Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society
November 22, 1963.  I was an eleven years old sixth grader, and I thought the world was coming to an end.  The man who (at the time) so many of us thought was one of the greatest presidents ever, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was dead—and many of us felt we were on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.  But as I read the newspapers the next day, my spirits lifted a bit as I read the biography of our new president, Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson seemed superbly qualified to take over for Kennedy (my dad, by the way, was—with good reason, considerably less enthusiastic). 

LBJ Background

Unlike Kennedy, Johnson wasn’t born rich.  His father was a Texas farmer who very nearly went bankrupt.  Johnson had neither the connections nor the grades to get into an elite college like Harvard.  Instead, he went to a Texas teachers college, a school very much like NSU.  He did well enough to get into Georgetown law school, then got a job as a legislative aid. He then ran for congress, winning the democratic primary by a slim margin—so slim, it earned him the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.”  Johnson served 10 years in congress, and then, in 1948, was elected to the senate.  He served as party whip in 1951, and, by 1955 was the majority party leader.  His was a master politician, the kind of guy who got things done, even if it required a bit of arm-twisting and (maybe) blackmail. In 1960, he was elected Vice President.

Thus the man who took over as president on Kennedy’s assassination was about as well qualified and as well prepared as anyone could possibly be.  The question was, what would he do as president?  My dad  and many others were not so optimistic.  Johnson, while certainly able, was tainted by his reputation for corruption—and, as it turns out—even the best informed people of the time didn’t know the half of it.

But presidential magic struck again. The challenge and tradition of the presidency turned Johnson into a more statesmanlike person than perhaps we had any right to expect, and Johnson as president, was determined to take the country to new heights. In the next five years,
Lyndon Johnson did everything in his power to turn America into a "Great Society."  Unfortunately, his well-intended programs did little to alleviate the problems American society faced, and may actually have increased the turmoil of the 1960's.

The Great Society

What exactly did Johnson mean by the “great society”?  He made his ideas clear in a May 1964 speech at the University of Michigan.  Johnson noted that, for the first century of our country’s existence, the main task was to expand and subdue the continent.  For the next fifty years, our task was to accumulate wealth.  For the next 50 years, the task was to use that wealth wisely.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods. But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

We would extend liberty, end injustice, end poverty—and that’s only the beginning! Would Johnson be able to do all this? Well, not quite yet. Johnson, an unelected president, used 1964 mostly to stake out what he intended as our future course. The actual implementation would wait until he had an electoral mandate.

Of course, it was easy for Johnson to secure the Democratic nomination in 1964.  He chose as his running mate Hubert Horatio Humphrey—in many ways, an excellent choice for balancing the ticket.  As a slogan, “All the Way with LBJ”—a clear call for an electoral mandate.

1964 Republican Primary

The Republicans made it easy for LBJ by tearing one another up in the primary.  The East Coast “Establishment” Republicans (the big business Republicans, once called conservative Republicans and now called either liberal or moderate Republicans) wanted Nelson Rockefeller (grandson of John D. Rockefeller) as the nominee. Rockefeller was pro-big business, not at all adverse to government/business cooperation, rather soft of communism, and rather liberal on social issues. 

Many within the Republican party wanted something different, “a choice, not an echo,” to use the title of Phyllis Schlafley’s 1964 book. The “choice” of these Republicans was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a stalwart strong defense, anti-Communist advocate.  Goldwater was in some ways an unfortunate choice. An intellectual lightweight with a tendency to speak without thinking, Goldwater was hardly the ideal advocate for those who now comes to be called “conservative” Republicans. In general, the liberal appeal is to the heart and only secondarily to the head.  Conservatism *must* make its appeal to the head first.  Heart-appeal slogans alone will not work.

The Goldwater and Rockefeller wings went at each other’s throats in the primary, and, while Goldwater emerged with the nomination, the party was split so badly he had little chance against LBJ.

The 1964 Election—Johnson gets his mandate!

Goldwater’s campaign had some catchy slogans, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” And then there was the AuH2O bumper sticker.  And speech writers who gave him lines like, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

But Goldwater’s ill-thought out comments (talking about giving field commanders in Vietnam the ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons) made him an easy target.  The Democrats easily depicted him as an unstable war-monger who would bring a nuclear Armageddon on us.  LBJ ended up winning the election with 61% of the popular vote and a 486 to 52 Electoral College mandate.  On top of that, he had coat-tails: the Democrats won huge margins in both the house and senate.  A clear mandate for the Great Society!

