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.
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 Senate minority leader, 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 enacted legislation augmenting federal aid to education and the creation of Medicare. He advocated for urban renewal and conservation efforts. On August 6, 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which removed legal obstacles preventing African Americans from exercising the right to vote.
Under Johnson, the country made spectacular explorations of space in a program he had championed since its start. He strongly supported NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as both a senator and president. In 1973, NASA’s Center for Human Spaceflight was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Like previous presidents, Johnson remained concerned about communist containment. Johnson's largely secret efforts to broker a settlement in the ongoing war in Vietnam were fruitless. Instead, the war escalated, increasing to 500,000 American troops involved in the conflict. 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, "But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried."
You Might Also Like
Podcast Women’s Suffrage and the White House
This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the culmination of the suffragists' fight to secure the right to...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Presidential Retreats
Presidents have found different ways to escape the pressures and politics of the position. For early leaders, it was a...
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Collection White House Easter Egg Roll
Since 1878, American presidents and their families have celebrated Easter Monday by hosting an "egg roll" party. Held on the South...
Collection White House in Bloom
The White House Grounds began as approximately 85 acres of land chosen by George Washington and was refined and cultivated by...
Collection A Tour of the White House
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy resolved to make the White House a “living museum” by restoring the historic integrity of the...
Collection The President's Neighborhood
Since the White House was first occupied by President John Adams in 1800, influential people and organizations—or those who hoped to...
Podcast Presidential Leadership in Times of Challenge: FDR and LBJ
Throughout our history, presidents have faced crises that have gripped both the nation and the world. In this episode, Association...