Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was one of the few presidents to serve in all federal elective positions, including representative (1937-1948), senator (1948-1961), vice president (1961-1963); and president (1963-1969). Using his trademark skills as a wheeler-dealer, he launched “the War on Poverty” to improve living conditions for low-income Americans, and he coined the term “the Great Society” to describe his domestic effort to expand civil rights and access to healthcare, provide aid to education and the arts, and to encourage public service.
His incredible legislative accomplishments include the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Civil Rights Act of 1968; the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid; the Higher Education Act of 1965, which established federally insured student loans; and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which laid the groundwork for contemporary American immigration policy today.
His foreign policy was framed by the Vietnam War, which became unpopular under his presidency and ultimately led to his undoing. Although the United States was already involved in the Vietnam War, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 authorizing the president to launch a full-scale military intervention in Southeast Asia and, when LBJ expanded the war effort and American casualties continued to mount, the anti-war movement was launched and public opinion turned against America’s involvement in the war. The American public also became disillusioned by the race riots in many cities and increasing crime rates, and Johnson ultimately declined to run for reelection; he returned to his Texas ranch, published his memoirs, and generally kept a low profile until he died of a heart attack in 1973 – the same day that the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roe v. Wade.
LBJ won an incredible 90 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1964 presidential campaign, and he proved to be a truly great friend of Israel, with a connection to the Jewish State that was both personal and emotional. He appointed many Jews to high office, including Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court and Arthur Goldberg as UN Ambassador, and he maintained close personal relationships with leading Jews and Zionists.
LBJ’S affinity for the Jews began with his grandfather, a fundamentalist Christian who believed that the Jews would return to Eretz Yisrael and who admonished young Lyndon to “take care of the Jews, G-d’s Chosen People. Consider them your friends and help them in every way you can.” His aunt, Jessie Johnson Hatcher, was an active member of the Zionist Organization of America who nurtured his commitment to befriending Jews for half a century.
Some historians suggest that LBJ may have actually been Jewish because, they claim, both his maternal great-grandparents were Jewish and his line of Jewish mothers may be traced back three generations in his family tree. His maternal great-grandfather, John S. Huffman, and great-grandmother, Elizabeth Perrin (both common Jewish surnames), emigrated from a Jewish region in Germany in1848; their daughter (LBJ’s grandmother), Ruth Ament Huffman, married Joseph Baines, and their daughter, Rebekkah Baines, was LBJ’s mother. In considering the question of LBJ’s Jewish ancestry, Snopes does not reject the possibility out of hand and concludes only that the allegation is “unproven.” However, it notes that “Perrin” is actually a Huguenot (French Protestants who fled France because of religious persecution) family name; that Johnson’s ancestors were largely Baptist; and that there is no public record of any of them ever identifying as Jewish.
As a young boy, LBJ watched his politically active father and grandfather work to secure clemency for Leo Frank, the Jewish victim of a blood libel in Atlanta who was lynched by a mob in 1915. His speech writer later commented that “Johnson often cited Leo Frank’s lynching as the source of his opposition to both antisemitism and isolationism.”
LBJ’s father’s support for Jews and his vociferous public opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Texas was such that the KKK threatened to kill him. His father hid the family in their cellar while he stood guard with a shotgun on their porch, but the threatened KKK attack never came.
As early as 1934, LBJ predicted Hitler’s rise to power, the imminent Nazi reign of terror, and the coming Jewish Holocaust. His obsession with the Nazi threat to civilization was such that on an early date with the woman who would later become his wife, “Lady Bird” Johnson, he inscribed a copy to her of Nazism: An Assault on Civilization (New York, 1934), a book of essays, including “Every German Jew is Doomed to Death, Slavery, or Exile.”
Five days after taking office in 1937 as a Texas Congressional representative, the Omnibus Immigration Bill came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, and Johnson did not hesitate to take on his own party and to align himself with Republicans in support of an immigration bill that would naturalize illegal aliens, mostly Jews from Lithuania and Poland.
Few know about LBJ’s unheralded and largely unpublicized role in saving hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust using bribes and false passports, actions that not only could have resulted in his expulsion from Congress, but also lead to his incarceration. While serving as a freshman congressman in 1938 and 1939, he arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and he oversaw the illegal immigration of bringing in hundreds of Jews through the port of Galveston, Texas.
In one notable instance, Erich Leinsdorf, then a young Austrian Jewish musician, was in New York on a temporary visa to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera when Nazi Germany launched the Anschluss in March 1938. When it came to LBJ’s attention that Leinsdorf was about to be deported from the U.S. back to Austria, where he surely would have been murdered, he maneuvered around American immigration law to send him to the American Consulate in Havana to obtain a residency permit (1938). Leinsdorf, who went on to become a leading conductor and music authority, often credited LBJ with saving his life.
