Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ): The 36th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
After JFK’S assassination, the nation was left in a state of shock and despair. LBJ was sworn into office aboard Air Force One.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)
LBJ stated his presidency would be dedicated to the fulfillment of JFK’s legacy though he was not happy about how he ascended to the presidency. LBJ rose from poverty as a youth to become a great politician.
He was charismatic and crass. Smart, cunning but not a scholar. LBJ was clever with an awareness of people. He was able to analyze those around him although his volcanic personality left some with the impression he was a little nuts.
LBJ had a massive ego. He felt inferior dealing with the Ivy League types inhabiting Washington, and pushed them around just to prove he could do it.
The Johnson Treatment
Johnson, a favorite of the Democratic Party, was very famous for his scary, aggressive personality and the “Johnson Treatment,” his manipulation of powerful politicians in order to get legislation passed. A key element of LBJ’s leadership was this famous “Johnson treatment,” in which he would hypothetically “pop one’s bubble” to demand their attention. No president has been so celebrated for his powers of persuasion in face-to-face confrontations as Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson was often seen as a tireless, wildly ambitious, imposing figure who was ruthlessly effective at advancing legislation. He worked 18-20 hour days without break and took part in very few, if any, leisure activities. Many historians agree that there was perhaps no more powerful majority leader in American history. It seemed as if Johnson had biographies and footnotes on all of his opponents; as if he knew what their views, ambitions, hopes and tastes were, and he would use these facts to his advantage when pushing motions. One Johnson biographer writes, “He would get up every day and learn what their fears, their desires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then manipulate, dominate, persuade and cajole them.” At 6’2”, he used his gigantic imposing physical size and intimidating personality to emphasize his point.
“The Treatment” could last anywhere from ten minutes to four hours and it would come whenever and wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator or politician within his radius. “Its tone could be and included supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat.” All of these elements together brought out the spectrum of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare and even if they were attempted, Johnson would anticipate them before they could be successfully delivered. He would move in close, with his face a mere millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows fluctuating, his pockets stuffed with clippings, memos, statistics and other research he had gathered on his target. All the elements LBJ used, “mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy,” in “The Treatment” rendered the target stunned, helpless, and obedient. It was this intimidating technique of persuasion that made Johnson one of the most feared politicians of the time and it is this persuasion technique that helped Johnson get control of, basically, whatever he wanted.
The aftershock of Kennedy’s assassination provided a climate for Johnson to complete the unfinished work of JFK. He had eleven months before the election of 1964 to prove to American voters that he deserved a chance to be President in his own right.
Two very important pieces of legislation were passed. First, the Civil Rights Bill that JFK promised to sign was passed into law. The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination based on race and gender in employment and ending segregation in all public facilities.
Johnson also signed the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act Of 1964. The law created the Office of Economic Opportunity aimed at attacking the roots of American poverty. A Job Corps was established to provide valuable vocational training.
Head Start, a preschool program designed to help disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn, was put into place. The Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) was set up as a domestic Peace Corps. Schools in impoverished American regions would now receive volunteer teaching attention. Federal funds were sent to struggling communities to attack unemployment and illiteracy.
As he campaigned in 1964, Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” He challenged Americans to build a “Great Society” that eliminated the troubles of the poor. Johnson won a decisive victory over his archconservative Republican opponent Barry Goldwater, of Arizona.
Johnson proposed the Great Society to his aides while skinny dipping in the White House pool. Ultimately, Johnson wanted democracy, freedom and justice for all. He wanted to raise the underprivileged and discriminated-against, resulting in an explosion of new laws like National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System.
American liberalism was at high tide under President Johnson. The Wilderness Protection Act saved 9.1 million acres of forestland from industrial development. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided major funding for American public schools. The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other discriminatory methods of denying suffrage to African Americans. Medicare was created to offset the costs of health care for the nation’s elderly.
The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities used public money to fund artists and galleries. The Immigration Act ended discriminatory quotas based on ethnic origin. An Omnibus Housing Act provided funds to construct low-income housing. Congress tightened pollution controls with stronger Air and Water Quality Acts. Standards were raised for safety in consumer products.
