Lyndon Johnson: online exhibits

Lyndon Johnson: online exhibits

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Domestic and Economic Policy

Browse our collection of educational resources and online exhibits related to Lyndon Johnson and his domestic and economic policies. Return to our Educational Resources landing page to resources on other presidents.

A 3 A.M. Phone Call

Awakened just before 3 a.m. by the effects of a persistent cold, President Johnson was informed of a major earthquake that had struck around an Alaskan epicenter late on the previous day. Within minutes, he called Press Secretary George Reedy to discuss the matter.

A Bipartisan Transportation Bill

In this call, Johnson spells out his troubles on getting the Transportation Bill passed to a republican ally, Robert Anderson. The effort to consolidate over 30 separate agencies into one department headed by a Cabinet level official was bipartisan, having been proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower just before he left office in 1961; likewise, opposition to the bill was bipartisan, with Democratic congressmen from districts with shipping ports yielding to pressure from maritime unions. Robert Anderson had served as U.S. Secretary of The Treasury in the second Eisenhower administration, from 1957 through 1961. He was also a fellow Texan and had sold a Texas radio station to Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, in 1943.

An Optimistic Budget and Solid Poverty Programs

Walter Heller, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers whom Johnson had inherited from President Kennedy, was in the middle of an extended public relations effort that encompassed televised interviews and frequent meetings with print journalists who covered the nation's economic policies. Designed to tout the new administration's progressive but frugal fiscal policy, Heller's effort-along with accompanying face-to-face diplomacy undertaken by the President-were also expected to help Johnson pass the pending tax cut legislation, then bottled up in Harry Byrd's senate Finance Committee. Preparing to meet at the LBJ ranch after Christmas to begin laying out plans for what would become the War on Poverty, Heller and Johnson also discuss that proposal.

Finding Fannie Lou Chaney

Whereas a congressman had given the White House the contact information for the parents of the two missing white activists, Lee White had to depend essentially on the phone book.

“I Thought We Were Going to Have CCC Camps”

On August 7, 1964, one day before the final House vote on the Economic Opportunity Bill, Lyndon Johnson expressed his underlying discomfort with the anti-poverty legislation as written by his aides and with the form of the War on Poverty that would result. Speaking with Special Assistant Bill Moyers, Johnson contrasted his own initial conception of the anti-poverty program as an extension of New Deal work programs such as the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA) with its final character as an experiment in federally-sponsored social change. Johnson began the exchange by telling Moyers that "I'm going to re-write your poverty program."

LBJ and MLK

Just a few days after taking power, President Johnson struggled with the difficulties of inheriting a presidency without warning. In this conversation with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a leading civil rights organization, Johnson continued reaching out to all the major civil rights leaders.

LBJ and Porter Hardy on the Community Action Program

In this conversation, President Johnson offered assured Virginia Congressman Porter Hardy (D) that the governors’ veto amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act would prevent the community action program from circumventing local governmental authority. For supporters of the community action principle, such circumvention had been the point of the program.

Mississippi Burning

On June 21, 1964, two days after the Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act and two weeks before President Johnson signed that landmark piece of legislation, a band of white supremacists associated with the Ku Klux Klan and the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department took political matters into their own hands and murdered Chaney and Schwerner—both veteran activists involved in political mobilization efforts, one an African-American from Mississippi and the other a Jewish social worker from New York City that some locals called "Goatee"—and Goodman—one of the idealistic white college students who had arrived in the state the day before as part of Freedom Summer.

LBJ and Senator Richard Russell on the Community Action Program

In this conversation excerpt, President Johnson and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (R) express their shared dislike and distrust of the War on Poverty's Community Action Program.

LBJ and Senator Russell Long on Hurricane Betsy

On the evening of September 9, 1964, Hurricane Betsy came ashore near Grand Isle, Louisiana, as a Category 4 storm, with the National Weather Service reporting wind gusts near 160 mph. As the storm tracked inland, the city of New Orleans was hit with 110 mph winds, a storm surge around 10 feet, and heavy rain. Betsy devastated low-lying areas on the eastern side of the city and eventually led to the expansion of an already impressive levee system to protect a city that lay mostly below sea-level. After the storm passed, Louisiana Senator Russell Long, the son of the legendary Senator and Governor Huey Long, called President Johnson to get the President to tour the devastated areas. In Long’s unique style, he let the LBJ know that the Betsy had severely damaged his own home and had nearly killed his family. LBJ arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Senator Long. Reporters noted that he was shocked by the suffering and in particular by thirst of survivors in one shelter. He immediately announced that the "red tape be cut," and he took personal control of operations, which he continued—according to the Washington Post—“day and night."

LBJ and Whitney Young on Civil Rights Appointments

Following the trend of several calls in early January, Johnson addressed the theme of African American progress with Whitney Young, the head of the National Urban League and one of the major civil rights leaders upon whom Johnson relied. In this instance, Johnson was deliberating about making a recess appointment of two Black Americans to the federal bench, Virginia civil rights attorney Spottswood Robinson to the U.S. District Court for Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia lawyer Leon Higginbotham to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. One of the concerns that Johnson explained to Young was that President Kennedy would get credit in the Black community for these appointments-instead of Johnson-because "somebody recommended him that was with Kennedy." Young assured him that such a thing "won't happen." Later in the day, Johnson made the appointments.

LBJ Explains his Fiscal Policy

Having just launched an "economy drive," undertaken partly to redirect spending and to trim wasteful spending-particularly in the Department of Defense-and partly to convince senate conservatives to drop their opposition to the administration's pending tax cut proposal-introduced by President Kennedy in 1962-President Johnson underscores for Council of Economic Advisers chairman Walter Heller the philosophy behind his approach to that year's fiscal policy.

