Two Americas: the legacies of JFK and LBJ

Words: Alex Walker

In the era of global communication, news no longer spreads like wildfire. Instead, it’s like an electric shock, gripping the world in a matter of moments. That grip stays with you. That’s why a generation today continues to turn to each other and ask: ‘Where were you when JFK was killed?’

Kennedy famously encapsulated the youthful exuberance and daring hope of the 1960s, but in reality it’s difficult to judge him as anything other than a political failure compared to his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Where Kennedy couldn’t deliver on almost all of his domestic policies – which were dubbed the ‘New Frontier’ – Johnson exceeded expectations in establishing his ‘Great Society’, which was the most significant greatest period of social reform in the US since the emancipation of enslaved people a century before. It was Johnson who introduced the Civil Rights reforms promised by Kennedy, who introduced Medicare and Medicaid, who reformed the American education system, and who called for a massive expansion of Social Security. 

But on an international stage gripped by the Cold War, Kennedy was far more successful than Johnson, who plunged the United States into what’s now considered its greatest diplomatic mistake: Vietnam. Despite LBJ’s domestic success, Kennedy sits at the heart of a huge posthumous personality cult; Johnson is the black sheep of the Democrat pantheon.

In terms of legislative success, Kennedy was feeble, especially where issues of race and Civil Rights were concerned. He hit a wall in Congress that prevented the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. His strongest opponents were members of his own Democrat Party who represented Southern constituencies and were staunchly pro-segregation. One of the most notable among these was Howard W. Smith, a Southern Democrat from the State of Virginia, who led the House Rules Committee. Smith exemplified the attitudes of the Southern Democrats towards African-American people; a friend described him as someone who ‘had a real feeling of kindness toward the Black people he knew, but [who] did not respect the race.’ 

After Kennedy’s death, Johnson rallied the Southern Democrats to support the bill, framing it as a eulogy to his predecessor. Smith grudgingly withdrew his opposition, and Johnson turned his hard, bullying gaze to the Senate; the Bill was passed as the Civil Rights Act 1964 and followed by the Voting Rights Act 1965. The reason Johnson had such a huge success with the Southern Democrats was not just because he was one of them – although as a member of the North Eastern Elite, Kennedy could never command the respect of hard-line Southerners like Johnson could. LBJ had a lot more experience, and knew how to wrangle, bribe and cajole his way to success, often over a backroom whiskey, in a way that Kennedy had never learned. In terms of political wrangling, age and experience was more valuable than youth and idealism. 

Johnson didn’t only apply his skills to Civil Rights. The impact of his Medicare and Medicaid policies continues to this day, with Medicaid serving 64.5 million people and Medicare funding the healthcare costs of more than 58 million as of November 2019. He reformed the American education system, too, improving education for working-class American citizens, particularly in rural areas. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 doubled federal spending on education from $4 billion to $8 billion, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 focused on funding for lower-income students. Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ saw the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line drop from 23% to 12%. Most of these reforms came after a massive electoral win in 1964, which should solidify Johnson’s legacy as one of the most successful Presidents of all time. But his legislative success was overshadowed by catastrophic failures on the international stage.

When Kennedy’s life was cut short, a chord was struck which resonated across the world. The West had seen him as their defender from communism, and the world saw him as the person who believed that mankind could touch the stars.

Global attention in the 1960s was gripped by one issue: the Cold War. Kennedy handled the darkest days of the conflict; the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the moment the Cold War nearly turned hot, and evading disaster made it a diplomatic success unlike any other. 

Johnson, on the other hand, approved military intervention in Vietnam. Although there were already thousands of troops deployed in Vietnam under Kennedy, Johnson fully endorsed a massive, unwinnable war, which prevented his ‘Great Society’ from progressing further and cost millions of lives and the reputation of America across the world. Johnson’s Vietnam is the most iconic feature of his legacy, and has rightly attracted massive criticism. The president’s name is remembered in the chant heard at anti-war protests across the country: ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’. Where Kennedy deescalated conflict, Johnson bathed Southeast Asia in napalm. 

Kennedy also had another great Cold War success, which is now probably considered the most impressive moment of the 20th-century. His only solid legislative win was securing $40 billion in funding for NASA, and pledging to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He was posthumously proved correct in 1969. The Moon Landing finally beat the USSR in the Space Race which they had been winning up to that point. To the public imagination it also signified something deeper: awe-inspiring technological victory, not just of the US over the USSR, but of humanity over the universe. Outer space came into the grasp of man, and it all began with Kennedy. While it was an expensive, dangerous and absurd idea, it worked, and ensured that Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ would, in some way, succeed in having a major and lasting impact.

Part of the reason for Kennedy’s immortalisation was his character. The 1960s were an era of idealism, and the youthful war hero in JFK was, at the very least, an idealist, exemplifying a period of reform. Johnson, a foul-mouthed cynic, was not. As much as the ‘60s were hopeful and idealistic, though, they were dominated by the US and USSR jostling for power – and by succeeding here in a way no other President did, Kennedy secured his legacy. When Kennedy’s life was cut short, a chord was struck which resonated across the world. The West had seen him as their defender from communism, and the world saw him as the person who believed that mankind could touch the stars. The legacy of Kennedy was therefore built on the international stage, and is remembered across the world. Johnson was all-American.

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Alex Walker is an English Literature student at Newcastle University, and a regular contributor to the Newcastle University Courier. Follow him on Twitter.