A "Great Society" for the American people was the vision of Lyndon Johnson. As president, he obtained passage of one of the most significant legislative programs in the nation's history, but found his presidency overwhelmed by opposition to his war in Vietnam.
Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in central Texas, not far from Johnson City, which his family had helped settle. He felt the pinch of rural poverty as he grew up, working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College; he taught students of Mexican descent.
In 1937 he campaigned successfully for the House of Representatives on a New Deal platform, effectively aided by his wife, the former Claudia "Lady Bird" Taylor, whom he had married in 1934. During World War II he served briefly in the Navy as a lieutenant commander, winning a Silver Star in the South Pacific.
After six terms in the House, Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1948. In 1953, he became the youngest minority leader in Senate history, and in 1955, when the Democrats won control, majority leader.
In the 1960 campaign, Johnson, as John F. Kennedy's running mate, was elected vice president. On November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson was sworn in as president.
First he obtained enactment of measures President Kennedy had been urging at the time of his death—a major civil rights bill and a tax cut. Next he urged the nation "to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor." In 1964, Johnson won the presidency over Arizona senator Barry Goldwater by more than 15 million votes.
In 1965, with a heavily Democratic congress, Johnson passed bills for aid to education, attack on disease, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, development of depressed regions, a wide-scale fight against poverty, control and prevention of crime and delinquency, and removal of obstacles to the right to vote—especially for African Americans.
Under Johnson, the country made spectacular explorations of space in a program he had championed since its start. Nevertheless, despite the beginning of new antipoverty and antidiscrimination programs, unrest and rioting in black ghettos troubled the nation. President Johnson continued to exert his influence against segregation and on behalf of law and order, passing a fair housing bill in 1968.
Johnson's largely secret efforts to broker a settlement in Vietnam were fruitless, and he escalated the war. Controversy over the war was acute by the end of March 1968, when he limited the bombing of North Vietnam in order to initiate formal negotiations. At the same time, he startled the world by withdrawing as a candidate for reelection. Some suspected that Johnson had dropped out to escape defeat. He insisted that he wished to devote his full energies to seeking peace.
Before Johnson died of a heart attack on his Texas ranch in January 1973, one of the last calls he received was from President Nixon, suggesting that a Vietnam peace agreement was about to be signed.
Later, Americans lauded Johnson for his herculean efforts to change American society for the better, while regretting his expansion of the country's military commitment in Southeast Asia. During his final appearance before Congress in 1969, he predicted that a century hence, "at least it will be said that we tried."