LBJ on Affirmative Action

One of President Johnson's priorities in filling vacancies in the federal government was to appoint more women and minorities, which he had championed as chairman of the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity while vice president. In early January 1964, he had appointed two black judges to the federal bench. Here, he spoke with one of his closest black advisers--the civil rights leader and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins about the feasibility of moving Carl Rowan from his ambassadorship in Finland to head up the United States Information Agency in Washington. This snippet displays some of Johnson's thinking about affirmative action. The specific issue is whether leaders of African nations would oppose the appointment of a black U.S. ambassador in their countries.

LBJ on Sargent Shriver, Politics, and the War on Poverty

In late 1966, Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) Director (and Kennedy brother-in-law) Sargent Shriver contemplated resigning because of differences with the President over funding levels for the War on Poverty and frustration over perceptions that his effectiveness had diminished. In this conversation with Special Assistant Bill Moyers (who had recently submitted his own resignation), President Johnson expounded on the implications of a Shriver resignation, as well as on his views of the budgetary constraints on the War on Poverty, the consequences of street protests that cast the Vietnam War and the anti-poverty effort as mutually-exclusive budget items, and his difficulties with Robert F. Kennedy and other liberal Senators who supported an expanded poverty program. Near the close of this excerpt, Johnson commented on the lack of political pragmatism and reliability that he perceived among much of Shriver's staff at OEO, particularly in the still-controversial Community Action Program (CAP).

LBJ Seeks Robert E. Lee for Civil Rights Commission

Johnson wanted to fill an opening on the federal Civil Rights Commission with a moderate Southerner. Here, Johnson lobbied William Mitchell, an Arkansas attorney and friend of powerful Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills, comparing Mitchell's choice to one faced in a previous century by Robert E. Lee.

Lyndon Johnson and Arthur Goldberg on Immigration

In this phone call from October 1, 1965, President Johnson invites UN Ambassador (and former Supreme Court Justice) Arthur Goldberg to a signing ceremony at Ellis Island.

Lyndon Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach on the Immigration Bill

An excerpt from a conversation between President Johnson and Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach, August 26, 1965.

Mayor Daley and the War on Poverty

In this conversation excerpt, President Johnson informs Mayor Daley that Chicago will be among the first cities to receive War on Poverty funds. The President's comments demonstrate his focus on the Job Corps as the core of the War on Poverty. In addition, it reflects an assumption by both men that the program will be controlled at the local level by the mayor's office. In practice, a provision in Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act that called for the "maximum feasible participation" of the poor in the War on Poverty's Community Action programs would lead activists to challenge such understandings in cities around the U.S.

Mayor Daley on the Community Action Program

Following a discussion of the balance between program cuts and a possible tax increase in the next budget cycle, President Johnson mentioned a protest that a group of poverty activists from Syracuse, New York had staged at his Texas ranch. Mayor Daley, who a few moments before had urged the president to focus on job creation as the core of the anti-poverty effort, vigorously objected to the idea that the poor should control the community action programs that the War on Poverty had established in many communities. The inclusion in the Economic Opportunity Act of a provision that community action should encourage the "maximum feasible participation" of the poor had produced clashes between activists and many city governments over the purpose and nature of the programs. This conversation excerpt presents a strong statement of one side of this controversy -- a perspective shared by many mayors around the U.S.

Medicare and LBJ’s “Three-Prong Approach”

In this call, President Johnson and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas discuss the status of the administration’s Medicare bill. In a key passage, Mills suggests that they might build support for the bill by combining its proposed coverage of hospital costs with the expansion of an existing program for state-based coverage of the poor and an expansion of Social Security benefits.

President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. on the Watts Riots

In this conversation excerpt, Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson discuss the implications of the recent Watts Riots. Although the United States had experienced a series of urban revolts during 1964 and 1965, the intensity and violence of Watts had been a shock to much of the nation and to LBJ in particular. The conversation reveals much of the balance between tension and cautious respect that characterized the King-Johnson relationship, as well as both men's growing sense of desperation in addressing the problems facing the United States. While King expressed his frustration with the unresponsive white leadership in Los Angeles, President Johnson appealed for King's support in pursuing his domestic policy agenda in an increasingly hostile Congress.

President Johnson Compares the War on Poverty to the Abolition of Slavery

In this brief excerpt from a call the day after his victory in the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon Johnson outlines his agenda to Pennsylvania Senator Joseph S. Clark. In a moment of particularly sweeping ambition, the president compares his poverty program to the abolition of slavery.

Sen. Ribicoff Outlines Problems in the War on Poverty

In this conversation excerpt, Senator Abraham Ribicoff (a former governor of Connecticut and former secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Kennedy) outlines problems with the Office of Economic Opportunity's organization and operation, its process of policy formation, and its relationship with with other executive agencies and departments. Suggesting that OEO is merely an example of a broader problem, Ribicoff urges the President to undertake a general reorganization of the executive branch.

Signing the Farm Bill

Telephoning the President to follow up with thank-you suggestions in the wake of the farm bill passage, Larry O'Brien also received instructions from Johnson on preparations for the farm bill signing ceremony, on the antipoverty program, and on the once-defeated but now revived and slightly altered government pay bill.

