Kennedy-Johnson Era


The Presidential election of 1960 was held in an atmosphere of strained international relations and increasing racial tension in the United States. In an extremely close contest, Democrat John F. Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, defeated the Republican candidates, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic and the youngest man to be elected President.

Kennedy called upon Americans to meet the challenges of a "new frontier—the frontier of the 1960's." He had served only two years and 10 months of his term when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. Upon succeeding to the Presidency Johnson promised to continue Kennedy's foreign and domestic policies. In 1964 Johnson and his running mate, Hubert H. Humphrey, won election by a landslide, defeating Republican candidates Barry M. Goldwater and William E. Miller. Johnson pledged his administration to the task of building a "Great Society."

The Domestic Scene

Much of the legislation proposed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson continued in the social-welfare tradition of the New Deal. During the Kennedy administration, 1961-63, passage of some measures was blocked by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats. Legislation enacted included laws that established the Alliance for Progress (an aid program for Latin America), created the Peace Corps (a foreign assistance program using volunteers), granted federal aid to depressed areas, provided retraining of unemployed workers, liberalized social security benefits, raised the minimum wage, and supplied federal funds for education. Kennedy also obtained broad authority to cut tariffs. At the time of his death, Congress was debating a tax-cut bill and a comprehensive civil rights bill, both passed in 1964.

Lyndon Johnson's impressive election victory in 1964 made it possible to pass previously blocked bills and new "Great Society" proposals. Among laws enacted during 1965-69 were those inaugurating Medicare; creating two new executive departments (Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation); guaranteeing voting rights; reforming immigration procedures; controlling gun sales; and granting federal aid to education, to impoverished areas in the Appalachians, to cities for renovation, and to low-income families for housing.

The civil rights movement began gaining momentum early in the 1960's. In the South, blacks, or mixed groups of blacks and whites, challenged segregation laws by "sitins" at restaurants and "freedom rides" on buses. In 1962 James Meredith, a black, entered the traditionally all-white University of Mississippi, although rioting by campus segregationists had to be quelled by federal troops. Civil rights demonstrations grew in number, reaching a high point in 1963 with a march on Washington, D.C., by some 200,000 persons in support of the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965 protests against discrimination in voter registration in the South led to enactment of a voting rights law.

Although progress was being made in gaining equal rights for blacks, rioting erupted periodically in the black ghettos of many cities beginning in the summer of 1965. Widespread rioting followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Soon after, Congress passed an open-occupancy law in the hope of easing the racial crisis. The civil rights movement, however, already had begun to change; militant blacks were calling not for integration but for black power (control over their own communities).

The race with the Soviet Union to conquer space accelerated. Shortly after the United States achieved its first manned space flight, in 1961, President Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1962 John H. Glenn, Jr., in the Friendship 7 became the first American to orbit the earth. United States space vehicles relayed detailed pictures of the moon for the first time in 1964. The death of three astronauts in a training accident in 1967 delayed the moon program, but in 1968 the manned Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon.

During the period 1961-69 there was unprecedented economic growth. Unemployment dropped to about 4 per cent, but it remained a chronic problem. In 1964 a federal antipoverty program was enacted to attack the basic causes of poverty. By 1968, however, spiraling inflation had become a threat to prosperity and led Congress to pass an income tax increase.

Far-reaching repercussions in state politics resulted from a 1964 Supreme Court reapportionment ruling—the so-called "one man, one vote" decision. The court held that all districts from which members of state legislatures are elected must be approximately equal in population. In 1968 the ruling was extended to local governmental bodies.

In 1961 the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution gave District of Columbia residents the right to vote in Presidential elections. The 24th Amendment (1964) abolished poll taxes in federal elections. The 25th Amendment (1967) provided for continuity of power in the event of Presidential disability.

Foreign Affairs

The United States was involved in several international crises in the 1960's despite continued efforts to ease Cold War tensions. In 1961 East Germany, acting on Soviet instructions, built a wall between East and West Berlin to halt the flow of East German refugees to West Germany. This action produced a crisis between the Soviet Union and the United States over Western rights in Berlin, which since World War II had been occupied by Soviet, American, British, and French forces. There were fears of a major confrontation but the crisis was eased by diplomatic measures.

In 1961 Cuban exiles, trained with the aid of the United States, invaded their homeland at the Bay of Pigs in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Communist regime of Fidel Castro. Cuba was again an issue in 1962, when President Kennedy forced the Soviet Union to remove missiles it had sent there. After the crisis—which was so serious that it might have led to nuclear conflict between the two superpowers—Soviet-American relations improved. A limited nuclear test-ban treaty was negotiated in 1963 and consular and space treaties in 1967.

United States ties with Latin America were strengthened by the Alliance for Progress in 1961. However, relations were strained for a time following President Johnson's dispatch of troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent seizure of that country's government by Communist revolutionaries.

United States involvement in Southeast Asia expanded steadily in the 1960's. In 1962, in order to prevent further Communist penetration of Laos, the United States participated in negotiations that led to an international agreement to guarantee the neutrality of that country. Economic and military aid to South Vietnam to fight Communist guerrillas, begun in the 1950's, eventually led to President Johnson's dispatch of large numbers of American combat troops in 1965. The continued "escalation" (expansion) of the Vietnamese War caused worldwide concern and provoked an antiwar movement in the United States. Despite the efforts that began in 1968 to negotiate a settlement, the war continued.

1968 Presidential Election

By the time of the 1968 election campaign, there was much division in the country resulting from opposition to the Vietnamese War and from the racial strife sparked by the civil rights movement. President Johnson decided not to run for reelection, his popularity having declined sharply. The campaign was marked by the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who was seeking the Presidential nomination of the Democratic party, and by a violent confrontatlice at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

In the election, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, won a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and a third-party candidate, George C. Wallace.