Johnson, son of a Texas small farmer and minor politician of Populist sympathies and a former schoolmistress, was educated at local schools and Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. In 1930, he became a high school teacher, and two years later went to Washington as aide to Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg. A strong New Deal supporter, he won the patronage of Franklin Roosevelt, the president who became his lifetime role model and appointed him Texas administrator of the National Youth Administration in 1935. The energetic Johnson was elected to Congress in 1936 and junior senator for Texas in 1948.
For six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnson interrupted his congressional service to become a lieutenant commander in the navy, visiting the Pacific theater on a fact-finding mission for Navy Undersecretary James V. Forrestal. On this trip, Johnson flew as passenger on a bombing mission during which Japanese Zero fighters attacked his B-26 bomber. Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for this episode and subsequently milked it heavily for political credit. Recalled to Congress in late 1942, during World War II and the early Cold War, Johnson voted reliably for the internationalist policies of Presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman. His Texan style and southern roots, which emphasized fighting prowess and military preparedness as measures of manly virility, were perhaps influential in his almost unquestioning support for early Cold War policies, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a major buildup of U.S. military forces, as well as United States intervention in Korea in 1950.
In 1953, Johnson became Senate minority leader and two years later majority leader, winning a reputation as an outstandingly able legislator and negotiator, one of the top majority leaders in history, who was skilled at crafting compromises his diverse colleagues could support. Remarkably liberal and populist in his instincts, despite the need to conciliate the Democratic Party's conservative southern wing to which he belonged, Johnson was responsible for the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, the first such legislation enacted since the American Civil War. He concentrated primarily on domestic policy, showing little interest in international affairs beyond the conventional Cold War opposition to communism and support for expansive U.S. policies overseas, including aid to developing countries. On both domestic and international issues, Johnson worked well with the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower.
Selected by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy as his running mate in the 1960 elections, as vice-president Johnson had little input into policy. He greatly resented both Kennedy's failure to employ his superlative legislative skills to win passage of his domestic measures and his exclusion from Kennedy's inner councils. After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 made him president, Johnson announced an ambitious range of civil rights and social initiatives, his Great Society program, a sweeping attempt to eradicate poverty and social injustice in the United States that was his first priority. The 1964 Voting Rights Act and 1965 Civil Rights Act were the most far-reaching legislation of the kind ever passed in the United States. In 1964, Johnson won reelection by a landslide against the right-wing conservative Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, whose readiness to contemplate using nuclear weapons alarmed many Americans. Shrewd, intelligent, and a quick study, over his political career Johnson had acquired a respectable understanding of U.S. foreign policies, a perspective informed by the orthodox bipartisan Cold War internationalist consensus that most leading U.S. politicians of his time shared. In Latin America, for instance, he encouraged an anticommunist military coup in Brazil in 1964, while intervening in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent the potential overthrow of a right-wing military government.
Ironically, despite Johnson's stated preference for domestic policy, foreign affairs—more particularly the increasingly critical war in South Vietnam, ever more beleaguered by internal and external attacks orchestrated by communist North Vietnam—soon came to dominate Johnson's presidency. Although Johnson feared that an expanded war in Vietnam might compromise his domestic reform program, nonetheless, remembering the political damage McCarthyite attacks regarding the "loss of China" had wreaked on Truman, Johnson, confronting an escalating crisis in South Vietnam, refused to consider abandoning the country to communism. Continuing what he believed to be Kennedy's policy of supporting South Vietnam against communist subversion, in early 1964, Johnson endorsed U.S. support for South Vietnamese raids against the north and other covert operations, including secret bombing attacks and the bombing of Laos (Operation BARREL ROLL). As the military situation nonetheless deteriorated further, in August 1964, Johnson responded to an alleged naval clash between U.S. destroyers and North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin by winning from Congress the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing him to take whatever measures he considered appropriate to deal meet the crisis in Southeast Asia.