“These People Are Taking Our Jobs”

In 1942, during the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the United States signed the Bracero Agreement with Mexico, granting Mexican farm workers the opportunity to work on U.S. farms. In 1951, the program fell under the framework of Public Law 78. Over the course of the program, perhaps 5 million Latino workers became part of the U.S. agricultural system. In California in 1963, 63,000 workers had been employed through the program. In late 1963, the program's renewal was the subject of controversy, and Congress agreed only to a one-year extension, expecting the program to end on December 31, 1964. One of the opponents of extension was James Farmer, who worried that it took jobs away from black workers. Farmer had registered his discontent two months earlier, but had restated his opinion a few days before Johnson's visit with Mexican president Adolfo Lupez Mateos. Farmer urged that discontinuing the Bracero arrangement was "in the interest of native farm laborers (many of them Negro) for whom poverty is a daily reality." During that visit, California officials announced that they were stopping their efforts to extend the arrangement.

“They Just Can’t Get the Americans to Do It”

President Johnson reports to Senator Spessard Holland (D-Dl) about an administration decision to approve a request from the Florida sugar industry to recruit foreign workers for the upcoming harvest season. Holland had supported the sugar growers' request. Johnson also indicated that the administration had not yet received an application for foreign workers from the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, and that the citrus industry had not yet demonstrated a clear need for such workers. Holland protested that the industry "just can't get the Americans to do it." The conversation demonstrates the process by which extra agricultural workers were admitted to the United States during the early and mid-1960s.

Foreign Policy

Browse our collection of educational resources and online exhibits related to Lyndon Johnson and his foreign policy. Return to our Educational Resources landing page to resources on other presidents.

“As Far As We Can Tell”

As real-time information flowed in to the Pentagon from the Maddox and the Turner Joy, the story became more and more confused. Admiral U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet, fed reports to Washington as soon as he received them. In this phone call, Sharp briefed Air Force General David Burchinal, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the latest information. This telephone call was recorded at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.

Assessing the War

In this segment, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara offers President Johnson a mixed review of the military situation in Vietnam. He also recounts for Johnson an unflattering portrait of the South Vietnamese government, provided by Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, which appeared that morning in the Washington Post.

Explaining Vietnam

In the wake of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's recent trip to South Vietnam, Johnson had pressed him to prepare a speech on the subject, as several members of Congress were beginning to suggest that the administration consider a sharp revision of its policy there. Senators Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morese, in particular, had registered pointed criticisms of the nation's Vietnam policy. With nagging questions regarding the principal rationale for U.S. intervention in Indochina and the oddly detached position of other world powers in the ongoing Vietnamese conflict, Johnson urged his defense secretary to provide clarification and, if there was one to be found, a workable defense of the nation's policy.

Gatecrashing the White House (Telephone)

Future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, on a secret mission to Puerto Rico at President Johnson's behest, gives the President an update on the latest efforts to bring peace and stability to the Dominican Republic. Because the calls were coming in over an unencrypted line, Fortas and Johnson used a variety of ad hoc codes in an attempt to disguise at least to some degree the topics of their conversations. Part way through, the call is gatecrashed by some uninvited guests, and Fortas tries desperately to get their attention and get them off the line.

“Good Lord”

While keeping tabs on an impending congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Southeast Asia, President Johnson also had to manage the flow of information about the events precipitating the resolution itself. In this conversation, Johnson asks long-time Democratic hand James Rowe to counsel Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey--Johnson's pending running-mate in the upcoming November election--about Humphrey's recent verbal indiscretions.

Ground Troops and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution

In this morning telephone conversation with the secretary of defense, Johnson expresses dismay at recent proposals, prepared by his most senior civilian officials, for U.S. action in Vietnam. Speaking with Secretary McNamara about various options open to the administration, Johnson reflects on the August 1964 Tonkin∇ Gulf Resolution and its implications for an expanded American military commitment.

“I Think That’s Hopeless”

In this conversation with chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee J. William Fulbright (D-AR), President Johnson considers the reasons for the appointment of Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to Vietnam and the prospects for replacing him.

Jeff Sessions, the Logan Act, and the Chennault Affair

The revelations about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ discussions with Russian officials in 2016 signal that the Logan Act may once again be back in the news. This 1799 statute, written into the U.S. code during America’s “Quasi War” with France, recently played a bit part in the resignation of Michael Flynn as assistant to the president for national security affairs...Most famously, the Logan Act colored discussions about the Chennault Affair, in which aides to Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon, during the course of the 1968 presidential campaign, sought to derail the opening of peace talks to end the Vietnam War—negotiations that the Lyndon B. Johnson White House was desperately trying to launch.

Johnson and Eisenhower on Vietnam

In this conversation, President Johnson speaks with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower about the nature of America's commitment to Southeast Asia. Expressing his support for Johnson, Eisenhower points out that current conditions in Vietnam differ widely from those of 1955, necessitating an expanded U.S. military presence.

Johnson and Eisenhower on Vietnam II

This exchange occurred later in the same conversation in which LBJ had read to Eisenhower the statement trying to defuse press reports of a difference of opinion on Vietnam between Johnson and Eisenhower. Sympathizing with Johnson's unfavorable position regarding the war in Vietnam, Eisenhower reassured Johnson that criticism was an inevitable part of foreign policy.

LBJ and Dick Russell discuss Panama: January 10, 1964

Senator Richard Russell urges an aggressive foreign policy to President Johnson in Panama, and supports the use of force if necessary in the Canal Zone.

LBJ and Dick Russell Discuss Panama: January 11, 1964

President Johnson and Richard Russell lament the adversarial attitude of the Panamanian public against the United States.

