Lyndon B. Johnson and his "Great Society"
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson became the thirty-sixth President of the United States. He took over the Presidency with great control, passing marvelous programs, calming a flustered country, and using his political skills to have many civil rights bills passed.
He worked to lift millions of Americans out of debt, increased funding for education through federal control, established Medicare nationwide for the elderly, and passed four considerable civil rights acts. Known for his public service, President Johnson not only helped in the United States, but also in many foreign countries. He respected, provided aide, and helped to solve serious challenges that faced countries in the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia. He advanced the quality of life in America and in the world, but his ultimate dream was a Great Society. Johnson took significant measures in economic, civil, and social reform in his attempted formation of a “perfect” Great Society. Although all of these achievements that Johnson accomplished were noteworthy, the Great Society ultimately was not completed due to effects of the Vietnam War, the unrest during the civil rights movements, and a few basic flaws with the concept.
The greatest crippling blow to President Johnson’s efforts to attain a Great Society was the Vietnam War, which dictated restrictions on domestic spending mandatory and ruined his popularity. In July 1965 President Johnson made the decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.1 Although his preference was to stay out of full scale war to prevent his domestic programs from coming to a screeching halt, the need to defeat North Vietnam and win on his terms became the pressing issue. Faced with balancing the Great Society, the United States economy, and the Vietnam War, President Johnson made a difficult decision that resulted in diverting federal funds from the war on poverty to the war in Vietnam.2 He tackled his dream of the Great Society and the war in Vietnam without raising taxes by using his political skills, persuasiveness, and huge presence to keep costs and wages down.3 The economy started to plummet and at the same time the federal budget was running thin due to the demands of the war in Vietnam.
Although a raise in taxes was needed, Johnson refused to place his Great Society programs in danger by asking for an increase in taxes that he knew he could not coax Congress to enact. The stock market plunged deeply causing an approaching financial crisis. As talks of tax rate increases continued, Johnson endorsed the suspension of the investment tax credit and other tax credits so that interest rates and inflation would slow. However, this was only a temporary fix and did little to actually reduce the deficit in the federal budget. Increasing costs in the war in Vietnam and increasing costs for the domestic programs attributed to the Great Society were straining Johnson’s capacity to control the federal budget. President Johnson’s strategy on helping the economy short term for his domestic programs hurt his popularity and the unpopular Vietnam War ruined his reputation.
4 He could not seem to please anyone; his actions on escalating the war in Vietnam angered the antiwar protesters and his actions stopping the bombing and his desire for peace angered those who wanted war.5 Johnson could no longer persuade Congress to pass laws and measures that he wanted. Additionally, numerous demonstrators wanting money for the war on poverty were angered by the fact that the majority of the federal budget was dedicated to the war in Vietnam.6 The war had taken its political and personal toll on the President. By the end of 1968 United States troop levels in South Vietnam had reached 535,000 and though peace negotiations had started, more Americans died in the war in that year than in any since the war had started.7 In the end, the war in Vietnam led to President Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection for a second term.
8 This ended his personal ability to fight for his dream of the Great Society. Richard Nixon was elected President and was later inaugurated for a second term on January 20, 1973.9 The next day a cease fire was announced in Vietnam and the unpopular war finally ended. Later that same day, a new Nixon plan was announced that put an end to the concept of the Great Society. Although President Johnson had encouraged civil rights and voting rights, and had helped blacks get into political office, he could not calm the bad streets of urban ghettos. In as little as two years, serious disturbances had erupted in more than twenty four American cities from the anger of young blacks.
Despite appointing a black judge to the Supreme Court, riots took place in Newark and Detroit. Multitudes of enraged blacks shouted, “Burn, baby, burn!” as they destroyed buildings and vehicles by setting them on fire. The deaths and destruction in Detroit And Newark reminded Johnson of his desires and promises to help poor blacks. He realized that he could not control the black population and could not reach the expectations of the promises in his concept of the Great Society.
On July 12, 1967, a black cab driver was arrested by the Newark police for a traffic violation.11 Rumors that he had been beaten to death spread throughout the city, causing massive riots and destruction. Numerous people were dead, even more had been arrested. Blazing fires were widespread and the chaos of violence, destruction, and looting was prevalent. Although many died and the situation was dire, President Johnson was relieved that the Governor did not need any federal help in resolving the problem. The President wanted to help poor blacks, but feared white backlash in Congress and white violence in revenge against blacks across the nation.
He felt that a white majority, scared and angered by the black violence, would be very reluctant to be just, much less helpful and willing to give to poor blacks. This attitude presented serious problems for the Great Society.13 President Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society programs that helped poor blacks and their civil rights movements faced challenges because of the racial tension that continued between white and black races. This caused some of the programs to not be completed to the level that had been desired and in some cases they contributed little to the well-being of blacks. Flaws in the concept of the Great Society also contributed to its incompletion.
President Johnson had desires for the Great Society that were simply unattainable within one Presidency, or one generation. These high utopian aspirations caused the expectations to be extremely high, so high that any delays or stumbles were perceived as failure. Johnson had so much personal interest in the Great Society that he built the expectations and aspirations too high. His message led people to believe that the Great Society would fulfill all of the unanswered hopes of the population and accomplish more for the nation than had programs of any other administration. The message often expressed a dire need, a vague proposal, and a description of anticipated results that failed to distinguish between expectation and established realities.
An even bigger problem than exaggerations and vagueness was the failure to consider the most fundamental elements of social change. President Johnson was so confident that his programs would be accepted based on their benefit to people that he was unable to see the possibility of resentment based on increased central authority.14 During this time period, numerous people felt that the citizens of the United States lost freedom from the heavy hand of government. These factors in some cases led to dwindling support for government programs. President Lyndon B. Johnson led one of the most productive legislative eras in the history of the United States.
During his term in office, Congress had passed 226 of his 252 legislative requests, maintaining his status as a President who made things happen. He is remembered mainly for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and his War on Poverty.16 Eventually he would enact Medicare, which gave health coverage to the elderly and the disabled. A very defining moment for President Johnson was the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished literacy tests that were designed to keep African Americans from registering to vote.17 Despite these accomplishments, the Great Society was left incomplete due to the effects of the controversial War in Vietnam, the violence and racial tension of civil rights, and several key problems with the Great Society concept.
Every president of the United States has had dreams and ideas that they wanted to see through to completion in order to improve our great country. Many of them have faced problems that slow, harm, or even destroy their plans. President Johnson wanted to create a perfect society through the domestic programs of the Great Society. In the case of those before and after him, he was overwhelmed by situations out of his control and found himself unpopular at times. The pressures of the Vietnam War, racial tension, and flaws in the concept had been too much to overcome.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY Bornet, Vaughn Davis. The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Lawrence: University Press, 1983. Califano, Joseph A. Jr.
The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1991. Keans, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
“Lyndon Johnson.” Shepard Software. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/History/presidents/ Presidents_36-Johnson.
htm (accessed October 8, 2013). Peters, Charles. Lyndon B. Johnson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010.