JOHNSON, LYNDON BAINES
JOHNSON, LYNDON BAINES (1908–1973). Lyndon Baines Johnson, president of the United States, the eldest of five children of Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., and Rebekah Baines Johnson, was born on August 27, 1908, on a farm in the Hill Country near Stonewall, Texas. His father had served in the Texas legislature, and young Lyndon grew up in an atmosphere that emphasized politics and public affairs. Lyndon's mother encouraged her son's ambition and sense of striving. In 1913 the Johnsons moved to nearby Johnson City. Lyndon was educated in local schools in the area and graduated from high school in Johnson City in 1924. During the next several years he tried various jobs in California and Texas without success. In 1927 he entered Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University), where he was a history and social science major active in campus politics. He earned his elementary teacher's certificate in 1928 and for one year was a principal and teacher at Cotulla. His work with the destitute Hispanic students there had an important effect on his attitude toward poverty and the role of government. Johnson received his B.A. degree in 1930. He had already taken part in several political campaigns. Late in 1931 he became the secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg of Texas. During the four years he held the position he gained valuable contacts in Washington. On November 17, 1934, he met and married Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor, daughter of Thomas Jefferson Taylor II, a prosperous planter and store owner in Marshall. Two daughters were born to the Johnsons, during the 1940s. Mrs. Johnson proved to be an effective political partner. Her business acumen was an important element in the success of the radio station that they acquired in Austin in 1943.
Johnson's first important political position was as director of the National Youth Administration in Texas from 1935 to 1937. Construction of his system of roadside parks put young Texans to work and quietly introduced the participation of African Americans in some NYA programs. When the incumbent congressman of the Tenth Congressional District died in 1937, Johnson entered the race as a devoted supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He spent eleven years in the House and became intimately familiar with the legislative process. He was a supporter of Roosevelt's programs and policies and a close ally of majority leader (later speaker of the House) Sam Rayburn. He was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1940 and helped the Democrats retain control of the House. In 1941 he ran for the Senate from Texas but was narrowly defeated in a special election.
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Johnson joined the navy as a lieutenant commander. He saw combat during an inspection tour of the South Pacific in 1942. He left the navy in response to President Roosevelt's directive that congressmen should remain in Washington. Johnson made another race for the Senate in 1948 against popular former governor Coke Stevenson. Texas had lost its earlier affection for the New Deal, and Johnson stressed his own conservatism in the election. The runoff primary in August 1948 was very close. Amid charges of ballot-box stuffing and other fraudulent practices, Johnson was declared the Democratic nominee only after extended legal battles. He easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election. He was an effective senator who mastered the organization and rules of the upper house. His Democratic colleagues elected him majority whip in 1951, and in 1953 he was chosen to be minority leader—the youngest such leader in the history of the Senate. Johnson won a second term in 1954. The Democrats regained control of Congress that same year, and in January 1955 he became the majority leader.
In his rush to power, however, Johnson had neglected his health. During the early summer of 1955, he had a severe heart attack. He returned to his duties in the Senate late that year. He followed a strategy of cooperation with the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As majority leader, Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the first civil-rights acts for more than eighty years in 1957 and 1960. He also pushed hard for an expanded United States role in space. His presidential ambitions during the 1950s shaped his attitude toward Texas politics during the decade. In 1956 he waged a heated battle against Governor R. Allan Shivers for control of the Texas delegation to the Democratic national convention, a contest in which Johnson prevailed. The Texas legislature also passed a measure to allow Johnson to run simultaneously for the presidency and reelection to the Senate in 1960. Despite these maneuvers, his bid for the White House in 1960 failed, and he settled for being John F. Kennedy's vice president. Johnson campaigned hard across the South; his ability to put Texas and other Southern states in the Democratic column helped Kennedy gain his narrow victory. Johnson's elevation to the vice presidency left his Senate seat vacant in 1961, and Republican John G. Tower won a special election to succeed him.
During the vice presidential years, from 1961 to 1963, Johnson's national power faded. In Texas his former aide John B. Connally, Jr., won election as governor in 1962. Feuding between Connally and Texas senator Ralph W. Yarborough imperiled the unity of the party in the 1964 election and brought President Kennedy to Dallas in November 1963 to heal the intraparty wounds. The Kennedy assassination thrust Johnson into the White House.