LBJ and Eisenhower on Bombing North Vietnam

In an effort to provide space for negotiations during the Vietnam War, Johnson ordered a cessation of air strikes against North Vietnam on December 25, 1965. After one month of failed attempts to use diplomacy to promote peace, President Johnson voiced his intentions to former President Eisenhower to proceed with offensive attacks against the North. In a telephone conversation recorded on January 25, 1966, Johnson insisted upon the impossibility of extending the bombing pause without progress in negotiations. Evoking the criticism of Senators Wayne Morse (D-OR) and J. William Fulbright (D-AR) regarding his policy decisions in Southeast Asia, the President turned to Eisenhower for counsel. The General responded by labeling Johnson's critics "overeducated Senators."

LBJ and Gerald Ford

That morning's Washington Post carried a front page story of several members of Congress critical of the Johnson administration's campaign to bomb the North Vietnamese supply lines in Laos. Interviewed for the radio and television program "Issues and Answers" (ABC), the new House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford (R-MI) (who had recently replaced Charles Halleck), criticized the way in which the administration informed Congress of the Laos expansion as coming in a "piecemeal" fashion. "Now that it has been disclosed piecemeal," Ford said, "I think that the Administration has a responsibility to open up, have some discussion about it, perhaps hold some hearings in the House or Senate in order that we are all better informed as to what our course, what our policies are." Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, was also critical, accusing the administration of following a "foreign policy of concealment in Southeast Asia." Morse claimed that neither he nor other Americans "know what the Administration is doing in Asia, to what it has committed us, what its objectives are, and how much it is risking to achieve them." ["U.S. Bombing in Laos Stirs Debate," Washington Post, January 19, 1965, p.A1.]

LBJ and McGeorge Bundy discuss Vietnam

President Johnson and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, discuss the problems in South Vietnam.

LBJ and McNamara on Vietnam

LBJ and McNamara on Vietnam

LBJ and Richard Russell on Vietnam

Just prior to 11 a.m., the President placed a call to his friend, mentor, and sometime antagonist, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. In this conversation, Johnson reveals his deeply conflicted thinking on Vietnam, a profound sense of anxiety absent from his public remarks on the subject. The exchange offers an intimate and revealing portrait of Johnson weighing perhaps the most difficult decision he ever had to make.

LBJ and Richard Russell on Vietnam (long version)

Just prior to 11 a.m., the President placed a call to his friend, mentor, and sometime antagonist, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. In this conversation, Johnson reveals his deeply conflicted thinking on Vietnam, a profound sense of anxiety absent from his public remarks on the subject. The exchange offers an intimate and revealing portrait of Johnson weighing perhaps the most difficult decision he ever had to make.

LBJ on Latin American Dictators

In this conversation, President Johnson and National Security Adviser Bundy assessed the tone that should be adopted in an official message congratulating the new Brazilian president, General Humberto Castelo Branco, on his inauguration. The difficulty for Bundy, and by extension for the administration as a whole, lay in the means by which General Branco had come to power. Formerly chief of staff of the Brazilian army, Branco had been a leader of a recent coup that ousted leftist Brazilian President João Goulart. The Brazilian Congress subsequently elected Branco to the post of provisional president. The coup, however, had involved the jailing of many Goulart supporters, and Branco's government proved to be the first in a string of hard-line military governments in Brazil. Perhaps not anticipating that the coup would lead to a virtual police-state, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Mann had described the change in Brazil's government as "the most important thing that's happened in the hemisphere in three years." Although Bundy offered a more cautious assessment of Branco, President Johnson shared Mann's belief that the coup had prevented a slide towards a Communist takeover in Brazil. In a comment that could be seen as disquieting when uttered by the most powerful individual in the non-Communist world, he half-jokingly suggested that "there's some people that need to be locked up here and there, too." The subtle difference of opinion between Johnson and Bundy highlighted broad divisions within the administration regarding the direction of U.S. policy in Latin America.

LBJ on the Foreign Aid budget

President Johnson complains to Jack Brooks, a Democratic congressman from Texas, about Representative Otto Passman's (Democrat, Louisiana) ability to shape the Foreign Aid budget, by appropriating 25 percent less for President Johnson than for President Kennedy.

LBJ Reviews US Foreign Policy

A coup in South Vietnam two days earlier encouraged criticism of Johnson's foreign policy. Irritated by reports in the press that he had not spent enough time on foreign affairs, Johnson gave a long defense of his action to Scripps Howard editor in chief and old acquaintance Walker Stone. The President provided a spirited summary of the situations in Panama, Cyprus, Indonesia, and Vietnam. He also spoke intensely about his relations with the State Department and the press. Johnson emphasized his toughness and tried to rebut the idea that he was neglecting foreign policy, and he explained some of the rationale for his emphasis on frugality in the federal budget. "I don't claim to be a great liberal," he demurred, "but I do claim that you can do a little something for people if you stop enough of this goddamned military waste and other waste." In response, Stone agreed to "set up a backfire" in the press "anytime" Johnson needed it.

Lyndon Johnson and Wilbur Mills on South Korea and Australia

In late October and early November 1966, President Johnson completed a lengthy trip through the western Pacific region, making official visits to New Zealand, Australia, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and South Korea. After returning to the United States, Johnson reflected on his travels during a lengthy conversation with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas.

More War or More Appeasement

In this discussion with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, President Johnson seemed to backtrack from both his public and private statements on Vietnam and to reconsider the wisdom of escalation. In the process, he displayed a level of assertiveness on an issue where heretofore he had deferred to his advisers or avoided discussing the broad outlines of policy. The major issue here was Johnson's criticism of the announced withdrawal of 1,000 troops from South Vietnam, a move that many commentators cite as evidence that President Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Southeast Asia.

