Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, near Johnson City, Tex., the
eldest son of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., and Rebekah Baines Johnson. His
father, a struggling farmer and cattle speculator in the hill country
of Texas, provided only an uncertain income for his family.
Politically active, Sam Johnson served five terms in the Texas
legislature. His mother had varied cultural interests and placed high
value on education; she was fiercely ambitious for her children.
Johnson attended public schools in Johnson City and received a B.S.
degree from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. He
then taught for a year in Houston before going to Washington in 1931 as
secretary to a Democratic Texas congressman, Richard M. Kleberg.
During the next 4 years Johnson developed a wide network of political
contacts in Washington, D.C. On Nov. 17, 1934, he married Claudia
Alta Taylor, known as “Lady Bird.” A warm, intelligent, ambitious
woman, she was a great asset to Johnson’s career. They had two
daughters, Lynda Byrd, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. In
1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House. Johnson greatly
admired the president, who named him, at age 27, to head the National
Youth Administration in Texas. This job, which Johnson held from 1935
to 1937, entailed helping young people obtain employment and schooling.
It confirmed Johnson’s faith in the positive potential of government
and won for him a group of supporters in Texas.
In 1937, Johnson sought and won a Texas seat in Congress, where he
championed public works, reclamation, and public power programs. When
war came to Europe he backed Roosevelt’s efforts to aid the Allies.
During World War II he served a brief tour of active duty with the U.S.
Navy in the Pacific (1941-42) but returned to Capitol Hill when
Roosevelt recalled members of Congress from active duty. Johnson
continued to support Roosevelt’s military and foreign-policy programs.
During the 1940s, Johnson and his wife developed profitable business
ventures, including a radio station, in Texas. In 1948 he ran for the
U.S. Senate, winning the Democratic party primary by only 87 votes.
(This was his second try; in 1941 he had run for the Senate and lost to
a conservative opponent.) The opposition accused him of fraud and
tagged him “Landslide Lyndon.” Although challenged, unsuccessfully, in
the courts, he took office in 1949.
Senator and Vice-President.
Johnson moved quickly into the Senate hierarchy. In 1953 he won
the job of Senate Democratic leader. The next year he was easily
re-elected as senator and returned to Washington as majority leader, a
post he held for the next 6 years despite a serious heart attack in
1955. The Texan proved to be a shrewd, skillful Senate leader. A
consistent opponent of civil rights legislation until 1957, he
developed excellent personal relationships with powerful conservative
Southerners. A hard worker, he impressed colleagues with his attention
to the details of legislation and his willingness to compromise.
In the late 1950s, Johnson began to think seriously of running for
the presidency in 1960. His record had been fairly conservative,
however. Many Democratic liberals resented his friendly association
with the Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; others considered
him a tool of wealthy Southwestern gas and oil interests. Either to
soften this image as a conservative or in response to inner conviction,
Johnson moved slightly to the left on some domestic issues, especially
on civil rights laws, which he supported in 1957 and 1960. Although
these laws proved ineffective, Johnson had demonstrated that he was a
very resourceful Senate leader.
To many northern Democrats, however, Johnson remained a sectional
candidate. The presidential nomination of 1960 went to Senator John F.
Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy, a northern Roman Catholic, then
selected Johnson as his running mate to balance the Democratic ticket.
In November 1960 the Democrats defeated the Republican candidates,
Richard M. Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, by a narrow margin. Johnson
was appointed by Kennedy to head the President’s Committee on Equal
Employment Opportunities, a post that enabled him to work on behalf of
blacks and other minorities. As vice-president, he also undertook some
missions abroad, which offered him some limited insights into
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963,
elevated Johnson to the White House, where he quickly proved a
masterful, reassuring leader in the realm of domestic affairs. In
1964, Congress passed a tax-reduction law that promised to promote
economic growth and the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the
program called the War on Poverty. Johnson was especially skillful in
securing a strong Civil Rights Act in 1964. In the years to come it
proved to be a vital source of legal authority against racial and
sexual discrimination. In 1964 the Republicans nominated Senator Barry
M. Goldwater of Arizona as their presidential nominee. Goldwater was
an extreme conservative in domestic policy and an advocate of strong
military action to protect American interests in Vietnam. Johnson had
increased the number of U.S. military personnel there from 16,000 at
the time of Kennedy’s assassination to nearly 25,000 a year later.
