Lyndon Johnson was born in August 1908, the son of the Texas Populist Sam Johnson. Sam Johnson had been a 6 term member of the Texas state legislature. He supported the 8 hour day, criticized the Ku Klux Klan, and voted to tax corporations and regulate utilities and inspect food. However Sam Houston lost the family farm (about 1920), as cotton prices fell from 44 cents a pound to only 6 cents a pound (Schulman, p. 7-8) and the family had to move to town. Johnson City was a small town of 323 people, in east Texas, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and almost no African Americans or Mexicans. Sam Houston was disgraced, and had to work on a road crew building highways. In 1924 Lyndon Johnson graduated from high school, and in 1927 went on to Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College, in San Marcos, the only college he could afford. Interrupting his college career, Johnson became a teacher and principal at the Welhausen Elementary School, in Cotulla. It was all Mexican. In 1930 Johnson received his B.S. degree, and in 1931 Representative Richard Kleburg hired him as his congressional secretary in Washington, DC. In 1935 LBJ was named state director of the National Youth Admin, for Texas. Under his tenure, the NYA in Texas provided funding for schooling and training for nearly 10,000 young Texans, and jobs for 10,000 others.
In 1937 LBJ won a special election to fill the vacant Congressional seat of James Buchanan. LBJ was an ardent supporter of FDR (see photo, p. 18). Johnson secured $14 million for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), to construct several dams in the east Texas hill country. In 1933 90 percent of farms still operated without electricity. The LCRA projects brought electricity to the hill country. After the attack on Peral harbor, LBJ went on active duty with the Navy, and served on the crew of a B-26 bomber in New Guinea until July 1942.
As the public mood became more conservative in 1946, under Truman, Congressman Johnson shifted to the right. As a Southerner, he found it politically expedient to vote against civil rights proposals put forward by Truman. And he voted for the Taft-Hatrley Act that placed restrictions on the labor movement. Johnson voted conservatively on these issues because his constituents were conservative, not out of strong personal conviction. In 1948 LBJ narrowly "won" an election to the Senate (by 87 possibly fraudulent votes). He served in the Senate from 1948-1960 (two terms). The outgoing LBJ made it his business to get to know everyone in Washington. In 1953 he was elected the Senate Minority Leader (Democrats at that time were the minority party). In January 1955 he was elected as the Senate Majority Leader, but in July suffered a heart attack. He steered an increase in the minimum wage through the Senate (the first one in 6 years).
Johnson (p. 40) walked a tightrope between northern liberalism and Texas (southern0 conservatism. On economic matters not related to oil and gas, he joined with most liberal northern Democrats in the Congress. Senator Johnson supported aid to education, a higher minimum wage, rent controls, public housing and increased farm subsidies. But as a Senator, he opposed or compromised away every piece of civil rights legislation proposed by Truman and Eisenhower in the 1950s.
In March 1956 more than 100 Southern Congressmen and Senators issued the Southern Manifesto. It denounced the Brown decision, and argued that segregation was a matter of states rights, and the Federal Government had no jurisdiction in the matter. All of the Southern Senators signed the Manifesto—except for three. The three were Al Gore, Sr. of Dem-Tennessee, Estes Kefauver (Dem-Tennessee), and Lyndon Johnson. LBJ could argue that as Majority Leader he needed to be neutral. He also realized that of he appeared to be a Southern regional fanatic, he would never be bale to appeal to liberal voters in the North, as a national figure. And LBJ wanted to be president one day. If he alienated the northern wing of the Democratic Party, he could never become president. LBJ personally opposed racial segregation, but before 1957 did not see the political utility of taking risks, given the conservative views of his constituents. In 1957 Southern Democrats launched a filibuster against Eisenhower’s civil rights bill. Johnson brokered a compromise. The bill was intended to toughen the laws requiring compliance with court ordered desegregation. The bill was watered down to provide for a jury trial for anyone accused of violating a court order in a civil rights case. In the South, this would mean that violators would go before racist judges and all-white juries, and so could break the law in the confidence that juries would acquit them. This made the bill next to useless, and the Southerners in turn agreed to end their filibuster. This next to useless bill was purely symbolic, however it was the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, and LBJ could posture as a moving force in securing its passage.
Johnson disliked people who were passionately committed to abstract ideals. Instead, he was a bargainer and negotiator. He was a master of the "backroom deal" or horse-trade, which was practical politics.
