When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November of 1963, he knew that in order to accrue political capital he would initially need to champion goals and policies that Kennedy had already been pursuing. Not long before his death Kennedy had scrawled the word "poverty" on a piece of paper and circled it multiple times; this note fell into the hands of his brother Robert and became a symbolic justification for Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, early in 1964. Similarly, many of the things that Johnson pushed through Congress in his first two years as President—such as an $11 billion tax cut, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 1965 laws that brought Medicare and Medicaid into existence and that poured billions of federal dollars into primary and secondary education—can readily be seen as extensions of the avowed policies of the Kennedy Administration. The details might have been different—and Kennedy might well have had more trouble than Johnson passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but historians generally agree that if Kennedy had lived out his first term and won a second, America would have witnessed something similar to the early years of Johnson's Great Society.
On foreign policy, too, Johnson at first strove consciously to follow his predecessor. And some historians have argued that in this realm as well, LBJ indeed pursued a course that JFK had already plotted. If Kennedy had lived, according to this line of thinking, he would have continued a policy of antagonism toward Cuba and steady escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson certainly believed that this was what Kennedy intended to do.
Flashbacks: "A Near Miss" (October 24, 2002)
Articles on the Cuban missile crisis by Walter Lippmann, Jerome B. Wiesner, and Sheldon M. Stern remind us how close we came to disaster.
But what if it wasn't? Some Kennedy aides have always insisted that Johnson misread JFK's plans for Vietnam. They say that Kennedy had begun to rethink the U.S. presence in Indochina, and was reluctant to increase it. Johnson's defenders have tended to see this argument as wishful thinking by those who seek to exculpate JFK from what happened in Vietnam while laying all the blame on LBJ. The argument can never fully be put to rest. But newly available documents, along with a reappraisal of the existing record—especially of Kennedy's concern about press reports from Saigon—suggest that Kennedy's aides are correct: what Kennedy envisioned for U.S. policy in Vietnam was substantially different from what Johnson thought it was. Perhaps more surprising—given that at the time of Kennedy's death the Cuban Missile Crisis was not long past, and that the CIA was still plotting to kill Fidel Castro—JFK appears to have been moving toward the idea of accommodation with Cuba.