Why The World Was Watching LBJ’s 1964 Visit To Syracuse

Bridge Street

Central New York welcomed President Lyndon B. Johnson in August of 1964.

LBJ came to Syracuse for the dedication of the SI Newhouse Communications Center at Syracuse University.

His visit came in the middle of a developing international crisis. A few days before, the Navy destroyer USS Maddox reportedly encountered a North Vietnamese torpedo boat in the Gulf of Tonkin. Just the day before the President’s visit, two American ships reported they were under attack.

“Johnson actually addresses the nation on television the night before” says Robert Searing, Curator of History at the Onondaga Historical Association. “His advisers are like, ‘look, President Johnson, you can’t go, this is gonna turn into a full-fledged conflict. He orders retaliatory strikes against the North Vietnamese forces and then gets on Air Force One and flies into Syracuse that next morning.”

Searing says the President’s speech in Syracuse on August 5 laid out in clear detail America’s response to the Tonkin Gulf incident and the government’s intentions in Southeast Asia.

Johnson was a very loyal guy. He made a commitment to S.I. Newhouse, who was a I mean obviously an enormous publishing magnate who had a network everywhere, and Johnson was running for reelection. Well, actually his first election, and so he wanted to keep his commitment. He knew Newhouse was to be vital to his reelection campaign and his network.

Robert Searing, Curator of History at the Onondaga Historical Association

Searing says Central New York welcomed President Johnson with open arms, including at the airport and along a 12-mile motorcade route.

“I mean, just to have the President visit by itself would be an incredible situation” says Searing. “But to have him come here in the middle of a crisis, that would, as we now know, right, with hindsight, that would literally tear the country apart. 58,000 American servicemen would die. Countless Vietnamese citizens would die at the height of the conflict. 580,000 American troops are in Vietnam. It’s really incredible to think that here he was in Syracuse in the middle of this amazing called turn of historical events. Two days after his visit, Congress basically gives him a blank check to wage the war in Vietnam, which he will escalate over the next four years.”

The Onondaga Historical Association has a museum at 321 Montgomery Street in Syracuse you can visit to learn more about local history.

Click here to visit their website.

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