This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: Presidential Rankings
Lyndon Johnson became president upon the assassination of John Kennedy. This happened in the middle of the civil rights movement and as the war in Viet Nam was heating up. Johnson’s domestic programs had far reaching implications, some of which are being felt today,
Johnson’s legacy rest mainly on his support of civil rights legislation. Whereas Johnson does deserve some credit for supporting civil rights laws, he is given far too much credit. The civil rights movement had been picking up steam since the end of world war II. In 1948 Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military, which was completed under President Eisenhower. Eisenhower further desegregating the US government, which was originally segregated by Woodrow Wilson. Eisenhower also sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to uphold the Supreme Courts ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Eisenhower supervised the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 & 1960, the first civil rights laws since reconstruction under Ulysses Grant. The Supreme Court and the 5th District Court of Appeals, which were largely reshaped by Eisenhower, were striking down racist Jim Crow laws since the 1950s. When Kennedy was assassinated, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had already passed the house and was making it through the Senate. Many historians believe the law would have passed had Kennedy not been assassinated. Public support among whites ran 2 to 1 for the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in education, employment, public facilities and voter registration. There were already laws against this type of discrimination, which southern Democrats had ignored for 100 years, but this law had the teeth to enforce compliance. Johnson was largely responsible for earlier civil rights laws not having better enforcement mechanisms, as he watered down the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 & 1960 as Senate majority leader. The 24th Amendment abolishing poll tax was ratified just a few months after Johnson took office, but had passed Congress in 1962. More credit should be given to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and brave citizens like Rosa Parks. Television coverage of violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators played a vital role as well. Brining the ugly truths of Jim Crow laws into American homes in video format made Americans have to face the facts of racial oppression. Johnson did not change the direction of the country on civil rights, he just took the political astute path and capitalized on the movement. Johnson’s support helped, but events were already set in motion. Johnson could not have stopped them, he could have only slowed them down.
While in congress from 1937 thru 1956, Johnson fought and voted against every civil rights bill that came before Congress. This included not only bills aimed at ending the poll tax and segregation in the armed services, but even against legislation aimed at ending lynchings. He assailed Harry Truman’s entire civil rights program as a “farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” Johnson’s support of civil rights definitely helped him in courting black votes in northern states. Johnson even stated “I’ll have those niggers voting Democrat for the next 200 years” This gave him his best chance at victory, even if it meant losing southern states, as Truman did in the 1948 election when the “Dixiecrats” bolted the Democratic party. The “solid south” rarely led to a presidential victory. From 1880 thru 1928, the Democrats only won four out of twelve presidential elections. Those four wins included 1912, where Theodore Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, ensuring a Wilson victory. Other Democratic victories in 1884 and 1916 were very narrow and only came down to a few thousand votes in one pivotal swing state. Johnson knew that he couldn’t win a national election without winning some northern states, and to do this he would have to win some black votes. Johnson’s views on civil rights were obviously ruled by political expediency as he switched sides once he got presidential aspirations.
Opposing civil rights would also undermine Johnson’s beloved “Great Society” programs. It would be hard to argue for economic “rights and equality” while squelching the basic human rights of African Americans. If it was acceptable for the government to stand aside and do nothing as basic, constitutional rights were stripped away, how could the government then turn around and introduce expensive programs to promote economic equality? Not only that, a major cornerstone of the “Great Society” was federal funding of education. Southerners had long fought any federal involvement in education in fear that the government would desegregate public schools. In order to get his education bills through congress he would need every northern vote he could get, opposing civil rights would have hampered his efforts.
The Great Society was Lyndon Johnson’s program to remake American Society. It consisted of over 100 laws that promoted civil rights, fought a “war on poverty”, introduced federal funding for education along with many other programs. While Johnson’s War on Poverty promised much, the complete eradication of poverty, it delivered little. After World War II, the poverty rate was in steady decline until 1966, since 1966 poverty has stabilized. Johnson’s programs changed an economy that was seeing a steady decrease in poverty and turned it into one in which poverty merely fluctuates. The problem is that the anti-poverty programs are set up in such a way that they keep people in the programs, by incentivizing them not to better their situation in life. People are trapped, as they can’t be gradually weened off of the programs, keeping them in perpetual government dependency. The programs also incentivizes single parent homes, as it is much easier for them to get benefits than it is for a married couple.
