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Posts Tagged ‘Lyndon B. Johnson’

Lyndon B. Johnson-Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)

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Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.
US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo
on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.

LBJ Regretted Ordering U.S. Troops into Dominican Republic in 1965, White House Tapes Confirm; Yet He Insisted, “I’d do the same thing right this second.”

Dominican Intervention 50 Years Ago Sparked Mainly by Fear of Communists: “I Sure Don’t Want to Wake Up … and Find Out Castro’s in Charge,” President Said

New Transcripts of Key White House Tapes Clarify and Illuminate LBJ’s Personal Role in Decision-Making during the Crisis

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 513

Posted – April 28, 2015
Edited by David Coleman
For more information, contact:
David Coleman, david@historyinpieces.com, 703/942-9245
or nsarchiv@gwu.edu, 202/994-7000

Washington, D.C., April 28, 2015 – President Lyndon Johnson regretted sending U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, telling aides less than a month later, “I don’t want to be an intervenor,” according to new transcripts of White House tapes published today (along with the tapes themselves) for the first time by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

Johnson ordered U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo 50 years ago today. Three weeks later, he lamented both that the crisis had cost American lives and that it had turned out badly on the ground as well as for the United States’ – and Johnson’s own – political standing. Nevertheless, he insisted he would “do the same thing right this second.”

In conversations with aides captured on the White House taping system, Johnson expressed sharp frustrations, including with the group surrounding exiled President Juan Bosch, whom the United States was supporting. Speaking in late May 1965, Johnson told an adviser, “they have to clean themselves up, as I see it, where we can live with them. Put enough perfume on to kill the odor of killing 20 Americans and wounding 100.”

Johnson’s public explanation for sending the Marines into Santo Domingo was to rescue Americans endangered by civil war conditions in the Dominican Republic. But his main motivation, the tapes and transcripts confirm, was to prevent a Communist takeover. Basing his decision largely on assertions by the CIA and others in the U.S. government that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had been behind the recent uprising, Johnson confided to his national security advisor, “I sure don’t want to wake up … and find out Castro’s in charge.”

That intelligence, along with other information Johnson received during the crisis, turned out to be erroneous – a possibility LBJ himself worried about at the time.

The tapes, transcript and introductory material presented in this posting were provided by David Coleman, former chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and a Fellow at the National Security Archive. As Coleman notes, the materials are revelatory about Johnson’s personal conduct of the crisis and his decision-making style as president. The transcripts, in several cases newly created by Coleman, are crucial to understanding the material on the tapes, which can be hard to decipher and are therefore often of limited usefulness on their own to researchers.

* * * * *

Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

Fifty years ago today, some 400 U.S. Marines landed in the Dominican Republic. By the end of the following day, over 1,000 more had landed. In the coming weeks, they were joined by U.S. Army forces. Eventually, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be engaged in what became known as the Dominican Intervention, first as part of a U.S. unilateral military action and then under the auspices of an international force compiled by the Organization of American States.

President Johnson huddles with advisers in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 28, 1965, just before delivering his televised speech announcing the deployment of U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. L-R: George Ball, Sec. Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, Richard Goodwin, unidentified, George Reedy, McGeorge Bundy, unidentified. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

Four days earlier, the Dominican Republic had begun a spiral into civil war when members of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party) and their allies stormed the National Palace and installed a provisional president. Resistance from Loyalist forces led to escalating levels of violence.

A series of increasingly dire reports from the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, William Tapley “Tap” Bennett, Jr., warning that the situation was getting dangerous for American citizens in the country and that outside influences were likely playing an influential role in the revolution convinced Johnson that he had to act and that he did not have the luxury of time to assemble an international coalition through the Organization of American States.

Against the advice of many of his senior advisers, Johnson personally decided to send in the Marines. Their declared mission was to protect and evacuate U.S. citizens from the island. As he explained it to a national television audience on the evening of April 28, it was “in order to give protection to hundreds of Americans who are still in the Dominican Republic and to escort them safely back to this country.”[1]

There was no mention of a communist threat in his public statement; nor had there been in his news conference comments the previous afternoon. Indeed, Johnson himself had specifically removed any such references from the drafts of his statement to encourage an emphasis on the peace-keeping and humanitarian aspects of the intervention. But there was a second important part of the military mission. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler put it in orders to General Bruce Palmer Jr., the commander of U.S. forces, the mission had two objectives, one announced and one unannounced.

Your announced mission is to save US lives. Your unannounced mission is to prevent the Dominican Republic from going Communist. The President has stated that he will not allow another Cuba—you are to take all necessary measures to accomplish this mission. You will be given sufficient forces to do the job.[2]

Johnson feared that Castro-ite and Communist forces were threatening to establish a Communist regime in the Dominican Republic. But there was little hard evidence of such influence—something Johnson suspected at the time and which prompted later private expressions of regret.

LBJ’s secretly recorded White House tapes provide a deeply textured and intimate view of his decision making during the crisis.[3]

The telephone had long been one of Johnson’s essential work tools, allowing him to neutralize geography and compress time in reaching out beyond the bubble of the Oval Office. During the Dominican crisis, he employed it extensively, connecting directly with Tap Bennet in Santo Domingo, and with Puerto Rico where Abe Fortas (the future Supreme Court justice) had volunteered his services as a line of communication with exiled president Juan Bosch. He was also able to get status reports at all hours directly from the duty officers in the White House Situation Room and the Pentagon Military Command Center.

President Lyndon Johnson on the telephone in the Oval Office on July 17, 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

But it did not always go smoothly. The lack of secure communications equipment meant that the President and his representatives in the Caribbean typically had to speak over open lines that were prone to interception or just the more mundane problem of crossed lines. In some cases, that led to absurdly convoluted codes being improvised that often created more confusion than clarity. In one call presented below, Johnson tells Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to call Bennett in Santo Domingo to ask his opinion on whether to send in an additional 500 Marines. “Listen for him to cough right loud, and if he doesn’t, why, let’s move,” Johnson instructs.[4]

Reflecting Johnson’s own heavy personal involvement in directing the intervention, the crisis is represented on hundreds of tapes in the Johnson collection of secretly recorded White House telephone conversations. Below is only a small sampling taken mainly from the first days when the important decisions were being made about sending U.S. Marines into harm’s way and whether to escalate U.S. military involvement.

The transcripts presented here provide a cross-section illustrating Johnson’s personal management of the crisis. Some of them are entirely new; others are improved versions of transcripts that have been published elsewhere previously. Together they reveal the kind of information that the President was hearing, including when, how, and from whom. They reveal, strikingly and often jarringly, the kind of incomplete and often flawed information that was being used to make important decisions. And they show the gap between what was being said in public and what was being said in private, a phenomenon that had troubled the administration less than a year earlier in the Tonkin Gulf episode and would become increasingly important as the Vietnam War raged on.

* * * * *

Links to Tapes and Transcripts

[Note: The following tapes are available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, White House (WH) and Situation Room (SR) Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings.]

(See http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/Dictabelt.hom/content.asp.)

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The democratically-elected Arbenz government hoped for economic prosperity through economic reform and a highway to the Atlantic.

United States Interventions What For?

By John H. Coatsworth 

Revista Harvard Review of Latin America 

Spring/ Summer 2005

In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times. That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century (see table).

Direct intervention occurred in 17 of the 41 cases. These incidents involved the use of U.S. military forces, intelligence agents or local citizens employed by U.S. government agencies. In another 24 cases, the U.S. government played an indirect role. That is, local actors played the principal roles, but either would not have acted or would not have succeeded without encouragement from the U.S. government.

While direct interventions are easily identified and copiously documented, identifying indirect interventions requires an exercise in historical judgment. The list of 41 includes only cases where, in the author’s judgment, the incumbent government would likely have survived in the absence of U.S. hostility. The list ranges from obvious cases to close calls. An example of an obvious case is the decision, made in the Oval Office in January 1963, to incite the Guatemalan army to overthrow the (dubiously) elected government of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes in order to prevent an open competitive election that might have been won by left-leaning former President Juan José Arévalo. A less obvious case is that of the Chilean military coup against the government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Allende government had plenty of domestic opponents eager to see it deposed. It is included in this list because U.S. opposition to a coup (rather than encouragement) would most likely have enabled Allende to continue in office until new elections.

