President Lyndon Johnson could have been a character in a Greek tragedy. His accomplishments were immense. He twisted enough arms to win the Civil Rights Act, despite recalcitrant fellow Southern Democrats and the knowledge that he was sacrificing the South as a source of Democratic votes for at least a generation. He outlined and won passage of the War on Poverty, perhaps the most significant social justice legislation in our history. He signed into law bills establishing national wilderness areas and parks and other environmental protections.
But Johnson’s hubris, the pride that precedes a fall in Greek morality plays, led him to escalate rather than resolve a war in Vietnam passed on to him by his predecessor John Kennedy. The war served Johnson badly; he used the deception of unproven North Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to persuade Congress to give him unprecedented war-making powers. In time, his escalated war would cost 57,000 American lives and 2 million Vietnamese.
In time also, war protestors who were willing to go “Part of the way with LBJ,” when he ran against Barry Goldwater, were asking, “How many kids did you kill today?” The war’s unpopularity brought Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy into the 1968 primaries against him. On March 31, looking wan and defeated, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. Five years later, he was dead at 64, either despised or forgotten, a sad and lonely man.
His daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, believes it unfair to judge her father by the war alone; it was never what he wanted, she argues. What he did want, and wanted to be remembered for, was what he called “The Great Society,” a vision of an America not more powerful or richer than others, but transformed to value things other than wealth and power. He laid out his vision in a remarkable speech delivered 50 years ago on May 22, 1964 to graduates at the University of Michigan.