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A bit of history

Who was the best president in the time since I was born? I’ve often thought about that question. I put Harry Truman to the side, as I can’t recall anything about him. All the Republicans can be set to the side as well.

Despite the Vietnam War and its disastrous aftermath, I keep coming back to Lyndon Johnson. After Kennedy was assassinated, like lots of kids my age, I practically worshipped him, but I’m convinced now that had he lived, we may never have gotten Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Maybe Johnson only got those things because Kennedy’s death put some wind in his sails, but in any event, I don’t think Kennedy could have done it, and it remains a fact that Johnson did.

The man was not without his flaws, but the fact that he, a Southerner, fully embraced the civil rights movement was remarkable. And today I learned something even more remarkable about him. My wife is currently reading a piece of historical fiction, and came upon this factoid, which I confirmed on line:

Most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict can identify Johnson as the president during the 1967 war. But few know about LBJ’s actions to rescue hundreds of endangered Jews during the Holocaust – actions that could have thrown him out of Congress and into jail. Indeed, the title of “Righteous Gentile” is certainly appropriate in the case of the Texan, whose centennial year is being commemorated this year.

Historians have revealed that Johnson, while serving as a young congressman in 1938 and 1939, arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and oversaw the apparently illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews through the port of Galveston, Texas.

FIVE DAYS after taking office in 1937, LBJ broke with the “Dixiecrats” and supported an immigration bill that would naturalize illegal aliens, mostly Jews from Lithuania and Poland. In 1938, Johnson was told of a young Austrian Jewish musician who was about to be deported from the United States. With an element of subterfuge, LBJ sent him to the US Consulate in Havana to obtain a residency permit. Erich Leinsdorf, the world famous musician and conductor, credited LBJ for saving his life.

That same year, LBJ warned a Jewish friend, Jim Novy, that European Jews faced annihilation. “Get as many Jewish people as possible out [of Germany and Poland],” were Johnson’s instructions. Somehow, Johnson provided him with a pile of signed immigration papers that were used to get 42 Jews out of Warsaw.

But that wasn’t enough. According to historian James M. Smallwood, Congressman Johnson used legal and sometimes illegal methods to smuggle “hundreds of Jews into Texas, using Galveston as the entry port. Enough money could buy false passports and fake visas in Cuba, Mexico and other Latin American countries…. Johnson smuggled boatloads and planeloads of Jews into Texas. He hid them in the Texas National Youth Administration… Johnson saved at least four or five hundred Jews, possibly more.”

via Lyndon Johnson-A Righteous Gentile

I never would have suspected such a thing. I don’t know if this is covered in Robert Caro’s biography, but it appears to be well documented. Anyway, it certainly raises him up in my estimation. I think we can rest assured that we won’t discover facts like this about the person currently residing in the White House.

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