The Best in the Army

In this conversation snippet, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara responds to the President's question about a possible replacement for Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam. Due to his wife's declining health, Lodge was hinting at his desire to leave his post in Saigon. He departed before the end of the month. Against evident skepticism from Johsnon, McNamara touted Gen. William C. Westmoreland as Lodge's replacement. Johnson largely accepted McNamara's ringing endorsement.

The Economic Opportunity Act

President Johnson and Representative Phil Landrum of Georgia (the floor leader for the Economic Opportunity Act in the House of Representatives) discuss the attempt by a group of Catholic congressmen to block the Economic Opportunity Act in the House Education and Labor Committee. The Act would remain blocked unless sections of Title II were re-written to include funding for remedial education programs in Catholic schools. Some congressmen also hoped to use the issue as a bargaining chip to prevent the closure of naval bases in their districts. Johnson indicates his willingness to cut the community action provisions of the legislation (Title II) rather than give in to the congressmen's demands - even though this component of the bill constituted one of its most important elements. Nonetheless, the President clearly indicated in this conversation that his primary interest in the antipoverty legislation lay in the Job Corps camps and training centers of Title I, rather than in the Community Action provisions of Title II. The latter programs, however, would soon define the Economic Opportunity Act in the public mind.

The Murder of Civil Rights Activist Jonathan Daniels, August 20, 1965

On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Daniels was shot in cold blood. A day after Daniels’ death, President Lyndon Johnson had a conversation with his chief civil rights aide Lee White that revealed a heart-wrenching predicament: What to do with the bodies of slain activists?

The Politics of Medicare

On the evening of May 18, 1964, President Johnson and his congressional relations liaison Larry O'Brien discussed the progress of the administration's Medicare bill, which would expand the Social Security system to include health care coverage for the elderly. O'Brien had just discussed the legislation with Wilbur Mills, the influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which controlled the legislation's fate in the House of Representatives. Representative Mills had fought Medicare legislation since it had first been proposed by President Kennedy in 1961, citing concerns about the consequences of increasing the Social Security payroll tax to fund the coverage, the costs that would be entailed in such a program, and the long-run fiscal soundness of the system. During the spring of 1964, however, Mills still claimed that his committee would report a package of amendments to Social Security that would include a Medicare program, but he had not yet supplied the details of such a plan. Much of the conversation between Johnson and O'Brien involved the question of whether Mills would attempt to bypass Medicare when he finally presented his plan. Mills' maneuvers would defeat the legislation in 1964, but would contribute significantly to its eventual passage in 1965.

The War on Poverty and Racial Tension in the Urban North

This conversation excerpt demonstrates how President Johnson viewed the War on Poverty as a direct solution to the problems and tensions that had begun to produce rebellions in inner cities across the urban north. After Philadelphia Democratic City Committee Chairman Francis "Frank" Smith recounts the story of a fatal police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager in the city, the President responds by urging Smith to lobby Republicans to support the War on Poverty legislation that would soon be voted on in the House of Representatives.

“There Ain’t No Daylight in Vietnam”

At the end of a long conversation with Senator Richard Russell about the senator's upcoming recuperative holiday in Puerto Rico -- Russell had been hospitalized in February -- Johnson reveals his pessimism about the increasing difficulty of achieving U.S. objectives in Vietnam.

“These Covert Operations”

Following an attack on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara strategize on how best to inform Congress of the circumstances surrounding the attack.

Vietnam and the Ghost of Ben Milam

This excerpt from a lengthy conversation between President Johnson and Georgia Senator Richard Russell highlights the serious early concerns about Vietnam prevalent among Johnson and his close advisers. Russell, a longtime Johnson friend and mentor, expressed grave doubts about U.S. involvement, at one point commenting that "it isn't important a damn bit" in response to an LBJ query about the relevance of Vietnam for American interests. In this passage, Russell helped Johnson assess French proposals for regional neutralization in Southeast Asia (supported by Senator Mike Mansfield), as well as the significance of tensions between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Russell also took note of Johnson's reference to Texas hero Ben Milam. A soldier and trader from Kentucky, Ben Milam was a leader of the Texas independence movement in the 1830s. In December 1835, when some leaders of the rebel Texas forces wanted to delay a planned attack on a Mexican army camped at San Antonio until after the winter, Milam disagreed. Instead, he urged other members of the Texas volunteers to join him in a surprise attack: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” The attack succeeded, but as Russell reminded Johnson later in the conversation, Milam was killed by a sniper’s bullet. With this reminder of Milam’s personal fate, Russell implicitly chided Johnson for his earlier bravado in discussing Mansfield’s support of neutralization.

Vietnam: Getting In or Getting Out?

The newspaper baron John Knight was a regular target of Johnson's lobbying efforts, which paid their reward in the fall, when all Knight Ridder papers endorsed Johnson's reelection. Foreign policy dominated this call after Knight mentioned a column he had written about the situation in Panama, as the Panamanians had made impassioned charges that the United States had engaged in aggression in January and called for the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate under the authority of the Rio Treaty. The two men then turned, at Johnson's request, to an even more challenging situation: Vietnam. Johnson offered Knight his assessment of his current options, none of which was good. This clip picks up at the beginning of the Vietnam discussion.

