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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Thirty-Sixth President • 1963-69
Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson, who ascended to the Presidency upon Kennedy's assassination and won his own term of office by an unprecedented popular majority, enjoyed more Federal legislative experience than any former Chief Executive. He was also the first since Andrew Johnson to have come to office from the South. Seeking to build a "Great Society" at home while maintaining the Nation's role abroad, he made giant strides in civil rights and social welfare. Nevertheless, the eruption of urban black riots and repeated demonstrations against U.S. participation in the Viet-Nam War signaled deep-rooted social and racial discontent that burdened him and seared the national psyche.

The first of five children, Johnson was born in 1908 at a farm along the banks of the Pedernales River in the Texas hill country near Stonewall. His mother's father had been a State legislator and official. His paternal grandfather was a rancher-drover and Confederate Army veteran whose kin had founded nearby Johnson City.

Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson

In 1913 the father moved his wife and children there and followed careers in real estate, newspaper work, and State politics. Meanwhile, young Johnson continued his education at the local schools. In 1920 the family rented their home and returned to the farm, but 2 years later they sold it and headed back to their Johnson City residence.

The year before, Lyndon had briefly boarded with relatives to begin his freshman year at Johnson City High School. A good student, he held various part-time jobs, and participated in such extracurricular activities as public speaking, debate, and baseball. When he graduated in 1924, he headed west for California. There, he worked as an elevator operator, carwasher, fieldhand, and cafe worker. The next year, he trekked back to his Texas home, and for 2 more years again drifted from job to job.

Encouraged by his parents to continue his education, in 1927 Johnson entered closeby Southwest Texas State Teachers College (later Southwest Texas College) at San Marcos. He majored in history and social science, excelled in debates, and edited the campus newspaper. To help pay for his schooling, he worked as a janitor, salesman, and secretary to the college president. In 1928 he received his elementary teacher's certificate, and left school to become principal and teacher at Cotulla. The following year, he returned to San Marcos and in 1930 won his B.S. degree.

Johnson campaigning
Lyndon B. Johnson campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1941. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.)

In 1930-31 Johnson taught public speaking and coached the debating team at a Houston high school. About this time, he began to take part in State Democratic politics, and beginning in late 1931 worked for 4 years in Washington, D.C., as secretary to Texas Congressman Richard M. Kleberg. During this period, Johnson attended Georgetown (D.C.) University Law School for a few months.

In 1934 Johnson married Claudia Alta ("Lady Bird") Taylor, daughter of a well-to-do planter-merchant of Marshall, Tex. She was to bear two daughters. During the 1935-37 period, Johnson directed the National Youth Administration (NYA) in Texas and won praise for organizing a model program.

The voters sent Johnson to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937. Reelected to five more terms, he sat in that body until 1948, learned the intricacies of the legislative process, and became a protege of Majority Leader (later Speaker) Sam Rayburn and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the 1940 elections, he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 1941 he was narrowly defeated in a special election for the U.S. Senate.

For 7 months after Pearl Harbor, Johnson served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. When President Roosevelt recalled all Congressmen from active duty, in 1942 he returned to Washington and energetically championed the war effort.

Johnson ran again for the U.S. Senate in 1948. He won the runoff Democratic primary by a small and disputed margin, but in the general election handily defeated his opponent. A master of organization and detail, Johnson rose rapidly, and within 3 years was chosen as Majority Whip. The 44-year-old legislator was elected in 1953 as Minority Leader—the youngest in history. In 1954 the Democrats regained control of Congress; Johnson himself won reelection, and the next January was named as Senate Majority Leader.

Johnson and King, Jr.
President Johnson consults in the White House with civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. (National Park Service, Special Collection.)

That year, Johnson suffered a severe heart attack, but he recovered rapidly. During Eisenhower's Republican administration, he won acclaim for avoiding doctrinaire positions on White House proposals. He frequently cooperated with the President to win passage of important legislation, including national security measures and the first major civil rights acts in more than eight decades, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.

In 1960 Johnson seriously contended for the Presidential nomination. After John F. Kennedy became the party's candidate, Johnson accepted the Vice-Presidential spot. His strenuous campaign in his native South contributed significantly to the ticket's narrow victory.

An active Vice President, Johnson represented the United States on missions abroad; participated in Cabinet and National Security Council sessions; and chaired the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the Peace Corps Advisory Council, and the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

Sworn into the Presidency aboard the Presidential jet in Dallas, just hours after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Johnson soon brought his legislative skills to bear upon Congress, broke up the logjam of stymied Kennedy initiatives, and evolved a domestic program he called the "Great Society." During his first 2 years in office, he signed a record number of significant pieces of legislation. Congress quickly approved his proposals for substantial foreign aid appropriations, reduced taxes, a major wilderness preservation system, funding of mass transit systems, and wheat and cotton price supports.

Johnson and Kosygin
Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin and President Johnson during their meeting at Glassboro, New Jersey, in 1967. (National Park Service, Special Collection.)

Johnson led the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations and promoted fair employment practices. His antipoverty program provided for a food stamp system, established the Job Corps to train unemployed youth, created community action agencies to improve health services as well as to fulfill other local needs, and formed the Office of Economic Opportunity as a coordinating agency.

In seeking a full term as President in 1964, Johnson overwhelmed Republican Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Johnson subsequently pushed through additional legislation. It assisted education; attacked pollution; financed Medicare for the aged; aided depressed regions in Appalachia; created the new Cabinet-level offices of Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation; promoted urban renewal, public housing, historic preservation, and highway beautification; abolished immigration quotas; authorized the use of Federal registrars to safeguard black voting rights; and increased Social Security payments.

Johnson also espoused ratification of the Constitution's 25th amendment, governing the transfer of executive powers at times of Presidential incapacitation, resignation, or impeachment. He also oversaw spectacular American advances in space exploration—capped late in 1968 by an orbital flight around the moon.

Despite these accomplishments, Johnson faced mounting difficulties at home and abroad. In 1965 he sent U.S. Marines into the Dominican Republic to end a revolt, which he viewed as a Communist threat to the Caribbean but which also provoked some public criticism. Later that same year, he accelerated participation in the Viet-Nam War, and during the next 3 years steadily increased the flow of troops and materiel to counter Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attacks. Debate over this undeclared war came to divide the United States. Antiwar demonstrations took place across the country, and Johnson became the focal point of much of the controversy.


Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site
Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac

But this did not end his woes—or those of the Nation. During the mid and late 1960's, the calm of the cities was shattered by a series of riots as many black people vented their anger at a host of social and economic grievances and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Mideast crisis caused by the Six-Day War (1967), the administration took a position of neutrality, and urged Israeli-Arab negotiations. That same year, Johnson and Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin discussed international affairs at Glassboro, N.J. In Viet-Nam Johnson continued United States involvement. In March 1968 he announced limitations on the bombing of North Viet-Nam, invited the Communists to negotiate, and made a surprise declaration that he would not be a candidate for reelection.

Retiring in 1969, Johnson returned to the LBJ Ranch in Texas, where he wrote his memoirs. He died there in 1973. His wife and two married daughters, Lynda Bird Robb and Luci Baines Nugent, survived him.

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Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004