The War on Poverty

In January of 1964, Johnson had declared war, but a different kind of war than America had seen before with a different enemy.  “This administration today, here and now,” said Johnson, “declares unconditional war on poverty.”  In August of 1964, while signing the Equal Opportunity Act, Johnson added this promise, “Today, for the first time in the history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among its people.”

Johnson took some steps in his anti-poverty war in 1964, pushing through congress the Food Stamp program.  But only after his 1964 electoral mandate did the War on Poverty become all out war.  But all out war it was!  Johnson created 10 anti-poverty task forces and pushed more than 200 anti-poverty bills through Congress.  Among other programs, these bills created the Medicare system (government-run health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America (a Peace-Corps like program directed at American projects), and the Job Corps (something like Roosevelt’s CCC).

Now of course many people think these programs are wonderful, but there were problems.  These programs were expensive and inefficient, adding billions to the Federal deficit.  The number of workers on the Federal payroll doubled.  Within a few years, these programs (and other Johnson spending programs) led to a situation where 10% of the Federal budget (and eventually 20%) was doing nothing but paying interest on the national debt. 

And, in some ways, they made poverty worse.  Tens of thousands of people became dependent on government programs, and found the rules of these programs too inflexible to allow them to make a transition to supporting oneself.  Once you are in government-subsidized housing, for instance, it’s very hard to move elsewhere to look for a job.  And if taking a low-paying job means losing your government-supplied health care—well, it’s not worth it. 

Also, the way anti-poverty programs were structured tended to undermine families. A guy working hard at a low-paying job would typically find it enormously frustrating to realize that his wife and kids would be better off financially if he simply walked out and let the government step in. They’d all of a sudden be eligible for benefits they couldn’t get if he stuck around.  By penalizing marriage and subsidizing single motherhood, Johnson’s programs eventually led to the situation we have today: poor neighborhoods where only a tiny percentage of kids have the advantage of the traditional two-parent family. And without dad in the home—well, is it any wonder that crime rates skyrocketed in poorer neighborhoods, that businesses fled the now crime-infested cities, and that jobs disappeared making the poverty problem still worse?

Johnson Education Programs

As important as the anti-poverty programs were to Johnson, Johnson felt there was something even more fundamental to the Great Society.  “The answer for all our national problems,” he said, “comes in a single word.  That word is education.”

Prior to this time, with the one exception of the GI Bill, education was a state and local issue, not a concern of the Federal Government.  Now, Johnson launched Federal education programs on every level.  The Head Start Program was launched to try to make sure that underprivileged kids had a chance at success in school.  Johnson made available Federal aid to K-12 education as well.  And Johnson got the Federal government involved in higher education as well with PELL grants and Federally-guaranteed student loans along with millions in government support to universities.

And the result?  Well, more people got college degrees, to be sure. But there were problems. When more students had college degrees, employers began to expect those degrees, even in fields where a college education wasn’t a particular benefit.  As the supply of people with degrees went up, the wages for those with such degrees naturally went down. Students began leaving the traditional academic disciplines for majors that at least sounded like they promised a well-paid career—only to find that demand for people with degrees in “management and marketing” or “banking” wasn’t any better than the demand for people with English majors.

And the growing number of students who were using college only as a way of temporarily avoiding adult responsibilities meant a large number of students with time on their hands who could easily be recruited to radical student groups: the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Free Speech Movement, etc. 

And on top of all that, Federal Aid to education just drove prices up—and up and up and up. In 1965, it was easy to get through college without a dimes worth of debt.  Today, the average student emerges from college with more than $20,000 worth of student loan debt. Thank you, President Johnson.

Civil Rights

Johnson intended that his Great Society include all Americans including the least privileged group in American society, black Americans.  Here was a problem left over from Reconstruction—or, rather, lots of problems.

1.  Blacks were in general poor: in the South, dependent on a share-cropping system which was sometimes little better than slavery; in the North, excluded from the better-paying union jobs and doing the poorly paid menial jobs whites in general didn’t want.