But LBJ’s greatest effort to save Jews during the Holocaust, dubbed “Operation Texas” by Professor Louis S. Gomolak in his 1989 doctoral dissertation, began in 1938, when he learned that his friend, Jim Novy (nee Shimon Novodvorsky), a Jewish constituent and supporter, was planning to visit relatives in Poland and Germany en route to Eretz Yisrael to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah. Johnson urged him to “get as many Jews as possible out of both countries; he somehow convinced the Department of State to pre-approve a pile of signed and countersigned official immigration papers – with no names on them; and delivered them to Novy, who was able to arrange for 42 Jews to immigrate to the United States.
When in 1939, LBJ become even more convinced that the Holocaust was imminent, he took the initiative to gather Jewish leaders for a meeting to discuss what further action could be taken to get more Jews out of Europe. According to Gomolak, he secretly helped hundreds of Jewish refugees reach Galveston through Cuba and Mexico; gave them new names; and hid them in the Texas National Youth Administration (NYA), although it was patently illegal to harbor or train non-citizens there. He found jobs for them, channeling many of them into welding schools to prepare them to work in an area of great demand on the eve of World War II and, when FDR put him in charge of the Navy’s shipbuilding personnel, LBJ made certain that “his” Jews were hired to fill various positions. LBJ is credited by some with saving at least four or five hundred Jews during the Shoah.
LBJ later joined Novy at a small Austin gathering to help sell $65,000 in war bonds and, when he rose to address the assembly, he gave a rousing speech in support of the Jewish “underground” fighting in Eretz Yisrael and raised a very substantial sum for arms for the Jewish warriors. They secretly shipped heavy crates to the Jewish underground in Eretz Yisrael labeled “Texas Grapefruit” but which actually contained arms that made an important contribution to Jewish resistance against the British.
LBJ visited the Dachau concentration camp on June 4, 1945. Lady Bird would later recall that “he was still shaken, stunned, terrorized, and bursting with an overpowering revulsion and incredulous horror at what he had seen,” and his eldest daughter, Linda Johnson Robb, noted that “he came after that trip and he wouldn’t talk about it. He was just miserable. It was as if he were struck by some terrible illness. Depressed and wordless, he took to his bed.” According to many historians, his visit to Dachau left a permanent impression on his foreign policy and they suggest that, in particular, his Vietnam policy was driven by his recollections of Dachau and his determination that never again could such atrocities be permitted to occur. Dachau also underscored his promotion of civil rights, which was perhaps his defining domestic policy imperative.
LBJ was an important initiator in providing American aid to Israel. As early as 1951, with Israel in desperate need of money and material to settle the massive influx of Jewish immigrants, he successfully lobbied the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for $150 million (equivalent to $1.66 billion in 2022 dollars) in support. Ben-Gurion described a meeting with LBJ where he explained how Israel absorbed immigrants from backward and oppressive countries, housed them, and trained them for productive lives “and he reacted as if he was himself living the process, as if the man in him could feel all they went through.”
As vice present, LBJ had loaned his Lincoln Continental to Agudas Achim, an Orthodox synagogue in Austin, to transport the congregation’s Torah scrolls in a festive parade bringing them to the new shul building. Ironically, he was scheduled to attend the dedication ceremony on November 22, 1963, but President Kennedy’s murder precluded both his attendance and the dedication itself. The ceremony was rescheduled for a month later – after JFK’s shloshim (the thirty days of mourning after a death) – and President Johnson made it a point to attend the ceremonies. The first speaker was Novy, who served as chairman of the synagogue’s building committee and who, for the first time, publicly acknowledged Operation Texas and formally thanked LBJ “for all those Jews you got out of Germany during the days of Hitler.” When Lady Bird later described the day, she noted that “person after person plucked at my sleeve and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. He helped me get out'” and added that “Jews had been woven into the warp and woof of all [Lyndon’s] years.”
In the early 1950s, LBJ, as Senate Majority Leader, fought against American aid to Egypt generally and, in particular, he forced President Eisenhower to abandon his promise to Egypt to help it fund Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam. When Ike proposed sanctions against Israel during the 1956 Sinai War, LBJ’s concern for Israel trumped his strong interest in maintaining bipartisan unity regarding foreign policy, and he publicly broke with Ike regarding the president’s anti-Israel initiatives. After a meeting with Congressional leaders, LBJ went to the press to complain about Ike’s threatening to sanction Israel unless it withdrew from lands in Sinai it had captured defending itself against Egyptian aggression.
In a difficult corner after the Senate, under LBJ’s leadership, blocked his plans, Eisenhower turned to seeking public support for his anti-Israel position through a nationally televised address to the nation. He paid lip service to America’s support of Israel before arguing that the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel:
. . . The present fact, nonetheless, seems clear: the action taken [by Israel] can scarcely be reconciled with the principles and purposes of the United Nations to which we have all subscribed. And, beyond this, we are forced to doubt that resort to force and war will for long serve the permanent interest of the attacking nations.
