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Lyndon Johnson as president

Learn more about the president who expanded both the war in Vietnam and social programs at home. 


  • Lyndon Johnson became president of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. He served as president from 1963-1969.
  • The Great Society, a package of programs and legislation aimed at eradicating poverty and improving health care and education, was President Johnson’s chief domestic policy program and one of his permanent legacies.
  • President Johnson vastly expanded the US military role in Vietnam.
  • Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968, largely due to the Vietnam debacle and the disarray of the Democratic Party. He was succeeded in office by Richard Nixon.

Lyndon Johnson ascends to power

Lyndon Baines Johnson, a New Deal Democrat from rural West Texas, served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate before becoming vice president to John F. Kennedy. He was the Senate Minority Leader for two years, the Senate Majority Whip for two years, and the Senate Majority Leader for six years, and some historians believe he was the most effective majority leader in US history.1
Lyndon Johnson's swearing-in ceremony on Air Force One, just hours after Kennedy's assassination. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stands next to Johnson. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. Two hours after the assassination, Johnson was sworn into office aboard Air Force One. He pledged to carry on Kennedy’s legacy and to fulfill his political agenda, particularly concerning civil rights. In the presidential election of 1964, Johnson won in a landslide against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater.2

LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement

Once in office, Johnson moved quickly to secure the passage of civil rights legislation that had languished in Congress during Kennedy’s presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial segregation in public education and facilities, and prohibited discrimination in jobs and housing. In March 1965, Johnson delivered a speech in which he condemned racial bigotry and informed the nation that he was sending another civil rights bill to Congress. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices that had been used to prevent Southern blacks from voting.
Together, these two acts constituted the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever passed, and were a paramount achievement of Johnson’s presidency.

The Great Society

Johnson’s major focus as president was the Great Society, a package of domestic programs and legislation aimed at eradicating poverty and improving the quality of life of all Americans. The Great Society vastly expanded the welfare state and included initiatives such as the War on Poverty.
Johnson signs the Medicare Bill into law, 1965. Image courtesy Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
Johnson launched the War on Poverty in March 1964, when he sent the Economic Opportunity Act to Congress. The bill created the Job Corps and the Community Action Program, which aimed to eliminate poverty through job creation and block grants to local communities for services such as Head Start for early childhood development. The Office of Economic Opportunity was established to oversee the disbursement of funds to community-based anti-poverty programs, and the Food Stamp Act of 1964 expanded the federal food stamp program.
President Johnson’s Great Society also established Medicare and Medicaid, which provide healthcare to the poor and to the elderly.
The Great Society also involved education reform. The Primary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 authorized $1 billion in federal funding for public education and established special programs for schools in low-income areas. The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal funding for universities and extended scholarships and low-interest loans to college students.
In sum, the Great Society was an ambitious domestic program that expanded the scope of the federal government far beyond the limits of the New Deal, and it constitutes one of Johnson’s most enduring legacies.3

Johnson and the war in Vietnam

In August 1964, reports that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin led Johnson to request and obtain from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the use of military force in Southeast Asia. Johnson made a series of controversial decisions that dramatically escalated military action and enlarged the US troop presence in Vietnam.4 As US casualties mounted, the conflict stalemated, and revelations emerged that the Johnson administration had lied to the American public about the nature and scope of the war. Anti-war sentiment intensified and LBJ’s approval ratings plummeted.5
Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968, largely due to the disastrous war in Vietnam and the internecine conflicts tearing apart the Democratic Party. He was succeeded in office by Richard M. Nixon.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Johnson’s decision to not run for re-election in 1968? Why or why not?
Which had a greater impact on poverty in America, the Great Society or the New Deal? Why?
What were Johnson’s greatest achievements? What were his biggest mistakes?
Who accomplished more for civil rights, Johnson or Kennedy?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Given the socialist nature of the programs of the "Great Society." How did LBJ justify attacking a Communist country in Vietnam? Was it just a war over maintaining foreign influence of the United States and her agenda? The justification for waging the war in Vietnam cannot be justified as a defense of Capitalism, since Capitalism itself was not something LBJ himself was advocating for or defending domestically. Thus, I would have thought LBJ would have had to have made an argument "justifying" the war in Vietnam on other grounds, what would those reasons have been?
    (6 votes)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user Jonathan
      It's too simplistic to say that if someone supports a socialist policy it makes them anti-capitalist. All countries have a mix of socialism and capitalism. America has traditionally been quite capitalist, but there have always been elements of socialism (especially since FDR). LBJ's polices were another step in the socialist (or you could say progressive) direction, but America was still relatively capitalist (e.g., compared with Canada or Western Europe). In many ways these policies were designed to preserve capitalism by ameliorating its biggest failings.

