No-Limit Lyndon: The Johnson Years (1963-1969)

Lyndon Johnson would have been a shark at No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. He was from Texas and had a complete disregard for limits. The Vietnam War and Great Society pushed bad policies to their utter limits, and the results were foreign and domestic quagmires that sucked the life out of the country. Some of that bog is still with us today. Let’s examine the less than flattering record of LBJ.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

To fight a war that you know is stupid and wrong, and for purely political purposes — and to escalate it to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed — is one of the most reprehensible acts of any Commander in Chief. Johnson complained how wrong and hopeless Vietnam was to his advisor McGeorge Bundy:

“It looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea. I don’t think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.”

And he famously promised the American people:

“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

So why did he go against his convictions and break his promise? For two reasons. First, he was in the honor-trap of the Democrat since Harry Truman, who had been blamed for the loss of China to the communists in 1949. Johnson (even more than Kennedy) feared the Republican Right would castigate him for losing Vietnam, and that another McCarthy might arise.

Second, Johnson believed in the domino theory: that if South Vietnam fell, then surrounding countries in Southeast Asia could easily follow. The theory had been formulated by Eisenhower in 1954, and other presidents invoked it in varying degrees throughout the Cold War. But Johnson relied heavily on the principle to justify escalating Vietnam to massive levels, even knowing it was a lost cause.

There was also the technical justification for the escalation. In August of 1964, North Vietnamese and U.S. ships clashed in the Gulf of Tonkin, and historians have debated as to whether or not Johnson deliberately provoked the North Vietnamese into attacking. I suspect he did — that he was doing just as Abraham Lincoln did at Fort Sumter (maneuvering the South into starting the Civil War), and as FDR did in slapping the oil embargo on the Japanese (so that Japan would get desperate enough for oil to attack America in WWII). The evidence isn’t as clear as it is for Lincoln and FDR, but there’s not much doubt in my mind. Like Lincoln and FDR, Johnson disregarded limits, and even more so.

Vietnam was years of unnecessary bloodshed. Basically, Johnson took Kennedy’s minor war (in which 16,000 troops were fighting), expanded it to a colossal disaster (in which over 500,000 troops were fighting), even though he knew the war was unwinnable, but wanting not to appear weak in the eyes of political rivals. He was also concerned about the eyes of  the world: for sake of U.S. prestige, he “held his ground” against communism on the worldly stage. That’s how vain and imperial he was.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Like FDR’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society was a train wreck. His War on Poverty promised the moon — the abolition of poverty — but Johnson had no idea how to abolish poverty, any more than anyone does. In his mind there were no limits, none at all as to what could be achieved. It was as if Johnson were Santa Clause.

The poverty rate had actually been declining since World War II, and it stabilized in the mid-60s. Johnson’s programs changed an economy of decreasing poverty into one of fluctuating poverty. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the idea of anti-poverty programs. But they were badly thought out and mostly ineffective, like the other Great Society programs. Consider:

  • The National Welfare Rights Organization (which lasted from 1966-1975), designed to increase welfare recipients, encouraged government dependence rather than self reliance.
  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) had math and science programs which helped kids in the short term, but in the long term left those who had enrolled only marginally ahead of those who hadn’t.
  • The Job Corps (founded in 1964, and still alive today) offered free-of-charge education and training to young people, but studies have proven that those finishing job corps training have no more success in the job market than those who drop out of the system.
  • Public housing programs were nice for housing contractors, but they left poor people with decrepit dwellings.
  • Food stamps were nice for agricultural interests, but they restricted poor recipients to buying food when they had an even greater need for clothing and shelter.

The Great society and War on Poverty, in other words, created a bloated bureaucracy that did little to help those in need and a lot to increase the debt.

And like the escalation of the Vietnam War, these domestic programs torpedoed the nation’s economy. Add to this the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy under Johnson, and the end result was foreordained. In 1969, after Johnson left office, the economy went into a recession that was unlike any before, with stagflation — high unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation all coming together, contradicting what everyone believed impossible. The stagflation lasted through Nixon and Ford, until Jimmy Carter and Paul Volcker took appropriate action.

The foreign and domestic nightmares that Johnson left Nixon were a lot like the ones George W. Bush dumped on Obama. (And like Obama, Nixon would be hardly an improvement on his predecessor.) Johnson’s “Great Society” was the establishment of the Great Permanent Underclass.

3. Liberty

Here is Johnson’s shining legacy: he sacrificed his party’s future in the South in exchange for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He knew that if a Democratic president like himself signed such a bill, the South would eventually go Republican. There had already been southern defectors under Harry Truman (who advocated aggressively for blacks), but with Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, the defections became a flood, and by the ’80s the transformation into a Republican dominated south would be complete.

Though it was Kennedy who got the Civil Rights Act under way, Johnson pressed hard for the bill after his boss was assassinated, and signed it into law on July 2, 1964. The Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin — in the workplace, in public accommodations, and in federally funded programs. It strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools. And it ended the application of Jim Crow laws.

But even in this category he is stained. Believing that communists were behind the organization of anti-war protests, he used the CIA, the NSA — and even the army — to spy on protestors of the Vietnam War. He used the FBI to infiltrate student anti-war groups, and they even incited demonstrators to violence for purposes of legal entrapment. For that matter, he used wiretaps at businesses and embassies to monitor Barry Goldwater’s ’64 presidential campaign, and Nixon’s ’68 presidential campaign.


Lyndon Johnson was, in the words of Ivan Eland, “an effective leader doing the wrong things in the worst possible situations”. In this he was like James Polk, accomplishing what he set out to do, no matter how bad his goals were. Despite the legacy of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson’s complete failures in peace and prosperity decimate his overall score.

Peace. Absolute zero.

Prosperity. May as well be zero, but I throw him 3 points for a few Great Society ideas (like Medicare) which I think were fine, even if poorly formulated.

Liberty. Pushing for and signing the Civil Rights Act — and fully accepting that he was sacrificing his own party in the South — earns him many gold stars, but I dock him 5 points for using government agencies to spy on anti-war protestors and for bugging political opponents.

Peace — 0/20
Prosperity — 3/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 18/60 = Bad

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