First Jewish President?
few months ago, the Associated Press reported that newly released
tapes from US president Lyndon Johnson's White House office showed
LBJ's "personal and often emotional connection to Israel." The
agency pointed out that during the Johnson presidency (1963-1969),
"the United States became Israel's chief diplomatic ally and
primary arms supplier."
the news report does little to reveal the full historical extent
of Johnson's actions on behalf of the Jewish people and the State
of Israel. 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
whose centennial year is being commemorated this year. Appropriately
enough, the annual Jerusalem Conference announced this week
that it will honor Johnson.
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....
key resource for uncovering LBJ's pro-Jewish activity is the unpublished
1989 doctoral thesis by University of Texas student Louis Gomolak,
"Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948." Johnson's
activities were confirmed by other historians in interviews with
his wife, family members and political associates.
into Johnson's personal history indicates that he inherited
his concern for the Jewish people from his family. His aunt Jessie
Johnson Hatcher, a major influence on LBJ, was a member of the Zionist
Organization of America. According to Gomolak, Aunt Jessie had nurtured
LBJ's commitment to befriending Jews for 50 years. As a young boy,
Lyndon watched his politically active grandfather "Big Sam" and
"Little Sam" seek clemency for Leo Frank, the Jewish victim of
blood libel in Atlanta.
was lynched by a mob in 1915, and the Ku Klux Klan in Texas threatened
to kill the Johnsons. The Johnsons later told friends that Lyndon's
family hid in their cellar while his father and uncles stood guard
with shotguns on their porch in case of KKK attacks. Johnson's speech
writer later stated, "Johnson often cited Leo Frank's lynching as
the source of his opposition to both anti-Semitism and isolationism."
in 1934 - four years before Chamberlain's Munich sellout to
Hitler - Johnson was keenly alert to the dangers of Nazism and presented
a book of essays, 'Nazism: An Assault on Civilization', to the
21-year-old woman he was courting, Claudia Taylor - later known as "Lady
Bird" Johnson. It was an incredible engagement present.
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.
same year, LBJ warned 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.
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
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,
World War II Johnson joined Novy at a small Austin gathering
to sell $65,000 in war bonds. According to Gomolak, Novy and Johnson
then raised a very "substantial sum for arms for Jewish underground
fighters in Palestine." One source cited by the historian reports
that "Novy and Johnson had been secretly shipping heavy crates labeled
'Texas Grapefruit' - but containing arms - to Jewish underground
'freedom fighters' in Palestine."
JUNE 4, 1945, Johnson visited Dachau. According to Smallwood, Lady
Bird later recalled that when her husband returned home, "he was still
shaken, stunned, terrorized, and bursting with an overpowering revulsion
and incredulous horror at what he had seen."
A decade later while serving in the Senate, Johnson blocked the Eisenhower
administration's attempts to apply sanctions against Israel following
the 1956 Sinai Campaign. "The indefatigable Johnson had never
ceased pressure on the administration," wrote I.L. "Si" Kenen,
head of AIPAC at the time.
As Senate majority leader, Johnson consistently blocked the anti-Israel
initiatives of his fellow Democrat, William Fulbright, the chairman
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among Johnson's closest
advisers during this period were several strong pro-Israel advocates,
including Benjamin Cohen (who 30 years earlier was the liaison
between Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann)
and Abe Fortas, the legendary Washington "insider.
Johnson's concern for the Jewish people continued through his presidency.
Soon after taking office in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's
assassination in 1963, Johnson told an Israeli diplomat, "You
have lost a very great friend, but you have found a better one."
Just one month after succeeding Kennedy, LBJ attended the December
1963 dedication of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Austin. Novy opened
the ceremony by saying to Johnson, "We can't thank him enough for
all those Jews he got out of Germany during the days of Hitler."
Lady Bird would later describe the day, according to Gomolak: "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.'" Lady Bird elaborated,
"Jews had been woven into the warp and woof of all [Lyndon's]
The PRELUDE to the 1967 war was a terrifying period for Israel, with
the US State Department led by the historically unfriendly Dean Rusk
urging an evenhanded policy despite Arab threats and acts of aggression.
Johnson held no such illusions. After the war he placed the
blame firmly on Egypt: "If a single act of folly was more responsible
for this explosion than any other, it was the arbitrary and
dangerous announced decision [by Egypt that the Strait of Tiran would
be closed [to Israeli ships and Israeli-bound cargo]."
Kennedy was the first president to approve the sale of defensive US
weapons to Israel, specifically Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. But Johnson
approved tanks and fighter jets, all vital after the 1967 war when
France imposed a freeze on sales to Israel. Yehuda Avner recently described
on these pages prime minister Levi Eshkol's successful appeal
for these weapons on a visit to the LBJ ranch.
Israel won the 1967 war, and Johnson worked to make sure it also won
the peace. "I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little
Israel," Johnson said in a March 1968 conversation with his ambassador
to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg, according to White House
tapes recently released.
Soon after the 1967 war, Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked Johnson
at the Glassboro Summit why the US supported Israel when there were
80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis. "Because it is a
right thing to do," responded the straight-shooting Texan.
The crafting of UN Resolution 242 in November 1967 was done under Johnson's
scrutiny. The call for "secure and recognized boundaries" was
critical. The American and British drafters of the resolution opposed
Israel returning all the territories captured in the war. In September
1968, Johnson 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."
Goldberg later noted, "Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem,
and this omission was deliberate." This historic diplomacy was
conducted under Johnson's stewardship, as Goldberg related in oral history
to the Johnson Library. "I must say for Johnson," Goldberg stated.
"He gave me great personal support."
Robert David Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, recently
wrote in The New York Sun, Johnson's policies stemmed more from
personal concerns - his friendship with leading Zionists, his belief
that America had a moral obligation to bolster Israeli security and
his conception of Israel as a frontier land much like his home state
of Texas. His personal concerns led him to intervene when he felt
that the State or Defense departments had insufficiently appreciated
Israel's diplomatic or military needs."
President Johnson firmly pointed American policy in a pro-Israel direction.
In a historical context, the American emergency airlift to Israel
in 1973, the constant diplomatic support, the economic and military
assistance and the strategic bonds between the two countries can
all be credited to the seeds planted by LBJ.
Johnson's maternal ancestors, the Huffmans, apparently migrated to
Frederick, Maryland from Germany sometime in the mid-eighteenth century.
they moved to Bourbon, Kentucky and eventually settled inTexas in
the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
to Jewish law, if a person's mother is Jewish, then that person
is automatically Jewish, regardless of the father's ethnicity or
The facts indicate that both of Lyndon Johnson's great-grandparents, on
the maternal side, were Jewish.
These were the grandparents of Lyndon's mother, Rebecca Baines. Their names
were John S. Huffman and Mary Elizabeth Perrin.
John Huffman's mother was Suzanne Ament, a common Jewish name. Perrin is
also a common Jewish name.
Huffman and Perrin had a daughter, Ruth Ament Huffman, who married Joseph
Baines and together they had a daughter, Rebekah Baines, Lyndon Johnson's
mother. The line of Jewish mothers can be traced back three generations
in Lyndon Johnson's family tree. There is little doubt that
he was Jewish.