      Moreover, there's a big difference between democratic socialism, which respects individual rights and freedoms, and totalitarian communism as practiced by the USSR.
      (13 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Jess Larry Osb
    Would The Great Society be considered a socialist program? DId LBJ have more of a socialist leaning, or was he carrying on JFK's programs? Thanks!
    (9 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
      I think you could definitely say that it is a socialist program. Whether you like it or not is another story. Personally I feel that the nature of the "Great Society" programs were pretty clearly socialist in the nature of how it was designed to take from the many and subsequently redistribute said wealth in the form of health care expenses or in the form of food stamps to others...
      (9 votes)
  • mr pink red style avatar for user Karen
    Is the War on Poverty and the Great Society the same thing? If not, what is the difference?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:Great question! The War on Poverty was PART of the Great Society, or a subset of it. The War on Poverty included social programs designed to reduce or eliminate poverty in the United States. The Great Society was Lyndon Johnson's broader package of social programs, which aimed to tackle racial injustice and poverty.

      One way to think of it would be that the Great Society was like the New Deal. Like the New Deal is the name given to FDR's broad range of programs combatting the Great Depression, the Great Society is the name given to the broad range of social programs that were part of LBJ's initiatives as president.
      (12 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Neethu
    When Kennedy died, did 1st lady Jaqueline Kennedy stay 1st lady, or... What happened?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Jacqueline did not remain first lady. She was replaced as first lady by Lyndon Johnson's wife, Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson, when Lyndon Johnson replaced Kennedy as president.

      Jacqueline had a very full life. After Kennedy's death she married a Greek shipping magnate named Aristotle Onassis and became known as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, or "Jackie O." She worked as an editor and was a passionate supporter of the arts and the preservation of historic buildings.
      (15 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Monique Tushim
    I want to know how LBJ thought he could have a "War on Poverty". I would like to know how to have a war on something that dosnt have a physical form.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Valdez, Grace
    I'd like to correct that LBJ was in fact NOT from West Texas. Anyone from Texas can tell you stonewall is quite close to Austin and is considered Central Texas. Nowhere near West Texas, it is a culture entirely apart.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Alexaa Armendariz
    Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" ended primarily due to what cause?
    (2 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Someone
    why did his approval plummet when he withdrew?After all people should be happy because they did not want war.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Derpman
    Did Johnson get too much criticism because of the Vietnam War?
    (1 vote)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
      Yes he did. Unlike the current involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was shown in part every evening on the news programs with lurid shots of the wounded and the bodies being brought back to the U.S. There was a lot more hand to hand combat and far more casualties than in our current situations.

      People began protesting against the war. Guys burned their draft cards and the American Flag, and many of them escaped to Canada. When men returned to the States from Vietnam, they were called "baby killers" and spat upon. Most of our guys were trying to be patriotic and fight when their country asked them to, but they were treated terribly when they got home. It got worse as we began pulling our troops out of Nam, because we had lost the war and the men returning were not greeted as heroes.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user famousguy786
    Why was Lyndon Johnson considered the most effective Majority Leader of the Senate?He was majority leader while Eisenhower was president so much of Johnson's agenda would have to be shelved due to a Republican president and the threat of veto right?
    (2 votes)
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