Vietnam: More War or More Appeasement

Johnson had given a speech at UCLA that accused the Vietnamese of engaging in a "deeply dangerous game" in Southeast Asia. Reaction had not been favorable. Internationally, the U.S.S.R. warned the United States against extending the war to North Vietnam. Domestically, Mansfield reiterated his public and private calls for a negotiated settlement leading to the neutralization of Southeast Asia in the face of a widespread popular impression that the United States was preparing to begin a psychological campaign against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). In further fallout from the perceived stiffening of policy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Roger Hilsman announced his resignation. Although the stated reason was a desire to return to academia, the New York Daily News claimed that Hilsman departed under pressure because of his approach to Vietnam policy, a assertion that Hilsman's memoirs confirmed. In this discussion with McNamara, Johnson seemed to backtrack from both his public and private statements on Vietnam and to reconsider the wisdom of escalation. In the process, he displayed a level of assertiveness on an issue where heretofore he had deferred to his advisers or avoided discussing the broad outlines of policy. The major issue here was Johnson's criticism of the announced withdrawal of 1,000 troops from South Vietnam, a move that many commentators cite as evidence that President Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Southeast Asia.

Governance

Browse our collection of educational resources and online exhibits related to Lyndon Johnson and governance. Return to our Educational Resources landing page to resources on other presidents.

Congratulations . . . and a Request

President Johnson places a congratulatory phone call to Rep. Gerald Ford (R-MI), who had defeated Rep. Charles Halleck (R-IN) two weeks earlier for the position of House minority leader. In this snippet, Johnson solicits Ford's involvement in discussions about Vietnam, largely as a way to establish Republican support for Johnson's position. Ford, in turn, offers general support for Johnson's approach and the prospect of a collegial working relationship.

Congressional Coordination

George Smathers, a Florida Democrat and Secretary for the Senate Democratic Conference, was a close friend of the President and his family who often had frank exchanges with Johnson. In this call, President Johnson gave Smathers a colorful analysis of the workings of Capitol Hill, voicing his concern about the parliamentary skills of fellow Democrats. Johnson was extremely upset about the Senate's handling of yesterday’s Food Stamp bill passage, particularly the Senate Democratic leadership's inability to derail Republican Jack Miller's amendment to prohibit the use of Food Stamps to purchase Australian meat. This addition to the bill meant that the legislation now had to go back to Judge Smith's House Rules Committee before it could go to the floor for concurrence. Smith kept it bottled up until August 11. The House passed it that same day. Johnson signed it into law on August 31.

Hiring People to Hurt Him

Johnson complained to Civil Service Commission Chairman John Macy about leaks of information related to hiring for the newly created Department of Transportation.

Janet Leigh’s FBI Background Check

President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered a background check on the popular actress Janet Leigh as a precursor to appointing her to the Peace Corps National Advisory Council and possibly as ambassador to Finland. In this secretly recorded call, President Johnson heard from his former neighbor, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, on the FBI's report. The star of such films as The Manchurian Candidate (1962, dir. John Frankenheimer) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963, dir. George Sidney), Leigh's most famous scene was from the 1960 film Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) when her character was attacked in the shower at the Bates Motel. In an ironic choice of words here, Hoover declared that Leigh was "absolutely clean."

Larry O’Brien’s Secret to Legislative Success

With a vote imminent in the House of Representatives on the signature legislation of the War on Poverty, Special Assistant to the President for Congressional Affairs (and Johnson's 1964 campaign director) Larry O'Brien revealed his secret to legislative success: "if we can just keep the boys that should be sober, sober, and the ones that should be drinking, drinking, that's our job for the afternoon." The House had just passed the Southeast Asia Resolution (also known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution) by 414-0.

LBJ and Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic Party

Six hours earlier, Johnson had met with Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, a man widely perceived as a front-runner for the vice-presidential nomination who had emerged as the administration's most effective defender in the upper chamber. After that early afternoon meeting, Humphrey, the Senate majority whip, gave a rousing pro-Democratic statement to the press. Now, pleased with Humphrey's response to GOP attacks on the administration, Johnson phoned him, encouraging him to continue his rhetoric and told him to "every day . . . to say, 'The Democratic Party is the one party left for America, because the other fellows don't stand for anything.'"

LBJ and Mrs. Nellie Connally

During the flight aboard Air Force One from Dallas back to Washington immediately following President Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson made some calls that were routed throught the White House. Shortly after expressing their condolences to Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the Johnsons spoke to Nellie Connally, wife of John Connally. The Texas governor, the only other person injured in the shooting at Dealey Plaza, was one of President Johnson's closest political associates, having managed Johnson's 1960 campaign for the presidency.

LBJ Appoints Gerald Ford to the Warren Commission

Of all the congressional members on the Warren Commission, Ford was the least known to President Johnson. He had been first elected to the House in 1948, the same year Johnson won his Senate seat. Ford's first and only intensive encournter with Lyndon Johnson had occurred in 1957, when both men served on a bipartisan House-Senate committee formed to draft the legislation creating NASA.

LBJ Explains His Policy Priorities To Walter Reuther

In this brief conversation excerpt, recorded a month after President Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson laid out some of his policy priorities. Johnson told Walter Reuther, the president of United Auto Workers, that that he planned to cut excess production in the nation's atomic bomb program and shift the money that would be saved to "human needs." The resulting social programs would soon become Johnson's War on Poverty. In this very early conception, the resulting anti-poverty program would be primarily about jobs and education.

LBJ on Choosing a Vice President

In this July 1964 call, about 3 weeks before the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, LBJ asks Robert Wagner, a former Democratic Senator from New York, to leak to the press that the party leaders support the President's right to choose his running mate and that a divided party is something to be avoided. LBJ suggest that he say, "that they don't want the president to be required to sleep with anybody he doesn't want to sleep with. And he ought to have a man with vice president that he trusts and likes and can work with him. We oughtn't to have a divided ticket to start, and therefore, you expect to support the man the President selects . . . I just don't think it can do us a bit of good to have a divided thing there, a divided party."

