The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Eight


With Eisenhower’s election as president in 1952, Ernest McFarland, the Democratic leader until then, lost his election, and Eisenhower carried a Republican majority (but a small one) into both houses. With McFarland gone, the post of leader was open in the Democratic party, and Johnson arranged to get it, with the help of Richard Russell, who could have had it himself, but didn’t want it. Instead, he wanted Johnson to have it, and conservatives in the party were happy to go along. They were convinced that Johnson shared their views, since he’d been voting with them for quite some time.
Johnson didn’t want just conservatives backing him, though, so he managed to change the Senate’s seniority system so young senators could get seats on good committees without having to wait for years, and several of these were liberals, as related in my last post. This made for a more united party, which could better resist Republican initiatives, and to a large extent it was united behind Johnson.
Johnson wanted to keep it that way. He didn’t want to push divisive issues, since there were a number of things all Democrats didn’t agree on, and any such issue he wanted to keep private. So he had Gerald Siegel, who had served with him on the Preparedness committee that had looked into many aspects of the conduct of the Korean war, to analyze drafts of any pending legislation, and contact any senators objecting to any of it to find out what it would take to meet those objections. That way much disagreement was kept behind closed doors, and the Democrats presented a united front to the Republicans.
This was a departure from the way the Senate had operated in the past, where disagreements were aired on the floor to educate all senators, as well as the public. But on the Policy committee Johnson wanted to submit only bills that had 100% backing, as a way of passing desirable legislation as a minority party. Therefore he suggested a liaison between the Policy committee and all the subcommittees, so the Policy committee would know about bills in the works, and where they stood. Another way of increasing the Senate’s efficiency.
But this changed the way the Senate had traditionally worked too: before, chairmen of committees and subcommittees had been very independent, which had made them powerful. Now Johnson, first through his staff, then more and more personally, was exerting control over staff members of other committees to find out what the committees were doing, and to help or hinder them as he thought desirable. Caro comments that if the Southern senators had realized what Johnson was doing, they could have stopped him. He was changing the power dynamic of the Senate, and that had implications for both liberal and conservative. But we’ll never know if at least some of them did understand it, and thought it was good, or thought it could help make Lyndon Johnson president (which Southerners generally thought would keep racial laws of the time intact), whether they thought the changes would benefit the Senate, or the Democratic party. This was, says Caro, the first time Johnson had used his political genius for anything larger than himself (though of course he benefited too), with the single exception of the rural electrification project in his home district. He was now beginning to have the power he’d been striving for, which he would use for his own benefit, but also for the benefit of his party and his country.
Eisenhower had won election in a landslide, and Democrats weren’t happy. But Johnson saw his presidency as an opportunity for Democrats, particularly because the Old Guard of the Republicans didn’t much like Eisenhower. If Democrats supported him against Republicans, they would be more popular, conflict between Republicans might benefit Democrats, and Lyndon Johnson would be more popular with conservatives in Texas–and he had an election coming up in two years. Supporting Eisenhower would not be difficult because the pending business was foreign relations, and many Republicans were isolationists, wanting the country to return to pre-World War II policies. That wasn’t Eisenhower’s position.
Some Democrats were easy to convince. Sam Rayburn considered Eisenhower truthful, a quality very important to Rayburn, and that he understood what the military needed. He would support Eisenhower’s estimates of what was needed for defense, and wouldn’t oppose him domestically, unless he tried to repeal Roosevelt’s reforms. Richard Russell thought Eisenhower knew his business militarily, and supported him on that basis. Others weren’t as easy to convince. It took a lot of conversation to persuade Senate Democrats how popular Eisenhower was, and that he’d been essentially carrying out Roosevelt and Truman’s foreign policy as head of the Allied force that invaded Europe, and later as commander of NATO.
So when Eisenhower proposed a resolution rejecting the “interpretations” of the Yalta treaty that had subjugated eastern Europe, instead of repudiating the treaty entirely, Republican isolationists (a strong wing of the party) were outraged. Johnson then announced that Democrats would support the resolution as it was. This was a relatively simple step, even if it was difficult to get a lot of Democrats to agree to it. The next challenge would be much more difficult.
This challenge came from an Ohio senator named John W. Bricker, who proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would put strict limits on president’s ability to negotiate with foreign countries by insisting that any agreements reached would not only have to be ratified by the Congress, but many state legislatures as well. Johnson was totally against this bill, saying it would tie not only Eisenhower’s hands, but the hands of any future president (and he planned eventually to be president).
The difficulty here was that there were many different things he wanted to accomplish in opposing the bill: he needed to oppose the bill without the public (and his conservative backers) knowing that he did, so he persuaded Eisenhower to publicly oppose it. That was the simplest part. Getting moderates and liberals to oppose it wouldn’t work: there weren’t enough of them to stop it. He had to get at least some conservatives to oppose it too, and he didn’t want the public to see conservatives allied with the president: he wanted them to see Eisenhower opposed by his own party, for Democrats to get credit for stopping the bill, and that he himself also get credit–all without alienating his conservative backers.
Part of the solution was to get a conservative Democrat to counter Bricker’s amendment with one of his own. It would have to be sufficiently similar that Republicans would support it and Eisenhower oppose, strong enough that it would supplant the Bricker amendment, but would still lose, and it couldn’t lose by a large margin, or his conservative backers would be upset. That was a lot to have to accomplish.
He got Walter George, a prominent Southern conservative to submit his own version of the amendment, which was very simple: no provision of a treaty could supersede the Constitution, and none could become effective “as internal law in the United State…except by an act of Congress.” This attracted liberal support, and the primacy of the Constitution made it palatable to most conservatives.
When it came time to vote, Johnson still had several things he wanted to make sure of.But A Republican compromise bill had been submitted, so Johnson arranged for a Democratic senator to move that the George bill be substituted for it. This would give Walter George a triumph, and would only have to pass by a simple majority, rather than the 2/3s majority necessary to pass the final bill. He didn’t want George’s amendment to pass, though, since it would restrict presidential powers he didn’t want restricted, but he wanted it to come CLOSE to passing. Bricker’s original amendment didn’t pass at all, so he was over one hurdle.
But George’s amendment did pass, and by a 61-30 vote, which was worrisome because it was a 2/3s majority, and Johnson wanted to make sure the bill didn’t pass the final vote. The situation was complicated because the Republican Majority Leader switched to vote for the George bill, and would probably carry some other Republicans with him.
Johnson was ready for that, though. He had persuaded three Democratic senators to switch, and vote against the bill, but some Republicans had switched too, and voted for it. The count stood at 60 for and 30 against, precisely enough to pass the bill. One senator had been asleep, but was found, brought to the floor, and voted no. The amendment failed by just one vote. Johnson had accomplished exactly what he wanted, and with very little margin for error, he had made no errors. He took pride in his ability to count votes, and this one showed that he was the very best at it. And such was his skill that his conservative supporters never learned that he had actually opposed the bill.
Caro remarks that this was a particularly important turning point. After the First World War Woodrow Wilson had worked hard to form the League of Nations, but the Congress had refused to ratify it. The United States had retreated into isolationism, and hadn’t participated in world politics again until World War II. We’ll never know, but had the USA been active earlier, that war might conceivably have been averted. We’ll also never know whether American domination of world politics after World War II has been a better thing than isolationism would have been. America’s foreign policy record has been quite mixed.


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