The 41 cases do not include incidents in which the United States sought to depose a Latin American government, but failed in the attempt. The most famous such case was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Allvadorso absent from the list are numerous cases in which the U.S. government acted decisively to forestall a coup d’etat or otherwise protect an incumbent regime from being overthrown.

Overthrowing governments in Latin America has never been exactly routine for the United States. However, the option to depose a sitting government has appeared on the U.S. president’s desk with remarkable frequency over the past century. It is no doubt still there, though the frequency with which the U.S. president has used this option has fallen rapidly since the end of the Cold War.

Though one may quibble about cases, the big debates—both in the public and among historians and social scientists—have centered on motives and causes. In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation. With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most these claims as implausible. In many cases, they were understood as necessary for generating public and congressional support, but not taken seriously by the key decision makers. The United States did not face a significant military threat from Latin America at any time in the 20th century. Even in the October 1962 missile crisis, the Pentagon did not believe that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the global balance of nuclear terror. It is unlikely that any significant threat would have materialized if the 41 governments deposed by the United States had remained in office until voted out or overturned without U.S. help.

In both the United States and Latin America, economic interests are often seen as the underlying cause of U.S. interventions. This hypothesis has two variants. One cites corruption and the other blames capitalism. The corruption hypothesis contends that U.S. officials order interventions to protect U.S. corporations. The best evidence for this version comes from the decision to depose the elected government of Guatemala in 1954. Except for President Dwight Eisenhower, every significant decision maker in this case had a family, business or professional tie to the United Fruit Company, whose interests were adversely affected by an agrarian reform and other policies of the incumbent government. Nonetheless, in this as in every other case involving U.S. corporate interests, the U.S. government would probably not have resorted to intervention in the absence of other concerns.

The capitalism hypothesis is a bit more sophisticated. It holds that the United States intervened not to save individual companies but to save the private enterprise system, thus benefiting all U.S. (and Latin American) companies with a stake in the region. This is a more plausible argument, based on repeated declarations by U.S. officials who seldom missed an opportunity to praise free enterprise. However, capitalism was not at risk in the overwhelming majority of U.S. interventions, perhaps even in none of them. So this ideological preference, while real, does not help explain why the United States intervened. U.S. officials have also expressed a preference for democratic regimes, but ordered interventions to overthrow elected governments more often than to restore democracy in Latin America. Thus, this preference also fails to carry much explanatory power.

An economist might approach the thorny question of causality not by asking what consumers or investors say about their preferences, but what their actions can help us to infer about them. An economist’s approach might also help in another way, by distinguishing between supply and demand. A look at the supply side suggests that interventions will occur more often where they do not cost much, either directly in terms of decision makers’ time and resources, or in terms of damage to significant interests. On the demand side, two factors seem to have been crucial in tipping decision makers toward intervention: domestic politics and global strategy.

Domestic politics seems to be a key factor in most of these cases. For example, internal documents show that President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 not because of any plausible threat to the United States, but because he felt threatened by Republicans in Congress. Political competition within the United States accounts for the disposition of many U.S. presidentions

nts to order interventions.

The second key demand-side factor could be called the global strategy effect. The United States in the 20th century defined its strategic interests in global terms. This was particularly true after World War II when the United States moved rapidly to project its power into regions of the earth on the periphery of the Communist states where it had never had a presence before. In the case of Latin America, where the United States faced no foreseeable military threat, policy planners did nonetheless identify potential future threats. This was especially true in the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution. The United States helped to depose nine of the governments that fell to military rulers in the 1960s, about one every 13 months and more than in any other decade. Curiously, however, we now know that U.S. decision makers were repeatedly assured by experts in the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies that, in the words of a 1968 National Intelligence Estimate, “In no case do insurgencies pose a serious short run threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries within the next few years.” Few challenged the idea that leftist regimes would pose a secutiry threat to the United States. threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries

Thus, in a region where intervention was not very costly, and even major failures unlikely to damage U.S. interests, the combination of domestic political competition and potential future threats—even those with a low probability of ever materializing—appear to explain most of the 20th century US interventions.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that U.S. interventions did not serve U.S. national interests well. They generated needless resentment in the region and called into question the U.S. commitment to democracy and rule of law in international affairs. The downward trend in the past decade and half is a positive development much to be encouraged.

CHRONICLING INTERVENTIONS

U.S. DIRECT INTERVENTIONS 
Military/CIA activity that changed governments

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Cuba 1898-1902 Spanish-American War
1906-09 Ousts elected Pres. Palma; occupation regime
1917-23 U.S. reoccupation, gradual withdrawal
Dominican Rep 1916-24 U.S. occupation
1961 Assassination of Pres. Trujillo
1965 U.S. Armed Forces occupy Sto Domingo
Grenada 1983 U.S. Armed Forces occupy island; oust government
Guatemala 1954 C.I.A.-organized armed force ousts Pres. Arbenz
Haiti 1915-34 U.S. occupation
1994 U.S. troops restore constitutional government
Mexico 1914 Veracuz occupied; US allows rebels to buy arms
Nicaragua 1910 Troops to Corinto, Bluefields during revolt
1912-25 U.S. occupation
1926-33 U.S. occupation
1981-90 Contra war; then support for opposition in election
Panama 1903-14 U.S. Troops secure protectorate, canal
1989 U.S. Armed Forces occupy nation

U.S. INDIRECT INTERVENTION
Government/regime changes in which U.S. is decisive

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Bolivia 1944 Coup uprising overthrow Pres. Villaroel
1963 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Paz Estenssoro
1971 Military coup ousts Gen. Torres
Brazil 1964 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Goulart
Chile 1973 Coup ousts elected Pres. Allende.
1989-90 Aid to anti-Pinochet opposition
Cuba 1933 U.S. abandons support for Pres. Machado
1934 U.S. sponsors coup by Col. Batista to oust Pres. Grau
Dominican Rep. 1914 U.S. secures ouster of Gen. José Bordas
1963 Coup ousts elected Pres. Bosch
El Salvador 1961 Coup ousts reformist civil-military junta
1979 Coup ousts Gen. Humberto Romero
1980 U.S. creates and aids new Christian Demo junta
Guatemala 1963 U.S. supports coup vs elected Pres. Ydígoras
1982 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Lucas García
1983 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Rios Montt
Guyana 1953 CIA aids strikes; Govt. is ousted
Honduras 1963 Military coups ousts elected Pres. Morales
Mexico 1913 U.S. Amb. H. L. Wilson organizes coup v Madero
Nicaragua 1909 Support for rebels vs Zelaya govt
1979 U.S. pressures Pres. Somoza to leave
Panama 1941 U.S supports coup ousting elected Pres. Arias
1949 U.S. supports coup ousting constitutional govt of VP Chanís
1969 U.S. supports coup by Gen. Torrijos
John H. Coatsworth is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs. Coatsworth’s most recent book is “The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America,” a two-volume reference work, edited with Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Roberto Cortes Conde – See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157958#sthash.I6nAx9Oq.dpuf

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lbj-obama-combo(1)

President Barack Obama has lost his hold on a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. Though more than two years remain in his term, the popular appeal that propelled him to win the 2008 and 2012 elections may be beyond recovery.

It is sadly reminiscent of what President Lyndon B. Johnson experienced in the mid-1960s after winning the 1964 presidential election by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.  This is not to suggest that history is repeating itself. There are too many differences between Johnson and Obama — both the men and their presidencies — to argue that. Yet, as Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

In broad terms, though, LBJ and Obama share a record of pushing through bold domestic reforms, then losing momentum as foreign affairs blocked their progressive programs. With Johnson, it was largely foreign problems that stopped his forward motion. With Obama, it has been foreign and domestic developments.

lbj-crowds

Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs generated strong conservative opposition to so broad an expansion of federal power. Johnson most likely wouldn’t even have been able to enact his stunning domestic reforms if not for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. This tragedy gave Johnson a martyr to invoke in his effort to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which forbids racial segregation in public accommodations and helped establish an anti-poverty agency that Johnson said JFK intended to create.

