Lyndon Baines Johnson became the 36th president
of the United States on the assassination of John F. Kennedy
in November 1963. A skilled promoter of liberal domestic
legislation, he was also a staunch believer in the use of
military force to help achieve the country's foreign policy
objectives. His escalation of American involvement in the
Vietnam War eroded his popular standing and led to his
decision not to run for reelection to the presidency in 1968.
Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, near
City, Tex., the eldest
son of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., and Rebekah Baines Johnson. His
father, a struggling farmer and cattle speculator in the hill
country of Texas, provided only an uncertain income for his
family. Politically active, Sam Johnson served five terms in
the Texas legislature. Lyndon's mother had varied cultural
interests and placed high value on education; she was
fiercely ambitious for her children.
Johnson attended public schools in
Johnson City and received a B.S. degree from Southwest Texas
State Teachers College in San Marcos. He then taught grade
school for a year in Cotulla before going to Washington in
1931 as secretary to a Democratic Texas congressman, Richard
During the next four years Johnson
developed a wide network of political contacts in Washington,
D.C. On Nov. 17, 1934, he married Claudia Alta Taylor, known
as "Lady Bird." A warm, intelligent, ambitious
woman, she was a great asset to Johnson's career. They had
two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines,
born in 1947. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the
White House. Johnson greatly admired the president, who named
him, at age 27, to head the National Youth Administration in
Texas. This job, which Johnson held from 1935 to 1937,
entailed helping young people obtain employment and
schooling. It confirmed Johnson's faith in the positive
potential of government and won for him a coterie of
supporters in Texas.
In 1937, Johnson sought and won a Texas
seat in Congress, where he championed public works,
reclamation, and public power programs. When war came to
Europe he backed Roosevelt's efforts to aid the Allies.
During World War II he served a brief tour of active duty
with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific (1941-42) but returned to
Capitol Hill when Roosevelt recalled members of Congress from
active duty. Johnson continued to support Roosevelt's
military and foreign-policy programs.
During the 1940s, Johnson and his wife
developed profitable business ventures, including a radio
station, in Texas. In 1948 he ran for the U.S. Senate,
winning the Democratic party primary by only 87 votes. (This
was his second try; in 1941 he had run for the Senate and
lost to a conservative opponent.) The opposition accused him
of fraud and derisively tagged him "Landslide
Lyndon." Although challenged, unsuccessfully, in the
courts, he took office in 1949.
Senator and Vice-President
Johnson moved quickly into the Senate
hierarchy. In 1953 he won the job of Senate Democratic
leader. The next year he was easily reelected as senator and
returned to Washington as majority leader, a post he held for
the next six years despite a serious heart attack in 1955.
The Texan proved to be a shrewd,
skillful Senate leader. A consistent opponent of civil rights
legislation until 1957, he developed excellent personal
relationships with powerful conservative Southerners. A hard
worker, he impressed colleagues with his attention to the
details of legislation and his willingness to compromise.
In the late 1950s, Johnson began to
think seriously of running for the presidency in 1960. His
record had been fairly conservative, however. Many Democratic
liberals resented his friendly association with the
Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; others considered
him a tool of wealthy Southwestern gas and oil interests.
Either to soften this image as a conservative or in response
to inner conviction, Johnson moved slightly to the left on
some domestic issues, especially on civil rights laws, which
he supported in 1957 and 1960. Although these laws proved
ineffective, Johnson had demonstrated that he was a very
resourceful Senate leader.
To many northern Democrats, however,
Johnson remained a sectional candidate. The presidential
nomination of 1960 went to Senator John F. Kennedy of
Massachusetts. Kennedy, a northern Roman Catholic, then
selected Johnson as his running mate to balance the
Democratic ticket. In November 1960 the Democrats defeated
the Republican candidates, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Cabot
Lodge, by a narrow margin.
Johnson was appointed by Kennedy to
head the President's Committee on Equal Employment
Opportunities, a post that enabled him to work on behalf of
blacks and other minorities. As vice-president, he also
undertook some missions abroad, which offered him some
limited insights into international problems.
