Cold War: The Lyndon Johnson Years

President Johnson's Foreign Policy

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s forte was not foreign affairs, but the Cold War was a continuing reality. The president’s primary focus immediately following Kennedy's death was not on relations with the rest of the world, nor the Vietnam War, which had not yet blossomed into a full-scale war. President Johnson’s focus was on his “Great Society” programs, with the emphasis on progress in the civil rights arena. Nevertheless, there were still thousands of American advisers in Vietnam, and the president could not ignore that fact. There were no military units in Vietnam at the time he took office, however, and the advisors in country were not supposed to engage in actual combat. Sometimes, however, if the unit they were advising was engaged in combat, they might become engaged as a matter of self-defense, despite the restriction.

That was all about the change: By the time Johnson left office there would be over half a million American troops in the country.

There has been speculation, and little more than that, about what President Kennedy might have done had he not been killed. Some have claimed that he was getting ready to withdraw from Vietnam, bolstered by his statement that “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them … but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.”

In any case, for better or for worse, President Johnson inherited the war as it was, with 16,000 American advisers in Vietnam. In August 1964, claims were made by the military that American destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats. With the election coming, President Johnson could not afford to ignore Vietnam, so he got Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution authorized Johnson as Commander-in-Chief to take aggressive measures to guarantee South Vietnamese independence.

LBJJohnson accepted the Domino Theory originally elucidated by President Eisenhower in 1954, as well as the containment policy originally announced by President Truman. During the 1964 campaign President Johnson stated his intention to support Vietnam, but he had doubts about the future of the conflict. Despite his reservations, the American military presence in Vietnam continue to rise. By the time the election was over there were about 23,000 military personnel in South Vietnam, and the US had already suffered over 1,000 casualties.

Public opinion still favored continued strong action against the Vietnamese communists, and following the election President Johnson decided on a bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder in an attempt to prevent the North Vietnamese from taking over the South. It did not prove to be effective. Meanwhile, a Vietcong attack on a special forces base at Pleiku Air Base resulted in more Americans killed and wounded. National Security Advisor Mac Bundy urged the president to send ground troops to Vietnam. Johnson authorized the dispatch of two Marine Corps infantry battalions and a Marine aircraft squadron to Vietnam, in addition to sending more logistical troops.

Marine leaders, dissatisfied with the defensive posture in which they found themselves; one of their primary missions was to guard the Air Force Base in Danang. The urged authorization from Washington to conduct more aggressive action to seek out and destroy Viet Cong of North Vietnamese units. Johnson consented and began sending more troops. The process known as escalation began—the gradual increase in American involvement in the war—, and by the end of 1965 there were over 200,000 American troops in Vietnam. The total would eventually rise to over 500,000 and remain there until President Nixon began the gradual withdrawal of American military forces after he was elected in 1968.

In 1967, attention was drawn away from Vietnam because of the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt and the other surrounding Arab nations. The Soviet Union had allies among the Arab nations, and they supported the Arab cause. A strong U.S> Navy presence in the Mediterranean would have made American intervention possible, but the war ended before that became necessary. The potential for a direct confrontation between the Soviets and United States was an issue that made some people nervous, but the war ended before it became a reality.

The Sixties: America in Turmoil

For most of the 1950s and early sixties, except for the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans were not overly conscious of foreign affairs. True, there were nuclear bomb drills in classrooms, and when tests were conducted, they were carried in the daily news. When the Vietnam War began to heat up, however, foreign affairs, at least as far as that war was concerned, began a party of everyday life. Protests started on campuses and spread to the streets. The country became bitterly divided over the war, and as the death toll rose to the tens of thousands, the protests intensified.

The war in Vietnam was not the only thing that young people protested. Civil rights marches and demonstrations were common, and other social and economic issues were raised about the state of the country. What follows below is also included on the domestic affairs section, but the line between domestic and foreign affairs often became blurred.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in American political history. He was a man of extraordinary talents, appetites and ambition. He first came Washington from Texas in 1931 as secretary to a Texas congressman, where he caught the attention of Franklin Roosevelt and was appointed as Director of the Texas National Youth Administration. He was elected to a full term in the House of Representatives in 1938 and served there until 1948, when he was elected to the United States Senate.