The two-thirds Democratic majorities that Johnson had in both the House of Representatives and the Senate after the 1964 elections allowed him to push through the Voting Rights Act, as well as Medicare and federal aid to education. Numerous other progressive reforms became law in 1965 and 1966, including two new Cabinet departments –transportation and housing and urban development.

By 1967, however, Johnson’s advocacy of additional reforms had fallen victim to the fighting in Vietnam, where the United States was losing close to thousands of combat troops every month, and doubts had arisen about the wisdom of fighting a war against insurgents in the Vietnamese jungles. The public  questioned why American sacrifices in Southeast Asia were essential to defeating Communist Russia and China in the Cold War.

The surprising North Vietnamese-Viet Cong Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 did much to create a Johnson “credibility gap.” He had been insisting the U.S. military could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

“How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth?” Johnson’s critics would ask. “When he rubs his chin or pulls at his ear lobes, he’s telling the truth. When he moves his lips, you know he’s lying.”

lbj-mlk

Tet and the credibility gap helped end any prospect of renewed progressive advances in the United States and destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning another term. Vietnam crushed Johnson’s reform ambitions and hopes of a historical reputation as one of America’s great presidents.

Ironically, Johnson thought if he lost Vietnam it would kill his reform agenda. But it was the fighting in Vietnam that ruined all his progressive dreams.

Obama has had no single foreign-affairs frustration comparable to Vietnam. Historians will likely credit the Obama administration with more advances toward a more humane society. His signed into law his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, designed to provide health insurance to most of the more than 40 million uninsured; promoted equal rights for women, including equal pay for similar work; ensured equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians; increased protections for the environment, and pressed for sympathetic treatment of illegal immigrants, especially the “Dreamers,” children brought to the United States by their parents.

The Obama presidency will likely be remembered as part of the country’s progressive tradition — dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Johnson.

At this juncture, however, when Democrats look unlikely to take back the House or perhaps hold the Senate in the midterm elections, Obama’s progressive agenda seems to be stymied by both domestic and foreign developments.

At home, he confronts the aggressively conservative Tea Party movement. Its message has been consistently anti-government — and anti-Obama.

During one of the five dinners that Obama has held with a group of presidential historians (including me), I said the Tea Party is practicing classic “politics of resentment.” Though Tea Party adherents talk about being opposed to government debt and intrusion into people’s private lives, this is only the overt part of their opposition, I explained. Tea Party adherents are mainly white, middle-class citizens, angry at being elbowed aside by minority voters. Obama replied only that he saw something “subterranean” in their outlook.

lbj-signing-voting-rgt-bigger

In many ways, though, these Tea Party conservatives are a throwback to the fundamentalists of the 1920s, who spoke out against blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants. The 1924 National Origins Act, strongly supported by small-town and rural Americans across the country, served as a roadblock to post-1870 immigrants, who flocked to America from Southern and Eastern Europe. When Johnson put through major immigration reform in 1965, tossing out the National Origins measure, he called the 1924 law “racist.”

Tea Party-inclined Republican representatives in the House have indeed played a large part in stopping Obama’s reform agenda. The Republican House majority has often made it impossible for the president to negotiate compromises on his proposals and virtually killed some legislative advances Obama hoped would expand his record of progressive reforms.

Even if the Republicans didn’t control the House, however, Obama’s foreign-policy problems would likely have made a bold reform program problematic. In May 2009, at the first of our White House dinners, three historians (full disclosure: including me) cautioned the president against expanding the war in Afghanistan or sending in additional ground forces.  History has shown the difficulty of combining guns and butter, we stated.

Consider: U.S. participation in World War I ended the Progressive movement; after Pearl Harbor, FDR said “Dr. Win the War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal;” President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal went a-glimmering with the Korean War, and LBJ’s Great Society came to a halt with Vietnam.

lbj -- obama-face

Obama replied that he was not unmindful of what we were saying. But, he added, he had a problem with this argument. We took it to mean that though he had labeled Iraq a “mistake” and vowed to “remove” U.S. troops from there as soon as possible, he had called Afghanistan a “necessary” conflict and could not back away from it without paying a substantial political price or abandoning a foreign-policy judgment he still considered accurate.

Other foreign problems have also undermined Obama’s popularity. These include a red line in Syria that he never enforced, as well as an inability to influence events in Egypt or the fighting between Israel and Hamas. He also looks unprepared to deal with Islamic State’s challenge to the Iraqi government and other Middle East nations, and the Ebola crisis has driven his approval numbers lower. With only about 40 percent of the country now supporting him, it is doubtful that he could have led other bold reforms through even a more sympathetic Congress.

Like Truman, Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama now looks like he could end his presidency on a sour note. Yet he still has two years to recoup some of the lost political ground and find a formula that excites renewed enthusiasm for his leadership.

It is doubtful that Obama will end up with as poor a reputation as Johnson. Recent polls place Johnson third from the bottom in the rankings of public approval for the 10 last presidents — ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. Obama will certainly do better than that.

The high hopes Obama initially brought to the White House, however, have been disappointed. He has again forcefully demonstrated that being president can be a hazardous enterprise.

PHOTO (TOP): REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking hands with a crowd in 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Voting Rights Act of 1965.

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado, April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek is the author of two volumes on President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson in his Times 1908-1960” and “Flawed Giant 1961-1973.” He is also the author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963” and most recently “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.” He is now writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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The right’s food stamp embarrassment: A history lesson for the haters

Caitlin Rathe

Salon.com   September 1, 2014

The right's food stamp embarrassment: A history lesson for the haters

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Credit: AP)

Food stamps became part of American life 50 years ago this Sunday when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law on Aug. 31, 1964. The program has been a whipping boy almost ever since, especially from conservatives who call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the contemporary name for food stamps) a costly and demoralizing example of government overreach.

But SNAP was not an idea first created by liberal do-gooders of the 1960s. Food stamps emerged three decades earlier with active participation of businessmen, the heroes of the exact group of people who want to see the program dissolved today.

The early Great Depression was marked by a “paradox of poverty amidst plenty.” Massive crop surpluses led to low prices for farmers. At first, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration tried paying farmers to plow under surplus crops and kill livestock. In theory, decreasing the supply would raise farm prices incentivizing farmers to get their crops to market. But the plan was met with outrage from hungry citizens who said they could have put the destroyed “surplus” food to good use.

After this failed start, Roosevelt tried another plan. Government purchased excess crops at a set price and distributed them at little or no cost to poor Americans. But this system was also met with criticism, this time from the sellers of food goods. Wholesalers and retailers were upset that government distribution bypassed “the regular commercial system,” undercutting their profits.

The Roosevelt administration started the first pilot food stamp program in 1939 to integrate businesses in getting food to the hungry. However, there were concerns about the food stamp program’s success. A news magazine at the time reported, “there was no difficulty in selling the idea to grocers,” but some feared that the “real beneficiaries” wouldn’t cooperate. Unlike the image conjured up today of the poor clamoring for government aid, in the time of perhaps the greatest need in the past century, businesses were more excited about the federal assistance than the hungry individuals who were to benefit.

And it turns out businessmen had good reason for their glee; in the first months of the pilot program, grocery receipts were up 15 percent in the dozen “stamp towns.” Conservatives appreciated people “going through the regular channels of trade” and not relying on “government machinery” to bring food to people. The program proved to be so successful that it expanded to half of the counties in the nation by 1943. But the conditions that led to the program’s creation, high unemployment and large agricultural surpluses, disappeared in the WWII economy and the pilot program was shelved.

Twenty years later, the 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame” demonstrated hunger and poverty remained a reality for far too many Americans. Newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy found it unconscionable that in the wealthiest nation on the planet, close to one-quarter lived in poverty without access to enough nutritious food to lead productive lives. He used his first executive order in office to reinstate the food stamp pilot program.

