Investigating US History

Lyndon Johnson and 1960s Political Culture

photo
Lyndon Johnson working the telephone. Photo from LBJ Presidential Library
KC Johnson
Brooklyn College, CUNY

Structure

The unit consists of four tracks. The first three focus on separate content areas from the 1960s--foreign policy, civil rights, and electoral politics. Each of these three tracks is structured similarly and contains about the same amount of work, allowing the instructor to choose which track best fits his or her course. The fourth track examines events of the 1960s in the context of the Cold War, and thus reverses the order of the previous three tracks (here the documents are first, and the tapes second). By clicking on the link for the selected track, a series of separate pages appear that can be presented to the students, with the assignments for only that option. Instructors should not give access to this entire page to students, since it has tended to overwhelm them in the past.

Overview

During his 5-year tenure as president, Lyndon Johnson secretly recorded around 642 hours of phone conversations and (in 1968) cabinet meetings. The bulk of the available tapes come from 1964 and 1965, the years of his greatest political and legislative triumphs. This unit uses clips from these recordings to glimpse inside the White House at a time when LBJ made some of his key decisions--regarding civil rights politics and policy; Vietnam and foreign affairs; and his 1964 reelection bid.

Objectives

  • show how critical issues of the 1960s (civil rights, foreign policy) changed over time and/or between administrations;
  • provide a sense of the inner workings of the office of the presidency, and the significance of political institutions to understanding events of the mid-1960s;
  • critically analyze different types of primary sources;
  • illustrate tensions inherent within 1960s liberalism.

Track One: Civil Rights

Prerequisites

Activity One: (In-class assignment)

For a sense of how the MFDP issue vexed Johnson, listen to the clips below (each is under 2 minutes), four excerpts of a conversation between Johnson and Georgia governor Carl Sanders, perhaps the leading Southern moderate officeholder of 1964. As the reading above noted, Johnson had arranged for a "compromise" under which the segregated Mississippi regular delegation would be seated, and two members of the MFDP would be seated as "honorary" at-large delegates. Speaking for the MFPD, Fannie Lou Hamer announced that the MFDP didn't come to the convention site in Atlantic City (the "original Bay of Pigs," said one press wag) to "sit at the back of the bus." But even the moderate Sanders thought that LBJ had gone too far in the compromise.

  • We pick up the conversation several minutes in, after Governor Sanders' complaint (mp3 file) about the compromise plan. Click here for a transcript to the clips.
  • When Sanders offers a legalistic argument (mp3 file) against seating the MFDP, Johnson exhibits rare (private) emotion.
  • Fed up with Sanders' recalcitrance (mp3 file) , the President launches into a series of sarcastic barbs against the Mississippi all-white Democratic delegation. 
  • Sanders then protests that the Mississippi and Alabama delegations are complaining (mp3 file) about having to take a loyalty oath to the party's nominee. The "John" in the call refers to John Connally, Texas governor.

Discussion Questions:

  • What does this conversation say about the political obstacles that Johnson faced in championing civil rights?
  • What were Johnson's principal arguments in attempting to persuade Sanders to back his MFPD compromise?
  • Some historians have faulted Johnson for approaching a moral issue (seating of the integrated MFPD delegation) in a pragmatic manner. Do you agree with that criticism?

Activity Two: (Blackboard assignment)

Read the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Text Questions:

What are the act's most important features? How did the act's authors hope to use the law to achieve equal rights for all? What sorts of problems were not addressed or anticipated by the act?

Source Questions:

In terms of historical skills, how does analyzing a government document differ from analyzing telephone calls between key policymakers? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each as a historical source?

You should post at least twice, with the second post at least 12 hours after the first, and to include responses to the arguments of the other posters.

Activity Three: (Writing assignment)

Listen to President Johnson's complete conversation with Sanders (mp3 file), along with this conversation between President Kennedy and Mississippi governor Ross Barnett (mp3 file) during the crisis over the admission of an African-American, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. Compare and contrast the approaches of Kennedy and Johnson to the issue of civil rights. Be sure to consider the following issues:

  • How each man conceived of the power of the presidency;
  • The implications of the different personal styles of JFK and LBJ;
  • The degree of leverage possessed by the figure on the other end of the line (Barnett and Sanders);
  • The similarities and differences between civil rights as a national issue in 1962--before Birmingham and the March on Washington--and 1964.