Johnson was an accomplished legislator and used his connections in Congress and “The Treatment” to pass his agenda. By 1966, Johnson was pleased with the progress he had made. But soon events in Southeast Asia began to overshadow his domestic achievements. Funds he had envisioned to fight his war on poverty were now diverted to the war in Vietnam. He found himself maligned by conservatives for his domestic policies and by liberals for his hawkish stance on Vietnam. Still, the Great Society was worth it when looking at today.
General William Westmoreland warned LBJ he would lose Vietnam unless he mobilized reserves, committed more firepower and doubled troops from 65k to 125k. LBJ authorized 100k more troops, but was no closer to winning war.
Vietnamese guerrillas were standing up to the superior American military, allowing the anti-war movement to gain momentum. President Truman‘s containment policy had become President Johnson’s war.
The Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong (rebel forces sponsored by North Vietnam) and North Vietnamese forces on scores of cities, towns, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. It was considered to be a turning point in the Vietnam War.
North Vietnamese leaders believed they could not sustain the heavy losses inflicted by the Americans indefinitely and had to win the war with an all-out military effort. In addition, Ho Chi Minh was nearing death, and they needed a victory before that time came.
The combined forces of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Regular Army (NVA), about 85,000 strong, launched a major offensive throughout South Vietnam. The attacks began on January 31, 1968, the first day of the Lunar New Year, Vietnam’s most important holiday. It took weeks for U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to retake all of the captured cities, including the former imperial capital of Hue.
Even though the offensive was a military failure for the North Vietnamese Communists and Vietcong (VC), it was a political and psychological victory for them because it dramatically contradicted optimistic claims by the U.S. government that the war was all but over. By late 1967, forces of the U.S. Army, its allies and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), had entrenched themselves in the six major cities of South Vietnam and were reporting growing success in the countryside.
A series of scattered diversionary attacks by the Vietcong gradually drew more U.S. and ARVN troops away from the cities. Then in late January 1968, on the first day of Tet, which had previously been observed with a cease-fire, the Vietcong attacked five of South Vietnam’s cities, most of its provincial and district capitals, and about 50 hamlets.
In Saigon, they attacked the presidential palace, the airport, the ARVN headquarters, and fought their way onto the U.S. Embassy grounds. The U.S. and ARVN forces, who were caught off guard, quickly responded and within a week had recouped most of the lost territory. Hue was a different story, however, as the Vietcong held their ground. By the time the city was retaken on February 24, the historic city had been all but leveled. Thousands of civilians were executed and 100,000 residents had lost their homes. It became known as the “Massacre at Hue.”
American spokesmen initially described the Tet offensive as a failure for the Vietcong, pointing to their retreat and staggering casualties. But when General Westmoreland reported that completing the Vietcong’s defeat would necessitate 200,000 more American soldiers and require an activation of the reserves, even loyal supporters of the war effort began to see that a change in strategy was needed.
To a growing segment of the American public, Tet demonstrated the resolve of the Vietcong and the tenuous control South Vietnam had over its own territory. It also helped unite those at home in their dissenting opinions of the war.
Tet made all out victory look remote, perhaps impossible. It emboldened opposition from both RFK and Eugene McCarthy, leading LBJ to make the decision not to run for reelection in 1968.
LBJ may be the most tragic of all Presidents. He fell from a higher pinnacle in his domestic agenda seeking not to be a war president. He tried to negotiate peace with Vietnam but failed miserably. In the domestic realm, no one did more other than perhaps FDR, but his presidency was defined, overshadowed and ultimately shortened by Vietnam.
If you believe the President should work with Congress and not make them bend to his will, then LBJ was not your guy as he often gave people the Johnson Treatment to get his way. If you don’t think the President should be spearheading large domestic agendas affecting nearly all walks of life, then LBJ is the President you should bitch about the most as many of his programs are still in affect today. Finally, if you want a president to be either decisive in pursuing victory in war or peace to end the war, then you could easily bitch about Johnson as this became his ultimate downfall.
John F. Kennedy preceded him.
Richard Nixon would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.