The Johnson Years
President Kennedy's vigorous personal role in the search for peace abroad and social progress at home came to an abrupt and tragic end on November 22, 1963, when he was shot down by an assassin in Dallas, Texas. While the world mourned his death, the Presidency passed to Lyndon Johnson, who had been Kennedy's choice for Vice President.
In his first address to the Congress, the new President urged speedy passage of two major domestic programs that President Kennedy had helped to formulate. A civil rights bill, as approved initially by the House of Representatives, provided the strongest federal protection to date against racial discrimination. A tax reduction bill which became law early in 1964, called for sharp cuts in personal and corporate income tax rates. Its purpose was to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment by giving consumers more cash to spend and businesses more money for investment and expansion.
President Johnson won additional support for the tax measure by announcing substantial cutbacks in military spending and stricter economy in running the government. A considerable part of these savings was to be used in a massive "war on poverty." Nearly one-fifth of all American families, the President reported, had incomes under $3,000 a year, far below the level ofwell-being enjoyed by most Americans. Johnson proposed to coordinate government agencies concerned with the problem and, by a combination of intensified education, job training, new industries, and improved welfare measures, to bring the living standards of the underprivileged to acceptable levels.
As for foreign affairs, President Johnson, addressing
Congress early in his administration, said:
"This nation will keep its
commitments from South Vietnam to West Berlin. We will be
unceasing in the search for peace; resourceful in our pursuit of
areas of agreement even with those with whom we differ; and
generous and loyal to those who join us in common cause."
In the November 1964 election, the people gave Johnson the
highest percentage of votes ever cast for a presidential candidate,
sweeping him into office by a margin of more than 15 million
votes. The following March he spelled out his personal aims:
"I do not want to be the President who built empires, or
sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the
President who educated young children to the wonders of the world.
I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to
prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax-eaters. I want to be
the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who
protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I
want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his
fellowmen and who prompted love among the people of all races
and all religions and all parties. I want to be the President who
helped to end war among the brothers of this earth."
The Johnson Administration, however, became increasingly concerned with military action. The American forces in South Vietnam were steadily increased. Then, in April 1965 more than 20,000 troops were sent to the Dominican Republic to restore order between contending factions of Dominicans in the early stages of a civil war. At U.S. request, the OAS established an Inter-American Peace Force, which joined the American forces and converted the unilateral intervention into a multilateral operation. Following thc easing of tension and an election in June 1966, the troops were withdrawn.
Vietnam was a different story. Before his Administration ended, President Johnson had committed more than half a million men to the conflict in Southeast Asia. Not until May 1968, after Johnson, facing a challenge within his own party over the war issue, had decided not to run again for President, did the United States and North Vietnam agree to hold preliminary peace talks in Paris.
The cost of the war, coupled with record spending on domestic programs, and a substantial rise in average family income, exerted strong inflationary pressures on the nation's economy, the most severe since the immediate post-World War II years. In 1968, the dollar was buying 10 cents less in goods than the 1964 dollar, and annual inflation had reached 2.5 percent. Unemployment figures continued to drop, but the number receiving welfare assistance, particularly in the large cities, steadily climbed.
For most of the nation the Johnson years were a time of prosperity although there was serious concern about the worsening balance of payments deficit and the resulting decline in U.S. gold reserves. The deficit, however, was due in part to growing American investments abroad, growing expenditures by Americans overseas, more buying of foreign goods, and higher incomes at home. Offsetting the nation's economic problems was the great economic growth achieved from 1961 to 1969 , the greatest, in fact, in American history.
These years also saw a wealth of social legislation. Congress passed more civil rights bills than in any comparable period in American history. Once again Congress raised social security benefits. In 1965 the country established a milestone in social legislation when Johnson signed into law the Medicare program, a non-profit health insurance system for the aged. In response to civil inequalities, Congress enacted legislation to insure the voting rights of black Americans, who, in some southern states, had been required to Lake discriminatory literacy tests. Congress and the states, meanwhile, ratified the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution which forbade any state to maintain a poll tax as a requirement for voting in a national election.
In 1965, a year after enactment of these suffrage measures, the first of a series of riots that were to scar numerous American cities during the next several years exploded in Watts, a predominantly black section of Los Angeles in California. In six days 35 persons were killed and hundreds of buildings destroyed. Angered by what they considered slow and uneven progress after decades of social neglect and discrimination, and at times spurred by militants, blacks resorted to violence in -Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, and scores ofothercommunities. In April 1968, a downtown section of the nation's capital was racked by burning, rioting, and looting in an emotion-charged response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation's foremost black leader, who had been murdered by a sniper's bullet while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Two months after King's death, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late President, also died from an assassin's bullet after being struck down in a Los Angeles hotel while campaigning for nomination as President. Later that summer, the national convention of the Democratic Party, held in Chicago, was the scene of a bloody confrontation between anti-war activists and Chicago police.
Unrest and violence were symptomatic of deep changes taking place in America. An ever-increasing number of Americans became dissatisfied with the impersonal aspects of mass society and large government, the war in Vietnam, and continuing aspects of discrimination against persons because of their sex, ethnic background, race, or life styles. The 1960s, therefore, witnessed many changes in attitudes, personal relationships, values, and even dress and manners.
Dramatic technological changes also were evident. The December 1968 flight of Apollo 8 carried astronauts Frank Borman, James LoveIl, and William Anders into lunar orbit. First to venture beyond the earth's gravitational pull, they journeyed farther (more than 368,000 kilometers) from the Earth and faster (at speeds approaching 40,000 kilometers per hour) than any other persons in history. After spending Christmas flying around the moon, the Apollo crew returned to Earth on December 27 and executed a pinpoint landing in the Pacific recovery zone. This event together with the release by North Korea of the crew of the American ship Pueblo-which North Korea had seized off its coast in January 1968-brightened Johnson's last weeks in office.