In 1951 Johnson was elected majority whip of the Democratic Party in the Senate, and in 1955 he became the Senate Majority Leader, a position he held until being elected vice president under John F. Kennedy in 1960. Johnson was an extraordinarily persuasive man, and in dealing with his fellow legislators, his methods were so direct and forceful that his political dealings became known as the “Johnson treatment.” He could be both charming and heavy-handed, but when he was determined to get votes for a bill he favored, he could exert relentless pressure in persuading colleagues to follow his lead.

Although the negotiations were carried out in private, evidence suggests that John Kennedy did not really want Johnson as his vice president, but since Johnson, as majority leader of the Senate, was the most powerful man in Washington in 1960, Kennedy and his aides felt that Johnson should be offered the job. They also counted on Johnson to deliver the electoral votes of his native Texas as well as other Southern states. The Kennedy team was apparently shocked when Johnson decided to accept the position. The vice presidency of the United States has been described in less than glowing terms by more than one occupant of the office, and there is no question that Lyndon Johnson was frustrated over his lack of meaningful responsibilities. President Kennedy made him overseer of the American space program, but that did not really satisfy Johnson's longing to be in the center of political action in Washington.

The vice president accompanied President Kennedy on his fateful trip to Texas in 1963. Shortly after Kennedy was pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital following his assassination, Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One, as President Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, stood by in her bloodied pink suit.

The transition from the Kennedy to the Johnson administration was understandably wrenching, first of all because Kennedy's cabinet and staff were in a state of shock following the sudden death of their leader. In addition, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were about as far apart as two politicians of the same party could get in style and personality. Kennedy, the wealthy scion of an old Boston political family and Harvard graduate, epitomized everything glamorous and attractive about Washington politics. Jacqueline Kennedy conducted herself with enormous dignity during the ceremonies following her husband's death. Pictures of her standing side-by-side with her two young children, her son John being too young to comprehend what was happening, deeply touched the American people.

Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, had come from humble beginnings, He attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College and, after teaching for a year, worked his way up through the political ranks by his own means. Whereas the Kennedys suggested candlelit tables with fine glassware and china, Lyndon Johnson and his family conveyed the image of a rousing Texas barbecue. Johnson moved slowly and carefully during the weeks and months following Kennedy’s death, looking forward to the election of 1964 as he renewed contacts with political colleagues in Congress and elsewhere. As president, with the full apparatus of the White House at his disposal, he commanded attention and demanded loyalty.

Johnson’s forte was not foreign affairs, but the Cold War was a continuing reality, and the situation in Vietnam following the assassination of Premier Diem was murky at best; he could not afford to ignore the realities of international events. Johnson's interests, however, lay in his dreams for domestic programs, as he planned an all-out assault on what he saw as America's social skills: racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a host of other issues first addressed by Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal. Johnson later told biographers that his goal had been to dance with the lady he called the “Great Society,” but instead he was distracted by what he called that “bitch goddess of Vietnam.” Although his legislative achievements in pursuing his goals for domestic improvements were stunning, in the end his legacy was determined by the Vietnam War. (See section on Vietnam War)

High on President Johnson’s agenda was progress in the area of civil rights, something which President Kennedy had started, but which was still far from completion upon his death. As a Southerner Johnson was in a strong position to push civil rights legislation. Though it took all his powers of persuasion, Johnson's achievements in civil rights were of major significance.

The first task President Johnson faced in the civil rights arena was getting passage of the civil rights bill introduced by President Kennedy in 1963. Johnson spent most of his time early in 1964 working to get Congress to pass the bill. The House passed the bill by a comfortable margin, but it faced an uphill fight in the Senate. Johnson was aware that Southern Senators would lead a filibuster against the bill, and a vote of two thirds of the Senate was required to end it. Johnson kept a list of where every member of the Senate stood on the issue, and pulled out all the stops in an effort to persuade his former Senate colleagues to come around. The filibuster lasted three months, the longest one in Senate history, but eventually the bill passed.

