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Lyndon Johnson’s Ambivalent Legacy

(Photo: Wikimedia)

While considered by many a warmonger, President Lyndon Johnson deserves inclusion in his book celebrating heroes and heroines of social justice, says author Peter Dreier, because in terms of alleviating suffering, addressing racial injustice and promoting public welfare, his domestic reforms were almost unrivaled.

Lyndon Johnson is without doubt the most controversial figure in my recent book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. I don’t just mean that he was a divisive figure in his own lifetime. I mean that many readers were shocked that I included him in a book celebrating heroes and heroines of social justice.

LBJ was, many people reminded me at my talks and through emails, a “warmonger” and worse. “Johnson has the blood on his hands of over 58,000 Americans killed, and over 300,000 Americans injured, plus the deaths and injuries of over a million Vietnamese,” one reader scolded. “How could you put him in the same book with Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Paul Robeson, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Friedan, Dorothy Day, Walter Reuther, Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez?”

“Part of the way with LBJ” was how antiwar activists described their lukewarm endorsement of Johnson when he ran against the right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. They gave Johnson grudging support for his growing embrace of civil rights and antipoverty efforts, but they could not disguise their disgust at his escalation of the Vietnam War. Within a few years they were chanting, “Hey, Hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?”

Five decades later, that remains LBJ’s divided image among liberals and progressives: as a savvy lawmaker who squandered his opportunity to make a serious assault on racial and economic injustice by spending the nation’s taxes and his own political capital fighting an immoral war in Southeast Asia.

Is this a fair assessment of Johnson’s presidency?

LBJ was an accidental president who passed several of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

This year, Americans are taking a second look at Johnson’s life and legacy. In April, the LBJ Presidential Library is hosting a Civil Rights Summit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. According to a recent front-page story in The New York Times, headlined “Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy,” Johnson’s family, friends, and supporters are clearly hoping to shift LBJ’s reputation from warmonger to civil rights champion.

Later this month, Bryan Cranston will portray Johnson in a new Broadway play, Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,” which focuses on LBJ’s support for civil rights.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who served as an aide to Johnson in his last year in the White House and later assisted him with his memoirs, thinks a reappraisal of LBJ is overdue. “When he left the office,” she told The New York Times, “the trial and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam.” A CNN/OCR International poll found that Johnson’s public approval rating has improved from 40 percent in 1990 to 55 percent last year.

But evaluations of presidents shouldn’t simply be based on their popularity, but on their achievements. LBJ was an accidental president who passed several of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

Johnson’s political career reflects the major components of post-World War II liberalism, which included government activism to challenge social injustice and Cold War imperialism and militarism.

All presidents operate under conditions not of their own choosing, but which they inherit from the past. LBJ entered the White House during a wave of mounting civil rights and anti-poverty movements, but he also had to contend with the Democratic Party’s Southern segregationist wing, which held enormous power in Congress. Likewise, he was caught in a vice between the Cold War-oriented foreign policy establishment (military contractors, most intellectuals and journalists, the Pentagon and their Congressional allies) and the burgeoning anti-war movement. In both instances, he made choices that were based on both political calculations and what he considered the morally right thing to do.

Johnson’s political career reflects the major components of post-World War II liberalism, which included government activism to challenge social injustice and Cold War imperialism and militarism. In interviews this year, Robert Caro, who has completed four volumes of his master work, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, portrays Johnson as a passionate believer in government’s responsibility to help the poor and minorities (as a school teacher in his 20s he devoted long hours teaching poor Mexican-American children in South Texas), but also as Cold Warrior who believed that the United States had to protect South Vietnam from becoming a “domino” in the global battle between communism and democracy.

LBJ’s family had lived in Texas for generations, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and made their living as farmers and ranchers. But LBJ’s father, a one-time state legislator, piled up huge debts, lost the family farm, and plunged the family into financial hard times. As a schoolteacher with poor students in rural Texas, as an aide to a Texas congressman during the New Deal, as Texas state director of the National Youth Administration (a New Deal jobs program), as a congressman and senator, and as president, LBJ’s own experience with economic hardship shaped his commitment to helping the poor.

