Lyndon B. Johnson

President Lyndon Baines Johnson

Large in physical stature and colorful in personal demeanor, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a powerful force in mid-20th century politics in Texas as well as later in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. When he became President John F. Kennedy's vice presidential running mate, few people imagined that Johnson would eventually be taking the presidential oath aboard Air Force One following Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963. During his tenure as president, Johnson orchestrated an escalation of the war in Vietnam abroad while simultaneously orchestrating a series of civil rights initiatives at home. While Johnson received his fair share of criticisms from detractors during and following his presidency, he managed to leave a legacy of contributions to the country that still have an impact today. This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning President Johnson's personal and political background, his election campaigns, what policies he implemented, as well as his contributions and legacy. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Personal Background.

Given his personal background, many observers might be surprised at just how enlightened Johnson was concerning the need for improved civil rights in the United States even during the early 20th century before it became politically popular. For example, Johnson was the first child of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., and Rebekah and was born on August 27, 1908 at Stonewall, Texas (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography, 2009). A mediocre student, Johnson dropped out of high school in Johnson City, Texas (named for his forbears) when he was 15 years old and in 1924, Johnson traveled to California for fun and adventure with friends. After a year of working at a series of odd jobs, Johnson returned to Johnson City in 1925 where he performed manual labor on road construction (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). When he was 18 years old, Johnson enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, Texas where he supplemented his tuition needs by working as an office helper and janitor in the college. Following a one-year stint as principal of a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas, Johnson returned to college at San Marcos and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1930 and the next couple of years were spent teaching high school in Pearsall and then Houston, Texas (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009).

Political Background.

In 1931, Johnson began his political career in earnest when he accepted an offer from Congressman Richard Kleberg to become his secretary following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). Johnson held this position for 3 years during which he gained valuable experience concerning how things operated in Washington, DC, and he was also elected to the position of speaker of the "Little Congress," a group comprised of congressional workers (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). During a trip home to Texas in 1934, Johnson met his future wife, Claudia "Lady Bird" Alta Taylor and the two were married two months later. In 1935, when he was just 26 years old, Johnson accepted an appointment became the Texas Director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal program that provided assistance for unemployed youth and part-time employment for students (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009).

Election Campaigns.

Following the death of Representative James P. Buchanan in 1937, Johnson resigned as Texas Director of the NYA to run in a special election to replace Buchanan and easily beat nine other candidates in the hotly contested race (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). According to his official biography, "In Congress, Johnson worked hard for rural electrification, public housing, and eliminating government waste. He was appointed to the House Committee on Naval Affairs at the request of President Roosevelt" (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009:4). In 1938, Johnson was reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives and succeeded in being reelected to each succeeding Congress until 1948 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, squeaking by in the primary to go on to achieve a landslide victory that earned him the nickname, "Landslide Lyndon" (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). Some authorities accuse Johnson of having his confederates "stuff the ballot boxes" in Jim Wells County, Texas, to help him achieve this initial political victory (Kilkenny 2007). In the interim, Johnson had been appointed a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1940 and after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he became the first member of Congress to join the armed forces in 1941, reporting for duty just 2 days after the attack (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). Johnson went on to earn a Silver Star for gallantry in action in 1942, the same year President Roosevelt ordered all active duty congressmen to return to their jobs in Washington. In 1951, Johnson was elected majority whip of the U.S. Senate; two years later, in 1953, he was elected as the Minority Leader and in 1955 he was elected as Majority Leader following his reelection to a second term in the Senate in 1954; in 1960, Johnson was elected vice president and was also reelected to a third term in the U.S. Senate, a position for which he took the oath of office and immediately resigned in order to assume the vice presidency (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). According to Abbott (2005), "Although defeated by Kennedy for the presidential nomination in 1960, Lyndon Johnson accepted nomination as vice president. He was one of the few vice presidents in recent times who noticeably helped the ticket" (627). On November 22, 1963, Johnson became president following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009). In 1964, Johnson was reelected to the presidency and justified his moniker as "Landslide Lyndon," receiving 64% of the popular vote, the largest margin ever achieved by a presidential candidate (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009).


The policies that Johnson was responsible for helping implement included the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. According to Firestone and Vogt (1988), Johnson was a savvy politician who knew how to get things done in the nation's capital. These authors write that, "The American political system, under the leadership of a man who knew what made it tick, was able to work efficiently and productively to an extent not seen since and not often before" (Firestone and Vogt 1). To achieve his political goals, Johnson used what has been described as "the treatment" that characterized his personal methods of political persuasion and political acumen. In this regard, Firestone and Vogt note that, "Johnson used just about everything in his extensive repertory to get Congress moving and excelled whenever he had the opportunity for direct, one-on-one contact. Johnson would zero in on a congressman or a senator and get what he wanted, a good deal. He would lie, beg, cheat, steal a little, threaten, intimidate. But he never lost sight of that ultimate goal, his idea of the Great Society" (7). These persuasive methods have been corroborated by others who witnessed Johnson in action as well. For instance, Evans and Novak (1966) refer to "the treatment" as "an endeavor that could last ten minutes or four hours and its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat" (104).

There were also some elements of duplicity if not outright hypocrisy involved in Johnson's political maneuvering. For instance, Zernicke reports that, "The symbols of peacemaker, savior, and enemy characterized President Johnson's speeches on Vietnam. Johnson repeatedly referred to Hanoi rather than North Vietnam to subtly deemphasize the reality of a North-South civil war" (26). Although Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara would later admit that the Tonkin Gulf incident had been a major mistake on the part of American sonar men and the attacks on U.S. ships in the region were blown far out of proportion, this incident in particular was used by Johnson to justify an escalation of the war in Vietnam with increased bombings and the additions of tens of thousands of more American troops (Blight 2005). For instance, Zernicke advises that, "Passing attention has also been given to Johnson's use of commander in chief as an expedient justification for American military force in his speech on the Tonkin Gulf incident" (26). Even his official biographers concede that there was some question at the time concerning the extent of the encounter in Tonkin Bay: "On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 4, a second North Vietnamese PT boat attack was reported on the U.S.S. Maddox and her escort, the U.S.S.C. Turner Joy, this time in poor weather. There would be debate, then and later, over whether the second attack actually occurred" (President Lyndon B. Johnson's Biography 2009:6). Although Johnson contributed to the escalation of…