Let Us Continue is a speech that President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered to both houses of Congress on November 27, 1963, five days after the assassination of his predecessor John F. Kennedy. It was a eulogy for the murdered president, an attempt to lift up the shaken American nation, a legitimation of Johnson's new presidential power and a sketch of his political program. The almost 25-minute speech is considered one of the most important in his political career.
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas at about 12:30 p.m. CST. The doctors of the local Parkland Memorial Hospital, who tried to save the life of the 35th President of the United States in an emergency operation were not successful. With the death of Kennedy, his vice president automatically became his successor in office. On the same day, Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One and became the 36th President of the United States.
After the president's plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., Johnson said a few words to the public. This lasted less than 40 seconds. Johnson was not the center of attention, as cameramen and photographers concentrated on the removal of the coffin containing Kennedy's remains. The dead and the bereaved – especially his widow Jacqueline Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy and his children – remained at the center of media and public attention in the following days. This applied to a large extent to the funeral ceremonies on November 25, 1963.
Johnson, who had fallen into political isolation with his vice-presidency, who was systematically pushed aside by many of Kennedy's advisers and ministers, who felt himself humiliated and who thought himself politically dead, already took the initiative in Dallas, even before the flight back to Washington: he began with the transition of power. Immediately upon arrival at the Executive Office Building, where his official residence as Vice President was located, Johnson continued this work. As late as November 22, he spoke with Everett Dirksen, leader of the Republicans in the Senate, and with John W. McCormack, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives. In the following days, telephone calls or meetings with union leaders like George Meany, Walter Reuther, Alex Rose and David Dubinsky followed, also with Frederick Kappel, AT&T spokesman and Chairman of the Business Council, and with representatives of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King and Whitney Young. Johnson also contacted the opinion leaders of political liberalism and conservatism in Congress. In these personal talks he asked for support and help in the task of leading the United States out of the crisis that had been caused by the assassination of Kennedy. He also pursued this intention on November 25, 1963, when he met with state governors.
To ensure the continuity of government work and thus publicly emphasize stability, the new president made intensive efforts to persuade key persons from the Kennedy administration to stay – at least for a transitional period. This was achieved among others with Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense), Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor), furthermore surprisingly fast and comprehensive also with Kennedy consultants or admirers like Ted Sorensen (White House Counsel and speechwriter), Pierre Salinger (Press Secretary), Walter Heller and John Kenneth Galbraith (both consultants for economic issues), Samuel Beer (South America Expert), Paul A. Samuelson (expert for financial economics), William Walton (journalist and art expert), Richard M. Goodwin (mathematician and economist), Adlai Stevenson (United States ambassador to the United Nations) and Arthur M. Schlesinger (historian). Even Robert Kennedy, who had been associated with Johnson in mutual dislike since their first meeting, was persuaded to continue his duties as US Attorney General.
The demonstration of political capacity to act also included the individual conversations that Johnson conducted with guests of state who had come to Washington to attend the state funeral. These politicians included among others Lester Pearson (Prime Minister of Canada), Ikeda Hayato (Prime Minister of Japan), Anastas Mikoyan (Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union) and Charles de Gaulle (President of France).
From draft to speech
The day after Kennedy was assassinated Dwight D. Eisenhower had a conversation with Johnson. The former president suggested that Johnson should deliver a speech to both houses of Congress. The Capitol seemed suitable because it was here that Johnson had risen to become a leader, the Master of the Senate, because he thought there were many friends and only a few opponents, because the walk up Capitol Hill was a gesture of appreciation for the legislature and its independence, and because political demands on the law makers could be addressed at the same time. In the afternoon of November 23, 1963, the date of this speech was also set: it was to be delivered four days later, on November 27. It was clear that this speech would be the most important that Johnson had ever made in his career. Many Americans did not know him and it was necessary to establish trust in his person and leadership. The speech would be broadcast on television, millions of Americans would watch it. It was an advantage that television stations broadcast portraits after November 22 that showed Johnson in a positive light.