In the 1930s, Texas was part of the solid Democratic South, supporting the New Deal so long as it provided jobs and relief and did not require racial integration or encourage workers to join unions. LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937 at age 28. As an ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he brought electricity, housing and other improvements to his district. He lost his first bid for the Senate in 1941 and stayed in the House, but ultimately won a Senate seat in 1948. In 1955, his Democratic colleagues elected him majority leader. He used his legendary parliamentary skills and powers of persuasion to get reluctant senators to vote for liberal legislation.

Although LBJ grew up under Jim Crow segregation and was known to use racist epithets in conversation, he was a moderate on race issues. In 1948, he opposed President Harry S. Truman’s civil rights program, but six years later he was one of the few southern senators who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, a pledge to resist implementing the US Supreme Court’s desegregation order. He risked alienating white Texas voters by maneuvering successfully to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957. It was a weak law, but it was also the first civil rights measure enacted in almost a century and thus a sign of Johnson’s shifting commitments. He recognized his own racist sentiments, but fought to overcome them, in part out of decency and in part out of a desire to win acceptance from northern liberals among his Senate colleagues and voters.

And no president better reflected the tensions of post-war liberalism than Lyndon Johnson.

In 1960, LBJ threw his Texas hat into the presidential ring, but Senator John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts had wider appeal. JFK needed LBJ’s help to win the South and to help pass legislation in Congress, so he asked him to be his running mate. Johnson knew he would have more power as Senate majority leader than as vice president, but he took the offer, thinking it would be a stepping-stone to the White House after eight years of a Kennedy administration.

Thanks to government spending for road-building, higher education, homeownership and a permanent war economy, the 1950s and 1960s was a period of growing prosperity. The standard of living was improving for most families, inequality was shrinking, and people felt hopeful about the country and its future. A growing number of American families were able afford to move to the suburbs, buy homes, install air conditioners, purchase a new contraption called a television, pay for a new car every few years, take a yearly vacation (and stay at a new phenomenon called a “motel”) and even fly on an airplane. They could send their children to college and save money for a comfortable retirement.

But the contradictions of the prosperity triggered protest movements. African Americans did not share in the rising prosperity. The civil rights movement was, to a large degree, a result of the gap between promise and reality, including the persistence of poverty, as described in Michael Harrington’s 1962 expose, The Other America. John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1957 book, The Affluent Society, alerted America about its “private splendor” amidst “public squalor.” Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, warned about the dangers of pesticides on human health and the natural ecology. Both Galbraith and Carson’s books foreshadowed the environmental movement’s concern about our throwaway society, waste, pollution and over-dependence on oil. Ralph Nader’s 1965 expose of the auto industry’s indifference to safety concerns, Unsafe at Any Speed, laid the groundwork for a new consumer movement that would demand stronger government regulation of business to protect the public from dangerous food, medicines, cars, toys and other products. The first inklings of the women’s liberation movement emerged from the frustrations of women living in suburbia, as reflected in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique.

When Kennedy took office in 1961, much of this disquiet was bubbling below the surface, but civil rights activists were already on the march. The demand for a new wave of social rights and government responsibilities tested the ability of liberalism to address these realities. And no president better reflected the tensions of post-war liberalism than Lyndon Johnson.

In his first address to Congress, on November 27, 1963, a few days after Kennedy was shot, LBJ told the legislators, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

Using his consummate arm-twisting skills and bolstered by ongoing civil protests in the South, LBJ got the Civil Rights Act – outlawing segregation in restaurants, buses, and other public facilities – through Congress and signed it on July 2, 1964. It was the first significant civil rights bill since Reconstruction and changed the country forever.

When Johnson failed to replace the segregated Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Party convention in August 1964, the radical wing of the civil rights movement – particularly the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – lost faith in his commitment to their cause. But Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders continued their uneasy relationship with LBJ, particularly since they needed his support to get Congress to pass a bill removing racial barriers to voting in the South.

“There is no negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

In November 1964, LBJ beat Goldwater in a historic landslide victory, along with large Democratic majorities in Congress. He believed that the victory could help him enact a voting rights law the next year. Yet, like FDR and Kennedy, he was ambivalent about the use of protest. He did not want to appear to be responding to pressure from activists and agitators.

