Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lyndon Johnson and "The Great Society"

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Here I discuss the sweeping social reforms pursued by the Johnson administration after the 1964 presidential election.


Because of his origins in a highly conservative and segregationist state like Texas (which many blamed collectively for the Kennedy assassination), liberals worried about Lyndon Johnson’s political intentions when the John Kennedy assassination thrust him into the presidency. Johnson, however, pushed through at breakneck speed a torrent of legislation unmatched since Franklin Roosevelt’s famed first 100 days in office. Johnson skillfully used the memory of the widely mourned Kennedy to win support for civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, a program he dubbed “The Great Society.”

As Johnson said in his first State of the Union Address less than two months after Kennedy’s murder, “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Some called Johnson the “Texas Tornado” during his White House years, the pace quickening after his overwhelming defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. “Don’t stay up late,” the president warned his staff the night of his inauguration for his first full term starting in January 1965. “There’s work to be done. We’re on our way to the Great Society.” Johnson saw the “Great Society” as his destiny. Although it was vague in its original conception, the president wanted the Great Society to complete his hero FDR’s mission. In Johnson’s mind, in a country as wealthy as the United States, no one should go hungry, no child should be denied a first-class education, no one should be unable to earn a livelihood based on skin color, and retirement should not be a time of fear and privation.

Johnson knew he must act quickly. In the 1964 elections, the Democrats had won two additional Senate seats and 37 more seats in the House of Representatives. The Democrats for the first time could pass legislation without watering down proposals in order to win the support of obstructionist conservative Southern Democrats. Still, electoral fortunes are fickle. As Johnson put it, “We’ve got to do this in a hurry. I want to see this coonskin on the wall.” In the first half of 1965 alone, the Johnson administration submitted 87 bills to Congress, and by the time Congress recessed in October, 84 laws had passed.

Aimed at the 20 percent of the American population living below the poverty line, Johnson’s “war on poverty” was fought through programs like the Job Corps designed to provide training to historically underemployed populations. Administered through the Office of Economic Opportunity, under the Job Corps about 6,000 centers opened across the country where about 25,000 welfare families received job training, 35,000 college students were placed in work/study programs, and another 35,000 adults were taught how to read and write.

Among other anti-poverty programs, the Johnson administration boosted Social Security payments to senior citizens and created the Neighborhood Youth Corps in 49 cities and 11 rural communities. The NYC provided jobs for young people between ages 16 and 21 to prevent them from dropping out of school because of financial need. Under Volunteers in Service to America or VISTA, 8,000 Americans worked in a domestic version of the Peace Corps in which young Americans offered their services to the poor as teachers, day care workers, job skills counselors, and nutritionists. The availability of financial aid and food stamps for the poor also greatly increased under the more generously funded Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.

Johnson saw education as a federal responsibility and he greatly increased Washington’s support for teachers and students. Project Head Start helped children overcome the educational disadvantages caused by poverty by providing pre-school classes. In total, $1.5 billion in aid was sent to public and private schools, including under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which supplied sharply increased funding to the nation’s poorest school districts. The Democrats also passed legislation providing federal scholarships and loans for low-income college students and defraying the cost of private education loans for more affluent students.

Building on the New Deal’s legacy of hiring unemployed actors and directors to produce plays across the country, or hiring writers to record the life stories of surviving slaves, Johnson also extended the government’s role in art and culture. Congress created the Public Broadcasting System to provide educational programming on television and radio that could not compete with commercial programming available on the three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts supported public art exhibitions, provided scholarships and grants to artists, repaired public buildings of artistic merit, and boosted financial aid for humanities programs at schools.

Democrats had attempted to extend health care to more Americans since the Roosevelt Administration, and Harry Truman had proposed a national health insurance plan as early as 1945. Johnson saw quality health care for all Americans as a centerpiece of “The Great Society.” His Medicare and Medicaid programs became the most important domestic initiatives created by the federal government since the establishment of the Social Security Administration three decades earlier.

Medicare provided health insurance coverage for Americans aged 65 and older, while Medicaid, which shared administration by the federal government and the states, provided access to health care for the poor. Johnson had wanted to introduce a bill providing national health insurance but decided that even in the unusually liberal climate of the mid-1960s the powerful medical and insurance lobbies warning of “socialized medicine” would kill the proposal. By providing health care coverage to two of the most vulnerable groups in American society – the poor and the elderly – Johnson still saw passage of the Medicaid and Medicare programs as historic accomplishments. Medicare became one of the most popular initiatives of the Johnson era. Soon after passage, four of five Americans polled said they approved of the program.

Johnson also sought a “green legacy.” In 1965, Johnson signed the Water Quality Act, also known as the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, which established for the first time federal regulations mandating water and air quality standards. The year before, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which dedicated 9 million acres of public land for use as national parks. The Johnson administration ended the era of the federal government seeing nature as simply as an economic commodity.

“The assumptions of the Johnson administration blended the conventional wisdom of Herbert Hoover, that education could provide an equality of opportunity, enabling the individual to compete in the marketplace,” historians Peter N. Carroll and David W. Noble argue, “with the conventional wisdom of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the marketplace could be made to expand by increasing government spending.” The Johnson administration increased discretionary domestic spending by 34.2 percent between 1963 and 1969. (Defense spending, because of the Vietnam War, rose 35.8 percent in the same time period.) Johnson’s programs sparked decades of ferocious political debate between liberals and conservatives, but clearly poverty rates did drop in the decade after the War on Poverty started, from 22 percent in 1959 at the end of the Eisenhower administration, to around 11 percent in 1974.

However, many conservative economists blame the vast expenditures for Great Society programs, in addition to the costs of the Vietnam War, for igniting high inflation and enormous federal budget deficits in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Liberals counter that the post-Johnson economic problems in the United States stemmed from the decision of major industries to move from heavily unionized areas in the North and Midwest to non-union sites in the South, or even to overseas locations where living standards were substantially lower and where union efforts to improve wages and benefits would be met with government violence. The de-industrialization of the United States in the late 20th century, and not Johnson’s social welfare programs, sparked the higher unemployment and inflation, and the declining wages and benefits for the middle and working classes that haunted the United States from the late 1960s on.

Later presidents from Richard Nixon on would dismantle many of the Great Society programs, but Medicare and Medicaid have proven resistant to conservative efforts at abolition. LBJ believed that a unique opportunity had opened for him to create a more just and equal nation. Always wary of standing in his predecessor’s shadow, Johnson nevertheless believed that Kennedy’s death lent momentum for these programs, but most of all for civil rights. “Everything I had ever learned from the history books taught me that martyrs have to die for causes,” said Johnson, who called Kennedy “too conservative for my taste” in a later interview. “John Kennedy had died but his ‘cause’ was not really clear. That was my job. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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