The “empire” must go on: national grief and national call-to-action to memorialize “the Kennedy legacy”
Like “Emperor Johnson I,” Lyndon Johnson started his presidency abruptly, being thrust into the “emperor” slot from vice president position due to a presidential assassination. There have been four “emperor” assassinations in the history of this “empire” (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were the other three), but JFK’s murder at the age of 46 makes him the youngest president to suffer such a tragic end. The “Camelot” mystique was already starting to crack by November 22, 1963, as we have seen: foreign conflicts nearly led to WWIII and de-segregation required federal enforcement to put Brown v. Board into effect ten years after the Supreme Court issued the decision. In addition, on the personal/family front, just two months before Kennedy’s assassination, the nation mourned the loss of his and Jackie’s fourth child, a stillborn infant named Patrick Kennedy. (The Kennedys had also lost an infant daughter, Arabella, long before their residence in the White House.) Little did the nation know that this loss to the Kennedy family would only be a foreshadowing to the end of Camelot forever. (Jack Kennedy’s brother Robert would later be assassinated on the campaign trail for president in 1968, and John’s son, “John-John,” captured in an iconic image saluting his father’s hearse when he was three years old, would die in the late 1990s in a plane accident at the age of 38.)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren led a commission to look into the assassination, a commission which would include later “emperor” Gerald Ford. The Warren Commission determined that both JFK’s assassin, a crazed “Marxist-Leninist” named Lee Harvey Oswald who had formerly served in the post-war occupation of Japan, and the assassin’s assassin, a man with sinister underworld connections named Jack Ruby, had acted completely alone and not in conspiracy with others. However, that did and does not stop conspiracy theorists from proposing their own agendas, claiming that any number of parties wanted “revenge” for the president’s short but ambitious track record: Castro for the Bay of Pigs, the Mafia for the Kennedys’ attack on organized crime, radical right-wing or radical left-wing factions within the United States, even—most disrespectful of all—bringing Vice-President Johnson into the “dark and sinister web” of plotting for the president’s life. (The assassination occurred in his home state, after all…) As a historian, I personally would find such views entertaining if they were not so egregiously offensive to the tragic reality of the circumstances.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, sworn in en route to Washington along with the body and the widow of JFK, now had a little over a year to do what the slain president could not do in two and a half: Johnson swore that he would honor JFK’s legacy, at home and abroad—in effect, making his own administration the ultimate memorial to Kennedy’s ambitious plans for “the empire.” Johnson’s election in 1964 shows how successful he was in attaining many goals very quickly, but his decision not to run for re-election in 1968 shows just how unpopular he had become for his dogged commitment to one of JFK’s final Commander-in-Chief decisions in Southeast Asia.
To the moon and beyond: a president acts—or, the president and the Acts
Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by 1970 might have been more realistic than his promise to lead the nation to de-segregate its public institutions in the summer of 1963. If you will allow me to write what perhaps is the most cynical sentence in this book: Without a presidential assassination preceding him, I’m not sure if either Kennedy or Johnson—or, frankly, anybody else in the 1960s—could have achieved the ultimate legislative victories for the civil rights movement earned in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. These landmark pieces of legislation gave the muscle to overturn a century-long systemic oppression of African-Americans, to keep them out—especially, keep them out of the ballot booth. After 1965, there could be no more “literacy tests” or “poll taxes,” the only purpose of which was to systematically deny African-Americans the right to vote.
With Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders standing behind him, President Johnson not only officially signed these pieces of legislation, but he was also the driving force behind their proposal and behind their passing. Johnson was chosen for the Kennedy ticket in 1960 because he was brash, rustic, and appealing to Southern voters as a Texan. As opposed to Kennedy’s refined charm and polish, Johnson was a straight-talker who constantly swore. Having sworn that he would get Kennedy’s dreams off the ground, LBJ swore again and again into the White House telephone, bargaining and pleading with his fellow Southern Democrats to push legislation through.
A Democratic leader had not had as successful a run of legislation since FDR’s first term, in the middle of the Great Depression. The modern Democratic Party has always been something of a coalition party, representing a wide variety of those with moderate-left-leaning views. (To be fair, the Republican Party is now just as much of a coalition, at least since the Reagan era. Nonetheless, because the moderate-right Republican platform focuses on decentralization rather than centralized governmental plans, it might have the basis for a more straightforward consensus: to decentralize and delegate rather than to unify and centralize overarching federal programs.)
