Today is Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday. Our 36th president has been remembered most for his leadership of the doomed Vietnam War. And while his leadership of this war, well his foreign leadership in general, was poor, this should only be a small part of our national memory. LBJ wanted to be a remembered president, and he has been – but for all the wrong reasons.
LBJ might have had little insight about foreign policy, but his presidency also led one of the great moments of social and domestic reform in the United States. He championed the Civil Rights movement. Unlike JFK, who had been hesitant to throw his support behind the movement, LBJ made it a priority. And his keen political insight allowed him to get away with it. In 1964, he pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. Recognizing the power of Kennedy’s death, he begged Congress to vote yes on the bill in the honor of the slain president. This explains some of the reason why historically we associate Kennedy with Civil Rights and less so with Johnson. Then the following year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act – allowing most African Americans to vote for the first time (despite having been enfranchised nearly a century earlier).
LBJ also dreamt of a Great Society, one that included all Americans – not just the middle and upper class. The Great Society extended the ideals of FDR’s depression-era New Deal. Unlike its predecessor, the Great Society extended social programs to people of color, poor whites, and the elderly. And LBJ acted quickly – he knew that support for these programs would be short-lived. However, such programs greatly improved the lives of almost all Americans both then and now. Great Society programs include:
Project Head Start (1965) – provided food, health, & day care to impoverished preschool age children.
Medicare Act (1965) – medical insurance for those 65 and older. Extended to those with disabilities. Also paid for prescription drugs and nursing care.
Medicaid (1965) – Health insurance for low-income families.
National Endowment for Humanities & Arts (1965) – Funding for scholars, writers, musicians, & performers.
Public Broadcasting Act (1967) – Created corporation to fund PBS & NPR (one the great success stories).
Immigration & Nationality Services Act (1965) – Rolled back the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act that had aimed restrictions targeted at Asian & Latin American immigrants.
Fair Housing Act (1968) – Prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, gender, familial status, or disability in selling or renting homes.
VISTA – A domestic version of Kennedy’s Peace Corps, dedicated to improving the lives of Americans.
Why do we forget about all this and only remember Vietnam? Well, for one LBJ most definitely led some of its largest blunders. While he recognized the problems inherent with Vietnam, the path had been set in motion by the presidents before him (starting with Truman and lasting through JFK). In his 1964 election year, he felt pushed to escalate the war by his staunch hawk Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. Johnson also lacked the savvy to navigate relations with foreign leaders or even acknowledge cultural differences. This led him to decide, often recommended by his cabinet and military leaders, to attack the Viet Cong with full force. He could not consider the reactions of the Viet Cong enemy or even recognize their will to maintain autonomy. Finally, even LBJ’s most strident supports (namely Civil Rights leaders) found themselves turning their back on the president due to the war. In 1968, LBJ felt he had no choice but to withdraw from the presidential election – and he was right.
Today is a good day to remember both sides of our former president.