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Only a Little Way with LBJ

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the 1964 Civi Rights Act.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the 1964 Civi Rights Act.

“All the Way with LBJ” was Lyndon Baines Johnson’s campaign slogan in 1964.

Enough Americans went all the way with Johnson to give him a landslide victory against conservative darling Barry Goldwater. The victory celebrated his early triumphs — such as the Civil Rights Act — and ushered in his later ones — the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Head Start — all components of what Johnson called the Great Society.

There is a boomlet in “Johnsoniana” these days, due to our penchant for marking round number anniversaries. This being 2014, it’s the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, an historic achievement that outlawed segregation in public accommodations. A landmark measure in ending racial discrimination in America, the bill also had vast political implications, ending Democratic control of the South and turning that region into a Republican bastion. Johnson reportedly understood the implications of his signing the Civil Rights act, remarking to his aide Bill Moyers that “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

The Johnson comeback gained impetus this week when the sitting president and three of his predecessors traveled to the LBJ Library to celebrate passage of that law. President Obama certainly has reason to celebrate LBJ’s accomplishments.

“Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody -- not all at once, but they swung open,” the president said. “Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today -- because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

Johnson’s significance cannot be underestimated. Racism has not, of course, been eradicated, but the laws he signed ended legal discrimination and guaranteed the vote to all Americans regardless of race (a guarantee under attack now). Medicare broadened the social safety net for seniors, insuring that the elderly would receive medical care regardless of their financial status. And other Great Society programs aided the poor and the very young. Progressives can be proud of these accomplishments.

And yet….

And yet, there is the pesky matter of the Vietnam War.

Johnson came to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, enjoying tremendous popularity as he pulled a battered nation together. He used his influence with Congress, a legacy of his stint as Senate majority leader in the 1950s and of the national good will following the tragedy in Dallas, to prod the legislative branch into enacting civil rights legislation over Southern objections.

Johnson frittered away all that political capital by 1966-67, a result of the quagmire in Vietnam and the related conflagrations in the nation’s cities and the intergenerational cultural war that erupted in the late 1960s. Some of the cultural clashes today stem from the strife of that lamentable decade in American history.

Vietnam tore the nation apart. Anti-war demonstrations pitted Americans against Americans, families against families, and generations against generations, and it’s fair to say that the national psyche has never healed fully.

Since we are celebrating round number anniversaries, it should be noted that 2014 is also the 50th anniversary of passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a congressional measure authorizing the president to use military force in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war by Congress. In the Senate, only two courageous members, Wayne Morse, a Democrat from Oregon, and Ernest Gruening, an Alaska Democrat, voted against the congressional blank check.

The resolution asserted a bogus North Vietnam attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin; it nevertheless became the administration’s justification for its rapid escalation of military involvement in South Vietnam and war with North Vietnam. More than 58,000 Americans died in the war.

That’s at least 58,000 reasons why it’s hard to go “All the Way with LBJ.”

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