Presidents Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson: Comparative Analysis
Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson were both serving as Vice President when their respective predecessors died in office. Suddenly raised to power in the wake of a national tragedy, both men were essentially thrown into a situation of extreme difficulty; they would be challenged domestically and internationally with an array of economic issues, communism, civil rights and war.
This study will provide a comparative analysis of the two U.S. Presidents, concentrating on the differences in their personalities and the impact that those differences had on their actions as President.
Truman, a former men’s clothing salesman, county judge, and senator who was widely disparaged at the time as a political nobody, (Schaller) was suddenly in charge of concluding the Second World War, preserving the Grand Alliance (Great Britain, USA, and Soviet Union), converting the war economy to peacetime production, and nurturing the ambitious goals of a still largely unfulfilled New Deal.
In a very emotional and heartfelt address before a Joint Session of Congress on April 16, 1945, Harry Truman stated that “tragic fate has thrust upon us grave responsibilities. We must carry on. Our departed leader never looked backward. He looked forward and moved forward. That is what he would want us to do. That is what America will do.” (Miller Center.org)
In moving forward the new president wasted little time in creating a meaningful impact. Domestically, he ushered in a peacetime economy while working to establish civil rights. Globally, he promoted the establishment of international institutions to help prevent future conflicts and sought to strengthen a weakened Europe against the insidious expansion of communism. (PBS)
But perhaps Truman’s most daunting task was following his esteemed predecessor, who had remade American governance, the Democratic Party, and the office of the presidency during his unprecedented twelve years in office. Roosevelt’s shadow would be difficult for Truman — or any presidential newcomer, for that matter — to escape. Truman, moreover, lacked Roosevelt’s stature, charisma, and public-speaking skills. (PBS)
It isn’t difficult to find similarities between Truman and Johnson. They were both vigorous and active men. They both exhibited extraordinary determination. Both were politicians who loved their involvement with the people and the affairs of state. They were both gifted with the ability to grasp the essence of immediate situations but were less gifted in their ability to make sense of abstract issues. And both had great and usually unyielding faith (sometimes misplaced) in their own opinions.
Johnson has been described as “an extraordinarily complex individual. A physically imposing man with an ego and ambitions the size of his native Texas.” Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke is quoted saying “He had as many sides to him as a Kaleidoscope, an unbelievable combination of sensitivity and coarseness, of understanding and obtuseness.” (Herring)
On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas Texas. Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One with a stricken Mrs. Kennedy, her clothes splattered with the blood of the slain president, looking on. As with Truman, Johnson lead the Congress in mourning the death of the fallen president. He began with “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. “(Miller Center.org)
Johnson envisioned a “Great Society” to end poverty, promote equality, improve education, rejuvenate cities and protect the environment. In his first State of the Union Address Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America…It will not be a short or easy struggle, but we shall not rest until that war is won.” (Miller Center.org)
Nationally, he obtained passage of one of the most extensive legislative programs in the nation’s history. Globally, he sought collective security and carried on the rapidly growing struggle to restrain Communism in Vietnam.
Presidents Truman and Johnson shared similarities in their approach to the economy, Civil Rights and National security in terms of communism and war.
With Japan’s surrender in August 1945, President Truman now led a nation that, for the first time in nearly two decades, was not wracked by the traumas of economic depression or world war. Truman’s chief task, then, was to lay out to Americans his vision for the country’s future. Two related issues — the future of New Deal liberalism and the reconversion of the American economy from a war-time to a peace-time footing — topped his agenda.
In September of 1945, Truman addressed Congress and presented a 21 point program of domestic legislation outlining a series of proposed actions in the fields of economic development and social warfare. The proposals to congress became more and more abundant and by 1948 a legislative program that was more comprehensive came to be known as the Fair Deal. In his 1949 State of the Union Address to Congress on January 5, 1949, Truman stated that “Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal.” (Miller Center.org)
Truman’s Fair Deal proposals went largely unfulfilled. It met great opposition from Republicans and conservative democrats. Moreover, the public was divided over the prospects of an enlarged social welfare state and continued government intervention in the economy. Liberal Democrats and key constituents of the Democratic Party supported them, but many other Americans did not. Though Truman’s proposals were not all passed, in this area he was more successful than his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Truman issued executive orders desegregating the armed forces and forbidding racial discrimination in federal employment. He also encouraged the Justice Department to argue before the Supreme Court on behalf of plaintiffs fighting against segregation. (Griffith)
Similarly, President Johnson introduced an extremely ambitious series of sweeping legislative reforms that came to be known as “The Great Society.” The most dramatic parts of his program concerned bringing aid to underprivileged Americans, regulating natural resources, and protecting American consumers. There were environmental protection laws, landmark land conservation measures, the profoundly influential Immigration Act, bills establishing a National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Highway Safety Act, the Public Broadcasting Act, and a bill to provide consumers with some protection against shoddy goods and dangerous products.