As discussed in the Civil Rights section, two more major civil rights bills were passed during Johnson’s term: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. All three acts reflect Lyndon Johnson’s sincere commitment to racial equality. As a Texan, he had seen racial discrimination up close and detested its effects on blacks and Mexicans. As a Congressman and Senator, he had worked hard to see that minorities were fairly treated under federal economic policies. His achievements in this area provide a stark contrast to his unfortunate policy in Vietnam.

Additional Achievements of Lyndon Johnson included bills to establish the Medicare and Medicaid programs; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; creation of the Job Corps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and the Head Start program. Johnson also sponsored legislation that revised immigration policies, toughened anti-crime systems, and sought to improve public housing and clean up urban slums and the environment at large. Although many of these programs failed to meet their objectives, it was the greatest reform movement since the early days of FDR’s New Deal. Lyndon Johnson presided over much of the “the sixties,” however, and the times were indeed a-changing.

The 1960s: America in Revolt

The decade of the 1960s began chronologically in January 1961, a month that saw John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president of the United States. Kennedy’s inaugural address was highlighted by the memorable call to arms, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In those early days of the Kennedy administration the world seemed relatively calm. Still, the shooting down of the U-2 aircraft over Russia, the continuing threat of nuclear war, and the Cold War environment kept people on edge. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the erection of the Berlin wall, the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s confrontations with Khrushchev added to the tension that people felt, but the storm had not yet struck. Issues in French Indochina, rioting in the streets, and all the turmoil that has come to characterize the 60s was hardly a whisper on the horizon.

The sixties really began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald. Young and vibrant, with a lovely wife and two small children, the President was extremely popular among young Americans. With his untimely death the nation began a descent into one of the most chaotic decades in American history. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, was a powerful President who achieved a great deal of what Kennedy had intended, and much more. His “Great Society” even went a step or two beyond the New Deal in terms of fundamental reform, but lingering doubts over Kennedy’s death remained alive.

While the fifties were a “laid back” decade, the 1960s were in many ways the opposite. Whereas in the 1950s a popular television program proclaimed that “Father Knows Best,” by the end of the 1960s young people had convinced themselves that father did not know much of anything. Beginning with the “free speech” movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, a series of rebellions spread from campus to campus. The issues included such matters as women’s rights, the Vietnam War, and the nature of the university itself. Although in retrospect people think of those rebellions in terms of the “anti-war” movement, the student protests were much wider in their scope. In fact, Vietnam protests comprised only a minority of campus disturbances, many of which were directed at societal problems in general. The more strongly the police reacted, the more rebellious the students became, and the larger their numbers grew.

Across the nation, at hundreds of campuses, buildings were damaged or even destroyed, offices were ransacked, and professors unsympathetic to the students demands were driven from classrooms. In many cases the university was obliged simply to shut down. Following the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, hundreds of campuses cancelled classes because of student protests. While cynics may have noted that the level of student protest seemed to rise the closer it got to exam time, the students were often addressing serious issues in a thoughtful manner. On the other hand, leaders of the student movement—men and women whose names became well known beyond their own campuses—had fairly obvious political agendas; they sometimes seemed to be exploiting the rebellious conditions for their own purposes. The Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, had chapters on many campuses and often orchestrated demonstrations and other disruptive activities.

While often high-minded, the student demonstrations were frequently violent, and they triggered responses from university officials that ranged from acquiescence, to forcible resistance, to what many students perceived as outright oppression. When college police forces proved inadequate to handle the growing level of disruption, local police forces and even national guard troops were called in, with predictable results. Taunted by what they viewed as foul-mouthed, “spoiled brats” of the upper classes who shouted epithets such as “pigs,” and worse, at them, the police often reacted with violence of their own, and the riots often turned bloody, even deadly.

In the best sense, the students and their sympathizers were trying to bring about positive change in American society. They saw themselves as friends of the working classes, a voice for the oppressed, and many of them made positive contributions to the civil rights movement. In the South, black students led the sit-ins and freedom marches and were on the front line when things got rough, as they usually did. For most white students the Vietnam War, while not the only issue, was the biggest issue. Their feelings were probably complicated by the fact that as college students they were deferred from the draft. Draft eligible young man had to remain in good standing, however, and professors often went out of their way to see to it that they did. The Vietnam protests also called attention to what many saw as an unholy alliance between universities and government—more particularly the military establishment. Weapons research, for example, was attacked by students who felt that such work was morally objectionable in a university setting. (President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex was cited often by sixties students.)

