Heros. Are They Born Or Made? JFK & LBJ Essay, Research Paper
Heros, are They Born or Made?
Throughout recorded history, mankind has followed their leaders where ever they lead.
Be it with John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Camelot, or Lyndon Baines Johnson to the Gulf of
Tonkin. In their own respective manners, both of these men were great heroes and villains.
James Reston (1994) wrote that “the tragedy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was greater than the
accomplishment, but in the end the tragedy enhances the accomplishment and revives hope. ”
(Hilty, 1994 p. 418 ) . Henry F. Graff (1994) inscribed that “the long and costly war in Vietnam
that Johnson had not avoided, could not win, and did not end will long remain the dark shadow
on his record. The domestic legislation and the generous spirit that actuated it will be his
shining monument when and if, a longer perspective reduces at last the size of that shadow”
(Morton, 1994 p. 393). Of these two very different men, one was molded into a hero and one
was destined to become a hero from birth. Are our greatest heroes born or are they made? I feel
strongly that heros are made, not born.
In domestic matters, Kennedy accomplished little during his thousand days in office. He
gave little attention to domestic affairs. His inaugural address contained not one word about
race relations or the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy, John’s brother, admitted that they
had “…lost no sleep over the Negroes” (Hilty, 1994 p.422). The Kennedys first urged leaders
such as Martin Luther King Jr. to be patient and avoid the incidents harmful to America’s image
abroad. Escalating crisis sucked the Kennedys into the vortex of the movement (Hilty, 1994
p.422). Kennedy did seek and obtained a minor increase in the minimum wage and Social
Security coverage, plus money for public housing, and forced a temporary rollback in steel
prices ( Sellen, 1987 p.1297). By November of 1963, he had substantially increased American
military commitment to South Vietnam and created the necessary conditions for further
American involvement which occurred under President Johnson (Morton, 1994 p.421). On the
positive side, Kennedy endorsed the Peace Corp, Food for Peace, and Agency for International
Development. These programs improved America’s image in emerging nations of Africa and
Asia. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress gave hope for Latin America (Morton, 1994 p.422).
Kennedy also sought a tax cut to stimulate the economy, federal aid to education and Medicare,
but since he lacked reliable majorities in Congress, these programs remained tied up in Congress
until after Kennedy’s death (Patterson, 1995).
One must also take into consideration that John Kennedy also had his share of military
catastrophes. Least we ever forget the badly fumbled attempt to envade Cuba to overthrow
Castro? Many Cuban exiles were either killed or captured at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy’s greatest
crisis in foreign policy was the situation which arose when Khrushchev tried to establish nuclear
missiles in Cuba in 1962. Kennedy choose to blockade Cuba and threaten Khrushchev by
maintaining in reserve an air attack on the missile sites. At first, armed conflict seemed likely
and the world lingered on the verge of nuclear war for nearly two, extremely tense, weeks
(Hilty, 1994 p. 421).
During his two years as vice president, Johnson greatly expanded upon the duties
assigned to that position. With Kennedy’s blessings, the stalwart vice president became a roving
ambassador making numerous trips abroad to confer with foreign heads of state. His most
notable trip took place in mid-1961 when Johnson officially visited Southeast Asia. His brief
stay in Vietnam deepened his conviction that the South Vietnam government must be supported
almost at all costs (Morton, 1994 p.396).
There were two other positions in which the vice president played meaningful roles in the
Kennedy administration. Since Johnson had long been interested in space exploration, Kennedy
appropriately gave Johnson the position of monitoring the space program by appointing him
chairman of the Space Council. Johnson’s second area of prime concern was civil rights. As
chairman of the newly created President’s Committee on Equal Employment, Johnson headed
the federal government program to secure job opportunities especially for blacks. The Civil
Rights efforts of the Kennedy years, led by Vice President Johnson, were quite possibly a
necessary prelude to the passage of historic Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 under President
Johnson. Despite measurable achievements in the areas of space exploration and civil rights,
Johnson’s tenure as vice president was one of frustration. Serving as he did in the shadow of the
popular, youthful JFK, there was apparently little chance for him to become president of the
United States (Morton. 1994 p. 396).
On November 22, 1963, while on a trip to Dallas to try to heal a split in the Texas
Democrats, Kennedy was tragically assassinated. In this moment of total and unbelievable
horror, Johnson assumed the duties and hardships of the presidency.
