Lyndon Johnson's presidency is really two presidencies - domestic and Vietnam. Unfortunately, of course, it is not possible to separate the two, but in the area of domestic policy, LBJ certainly left a mark for presidential power. Although LBJ's subsequent drive to the Left caught some off guard - and it is common in the historiography to see it as something that took the country by surprise - Leuchtenberg isn't so sure. He writes, "Though [Johnson's] comportment elicited stern criticism, a number of commentators [in 1963] thought that LBJ had precisely the qualities of temperament, as well as the social vision, to break the stranglehold that a bipartisan conservative coalition had imposed for more than a quarter of a century and, with his deeply felt commitment to social justice, to push through a passel of progressive legislation for the first time since 1938." LBJ could do this because, Leuchtenburg notes, Johnson, "brought to his quest for innovative legislation nearly a quarter of a century of experience in the halls of Congress. He had served in both houses, and in the Senate had won renown as a majority leader with exceptional tactical skills."
Johnson's War on Poverty was one of the greatest extensions of presidential leadership in history. Leuchtenburg writes, "never before had an American president undertaken to address the persistence of poverty in flush times." Although he criticizes LBJ for underfunding the programs [it was estimated that it would take $11 billion to fund all of the programs, LBJ settled for less than $1 billion], Leuchtenburg notes, "yet, for all their shortcomings, LBJ's programs, including the economic growth he fostered, lowered the proportion of the American people living in poverty from 21% in 1959 to 12% in 1969."
And, in the area of Civil Rights, LBJ had no equal. Of his speech announcing his intention to submit a Voting Rights Act in March 1965 - in which he used the movement's anthem, We Shall Overcome, historian Robert Dallek writes, "A moment of stunned silence followed, as the audience absorbed the fact that the President of the United States had embraced the anthem of black protest. And then almost the entire chamber rose in unison...Tears rolled down the cheeks of senators, congressmen, and observers in the gallery, moved by joy, elation, a sense that the big victor, for a change, was human decency, the highest standards by which the nation was supposed to live."
Indeed, in 1965, LBJ was at the height of his power. That year, James MacGregor Burns wrote, "The Presidency today is at the peak of its prestige. Journalists describe it as the toughest job on Earth, the presiding officer of the free world, the linchpin of the Western alliance, America's greatest contribution to the art of self-government. Presidential government, far from being a threat to American democracy, has become the major single institution sustaining it - a bulwark for individual liberty, an agency of popular representation, and a magnet for political action and leadership." Leuchtenburg adds, "Yet at the very moment of his greatest triumph, Johnson made a fateful decision on foreign policy that foredoomed his presidency and cost him the honored place in history he so coveted."
Vietnam. The line of demarcation, Leuchtenburg argues, came in a July 20, 1965, memo from [Robert] McNamara to the White House, "that, once accepted, locked Johnson into an irreversible course." McNamara went over two scenarios, but then presented a third course, to, 'expand promptly and substantially the U.S. pressure', though that implied a, 'considerable cost and casualties', the increase of 'U.S. military pressure' should come in stages but by the first half of 1966, American forces would total the staggering figure of 600,000. Only five advisers, one of them McGeorge Bundy, saw this memo, and all five approved it. No one in Congress, not even the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, knew about it." It was a disastrous decision. Leuchtenburg writes, "That summer, Johnson greatly enlarged U.S. combat forces in Vietnam while deliberately deceiving the American people about what he was doing. He also hid the truth that U.S. troops had been authorized to go on the offensive."
As anti-war fervor developed over the following three years, LBJ reverted to his darker nature. Leuchtenburg writes that, "The louder the dissent, the more angrily Johnson shook his fist at protesters. Calling into question the manliness of his critics, he dismissed them as 'nervous Nellies' who would 'turn on their leaders and on their country and on their own fighting men', and he ordered the FBI to ferret out the 'Communists' who were 'behind the disturbances' against the war to infiltrate the peace movement in order to sabotage it. In addition, he assigned the CIA to spy on demonstrators, though the agency's charter forbade it to engage in domestic surveillance."
Johnson's decision not to run for reelection in 1968 has often been viewed - particularly by those in the peace movement - as a result of the protests. Leuchtenburg disagrees. He writes, "Contrary to the subsequent claims of the peace movement, political considerations did not determine Johnson's course. With his control of party machinery, the president figured that he would prevail over any challenge to his re-nomination.… Johnson had far greater concern about whether his health would hold up through another term. Having suffered a heart attack at a very young age, he feared for his life."
And Leuchtenberg also challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding Johnson's speech announcing that decision not to run. Leuchtenburg writes, the speech, "has often been seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War when, in fact, it changed nothing. Soon after the president's announcement, Hanoi said it was ready for peace talks, but they dragged on month after month to no purpose. In truth, the antagonists had nothing to negotiate. The United States wanted to retain South Vietnam as an independent nation, and Ho Chi Minh would settle for nothing less than a unified country under communist rule. Nor did the intensity of the fighting slacken [after the speech]. Forbidden to operate above the 19th-parallel, the U.S. Air Force accelerated it's bombing of the area of North Vietnam below that line. American planes dropped more bombs on that country than they had in all of the Pacific theater in World War II. More U.S. soldiers died during 1968 than any other year of the war."
Leuchtenburg is openly critical of Johnson, too, in his lack of help to his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, in the latter's campaign against Richard Nixon. First, Johnson put Humphrey in an impossible position. Leuchtenberg writes, "If the Vice President moved in the slightest degree away from LBJ's stance [on the war], party regulars would regard him as disloyal and Johnson would undermine him. But if he did not offer some path toward ending the bloodletting in Vietnam, he would forfeit any hope of placating the peace element that was drowning out his speeches....To be sure that Humphrey did not stray, Johnson ordered the FBI to tap the vice president's phone."
When Humphrey finally did modify his position away from LBJ's, the break [with Johnson] was complete. Even though Humphrey's speech announcing his new aims attracted positive attention in the press and started to attract supporters from the peace movement, LBJ did nothing. Leuchtenburg believes that, "If the president had hit the campaign trail for him and raised cash for a candidate who was broke, Humphrey might well have overtaken the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. But Johnson was so annoyed by Humphrey's address that he refused to talk to the vice president...Johnson could have made a decisive difference if he had intervened expediently." While Johnson did end up doing an appearance with Humphrey in the last days of the campaign, it was too late.
If LBJ's presidencies could be divided in two, he would have a .500 batting average. Of course, they cannot. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Over the past decade, scholars who have been called upon to rank American presidents have been perplexed by where to place LBJ. In a little more than five years, he put through more legislation to aid the disadvantaged than any other chief executive save FDR. Johnson, said the novelist Ralph Ellison, was, 'the greatest American president for the poor and for the Negroes'. But he also bears a large share of the blame for the devastation and loss of life caused by the war in Vietnam, which became such an obsession for the sponsor of the War on Poverty and the Great Society that in 1972 he helped Nixon defeat the progressive George McGovern."