Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in Stonewall, Texas, on 27th August, 1908. Although both his father and grandfather had served in the Texas legislature, the family were poor. After leaving school he did a variety of menial jobs before studying at the Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos.
In 1930 Johnson began teaching at the Sam Houston High School. A member of the Democratic Party, Johnson became involved in local politics and in 1932 he went to Washington as legislative assistant to the Congressman, Richard M. Kleberg. A strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, in 1935 Johnson was appointed director of the National Youth Administration.
It was at this time Johnson met Edward Clark who worked for the Governor of Texas. The two men became close friends. Later, Clark became a lawyer in Austin and helped to guide Johnson's political career. Clark also introduced Johnson to important figures in the oil industry such as Clint Murchison and Haroldson L. Hunt. These men also helped to finance Johnson's political campaigns.
Johnson was successfully elected to the House of Representatives in 1937. During his campaign Johnson had promised that: "If the day ever comes when my vote was cast to send your boy to the trenches, that day Lyndon Johnson will leave his Senate seat and go with him."
On 4th April, 1941, Texas senator, Morris Sheppard died. Tommy Corcoran agreed to help Johnson in his campaign to replace Sheppard. This included helping Johnson obtain approval of a rural electrification project from the Rural Electrification Administration. Corcoran also arranged to Franklin D. Roosevelt to make a speech on the eve of the polls criticizing Johnson's opponent, Wilbert Lee O'Daniel. Despite the efforts of Corcoran, O'Daniel defeated Johnson by 1,311 votes.
On the suggestion of Alvin J. Wirtz, Johnson decided to acquire KTBC, a radio station in Austin. E. G. Kingsberry and Wesley West, agreed to sell KTBC to Johnson (officially it was purchased by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson). However, it needed the approval of the Federal Communications Commission (FCR). Johnson asked Tommy Corcoran for help with this matter. This was not very difficult as the chairman of the FCR, James Fly, was appointed by Frank Murphy as a favour for Corcoran. The FCC eventually approved the deal and Johnson was able to use KTBC to amass a fortune of more than $25 million.
Johnson kept his pledge made during the 1937 election and when the United States entered the Second World War in December, 1941, Johnson immediately joined the United States Navy. Commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander, he served in the South Pacific.
In 1948, Johnson decided to make a second run for the U.S. Senate. His main opponent in the Democratic primary (Texas was virtually a one party state and the most important elections were those that decided who would be the Democratic Party candidate) was Coke Stevenson. Johnson was criticized by Stevenson for supporting the Taft-Hartley Act. The American Federation of Labor was also angry with Johnson for supporting this legislation and at its June convention the AFL broke a 54 year tradition of neutrality and endorsed Stevenson.
Johnson asked Tommy Corcoran to work behind the scenes at convincing union leaders that he was more pro-labor than Stevenson. This he did and on 11th August, 1948, Corcoran told Harold Ickes that he had "a terrible time straightening out labor" in the Johnson campaign but he believed he had sorted the problem out.
On 2nd September, unofficial results had Stevenson winning by 362 votes. However, by the time the results became official, Johnson was declared the winner by 17 votes. Stevenson immediately claimed that he was a victim of election fraud. On 24th September, Judge T. Whitfield Davidson, invalidated the results of the election and set a trial date.
A meeting was held that was attended by Tommy Corcoran, Francis Biddle, Abe Fortas, Joe Rauh, Jim Rowe and Ben Cohen. It was decided to take the case directly to the Supreme Court. A motion was drafted and sent to Justice Hugo Black. On 28th September, Justice Black issued an order that put Johnson's name back on the ballot. Later, it was claimed by Rauh that Black made the decision following a meeting with Corcoran.
On 2nd November, 1948, Johnson easily defeated Jack Porter, his Republican Party candidate. Coke Stevenson now appealed to the subcommittee on elections and privileges of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Corcoran enjoyed a good relationship with Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire. He was able to work behind the scenes to make sure that the ruling did not go against Johnson. Corcoran later told Johnson that he would have to repay Bridges for what he had done for him regarding the election.
The Johnson-Stevenson case was also investigated by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Johnson was eventually cleared by Hoover of corruption and was allowed to take his seat in the Senate. Johnson soon emerged as an important member of the Senate. Although he had been seen as a progressive with his support for the New Deal, he had conservative views on civil rights. He voted against an anti-lynching bill and during the 1940s and 1950s he opposed all attempts to pass civil rights legislation.