Johnson inherited his predecessor’s commitment to South Vietnam and gradually increased the number of US troops sent to the country to assist the South Vietnamese government against North Vietnam and Vietcong insurgents. By 1967 nearly half-a-million troops had been sent. Johnson authorized bombing raids on targets in North Vietnam. There was little military success. By the summer of 1967 almost 80,000 Americans had been killed or wounded in Vietnam (Herring). Though initially supportive of US involvement, the American public turned against the war. Johnson faced a rising tide of hostility. African American riots in the inner cities were superseded by white anti-war riots on college campuses. Johnson’s public appearances were increasingly concentrated on US military bases. Some leading figures in Congress came out in opposition to Johnson’s policy. Their number included Senator Robert Kennedy of New York. It was proving impossible to fund the Great Society program and the war effort. Consequently, funding for many domestic programs was scaled down (Schaller)
Fate was kind to Truman in concluding World War II. Germany surrendered shortly after Truman took office. This allowed Truman to focus completely on the pacific where Japan was taking a terrible toll. After repeated public warnings, On August 6, 1945 Truman ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, by a B-29 bomber of the U.S. Army Air Force. The second atomic bomb drops on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. This would be a decision that he would never doubt the rest of his life. “I have no qualms about using it because when you have the weapon that will win the war; you’d be foolish if you didn’t use it.” (PBS)
The Korean War, on the other hand proved to be more complex and political than Truman imagined. An easy victory at Inchon by Gen. Douglas MacArthur prompted Truman to expand American Goals. In ordering MacArthur to cross the 38th parallel Truman hoped to destroy the North Korean army and unify the country. Truman wanted a military victory in Korea without provoking a wider war with China or the Soviet Union.
After a failed all-out push to the Yalu River by MacArthur that drove American forces back below the 38th parallel, Truman rejected a request from MacArthur for massive reinforcements. Truman and his advisors wanted to defend South Korea, not start WWIII by provoking an even bigger fight with Moscow and Beijing. MacArthur accused Truman of “tying his hands in an “entirely new war” and being responsible for the “pointless murder of American Boys”.(Schaller)
Truman fired MacArthur on April 11, 1951 and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgeway as theater commander. His decision met condemnation from Republicans. Crowds in several cities burned effigies of Truman, and many newspapers demanded his impeachment. Truman’s approval rating plummeted to 22%, the lowest at that point in US history. (Schaller)
MacArthur was met with a hero’s welcome complete with parades upon his return. Unfortunately the public’s love affair with him was short lived. Congressional hearings and testimonies by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff combined with Ridgeway’s success in halting China’s offensive and restoring the battle line at the 38th parallel were the main factors.
In conclusion, the similarities and differences between President Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson were mostly those of personality. Both men were “Accidental” presidents who were both re-elected in their own right for a second term. Both made sweeping changes in the area of civil rights and economics. Both introduced domestic legislation rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Both presidents after seeing their respective approval ratings plummet after their involvements in unpopular wars publicly announced they would not seek a second term.
On July 30, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks with President Truman at the signing in Independence Hall of the Medicare Bill Johnson began his speech with, “The people of the United States love and voted for Harry Truman, not because he gave them hell–but because he gave them hope.” ( LBJlibrary)
Schaller, Michael; Schulzinger, Robert; Anderson, Karen. Present Tense – The United States since 1945. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Pg 44-50
Griffith, Robert; Baker, Paula Major Problems in American History Since 1945 Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007 pg 55 – 63
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War The United States and Vietnam, 1950 – 1975 Boston, McGraw Hill pg 135, 386
Henggeler, Paul R., Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 1991.
“Episode Two: Happenstance” The American President a Matter of Destiny, PBS DVD Video, 2000
The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, American President an Online Reference Resource, Harry S. Truman 1884-1972
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-64. Volume I, entry 11, pp. 8-10. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1965. Last Updated June 6, 2007 http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/631127.asp