After JFK’s assassination, President Johnson reflected on the continued existence of hunger in America. However, the Texan was adamant that any government help would provide people with “a hand up, not a hand out.” Food stamps provided the perfect way to do this. JFK’s pilot program had proven that food stamps improved low-income families’ diets “while strengthening markets for the farmer and immeasurably improving the volume of retail food sales.” And importantly, the poor purchased more food “using their own dollars.” Based on this assessment, LBJ made the Food Stamp Program a permanent part of the welfare state.

Much like grocers in the stamp towns of the late 1930s, grocery chains today continue to bring in increased sales from SNAP receipts during recessions. Remember last winter when stimulus funds expired and Wal-Mart disclosed lower than expected fourth quarter profits? While Wal-Mart refuses to disclose its total revenues from SNAP, it is estimated they took in 18 percent of total SNAP benefits in 2013, or close to $13 billion in sales. They publicly reported lower earnings per share as “the sales impact from the reduction in SNAP benefits that went into effect Nov. 1 is greater than we expected.”

SNAP recipients, then, are not the program’s only beneficiaries. Businesses profit handsomely from them, too. How ironic that in today’s concentrated grocery-retail market, the chains most ideologically opposed to welfare spending benefit the most from this welfare program. Even more ironic is the fact that the idea behind SNAP originated with grocery men in the 1930s who saw a way to route welfare spending through their businesses. When will today’s conservatives claim as their own these daring and entrepreneurial businessmen who, in part, made the Food Stamp Program possible?

Caitlin Rathe is a graduate student at University of California, Santa Barbara.

 

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50 Years Ago Congress Gave the President a Blank Check for War 

by Leonard Steinhorn

HNN August 3, 2014

 

Walt Rostow showing LBJ a map of Khe Sanh in 1968

 

Fifty years ago, on August 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It is a day that should live in infamy.

On that day, the President gave himself the power “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces,” to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and assist our ally in South Vietnam “in defense of its freedom.”

Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it decades later, it gave “complete authority to the president to take the nation to war.”

History has shown that the resolution was built on a foundation of misinformation, fabrication, and willful evasion of the truth. Contrary to what the President claimed, there was no unprovoked “act of aggression” against the American  destroyers that were patrolling the Tonkin Gulf, and a second alleged incident never even took place.

But the Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to escalate the war. “We don’t know what happened,” National Security Adviser Walter W. Rostow told the president after Congress passed the resolution, “but it had the desired result.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have had the desired result, but the war it unleashed didn’t.

By the time Lyndon Johnson left office more than four years later, we had amassed over half a million troops in Vietnam, lost nearly 37,000 soldiers, dropped more bomb tonnage than we had in all of World War II, released chemical weapons – Napalm and Agent Orange – throughout Southeast Asia, and burned thousands of South Vietnamese homes and villages to the ground.

Yet it was increasingly clear by then that we could not win the war.

Rather than stopping any dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution set in motion a series of dominoes in our own country  that would profoundly alter our politics, economy, and culture for years to come.

Perhaps the most significant decision President Johnson made beyond using his newly authorized power to escalate the war was to hide the cost of the war and resist any tax increase to pay for it. Johnson feared that any congressional debate over funding the war would come at the expense of his Great Society program.

He wanted both guns and butter, but he worried that Congress would choose guns over butter. So once again he resorted to obfuscation and deception to get his way.

What resulted was a cascading series of economic  consequences that would transform our nation and undermine the Great Society he so dearly wanted to protect.

To pay for the war without gutting his robust domestic agenda, Johnson resorted to deficit spending which fueled an already overheating economy that was now being asked to divert its productivity away from consumer goods and toward the war effort.

Consumer demand began to outstrip supply, and that let the inflation genie out of the bottle. Less than five years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, inflation more than quadrupled.

Johnson couldn’t hide the rising cost of the war for long, and by 1968 he asked for a 10 percent tax surcharge on all but the poorest Americans. But it came at a cost: Congress demanded, and he had to accept, a 10 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending. Barely three years after birthing the Great Society, he began to starve it to pay for the war. It never fully recovered.

To middle and working class Americans, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the war’s economic impact was taking a toll. Though inflation meant pay raises once a year, prices for food and consumer goods were rising every month which then ate away at any increase in their wages.

Their standard of living began to stagnate. Nor were taxes indexed to inflation in those years, so every pay increase risked pushing them into a higher tax bracket, which took even more money from their pockets in addition to the tax surcharge they would have to pay.

These were largely Democratic voters who generally supported the president and the war – many had their own boys fighting in Vietnam – so if they were looking for blame they weren’t about to point the finger at a deceptive and misguided war policy.

Instead, they saw higher taxes, higher domestic spending, and lots of fanfare for a Great Society that didn’t seem to include them. They also saw domestic unrest and urban riots.

To them, they were hard-working Americans who played by the rules yet were now forced to tread water just to keep from falling behind while government seemed to be giving everything away to the poor. That domestic programs themselves were getting squeezed by the war was a detail that got lost in the heat of the moment.

Couple these growing resentments with the fact that it was their boys, not the children of the well-educated, who were being sent off to war. From their perspective, the liberal elites were taxing them to coddle the poor, yet when it came to defending our nation these same liberal elites sheltered their sons in colleges and universities.

Those seeking to understand the rise of Reagan Democrats and white working class Republican populists – and the corresponding demise of the New Deal majority – need look no further. The cultural and political divide that began in the Sixties was a direct result of the deceit that brought us the Vietnam War.

And what was then a still fragile liberal consensus that government could mitigate the hardships of poverty – a consensus that enabled passage of the Great Society legislation – began to erode.

That an administration could dissemble us into war would lead to another cultural and political repercussion of Vietnam: our growing and seemingly permanent distrust of government.

Trust in government peaked at 76 percent in 1964, not coincidentally the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and declined precipitously in the years thereafter, reaching what was then a low of 25 percent in 1980, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies.

Not all of this decline is due to Vietnam, but a war built on the original sin of deception, fiction, and illusion deserves a good deal of the blame.

Almost daily, Americans were treated to an official  version of the war that had us winning. The  Johnson administration trumpeted body counts and bombing raids and assured us, in the famous words of General William Westmoreland, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But there was no light. The dark reality we saw every night on television contradicted what our leaders were telling us. We saw bloodied soldiers, troops burning villages, body bags, fear and despair and little of the triumphalism that was emanating from the Pentagon.

When the Vietcong launched their Tet Offensive in  January 1968, striking at the U.S. Embassy and other key sites in the heart of Saigon, Americans had a hard time reconciling the official version with what they were witnessing.

Thus was born the credibility gap between the American government and its citizens.

And nowhere did it grow wider than among journalists, who were greeted with untruths during the daily military briefings in Vietnam – known as the Five O’clock Follies – and saw through such euphemisms as “pacification,” which in truth meant torching Vietnamese huts and shooting those who resisted, and “collateral damage,” which in reality meant civilian deaths.

Reflexive skepticism of government remains a defining characteristic of contemporary journalism.

Watergate, which calcified the credibility gap, also grew out of Vietnam when President Richard Nixon authorized his secretive White House Plumbers to retaliate against Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the duplicity behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the U.S. prosecution of the war.

Years later Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told Ellsberg that if members of Congress had seen the evidence from the Pentagon Papers in 1964, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee, and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”

What Lyndon Johnson saw as a ploy to grant him war powers ended up harming so many and transforming our nation in ways the President surely never intended. It would end up engulfing the liberalism he so loved. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the hubris behind it were the linchpins of Johnson’s Shakespearean Vietnam tragedy – and ours as well.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, where he teaches politics, strategic communication, and courses on the presidency and recent American history. He is the author of the much discussed book on baby boomers, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of the critically acclaimed By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race.

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“You could blackmail LBJ”: The other Nixon scandal behind the Watergate scandal

 Ken Hughes

Salon.com  July 27, 2014

"You could blackmail LBJ": The other Nixon scandal behind the Watergate scandal

Johnson and Richard M. Nixon (Credit: AP/Charles Tasnadi)

Excerpted from “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate”

On all 2,636 hours of secretly recorded Nixon White House tapes that the government has declassified to date, you can hear the president of the United States order precisely one break-in. It wasn’t Watergate, but it does expose the roots of the cover-up that ultimately brought down Richard Milhous Nixon. Investigation of its origin reveals almost as much about the president’s rise as his fall.