In the aftermath of the 1963 assassination and of his own proper election as president in 1964—and the record Democratic majority in both houses of Congress—LBJ did not just lead the Democratic Party in getting the civil rights movement’s baseline demands met, but also began a “War on Poverty.” Like any “war” on a generalized noun to follow—the “War on Drugs” of the ‘80s or “War on Terror” of the ‘00s—Johnson’s plan was controversial and his success was mixed. Seeing the endemic issues of inequality as being along not just racial but class and generational lines, Johnson was instrumental in ushering in Medicare (for elderly citizens) and Medicaid (for citizens hovering around the poverty line)—programs which provided health care “on the government’s dime,” a long-term and continuing goal of the Democratic Party.
In addition to federal reforms in the arenas of civil rights, health care, and education, Johnson and the Democratic Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, which kept a quota (numerical limit) on the overall number of immigrants to the nation, but eliminated the “nation of origin” system that had been in place for about four decades, meant to limit the number of immigrants from “non-Western” societies, particularly Asia. This act increased the diversity of immigrants to the United States for the next four decades, and then some.
These initiatives were dubbed by Johnson II as “the Great Society” but, perhaps characteristic of such programs, carried a great price-tag. The federal government’s spending had doubled throughout the 1960s—a trend that would slow under Republican and Democratic presidents alike in the ‘70s, but would re-double in the 1980s under another Republican president, Ronald Reagan.
The programs did have, at least in the short term, something of a success. Yet, though the number of citizens below the poverty line went down in the ‘60s, the number of cases of inner-city violence—especially riots fueled by racial discrimination and discontent—went up. Even after the passage of the legislation, systemically racist systems still played out nationally—as they, to some extent, continue to play out today. Of course, the story of individual Americans’ progress is not determined by their race alone. However, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other activists understood the broader scope of the issue—the impact that race has statistically, something historically called “white privilege” but which we might now more politely label “the statistical advantage of those labeled ‘white.’” Irrespective of how one identifies oneself, if the broader society—including those reviewing loan or college applications, those sitting at a traffic stop, or those on a jury—identifies someone as “white,” then that person is statistically more likely to receive better treatment.
Particularly in the area of housing, this statistical discrimination would have a direct tie-in with education and local schools, no matter how legally “integrated” a school system was. To highlight this issue—not just in the South but especially in Northern cities—the movement led by King organized in Chicago in 1966, and met with backlash and violence as it had in the Deep South. Yet, it is characteristic of the national dialogue—then and now—that King’s later failures were not and are not as highlighted in the press as his victories in the South. Buses and lunch counters proved to be an easier fix than employment offices and homeowners’ associations. Much has improved since then, but I have a feeling that King would say it’s not enough. For him, legal protection was just the first step.
For others in the movement, it was the first step in a completely different direction from integration. Civil rights leaders like Malcolm X argued for segregation—for the strengthening of black culture completely divorced from the descendants of former slaveowners. Though he would change his views after his pilgrimage to Mecca and right before his assassination in 1965 (and this change was the cause of his assassination), Malcolm’s leadership paved the way for a re-investment in African-American culture that would later be termed “black pride.”
To Vietnam—or: “shoot for the moon; if you miss, you’ll get bogged down in the jungle”
Many members of the “Black Islam” movement like Malcolm X and, eventually, nonviolent leader Martin Luther King, Jr., took issue at the disproportionate number of African-Americans drafted for service in Vietnam. Famous boxer Muhammad Ali (born under the name Cassius Clay) caused controversy in refusing to serve when drafted, claiming that he’d rather fight for the civil rights of his own people at home rather than for those of the South Vietnamese halfway around the world.
He was not alone in his protest—an entire counterculture emerged to oppose the status quo, not just of “containment” but the entire values of the generation, values that the “Greatest Generation” considered worth fighting World War II to protect. Though Johnson has his admirers and defenders for his “More Kennedy than Kennedy” domestic agenda, his presidency will always be tied with his equally-stubborn commitment to the “Kennedy legacy” in Vietnam—his choice to escalate the role of the United States from covert to overt, from “military advisers” to landing increasing numbers of troops on the ground, facing off against guerrilla warriors in the jungle environments of Southeast Asia. (As one local veteran claimed, it was like the American Revolutionary War, except the Americans were the British “redcoats,” and the “underdog” who ultimately secured victory were the Vietcong forces descending from North Vietnam and neighboring countries into South Vietnam.)