Now – we must look to the future. In the circumstances I have described, there will be no United States involvement in these present hostilities . . . We took our first measure in this action yesterday. We went to the United Nations with a request that the forces of Israel return to their own land and that hostilities in the area be brought to a close . . .
LBJ condemned the speech, telling the press, “I regret the emphasis that the president placed on Israel’s default and his failure to call in equally clear terms upon Egypt to observe her obligations under international law.” Israel ultimately agreed to withdraw from Sinai in exchange for American guarantees that it would defend Israel’s maritime rights in the Strait of Tiran and guarantee Israel’s security in the event of an Arab attack.
Soon after taking office in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s murder in 1963, Johnson told an Israeli diplomat, “You have lost a very great friend, but you have found a better one [in me].” This proved to be no mere idle boast. As soon as LBJ became president, American pressure on Israel’s development of a nuclear bomb ceased, and he significantly increased American financial support for Israel.
Although, during the run-up to the 1967 war, LBJ was forced by political considerations to declare publicly that he opposed unilateral action by Israel, he privately gave Israel the “green light” to take whatever actions it deemed necessary to protect itself. Aware that Israel would prevail if there was no Russian intervention, he worked to prevent a major power confrontation with the Soviet Union while firmly upholding Israel’s basic rights. When Russia threatened military action against Israel, the president redirected the Sixth Fleet to within 50 miles of Israel, an unmistakable message of American support for the Jewish State which effectively kept Russia (and the United States) out of the war. Prime Minister Eshkol later proclaimed that “Lyndon Johnson saved Israel.”
In the face of strong opposition from the dependably anti-Israel State Department and its Secretary, Dean Rusk, Johnson was unambiguous about blaming Egypt for the war. Asked after the war by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin why the United States supported Israel when there were 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis, he responded, “Because it is a right thing to do.” He was determined to stand by Israel after the war just as he did during the war; according to White House tapes, in March 1968 he told Arthur Goldberg, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, “I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel.”
And he didn’t. He subsequently withstood great pressure and continued to uphold Israel’s right to “secure and agreed frontiers” as a precondition to Israel’s evacuating territories gained during the 1967 war. After a meeting with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1968 – LBJ was the first president to invite an Israeli head of state to the White House – he reinforced American support for Israel’s demand for a permanent peace as the only basis for a settlement; supplied Israel with Skyhawk and Phantom planes and anti-aircraft missiles, particularly crucial to Israel’s safety after France cut off arms sales to Israel after the Six-Day War; and issued an American guarantee that it would preserve the balance of power in the Middle East. In addition to providing political and economic support to Israel, Johnson was instrumental in creating a joint Israel-U.S. study program for a large desalinization project to meet Israel’s pressing need for more fresh water.
LBJ carefully directed and monitored American diplomacy with respect to the drafting of United Nations Resolution 242 in November 1967, opposing every demand that Israel return all the territories it captured during the Six-Day War; as he explained, “We are not the ones to say where other nations should draw lines between them that will assure each the greatest security. It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure, and there must be recognized, borders. Some such lines must be agreed to by the neighbors involved.” UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg confirmed that Resolution 242 never referred to Jerusalem – and that the omission was intentional.
Given his record on supporting Jews and Israel, it is hardly surprising that Johnson was honored by many Jewish organizations. In the January 16, 1962, correspondence exhibited here, LBJ, as vice president, thanks his correspondent for the great honor that the Home of Old Israel wishes to present him as someone who has “done most to foster the principles of brotherhood of man and concern for the welfare of all people” and expressing his regrets that he cannot attend because of other commitments.
The Home of Old Israel has an interesting back story. Originally conceived as a home for old men and women for members of the Society of Khal Chasidim, a building was purchased in Manhattan for $75,000 in July 1922 and its official opening in March 1924 was attended by more than 2,500 Jews. When the Home was relocated in April 1929 to the former site of Beth Israel Hospital, the procession between buildings was described as “one of the most picturesque parades that the east side has witnessed for many years” as thousands watched as the relocation of 82 tenants accompanied by a band, six Torah scrolls, and American and Jewish flags, as they chanted a hymn with the words of Psalms 71:9, al tashlicheinu l’et ziknah (“Cast us not off in our old age.”)
Although he famously said, “I want to see that little country out there flying its blue and white flag high,” LBJ never did visit Israel. He was truly a righteous gentile whose belief that America had a moral obligation to strengthen Israeli security was a hallmark of his presidency. In conclusion, the pun in the title of an article in the Jerusalem Post perhaps said it best: LBJ was “a friend in deed.”