Lyndon B. Johnson: Failures & Downfalls

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Lyndon Johnson pushed an ambitious domestic agenda, but his legacy is ultimately a mixed one. This lesson explores Johnson's failures, particularly the limits of the Great Society and the Vietnam War.

Lyndon Johnson's Flawed Legacy

The 1960s was one of the most culturally turbulent decades in American history. President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. all died to assassins' bullets. Counter-culture movements arose across the nation and protest movements emerged in response to the Vietnam War. The man leading the United States through this turmoil was arguably its most influential and controversial figure: President Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson signs Medicare into law in 1965.
Johnson signs Medicare bill

After assuming the presidency in 1963, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded a program of sweeping cultural and legislative reform, the Great Society. The Great Society is largely remembered as a success in the American memory. From 1964 to 1966, Johnson signed nearly 200 new laws that greatly reduced poverty, reversed racial inequality, and improved American education and healthcare. Despite these achievements, Johnson's failure to ease America's cultural anxiety and his disastrous decision-making in Vietnam ultimately tarnished his legacy.

The Limits of the Great Society

While Johnson's Great Society had bipartisan support in Congress and affected immediate economic and cultural change, the cultural anxiety that defined the 1960s proved too strong to overcome with legislation alone. In 1964 and 1965, African-Americans in Harlem, New York and Watts, Los Angeles rioted after African-American men were shot by police officers. The riots disheartened Johnson, and his reaction reflected his sometimes paternalistic beliefs about relations between blacks and whites. In his view, blacks were given freedom by whites and should be more grateful to whites. Johnson would be confronted by more urban unrest in 1968, when massive riots broke out in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and at the Democratic National Convention. The sight of police and rioters battling in the streets on the television helped turn the public sour against Johnson's urban renewal agenda.

Urban riots in the 1960s, and the ensuing police crackdown, have negatively colored the legacy of Johnson.
1964 Harlem riots

An example of Johnson's failure in urban renewal was his Model Cities Program. This program, which began in 1966, was part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program's goal was to encourage greater coordination between the various Great Society urban programs and to provide more funding for urban renewal. The program emphasized local leadership, but some cities quickly used the program to assert more control over their neighborhoods. For example, the mayor of Chicago froze out neighborhood participation in favor of politically-connected advisory councils that would carry out the mayor's wishes.

The Model Cities Program, while a minor failure in the overall scope of Johnson's presidency, paled in comparison to Johnson's most catastrophic failure. The Vietnam War was harming his domestic policies. The Democratic Party, while not losing their majorities in the Senate and House, took heavy losses due to Vietnam's unpopularity.

The Vietnam War

Starting in the 1950s, the United States had been sending military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam. The United States' military presence steadily increased up through the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, but it was Johnson who escalated the United States' involvement the most. In the election of 1964, Johnson campaigned on an anti-war platform even as his administration escalated the conflict. On August 10, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a reported incident between North Vietnamese and United States ships. Johnson was wary of escalating the conflict in Vietnam, but ultimately succumbed to his advisors' council, as well as the prodding of more hawkish Republicans. The United States would use the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a de facto declaration of war, though Congress never actually declared war.

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