded.


The historical assessment of the Johnson presidency would have focusedc largely on civil rights and the Great Society had it not been for Vietnam. President Johnson in 1965 decided to commit American combat troops to Viet Nam. Johnson was doubtful about the commitment from the onset, but was afraid of the Republicans in the Congress would attack him for being soft on communism and the resulting political consequences. Faced with the fall of the anti-communist regime in Viet Nam, Johnson decided on a major escalation and committed combat troops in 1965. Despite Johnson's efforts to end Communist aggression and achieve a settlement, fighting continued. The American military and political leadership, including Johnson, badly miscalculated the cost in men and materials and the length of the struggle needed for victory. Generally Johnson is criticised for both commiting the military and for conduct of the War. The military in fact planned and proceuted the War poorly. This has generally been lost in the military's complaint that it's "hands were tied". Johnson has been rightly criticized for micromanging the War, but in part this occurred because of the military's inadequate planning and sometimes even reckless demands. [Cohen] The military's planning in Kuwait, the Balkans, and Afganistan is in sharp contrast to the inadequate direction of the Vietnam War effort.

The Space Program

Under Johnson, the country made spectacular explorations of space in a program he had championed since its start. When three astronauts successfully orbited the moon in December 1968, Johnson congratulated them: "You've taken ... all of us, all over the world, into a new era ... " The space prgram in may ways was an artifact of the Cold War. Winning the race to the moon, indeed probably was the turning point in the Cold War. Increasingly after the American success the weaknesses of the Soviet system began to become increasingly apparent. The space program, along with the larger defense program, however, were responsible for America's modern mastery of technology.


After 1965 President Johnson's popularity slowly but steadily declined. The riots in the America's urban centers as well as escalting crime rates had a unsettling impact on the white middle class that had supported both Johnson's civil rights efforts and anti-poverty efforts through the Great Society programs. The steady flow of body bags home and the nightly view of the War on the evening news programs slowly sapped public support for the War. The American public increasingly began to see the cost as far outweighing the objectives and were increasing unwilling to send their sons to fight a war that just seenmed to drag on. Controversy over the war had become acute by the end of March 1968, when Johnson limited the bombing of North Vietnam to initiate negotiations. At the same time, he startled the world by withdrawing as a candidate for re-election so that he might devote his full efforts, unimpeded by politics, to the quest for peace. He clearly saw that the failure of his war policies would make his reelection difficult. When President Johnson left office, peace talks were under way; he did not live to see them successful, but died suddenly of a heart attack at his Texas ranch on January 22, 1973.


Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (Knopf: New York, 1982).

Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command (Free Press, 2002), 288p.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: July 15, 2002
Last changed: July 15, 2002