June 17, 1971, 5:15 p.m., the Oval Office. None of the president’s men knew what to do when he ordered them to burglarize the Brookings Institution, a venerable Washington think tank. Richard Nixon had gathered his inner circle to talk about something entirely different—the recent leak of the Pentagon Papers, at that point the biggest unauthorized disclosure of classified information in US history. The seven-thousand-page Defense Department history of Vietnam decision making during the administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson had nothing on President Nixon. The study stopped well before his election, climaxing with LBJ’s surprise March 31, 1968, announcement that he would not seek a second full term.

In that same speech, Johnson created the issue that nearly sank Nixon’s presidential campaign. LBJ announced that he was limiting American bombing of North Vietnam—and would stop it completely if Hanoi could convince him that this would lead to prompt, productive peace talks. Throughout the fall campaign, Nixon worried that LBJ would announce a bombing halt before Election Day, a move that would boost the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Johnson did, and it did. The president announced the bombing halt on Halloween, less than a week before the voting. The Republican nominee, who had begun the campaign 16 points ahead in the polls, watched his lead disappear. Nixon still won, but it was too close—at that point the second-closest race of the twentieth century, right behind the one he had lost in 1960 to JFK.

“You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing,” said White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, a California public relations executive with blue eyes and a brush cut who spent years polishing Walt Disney’s image before taking on the greater challenge of managing Nixon’s.

“How?” the president asked.

“The bombing halt stuff is all in the same file,” Bob Haldeman said. “Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings.” Haldeman was working with some bad information. Tom Charles Huston, author of the secret Huston Plan to expand government break-ins, wiretaps, and mail opening in the name of fighting domestic terror, claimed Brookings had a top secret report on the bombing halt, written under the direction of some of the same people who oversaw the Pentagon Papers project.

 

“Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it,” the president said.

 

An aide began to object.

President Nixon: “I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

This wasn’t what Haldeman had in mind. He wanted government officials to visit Brookings on the pretext of inspecting how it stored classified material and to confiscate the bombing halt file in the process. No one in the Oval Office pointed out that the president’s idea was illegal. National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, a former Harvard government professor with a profound German accent, asked the obvious question: “But what good will it do you, the bombing halt file?”

“To blackmail him,” the president said. “Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.”

“The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson,” Haldeman said.

“Why, why do you think that?” Kissinger asked.

The timing, Haldeman said. Johnson stopped the bombing less than a week before the election.

“You remember, I used to give you information about it at the time,” Kissinger said, reminding them of the secret role he had played as an informant to the 1968 Nixon campaign on Johnson’s bombing halt negotiations. Kissinger had worked as a consultant on a 1967 bombing halt initiative for LBJ, so when he visited the American negotiating team in Paris during the 1968 talks, members confided in him. He gained Nixon’s trust by betraying theirs. “To the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October,” Kissinger said. “I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [Ambassador W. Averell] Harriman.” (Years later, Kissinger denied having had access to information about the negotiations at the time; the instructions to Ambassador Harriman, LBJ’s lead negotiator with the North Vietnamese, were, of course, highly classified information.) If Kissinger was right, then even if Nixon got someone to break into Brookings and steal the bombing halt report, it was unlikely to contain the blackmail information he said he wanted.

Yet Nixon ordered the Brookings burglary at least three more times in the next two weeks. It was one of the reasons he took the fateful step of creating the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an unconstitutional secret police organization better known as “the Plumbers” because one of its jobs was to plug leaks. The SIU recruited a former FBI agent with experience conducting “black bag jobs” (that is, government-conducted break-ins) and a former CIA agent experienced in covert operations.

Exactly one year to the day after Nixon first ordered the Brookings break-in, a different one planned by these two former government agents took place at Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington’s Watergate apartment and office complex. Once Washington, DC, police arrested five men in dark suits and blue gloves at the DNC offices on the morning of June 17, 1972, President Nixon faced a stark choice. An unobstructed investigation of the crimes the two former government agents had committed would lead back to ones that the president himself had ordered. He could either order a cover-up or face impeachment.

So why did Nixon want the bombing halt file so badly in the first place? What good would blackmailing LBJ do, anyway? (At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony.) The potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.

There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself. Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival. The reasons why are not on Nixon’s tapes, but on those of his predecessor.

Imitation of the Enemy

The president pounded his desk at his first meeting of July 1, 1971, as he told Haldeman and Kissinger, “We’re up against an enemy. A conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.”

In his classic essay on conspiracy theorists, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy.” When Nixon conceived of his enemy as Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers who arrogantly placed themselves above the law, he gave himself license to do likewise. He placed himself above the law that prohibits the disclosure of grand jury testimony, for one. “This is a conspiracy. It does involve these people, and they are not on very good ground in many cases. Also, we now have the opportunity really to leak out all these nasty stories that’ll kill these bastards,” he said. Though sworn to preserve the Constitution, he placed himself above the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to a fair trial. “Screw the court case,” the president said. “I mean, just let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done!” These orders don’t make Nixon a cackling villain out of melodrama, glorying in his own malevolence. Imitation of the enemy is a faulty kind of moral reasoning, a trumped- up claim of self- defense. Nixon did unto others as he feared they would do unto him. His conspiracy theory enabled him to claim he was fighting fire with fire. But it turned him into what he hated.

It’s questionable whether what Ellsberg did can accurately be called stealing classified government documents, but that’s a perfectly accurate way to describe what Nixon intended to do as he put together an organization to burglarize a think tank, blow its safe open, and obtain a top secret report. Imitation of the enemy, as Hofstadter wrote, produces “secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations.” To fight an imaginary conspiracy, the president initiated a real, criminal one.

 

Excerpted from “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate” by Ken Hughes. Copyright © 2014 by Ken Hughes. Reprinted by arrangement with University of Virginia Press. All rights reserved.

Ken Hughes is a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, where he heads the Presidential Recordings Project’s Nixon team

 

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Now On Display: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Prologue: Pieces of History  June 30, 2014

Today’s post comes from David Steinbach, intern in the National Archives History Office.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation.

The first and the signature pages of the act will be on display at the National Archives Rubenstein Gallery in Washington, DC, until September 17, 2014. These 50-year-old sheets of paper represent years of struggle and society’s journey toward justice.

The most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era, the Civil Right Act finally gave the Federal Government the means to enforce the promises of the 13th,  14th, and 15th Amendments. The act prohibited discrimination in public places, allowed the integration of public facilities and schools, and forbade discrimination in employment.

But such a landmark congressional enactment was by no means achieved easily. Indeed, developments within the civil rights movement were critical in motivating the bill’s movement through Congress. The push for legislation accelerated in May 1963, when nightly news broadcasts displayed footage of Eugene “Bull” Connor cracking down on demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.

In this atmosphere, President John F. Kennedy demanded a strong civil rights bill in a national address on June 11: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”

Pressure for legislation continued to build when thousands of Americans engaged in the peaceful March on Washington on August 28. Two weeks later, a bomb in Birmingham killed four young African American girls. With civil rights at the forefront of the national consciousness, these and other developments encouraged House Democrats to introduce amendments strengthening the bill.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Sen. Richard Russell, 12/07/1963. (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

External pressure made up only one chapter in the story of the bill’s passage, as supporters of the legislation had a battle of their own to wage in Congress. Just five days after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson urged lawmakers “to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.”

Despite the President’s support, the bill encountered significant difficulties in both chambers of Congress. It took a 70-day hearing process for the legislation to clear the House in February 1964.

As soon as the bill entered the Senate, southern senators commenced a 60-day filibuster—the longest continuous debate in Senate history. With the help of Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, supporters softened language concerning government regulation of private organizations and finally won over a bloc of conservative lawmakers.

After clearing the Senate and House, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2. Thanks to public pressure and political maneuvering, the nation finally had a substantive civil rights bill.