Johnson put together a team to develop speech drafts. It included the three Kennedy confidants Ted Sorensen, John Kenneth Galbraith and McGeorge Bundy. Horace Busby and Bill Moyers came from Johnson's inner circle.
A number of other men provided essential ideas and thoughts for the planned speech; inputs came from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abe Fortas (a lawyer and friend of Johnson in Washington), Hubert Humphrey (a key player of the liberals in the Democratic Party), Mike Mansfield (Whip of the Democrats in the Senate), Dean Rusk, Douglas Dillon (Secretary of the Treasury), Adlai Stevenson, Orville Freeman (Secretary of Agriculture) and Kermit Gordon (director of the Bureau of the Budget).
Galbraith provided a draft that Johnson initially agreed to. However, on November 25 Sorensen vehemently opposes this draft by Galbraith, and Sorensen did not want to make it the basis for further work. Sorensen's opinion was important to Johnson, because he considered him the author of passages that had made Kennedy's speeches so brilliant. For this reason Sorensen had also been commissioned to draft a speech since November 23. Kennedy's most important speechwriter presented a text that paid tribute to the murdered man he admired, and seemed like a personal obituary of Sorensens. In Sorensen's draft versions, Johnson remained in the shadow of his predecessor. Johnson should have said, for example, "I who cannot fill his shoes". Johnson had presented himself to the public as someone who at best implemented the ideas of his predecessor, but was unwilling to take on independent and hands-on leadership.
Based on useful elements from Sorensen, Hubert Humphrey and Abe Fortas as well as Walter Jenkins, Jack Valenti, Bill Moyers and above all Horace Busby provided the synthesis and fine-tuning on the night of November 26 to 27, 1963. It was also Busby who, according to the sources, inserted the formative words let us continue on November 26, 1963. In doing so, he reminded Kennedy's inaugural speech of January 20, 1961, in which JFK asked his fellow countrymen: Let us begin. The allusion to Kennedy's words made Busby an instrument for highlighting Johnson's leadership, which pushed for action, especially the political implementation of programs and legislation that had come to a complete standstill. Busby made sure that Johnson did not disappear behind Kennedy, but as a political leader called on his countrymen to fulfill the destiny that history - not Kennedy - had given up on Americans. Central here was the emphasis on the need to finally codify the civil rights of African Americans by law. Busby did not see Johnson as a politician merely reacting to the crisis, but as a forward-looking and active head of the executive branch. Johnson himself had insisted on addressing civil rights prominently the evening before the speech. Against the resistance of parts of his advisers, who considered this topic detrimental because progress could not be achieved in Congress due to the obstruction policy of Southern politicians, Johnson placed the full authority of the office and asked drastically: "What the hell's the presidency for?" Altogether the speech developed from November 23 till late November 26 — at least nine versions are known — from a pure funeral speech to a speech with a mobilizing message and a brief outline of Johnson's political program.
On the morning of November 27, 1963, Johnson studied the final version. He made only minor changes and added hints where he, in danger of speaking too quickly, planned a pause. Underscores marked the words he wanted to emphasize.
Structure of the speech
The speech began with a tribute to Kennedy and his work. Johnson then declared his intention to maintain continuity in American foreign policy. This section was followed by a passage devoted primarily to domestic politicy. The 36th president then addressed his words directly to the members of Congress; they should decide on a tax reform and a bill to reduce racial discrimination. In return, Johnson promised budgetary discipline. He stressed that as a former member of Congress he would respect the independence of the legislature and at the same time assume that the legislature would now act accordingly. The request for national and political cohesion led to the end of the speech, which concluded with a few lines from the patriotic song America the Beautiful.