On the domestic side, Johnson's presidency brought significant changes in how the government functioned, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Great Society program. In the 1964 election, Johnson carried Texas by an overwhelming margin, swept Senator Yarborough to reelection against the Republican candidate, George H. W. Bush, and slowed the emergence of the GOP as a serious challenge to Democratic supremacy in Texas. In foreign policy, Johnson inherited the commitment that Kennedy had made to the preservation of South Vietnam. He decided in late 1963 not to withdraw from Southeast Asia. By 1965 his escalation of the war against North Vietnam brought protests from Democrats on the left, who saw the conflict as misguided, while Republicans attacked the president for not prosecuting the war with sufficient vigor. Antiwar protests, racial unrest, and expanded government programs turned Texas voters against the Johnson administration during the mid-1960s. Senator Tower won reelection in 1966, as the political fortunes of the Johnson White House soured. By 1967 Johnson's political base had eroded. The president had difficulty in traveling around the country because of protestors who followed him. Social upheaval in the form of urban riots and racial tension became associated with the Johnson years. Within the Democratic party nationally, efforts went forward in 1967 to find an alternative to Johnson. Liberals in Texas, long unhappy with Johnson's leadership, echoed this unhappiness. Through Connally and other associates such as Austin attorney Frank C. Erwin, Jr., Johnson controlled the state Democratic party against these insurgent forces. The war in Vietnam seemed stalemated as 1967 ended. The Tet offensive, which began on January 30, 1968, was a defeat for North Vietnam militarily but a blow to Johnson's weakened standing at home. Faced with political challenges from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in his own party, Johnson also worried about what would happen to his own health if he ran again. On March 31, 1968, he announced that he was limiting the bombing of North Vietnam and was seeking negotiations. In a political surprise, he also announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection.
After retiring to the Johnson Ranch, Johnson wrote his memoirs, The Vantage Point: Perspective of the Presidency, 1963–1969, which were published in 1971. He also supervised the construction of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite his withdrawal from national politics, Johnson exercised continued influence in Texas affairs. His friends helped Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey carry Texas in the fall of 1968 against former vice president Richard Nixon and Alabama governor George Wallace. Johnson also supported Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., in 1970 in a race against George Bush for the United States Senate. The ailing former president offered less encouragement to the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, Senator George S. McGovern, who lost Texas in the Nixon landslide of that year.
Lyndon Johnson was a significant force in Texas for almost four decades. His Senate race against Coke Stevenson in 1948 remains one of the most controversial episodes in the history of American elections. Johnson's relationships with such men as Sam Rayburn, John Connally, and Lloyd Bentsen affected the direction of state politics for a generation. On the other hand, Johnson's feud with Ralph Yarborough was an important factor in the relative weakness of Texas liberalism during the 1950s and 1960s. Johnson also had a large effect on the Texas economy during his political career, as he steered congressional appropriations to the state in the form of military bases, crop subsidies for farmers, government facilities, and jobs for federal workers. The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, headquarters of the NASA space program in Houston, is a large symbol of the impact of Johnson's liberal nationalism on the development of Texas and the Sunbelt in the postwar years.
Unfriendly biographers have depicted Johnson as driven only by a lust for power. His personality could be abrasive, and his methods were often crude. Nonetheless, the impulse that he displayed to improve the lives of Texans and all Americans reflected genuine conviction on his part. Despite his foreign policy failure in Vietnam, Johnson was one of the most important presidents during the period after World War II. His ambitious Great Society program embodied the expansive policies of American liberalism. The reaction to this program laid the basis for the conservative trend that followed him. The war in Vietnam called into question the ability of the United States to exercise its influence where it chose in the world. Johnson's broad concept of presidential power came under criticism because of the excesses of his White House years. He tried to be a great president and achieved some impressive results. He also demonstrated the limits of the government and the presidency to produce social change and to succeed in an activist foreign policy. No Texan has left a greater mark on the history of the United States. Johnson died on January 22, 1973, and was buried near Johnson City. See also other article titles beginning with LYNDON.
Paul Keith Conkin, Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson (Boston: Twayne, 1986). Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Lady Bird Johnson, A White House Diary (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
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Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on January 30, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.