This 50th anniversary represents a rare opportunity to see the original Civil Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signature page, July 2, 1964 (National Archives Identifier 299891)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signature page, July 2, 1964 (National Archives Identifier 299891)

 

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Fifty years later, new accounts of its fraught passage reveal the era’s real hero—and it isn’t the Supreme Court.
Michael O’Donell
The Atlantic  March 19, 2014

President Johnson confronts Senator Richard Russell, the leader of the filibuster against the civil-rights bill. (Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives)

In the winter of 1963, as the Civil Rights Act worked its way through Congress, Justice William Brennan decided to play for time. The Supreme Court had recently heard arguments in the appeal of 12 African American protesters arrested at a segregated Baltimore restaurant. The justices had caucused, and a conservative majority had voted to decide Bell v. Maryland by reiterating that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause did not apply to private businesses like restaurants and lunch counters—only to “state actors.” The Court had used this doctrine to limit the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment since 1883. Brennan—the Warren Court’s liberal deal maker and master strategist—knew that such a decision could destroy the civil-rights bill’s chances in Congress. After all, the bill’s key provision outlawed segregation in public accommodations. Taxing his opponents’ patience, he sought a delay in order to request the government’s views on the case. He all but winked and told the solicitor general not to hurry.

And then the conservatives on the Court lost their fifth vote. Justice Tom Clark changed his mind and circulated a draft opinion granting the appeal. In a revolutionary constitutional change, lunch counters and restaurants would suddenly be liable if they violated the equal-protection clause. But Brennan foresaw a new difficulty. By now it was June 1964, and a coalition of northern Democratic and Republican senators looked set to break a southern filibuster and pass a strong civil-rights bill. Would a favorable Supreme Court ruling actually give wavering senators an excuse to vote no? They might say there was no need for legislation because the Court had already solved the problem. So Brennan, ever nimble, engineered a tactical retreat by assembling a majority that avoided the merits of the case altogether. It was an alley-oop to the political branches. They grabbed the ball and dunked it. Ten days after the Court’s decision, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the president signed it into law.

In the popular imagination, the Supreme Court is the governmental hero of the civil-rights era. The period conjures images of strong white pillars, Earl Warren’s horn-rims, and the almost holy words Brown v. Board of Education. But in Bell, the Court vindicated civil rights by stepping aside. As Bruce Ackerman observes in The Civil Rights Revolution, Brennan realized that a law passed by democratically elected officials would bear greater legitimacy in the South than a Supreme Court decision. He also doubtless anticipated that the act would be challenged in court, and that he would eventually have his say. The moment demonstrated not merely cooperation among the three branches of government, but a confluence of personalities: Brennan slowing down the Court, President Johnson leaning on Congress to hurry up, and the grandstanders and speechmakers of the Senate making their deals, Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey foremost among them. In this age of obstruction and delay, it is heartening to recall that when the government decides to act, it can be a mighty force.

But three equal branches rarely means three equal burdens, and the civil-rights era was no exception. Although the Court-centered narrative undervalues the two political branches, of those two branches it was the executive that provided decisive leadership in the 1960s. Just as the intragovernmental cooperation of 1964 is striking in light of today’s partisan gridlock, the presidential initiative displayed during the mid-’60s is worth considering in light of Barack Obama’s perceived hands-off approach to lawmaking. Of course, no discussion of civil-rights leadership is complete without including Martin Luther King Jr., who provided moral and spiritual focus, infusing the movement with resolution and dignity. But the times also called for a leader who could subdue the vast political and administrative forces arrayed against change—for someone with the strategic and tactical instincts to overcome the most-entrenched opponents, and the courage to decide instantly, in a moment of great uncertainty and doubt, to throw his full weight behind progress. The civil-rights movement had the extraordinary figure of Lyndon Johnson.

The Civil Rights Act turns 50 this year, and a wave of fine books accompanies the semicentennial. Ackerman’s is the most ambitious; it is the third volume in an ongoing series on American constitutional history called We the People. A professor of law and political science at Yale, Ackerman likens the act to a constitutional amendment in its significance to the country’s legal development. He acknowledges the Supreme Court’s leadership during the 1950s, when President Eisenhower showed little enthusiasm for civil rights, and when Congress passed the largely toothless Civil Rights Act of 1957. During those same years, the Court spoke with a loud, clear voice, unanimously deciding Brown, which ordered the desegregation of schools, and Cooper v. Aaron, which held that state segregation laws conflicting with the Constitution could not stand. But the Supreme Court does not command the National Guard or control the budget. Someone needed to enforce those decisions in the defiant South. That is why, Ackerman writes, “the mantle of leadership passed to the president and Congress,” beginning with the 1964 law.

But the political branches ventured into the fray only in the last weeks of 1963. President Kennedy had introduced the bill in June of that year with much ambivalence. As Todd S. Purdum, a senior writer at Politico, recounts in An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Kennedy had led a sheltered life in matters of race. While generally sympathetic to civil-rights ideals, he “believed that strong civil rights legislation would be difficult if not impossible to pass, and that it could well jeopardize the rest of his legislative program.” He had tried to attack literacy tests and other barriers to voting with legislation but had twice been defeated in the Senate, where the old bulls of the South wielded the filibuster with practiced skill. (Roy Wilkins of the NAACP observed, “Kennedy was not naïve, but as a legislator he was very green.”) He regarded Martin Luther King Jr. warily, and with each new southern crisis saw his agenda slipping away. But events finally forced Kennedy to act. The Freedom Riders in Montgomery, the dogs and water cannons in Birmingham, and the sit-in in Jackson all made further equivocation on civil rights impossible by the spring of 1963. Four hours after Kennedy’s speech calling for legislation, an assassin murdered the NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in his own driveway. Five months after that, the bill was stuck in the House Rules Committee—“the turnstile at the entry to the House of Representatives,” in Purdum’s phrase—and the country had a new president.

In 1963, the Reverend Joseph Carter (far left) was the first African American in his Louisiana parish to register to vote. He was jeered as he walked down the courthouse steps. (Bob Adelman/Corbis)

Purdum, whose book is an astute, well-paced, and highly readable play-by-play of the bill’s journey to become a law, describes the immense challenges facing Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination. “When it came to civil rights, much of America was paralyzed in 1963,” he writes. That certainly included Congress. The civil-rights bill, which had been languishing in the House since June, had no hope of coming to a full vote in the near future, and faced even bleaker prospects in the Senate. In fact, Kennedy’s entire legislative program was at a standstill, with a stalled tax-cut bill, eight stranded appropriations measures, and motionless education proposals. And Congress was not Johnson’s only problem. He also had to ensure the continuity of government, reassure the United States’ allies, and investigate Kennedy’s assassination. Purdum’s version of this story is excellent, but he cannot surpass the masterful Robert A. Caro, who offers a peerless and truly mesmerizing account of Johnson’s assumption of the presidency in The Passage of Power.

Days after Kennedy’s murder, Johnson displayed the type of leadership on civil rights that his predecessor lacked and that the other branches could not possibly match. He made the bold and exceedingly risky decision to champion the stalled civil-rights bill. It was a pivotal moment: without Johnson, a strong bill would not have passed. Caro writes that during a searching late-night conversation that lasted into the morning of November 27, when somebody tried to persuade Johnson not to waste his time or capital on the lost cause of civil rights, the president replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” He grasped the unique possibilities of the moment and saw how to leverage the nation’s grief by tying Kennedy’s legacy to the fight against inequality. Addressing Congress later that day, Johnson showed that he would replace his predecessor’s eloquence with concrete action. He resolutely announced: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

President Johnson talks with civil-rights leaders in the Oval Office in January 1964. From left: Martin Luther King Jr., LBJ, Whitney Young, and James Farmer. (Yoichi Okamoto/AP)

The New York Times journalist Clay Risen contends in The Bill of the Century that Johnson’s contribution to the Civil Rights Act’s success was “largely symbolic.” One might say the same thing about Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Sometimes symbolism is substance—especially where the presidency is concerned. The head of the executive branch firmly seized the initiative, taking up a moribund bill addressing the nation’s most agonizing problem. Here was Johnson, president for only five days, working out of the Executive Office Building because the White House was still occupied by Kennedy’s family and staff, with an election already looming less than a year away. Instead of proceeding tentatively, as most anyone in those circumstances would have done, he radiated decisiveness, betting everything he had right after he got it. As Caro shows so persuasively, from that moment, Johnson’s urgency and purpose infused every stage of the bill’s progress. And in the days and weeks that followed, the stagnant cloud that had settled over Kennedy’s agenda began to lift.

