Kennedy Johnson Comparison Essay

The 1960's where a very turbulent period. America needed leaders who could react to enormous public pressure and meet the challenges of a nation moving towards a new modern era. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had to deal with civil rights issues, the cold war, the Vietnam and the social upheaval of the turbulent sixties. Kennedy has a wonderful reputation, but was he really the better President?

I. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson

A. What types of issues did Kennedy and Johnson have to deal with in the sixties?

1. Cold War

2. Civil Rights protests, riots

3. Vietnam

4. Social upheaval - drug culture, rebellion, rock and roll.

B. What were the significant accomplishments of the Kennedy administration (1960 - 1963)? - The New Frontier. Click here for more on John F. Kennedy

1. Peace Corps - Responding to Kennedy's challenge thousands of Americans went forth into underdeveloped countries bringing education and medical supplies. The spirit of volunteerism was never higher and people world wide began to develop a different view of Americans.

2. Space Program - 1961 began America's push to put a man on the moon. While this was not accomplished during the Kennedy administration it was accomplished soon thereafter. The Kennedy Administration poured billions into NASA and the was rewarded by the success of the Apollo Space Program.

3. Passage of the Area Redevelopment Act and the Housing Act of 1961.

  • The Area Redevelopment Act provided funds to rural America's schools, roads and bridges.
  • The Housing Act of 1961 provided funds to build low income housing in urban America.

4. Passage of the 24th amendment that made the use of Poll Taxes unconstitutional.

5. Leadership through the cold war, especially his courage in facing down Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

6. Great public persona and charisma, great control of the media - first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and he were "American royalty."

B. What were the significant setbacks of the Kennedy Administration?

1. He was unable to get any real civil rights legislation passed. Kennedy himself considered this a great failure.

2. He was unable to get taxes lowered.

3. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an embarrassing failure.

C. What were the significant accomplishments of the Johnson administration? - The Great Society - Click here for more detailed reading.

1. Civil Rights Act of 1964 - This landmark piece of legislation is still the current federal law on Civil Rights. Johnson solidified his reputation as a political "arm twister." He was able to invoke the memory of Kennedy and get significant legislation passed.

2. The War on Poverty

-Economic Opportunity Act created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)

-Job Corps

-VISTA - Volunteers in Service to America

3. 90 out of 115 recommendations approved in 1965 --

4. Appalachian Redevelopment Act

5. Project Head Start - a program to bring Pre K education to the impoverished.

6. 1965 Voting Rights Act

D. What was the significant failure of the Johnson Administration?

1. Escalated involvement in the Vietnam War. Johnson relieved enormous public criticism for this. Protests and demonstration racked the nation. Johnson did not run for a second term.

Does Kennedy deserve the reputation as a "great" president? Does Johnson deserve the reputation as a bad one? You be the judge.


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Both presidents found themselves facing the tough challenges of the Cold War. Both presidents struggled to project a strong image of the U.S. to reassure the country's allies that they were on the right side and that the U.S. would protect them from the Communist threat.

One of the major themes of Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960 was the inability of the Eisenhower administration to secure Third World countries on the American side. To win new allies over to the United States Kennedy based his foreign policy on the concept of nation building and "peaceful revolution" (in contrast to the Soviet leader Khrushchev's idea of "ars of national liberation"). He thought that the United States could help Third World countries and developing nations to build better transport and communication systems as well as to improve agriculture. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress (1961), designed for Latin America, is an example of this strategy. To reach the same aim, Kennedy also created the Peace Corps which would sent educators, scientists, doctors, agronomists to Third World countires. Yet, in spite of the rhetoric of peace that surrounds the Kennedy Administration, Kennedy too relied on military operations and on the strategy of counterinsurgency. This consisted in sending military advisers and special forces to train local troops to repress possible revolutions. America's involvement in Vietnam began to increase greatly during Kennedy's administration which sent to Vietnam more than 16,000 advisers.

Kennedy also relied on the CIA to carry out covert operations against unwelcome regimes: Operation Moongoose in Cuba, the assassination of Congolese President Lumumba, the coup against Brazillian President Joao Goulart and the killing of Vietnamese puppet President Ngo Dinh Diem were all actions carried out by, or with the crucial contribution of, the CIA.

In spite of the escalation in the number of troops and specialists sent to Vietnam by Kennedy, the name of Lyndon Johnson has become indelibly associated with the Vietnam War. Following the doubtful Gulf of Tonkin incident (an event which, as subsequent evidence demostrated, never happened), Johnson succeeded in making Congress pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutio, a blank check given to the President "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States". Members of Congress effectively abdicated all foreign policy in the President's hands. The war soon proved difficult to win and, as it became more and more unpopular at home, Johnson found himself increasingly isolated within his own Administration. Defence Secretary McNamara, once a staunch supporter of the war, resigned in 1968 and the new Secretary Clark Clifford explicitly told the President the war was a "sinkhole". The war also caused a financial crisis due to the massive expenditure required by military operations. On March 31, 1968 Johnson addressed the nation on television to say that he had asked the Vietnamese to begin negotiations. He also announced that he would drop out of the presidential race for 1968.

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