Lyndon B Johnson was the thirty sixth president of the United States having succeeded John F Kennedy after his assassination in 1963 up to 1969. Like those immediately before him, his presidency had its lows and highs. He had notable achievements during his tenure in office; he oversaw the passing of a momentous legislation whose fruits continues to be reaped up to date. His downfall arose from his overly domineering personality and the engagement of troops in Vietnam.
Before becoming the president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson had a long career in politics. He was born in to a family with a long history in politics. He was able to push his way through the hierarchy of the Democratic Party eventually becoming a senator in 1952 and going ahead to become the party leader. He was an effective leader who was able to influence senators across the divide with what came to be known as The Treatment. He was the JF Kennedy’s running mate and went ahead to become the vice president. He took over the mantle of leadership after his death and went ahead to win by a landslide in the 1964 presidential elections.
The hall mark of Lyndon Johnson achievement was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act together with the 1969 Voting Rights Act. This would remain the gold line in his presidency that would put him amongst the most vocal crusaders for human rights. There are those however who saw his great concerns for civil rights as more of a gimmick in his bid to secure the blacks votes. It should be understood however that he was an avowed idealist who believed in the Great Society (Berman, Larry, 18).
It has to be noted that the passing of the Civil Rights Act was being faced with stiff opposition from the southern whites where the issue of racism was rather rampant. The passage of this bill and its ascent into law was seen to have a negative implication to the southern whites’ voters. Johnson himself expected this when he said that south might be lost by the Democratic Party for a generation. It is the southern whites that had been acting as the biggest impediment to the passage of any legislation favoring the blacks. With the Civil Rights Act in place, all forms of racial segregation were outlawed in all public places. It is a law that has helped shape the destiny of the black population and other minority groups in the United States as it gave equal access to public services and single handedly revoked the Jim Crow laws that had reigned for a number of decades and reinforced prejudice and racism in the southern states (Banta, Joseph, 26).
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is another achievement of Lyndon Johnson that greatly endeared him to civil rights activists, this act sought to bring on board the disenfranchised lot especially the black population in the south as it sought to remove the mandatory literacy test which was being regarded as a precondition to acquiring a voting right. In the spirit of bringing the black population in to the mainstream, Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshal as the first ever Supreme Court black judge and also went ahead to denounce the KKK, urging them to leave the wayward ways.
Lyndon Johnson was a success story when it came to domestic policy and especially at introducing unprecedented welfare reforms in line with his Great Society doctrine. Analysts liken Lyndon’s Great Society to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new deal. The Great Society referred to a number of programs initiated by Lyndon aimed at improving provision of health and medical services to the poor, poverty reduction and curbing of racial prejudices.
Lyndon Johnson had set his eyes forward towards poverty reduction, furthering JF Kennedy idea. He usually cited his first hand experience with extreme poverty when he came across Latinos living in Texas, he vowed to eliminate poverty from the United States key to this initiative was the economic opportunity act of 1964 that would oversee
Community oriented programs to eradicate poverty through education and relevant training.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 established a framework alongside which the federal government could fund public schools. The Higher Education Act of 1965 also went alongside this principle by providing scholarship and funding to universities. In the health sector, Lyndon also made remarkable achievements by introducing Medicare and Medicaid. By signing the Medicare amendment, LBJ was
hoping to provide medical care to American citizens who are beyond the age of 65. Medicaid on the other land was targeting people and families in the low income bracket.
The Great Society left a lasting legacy and impressions amongst many Americans, some of the programs like Medicaid and Medicare have been receiving criticism as a result of some inherent inefficiencies. Other programs are still surviving and receiving considerable support from the public as well as the successive governments.
The considerable gains made in the home front by President Lyndon Johnson however were overshadowed by the sloppy handling of foreign affairs. Key to this was the Vietnam War and misrepresentation of information to the public. Understandably, the domestic achievements and programs were highly publicized and hyped while little attention was being given to the Vietnam War. Information on additional troops deployment was scanty and the respective announcements were not highly publicized as the public would have wished.
After the southern Vietnamese forces attacked a military barrack belonging to the United States, reprisal attacks began immediately and would escalate later in to the operation rolling thunder .By the time Lyndon Johnson assumed power, the troops in Vietnam were at merely 16,000, however two years later this figure had expanded to over 180,000 and then to over a half a million by the close of Lyndon’s tenure in office. This was an escalation that had not followed the proper channel of authorization as the public, whose interests Lyndon purported to represent had no say in it (Dallek, Robert, 784).
Lyndon Johnson was caught in between a rock and hard place. There was a need for the united states to reassert its global standing especially as Vietnam was on the brink of falling to the communism, this was to be done conventionally on a bedrock of growing opposition and criticism from the various quarters in the American public Lyndon was fearful that if insurmountable force and plan was not inflicted to the Vietnamese, communists would have emerged successful. The objective of the forces escalation and the heavy offensive was to compel the North Vietnamese to come to the negotiating table. Johnson vowed not to pull out or succumb to the pressure that came from all corners, even those earlier perceived to be his allies. Civil rights activist martin Luther king junior publicly denounced Lyndon Johnson policies on Vietnam and refused to endorse him for his second tenure in office on the ground that he had disrespected the public wish and escalated the United States military presence in Vietnam. (Xiaoming, Zhang, 56)
Senator J. William Fulbright, a former ally of Lyndon Johnson especially during the tabling of the Gulf of Tonken Resolution and later on being the chairman of the senate foreign relations committee also criticized largely the escalation efforts and the huge casualties suffered to the American troops.
