When you think about Head Start programs for kids, or about protecting the environment, or whether Medicaid should be expanded in Alabama, or whether the Affordable Care Act is a good thing or a bad one, you’re thinking about some aspect of LBJ’s Great Society.
Fifty years ago, on May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced a bold and far-reaching effort to elevate American society — then mired already in the Vietnam War and still reeling from historic demonstrations for civil rights and the recent assassination of a young president — to a better place. He unveiled his Great Society vision for what the nation could be in his commencement address at the University of Michigan, a little less than a month-and-a-half before signing the Civil Rights Act into law.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson would also sign the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare Act and laws designed to protect the environment. Over the years, subsequent administrations expanded on those Johnson-era initiatives.
Today, what began with the Great Society remains undeniably interwoven into the fabric of American culture. Which is not something everybody knows, said Dr. William P. Hustwit, an assistant professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College.
“My sense of it is that most people, in Alabama and elsewhere, do not understand how much their lives have been directly or indirectly shaped by LBJ’s Great Society programs. When Johnson became president in late 1963, Social Security was America’s only nationwide social program. The Great Society introduced Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, anti-poverty measures and a whole raft of social and environmental legislation to create a non-zero-sum game society.”
With the Great Society so much a part of American life, whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective. “The Great Recession, counter-intuitively, has allowed the conservative opponents of Great Society programming to mount an attack questioning its cost, effectiveness and ongoing viability,” said Joshua Sandman, a political science professor at the University of New Haven. Hustwit echoed that point.
“Some of these programs have become politically charged and continue to serve as whipping boys for the Republicans,” the Birmingham-Southern history professor said. “Others, like wearing your seatbelt or enjoying cleaned up, beautiful highways (both were the result of Great Society laws) go unrecognized and unmaligned. When Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty, its most popular (perhaps because least controversial) program was Head Start, which provided the children of the poor with pre-schooling, so that they would catch up with the children of the middle class by the time all began kindergarten at age 5. Since then, the middle class soon set in motion a Head Start program of its own, sending its children to nursery and preschools as early as physically possible.
“Today, where one’s child goes to school, how well he or she does in schools, which schools give him or her the best shot at even better schools later on — these are all matters of intense concern. That’s an unintended consequence, but it’s another offshoot of the Great Society. There are many more.”
Sandman noted that “The Great Society programs — in the form of civil rights, education, Medicare, food and nutrition, services for the elderly and more — continue to play an important role in protecting the most vulnerable and bettering the lives of many citizens. These continuing programs cushioned the impact Great Recession for many. However, it was never meant to and could not offset the impact of the housing bubble, deregulation, de-industrialization and the excesses of the financial sector.”
But some would argue that the success or failure of the Great Society programs depends entirely on which end of the political bench you’re sitting on.
“The first thing you’ve got to look at in the modern context is nothing but controversy,” said Christopher Kline, an adjunct instructor of history at Westmoreland County Community College and Southern New Hampshire University.
“The reason I say that is it depends on whether you fit the conservative mindset or the liberal mindset. Because if you’re of a liberal mindset, you’re going to say the Great Society worked and set us on a path towards eradicating poverty. They will also point to Johnson’s own words, in which he said it is basically something that never ends. It’s ongoing, it’s something we’re always striving for, it’s something we’re always working towards,” Kline said.
“If you look at the conservative view of that, they’ll say under the Great Society poverty expanded [to a] modern day welfare state. … The legacy itself of the entire program I would contend is tied up within our modern-day political context.”
Defining a Great Society
Johnson framed what he called “The Great Society” as a call to action to that class of 1964 Michigan graduates, after pointing out how American ingenuity and hard work had brought the country to where it was.
“The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization,” Johnson said. “Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.
“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 it 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.”
Johnson spoke about the need to rebuild America’s urban environment toward the Aristotelian goal of people living “the good life” together.
“It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today,” the president noted. “The catalog of ills is long: there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing and old landmarks are violated.
“Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference. … Our society will never be great until our cities are great.”
Johnson also spoke of the need to protect America’s natural beauty. “Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing…
“Once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”
LBJ argued that a Great Society would have to address the needs of a growing population for a quality education for all of America’s children. “Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination,” he said. “We are still far from that goal.”
Among other challenges to the educational equity he envisioned, Johnson noted that “In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.
“But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.”
The president promised to marshal the resources of “the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America,” attacking the problems besetting the country through conferences and meetings to begin to “set our course toward the Great Society.”
He ended the speech with a call for the graduating class to act.
“So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?
“Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?
“Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace — as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?
“Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?”
On July 2 of that year, Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act into law. The following year, he would sign first the Medicare bill in July 1965, then, a week later, the Voting Rights Act. In October 1965, LBJ signed the Highway Beautification Act.
When he enacted the Medicare Act, continuing the work begun by Harry S. Truman — who watched as Johnson signed the law — LBJ spoke to Truman of the grand promise of this new element in the social safety net. “There are more than 18 million Americans over the age of 65. Most of them have low incomes. Most of them are threatened by illness and medical expenses that they cannot afford.
“And through this new law, Mr. President, every citizen will be able, in his productive years when he is earning, to insure himself against the ravages of illness in his old age.
“This insurance will help pay for care in hospitals, in skilled nursing homes, or in the home. And under a separate plan it will help meet the fees of the doctors. …
“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.