Track Two: Vietnam

Prerequisite

Activity One: (In-class assignment)

For a sense of how Johnson struggled with the Vietnam policy that he inherited from Kennedy, listen to the clips below (each of which is less than 3 minutes), from a conversation between the President and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on March 2, 1964. Seeking to counter press criticism of the administration's Vietnam policy, the President pushed McNamara for a clearer sense of the U.S. justification for involvement in the war. Keep in mind that, by this time, Johnson had already been President for more than three months, and the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam had risen to more than 20,000.

  • We pick up the conversation after McNamara briefs the President on unrelated matters; Johnson asks (mp3 file) for a memorandum outlining Vietnam policy, and in the process spells out the alternatives for the United States as he sees them. Click here for a transcript of the clips.
  • After reading McNamara a series of hostile comments from Republican senators and the press, focused on LBJ's remark in a UCLA speech that North Vietnam was playing a "deeply dangerous game," the President complains (mp3 file) about press criticism directed against him for considering escalating the U.S. involvement.
  • After some more complaining about leaks (a favorite Johnson topic) from the State Department and the military, the President asks McNamara about how the administration should explain its Vietnam policy to the public, and receives a startling reply (mp3 file).
  • After some discussion about the possible political motives of U.S. ambassador in Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge, a former Massachusetts senator who was making a write-in bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Johnson concludes (mp3 file) the call by pressing McNamara for bolder political and military tactics on behalf of the new South Vietnamese leader, General Nguyen Khanh, who had assumed power in a January military coup.

Discussion Questions

  • Based on these conversations, what was Johnson's primary goal in Vietnam?
  • In terms of the relationship between Johnson and McNamara, who seemed to have a better sense of policy? Why?
  • Who did American policymakers consider the "enemy" in Vietnam?
  • How much consideration did LBJ give to domestic public opinion?

Activity Two: (Blackboard assignment)

Lyndon Johnson was someone who preferred doing business over the telephone, and who believed that formal meetings often were a waste of time. In contrast to his lobbying members of Congress, however, on foreign policy issues he had little choice but to work through the established bureaucracy, at least to some degree. These documents from the Foreign Relations of the United States series detail U.S. policy toward Vietnam in the month following Johnson's March conversation with Secretary of Defense McNamara. You should read documents #74, 81, 84, and 100.

Text Questions:

What are the central features of the administration's policy toward Vietnam? How much leverage did the President possess compared to other key policymakers? Do you see any key "turning points" in the development of US policy?

Source Questions:

How does analyzing a government document differ from analyzing telephone calls between key policymakers? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each as a historical source?

You should post at least twice, with the second post at least 12 hours after the first, and to include responses to the arguments of the other posters.

Activity Three: (Writing assignment)

Listen to President Johnson's complete conversation with McNamara (mp3 file), along with this discussion between the President and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy (mp3 file) about Vietnam from November 3, 1964. In what ways had the administration's approach to Vietnam changed between March and November 1964?  What do you see as the one or two central principles of LBJ's policy? Be sure to consider the following issues:

  • Johnson's conception of his role as commander-in-chief;
  • The role of LBJ's personality in his approach to foreign affairs;
  • The degree of leverage possessed by Johnson regarding Vietnam policy.

Track Three: 1964 campaign

Prerequisite

Activity One: (In-class assignment)

For a sense of how Johnson conceived of the "frontlash," listen to these conversations--clips from August and September 1964 calls between the President and aide Bill Moyers.

  • Johnson first picked up on the "frontlash" concept at the Atlantic City convention, as he demonstrated in this conversation (mp3 file) with Moyers. Moyers was at the convention hall, the President was in the Oval Office.
  • Articulating a positive economic agenda that would appeal to frontlash voters, however, was difficult for a committed New Dealer like Johnson. In this conversation with Moyers (mp3 file), the President attempted to outline the main economic themes of his campaign, to be unveiled at the traditional Democratic campaign kickoff, a Labor Day speech in Detroit.

Discussion Questions:

  • Based on his conversation with Moyers, what did LBJ see as the central task of the Detroit speech?
  • What domestic agenda did he envision for a completed term?
  • How did LBJ hope to appeal to the "frontlash" constituency? What kind of voters was he talking about in his conversations with Moyers?

Activity Two: (Blackboard assignment)

The 1964 presidential campaign was the first in which the majority of commercials run by the two candidates--Johnson and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater--were negative; and the race produced the most famous attack ad in American history, Johnson's "daisy ad," which featured a countdown to a nuclear explosion superimposed over a little girl picking the petals off a daisy, with the implication that Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected President. Watch these 20 television commercials from the campaign.

Text Questions:

To what extent did Johnson accomplish the goals he outlined in his conversations with Moyers and Reedy? What message did Goldwater hope to convey, and was he successful in doing so?

