Lyndon B. Johnson's Presidency

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Student Question

Why might President Johnson's fear of jeopardizing his reelection and domestic agenda have led to US involvement in Vietnam?

Quick answer:

Though President Johnson planned for social programs to serve as the foundation of his administration, he saw Vietnam as a potentially undermining distraction. While not ignoring the war, he downplayed its effects in the 1964 election.

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When Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson discuss the growing conflict in Vietnam during the 1964 election, Johnson replied by saying:

“I see what you mean ... You mean if your mother-in-law—your very own mother-in-law—has only one eye, and it happens to be right in the middle of her forehead, then the best place for her is in the livin’ room with all the company!”

Lyndon Johnson intended to build his legacy on poverty programs, not another war to contain the spread of communism. The War on Poverty and civil rights advances were supposed to serve as his signature more than continual fighting halfway around the world.

Johnson worried that the war would detract from his and the country’s focus on social issues. The slate of Great Society programs would eventually cost trillions over their entire lifecycle, many of which still serve the public. Johnson worried that the people and their representatives in Congress might balk at the expenditures committed to both a War on Poverty and an increasingly costly “police action” in Vietnam.

That said, Johnson had to face the legacy of Harry Truman as defined in that time. He was seen in those days less as a stalwart opponent of communism and more as a leader who failed in both China and Korea. “Who lost China?” was a major issue in the 1948 election. Though it did not defeat Truman, it caused major worries in party circles until the 1960s. This meant that Johnson could not afford to disengage from Vietnam, but he also could not run on a record of success there either.

Keeping America’s eyes on the future potential of his social programs and civil rights legislation was Johnson’s goal. While he feared the distraction of Vietnam, he could not abandon either policy.

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