Taking over the Presidential reins after the tragic assassination of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson attempted to continue Kennedy’s policies, while adding in many of his own.
Prior to Kennedy’s death and America’s subsequent mourning, the President had been pushing forward a legislative agenda which included new Civil Rights legislation and an important tax cut. Being sworn in as President only hours after his successor’s death, Johnson’s first actions as President was to make sure that this legislation was finally passed through congress, which was still reeling from the assassination.
In addition, Johnson moved swiftly to ensure that the truth was revealed regarding this horrific moment – he assigned Chief Justice Earl Warren to head up a commission (the “Warren Commission”) to undergo a detailed investigation regarding the assassination and all of its intricacies (the result of the investigation was that Lee Harvey Oswald had, indeed, acted alone).
Johnson’s “Great Society”
In the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Fair Deal” program and FDR’s “New Deal,” Lyndon Johnson, once he had hit his stride as President, embarked upon a very substantial, very ambitious program which became labeled the “Great Society” program (taken from a speech he had given, urging American’s to take it upon themselves to “build a great society”).
This legislative program, which Johnson capably pushed through Congress with surprising speed, was very far-reaching and covered the entire political spectrum: Beginning at the start of 1965, after his first year in office, Johnson pushed for education reform, the creation of Medicare, conservation, urban development, a war on poverty and civil rights.
Johnson also pushed for vast conservation of America’s natural resources (following in the footsteps of the early progressives, such as Roosevelt and Taft) and an increase in space exploration.
This latter program, however, was perhaps equal parts a push for greater heights of human achievement and a desire to continue to “one up” the U.S.S.R. in the still-growing cold war. America’s push into outer space, culminating during LBJ’s administration in the successful orbit of men around the moon, was a push to demonstrate American superiority (and a successful one, to be sure).
The War in Vietnam
Perhaps one of the most infamous legacies of the Kennedy administration which fell into the hands of Johnson as he became President was the ongoing struggle in Vietnam. Kennedy had substantially increased the American presence in this region, in hopes of repelling the imminent Communist takeover of the southern half of the country.
The war in Vietnam truly escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 (just weeks after the Republican Presidential nomination), which culminated in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the President authority to send troops into Vietnam without consulting the Senate. Under this now infamous resolution, Lyndon Johnson, under a policy of Communist containment, increased ground troops in Vietnam from around 16,000 under Kennedy to 550,000, and the death rate, of course, skyrocketed.
It was this war, which was growing less popular by the day, along with such domestic issues as urban riots in Los Angeles, Newark and Detroit throughout the mid 1960’s, which led to a sharp decrease in Johnson’s popularity among the American people (despite the fact that in 1964 he had won the election against Barry Goldwater by the largest popular majority in American history at that point – more than 15,000,000 votes).
The Johnson Legacy
When the 1968 Presidential elections approached, many thought that LBJ would run for reelection once more (because he had been sworn in in the middle of Kennedy’s term for his first year, he was not barred from running by the 22nd amendment).
Despite the fact that it was unheard of to attempt to defeat a sitting President for the party’s nomination, other candidates cropped up in the Democratic field, most notably Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of the former President.
When Johnson unexpectedly dropped out of the Presidential race, he was replaced by his own Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. When Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, it was clearly Humphrey who would represent the party against Richard Nixon in November.
Prior to the election, in October of that year, Johnson ordered a general halt to the bombing of North Vietnam (this was called the “October Surprise”), which played a part in the peace talks which would take place under President Nixon.
Leaving office in January of 1969, Lyndon Johnson had already been ill for some time, and he had been plagued by health for a large portion of his last years. He retired to his Texas ranch, where he died three years later, only days before the official end of the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson’s legacy is decidedly mixed today. He is remembered by some for the surprising amount of legislation he deftly moved through congress, though even this is derided by those who believe that he only continued the New Deal policies which dramatically increased the size, scope and influence of government. Of course the vast majority of his administration will forever be clouded by the War in Vietnam.