LBJ on Managing Congress and the Press

In this conversation snippet, President Johnson speaks with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy about various foreign policy matters, including press comment on Cuba and Vietnam.

LBJ on Women in Politics

LBJ on women in politics

Pierre Salinger and Oliver Hallet

Approximately 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean and 900 hundred miles west of Honolulu, the VIP Boeing 707 known as SAM 86972 was carrying six members of the Cabinet and Pierre Salinger to a conference in Tokyo when it received a garbled but alarming bulletin over the UPI teletype. At Dean Rusk's instruction, press secretary Pierre Salinger contacted the White House Situation Room to confirm the news about shots being fired at the President's motorcade in Dallas. Navy Commander Oliver Hallett took the inquiry from Salinger, who could not remember any code names but his own. Hallett struggled to deliver the blood-curdling confirmation dispassionately, though misstatements and his tone betrayed Hallett's own shock at the news.

Poverty, Religion, and Military Base Closures

This clipping comes from a long conversation in which President Johnson and Speaker of the House John McCormack discussed the intransigence of the House Rules Committee and the controversy surrounding possible federal funding of parochial schools under the economic opportunity bill (which provided the legislative basis for the War on Poverty). The latter issue had emerged when Representative Hugh L. Carey of New York and other northeastern Catholic Democrats offered an amendment that would have authorized direct federal support for parochial schools under the bill's community action titles. The National Education Association, the largest of the two major teachers' unions, bitterly opposed any form of federal aid to religious schools. McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat and a Catholic, had led an attempt to secure federal aid for parochial schools during the House fight over President Kennedy’s 1961 education bill. In doing so, he had been an ally of the same Catholic congressmen who had inserted the religious issue into the War on Poverty debate in 1964. As Speaker, however, he chose not to challenge the President on such an important piece of legislation. Earlier in the conversation, Johnson had reacted angrily to an attempt by Massachusetts Democrat (and Catholic) Tip O’Neill's to trade support of the poverty bill for a guarantee that the Boston Navy Yard would remain open. In this clip, the President returned to the subject of the navy yards and touched more sympathetically on the pressing economic issue of automation and unemployment in the industrial northeast.

Testing Sargent Shriver: Vietnam and Assassinations

Johnson had spent much of the day on the phone with Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps Director. Despite Shriver's clear resistance, Johnson named him the director of the War on Poverty effort earlier today. In tone and substance, this final call of the day differed remarkably from the three earlier discussions. After having dispensed with the question of whether Shriver would accept the position as the new coordinator of a domestic War on Poverty, Johnson delved into several policy areas and even touched on the issue of Shriver being a potential running mate for the fall. Expectedly, they explored the poverty issue, but the President also reached out to him on matters involving Panama, Latin America, and Vietnam, implying at one point that Americans had been involved in the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem.

“This is Treason”

Aware that the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon is encouraging the South Vietnamese government to stay away from peace talks with the Americans and the North Vietnamese, President Johnson alerts Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-IL) to the campaign's interference, and asks that Dirksen urge the Nixon team to cease and desist.

We Won!

In this call on election evening, Johnson talks with his running mate, Hubert Humphrey. By the time of this call, it was becoming clear that the Johnson-Humphrey ticket was going to win the election handily. Johnson tells Humphrey of the physical toll the campaign had taken on him. In a previous call with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Johnson described himself as "punch drunk." Having campaigned late into the evening in Houston and Austin, Johnson had returned to his ranch near Johnson City. Early on election day he had cast his vote at the local court house and had then returned to the ranch to recuperate before his scheduled departure for the Driskill Hotel in nearby Austin later that evening to await the election returns.

Personality

Browse our collection of educational resources and online exhibits related to Lyndon Johnson's personality. Return to our Educational Resources landing page to resources on other presidents.

Albert Thomas gets the “Johnson Treatment”

LBJ was famous for his powers of persuasion, dispensing them with what became known as "the Johnson Treatment." He used his imposing physical size and intimidating personality to emphasize his point. In this call, LBJ is in full "Johnson Treatment" mode with Representative Albert Thomas (Democrat, Texas) on the receiving end. In this call, with characteristic bluntness, President Johnson berates Representative Albert Thomas (Democrat, Texas) over a clause forcing the President to publicly report to Congress on wheat sales to the Soviet Union and argues that it would resonate poorly with the American public.

LBJ and Lady Bird on Texas life

In mid-evening on New Year's Day, President Johnson's attention turned to one of his most valued advisers in the Senate and arguably the most influential southerner in Washington, D.C., save for Johnson himself. While visiting with several Texas friends, Johnson called up Georgia senator Richard Russell, a man considered by the President as his mentor and by the President's children as "Uncle Dick." The group revisited old times, discussed the whipping that the University of Texas's national champion football team had put on Roger Staubach and the Navy Midshipmen in the Cotton Bowl, and engaged in the rituals of ribbing and bragging associated with serious deer hunting. In between those moments, Johnson explored policy toward West Germany, wheat sales to the Soviet Union, aid to Indonesia, and the defense industry in Georgia. The call lasts for over ten minutes. For this transcript and audio clip, there are three segments from that call, each offering a sampling of discussions between the President, Lady Bird, Senator Russell, and A.W. "Judge" Moursund about drinking, football, family, and deer hunting.

