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Lyndon Baines Johnson

(1908—1973) American Democratic statesman, 36th President of the US 1963–9


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(b. 27 Aug. 1908, d. 22 Jan. 1973).

36th US President, 1963–9

Early career

Born in Stonewall, Texas, into a moderately wealthy family, Johnson trained at a local teachers' college, and briefly taught in state schools in 1930 before entering politics as a legislative assistant to Richard Kleberg, a Democrat member of Congress. He became a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him director of the Texan National Youth Administration in 1935. Johnson was elected to Congress in a special election in 1937, but narrowly lost the race for a Senate seat in 1941.

After war service in the navy Johnson narrowly beat ex-Texas Governor Coke Stevenson in 1948 for a seat in the Senate. He was later to be dogged by allegations that party bosses in Texas had rigged his election, and earned the sobriquet ‘Landslide Lyndon’ as a result. Johnson quickly rose to the leadership of the Democrats in the Senate (in 1953) and began to hone his soon-to-be legendary qualities of legislative ability and personal persuasion. He began a long association with civil rights by helping to push the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress and identifying himself strongly with it (though this was partly to hide his previous opposition to civil rights). Johnson's politics were always affected by his strong presidential aspirations, which were set back when Kennedy defeated him, Stuart Symington, and Hubert Humphrey for the Democrat presidential nomination in 1960.

Presidency

Johnson became the vice-presidential nominee, though he considered Kennedy a privileged, rich, and inexperienced playboy. Once elected, his enormous energy led to great frustration in an office which neither he nor Kennedy rated very highly. His few bright spots came through his chairing of the President's Council on Civil Rights and the National Space Council.

Upon Kennedy's assassination he became President, persuading Congress to pass a number of controversial acts of the Kennedy administration, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also inaugurated his own War on Poverty, winning the 1964 election by a landslide. A Democratic majority in Congress bestowed much success on his subsequent legislative energy to realize his vision of the Great Society. The legislative achievement, however, contrasted with growing urban and ethnic riots, the radicalization of Black politics, and inflation.

Most problematic for Johnson was his unswerving support for the escalation of the Vietnam War. This alienated conservatives as well as his natural allies, the liberal middle classes and students. Resentment on the part of Kennedy supporters against Johnson resulted in bitter sniping, which exploded into open warfare when Robert Kennedy entered the 1968 presidential race in a direct challenge to Johnson. Johnson withdrew from the Democratic primaries and sought a negotiated peace with North Vietnam, which was undermined by the Republican campaign staff of Richard Nixon. Effectively, Johnson—a man of towering ambition, compassion, and ego—was hounded from office, but not without an unparalleled legacy of anti-poverty and welfare legislation which was the direct personal product of his Presidency. He died of a heart attack.

Subjects: History — Politics.


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