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Lyndon Johnson, Backer of Great Society and Civil Rights, Saw His Popularity Plunge Due to Vietnam

Image: Lyndon Johnson, Backer of Great Society and Civil Rights, Saw His Popularity Plunge Due to Vietnam
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in Washington in a portrait dated March 9, 1964. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Friday, 08 Aug 2014 02:46 PM

Lyndon B. Johnson stands as one of America's most successful presidents regarding domestic policy, starting Great Society programs and supporting civil rights, but his popularity and place in history suffered greatly due to his foreign policy mistakes — chief among them the war in Vietnam.

"In a Gallup poll, only just 20 percent of Americans rated Johnson an above-average president, a lower ranking than George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter," Albert R. Hunt wrote in an article published by The New York Times.

"Yet the 36th president affected the lives of most Americans and changed the fabric of today's society more than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is overlooked or brushed aside because of another legacy: the disastrous war in Vietnam."

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And Robert Dallek, author of "Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973," observed: "LBJ stands with a handful of important presidents who had exceptional accomplishments and some terrible failures."

When LBJ succeeded John F. Kennedy following JFK's assassination in 1963, "He seized upon the national mood of regard for the fallen president to win passage of his major unrealized legislative initiatives — an $11 billion tax cut, the 1964 civil rights bill, and subsequently, in 1965, the Medicare/Medicaid and federal aid to education laws," Dallek writes for the History News Network.

Johnson also pushed through measures championing voting rights, open housing, immigration reform, environmental protections, consumer safety, and cultural reforms, including the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Freedom of Information Act.

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LBJ's "War on Poverty" brought Head Start, food stamps, public housing, expanded Social Security and other measures. His civil rights actions permanently transformed the South, and he was the first president to appoint an African-American to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.

But LBJ is as much remembered for a long, unpopular, and unsuccessful war that many now consider to have been unnecessary.

Johnson inherited the conflict in Vietnam from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. But he was convinced that it was in the country's interest to prevent a communist victory, and he turned the conflict into a much larger war that ultimately cost more than 58,200 American lives.

Despite frequent assertions that the United States was winning in Vietnam, LBJ could not convince Americans that the nation would prevail. His popularity plummeted as the war dragged on, to the extent that in 1968, despite all his domestic achievements, Johnson had to announce his withdrawal from that year's presidential campaign — four years after he had won a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.

"He was partly responsible for an enormous tragedy," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "But he also was hugely responsible for much of what we're living today."

Law professor John McGinnis has a different view about LBJ: "Often rated above average, he should be rated well below average. He fought two wars (in Vietnam and against poverty) and lost both of them. The consequences of these policies still harm our polity."

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Lyndon B. Johnson stands as one of America's most successful presidents regarding domestic policy, starting Great Society programs and supporting civil rights, but his popularity and place in history suffered greatly due to his foreign policy mistakes — chief among them the war in Vietnam.
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