LBJ and the Great Society
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson was a New Deal Democrat from Texas with a formidable Congressional record. He pledged to uphold Kennedy’s work against poverty, and many of his programs echoed the former president’s passion for helping the weakest of Americans. Where Kennedy had failed at pushing his legislation through Congress, Johnson proved to be a master, partly due to his political adeptness and perhaps partly due to the nation’s nostalgia for his predecessor. Whatever the case, Johnson’s unstoppable energy and headstrong determination greatly extended the power and responsibility of the federal government. Examples of Johnson era reforms include the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which assisted the poor in job preparation and placement, early childhood interventions such as Head Start, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a predecessor to today’s AmeriCorps.
The “Great Society”
Johnson’s vision for America extended past the initiatives left behind by Kennedy. He introduced the idea of “The Great Society” as he was running against Arizona’s Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Johnson won a landslide victory; he garnered 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. With such a mandate, Johnson immediately began preparing his “brain child,” the Great Society. In his introductory speech, he implored Americans: “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.” Programs introduced in this era include Medicare (health insurance for the nation’s elderly), Medicaid (a free healthcare program for poverty-stricken individuals), and the creation of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which constructed low cost, quality housing for the needy. All of these programs still exist today. Also still in widespread use today is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), which filled the airwaves with educational programming. Favorites such as “Sesame Street” emerged in this era.
The Decline of the Great Society
The Great Society programs began declining at a tipping point in U.S. history. By 1965, distractions from abroad, including the escalating war in Vietnam, demanded more of the president’s time. Also Members of Congress urged Johnson to relent on his steady push for domestic legislation. By the 1966 midterm election, it was clear that the public harbored uneasy feelings toward the current direction of the Great Society; Republicans gained a significant number of seats in both houses, though they failed to obtain a majority. State governments complained that they had little role in deciding where Great Society federal funding should be allocated into their budgets, and civil rights unrest plainly revealed a nation struggling to define its future.
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The 1960s also saw an awakening in environmental activism. This brand of environmentalism shared some ideas with its turn of the century predecessor because both were a response to the overwhelming industrialism brought about by new technologies and the changing demands of each era. In the first environmental movement, largely supported by the Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers sought the preservation and conservation of America’s yet-untouched wild lands; the second environmental movement of the later twentieth century alerted the public to the dangers of the degradation of other natural resources and its potential effects on humans. In 1962, scholar Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which explored the effects of the pesticide DDT on the environment. The book’s warning to the world awoke many Americans to the dangers that modern life posed to the planet. Silent Spring warned readers, “We should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals. We should look about and see what other course is open to us.” President Johnson took heed; the Water Quality Act of 1964, the Air Quality Act of 1967, and the Water Pollution Act of 1968 all addressed the degradation of the environment posed by modern life. The modern environmental movement remains active in the United States and continues to lobby the federal government to pass legislation in the name of protecting the planet’s natural resources.