The assassination of President Kennedy
on November 22, 1963, elevated Johnson to the White House,
where he quickly proved a masterly, reassuring leader in the
realm of domestic affairs. In 1964, Congress passed a
tax-reduction law that promised to promote economic growth
and the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the program
called the WAR ON POVERTY. Johnson was especially skillful in
securing a strong CIVIL RIGHTS ACT in 1964. In the years to
come it proved to be a vital source of legal authority
against racial and sexual discrimination.
In 1964 the Republicans nominated
Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona as their presidential
nominee. Goldwater was an extreme conservative in domestic
policy and an advocate of strong military action to protect
American interests in Vietnam. Johnson had increased the
number of U.S. military personnel there from 16,000 at the
time of Kennedy's assassination to nearly 25,000 a year
later. Contrasted to Goldwater, however, he seemed a model of
restraint. Johnson, with Hubert H. Humphry as his running
mate, ran a low-key campaign and overwhelmed Goldwater in the
election. The Arizonan won only his home state and five
others in the Deep South.
Johnson's triumph in 1964 gave him a
mandate for the Great Society, as he called his domestic
program. Congress responded by passing the Medicare program,
which provided health services to the elderly, approving
federal aid to elementary and secondary education,
supplementing the War on Poverty, and creating the Department
of Housing and Urban Development. It also passed another
important civil rights law--the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At this point Johnson began the rapid
deepening of U.S. involvement in Vietnam; as early as
February 1965, U.S. planes began to bomb North Vietnam.
American troop strength in Vietnam increased to more than
180,000 by the end of the year and to 500,000 by 1968. Many
influences led Johnson to such a policy. Among them were
personal factors such as his temperamental activism, faith in
U.S. military power, and staunch anticommunism. These
qualities also led him to intervene militarily in the
Dominican Republic--allegedly to stop a Communist
takeover--in April 1965. Like many Americans who recalled the
"appeasement" of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Johnson
thought the United States must be firm or incur a loss of
While the nation became deeply involved
in Vietnam, racial tension sharpened at home, culminating in
widespread urban race riots between 1965 and 1968. The
breakdown of the interracial civil rights movement, together
with the imperfections of some of Johnson's Great Society
programs, resulted in Republican gains in the 1966 elections
and effectively thwarted Johnson's hopes for further
It was the policy of military
escalation in Vietnam, however, that proved to be Johnson's
undoing as president. It deflected attention from domestic
concerns, resulted in sharp inflation, and prompted rising
criticism, especially among young, draft-aged people.
Escalation also failed to win the war. The drawn-out struggle
made Johnson even more secretive, dogmatic, and
hypersensitive to criticism. His usually sure political
instincts were failing.
The New Hampshire presidential primary
of 1968, in which the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy made
a strong showing, revealed the dwindling of Johnson's
support. Some of Johnson's closest advisors now began to
counsel a de-escalation policy in Vietnam. Confronted by
mounting opposition, Johnson made two surprise announcements
on Mar. 31, 1968: he would stop the bombing in most of North
Vietnam and seek a negotiated end to the war, and he would
not run for reelection.
Johnson's influence thereafter remained
strong enough to dictate the nomination of Vice-President
Humphrey, who had supported the war, as the Democratic
presidential candidate for the 1968 election. Although
Johnson stopped all bombing of the North on November 1, he
failed to make real concessions at the peace table, and the
war dragged on. Humphrey lost in a close race with the
Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon.
After stepping down from the presidency
in January 1969, Johnson returned to his ranch in Texas.
There he and his aides prepared his memoirs, which were
published in 1971 as The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the
Presidency, 1963-1969. He also supervised construction of the
Johnson presidential library in Austin. Johnson died on Jan.
22, 1973, five days before the conclusion of the treaty by
which the United States withdrew from Vietnam.
Johnson's State of the Union Addresses: