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Politics from Camelot to Watergate

56e. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society"

Vietnam haunting Lyndon B. Johnson
This 1968 political cartoon captures the struggle of Lyndon B. Johnson's time as President. While Johnson dreamed of a "Great Society," his presidency was haunted by the specter of Vietnam. Much of the funding he hoped to spend on social reforms went towards war in southeast Asia.

Lyndon Baines Johnson moved quickly to establish himself in the office of the Presidency. Despite his conservative voting record in the Senate, Johnson soon reacquainted himself with his liberal roots. LBJ sponsored the largest reform agenda since Roosevelt's New Deal.

The aftershock of Kennedy's assassination provided a climate for Johnson to complete the unfinished work of JFK's New Frontier. He had eleven months before the election of 1964 to prove to American voters that he deserved a chance to be President in his own right.

Two very important pieces of legislation were passed. First, the Civil Rights Bill that JFK promised to sign was passed into law. The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination based on race and gender in employment and ending segregation in all public facilities.

Goldwater campaign bumper sticker
Republican Barry Goldwater attempted to unseat Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election but was soundly defeated. This bumper sticker combines the chemical symbols for "gold" (Au) and "water" (H20) to create a whimsical and memorable campaign slogan.

Johnson also signed the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The law created the Office of Economic Opportunity aimed at attacking the roots of American poverty. A Job Corps was established to provide valuable vocational training.

Head Start, a preschool program designed to help disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn was put into place. The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was set up as a domestic Peace Corps. Schools in impoverished American regions would now receive volunteer teaching attention. Federal funds were sent to struggling communities to attack unemployment and illiteracy.

As he campaigned in 1964, Johnson declared a "war on poverty." He challenged Americans to build a "Great Society" that eliminated the troubles of the poor. Johnson won a decisive victory over his archconservative Republican opponent Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

American liberalism was at high tide under President Johnson.

  • The Wilderness Protection Act saved 9.1 million acres of forestland from industrial development.

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided major funding for American public schools.

  • The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other discriminatory methods of denying suffrage to African Americans.

  • Medicare was created to offset the costs of health care for the nation's elderly.

  • The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities used public money to fund artists and galleries.

  • The Immigration Act ended discriminatory quotas based on ethnic origin.

  • An Omnibus Housing Act provided funds to construct low-income housing.

  • Congress tightened pollution controls with stronger Air and Water Quality Acts.

  • Standards were raised for safety in consumer products.

Lyndon B. Johnson signs Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was part of Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" reform package — the largest social improvement agenda by a President since FDR's "New Deal." Here, Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law before a large audience at the White House.

Johnson was an accomplished legislator and used his connections in Congress and forceful personality to pass his agenda.

By 1966, Johnson was pleased with the progress he had made. But soon events in Southeast Asia began to overshadow his domestic achievements. Funds he had envisioned to fight his war on poverty were now diverted to the war in Vietnam. He found himself maligned by conservatives for his domestic policies and by liberals for his hawkish stance on Vietnam.

By 1968, his hopes of leaving a legacy of domestic reform were in serious jeopardy.

On the Web
President Johnson: Domestic Policy
The American Experience series from PBS offers this one page summary of President Lyndon Johnson's domestic policy agenda. Links to the text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and audio of "The Great Society" speech, where Johnson declared war on poverty and racism.
The Great Society: A Positive Review
Ronald Reagan once said that "LBJ declared war on poverty and poverty won." This text-only article from The Washington Monthly shows the positive effects of President Johnson's Great Society initiatives on education, health, the environment, poverty, civil rights, and more, offering supporting evidence every step of the way.
Voting Rights
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice puts the evolution of voting rights in perspective with a four part site that includes the history of the violent and bloody struggle that spanned almost a century as states undermined the ability of blacks to vote. See how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 added teeth to the 15th Amendment of 1870 that gave blacks the right to vote. Don't miss the charts in the last segment, which show the incredible effects of racially divisive tactics and intimidation of the 1870's, and the incredible gains that were realized after the historical Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
A detail packed summary of the life and career of Lyndon B. Johnson. Includes links to all aspects of his career, from the New Deal to The Great Society. Be sure to read the concluding selections of Johnson speeches that address the Voting Rights Act of 1965, how he dealt with congress, and his decision not to run for a second term.
The War on Poverty
Get the text of President Lyndon Johnson's special message to congress that declares a nationwide war on poverty that is embodied in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. See how the president boldly tries to convince Congress and the nation to "pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind's enemies."
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library is a phenomenal resources for all things LBJ. Explore this repository of presidential records and memorobilia to see what life in Johnson's White House involved. The oral history section, containing interviews with Johnson's personal staff as well as diplomats and political allies are a must-read. For more information on Johnson's first domestic policy push, read the transcripts of phone conversations from 1965, only released to the public in 2001. Audio clips are also available of some conversations are also available.
In the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson received the highest percentage of the popular vote (61%) ever attained by a presidential candidate.
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Medicare, a health program for the elderly initiated in 1965, was attacked by the American Medical Association as being socialist.
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Lyndon B. Johnson's ability to get Congress to support Great Society legislation was due in part to his legendary powers of persuasion known as "The Treatment."
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