Symbolism was the least of it. Johnson took off his jacket and tore into the legislative process intimately and tirelessly. As the former Senate majority leader, he knew his way around Capitol Hill like few other presidents before him—and none since. The best hope of moving the civil-rights bill from the House Rules Committee—whose segregationist chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia, had no intention of relinquishing it—was a procedure called a “discharge petition.” If a majority of House members sign a discharge petition, a bill is taken from the committee, to the chagrin of its chairman. Johnson made the petition his own personal crusade. Even Risen credits his zeal, noting that after receiving a list of 22 House members vulnerable to pressure on the petition, the president immediately ordered the White House switchboard to get them on the phone, wherever they could be found. Johnson engaged an army of lieutenants—businessmen, civil-rights leaders, labor officials, journalists, and allies on the Hill—to go out and find votes for the discharge petition. He cut a deal that secured half a dozen votes from the Texas delegation. He showed Martin Luther King Jr. a list of uncommitted Republicans and, as Caro writes, “told King to work on them.” He directed one labor leader to “talk to every human you could,” saying, “if we fail on this, then we fail in everything.”

The pressure worked. On December 4—not two weeks into Johnson’s presidency—the implacable Chairman Smith began to give way. Rather than have the bill taken from his committee, he privately agreed to begin hearings that would conclude before the end of January, and then release the bill. Smith looked set to renege on his agreement in the new year, but reluctantly kept his word, allowing the bill to be sent to the full House on January 30, 1964. Risen credits others with this development, suggesting that it was Representative Clarence Brown of Ohio, a Republican member of the Rules Committee, among others, who got Smith to move. Risen is particularly sharp on the evolution of the Republicans during these tumultuous years, but here he accords them too much clout. Brown had to answer to House Republican Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana, whose support Johnson likely bought by proposing, and then personally securing, a NASAresearch facility at Purdue University, in Halleck’s district. And the entire Republican caucus in the House was wilting under Johnson’s relentless and very public campaign to portray “the party of Lincoln” as obstructing civil rights by opposing the discharge petition.

Johnson kept the bill moving in the Senate by dislodging President Kennedy’s tax-cut bill from the Finance Committee. As vice president, Johnson had advised Kennedy not to introduce civil-rights legislation until the tax cut had cleared Congress. Kennedy didn’t listen, and now both bills were stuck. (Like House Rules, Senate Finance had a wily segregationist for a chairman: Harry Byrd of Virginia.) Risen minimizes the significance of this problem, writing that the tax bill “presented no procedural obstacle to the civil rights bill, only a political one.” (And when does politics ever derail legislation?!) As Caro explains, the tax bill was a hostage. By holding it in committee, the South pressured the administration to give up on civil-rights legislation, with the implication that the withdrawal of the latter might produce movement on the former. But Johnson and Byrd were old friends, and during an elaborate White House lunch they came to an understanding: if Johnson submitted a budget below $100 billion, Byrd would release the tax bill. Johnson then personally bullied department heads to reduce their appropriations requests, and delivered a budget of $97.9 billion. The Finance Committee passed the tax bill on January 23, 1964, with Byrd casting the deciding vote to allow a vote, then weighing in against the measure itself. The Senate passed the tax bill on February 7, mere days before the civil-rights bill cleared the House.

Finally, Johnson helped usher the bill to passage in the Senate by working to break the southern filibuster, which was led by his political patron, the formidable Richard Russell of Georgia. In light of the Senate’s fiercely guarded independence, the president could not operate in the open; he had to use proxies like Humphrey, who was his protégé and future vice president, as well as the bill’s floor manager. Johnson impressed upon Humphrey that the vain and flamboyant Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois was the key to delivering the Republican votes needed for cloture:

“You and I are going to get Ev. It’s going to take time. We’re going to get him. You make up your mind now that you’ve got to spend time with Ev Dirksen. You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. He’s got to look good all the time. Don’t let those [liberal] bomb throwers, now, talk you out of seeing Dirksen. You get in there to see Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”

Johnson demanded constant updates from Humphrey and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and always urged more-aggressive tactics. (“The president grabbed me by my shoulder and damn near broke my arm,” said Humphrey.) Even though Senate Democrats did not deploy all those tactics, Johnson’s intensity nevertheless set the tone and supplied its own momentum. He kept up a steady stream of speeches and public appearances demanding Senate passage of the strong House bill, undiluted by horse-trading. And he personally lobbied senators to vote for cloture and end the filibuster. Risen contends that Johnson “persuaded exactly one senator” to change his vote on cloture. Given that it is of course impossible to know what motivated each senator’s final decision, this lowball figure is expressed with too much certitude. Evidence presented by Purdum and Caro suggests that Johnson’s importuning, bribing, and threatening may have made an impact on closer to a dozen. The Senate invoked cloture on June 10, breaking the longest filibuster in the institution’s history. The full Senate soon passed the bill. Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964, and immediately turned his energies to what would become another landmark statute: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Risen’s attempt to minimize Johnson’s significance in the passage of the Civil Rights Act—“he was at most a supporting actor”; “he was just one of a cast of dozens”; “the Civil Rights Act was not his bill by any stretch”—is perplexing. In an otherwise strong book, his revisionist view is less a question of facts than of emphasis: after all, Purdum too notes that Johnson “strategically limit[ed] his own role” at key moments (careful, for example, not to upstage Dirksen). But Risen seems bent on denying Johnson his due, drawing nearly every inference against him and repeatedly overstating the anti-Johnson case. On the one hand, Risen is right to take a fresh look at the evidence and tell the story from a new perspective, focusing on unsung heroes such as Dirksen, Humphrey, Representative William McCulloch, and Nicholas Katzenbach of the Justice Department. He makes a fair point in questioning the way history awards presidents the credit for measures that by necessity cross many desks. On the other hand, Risen is simply wrong to portray Johnson as some hapless operator for trying multiple tactics and targets, some of them unsuccessfully. Johnson’s very comprehensiveness is what jarred the sluggish and paralyzed Capitol into action and ultimately moved the bill.

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. (Cecil Stoughton/White House Press Office)

If the president led and Congress followed, where did that leave the Supreme Court? Three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Court heard arguments in a pair of cases challenging the constitutionality of its most contentious provision—Title II, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations. In December 1964 the Court decided Katzenbach v. McClungand Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, upholding Title II as a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power. In the years since, the act has been a remarkable success. Its acceptance in the South was surprisingly quick and widespread. In a stroke, the act demolished the rickety but persistent foundation for segregation and Jim Crow. Title II reached far into the daily lives of southerners, creating an unprecedented level of personal mingling between the races and making integration a fact of daily life. Title VII, meanwhile, has vastly reduced workplace discrimination, through the efforts of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although years of toil, struggle, and bloodshed still lay ahead, the 1964 law dealt a major blow to the system of segregation. The past 50 years of American history are almost unimaginable without it.

And yet the anniversary prompts an ominous reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s role in civil rights. In 1954, the Court launched the federal government’s assault on segregation, with Brown. In 1964, it got out of the way of the political branches, then quickly ratified their work. Today when it comes to racial civil rights, the Roberts Court is an aggressively hostile force. Recall Ackerman’s contention that the 1964 act has taken on the weight of a constitutional amendment. At a literal level, this is of course untrue: the act was not ratified by three-quarters of the states and is not part of the written Constitution. This means that a constitutional amendment is not needed to overturn the Civil Rights Act, which is vulnerable to a subsequent act of Congress or, more to the point, a decision by the Supreme Court.

