Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was the 36th president of the United States, taking office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy until his retirement in 1968. He is best known for approving American military escalation in the Vietnam War.
Born in rural Texas, Johnson trained as a teacher then worked for a time in a one-room schoolhouse. His experiences with poor minorities left Johnson with an interest in social reform, particularly in the areas of poverty, education and racial equality.
Previously involved in student politics, Johnson ran for Congress as a Democrat, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1937. He later moved to the Senate (1948) and became majority leader there (1954).
During his time in Congress, Johnson became a champion of domestic reform. He hoped to forge what he later called the “Great Society”, where government provided education, healthcare and support to the poor and marginalised. Johnson’s attention to social reform was typified by two Civil Rights Acts, passed in 1957 and 1960, both championed by Johnson.
Vice-president to president
John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate for the 1960 presidential election, due to Johnson’s Senate leadership, his reformist agenda and his popularity in Texas. Johnson became Kennedy’s vice president in January 1961. Among other roles, he was given oversight of the US space program, with a view to overtaking the Soviet Union in this area.
Johnson was thrust into the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Like the presidents before him, Lyndon Johnson was a strong advocate for containment and the Domino Theory. He was not well versed in foreign policy, so relied heavily on advice from his military chiefs and White House staff.
The Cold War loomed large during Johnson’s presidency but the pressing issue was America’s involvement in Vietnam. Johnson came to see Vietnam as a national challenge. To withdraw from South Vietnam and surrender it to the communists would undermine America’s authority and capacity to lead the Cold War. During 1964 Johnson strengthened America’s military presence in South Vietnam and appointed General William Westmoreland and Maxwell Taylor to significant roles there. The president privately consented to military action against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, though he preferred to wait until after the 1964 presidential election.
Involvement in Vietnam
In late 1964, Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident (August 1964) as a pretext for American military intervention. Johnson sought and obtained a sweeping resolution from Congress, which became his ‘blank cheque’ for waging war in Vietnam. American air strikes against North Vietnam were expanded and intensified, followed by the first landings of US combat troops in March 1965.
Under Johnson, America’s military commitment to Vietnam steadily increased; so too did the numbers of American deaths and casualties. Johnson himself spoke optimistically of the war in Vietnam, telling the American people that progress had been made and that the enemy was weakening. Privately, however, he often expressed frustrations, doubts and misgivings about the Vietnam conflict.
Johnson made numerous attempts to build a working peace with North Vietnam. Some of these attempts were made privately and others publicly; a pause or cessation of US bombing was often held out as an incentive to Hanoi.
Escalation and growing unpopularity
By 1968, the Johnson administration was approaching a state of crisis. American military strategy in Vietnam had failed to achieve much except thousands of US casualties. The political and economic costs of the Vietnam War had crippled Johnson’s program of social reforms and caused the budget deficit to almost triple in the space of a year.
The Tet Offensive (January 1968) prompted Johnson to order an analysis and reevaluation of the situation in Vietnam. This was followed by a shift in policy and the replacement of Westmoreland as the commander of US forces in South Vietnam.
Johnson’s approval rating had also declined rapidly through 1967 and it appeared he may lose the Democratic nomination to Robert F. Kennedy. On March 31st 1968, Johnson addressed the nation, declaring that bombing runs against North Vietnam would be suspended – and that he would not seek or accept reelection as president in November that year.
Johnson retired in January 1969. His memoirs and subsequent interviews revealed a man still troubled by the Vietnam War and how it was handled. Lyndon Johnson died at his Texas home in January 1973.
1. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th president of the United States, serving from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 until his retirement in January 1969.
2. Johnson was born in rural Texas and spent his early years working as a teacher in poor communities. This gave him a lifelong interest in social reform and welfare policies.
3. On becoming vice president in January 1961 Johnson was given oversight of the US space program. He became president after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963.
4. Johnson was an advocate of containment and the Domino Theory. The pressing issue of his time was Vietnam, which Johnson was determined not to lose to the communists.
5. Following his advisors, Johnson approved American military escalation in Vietnam. The human and financial costs of the Vietnam War were disastrous, however, and Johnson’s approval rating plummeted. In March 1968 he announced that he would not seek re-election in that year’s presidential election.