2.  Blacks were segregated, denied access to housing and other facilities available to whites. They were segregated by law in the South, and in the North by what’s called “de facto” segregation: no law, but social and practical pressure to remain away from “white” housing, schools, neighborhoods, etc.  In many places, blacks had to drink from separate water fountains, eat only at “black” lunch counters and, generally, to take the “back of the bus” in every area of life.

3.  Blacks were poorly educated.  While there were some fine black colleges, it was a relative handful of blacks who had college training at all, and, at the K-12 level, blacks tended to have the poorest schools around.

4.  Blacks were disenfranchised.  “Literacy tests” and other devices prevented blacks from even registering to vote in much of the South, so their concerns were of little concern to elected officials.

Now these problems were troublesome enough, but perhaps more troublesome the widespread notion among both blacks and whites that there was nothing to be done, that any attempt to change things would lead to violence: remember the Civil War and Reconstruction!
  But some figures felt that a non-violent solution would work—in fact, that *only* a non-violent solution would work.  One such, Martin Luther King, Jr.

King led a group called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  There was also a student affiliate SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).  These two groups focused on non-violent civil disobedience as a way of drawing national attention to the problems facing black America.  Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 (you probably learned all about Rosa Parks and her story in elementary school), the SCLC quickly drew more and more support.  In August of 1963, King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, a speech that seemed to point the way to a solution, an America that would live up to its own principles, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, a society in which people would be judged, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

There was tremendous support among affluent whites in the north. I remember hundreds of people in the lily-white community, wealthy community where I lived (San Anselmo, CA) gathering together to hold hands and sing, “We shall overcome.”  Hypocrisy at its finest—but a very useful hypocrisy—the kind of hypocrisy Johnson could use in bringing about the kind of Civil Rights legislation he wanted.

In 1964 and 1965, Johnson (with support from the majority of congressional Republicans and a minority of Democrats), got a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act, acts which helped break down some of the obstacles black Americans faced.  No more school segregation.  No more discrimination in housing or employment.  No more “literacy tests” or other fraudulent ways of preventing blacks from voting.

Now in some ways, this seemed to be right on track.  Black voter registration in the South rose from 1-5% to 70%, and that meant that political candidates now had an incentive to make some outreach to black voters.  Eventually, it meant there would be black elected officials in places where blacks had held no offices since reconstruction.

But just as it seemed the country had embarked on a peaceful solution: violence.  In 1965, a race riot in the Watts area of Los Angeles left 34 dead with many, many stores looted and burned. In 1967, there were similar riots in Newark (25 dead) and in Detroit (43 dead).  Some feared these events were the precursors of a blood racial civil war.
And some didn’t fear it.  They *wanted* it.  Within the Black community, peaceful leaders like King were overshadowed by far more violent types.

The Black Panthers (Huey Newton, Bobby Seale) advocated violence as the only way to get needed reforms.  New slogans: Black power!  Come the revolution! Burn, baby, burn!

Some of the new black leaders had incredibly violent pasts, e.g., Eldridge Cleaver.  While Cleaver himself abandoned violence (and eventually became a born-again Christian and finished his life as a Mormon!), other black leaders thought there was no hope at all of whites and blacks working together.  Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim movement (started much earlier) grew tremendously, especially because of the work of Malcolm X.  While Malcolm X eventually broke with the Nation of Islam, and became a Sunni, and while he eventually came to the point of view that one could in fact view whites as something other than blue-eyed devils, he had steered many blacks into a kind of reverse segregationist ideal.  Stokely Carmichael, influenced by Malcolm X, expelled all whites from SNCC.

In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated—by a black gunman: a sign of growing violence within the black community itself.  And in April of 1968, King himself was assassinated by a white man—James Earl Ray—touching off riots in which 40 lives were lost.

Did Johnson’s policies lead to assassination and violence or did they prevent worse?  Very hard to say. But, on the domestic front, American in 1968 didn’t seem to be headed toward becoming a Great Society: maybe even the reverse.  In foreign policy, too, America under Johnson was making less progress than one might have hoped.  The Cold War was still going, and it didn’t seem like it was ending anytime soon. Johnson did his best, but it wasn’t quite—well, maybe it was good enough. Consider what happened in Indochina


Johnson inherited a difficult problem in Vietnam.  We were committed to helping the South Vietnamese resist both incursion from communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong insurgents from within.  Not an easy task, and getting rather expensive.  Money and the advisors sent under Kennedy weren’t enough, and so in 1964, Johnson asked Congress to authorize the direct intervention of American troops.  The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by an overwhelming majority: only two congressmen voted against it!  But Johnson still waited: he wanted a popular mandate before making his move.

