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
presidents ever, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was dead—and many of us felt
on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. But
as I read the newspapers the next day, my spirits lifted a bit as I
biography of our new president, Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson seemed superbly qualified to take over for Kennedy (my
the way, was—with good reason, considerably less enthusiastic).
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
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
a legislative aid. He then ran for congress, winning the democratic
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
leader. His was a master politician, the
kind of guy who got things done, even if it required a bit of
(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
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
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
president, was determined to take the country to new heights. In the
Johnson did everything in his power to turn
America into a "Great Society."
Unfortunately, his well-intended programs did little to
problems American society faced, and may actually have increased the
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
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
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
where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared
boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves
the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for
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
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
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe
harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a
constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of
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
Well, not quite yet. Johnson, an unelected president, used 1964 mostly
out what he intended as our future course. The actual implementation
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
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
conservative Republicans and now called either liberal or moderate
wanted Nelson Rockefeller (grandson of John D. Rockefeller) as the
was pro-big business, not at all adverse to government/business
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
Schlafley’s 1964 book. The “choice” of these Republicans was Arizona
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
Goldwater was hardly the ideal advocate for those who now comes to be
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
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
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
weapons) made him an easy target. The
Democrats easily depicted him as an unstable war-monger who would bring
nuclear Armageddon on us. LBJ ended up
winning the election with 61% of the popular vote and a 486 to 52
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
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
history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is
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
through Congress. Among other programs,
these bills created the Medicare system (government-run health care for
elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), VISTA, Volunteers in
America (a Peace-Corps like program directed at American projects), and
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
Federal deficit. The number of workers
on the Federal payroll doubled. Within a
few years, these programs (and other Johnson spending programs) led to
situation where 10% of the Federal budget (and eventually 20%) was
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
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
would typically find it enormously frustrating to realize that his wife
kids would be better off financially if he simply walked out and let
government step in. They’d all of a sudden be eligible for benefits
get if he stuck around. By penalizing
marriage and subsidizing single motherhood, Johnson’s programs
to the situation we have today: poor neighborhoods where only a tiny
of kids have the advantage of the traditional two-parent family. And
dad in the home—well, is it any wonder that crime rates skyrocketed in
that businesses fled the now crime-infested cities, and that jobs
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
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
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
Federally-guaranteed student loans along with millions in government
And the result?
Well, more people got college degrees, to be sure. But there
problems. When more students had college degrees, employers began to
those degrees, even in fields where a college education wasn’t a
benefit. As the supply of people with
went up, the wages for those with such degrees naturally went down.
began leaving the traditional academic disciplines for majors that at
sounded like they promised a well-paid career—only to find that demand
people with degrees in “management and marketing” or “banking” wasn’t
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
large number of students with time on their hands who could easily be
to radical student groups: the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society),
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
college without a dimes worth of debt. Today,
the average student emerges from college with more than $20,000 worth
student loan debt. Thank you, President Johnson.
Johnson intended that his Great Society include
all Americans including the least privileged group in American society,
Americans. Here was a problem left over
from Reconstruction—or, rather, lots of problems.
were in general poor: in the South, dependent on a share-cropping
was sometimes little better than slavery; in the North, excluded from
better-paying union jobs and doing the poorly paid menial jobs whites
general didn’t want.
were segregated, denied access to housing and other facilities
whites. They were segregated by law in the South, and in the North by
called “de facto” segregation: no law, but social and practical
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,
take the “back of the bus” in every area of life.
were poorly educated. While there were
some fine black colleges, it was a relative handful of blacks who had
training at all, and, at the K-12 level, blacks tended to have the
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
that there was nothing to be done, that any attempt to change things
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
black America. Beginning with the
Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 (you probably learned all about Rosa
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
of the Declaration of Independence, a society in which people would be
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
wealthy community where I lived (San Anselmo, CA) gathering together to
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
Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act, acts which helped break down some
obstacles black Americans faced. No more
school segregation. No more discrimination
in housing or employment. No more
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
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
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,
stores looted and burned. In 1967, there were similar riots in Newark
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,
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
other black leaders thought there was no hope at all of whites and
working together. Elijah Muhammad’s
Black Muslim movement (started much earlier) grew tremendously,
because of the work of Malcolm X. While
Malcolm X eventually broke with the Nation of Islam, and became a
while he eventually came to the point of view that one could in fact
whites as something other than blue-eyed devils, he had steered many
into a kind of reverse segregationist ideal.
Stokely Carmichael, influenced by Malcolm X, expelled all whites
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
by a white man—James Earl Ray—touching off riots in which 40 lives were
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
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
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
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
1964, Johnson asked Congress to authorize the direct intervention of
troops. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution
passed by an overwhelming majority: only two congressmen voted against
it! But Johnson still waited: he wanted a
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
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
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
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
after murdering a police officer—and killing his wife and children to
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
can guess why! The colleges were filled
with young men with 2S deferments: exempted from military service for
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
commitment, pronouncing the war unwinnable.
McNamara had been the chief architect of the Kennedy and Johnson
policy! And what *really* happened is
that McNamara’s strategy hadn’t worked so he though *no* strategy would
But what was Johnson to do in Vietnam? Simply
leave and let the Communists take
Fortunately for Johnson, the Communists made a
mistake. In January of 1968, they
launched the Tet offensive, an all-out effort to destroy South
resistance. They initially had some
success, but the Americans and South Vietnamese regrouped and turned
assault back. An estimated 45,000 of the
80,000 Viet Cong guerrillas were killed: a tremendous victory for
the South Vietnamese. North Vietnam at last agreed to go to the
table, and we now know that they and their Viet Cong allies were
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
talks. But the text then says that
within a few weeks, Johnson’s approval rating dropped from 40-22% and
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
quagmire” the most trusted man in journalism (!) refused to see what
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
candidate. Johnson’s name wasn’t even on
the ballot, but when McCarthy pulled 40% of the vote, the press
as a rebuke to Johnson, and Johnson accepted that verdict.
He announced he would not be a candidate for
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
great society. But he left office
unloved, unappreciated, and, probably in his own esteem, a failure—a
figure brought low by an irresponsible and hostile media.
The same fate awaited our next president,
Richard Milhous Nixon.