Ten years ago, even mentioning this possibility would have seemed outrageous. But last June, the Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, striking down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as unconstitutional. Section 4(b) listed the states with a history of voting discrimination that were required to seek preclearance from the Justice Department or the courts before amending their voting laws. The 5–4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts is nothing short of appalling: as unpersuasive as it is misguided, it is, in Ackerman’s words, “a shattering judicial betrayal” of the civil-rights era. It is also the Roberts Court’s most brazenly activist decision: Congress has reauthorized the Voting Rights Act four times, most recently in 2006, with votes of 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. In her brilliant dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the decision’s obtuseness: “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Shelby County may be so unique that it portends no harm for the Civil Rights Act. After all, the preclearance regime was extraordinarily invasive. Ackerman calls it the biggest federal intrusion into the prerogatives of the southern states since Reconstruction. But Title II of the Civil Rights Act is also strong medicine, reaching beyond state actors to tell private businesses whom they must serve. It was by far the act’s most controversial provision—and it remains controversial among some conservatives. In 2010, Senator Rand Paul caused a sensation by arguing that the provision in the Civil Rights Act dealing with “private business owners” (ostensibly Title II) is unconstitutional. He quickly walked back his comments, but his father, Ron Paul, proudly continues to make the same argument, and the Tea Party is listening. The Heritage Foundation’s Web site files the McClung decision upholding Title II on its “Judicial Activism” page, tagged to the terms Abusing Precedent and Contorting Text. The Voting Rights Act decision can only embolden Title II’s opponents.

And they just might get a hearing. Three trends in the Roberts Court’s jurisprudence suggest that the justices would be more receptive to a challenge to Title II than any prior Court. First is its disregard for precedent. The Roberts Court has repeatedly ignored prior decisions when doing so enabled a conservative victory—most notoriously in the areas of gun regulation (District of Columbia v. Heller) and campaign finance (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). Hence it is little comfort that the Court upheld Title II in 1964. It had also previously upheld the Voting Rights Act and its reauthorizations. Second is the Roberts Court’s impatience with open-ended civil-rights measures, which some justices believe are no longer necessary. “The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years,” the Court wrote in Shelby County, dismissing the need for ongoing vigilance against voting discrimination. And third is the Court’s continued disdain for the commerce clause. Remember when Roberts’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act made the point that the act was not a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power? He was singling out the section of the Constitution that supports the Civil Rights Act.

The 1964 law is not in imminent danger from the Supreme Court. But it is worth considering how a hostile Court changes the equation from 1964, when the judiciary acted in concert with the political branches. The new paradigm places a premium on presidential leadership, at the very least in nominating judges and justices who are in sympathy with the great statutes of the 1960s. But the battle over the Civil Rights Act shows that presidents who are serious about concrete social progress must do even more.

Lyndon Johnsons, of course, do not come along every four or every 40 years. Even if they did, Johnson brought plenty of darkness (election stealing, a credibility gap, Vietnam) along with the light (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Great Society). Moreover, not every president needs to be a legislative genius in order to pass laws. Obama, after all, gambled big on the Affordable Care Act, investing the same type of capital in health care that Johnson invested in civil rights. It is now the law of the land. But the energy and purpose that Johnson brought to the Civil Rights Act struggle remains inspiring, and is a model for all presidents. As Richard Russell, the South’s leader in the Senate during the 1960s, put it to a friend a few days after Kennedy’s assassination: “You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”

Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The Washington Monthly.

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En su primer año en la presidencia, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) inició un programa de reformas sociales que en su conjunto son conocidas como la Gran Sociedad y que estaba basado en dos objetivos centrales: acabar con la pobreza y con la injusticia racial. El Presidente buscó trasformar al país por medio de una serie de importantes reformas. En 1964, Johnson logró que el Congreso aprobara la Ley de Derechos Civiles  y una reducción en los impuestos de unos $10 mil millones, que produjo un aumento en el capital de inversión y en el consumo personal.  Como resultado, la economía creció y el déficit presupuestario se redujo.

Johnson también le declaró la guerra a la pobreza. La prosperidad de la década de 1950 no acabó con la pobreza en los Estados Unidos. En su clásica obra The Other America (1962), el activista político Michael Harrington alegaba que 40 millones de estadounidenses no tenían una dieta apropiada y vivían en pésimas condiciones. Con muy poca o ninguna ayuda estatal, los pobres estaban atrapados en círculo vicioso que no les permitía salir de la  cultura de la pobreza.  La falta de educación, cuidado médico y empleo les condenaban, según Harrington, a ser “extranjeros” en su propio país. Para enfrentar esta situación, LBJ propuso la creación de programas de entrenamiento que permitieran que los pobres se integraran a la economía norteamericana. En 1964 fue aprobada la Ley de Oportunidades Económicas creando una entidad federal –la Oficina de Oportunidades Económicas–  encargada de combatir la pobreza. El arsenal de la administración Johnson contra la pobreza incluyó los creación de los “Job Corps”, una especie de Cuerpos de Paz locales, y la creación del programa de Head Star para niños preescolares, entre otros.

Los programas de la Gran Sociedad causaron revuelo entre los conservadores, entre ellos, el Senador por Arizona Barry Goldwater. Goldwater se oponía  al crecimiento del gobierno a través de la creación de programas de asistencia social y del gasto deficitario. El Senador también se opuso a las medidas a favor de la integración ración racial de la sociedad norteamericana. Para las elecciones de 1964, los conservadores, con Goldwater a la cabeza, tomaron el control del Partido Republicano y adoptaron un plataforma completamente opuesta a la Gran Sociedad.  Durante la campaña presidencial, Goldwater criticó la Ley de Derechos Civiles, la guerra contra la pobreza, la política exterior de Johnson, etc.  Sin embargo, ello no fue suficiente para evitar una gran victoria Demócrata, pues Johnson fue electo con el 61.1% de los votos populares (43,127,041 votos). Goldwater sólo recibió el 38.5% de los votos populares (27,175,754 votos) y sólo ganó 6 de los 50 estados de la Unión.

Fortalecido por una victoria aplastante, LBJ impulsó su programa de reformas. En 1965 fueron creados el Medicare y el Medicaid para proveer de servicios médicos gratuitos a los ancianos y los recipientes de ayuda social o welfare, respectivamente. También fueron aprobadas leyes proveyendo mil millones de dólares para la educación elemental y secundaria, suspendiendo las pruebas de alfabetismo como requisito electoral, asignando $8 mil millones a programas de vivienda, asignando $650 millones para becas y préstamos a bajo interés para estudiantes universitarios, creando la National Endowment for the Arts para promover la producción artística y el desarrollo cultural, y aboliendo el sistema de cuotas migratorias creado en 1924, abriendo nuevamente las puertas de los Estados Unidos a los inmigrantes.

Fuente: CARPE DIEM Professor Mark J. Perry's Blog for Economics and Finance (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/09/us-poverty-rate-1959-to-2009.html)

Fuente: CARPE DIEM Professor Mark J. Perry’s Blog for Economics and Finance (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/09/us-poverty-rate-1959-to-2009.html)

En términos generales, la Gran Sociedad tuvo un impacto positivo en las vidas de millones de estadounidenses. Prueba de ello es que la proporción de pobres bajó de 22% en 1960 a 13% en 1969, la mortalidad infantil bajó un tercio, los Head Star atendieron a 2 millones de niños y el ingreso de las familias afroamericanas aumento de un 54% a 61% del ingreso de sus homologas  blancas. El porcentaje de ciudadanos negros en la pobreza bajó de 40 a 20%. En sus primeros diez años de existencia, el Medicare y el Medicare proveyeron asistencia médica a 47 millones de norteamericanos a un costo de $28 mil millones. Sin embargo, la participación de los Estados Unidos en la guerra de Vietnam comprometió el programa liberal. Para 1966, el gobierno federal gastaba 20 veces más en el conflicto indochino, que en la lucha contra la pobreza. Además, no todos los estadounidenses estaban felices con el liberalismo de LBJ. Muchos rechazaban la regulación de los negocios y la intervención del gobierno federal en la educación pública.  Otros, veían con recelo el crecimiento del gobierno federal y su intervención de la vida de los norteamericanos. Las elecciones legislativas de 1966 sirvieron de barómetro nacional, pues los demócratas perdieron 47 representantes, lo que selló el destino del reformismo de Johnson.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, PhD

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