A good example of a “Great Society” program is the Job Corps, which was set up in 1964. Studies have shown that those finishing job corps training have no more success in the job market than those who drop out of the system, even though the training cost as much as a Harvard education. The National Welfare Rights Organization was set up in 1966 to increase welfare recipients, which encourages government dependency rather than self reliance. The “Great Society” was a set of poorly planned and poorly executed laws that blindly threw money at social problems and created a huge expensive bureaucracy that actually hurt the poor and massively increased the debt. Not only that, but Johnson deliberately understated the continuing costs of his programs to aid in their passage. The total costs of the Great Society programs stood at $22 trillion dollars by 2014, which is more than the total federal debt, which then stood at $14 trillion. Johnson’s war on poverty failed because it went against a basic economic tenant: If you pay for something, you will get more of it. The Great Society created a demand for poor people that has not gone unfulfilled. The only positive of the “Great Society” is that it proved that top down government solutions do not work. Unfortunately, once a government program is started, it grows into a several headed hydra that is nearly impossible to eradicate. The special interests that benefit from the program will cry quite loudly and convince others that the program is “vital” and must be maintained.
Lyndon Johnson introduced the federal government into public education. This intrusion started with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and has grown ever since. Before Johnson became president, public education was purely administered by state and local governments. In the 1950s the United States ranked 2nd in education, today it ranks 17th, clearly a failure of federal education programs.
No failure during Johnson’s term was bigger than his handling of the war in Vietnam. He inherited a minor war from Kennedy in which 16,000 troops were fighting and expanded it to a major war in with over 500,000 active soldiers. Johnson told the American people: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Behind the scenes, however, he was looking for a ways to expand the war. Johnson’s justification came with the Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 4th 1964. The Destroyer, the USS Maddox, thought that it was being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, and radioed in reporting the attack and asking for air support. The air support verified that there were no torpedo boats in the area. Even Captain Herrick of the Maddox determined that there were no torpedo boats there and that his sonar operators had made a mistake. Herrick sent a high priority message that stated “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” When Johnson presented the public and Congress with the “attack” he deliberately omitted the evidence that proved that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was nothing more than a phantom attack. Johnson and his staff knew that no attack happened, but they used it as a pretext to go to war, and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed through congress on August 7th. Even though He felt the war was unwinnable, and he never even tried to formulate a winning strategy, Johnson persevered in greatly expanding the war, believing he would be attacked for “losing Vietnam”, and it hurting his re-election chances in 1968. To fight a war, purely for political purposes, in which over 58,000 American died, is one of the most despicable acts of any American president. Not only that, he dumped the entire mess onto his successor. Vietnam also burned into the American psyche, where every new foreign confrontation is warned to be “another Vietnam”.
Johnson wasn’t above using his office to punish his enemies. He used the IRS to harass and put pressure on groups opposing the Vietnam War. He had the FBI plant operatives into anti war groups to spy on them and incite violence. Johnson made wide use of illegal wiretaps against civil rights leaders, anti war protesters and even the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. Johnson used this ill gotten information to help him during his 1964 presidential reelection bid.
Johnson’s programs wreaked havoc upon the economy. His massive Great Society programs, escalation of the Viet Nam war, and encouraging the Federal Reserve to have a loose monetary policy led to inflation. To combat inflation, Johnson implemented a 10% tax increase on June 28th 1968. The economy went into a recession in 1969, and stagflation was born. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s that Johnson’s stagflation was finally cured. Johnson also diverted money from social security, which was in a separate fund, to the general revenue fund to hide debts and the true costs of his programs.
The Johnson administration was unable to deal with this crisis of rising domestic disorder. Not only did Johnson fail to maintain order, he was at least partially responsible for the rise in lawlessness. The Community Action Program, created as part of the “Great Society”, fomented unrest and led to ever increasing riots during the Johnson years. Crime rates also exploded under Johnson, in part due to welfare programs that all but required single parent families. The “Great Society” also promoted the idea that criminals were “victims of society” rather than promoting self responsibility. There were ever increasing war protests during Johnson’s term as well. LBJ receives negative marks for being unable to deal with, and helping to create domestic chaos during his term.
Lyndon Johnson ranks as the fourth worst president here for his dismal Vietnam policy, failed Great Society programs, that continue to be a fiscal nightmare, misuse of governmental agencies to punish or spy on his enemies and his economic mismanagement. He is only saved from a lower ranking because he went along with the civil rights movement rather than fight against it like several other southern Democrats.