LBJ and The Great Society
Short Talks From The Hill” is a podcast highlighting research and scholarly work across the University of Arkansas campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work. In this episode, Randall Woods, Distinguished Professor of history in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, discusses Prisoners of Hope, his new book about Lyndon Baines Johnson and The Great Society.
Chris Branam: Hello, and welcome to Short Talks from the Hill. A podcast from the University of Arkansas. I’m Chris Branam. On this episode, Randall Woods, distinguished professor of history discusses President Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping domestic agenda of the 1960s that became known as “The Great Society.” Woods is the author of Prisoners of Hope, a new book about LBJ and The Great Society.
Randall Woods: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Lyndon Baines Johnson, to his surprise, was suddenly President of the United States. He had dreamed of being president, but really politically, it was not in the cards. But he was determined to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Johnson, like most presidents was focused on domestic affairs. His grandfather had been a populist. Johnson had been a “New Deal” congressman. He was a “New Deal” liberal and wanted to fulfill the promise of past reform movements from populism to progressivism to the New Deal. He launched a legislative program that Congress enacted between late 1963 and 1968 that was really unprecedented in American history. During that period Congress passed more than a thousand pieces of legislation. Most notably in civil rights; the Equal Accommodations Act of 1963, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But also the first measures providing federal aid to education. The creation of Medicare and Medicaid. The war on poverty with the Office of Equal Opportunity. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The first consumer protection laws. Vast wilderness areas were created during this period and also public radio and public television were products of the reform program that came to be known as “The Great Society.”
This was a period in contrast to the current era in which politics worked. Johnson was a master at congressional politics. He had been a Senate Majority Leader, he knew Congress as well as anyone in American history. He was able to form bipartisan coalitions to support these very controversial and path breaking pieces of legislation. His primary tactics were that he never ask a congressman or senator to vote against or vote for a measure that defeat him or her and he appealed to their patriotism. If they were not going to be defeated, they should, and were duty bound to vote for legislation that would further the greater good.
Now, Johnson alone was not responsible for this program. There were forces at work. The civil rights movement was already well underway. It had become a mass movement with the advent of Martin Luther King, and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Students for Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Became a mass movement, demonstrations and protests, sympathy for those who were assaulted during those protests and demonstrations. Had created a ground swell of sympathy for racial justice in this country.
In addition to the civil rights movement, there was the launching of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite in 1957, which seemed to demonstrate that the Soviets held superiority over the U.S. in science and technology and it touched off a great wave of soul searching. There was a greater, much greater emphasis on education in this country. A drive for excellence which certainly helped Johnson during his campaign of reform in the 1960s. There were certainly obstacles that Johnson and the other architects of the legislative program had to overcome.
The Conservative Coalition, a coalition of southern segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans had since the 1940s been acting to block reform in this country. They were still very much in evidence. The Viet Nam war was looming on the horizon. Johnson would be the person who Americanized the war very much against his better judgement. But nevertheless he was responsible. The New Left, a student protest movement that gradually merged with the anti-war movement, which produced very acrimonious and divisive marches and protests in this country. The emergence of the counter-culture and particularly the urban rioting that developed between 65 and 68 as the civil rights movement moved north, created a backlash among middle-class white Americans and a backlash against the war in Viet Nam; and a backlash against the protests against the war in Viet Nam and against the whole concept of reform that Johnson depended upon. Particularly after the Detroit riot of 1967, was so devastating. The reform movement, the Great Society really became dead, dead in the water.
Johnson would in March of 1968 announced that he would not a candidate for another term as President. What followed was the horrific Chicago convention, the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon. The Reagan administration and the New Right pilloried the Great Society. They argued that it created a sense of entitlement and dependency in this country. That it undermined self-respect. That the tolerance of protest and street demonstration, they equated those with rioting and colluding erroneously, but they equated them successfully in the public mind, that the Great Society had really been responsible for the chaos of the late 1960s. And really, the Great Society until recently has been largely ignored by historians. Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate during a campaign to even mention Lyndon Johnson’s name. That’s beginning to change.
That’s beginning to change. But whatever conservatives might say about the Great Society, they have not moved really to dismantle any of its fundamental components. Medicare still stands; path breaking civil rights legislation, federal aid to education, consumer protection, the Immigration Act of 1965 which really put this country back on the road toward diversity, all still stands. It may be said that the fires of the 1960s may have burned the Great Society house down but the foundation still remains.
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