Johnson was a key member of the Suite 8F Group. The Suite 8F Group was a collection of right-wing political and businessmen. The name comes from the room in the Lamar Hotel in Houston where they held their meetings. Members of the group included George Brown and Herman Brown (Brown & Root), Jesse H. Jones (multi-millionaire investor in a large number of organizations and chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation), Gus Wortham (American General Insurance Company), James Abercrombie (Cameron Iron Works), William Hobby (Governor of Texas and owner of the Houston Post), Albert Thomas (chairman of the House Appropriations Committee) and John Connally (Governor of Texas). Alvin Wirtz and Edward Clark, were also members of the Suite 8F Group.
Johnson was appointed Democratic Party whip in 1951 and over the next four years impressed the leaders of the party with his ability to do deals with people of different political opinions. In 1955 Johnson was rewarded by being elected majority leader of the Senate.
In 1960 the Democratic Party selected John F. Kennedy as its presidential candidate. Aged only 43, Kennedy was politically inexperienced and very unpopular with certain sections of the party. Kennedy's Republican Party opponent was Richard Nixon, had a long-career in politics and had served for eight years as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. Party managers believed that Johnson would make an ideal running-mate for Kennedy. Although reluctant, Kennedy eventually agreed, telling his aide Kenneth O'Donnell: "I'm forty-three years old, I'm not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn't mean anything."
Johnson was also able to persuade conservative Democrats in the Southern states to support Kennedy. Many political commentators believe that without Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy would have lost the election to Richard Nixon. With Johnson's help, Kennedy won by 34,226,925 votes to 34,108,662. It was one of the closest elections in American history with Kennedy's margin of victory less that one fifth of 1% of the total vote.
Johnson did not play a major role in Kennedy's administration. Kennedy was particularly disappointed that his vice president was unable to persuade Congress to accept most of his domestic program. Tax reform, civil rights, and a proposed Medicare system did not get the support he had hoped for and got bogged down in Congress.
In 1963 Johnson got drawn into political scandals involving Fred Korth, Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker. Don B. Reynolds appeared before a secret session of the Senate Rules Committee. Reynolds told B. Everett Jordan and his committee that Johnson had demanded that he provided kickbacks in return for him agreeing to a life insurance policy arranged by him in 1957. This included a $585 Magnavox stereo. Reynolds also had to pay for $1,200 worth of advertising on KTBC, Johnson's television station in Austin. Reynolds had paperwork for this transaction including a delivery note that indicated the stereo had been sent to the home of Johnson. Reynolds also told of seeing a suitcase full of money which Baker described as a "$100,000 payoff to Johnson for his role in securing the Fort Worth TFX contract".
In the winter of 1963, Johnson invited John F. Kennedy to make a tour of Texas. While in Dallas on on 22nd November, Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was immediately sworn in as president.
On 17th January, 1964, the Senate Rules Committee voted to release to the public the secret testimony of Don B. Reynolds. Johnson responded by leaking information from Reynolds' FBI file to Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. On 5th February, 1964, the Washington Post reported that Reynolds had lied about his academic success at West Point. The article also claimed that Reynolds had been a supporter of Joseph McCarthy and had accused business rivals of being secret members of the American Communist Party. It was also revealed that Reynolds had made anti-Semitic remarks while in Berlin in 1953.
A few weeks later the New York Times reported that Lyndon B. Johnson had used information from secret government documents to smear Don B. Reynolds. It also reported that Johnson's officials had been applying pressure on the editors of newspapers not to print information that had been disclosed by Reynolds in front of the Senate Rules Committee.
In July 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. After a delay of over 100 years this act created federal law in support of the original purpose of the 14th Amendment, equal treatment under the laws for blacks and whites. This act outlawed racial discrimination in employment, voting, education and public accommodation. Johnson also encouraged the passing of the Anti-Poverty Act (1964) that provided $947.5 million dollars for job training centres, loans to poor students and low-income farmers, and basic education programs.
Johnson was a strong supporter of the Domino Theory and believed that the prevention of an National Liberation Front (NLF) victory in South Vietnam was vital to the defence of the United States: "If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we'll have to fight in San Francisco."
Johnson, like Kennedy before him, came under pressure from his military advisers to take more 'forceful' action against North Vietnam and the NLF. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to send United States combat troops to South Vietnam. The overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem had not resulted in preventing the growth of the NLF. The new leader of South Vietnam, General Khanh, was doubtful that his own army was strong enough to prevent a communist victory.
Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF winning in South Vietnam but was unwilling to take unpopular measures like sending troops to tight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected," he told his military advisers, "and then you can have your war."
As the election was not due for another eleven months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared that this was too long to wait. They therefore suggested another strategy that would be less unpopular with the American public as it would result in fewer of the men being killed.
For sometime, military intelligence officers working in Vietnam had believed that without the support of the Hanoi government, the NLF would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF.
Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.
Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam.
Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, "Maddox" fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The "Maddox" then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action."
Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick's second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously.
President Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight."
The Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the Senate by 88 votes to 2 and in the House of Representatives by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the NLF.
Johnson's belief that the bombing raid on North Vietnam in August, 1964, would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF was unfounded. In the run-up to the November election, the NLF carried out a series of attacks and only two days before the election, the US air base near Saigon was mortared and four Americans were killed.
The Republican Party surprisingly nominated the extreme conservative, Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 presidential election. During the election campaign Goldwater called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Johnson was seen as the 'peace' candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: "to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
In the 1964 presidential election. Johnson, who had been a popular leader during his year in office, easily defeated Goldwater by 42,328,350 votes to 26,640,178. Johnson gained 61 per cent of the popular vote, giving him the largest majority ever achieved by an American president.
The voters had rejected Goldwater's aggressive policies against communism and Johnson won a landslide victory. What the American public did not know was that Johnson was waiting until the election was over before carrying out the policies that had been advocated by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.
Three months after being elected president, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder. Unlike the single bombing raid in August 1964, this time the raids were to take place on a regular basis. The plan was to destroy the North Vietnam economy and to force her to stop helping the guerrilla fighters in the south. Bombing was also directed against territory controlled by the NLF in South Vietnam. The plan was for Operation Rolling Thunder to last for eight weeks but it lasted for the next three years. In that time, the US dropped 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam.
Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called 'Agent Blue'. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.
In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States "ten dollars for every dollar's worth of damage inflicted."
The response of the NLF to 'Rolling Thunder' was to concentrate its attacks on the US air bases in South Vietnam. General William Westmoreland, the person in charge of the military advisers in Vietnam, argued that his 23,000 men were unable to defend adequately the US air bases and claimed that without more soldiers, the NLF would take over control of South Vietnam.
On March 8, 3,500 US marines arrived in South Vietnam. They were the first 'official' US combat troops to be sent to the country. This dramatic escalation of the war was presented to the American public as being a short-term measure and did not cause much criticism at the time. A public opinion poll carried out that year indicated that nearly 80% of the American public supported the bombing raids and the sending of combat troops to Vietnam.
Johnson pursued a liberal domestic policy. He stated that he wished to end poverty and racial injustice and hoped to create an America that could be called the Great Society. To help this take place, Johnson persuaded Congress to pass a series of acts including Medicare (1965), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Immigration Act (1965).
In September, 1967, the NLF launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. General William Westmoreland, the commander of US troops in Vietnam, was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight.
Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.
The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon's main radio station. They captured the building and although they only held it for a few hours, the event shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle.
The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans. However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. In March, 1968, President Johnson was told by his Secretary of Defence that in his opinion the US could not win the Vietnam War and recommended a negotiated withdrawal. Later that month, President Johnson told the American people on national television that he was reducing the air-raids on North Vietnam and intended to seek a negotiated peace.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was costing 66 million dollars a day. As a result. President Johnson increased income taxes and cut back on his programme to deal with poverty. The blacks, who suffered from poverty more than most other groups in America, were understandably upset by this decision. Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights leader, argued: "that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor as long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube."
Other Civil Rights leaders pointed out that because of the draft deferment enjoyed by college students, it was the poor who were more likely to be sent to Vietnam. What is more, as Eldridge Cleaver, a Civil Rights activist pointed out, in many southern states of America, blacks were being denied the right to vote in elections. Therefore, blacks were fighting in Vietnam "for something they don't have for themselves." As another black leader put it: "If a black man is going to fight anywhere, he ought to be fighting in Mississippi" and other parts of America.
Demonstrations against the war steadily increased in size. In New York, over a million people took part in one demonstration. Organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was formed. People watched on television as Vietnam heroes, many of them in wheelchairs or on crutches, threw away the medals they had won fighting in the war.
Public opinion polls suggested that Johnson would have difficulty winning the 1968 presidential election. On 31st March, 1968, Johnson made an announcement on television that he was not a candidate for re-election. He also told the American people that he had ordered major reductions in the bombing of North Vietnam and that he was seeking peace talks with the North Vietnam government.
In January 1969, Johnson retired to his ranch in Texas where he wrote his memoirs, The Vantage Point (1971). Lyndon Baines Johnson died of a heart attack at San Antonio, Texas, on 22nd January, 1973.
In 2007, E. Howard Hunt disclosed the claim that Lyndon Baines Johnson was involved in ordering the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "LBJ had the money and the connections to manipulate the scenario in Dallas and is on record as having convinced JFK to make the appearance in the first place. He further tried unsuccessfully to engineer the passengers of each vehicle, trying to get his good buddy, Gov. (John) Connolly, to ride with him instead of in JFK's car - where... he would have been out of danger."