Source Questions:

How should we analyzea source like TV ads, which rely on visual messages as much as the text or the sound? What did you consider the most effective ad of the 20? Why?

You should post at least twice, with the second post at least 12 hours after the first, and to include responses to the arguments of the other posters.

Activity Three: (Writing assignment)

Listen to this remarkable (lengthy) October 1964 conversation (mp3 file) between Johnson and his chief aide, Walter Jenkins, in which the President, functioning as his own campaign manager, surveyed the state of the race against Goldwater, discussed political tactics, and outlined his vision for the future political state of the country. Historians (and contemporary political commentators) often remark on the contradictions between the necessities of campaigning for office and the more idealistic vision of public policy held by politicians. Compare and contrast Johnson's political goals with the tactics that he is willing to pursue. Be sure to consider the following issues:

  • How Johnson conceived of the power of the presidency;
  • The relationship between LBJ's personal style and his functioning as President;
  • The similarities and differences between American political culture in 1964 and that of today.

Track Four: The Cold War and the 1960s

Prerequisite: Cold War timeline

This timeline gives a sense of some of the key events in US policy toward the Cold War, 1946-1963.

Activity One: (Blackboard assignment)

In 1947, the journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann penned an article describing the developing US-USSR confrontation as a "Cold War." The term came to describe the state of superpower relations for the next four decades. These maps portray how Europe and the rest of the world became divided into two camps.

For this Blackboard assignment, read three of the critical document of U.S. Cold Wa r grand strategy:

  • The "X" Article of 1947, by George Kennan, which articulated the "containment" doctrine.
  • NSC 68, approved in 1950, which deemed a communist triumph anywhere a threat to U.S. security
  • NSC 162, approved in modified form as NSC 162/2 in 1953, which outlined Dwight Eisenhower's new national security philosophy.

Text Questions:

To what extent did these three documents envision a similar threat posed by the Soviet Union? Did Eisenhower's call for taking into account the economic limitations of the United States really differ from Truman's general approach?

Source Questions:

Do you notice any difference between the X Article--which was written for public consumption--and the two NSC documents, which were classified?

You should post at least twice, with the second post at least 12 hours after the first, and to include responses to the arguments of the other posters.

Activity Two: (In-class assignment)

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cold War in Europe stabilized. The superpowers' focus turned to Latin American and Asian affairs. In 1962, the U.S. discovery of a planned Soviet nuclear missile base in Cuba prompted the Cuban Missile Crisis; after 13 days of tension, the Soviets pulled out their missiles. Forcefulness proved a less appropriate response to events in Vietnam. U.S. troop levels in the Southeast Asian country dramatically increased after John Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

  • In this conversation, President Kennedy and British prime minister Harold Macmillan discuss the options available to the United States--and the risks that each option posed--following the discovery of the Soviet plan.
  • Kennedy was a foreign policy President, comfortable thinking about world affairs and dealing with international crises. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was not. In this conversation from early 1964 (mp3 file), the new President revealed a rather limited intellectual perspective in thinking about the U.S. approach to the conflict in Vietnam. The transcript for this call is here.

Discussion Questions:

  • Based on these calls, what do you see as the principal similarity between JFK and LBJ in their approach to foreign affairs? The principal difference?
  • How did the Cold War backdrop affect US foreign policy in the 1960s?
  • How important was appeasing domestic sentiment to both men?

Activity Three: (Writing assignment)

How did the two Democratic administrations of the 1960s address the emerging problem of Vietnam. Compare and contrast the recording of this meeting on Vietnam between President Kennedy and his key national security advisors with President Johnson's March 1964 conversation with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (mp3 file). Be sure to consider the following issues:

  • How Kennedy and Johnson viewed the main issue facing the United States in the region;
  • The role of the President's personality in his approach to foreign affairs;
  • How the situation on the ground in Vietnam limited the options available to U.S. policymakers.

Conclusion

Presidential biographies are among the most common, and popular, type of political history, and presidential historians have to balance the sometimes competing needs of presenting a faithful portrayal of the President's personal life with an understanding of his public policies. Striking this balance can be especially difficult when dealing with the tapes, since the recording systems often picked up unusual and perhaps atypical moments in a President's life that under any other circumstances never would have been retained.

How much attention should historians devote to the private traits of 1960s chief executives? Keep this question in mind when listening to the following two calls: the first, between Lyndon Johnson and Joseph Haggar, in which the President ordered some slacks, giving some very specific tailoring advice; the second, between Richard Nixon and the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time US ambassador to the UN, in which Nixon discussed his theories on the capacities of different races for effective governance.

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