The Great Society represented Lyndon Johnson's attempt to move beyond the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt and provide a variety of social programs to uplift the nation. Out of this effort came the "war on poverty," Medicare, environmental legislation, educational funding, and civil rights laws. Unfortunately for Johnson, his vision of a better America clashed with the demands of the Vietnam War. Although most of its programs continue, as a concept the Great Society did not survive his presidency. Johnson's belief that it would be possible to have "guns and butter" proved illusory.
Lyndon Johnson was convinced that liberal nationalism and the power of the federal government could transform society. His faith grew out of his youthful experiences with poverty in Texas, his political apprenticeship during the New Deal, and his desire to surpass Roosevelt's legacy. When he took office in November 1963, after John F. Kennedy's death, Johnson inherited the early initiatives to address poverty that the Kennedy administration had under consideration. With characteristic enthusiasm and expansiveness, Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964 and pushed legislation through Congress to establish the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).
To provide a larger setting for his administration's agenda on domestic affairs, Johnson announced the concept of the Great Society during a commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. He proposed an ambitious range of programs to provide an improved life for all Americans. How the initiatives were to be paid for was not discussed. With the economy growing at a robust rate and the war in Vietnam not yet a major overseas commitment, it seemed to the president that the United States could pursue the Great Society and play a large role in the world without burdening middle-class Americans.
Johnson achieved a landslide victory in the 1964 election, and his success helped to sweep into office solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. During the first six months of 1965, the president used his clout to gain passage of such programs as Medicare, government support of elementary and secondary education, more antipoverty measures, stronger environmental laws (including the Highway Beautification Act, which his wife supported), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But even as his dreams for the Great Society became law, Johnson's political base eroded.
Escalation of the war in South Vietnam during the summer of 1965 and the racial disturbances in the Watts district of Los Angeles during the same period took a toll on Johnson's authority. By the autumn, Congress became less willing to support new domestic programs and the spending they entailed. The haste with which Johnson had initiated his programs meant that some were not well administered. Failures in implementing the Office of Economic Opportunity fed a political reaction. Although Johnson continued to gain victories in Congress on the domestic front, they were fewer than before. The political momentum of the Great Society was running out as 1966 began.
Over the next two years, as the war in Vietnam intensified and the economy overheated, Republicans made gains in the 1966 elections and proved able to slow down Johnson's initiatives. Fears of inflation ate away at public support for what Johnson and the Democrats had tried to do. The Great Society became identified with rising crime rates and racial unrest. The Johnson administration could not sustain what the president had so confidently proposed after all. Congress cut back on social programs and reduced spending on which the success of the Great Society depended. Johnson's domestic policies had to give way to the increasing economic pressures of the Vietnam War. In the minds of many Americans, the Great Society became a symbol of the overreaching power of the government, one result of which was the stalemated war in Southeast Asia. By 1968, when Johnson withdrew as a candidate for the presidency, the Great Society was a victim of the corrosive effects of the war in Vietnam and Johnson's overly ambitious plans for an America made over.
Key parts of the Great Society, especially Medicare, survived the Johnson presidency and became enduring parts of the social safety net for all Americans. The poverty rate went down during the Johnson years, and his environmental policies had a positive effect on the nation's economic and human resources. Nonetheless, the country's swing to the right in the 1970s left the Great Society a discredited idea. Johnson's vision, which had seemed so strong in the spring of 1964, proved to be another casualty of the ill-fated Vietnam War.
Andrew, John, III. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1998.
Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gould, Lewis L. Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
Lewis L. Gould
In his State of the Union message in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) announced the Great Society he envisioned for the United States. Johnson's Great Society encompassed civil rights for minorities, an end to poverty, improved educational opportunities for all, improved health care for the poor and the aged, an improved quality of life in the cities, protection for the consumer, conservation, and environmental regulation.
The Great Society had its roots in two prior presidential administrations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), promising a “New Deal ” to all Americans when he was elected, passed a long list of employment, income-assistance, and labor legislation to help those in need. The New Deal came at a time of widespread poverty during the Great Depression (1929–41; a time of worldwide economic downturn). After World War II (1939–45), the United States experienced astounding economic growth. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) believed this national wealth could be used to help those who had not yet shared in the good economic times. Like Roosevelt, Kennedy proposed employment, education, and health care legislation to help Americans in need.
When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson assumed the presidency. He immediately began to push to make many of Kennedy's proposals into law. A masterful politician, Johnson relied heavily on his political skills as he faced strong opposition in Congress.
Building a dream
During the summer of 1964, Johnson challenged Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, the foundation for what came to be known as the War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act set up a new agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), to administer programs to help the poor, including Project Head Start for preschool children, a jobs corps for youths, job training for adults, a work-study program for needy college students, grants for farmers and rural businesses, loans to individuals and businesses willing to hire the unemployed, a domestic volunteer service program similar to the Peace Corps called Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and a community-action program dealing with juvenile delinquency. Johnson also proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , which combated racial discrimination. Johnson told Congress that enacting these bills would be a fitting tribute to Kennedy.