After being elevated to the White House, Johnson quickly proved to be a masterful and
reassuring leader in the realm of domestic affairs. In 1964, Congress passed a tax-reduction law
that promised to promote economic growth and the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched
the program called the War on Poverty. Johnson proved to be very skillful in acquiring a strong
Civil Rights Act in 1964. In future years, this Act proved to be a vital source of legal authority
against racial and sexual discrimination (Morton, 1994 p. 397).
In the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson was overwhelmingly elected to the
office of President of the United States. Johnson’s triumph gave him a mandate for his Great
Society, as he called his domestic program. Congress responded by finally passing the Medicare
program, approving federal aid to elementary and secondary education, enhancing the War on
Poverty, and creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Patterson, 1995).
The vast amount of reform legislation that Johnson passed in his first three years in office was
awesome. His Great Society program represented an achievement almost unparalleled in
American history (Morton, 1994 p. 397).
Johnson will undoubtedly be remembered not for his domestic reform, but for his
enlargement of the increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia. Johnson did not initiate the
involvement of the United States in Vietnam. He did, however, enlarge upon a U.S.
commitment to the Saigon government in South Vietnam. This commitment was made by
Johnson’s three predecessors, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Logically
following the efforts of these three men to support the corrupt and undemocratic government of
South Vietnam, by 1965 Johnson had increased the war effort to such an extent that there were
over 200,000 Americans fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. By February of 1968
Johnson increased the count of American troops by 206,000, bringing the US forces count to
over 700,000. Somehow, an unwanted and misunderstood conflict in Southeast Asia had
become a major war which would not only disrupt the tiny country in which it was being fought,
but would also prove to have dire consequences on President Johnson and his nation (Morton,
These two great men put wrinkles in the history of the United States. Both are
proclaimed as heroes in their own right.
Kennedy led us to Camelot. But what role did he play? Was he the staunch and devoted
Arthur or the womanizing and deceitful Lancelot? His shallowness and indifference to the needs
of the masses seems to have been ingrained at an early age . “The Kennedys passed the years of
the Great Depression in privileged luxurious isolation from America’s social and economic
torment” (Hilty, 1994 p. 419). John Kennedy was apparently more interested in the appearance
of the United States to the world than he was in the domestic affairs of his own people. This was
demonstrated by his indifference to the racial unrest which was brewing within his own nation.
If not for the prodding of his brother, Robert Kennedy, John would never have passed any civil
rights bills. It was more important to Kennedy that the United States stop Communism and feed
the hungry of emerging nations than it was to halt racial and sexual discrimination and feed the
hungry of this nation.
Kennedy also was a “user”. He used his father’s money to finance his campaigns, his
father’s friends as political bosses and to help him publish his first book, his war story of
heroism, the help of his aides to win a Pulitzer Prize and his youth, charisma and family name, to
charm a nation into believing what they were seeing, through the tint of rose colored glasses,
was the way of a new generation ( Hilty, 1994 p. 420). The nation was finished with reliving
the past, and was now ready to move into the future. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the man
chosen to lead them.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, on the other hand, was born and raised on a farm in central
Texas. He knew first hand what it was like to work the land and to do without. While the
Kennedy children were reared in an atmosphere of family closeness and loyalty, Lyndon
assumed the role of older brother who frequently helped his somewhat prudish mother and
whimsical father raise his siblings. Lyndon became almost a surrogate father to his younger
brother and three younger sisters (Morton, 1994 p.393).
During his college years, Johnson demonstrated to his Hispanic junior high school
students his concern about equal treatment to people regardless of their color or origin. He
encouraged his students to take their educations seriously. He was also concerned about the
unemployment rate of young people. This was demonstrated by his action as the Texas director
of the National Youth Administration (Morton, 1994 p. 394).
Johnson’s rise through politics resulted from hard work beginning at the “grass-roots”
level. Unlike Kennedy, Johnson started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. His
persuasiveness and willingness to negotiate were his forte’ in winning him his elected seats
Unfortunately, Johnson inherited a war no one wanted. Since it was his duty to try to win
this war, he performed in the only manner he trusted. Many of Johnson’s ancestors had fought in
the Alamo, and war and conflict were no strangers to Johnson. Therefore, with what he may
have considered the blessings of his forefathers, he set out to win an unwinable war by
increasing the number of combatives who were fighting for unknown causes (Morton, 1994
But alas, Johnson did win some of the domestic wars which were flourishing in this great
nation. He pushed through the Medicare program to make sure that elderly persons would be
able to obtain decent medical care, he was instrumental in the passing of the most important of
the civil rights bills, he established a variety of relief and services agencies such as VISTA,
work-study, and a Job Corps. He attempted to win the war on poverty by attacking the major
causes of poverty – namely illiteracy, unemployment, and inadequate public services (Morton,
1994 p. 397).