In February 1965, at a White House meeting, LBJ asked King to put civil rights protests on hold, arguing that they would harden white resistance and make it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for him to win over moderate senators and representatives, with whom Johnson had often successfully negotiated as Senate majority leader, for voting rights legislation. King responded that blacks had already waited too long.

As LBJ’s then-aide Bill Moyers recalled, King “talked about the murders and lynchings, the churches set on fire, children brutalized, the law defied, men and women humiliated, their lives exhausted, their hearts broken. LBJ listened, as intently as I ever saw him listen. He listened, and then he put his hand on Martin Luther King’s shoulder, and said, in effect: ‘OK. You go out there Dr. King and keep doing what you’re doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing.’ “

According to Moyers: “Lyndon Johnson was no racist but he had not been a civil rights hero, either. Now, as president, he came down on the side of civil disobedience, believing it might quicken America’s conscience until the cry for justice became irresistible, enabling him to turn Congress. So King marched and Johnson maneuvered and Congress folded.”

A month later, on March 15, 1965, in a speech to Congress, LBJ said, “There is no negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.” He added, “It’s not just negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” He concluded, “And we shall overcome.”

Johnson’s use of the words of the civil rights anthem symbolized his embrace of the movement. It was, however, an uneasy alliance. LBJ was still angry at the civil rights activists who embarrassed him by challenging the segregated all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic Party convention. But he also recognized that the willingness of activists to put their bodies on the line against fists and fire hoses had tilted public opinion. The movement’s civil disobedience, rallies, and voter registration drives pricked Americans’ consciences. LBJ understood that the nation’s mood was changing.

LBJ told his chief economic advisor, Walter Heller, that abolishing poverty was the kind of big, bold program he could get behind.

LBJ used every arm-twisting trick he had to fashion a coalition of northern and border-state Democrats and moderate Republicans to enact the landmark Voting Rights Act. The act barred literacy tests and other obstacles to voting that were being imposed by southern states. Within four years, black voter turnout had tripled. Since then, the number of black elected officials at all levels of government has grown dramatically.

Johnson and the civil rights movement forged a productive, if tense, alliance. As the movement took to the streets, LBJ showed increasing resolve and moral courage to be the president from the South who brought America closer to racial and economic justice. But Johnson did not reap the political rewards for his efforts. Between 1964 and 1968, race riots engulfed many American cities, triggering a tremendous backlash among white middle-class and working-class voters, including many once-loyal Democrats.

LBJ’s embrace of civil rights paralleled his efforts to address American poverty. He recognized the logic of King’s observation, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter, if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” Both civil rights and labor activists were pushing Johnson to address the issue, which they viewed as one that crossed racial lines, since the vast majority of poor Americans were white.

Upon taking office after Kennedy’s death in November 1963, LBJ told his chief economic advisor, Walter Heller, that abolishing poverty was the kind of big, bold program he could get behind. Johnson mobilized America’s sympathy for the slain president to achieve goals that JFK, a much-less-skilled legislator, could not have won.

In a commencement speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, LBJ called on the country to move not only toward “the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,” which he defined as one that would “end poverty and racial injustice.”

Walter Reuther, the influential president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), agreed. Representing the left wing of the Democratic Party, he advised Johnson to champion a bold federal program for full employment that would include government-funded public works projects and the conversion of the nation’s defense industry to production for civilian needs. This, he argued, would dramatically address the nation’s poverty population, create job opportunities for the poor (disproportionately comprised of African Americans), and rebuild the nation’s troubled cities without being as politically divisive as a federal program identified primarily as serving poor blacks.

But jobs programs were expensive; the WPA had cost $5 billion in 1936. Johnson insisted that the “unconditional war on poverty” had to cost less than a billion dollars a year. His strategy was to help the poor improve themselves – a “hand up, not a handout.” Under the War on Poverty’s major legislative initiatives, federal aid for elementary and secondary education, especially for poorer districts, was dramatically expanded. The plan created Head Start (early education for poor children) and Legal Services (legal aid to poor families) and pathbreaking job training programs. Under Johnson, Congress established food stamps (until then a pilot project) as a permanent program. One of LBJ’s most enduring legacies is the creation of Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor), as well as funding for neighborhood health clinics. Johnson established the Department of Housing and Urban Development and increased funding for low-income housing. The antipoverty program encouraged residents of poor neighborhoods to create nonprofit community-based organizations to deliver services, build housing and organize to gain a voice in local government.