President Johnson marked time until his overwhelming reelection over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and then all hell began to break loose. As American troops were sent to Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, as the civil rights demonstrations grew ever more bloody and violent, and as protests seem to erupt almost on a daily basis, mostly on college campuses, the 60s turned into a time of turmoil and trouble. Although a few early campus rallies were held to support the troops, their days were numbered.

The focus of much unrest on the campuses often dealt with civil rights. For example, in the spring of 1968, Columbia University in New York City erupted in part over plans by the University to build a facility in a housing area in neighboring Harlem. Although the design had been hailed as progressive, it was later columbia 1968judged to be discriminatory, as local residents were o be permitted to use only part of the building. Students soon took over the college, occupied administration offices, and eventually caused the university authorities to call for the assistance of the New York City police. Although today, in the aftermath of September 11, policemen and firemen are generally viewed favorably by most Americans of all generations, during the 1960s student protesters saw cops, whom they called “pigs,” as the enemy. During an uproar at Boston University, the Boston tactical police were called in and blood was shed as the students resisted the police. At the University of Maryland in College Park, a campus generally not known for political activism, students shut down the main traffic artery of U.S. Highway 1 during rush hour. Fire bombs directed at ROTC buildings, mass protests, break-ins at draft boards, and marches on the Pentagon became part of the culture of the 1960s. (Students protest at Columbia University on the left.)

The year 1968 was the peak of the turmoil as violence broke out in Chicago during the Democratic national convention. The Chicago police under Mayor Daley carried out what came to be known as a “police riot.” Protesters threw rocks, chunks of concrete and bags of urine at police, and the police responded with force. Blood was shed by demonstrators and occasional innocent bystanders. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968; it seemed to many that the country had not only lost its moral compass, but was rapidly running amok. The year 1969 saw the inauguration of President Richard Nixon, and as he seemed to be working to try to end the war, the turmoil also seemed to abate for a year.

In 1970 President Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia in 1970 to attack communist sanctuaries, four students were shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio, and the protests erupted anew. Then came the confusing and frustrating end of the American involvement in Vietnam, followed closely by the growing Watergate scandal, and it seemed that once again, things were as bad as ever. (See The Nixon Years section.)

In 1973 the American POWs came back from Vietnam, Senator John McCain among them, and the escalating Watergate crisis led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974. Although South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, and the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, most Americans viewed it from a distance. In 1976 the country rallied from its despondency in order to celebrate the bicentennial of American independence, and it seemed that by then the 60s were well over. But the nation did not go back to the way it had been in the 1950s—too much had changed. Civil rights legislation opened doors that had been closed for a century. Women had begun to assert themselves and move into areas previously unheard of for the “gentle sex.” Coed dormitories were common on college campuses, thus indicating that the sexual revolution had been, in effect, rubber stamped by university authorities. If parents were distressed, there wasn't much they could do about it; and, in fact, they had lived through the 60s themselves and had been changed by the experience, as had all Americans.

The outcomes are hard to assess. The Vietnam War did come to an end, and substantial progress was made in civil rights and other areas. Perhaps those changes would have come about anyway, maybe more slowly, but maybe without arousing as much resentment. One outcome is certain: the university was changed forever. In the 1950s the university stood in loco parentis—in the place of the parent, knowingly accepting the responsibility not only for students’ education, but for their moral behavior as well. Dormitories were segregated by sex, use of alcohol and drugs was at least officially frowned upon, and male students were allowed to visit females in their dormitories only under controlled conditions. Students were expected to behave in class, obey the college rules and the law, and generally to conduct themselves as ladies and gentlemen.

By 1966 or 1967 all that had begun to change. Although the memory of the student protests seems retroactively to have centered on the Vietnam War, the students were angry about many more things. The university was now obliged to recognize that its students were adults, that they had rights, and that it was not proper for college officials to dictate student lifestyles, no matter how well intentioned such guidance might have been.

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