Johnson Takes Over Presidency After Kennedy's Murder

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This is Phil Murray. And this is Richard Rael with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we begin the story of President Lyndon Johnson.

Lyndon Baines Johnson became America's thirty-sixth president very suddenly. It happened on November 22, 1963. On that day, President John Kennedy was murdered.

Kennedy and Johnson -- his vice president -- were visiting Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was shot to death as his open car drove through the streets of the city. Within a few hours, Johnson was sworn in as president on a plane that would take him back to Washington. The new president said, "I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and God's."

Before being elected vice president, Lyndon Johnson had served for many years in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He liked making decisions. And he loved politics. He grew up in small towns in Texas. After completing high school, he traveled and worked for a while. He said he was afraid of more studying. But after a few years, he entered southwest Texas State Teachers College. There he was a student leader and political activist.

Johnson went to Washington as secretary to a congressman in 1931. Four years later, President Franklin Roosevelt named him to a leadership position in a national social program for young people. Two years after that, he decided to campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives.

When World War Two began, Johnson was the first member of Congress to join the armed forces.

He served in the House for twelve years. After the war, he campaigned for the Senate, where he also served for twelve years. As a senator, he became an expert in the operation of government.

Lyndon Johnson would need all of this knowledge as president. On the day he was sworn in, American faced serious problems. Communist forces in Vietnam were fighting troops supported by the United States. There was a continuing possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. At home, there was racial conflict. Many Americans did not have jobs. And there was a threat of a major railroad strike.

President Johnson began his White House days by working hard for legislation President Kennedy had proposed. Although he had voted against civil rights legislation when he served in the Senate, he now urged Congress to pass a civil rights bill. Congress did.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a law to help guarantee equal chances for jobs for all Americans. It also helped guarantee equal treatment for minorities in stores, eating places, and other businesses.

When Johnson signed the bill, he said:

JOHNSON: "We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings -- not because of their own failures -- but because of the color of their skin."

The president said that such a situation could not continue in America. To treat people unfairly because of their race, he said, violated the Constitution, the idea of democracy, and the law he was about to sign.

Lyndon Johnson succeeded in getting Congress to pass more civil rights legislation in 1965 and 1968. The 1965 bill said states could not prevent citizens from voting just because they did not do well on reading or other tests. The purpose of the law was to make sure all black Americans could vote.

The civil rights law of 1968 dealt with housing. For many years, black Americans could not get the home they wanted in the place they wanted. Many times, property companies forced them to pay a lot for poor housing. The purpose of the bill was to guarantee free choice and fair treatment in the housing market.

Political experts said president Johnson succeeded with Congress in a way that President Kennedy could never have equaled. Because Johnson was from the South, he could talk easily with Southern members of Congress. He was able to get them to agree that African Americans were treated unfairly. In addition, his own years in Congress had taught him how to get people to do what he wanted.

President Johnson gave a name to his dream of a better America. He called it the "Great Society. " He spoke about it in a speech at the University of Michigan:

JOHNSON: "The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The great society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. "

The Great Society was both an idea and a goal. To reach that goal, Johnson created several government programs. One was the "war on poverty. " The war on poverty was a series of bills to help poor people. It was designed to create new jobs and build the economy.

Congress did not approve a large amount of money for the war on poverty. But it did strongly support the president's early proposals. Support dropped, however, when Congress said the nation could not pay for both social programs at home and a war overseas.

Vietnam was not the only place where Johnson used American troops to fight communism. He would send about twenty thousand soldiers to the Dominican Republic, too. He feared that a rebellion there would lead to a communist takeover of the country.

Lyndon Johnson served the last 14 months of John Kennedy's term. In 1964, he campaigned for election to a full term of his own. His Democratic Party gave him the strongest support possible. It accepted his choice of Hubert Humphrey to be the party's candidate for vice president. Humphrey was a liberal senator from the state of Minnesota.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans had a difficult time choosing their candidates for the election. Delegates to the party's national convention finally chose Barry Goldwater to be their candidate for president. Goldwater was a strongly conservative senator from the state of Arizona. The delegates chose William Miller, a congressman from New York State, to be their candidate for vice president.

The nation voted in November, 1964. Lyndon Johnson won more than sixty percent of the popular votes. Strangely, however, he was not pleased. He had wanted the largest victory in American history. He had wanted proof that Americans were voting for him, and not for the shadow of John Kennedy.

In his inaugural speech, Johnson talked of changes. He said his Great Society was never finished. It was always growing and improving. To Johnson, this meant passing a health care plan for older Americans. It meant appointing blacks to important national positions.

He succeeded in these goals -- and more -- during the next four years. Congress passed the Medicare bill to provide health care for older people. And Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to be the first black justice to the Supreme Court.

As Johnson went back to work in the White House, however, a huge problem awaited him. Americans were fighting to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. More and more were being killed. The war in Vietnam would become extremely unpopular among American citizens. It would destroy Johnson's chances of being remembered as a great president.

That will be our story next week.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Richard Rael. And this is Phil Murray. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.