But the antipoverty program included no major jobs program.

Testifying before Congress, Reuther said that “while [the proposals] are good, [they] are not adequate, nor will they be successful in achieving their purposes, except as we begin to look at the broader problems [of the American economy].” He added that “poverty is a reflection of our failure to achieve a more rational, more responsible, more equitable distribution of the abundance that is within our grasp.”

Because Johnson’s domestic achievements include the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, antipoverty programs, and civil rights legislation, his other domestic accomplishments are often overlooked.

Although Reuther threw the UAW’s political weight behind Johnson’s antipoverty programs, his critique was correct. Since the 1960s, federal efforts to address poverty have consistently suffered from a failure to address the fundamental underlying issues, especially full employment at living wages.

Despite this, these programs have played a significant role in reducing poverty. Even LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon, didn’t dare slash most antipoverty programs created under Johnson’s Great Society initiative. As a result, the nation’s poverty rate was cut in half, from 22.2 percent in 1960 to an all-time low of 11.1 percent by 1973. Most dramatic was the decline of poverty among the elderly, from 35.2 percent in 1959 to 14.6 percent in 1974, thanks to enactment of Medicare in 1965 and cost-of-living increases for Social Security. The poverty rate among African Americans fell from 55.1 percent in 1959 (when most blacks still lived in the rural South) to 41.8 percent in 1966 (when blacks were an increasingly urban group) to 30.3 percent by 1974.

Because Johnson’s domestic achievements include the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, antipoverty programs, and civil rights legislation, his other domestic accomplishments are often overlooked. These include landmark environmental protection and conservation measures, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It was under Johnson that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were created. He signed the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially liberalized US immigration policy toward non-Europeans, as well as the Highway Safety Act, the Public Broadcasting Act and legislation to provide consumers with protection against dangerous and shoddy products. Johnson issued two executive orders to promote affirmative action by prohibiting race and sex discrimination by federal contractors along with a requirement that they engage in good-faith efforts to expand job opportunities for minorities and women. He appointed the first African American to the Supreme Court (the heroic civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall) and the first African American cabinet member (HUD Secretary Robert Weaver).

LBJ’s biggest blind spot as a liberal Democrat was organized labor. His reluctance to follow Reuther’s advice to push for a full employment agenda stemmed from his close ties to business, particularly Texas’ oil industry. In the 1960s, unions still represented almost one-third of the nation’s workforce, they were a key player within the Democratic Party, and they actively supported LBJ’s 1964 race against Goldwater. Recognizing labor’s influence, Johnson signed a comprehensive minimum rate hike that also extended coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act to 9.1 million workers.

In the decade before LBJ became president, the United States escalated the arms race, intervened militarily in 10 countries, and overthrew democratic regimes in Guatemala and Iran.

LBJ and labor joined forces in support of civil rights legislation, Medicare, and Medicaid. But Johnson was hardly a union enthusiast. In Congress, like other southern Democrats, he voted for the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which weakened many parts of the New Deal’s landmark Wagner Act of 1935. After his landslide 1964 victory, Johnson promised labor leaders that he would help repeal Taft-Hartley’s “right-to-work” provision, which gave employers an upper hand during union organizing drives by prohibiting the union shop. Johnson even called for repeal in his 1965 State of the Union speech. Unions and their allies organized a major push for repeal. The House voted for repeal by a 210-203 margin, but Senate Republicans filibustered the bill. To union leaders’ dismay, Johnson did not use his famed arm-twisting skills to win the Senate votes needed for repeal. This meant that the South – including his native Texas – would remain unorganized, that southern black, Latino, and white workers would not be mobilized together, and that the South would continue to serve as a destination for businesses seeking low-wage workers and low tax sites, and remain a bastion of conservatism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most liberals embraced the Cold War. In the decade before LBJ became president, the United States escalated the arms race, intervened militarily in 10 countries, and overthrew democratic regimes in Guatemala and Iran. LBJ inherited America’s involvement in Vietnam from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. But he dramatically escalated the war, making it more expensive in both lives and money. Unfortunately, LBJ relied on most of JFK’s military and foreign policy advisors – both inside and outside the government. They viewed Vietnam as a crucial battleground of the Cold War and persuaded LBJ to invest more troops and money into the war. Moreover, as Johnson often remarked, he did not want to be the first president to lose a war – especially a war with communists.