Johnson sought refuge in the use of air power as the least costly military alternative and, following direct attacks by communist forces on U.S. installations in South Vietnam in March 1965, he opened a bombing campaign against North Vietnam, Operation ROLLING THUNDER. He also introduced first the Marines and then U.S. Army ground forces in the fighting. Peak U.S. strength came in January 1969 with a half a million men, but these resources failed to bring quick victory; indeed, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrilla operations escalated in response, and, for various reasons, pacification programs to win the "hearts and minds" of South Vietnamese peasants had little impact. Sporadic peace initiatives and negotiations proved equally fruitless. From 1965, domestic opposition to the Vietnam War increased dramatically, as protestors condemned U.S. bombing of civilians as barbaric and opposed conscription under the Selective Service program, and Johnson's initially high personal popularity declined steeply. In January 1968, the nationwide Tet Offensive, which Viet Cong forces launched across South Vietnam during the lunar New Year holiday, though ultimately unsuccessful, was apparent dramatic proof that victory, if not unattainable, was nowhere near as imminent as the U.S. military sought to suggest. In the March Democratic primary in New Hampshire, the maverick Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, running on an antiwar platform, won 42 percent of the vote. Although many of these voters thought that Johnson was not prosecuting the war aggressively enough, Johnson nonetheless faced the prospect of a humiliating battle for his party's nomination. Later that month Johnson publicly announced he intended to open peace talks, and refused to seek reelection in 1968. Although he began the program of "Vietnamization" (turning over more of the war to the South Vietnamese), which was subsequently embraced by President Richard Nixon, Johnson's efforts to reach acceptable peace terms proved unsuccessful, sabotaged by President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, and U.S. military involvement continued until January 1973.
Johnson's Vietnam policies had a major impact on his relations with other countries. Although Johnson and his advisors considered their intervention in Vietnam to be vital proof of U.S. credibility in supporting beleaguered allies, almost without exception, West European NATO partners considered his escalation of U.S. commitments to Vietnam excessive, a dangerous diversion of limited U.S. resources from the Cold War's primary European theater. Most, except France, where President Charles de Gaulle outspokenly opposed Johnson's 1965 expansion and urged the opening of negotiations, publicly swallowed their misgivings, but despite repeated pleas from Johnson himself, other NATO members refused to send troops to Vietnam, and in 1966, France even left NATO. U.S. allies in Asia, especially South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, profited economically and diplomatically by dispatching troops to assist the United States in Vietnam. U.S. intervention was also economically profitable to both Hong Kong and Japan, as both sold materiel to the U.S. military, while providing numerous troops with rest and recreation.
Internationally, the Vietnam War made the United States extremely unpopular, provoking huge public demonstrations around the world; in nations allied with the United States these were normally spontaneous, while communist bloc states mounted well-orchestrated mass protests. Johnson recognized the existence of the Sino-Soviet split, but mainland China's support for North Vietnam impeded his administration in making any progress toward rapprochement with the communist People's Republic of China. Although the United States supplied Israel with arms during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the preemption of U.S. military resources by Vietnam limited Johnson's options, precluding any major Middle Eastern intervention on his part.
Johnson's first foreign policy priority was always relations with the Soviet Union. Although he hoped to continue Eisenhower's and Kennedy's policies of seeking détente, cooperation, and arms control agreements, here, too, Vietnam had an impact, as Johnson sought Soviet assistance in persuading North Vietnam to negotiate an acceptable peace settlement, while the Soviets, the leading communist state, were reluctant to seem to disregard their North Vietnamese client's interests. Like other Cold War presidents, Johnson was unwilling to destabilize Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. When Czechoslovakia sought greater independence in 1968 and Soviet troops invaded that summer to restore control, the Johnson administration made only rhetorical protests, though the episode temporarily ended all further progress on arms talks.
A tragic president, Johnson watched the impact of U.S. involvement in Vietnam leave his substantial domestic achievements vitiated, compromised, and under-rated. The fiscal and economic problems the war generated denied his programs further funding and created long-term difficulties for his country, while war problems and domestic protests diverted his attention from reform, destroyed his political credibility and leverage, and permanently stained his reputation. Johnson's actions in Vietnam also broke the existing Cold War political consensus, well expressed in his predecessor John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, that the United States must at all costs oppose the extension of communism anywhere in the world. From 1968 onward, a new sense of limits characterized United States foreign policies. At least temporarily, the 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam damaged U.S. international prestige and credibility. Throughout the remaining Cold War, the U.S. failure to win its objectives in Vietnam made subsequent U.S. presidents and military leaders extremely wary of committing troops in situations where victory was not assured and high casualties were likely. Priscilla Mary Roberts
Brands, H. W. The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.; Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.; Dumbrell, John. President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Communism. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.; Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.; LaFeber, Walter. The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.; Schwartz, Thomas Alan. Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Priscilla Mary Roberts