Key messages and style
Johnson emphasized at the outset that no word was enough to gauge the grief that Kennedy's assassination had caused. He immediately attached an antithesis to this:No word, he said, was strong enough to express the Americans' determination to continue the American push for progress begun by Kennedy. Already at this early point he highlighted Kennedy's initiatives against racial segregation, "the dream of equal rights for all Americans, whatever their race or color." At the same time, he stressed that it was no longer just about noble ideals, but about "effective action". At this point, Johnson recalled not only the "dream" of equal rights, but also "dreams" of education for young people, of jobs for all, of care for the elderly and of a comprehensive fight against mental illness.
In his remarks on continuity in foreign policy, the new President emphasized that America will keep its commitments — from West Berlin to South Vietnam. This was a warning to powers such as the Soviet Union or China, which in the Americans' view threatened freedom.
Johnson called on the members of Congress to take legislative action now. In his rhetoric, he again used strong contrasting pairs and metaphors, urging them to help him. The assassination had placed the burden of the presidency on him. He could not carry it alone, but only with the help of Congress and the Americans. Uncertainty, doubts and delays had to be put aside; one had to show that one was capable of decisive action. The loss of Kennedy should not be a source of weakness, but of strength. Alluding to the Kennedy word let us begin, Johnson formulated let us continue.
The Texas born president stated concretely: The earliest possible passing of the civil rights law, for which Kennedy had fought for so long, was a more eloquent tribute to the murdered man than any eulogy or eulogy of mourning. Moreover, Johnson emphasized that equal rights had been talked about long enough, a hundred years or more. "It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law." All traces of discrimination and oppression based on race or skin color should be eliminated.
Johnson also demanded from Congress to pass a tax reform that would bring tax relief. This would increase the national income, as well as the federal income. The tax reform was conceived in the spirit of a supply-oriented economic policy. Like Kennedy before him, Johnson hoped it would have positive effects on the labor market and on business.
For their cooperation in the urgently needed measures, the President promised Congress members strict budgetary discipline, knowing that the draft budget had been blocked in Congress because it had exceeded the critical $100 billion mark in the eyes of key fiscal policymakers, most notably Harry Byrd.
Johnson was aware that such demands could give the appearance of disregarding the autonomy of Congress. He countered this impression by asserting that he firmly believed in the independence and integrity of the legislature. Respect for this autonomy was in line with his deep conviction. With equal steadfastness, he assumed that the Congress was capable of intelligent, energetic and immediate action. He emphasized: "The need is here. The need is now. I ask your help."
Johnson's call for action was expressed in the speech by the frequent use of the term action, which he used ten times. He had already repeatedly asked for help in talks with representatives of various interest groups and with individuals. Also in his address to both chambers of Congress, he twice explicitly asked for help.
The speaker also used repetitions in other parts of the speech to convey his message clearly. This stylistic device was used right at the beginning of the speech when Johnson spoke of the murdered man's survival ("he lives on"). Also at the beginning he used the means of repetition when he recalled the political dreams that Kennedy had begun to realize ("the dream of ..."). In the further course of the speech, the speaker started repeating what should not happen in the crisis: "not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment". He used the key verb continue five times.
Johnson was not referring to Kennedy alone. Toward the end he alluded to a phrase from Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address from 1863: "So let us here highly resolve that John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not live – or die – in vain."
Performance and immediate reactions
Public speaking was not one of Johnson's strengths for many years. His distinct Southern accent could distract listeners from the content and even turned some of them against the speaker. Although Johnson felt that his lecturing skills could not compete with Kennedy's, he gradually improved his skills. Johnson struggled for long stretches of his life with his temperament, which could also thwart the intended effects of his public appearances. These included his tendency to speak too quickly, to row his arms hectically, and the restlessness of his hands. In the phase of the transition of presidential power to himself, he had these and other personal weaknesses under control. This was evident in the way he delivered his speech in the early afternoon of November 27, 1963: his pace and pronunciation were clear, he appeared calm, composed and determined, he exuded an aura of self-assurance and care.
Lady Bird Johnson
, her daughters Lynda
and other people in the family box during the speech. Photo by Cecil W. Stoughton.