Which of these two powerful men is to be considered the greatest hero? Will it be the
rich, handsome Kennedy who was born into the lifestyle of a politician? Who had his political
career bought and paid for by a wealthy and powerful family. Who was born into the lap of
luxury with a silver spoon in his mouth. Or is the better choice Johnson, who was born into a
family which firmly believed that the country and its people came before self? Who understood
and respected the hard work and efforts of others. Who made his own way in politics without
the aid of wealthy parents. Webester’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary describes a hero as “…c: a
man admired for his achievments and noble qualities d: one that shows great courage…”
(p.566). But which man was made into a hero?
This writer feels that Johnson is the better choice. Johnson arose from the ashes of
Camelot, not unlike a Phoenix bird, with his tail feathers singed by the fires of Vietnam. He
assumed the awesome duties that were handed to him without question. He finished the work of
his predessor without receiving credit where credit was rightfully due. (Even after his death,
Kennedy was still receiving credit for work that others had accomplished.) Johnson accepted the
war of three prior Commander-in-Chiefs and battled it the only way that he knew how. Because
his strong militant mannerisms will forever shadow his domestic accomplishments, Johnson may
never receive full recognition for the forceful and effective domestic programs that he pushed
through Congress. If Johnson had not cared so much about his nation of people, would he have
fought so diligently for programs such as Medicare, VISTA, work-study programs, and Job
Corps? Johnson first illustrated his concern for the equal rights of all men to his Hispanic junior
high school students: thus, began his long and successful fight to pass some of the most
important civil rights bills of this nation. Without his efforts, The Great Society would never
have had a chance.
The answer to this question will not be available until future historians can research and
compile facts in a totally non-judgmental and unbiased manner.
When I first began research for this paper, I firmly believed that John Kennedy was my
“knight in shining armor.” I believed all that I had been told by my elder generations about how
Kennedy had fought the battle for civil rights because he believed in equality for everyone. I had
faith in the belief that Kennedy had fought his way up through the political circus to become one
of the most powerful men in the world. I knew in my heart that Kennedy cared more about his
own nation of people than he cared about an entire world of people. After all, wasn’t it Kennedy
who stood up to Castro and Khrushchev? So what if the cost of his stand nearly equaled nuclear
war? Kennedy was only protecting HIS people from the ravages of Communism and the Big
Red Monster. And as for Kennedy’s indiscretions with women, after all that he had done for his
nation, lets’ just forgive him. After all, he was just human, and he was a “born hero.”
As far as I had been told, Lyndon B. Johnson was just an “old war monger” who sent
thousands of American youth to Vietnam. He had no concern for this country. All he was
worried about was winning this war at what ever the cost was. Unfortunately, the cost was
thousands of deaths of some of America’s finest young men and women.
Now, as I take off my “rose tinted glasses”, I can see for the first time who the hero of my
former generation was. It wasn’t the flashy war hero who had been born into politics, and bought
his way into office with his family’s money and name. It was the “headstrong old codger” who
spent over thirty years in the nation’s capital making his way to the top. It was through this man’s
tireless efforts that the civil rights movement began to take form, that the War on Poverty began
to fight back, and that the Great Society was conceived and born. Johnson was a man made into
an unsung hero.
I can’t help but wonder if the American society could actually stand to see one of its’
favorite folklore tales crushed. I think not. After all, everyone needs someone to champion and
to be their hero.
Hilty, J. (1994). Historic World Leaders. Vol. 4 pp 418-424
Detroit, Mi. Gales Research Inc.
Morton, J. (1994). Historic World Leaders. Vol. 4 pp 393-398
Detroit, Mi. Gales Research Inc.
Sellen, R. (1987). Great Lives From American History. Vol 3 pp 1295-1298
Pasadena, Ca. Salem Press
Patterson, J. (1995). Groiler Multimedia Encyclopedia. Version 7.0
Packard Bell for IBM computers
Webester’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990).
Springfield, Mass. Merriam-Webester Inc.