His advisors’ views – that an increase in bombing, combat troops and aid to Saigon’s corrupt government leaders would bring about a South Vietnamese victory against communist North Vietnam – proved disastrously wrong. Nightly news report on TV and reports in daily papers and weekly magazines confirmed that the United States was losing the war. The Tet offensive in early 1968 – where North Vietnamese troops penetrated major cities in South Vietnam – revealed to many Americans that the United States was not winning the war, despite LBJ’s public comments to the contrary.

Politically, Vietnam was LBJ’s undoing, costing him credibility with many liberal Democrats. The number of American troops in Vietnam grew to 100,000 in 1965 and to 500,000 three years later. As antiwar protests grew in number and size, LBJ’s ratings among Democratic voters dropped sharply. King’s first major speech opposing the war, in August 1967, deepened the nation’s antiwar feelings and ruptured the relationship between the preacher and the president. That year King wrote: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” America could not afford to simultaneously fight a war on poverty on our own soil and an imperialist war overseas.

LBJ predicted, correctly, that by identifying closely with the civil rights movement, the Democratic Party would lose its hold on many white southerners

By the spring of 1968, Johnson had concluded that he would face strong opposition in the Democratic primaries and could even lose the November election. On March 31, 1968, to the surprise of some of his own staff, LBJ announced that he would not seek reelection.

Four days later, King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots broke out in a number of cities. LBJ recognized that King’s murder could also spark a renewed push to pass a bill outlawing racial discrimination in housing that had been languishing in Congress. Despite being a lame-duck president, LBJ was still able to use his prodigious political skills. Within a week, on April 11, Congress passed and LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act.

LBJ predicted, correctly, that by identifying closely with the civil rights movement, the Democratic Party would lose its hold on many white southerners. Democrats also lost many white voters who blamed the party for the violence of the urban riots and the terrorist wing of the antiwar movement, as well as for the “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” culture of the hippie movement. In November 1968, appealing to what he called the “silent majority,” Richard Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the White House, which political analysts viewed as a rebuke of LBJ as well.

No other modern president except FDR rivals Johnson’s domestic reforms in terms of alleviating suffering and addressing racial injustice, but Vietnam still overshadows his other achievements.

What lessons should today’s progressive activists learn from LBJ’s presidency?

Throughout American history, progressive change has come about when both “inside” and “outside” strategies are at work. Activists need advocates in the White House and Congress to voice their concerns and pass legislation. But even with such allies, activists have to keep the heat on, be visible, and make enough noise so that policy makers and the media can’t ignore them. Boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, and mass marches — traditional outsider strategies — help put new issues on the agenda, dramatize long-ignored grievances, and generate media attention. This type of agitation gets people thinking about things they hadn’t thought about before and can change public opinion.

Savvy liberal and progressive elected officials understand that they really need “radical” protestors to change the political climate and make reform possible. When “disruption” is taking place in the streets, and grassroots groups are engaged in lobbying and rallying, policymakers can appear statesmanlike and moderate when they forge compromises to win legislative victories.

Progressive activists also need to understand that all legislation is typically a compromise. In politics as in other arenas, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Some compromises can co-opt a movement’s ideas and energies with token changes, but other compromises are stepping-stones towards more dramatic reform. Most of the key LBJ-era victories were subsequently built upon and strengthened. That’s what social movements do.

As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas noted, without protest there is no progress. Activists always need to focus on immediate issues that improve people’s lives, but they also need to build support for system-changing reforms – particularly changes in our system of legalized bribery called campaign finance, expansion of voting rights, and modernizing our labor laws to level the playing field between business and employees — that will give ordinary Americans a stronger voice in our democracy.