Unlike World War II (the last declared war) or Korea (technically a U.N. “police action”), the “war” in Vietnam was never officially declared by Congress or the United Nations. Instead, it falls under the umbrella term of an “executive action,” a decision made by the Commander-in-Chief to commit troops that nonetheless requires congressional approval in the long-term. After a mysterious “incident” in the Gulf of Tonkin with a U.S. ship in 1964, Johnson proposed escalating the conflict, and Congress approved the action—as it would continue to do. (The later War Powers Resolution requires renewed congressional approval every 60 days.) The leaked “Pentagon Papers” revealed how blown out of proportion the initial Gulf of Tonkin event was, confirming the Boomers’ suspicion of traditional authority that had begun with JFK assassination conspiracy theories.
Unlike later “executive actions,” the Vietnam conflict utilized the draft. Though the enrollment of potential soldiers under “selective service” is still required from all young males at the age of 18, Vietnam effectively ended drafting, as it proved so incredibly controversial. Especially frustrating to the Boomers was the fact that the voting age was still 21 (at least, until 1971)—meaning that young men could be called to serve a Commander-in-Chief whom they could not elect. “Draft dodgers” burned draft cards and American flags in public and some even fled to Canada to escape enlistment.
Escaping also took the forms of liberation from traditional fashion, sexual values, and restrictions on drug use. As the rock sound got heavier and more “psychedelic” in the late ‘60s, veiled drug references became quite common in lyrics, to the extent that former folk-rock musician Bob Dylan recorded parodies like “Everybody must get stoned” with a much harder, electric sound. (He then fled to the quiet of Woodstock in upstate New York to escape this new scene. The “hippies” would later follow him there for a music festival in 1969.)
Though the Supreme Court seemed to allow for such sexual freedoms by guaranteeing the “right to privacy” in the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut of 1967—the basis for the later Roe v. Wade case—and overturned Muhammad Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, the liberal-leaning Warren Court did not speak for the majority of the conservatives of the country, “hawks” who patriotically supported the conflict in Vietnam even as they lambasted Johnson’s domestic agenda.
The controversy got so heated that Johnson, on the same day that he announced a reduction of bombing on North Vietnam due to protests, also announced that he would not be seeking a second term in 1968. Continuing both the war in Vietnam and the “War on Poverty” brought the country into serious inflation, and he understood that many more radical elements in the Democratic Party were emerging.
By the time of 1968’s “Tet Offensive”—a series of surprise attacks launched by North Vietnam during the lunar festival of Tet—the war seemed to be spreading from Southeast Asia. That year, both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and disappointment with the progress of civil rights and the anti-war movement turned to rage. The creation of the “Black Panthers” and other groups urging self-protection by being armed in the streets created a fear more palpable than that of the “Communist menace” in the 1950s. It seemed to many lay prophets—some prophesizing out of fear, and others out of joy—that a Second American Revolution was imminent.
“Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll”—the cultural legacy of the counterculture—was not enough for the young radicals. They felt an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam required the abolition of the “American Dream” of yesteryear and the “mindless patriotism” it inspired.
Frustrations reached a crescendo in Chicago in 1968. The city that MLK had attempted to highlight two years before proved to be a battleground indeed: not just over the status quo of racist employment/hiring practices, but the status quo of everything—perhaps even democracy itself. When it became clear that Johnson’s VP Hubert Humphrey would earn the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, the crowd seemed to be on the edge of riots that would engulf the city, chanting “The Whole World Is Watching”—alluding to the television cameras filming the devolving scene, now in bright color. Mayor Daley of Chicago requested a response—with troops, and all hell broke loose, as the “pigs” and the “hippies” battled on the streets while cameras recorded the event for “the whole world [who was] watching [television].”
The event not only inspired the youth movement in the United States and around the world, but showed the viewing audiences how factious American politics had become. Eventually, it led to a trial of the “Chicago Eight” (later, “Chicago Seven,” as the Black Panther on trial was bound and gagged in the courtroom) for conspiracy and inciting a riot. The convention, and the later trial, proved to be the ideal venue for nationalizing the claims of the “hippies.” Most humorously, folk singer Phil Ochs was called to the stand for having purchased a pig from a local Illinois farmer to “nominate” at the convention, claiming that the pig was a better candidate than Humphrey: hippie Abbie Hoffman drafted a speech for “Pigasus,” the porcine candidate that could not deliver his own acceptance speech. (Supposedly, the pig became food for a “pig”—a policeman who confiscated it due to an ordinance against livestock in the city.)
Meanwhile, in the calm, civilized Miami Republican National Convention of 1968, a nominee emerged who hoped to win what he had lost eight years earlier.