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Great Society

In May 1964, President LYNDON B. JOHNSON gave a speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in which he outlined his domestic agenda for the United States. He applauded the nation's wealth and abundance but admonished the audience that "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 American civilization." Johnson's agenda was based on his vision of what he called "the Great Society," the name by which the agenda became popularly known.

Part of the Great Society agenda was based on initiatives proposed by Johnson's predecessor, JOHN F. KENNEDY, but Johnson's vision was comprehensive and far-reaching. Johnson wanted to use the resources of the federal government to combat poverty, strengthen CIVIL RIGHTS, improve public education, revamp urban communities, and protect the country's natural resources. In short, Johnson wanted to ensure a better life for all Americans. He had already begun his push toward this goal with his "War on Poverty," a set of initiatives announced in 1964 and marked by the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This act authorized a number of programs including Head Start; work-study programs for college students; Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic version of the Peace Corps; and various adult job-training programs. Johnson's Great Society proposal was ambitious, even by his standards—as a seasoned politician, he had a well-earned reputation for getting things done. Not only that, he had to win the 1964 presidential election before he could enact his ideas.

Johnson sought affordable HEALTH CARE for all, stronger civil rights legislation, more benefits for the poor and the elderly, increased aid to education, economic development, urban renewal, crime prevention, and stronger conservation efforts. To many, Johnson's initiative seemed to be the most sweeping change in federal policy since FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL in the 1930s.

The Great Society theme was the foundation of his campaign in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson's Republican opponent, BARRY GOLDWATER, campaigned on a promise of reducing the size and scope of the federal government. In the end, Johnson's campaign for the Great Society was convincing enough that he carried 46 states and won 61 percent of the popular vote in November.

Johnson outlined his Great Society programs during his State of the Union address in January 1965, and over the next several months progress followed quickly. MEDICARE was introduced to provide healthcare funding to SENIOR CITIZENS. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law, guaranteeing increased funding to disadvantaged students. The HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT (HUD) program was created to bring affordable housing to the inner cities. The Highway Beautification Act was signed, providing funding to clear the nation's highways of blight. Along with that went legislation to regulate air and water quality. The CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1965 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, and gender.

Johnson chose John Gardner to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Gardner, who was sworn in on July 27, 1965, was a psychologist, an authority on education, and had previously been head of the Carnegie Corporation. Widely respected by members of both parties (he was a Republican) Gardner helped carry out Johnson's goals and agenda; in some circles he was known as the "engineer of the Great Society."

Johnson's Great Society made a genuine difference in the lives of millions of Americans, and many of its initiatives are still integral to U.S. society in the twenty-first century. But the programs were expensive, costing billions of dollars, and many of Johnson's opponents said that the programs only added new layers of bureaucracy to an already oversized government. A more pressing issue, however, was the VIETNAM WAR. What was supposed to have been a short-term exercise had now gone on for several years with financial and human cost. The war was highly unpopular with a large portion of American society, and the energy needed to keep the war effort going drained resources from the programs of the Great Society. The departure of Gardner from HEW was a blow to Johnson, especially since after Gardner left HEW he spoke out publicly against the war.

The 1960s also saw an upsurge in racial unrest. Despite the sweeping civil rights initiatives Johnson had launched, many poor blacks felt it was not enough. Racial unrest in major cities led to several riots, and it was clear that there was a great deal of pent-up anger and frustration that could not simply be legislated away.

Faced with mounting criticism because of Vietnam, Johnson chose not to run for reelection in 1968. The shadow of Vietnam hung over him until his death five years after, and it was only later that the American people were able to appreciate fully the scope and importance of Johnson's role in shaping the Great Society.


Andrew, John A. 1998. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago, Ill.: I. R. Dee.

Califano, Joseph A. 1991. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement.

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