Well, he got that mandate in November 1964.  The overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater seemed to suggest that the vast majority of American people supported Johnson’s foreign policy objectives as well as his goals in domestic policy.

In 1965, Johnson began escalating America’s commitment. In April we had 82,000 soldiers in Vietnam.  By July, we had 125,000.  And, eventually, we had half a million men committed to winning the war.—and we were spending $30 billion a year. 

Now this would have been enough to win the war, but, unfortunately for Johnson, there was a shift in popular opinion.  In 1964 and 1965, the big newspapers and the television stations advocated exactly the policy Johnson adopted in Vietnam, rejecting the all-out war effort Barry Goldwater had advocated.  But when this strategy didn’t produce immediate victory, the media began swinging against the war.  Media coverage was often one-sided: showing the enemy side rather than ours!  For instance, there is a famous picture of a South Vietnamese office shooting a Vietcong captive in the head at point-blank range.  What the newspapers and television stations didn’t bother to mention was that that Vietcong captive had been apprehended after murdering a police officer—and killing his wife and children to boot. 

The media weren’t the only ones turning against the war.  Young university students began having serious doubts about whether the war was worthwhile—and I suppose you can guess why!  The colleges were filled with young men with 2S deferments: exempted from military service for four years as long as they maintained a full load and a 2.0 GPA.  These young men were easily recruited by radical groups as participants in massive student demonstrations.

Even within Johnson’s administration, some were giving up on the war.  Robert Strange McNamara (Johnson’s Secretary of Defense) resigned to protest our ongoing commitment, pronouncing the war unwinnable.  McNamara had been the chief architect of the Kennedy and Johnson Vietnam policy!  And what *really* happened is that McNamara’s strategy hadn’t worked so he though *no* strategy would work.

But what was Johnson to do in Vietnam?  Simply leave and let the Communists take over?  Unthinkable.

Fortunately for Johnson, the Communists made a mistake.  In January of 1968, they launched the Tet offensive, an all-out effort to destroy South Vietnamese resistance.  They initially had some success, but the Americans and South Vietnamese regrouped and turned the assault back.  An estimated 45,000 of the 80,000 Viet Cong guerrillas were killed: a tremendous victory for America and the South Vietnamese. North Vietnam at last agreed to go to the bargaining table, and we now know that they and their Viet Cong allies were discouraged and defeated.

But a strange thing happened.  One textbook notes that, during the Tet offensive, the N. Vietnamese launched a massive assault.   It notes that that assault failed and that the Communist forces suffered “horrendous” casualties, and then agreed to peace talks.  But the text then says that within a few weeks, Johnson’s approval rating dropped from 40-22% and victory seemed as distant as ever.

Now all of this is exactly right.  But how could these things go together?  How could Johnson’s and how could victory seem distant after such a major triumph?

Well what happened was that the media presented Tet, not as the victory it was, but as an American defeat.  Walter Cronkite was particularly outrageous in his mis-coverage of Tet. Having earlier pronounced the war an “unwinnable quagmire” the most trusted man in journalism (!) refused to see what was really happening.

In any case, Johnson no longer enjoyed the massive support he had in 1964.  Within his own party, there was plenty of vocal opposition.  Eugene McCarthy entered the 1968 New Hampshire primary as an anti-war candidate.  Johnson’s name wasn’t even on the ballot, but when McCarthy pulled 40% of the vote, the press portrayed this as a rebuke to Johnson, and Johnson accepted that verdict.  He announced he would not be a candidate for re-election.

He had been president for a little over 5 years.  With his leadership, Congress passed more legislation and more important issues than during the administration of any president since FDR.  He was, in some ways, every bit the equal of figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and FDR—and he truly had done his best to build a great society.  But he left office unloved, unappreciated, and, probably in his own esteem, a failure—a towering figure brought low by an irresponsible and hostile media.  The same fate awaited our next president, Richard Milhous Nixon.