What were the successes and failures of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson?
Lyndon B Johnson became president of the USA after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. In the aftermath of the assassination Johnson committed to continuing Kennedy’s reform programme. The wave of national grief over the death of Kennedy assisted Johnson in pushing the planned reforms. However, the first hurdle Johnson had to overcome was the Presidential election in 1984.
Johnson won the election by a landslide and immediately began implementing his agenda. Kennedy had met resistance in the US Congress to his Civil Rights Bill. However, Johnson forced through the Civil Rights Act in 1964 implementing major reforms and segregation was outlawed in the USA. Johnson followed this up in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act that ended discrimination in voting and allowed millions of blacks to right to vote for the first time. This was a major success of Johnson’s presidency and led the Democrats to be seen as the party that represented the interests of the Black population.
Johnson continued and expanded Kennedy’s Space Programme. By 1969 the USA was leading the space race and became the first nation to land a man on the moon. Although Johnson had left office before the moon landing in 1969, he did make a major contribution to continuing the space programme and is given credit for its success.
The main focus of Johnson’s domestic policy was the Great Society. The basis of the Great Society was the effort to reduce poverty and increased government spending on education, health and urban renewal. Increased spending on public schools did contribute to some improvements in educational achievement and funding for students from poor backgrounds did assist these students to attend college. Johnson also increased welfare spending and was responsible for the creation of health insurance programmes for the poor and elderly. Many of the programmes proposed by Johnson were accepted and even expanded on by Congress. While his implementation of the Great Society could be regarded as a success the potential of the programme was impacted by the diversion of finance to fund the war in Vietnam.
Johnson continued and then expanded American military involvement in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave Johnson the right to use military force without consulting the Senate. As a result the military forces in Vietnam expanded significantly. Up until 1968 Johnson consistently downplayed the impact of the Vietnam War on American society in the hope he could contain the growing protest movement against the war.
The success of the Viet Cong in combatting the American military in Vietnam forced Johnson to increase American involvement in Vietnam on an on-going basis. He believed that the USA could not afford to lose the war as it would show American weakness in the eyes of the world. However, as the war continued, the protests grew at home and coupled with the then lack of progress on his Great Society reforms Johnson’s popularity decreased.
Despite Johnson’s efforts to keep the Vietnam War low key, the Tet Offensive led to the Vietnam War dominating the last year of his presidency. As casualties continued to mount Johnson was faced with widespread anti-war protests. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King dozens of US cities were rocked by urban riots. Johnson called for an expansion of his Great Society programmes but he found little support within the US Congress. His popularity plummeted and he became so unpopular that he was unable to win clear support from the Democratic Party in the 1968 Presidential election. Johnson subsequently withdrew as a Presidential candidate.
The Vietnam War proved to be a disaster for Johnson’s presidency. After replacing Johnson as President, Richard Nixon withdrew American troops from Vietnam. The eventually success of the communists in Vietnam left the American policy of containment in tatters. Before long several other South East Asian countries were under communist rule. While Johnson had some relative success with his Great Society programmes he will ultimately be remembered for losing the Vietnam War and failing to fulfil US foreign policy objectives of containing communism.