COLD WAR LIBERALISM
After the end of World War II, Cold War liberalism emerged. It was a curious hybrid or mixture. It combined
Liberal support for retention an anti-communist
Of the New Deal with foreign policy
Welfare state (containment)
(Social Security) limit spread of
minimum wage communism
advocacy of civil rights tough on defense
big on military spending
The far right wing of the Republican Party (ultra-conservative) hated the New Deal, and wanted to repeal it. It wanted to abolish Social Security, opposed unions and the minimum wage. Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950 spoke of twenty years of treason, referring to the New Deal.
In February 1946 the American charge d’affaires in Moscow, George Kennan, sent a telegram warning that the Soviets were committed to the fanatical idea that there could be no permanent peace with the United States. Kennan urged a policy of vigilance and global containment of communism and communist aggression. The US began to believe that the Soviets wanted to take over the world and spread communism everywhere. The Us interpreted anti-colonial rebellions and anti-imperialist movements in the Third World by the colonies of Britain, France and Holland in Asia and Africa as "communism." Truman moved toward an anti-communist, anti-Soviet foreign policy.
THE LESSON OF 1949: WEAK ON COMMUNISM
In 1949, when the Communists came to power in China, Republicans crucified Truman and the Democrats as weak and soft on communism. They said that Truman and the Democrats had "lost" china to communism. LBJ learned that there would be hell to pay, politically, for anyone who appeared weak on communism. Political success required that politicians appear "tough" on communism, and politicians tried to out-do one another to prove who was tougher on communism, or who was more anti-communist than whom (like who was holier than whom). The detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviets in 1949, and the Rosenburg trial, added fuel to American fears, anxieties and insecurities.
In 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy alleged that there were communists in the State Dept. and in the government. Since Truman was a Democrat, these accusations reflected on the Democrats. The impression was given that the Democrats were weak on communism, while Republicans like Richard Nixon gained reputations as relentless anti-communists with impeccable credentials.
Conservatives accused liberals and anyone who dissented or disagreed with them of being a communist. All dissent was stigmatized as disloyal "communism." People were blacklisted, fired from jobs, driven out of the universities. Many people were intimidated into silence. This period was called McCarthyism. Even after the election of the Republican Eisenhower in November 1952, McCarthy continued to make accusations about communists in the government. NOW these accusations embarrassed Eisenhower and the Republicans. In December 1952 the Senate censured McCarthy. But the damage was already done. Not until the 1960s would American dare to dissent. When Martin Luther King criticized racism, he and other civil rights activists were accused of being communists. The easiest way to discredit anyone between 1946 and 1968 was to accuse them of being a communist. The lesson for liberals was that dissent or anything that looked "weak on communism" was political suicide.
THE LESSON OF KOREA
Also, during the Korean War (1950-1953), when MacArthur advanced to the Yalu River on the border with China, China intervened with millions of troops. For LBJ and others, the lesson that they learned was that if one fought a ground war in Asia, adjacent to the border with China, it could and would intervene with MILLIONS of troops.
LBJ was haunted by the "lesson" of "losing China" and "do not send troops adjacent to China." These lessons would profoundly shape the way that he conducted the war in Vietnam after 1963. LBJ was desperately trying to avoid the Truman scenario "losing a country to communism," and appearing "weak on communism," or the Korea scenario (fighting adjacent to China). Unfortunately, just as Korea lies at the northern doorstep of China, Vietnam lies at the southern doorstep of China. Consequently, LBJ absolutely DID NOT send ground troops into NORTH VIETNAM to destroy Hanoi. The US merely BOMBED the North, using air power. And LBJ did not dare to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam because he feared retaliation by Russia (which was supplying arms to North Vietnam).
Basically, until about 1967, even American LIBERALS were locked in a mindset of global combat with the "evil" Soviets. Americans were afraid that if we did not stand up to the Soviets and Chinese, we would be practicing the same kind of appeasement that Britain and France had practiced with Hitler in the 1930s. American feared that there was a worldwide conspiracy directed from the Kremlin to take over the world, and if one country "fell" its neighbors would fall too, like dominoes. If the US "lost" south Vietnam, then Laos and Cambodia would fall, and then Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia, and then Burma and India and Australia would be in peril, and before you knew it the communists would be sailing into Japan and San Francisco. Further, if the US did not show that it would stand and fight, the Soviets would be encouraged to think that they "try us" in Europe and the Middle East, and we wouldn’t fight there either. Our credibility would be destroyed.