Johnson's speech was interrupted 34 times by applause of the audience. Not only Congress members were present, but also Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, and his daughters, government members and advisors, Supreme court judges, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foreign diplomats and many members of the press. The applause was longest and loudest when Johnson called on Congress to swiftly pass a civil rights bill. Strong applause also followed toward the end of Johnson's speech, when the president called for national and political cohesion across all differences. His listeners finally reacted with standing ovations after he had finished his speech, referring back to song lines from America the Beautiful — very slowly, with a lot of feeling, with a very soft, almost breaking voice.
Not all congress members applauded during the speech. Republicans held back in many moments. In particular, however, no hand of Southern politicians moved as soon as Johnson called for the passage of a law that would strengthen the rights of African Americans.
The newspapers of the country were full of praise, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Herald Tribune, the Boston Herald or Newsweek. Johnson's calm and at the same time determined way of speaking would have contributed much to the persuasive power of his words. In the following weeks, the clear majority of corresponding letters and telegrams to the White House showed that the speech was also received very positively outside the press. The echo in the international press was also favourable. This applied to Western Europe, Latin America (including Cuba) and the Middle East. In Moscow, too, it was evaluated with caution, but positively. Only Renmin Ribao, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, did not spare any criticism; in Beijing one expected the continuation of foreign policy aggression and war by the USA.
The overall positive tenor was later joined by biographers and historians. According to Ashley Barrett, the speech of November 27, 1963, one of the most important in Johnson's career, had an overwhelming success. Robert Dallek judged that few other factors had contributed more to the successful transfer of power than this speech. Robert A. Caro called the speech a "triumph".
In the meantime, Johnson's speech has also been artistically processed. The television film All the Way (2016), starring Bryan Cranston, picked it up in the very first minutes. The film is based on a play with the same title, written by Robert Schenkkan, premiered in 2012.
The speech seemed like the start of successful governance. In record time, Johnson succeeded in getting the long-blocked budget, including a tax reform bill, passed by Congress. Immediately thereafter, efforts began to push through the Civil Rights Act, which succeeded despite considerable resistance from Southern politicians in July 1964. Electoral regulations were excluded from this law. They were regulated one year later in the Voting Rights Act.
Under the term Great Society, which Johnson introduced on May 22, 1964, in a speech at the University of Michigan, the president summarized a wide-ranging social reform program. In addition to equality policy, it included the War on Poverty, health policy (Medicare and Medicaid), educational programs, promotion of culture and the arts (National Endowment for the Arts), promotion of the humanities (National Endowment for the Humanities), consumer protection, measures to promote transportation and mobility, and programs to promote housing and urban planning.
Polls showed very high approval ratings for Johnson. Between March and May 1964 they rose from 70 to 77 percent.
Johnson had only briefly mentioned the American involvement in South Vietnam in his Let-Us-Continue speech. Without knowing it, he had thus conjured up the portent of his failure: The supposed defense of democracy in the Vietnam War was to prove to be the nail in the coffin for his credibility and presidency in the years to come.
- To a Joint Session of the Congress. November 27, 1963. In: A time for action. A selection from the speeches and writings of Lyndon B. Johnson. Introduction by Adlai E. Stevenson. Illustrated with photographs. Pocket Books, New York 1964, pp. 149–156.
- Ashley Barrett: Lyndon B. Johnson, "Let Us Continue" (27 November 1963). In: Voices of Democracy 4 (2009), pp. 97–119.
- Kurt Ritter: Lyndon B. Johnson's Crisis Rhetoric after the Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Securing Legitimacy and Leadership. In: Amos Kiewe (Hrsg.): The Modern Presidency and Crisis Rhetoric, Praeger Publishers, Westport 1994, pp. 73–89, ISBN 0275941760.
- Patricia D. Witherspoon: "Let Us Continue:" The Rhetorical Initiation of Lyndon Johnson's Presidency. In: Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer, 1987, Vol. 17, No. 3, Bicentennial Considerations and the Eisenhower and L.B. Johnson Presidencies (Summer, 1987), pp. 531–539.