“And no longer will this nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive country.
“And this bill, Mr. President, is even broader than that. It will increase Social Security benefits for all of our older Americans. It will improve a wide range of health and medical services for Americans of all ages.”
Medicare, education, the War on Poverty, commitment to civil rights, beautifying and preserving the country — all characterized LBJ’s substantial efforts in domestic issues. But those weren’t the only things on his plate.
There are those who contend that much of the Great Society’s promise and momentum were swallowed up by the Johnson administration’s involvement in the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. But Barrett disputes the idea that the Great Society programs were ultimately derailed by the war in Southeast Asia.
“That is so not true,” Barrett said. “All you have to do is look at the list of the laws that were passed, the agencies that were created and the functions that the federal government took on in terms of what we might call social welfare kinds of programs.”
Still, the war that dragged on until the Nixon administration did leave footprints on Johnson’s domestic agenda, Barrett acknowledges. “I think there are probably other programs and laws that might have been passed, and there are programs that probably would have been more highly funded were it not for the Vietnam War. I think it is true that the war soured the American public and the Congress to some degree on LBJ, and whatever he wanted to do became suspect in the last couple of years of his presidency, because the war became such a divisive topic and he became so unpopular as a war leader. …
“So I think the war had a negative impact on the Great Society in some respects. But it didn’t kill it, and the Great Society has had a lasting impact, I think, to this day in a multitude of ways.”
As noted above, in time, the initiatives related to the Great Society would come to include many programs reflecting governmental involvement in the lives of U.S. citizens. But as Johnson envisioned it, the Great Society would require not just government but a cooperative spirit throughout the country if it was to ultimately succeed.
“There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth,” LBJ told the Michigan graduates in 1964. “I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.”
That kind of cooperation — or even a shared vision of what the country is now, or should become — remains elusive. “The two linchpins of the Great Society, of course, were commitments to ending poverty and racial injustice,” Hustwin said.
“Statistically, the percentage of Americans living in poverty plunged in the years following the Great Society. Today, however, we live with a different kind of poverty, one that sees the poor with some material possessions and the ability to participate in consumer culture, but living without good schools and a bright future. They also suffer from family breakdown and a lack of access to medical and counseling providers to deal with a range of public and private healthcare issues.”
In Alabama, some see aspects of the Great Society as very much under attack. Consider the refusal of Governor Robert Bentley, for instance, to expand Medicaid in the state to accommodate the Affordable Care Act. Or consider that most sensitive of topics in Alabama: race.
“There is no denying that we live in a changed racial landscape as a result of the Great Society’s civil rights legislation,” Hustwin continued. “The Birmingham of today is nothing like the walls of segregation in 1963. The ’63 demonstrations, which fueled the 1964 Civil Rights Act, began the process of opening up the city to the outside world and tearing down racial barriers.
“Conversely, civil rights gains can also be repealed, which we have seen in recent years. Alabama led the way in gutting a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and elements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act could be next on the chopping block. There is also no denying that poverty, urban decay and homelessness remain problems in Birmingham, and those problems can often be linked to race as well as class.”
What would LBJ think today?
There is no question that elements of the Great Society remain. Sandman noted that “The Great Society programs, after these many years, continue to both provide a safety net and continue to allow citizens to uplift themselves.”
But some scholars believe Johnson, were he alive today, would lament how little he’s remembered for the vast — if unfinished — social changes he brought into being, in comparison to how many link him inextricably to the war that was brought into American homes on the evening news during his administration.
“He wanted to be the greatest president of the 20th century,” Barrett said. “He wanted to outdo [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt, who was a mentor of his. But this ambition to be a great president, it was all about domestic reform. That was his passion. Civil rights, poverty, education, the environment — all that stuff — that was his great passion.”
And yet because the country was drawn more and more into Vietnam, LBJ’s presidential legacy is more often attached to that, Barrett said. “He did not love that war. He conducted and presided and he led us into a bigger war than we’d been in under Kennedy. But it’s a bit ironic that the war was not his love. His love was the Great Society.”
Few would argue that the principles of the Great Society can or should be completely disentangled from the operation of the federal government. “I think it’s deeply embedded in our society, our culture, our government, in terms of public perceptions that the government will be involved in these things,” Barrett said, offering an example. “Many of the Republican leaders who oppose Obamacare, what they come up with is sort of an alternate approach to how the government can assure that citizens get some level of healthcare.”
Most people, Barrett said, accept the notion that the government “should be involved in things like education of children and supporting that, or healthcare, or protecting the environment, supporting the arts. I think these are here to stay. Tea Party Conservatives and some other Libertarians want to get rid of that role of the government, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that specific programs and bureaucracies — they may come and go. But the concept and the fact that the government will be involved in these things, I think is here to stay. … That’s a very important legacy of the Johnson administration whether we like it or not.”
The issue, then, might be, not what the Great Society has already wrought, but what, based on the will of the American people, it will become in the next 50 years.
“I think,” Hustwit said, “that the crucial question raised by the legacy of the Great Society for Alabamians and all Americans is: What kind of government do we want? Are we able to recognize problems and issues that affect the entire national community and to seek solutions that sometimes require the presence of an active, responsive federal government? Or does government have no or minimal role in correcting problems that face the nation? That is the bifurcated legacy of LBJ’s Great Society, and it’s one we have not resolved — nor do I think we should.”