Liberals were terrified of appearing weak on communism, and they clung desperately to anti-communism until 60,000 American troops had die din Vietnam.
The Eisenhower Administration ended up impaled on its own sword. In October 1957 the Soviets launched a satellite into a high altitude orbit. It was called Sputnik, and caused a panic in the US when it was detected on radar. A cartoon of the time depicted people running because the sky was falling (like chicken little). Americans were aghast that we were "falling behind" the Soviets. Sputnik aroused fears of anew Pearl harbor, this time from space. Americans again felt vulnerable, and the possibility of attack by Russian missiles created hysteria. The Eisenhower Administration was blamed for being asleep at the switch. The US responded with NASA.
Then, in May 1960, the Soviets shot down a reconnaissance or spy plane, 1200 miles inside the Soviet Union. At first the US denied that it was a spy plane. We said that it was collecting weather data and strayed off course. But the plane was 1200 miles inside Russia. Our "cover story" fell apart. It was learned that the US had been conducting secret spy flights since 1956. The US was caught in a lie, and the Soviets had the U-2 plane and the pilot. It was embarrassing, and made us look weak and inept. John Kennedy would use this incident to suggest that the Eisenhower Administration was not quite up to the job of dealing effectively and successfully with the Soviets. The Eisenhower Administration was not "tough enough." Taking the stance of being tough with our opponents wins elections. Eisenwhower and the Republicans had used this against Truman and Adlai Stevenson (the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956). Now Kennedy stole a page from the Republican "play book."
In 1960 LBJ wanted the Democratic nomination for president. John Kennedy also wanted it. In the end, Kennedy won the nomination. But he was controversial because he was Irish and Catholic. To shore up his support in the South, Kennedy chose LBJ as his vice presidential running mate. JFK barely won the election. He won by less than one percent of the vote, although in the Electoral College he won 303 votes to Nixon’s 219. JFK’s victory was razor thin. He won by only 118,000 votes, and carried Illinois (27 Electoral votes) by only 8,856 votes. He carried Texas (24 electoral votes) by 46,000 votes. Without these states he would not have won. It was also the case that many white Protestants in South Carolina voted Republican or for a third party candidate (Harry Byrd of Virginia), but Kennedy carried the state by votes 10,000 with the help of the African American votes.
JFK ran as a Cold Warrior. He turned the tables on the Republicans. He alleged that there was a "missile gap," and that the US was falling behind the Soviets in the number of nuclear weapons. This was not accurate, because the US had far more bombers, and also missiles that could be launched from Polaris submarines. According to the CIA, in 1960 Russia had only three inter-continental ballistic missiles. In Feb. 1961 the CIA estimated that the Soviets had 35 ICBM’s, and 200 long range bombers. The US had 16 Atlas ICBMs, 60 Thor medium range missiles (in Britain), 32 Polaris missiles on nuclear submarines, and 600 long range bombers (Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, p. 59). The missile gap was a myth, but a convenient public relations ploy for a Cold Warrior politician seeking to frighten the nation. And the data on the Polaris missiles, at the time, was secret, so the public did not know, although Kennedy had been briefed. But JFK looked young and handsome and vigorous, whereas in the televised debates Nixon looked worn and haggard and seemed not to have shaved well, and visibly perspired. He exuded as much charm and trust as a used car salesman. Kennedy in effect "out-Republicaned" the Republicans. He "out-conservatived" the conservatives. Whereas Kennedy looked, vigorous, young and "strong on defense", and showed that he wanted to stand up to the Soviets, Eisenhower and Nixon looked old, tired, sick, feeble. The people loved Ike as a "grandfather." But now they wanted a young, virile warrior-leader who would make them feel strong again, in command again.
JFK AS PRESIDENT
The great crises of Kennedy’s administration were the Bay of Pigs fiasco (1961) and the Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) and the racial unrest in Birmingham, Alabama (spring 1963). In June 1963 JFK asked Congress for a civil rights act to end segregation in places of public accommodation, and to end racial discrimination in employment. In November 1963 he was assassinated, and LBJ became president. LBJ finished the task of pushing Kennedy’s civil rights bill through congress, and it passed in June 1964.