Credibility of Lyndon Johnson was put into disrepute by his involvement into the Vietnam War. It has to be noted here that Lyndon Johnson won the landslide election on a platform of a peace. Protesters were always talking of the credibility “gap” in reference to the misrepresentations that Lyndon’s administration had carried out against the public. A misrepresentation that would lead to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by congress in 1964 to allow military action in south East Asia over minor attacks carried out by the Vietnamese forces against two naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a justification for war. He used the resolution to initiate attacks against North Vietnam without necessarily having the congress issue a formal declaration of war (Schulzinger, Robert D, 25).
Details that were to emerge later, though vehemently denied by the Lyndon’s administration, was that the attacks never occurred in the first place. North Vietnamese had denied this alleged attack claiming that it is the US forces that had attacked first.
Johnson was quick to retaliate to the said attacks and he immediately followed this up with a televised address on the attacks. He used this as a ground to seek for a resolution noting that the resolution would not be used to expand the war but rather was a signal to hostile nations that the United States would go to any length to safeguard its national interests. Johnson’s secretary of defense testifying before the foreign relations committee insisted that indeed the US naval ship Maddox had been attacked while carrying out a normal surveillance. He failed to allude to the fact that it was the United States that had attacked first (Moise, Edwin E, 24).
The congress, basing its argument on this misrepresentation, passed the resolution authorizing Lyndon to take all measures in assisting South Vietnam fend off the onslaught of North Vietnam. This is what granted Lyndon a “black check” in regard to the amount of forces he could engage in Vietnam. By the close of 1966 it had emerged that the resolution, as earlier noted by Oregon senator, Wayne Morse was a “historic mistake”
It was later to emerge that President Lyndon Johnson used well meshed fabrications to deceive the public and the congress and gain support for the war. He also used diversionary tactics to deflect publics’ attention from the committees hearing by taking a trip top Honolulu for a meeting with President Thieu. This however was a tactic that could not work. Opposition was mounting and the public was getting increasingly agitated over a war that had no justification and a president who could not be held accountable to his words.
The casualties and the obvious misrepresentations by president triggered negative sentiments from all quarters. This opposition had been growing since 1964 although a bit muffled. From the end of 1966 though, student activism escalated to a level not witnessed before. Never before had a war led to such bitter and massive divisions and protests from the public. The war was receiving even unprecedented criticism from military strategists who considered it political in nature and whose objectives could not be reached at by military engagements.
The Vietnam War had received considerable support form the media thanks to the initial diplomatic skills and public relations. Few in the media had foreseen the gruesome images and high casualties meted out against U.S forces over a war of ideology. The media turning against Lyndon Johnson was the last straw to his presidency and dreams for a second term, having in mind the powerful role that the media has on the public.
The Tet Offensive is one that brought to the surface the fact the victory being promised to the public by Lyndon Johnson and his lieutenants was merely a pipe dream. Tet offensive was a well mapped out attack that took the Americans by surprise. The communist forces had managed to put up a spirited fight in the major cities resulting to huge American fatalities and destruction of military locations. Johnson’s administration had earlier managed to deceive the public that the situation was under control and that the communist forces had almost used up their reserves. The media particularly drummed this point home and increased the publics’ negative perception of the war and of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Pictures of forces killing innocent civilians were slashed on the screens and allover the papers. It impeded greatly on Johnson’s opinion ratings which dropped with more than twenty points.
The My Lai massacre also ignited public’s consternation with the President Lyndon’s administration. My Lai massacre was conducted by frustrated American forces who were seeking revenge for a number of their counterparts who had been maimed in Lai. They were encouraged by one lieutenant William Calley. American forces entered into the villages shooting and killing anyone they could find even after establishing that the villagers were unarmed.
The news of this massacre did not reach the United States public immediately but once they did it, they had devastating effects on the Lyndon’s administration and also the standing of the United States internationally. The public was demanding the immediate withdrawal of the forces whereas the media sought for an elaborate explanation on the conduct of the officers (Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro, 592).
President Johnson’s stature and popularity had received a major backlash and a permanent dent to an extent that he could not run for a second term in office. Faced with the ugly image of the Vietnam War, the president announced on March 31 1968 that he would not run for re election. On that same day he called for the complete cessation of military attacks in Vietnam and urged the various sides to come to the negotiating table.
In conclusion, it is important to note that though President Lyndon Johnson term in office ended on a sour note, he still had notable accomplishments in the domestic front. Key to these achievements was the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts that would see blacks acquire rights of access to any public service. His Great Society vision also saw him introduce a number of legislations aimed at poverty reduction.
These accomplishments however were overshadowed by the Vietnam War mistake that saw him escalate forces in a war that had no moral basis. Lyndon had misrepresented facts to the congress to manipulate the passing of the resolution to authorize the war in Vietnam. It is this misrepresentation and the subsequent losses in Vietnam that would lead to the plummeting of his popularity to a point that he thought it wise not to run for a second term.
Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate .1991; 18
Moise, Edwin E. Historical Dictionary of the Vietnam War .2002; 24
Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975 .1997;45
Xiaoming, Zhang. China’s 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment, China Quarterly. Issue no. 184, December, 2005; 56
Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro. “Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and Public Opinion: Rethinking Realist Theory of Leadership.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 29#3 1999; 592
Banta, Joseph “President Lyndon B. Johnson”. The Christadelphian 101, January 1964; 26.
Dallek, Robert Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson and his Times, 1961–1973. Oxford: Oxford University Press.1998; 754