Johnson's initiatives seemed to be popular with voters. He won the 1964 election in a landslide. With widespread support, he quickly proposed a wide range of programs for mass transportation, food stamps, immigration, and legal services for the poor. Bills aiding elementary, secondary, and higher education were also passed. Medicaid and Medicare were established to assist the poor and elderly, respectively, with medical treatment. Other initiatives created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which aimed at improving housing conditions, particularly in crowded cities; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
These Great Society programs cost billions of dollars but Johnson presented them as a way to expand the U.S. economy using education, job training, and income assistance. Had the prosperous and peaceful times of his early years in office continued, he would have had a chance to prove his point. But a daunting problem lay halfway around the world in Vietnam. By 1965, U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War (1954–75) claimed an increasing amount of Johnson's attention. The money that was to be used to fund his projects was needed for the war effort as U.S. troops and supplies poured into the region. Johnson was pressured to raise taxes to cover the soaring costs of the war and his Great Society measures. Though his heart was in the Great Society, he believed the country was committed to Vietnam, and by 1968 his top economic and political priority was the increasingly unpopular war. Opposed from all sides for the war and the tax hikes, Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968.
Dismantling the Great Society
Twelve years after the 1968 election, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) was elected president. Reagan claimed the burden of Great Society initiatives on taxpayers had become too great while poverty had only grown worse. From the 1980s on, cuts in Great Society programs reduced many of them to the levels they were at before Johnson's presidency. Republicans particularly criticized federal spending on programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, more commonly called welfare, which had been greatly expanded under the Great Society. Critics have charged that these initiatives resulted in high taxes and “big government,” and that they actually hurt the very people they were designed to help.
Nonetheless, Great Society programs from Medicare to public television have remained popular into the twenty-first century, playing a crucial part in many Americans’ lives. Johnson's dream of ending poverty and racism in the United States brought about some powerful changes, but his Great Society was never completed.
In May 1964, President lyndon b. johnson gave a speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in which he outlined his domestic agenda for the United States. He applauded the nation's wealth and abundance but admonished the audience that "the challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of American civilization." Johnson's agenda was based on his vision of what he called "the Great Society," the name by which the agenda became popularly known.
Part of the Great Society agenda was based on initiatives proposed by Johnson's predecessor, john f. kennedy, but Johnson's vision was comprehensive and far-reaching. Johnson wanted to use the resources of the federal government to combat poverty, strengthen civil rights, improve public education, revamp urban communities, and protect the country's natural resources. In short, Johnson wanted to ensure a better life for all Americans. He had already begun his push toward this goal with his "War on Poverty," a set of initiatives announced in 1964 and marked by the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This act authorized a number of programs including Head Start; work-study programs for college students; Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic version of the Peace Corps; and various adult job-training programs. Johnson's Great Society proposal was ambitious, even by his standards—as a seasoned politician, he had a well-earned reputation for getting things done. Not only that, he had to win the 1964 presidential election before he could enact his ideas.
Johnson sought affordable health care for all, stronger civil rights legislation, more benefits for the poor and the elderly, increased aid to education, economic development, urban renewal, crime prevention, and stronger conservation efforts. To many, Johnson's initiative seemed to be the most sweeping change in federal policy since franklin d. roosevelt's new deal in the 1930s.
The Great Society theme was the foundation of his campaign in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson's Republican opponent, barry goldwater, campaigned on a promise of reducing the size and scope of the federal government. In the end, Johnson's campaign for the Great Society was convincing enough that he carried 46 states and won 61 percent of the popular vote in November.
Johnson outlined his Great Society programs during his State of the Union address in January 1965, and over the next several months progress followed quickly. medicare was introduced to provide healthcare funding to senior citizens. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law, guaranteeing increased funding to disadvantaged students. The housing and urban development (HUD) program was created to bring affordable housing to the inner cities. The Highway Beautification Act was signed, providing funding to clear the nation's highways of blight. Along with that went legislation to regulate air and water quality. The civil rights act of 1965 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, and gender.
Johnson chose John Gardner to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Gardner, who was sworn in on July 27, 1965, was a psychologist, an authority on education, and had previously been head of the Carnegie Corporation. Widely respected by members of both parties (he was a Republican) Gardner helped carry out Johnson's goals and agenda; in some circles he was known as the "engineer of the Great Society."
Johnson's Great Society made a genuine difference in the lives of millions of Americans, and many of its initiatives are still integral to U.S. society in the twenty-first century. But the programs were expensive, costing billions of dollars, and many of Johnson's opponents said that the programs only added new layers of bureaucracy to an already oversized government. A more pressing issue, however, was the vietnam war. What was supposed to have been a short-term exercise had now gone on for several years with financial and human cost. The war was highly unpopular with a large portion of American society, and the energy needed to keep the war effort going drained resources from the programs of the Great Society. The departure of Gardner from HEW was a blow to Johnson, especially since after Gardner left HEW he spoke out publicly against the war.
The 1960s also saw an upsurge in racial unrest. Despite the sweeping civil rights initiatives Johnson had launched, many poor blacks felt it was not enough. Racial unrest in major cities led to several riots, and it was clear that there was a great deal of pent-up anger and frustration that could not simply be legislated away.
Faced with mounting criticism because of Vietnam, Johnson chose not to run for reelection in 1968. The shadow of Vietnam hung over him until his death five years after, and it was only later that the American people were able to appreciate fully the scope and importance of Johnson's role in shaping the Great Society.
Andrew, John A. 1998. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago, Ill.: I. R. Dee.
GREAT SOCIETY, the program of liberal reform put forward by President Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 commencement address at the University of Michigan that proposed expanding the size and scope of the federal
government to diminish racial and economic inequality and improve the nation's quality of life. Johnson sponsored legislation that strengthened African American voting rights and banned discrimination in housing and public service provision. The War on Poverty, a collection of community empowerment and job programs, directed resources toward the inner cities and the Medicare and Medicaid programs provided health insurance to the poor and elderly, respectively. While many Great Society programs were subsequently abandoned, in the early 2000s, Democrats continued to defend the social insurance and civil rights changes Johnson enacted.
Andrews, John A. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.