Contrasted to Goldwater, however, he seemed a model of restraint.
Johnson, with Hubert H. Humphrey as his running mate, ran a low-key
campaign and overwhelmed Goldwater in the election. The Arizonan won
only his home state and five others in the Deep South.
Johnson’s triumph in 1964 gave him a mandate for the Great
Society, as he called his domestic program. Congress responded by
passing the MEDICARE program, which provided health services to the
elderly, approving federal aid to elementary and secondary education,
supplementing the War on Poverty, and creating the Department of
Housing and Urban Development. It also passed another important civil
rights law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At this point Johnson began the rapid deepening of U.S.
involvement in Vietnam; as early as February 1965, U.S. planes began
to bomb North Vietnam. American troop strength in Vietnam increased to
more than 180,000 by the end of the year and to 500,000 by 1968. Many
influences led Johnson to such a policy . Among them were personal
factors such as his temperamental activism, faith in U.S. military
power, and staunch anti-communism. These qualities also led him to
intervene militarily in the Dominican Republic — allegedly to stop a
Communist takeover — in April 1965. Like many Americans who recalled
the “appeasement” of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Johnson thought the
United States must be firm or incur a loss of credibility.
While the nation became deeply involved in Vietnam, racial tension
sharpened at home, culminating in widespread urban race riots between
1965 and 1968. The breakdown of the interracial civil rights movement,
together with the imperfections of some of Johnson’s Great Society
programs, resulted in Republican gains in the 1966 elections and
effectively thwarted Johnson’s hope s for further congressional
It was the policy of military escalation in Vietnam, however, that
proved to be Johnson’s undoing as president. It deflected attention
from domestic concerns, resulted in sharp inflation, and prompted
rising criticism, especially among young, draft-aged people.
Escalation also failed to win the war. The drawn-out struggle made
Johnson even more secretive, dogmatic, and hypersensitive to criticism.
His usually sure political instincts were failing.
The New Hampshire presidential primary of 1968, in which the
anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing, revealed the
dwindling of Johnson’s support. Some of Johnson’s closest advisors now
began to counsel a de-escalation policy in Vietnam. Confronted by
mounting opposition, Johnson made two surprise announcements on Mar.
31, 1968: he would stop the bombing in most of North Vietnam and seek
a negotiated end to the war, and he would no t run for re-election.
Johnson’s influence thereafter remained strong enough to dictate
the nomination of Vice-President Humphrey, who had supported the war,
as the Democratic presidential candidate for the 1968 election.
Although Johnson stopped all bombing of the North on November 1, he
failed to make real concessions at the peace table, and the war dragged
on. Humphrey lost in a close race with the Republican candidate,
Richard M. Nixon.
After stepping down from the presidency in January 1969, Johnson
returned to his ranch in Texas. There he and his aides prepared his
memoirs, which were published in 1971 as The Vantage Point:
Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. He also supervised
construction of the Johnson presidential library in Austin. Johnson
died on Jan. 22, 1973, 5 days before the conclusion of the treaty by
which the United States withdrew from Vietnam.
Evans, Rowland, and Novak, Robert, Lyndon B. Johnson, The Exercise of
Power : A Political Biography (1966);
Geyelin, Philip, Lyndon B. Johnson and the World (1966);
Goldman, Eric F., The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1969);
Johnson, Lady Bird, White House Diary (1970);
Kearns, Doris, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976);
Schandler, Herbert, The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and
White, Theodore, The Making of the President–1964 (1965);
Wicker, Tom, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics
(1968; repr. 1970).#