LBJ on Ted Sorensen

Late in the evening, the President recorded a lengthy call of over 22 minutes with his confidants on the Bobby Baker scandal, in which an insurance salesmen had testified that he had given Johnson a kickback-a hi-fi stereo set-in exchange for Johnson purchasing a life insurance policy from him. The full conversation offers a sense of Johnson's relationship with his closest advisers, some of the ways he arrived at decisions, and his administration's complicated relationship with the press. In this edited snippet, Johnson worried that making public statements on the matter was a mistake, a sentiment echoed by Ted Sorensen. A few days earlier, Johnson had made a statement in a press conference, then left. Several reporters claimed he fled the room to avoid further questions. In the following clip, Johnson explained that Sorensen thought they were "the biggest damned fools he's ever dealt with" and that Sorensen "told me tonight he just thought I was a big, fat, cigar-puffing, potbellied numskull by following the advice to get out here in front of the press."

LBJ Orders Some New Haggar Pants

President Johnson called the Haggar clothing company to order some new pants, providing specific (and sometimes graphic) instructions on how they should be customized for him.

LBJ’s Work Day and Agenda

In this call to Walker Stone, editor in chief of Scripps-Howard newspapers, Johnson was still bubbling over positive coverage of German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard's visit to the LBJ ranch in December and was inspired by a letter received from J. Frank Dobie, a renowned Texas folklorist, University of Texas faculty member, and guest at the ranch during the visit of Chancellor Erhard. According to his secretaries, President Johnson would carry Dobie's letter "around in his pocket" for another week. Dobie's letter praised Johnson's "start" as one that combined "nobility with effectiveness" and recommended that Johnson seek the counsel of Walker Stone because "no other newspaper man I know knows as much and thinks as soundly." Here, Johnson asked Stone to spread another glowing report. After exploring that issue, Stone asked Johnson to take things more slowly and not take health risks, to which the President complained about having his personal life restricted by the presidency. Then Johnson took the opportunity to prepare his old acquaintance for the upcoming State of the Union address. In a pithy section, Johnson defended his proposed poverty plans to this Oklahoma native by emphasizing that the programs would encourage work and improve productivity among poor African Americans, Mexicans, and Appalachians. After this call, Johnson followed up his concerns about Black Americans by taking a call from Whitney Young of the National Urban League.

LBJ, Lady Bird, and Mrs. Rose Kennedy

Some 30 minutes after leaving Dallas aboard Air Force One after President Kennedy's assassination, President and Mrs. Johnson placed a telephone call to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The Johnsons offered their condolences to Mrs. Rose Kennedy, mother of the late President. Sergeant Joseph Ayres, the steward aboard Air Force One who initially talked with Mrs. Kennedy, would later tell William Manchester that he had to check himself from saying "President" Johnson. But Rose Kennedy used the appellation without hesitation.

My Head Hurts

In this call on election evening, Johnson gets an update from Washington on the situation in Vietnam from his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. In the process, Johnson tells Bundy of the physical toll the campaign had taken on him. In a subsequent call with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Johnson described himself as "punch drunk." Having campaigned late into the evening in Houston and Austin, Johnson had returned to his ranch near Johnson City. Early on election day he had cast his vote at the local court house and had then returned to the ranch to recuperate before his scheduled departure for the Driskill Hotel in nearby Austin later that evening to await the election returns.

Swimming With Billy Graham

In this excerpt from a conversation with Representative Frank Thompson (D-NJ), President Johnson explained his administration's position about the possible funding of Catholic school programs through the War on Poverty's community action provisions. The issue had exploded into controversy after Representative Hugh Carey (D-NY) had introduced an amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act that would allow such funding. Johnson argued that the problem would be better handled by placing a passage in the committee report that would prohibit any discriminatory use of the funds. He maintained that he and Poverty Director Sargent Shriver would see that parochial schools were treated fairly. Any other approach, he argued, would inflame anti-Catholic sentiment among conservative members of the House. He also recounted a story about how he had once been swimming in the White House pool with evangelist Billy Graham when a Southern Baptist leader called to complain about alleged pro-Catholic bias. The conversation, and the underlying dispute, suggest the continuing tensions over the role of Catholicism in U.S. politics - even after the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

“The Greatest Man In The World”

On May 1, 1964, the Baltimore Sun had reported that President Johnson "dressed down" Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (the Democratic floor leader on the Senate civil rights bill) for suggesting that President Johnson might be willing to accept amendments to the version of the bill passed by the House. The Sun indicated that upon hearing of Humphrey's comments, Johnson called the senator and gave him "unshirted hell." Following the call from the President, Humphrey issued a clarification in which he stated that the President "is for the House bill." Later in the day, however, Humphrey turned to the Senate press gallery, smiled, and pulled on the tops of his ears. Reporters who saw the gesture interpreted it as an imitation of a beagle being lifted by the President, a reference to a controversial incident in which Johnson had picked up his dogs by their ears at a recent White House event as well as an indication that Johnson had disciplined the civil rights floor leader for his earlier comments. In this conversation, Johnson and Humphrey discuss the source of the "unshirted hell" story. Two passages are particularly noteworthy. First, Johnson observed that in contrast to Humphrey, he had little credibility with civil rights activists as a result of his southern background. Second, Johnson attempted to convince Humphrey that he was primarily concerned with developing the senator's status and reputation, rather than demeaning him. The comments reflected not only the crucial North-South divide in the battle over the civil rights legislation, but also the President’s effort to control a senator who was already a leading candidate for the vice presidential nomination.