Saturday, April 1, 2023

50 Years Ago: Looking back on Lyndon Johnson (2023)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Even Presidents of the United States cannot live forever. Within weeks of each other, two who in their time supervised a great act of organised mass destruction died, quietly at their homes.

A final human touch, this; and human touches are among the expectations which people have of their leaders, at the same time as they hope for elements of the superhuman. Lyndon Johnson specialised in folksy speeches; during his time as Vice President he gave out ballpoint pens to the people of West Berlin and he was always one of the world’s champion handshakers. In his superhuman role he promised to unravel the tangle of Vietnam and to fashion America into what he called the Great Society — something which, unsurprisingly, is still awaited. (…)

Johnson’s conversion to a crusader against “racial injustice” was as abrupt as his elevation to the Vice-Presidential candidacy. As a Senator he was never in any doubt about where he stood when voting on laws which were aimed at curbing the excesses of the racists of the South. Between 1940 and 1960 he voted on such issues 39 times, always as one would expect a good, solid, prejudiced Southerner to vote. He was six times against abolishing the poll tax; twice against anti-lynch laws; twice in favour of racial segregation in the American forces. And so on. And on. And on.

When he became President, Johnson applied all that he had learned about political arm-twisting, and used all the power of patronage he had built up during his time as Senate leader and Vice-President, to push through Congress the anti-discrimination laws which had baffled Kennedy. Johnson did not necessarily like what he did but, as he once shouted at a Senate subcommittee “. . . this is happening!” He was giving way to the inevitable, to the progressive grind of modern capitalism which the South has resisted for so long. As a simple Senator for Texas Johnson could, indeed he must, pander to the racial bigots and killers of the South, no matter what that meant in terms of negro terror and suffering. When he was in the White House he was acting for American capitalism as a whole and, again with no thought for human suffering, he was forced to do things simply because they were happening.

(Socialist Standard, April 1973)

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