The ‘Great Society’
Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took the oath of office on the plane carrying John F. Kennedy’s body from Dallas to Washington, D.C. on November 22, 1963. Johnson’s presidency began in turmoil with Kennedy’s assassination and continued throughout most of the decade in the same manner.
Johnson, a self-made man from simple roots—the polar opposite of Kennedy’s fame and family money—brought to the White House a dogged determination to push through domestic legislation. He dreamed of a “Great Society,” a vision he shared at every opportunity. This sweeping set of New Deal-style economic and welfare measures demonstrated his commitment to taking care of Americans first. During his presidency, the former Senate Majority Leader was able to earn approval for more domestic legislation than any twentieth century president except Franklin Roosevelt.
Early in 1964, Johnson told Congress, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill.” He cannily used the nation’s grief to force a civil rights bill through Congress that was significantly stronger than the one Kennedy had proposed. The Civil Rights Act of July 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in all public places, such as restaurants and hotels, and banned discrimination for employers, unions, and programs financed by the federal government.
In pursuit of his Great Society, Johnson sent a special message to Congress on March 16, 1964, calling for a “war on poverty.” He proposed a $962 million program, expanded to $3 billion by 1966, which would bring relief to the most poverty-stricken areas in rural and urban America. Johnson was committed to social programs that would provide jobs, medical assistance, education, civil rights, and aid to the indigent. Building on Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Johnson created VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, a program that provided volunteers to aid underprivileged areas of the United States.
Under Johnson’s leadership, insurance programs like Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor were established, as well as educational programs like Head Start for preschoolers and a job corps for inner-city youth. Other Great Society initiatives protected consumers, safeguarded the environment, and initiated food stamp programs. Johnson also created the Department of Housing and Urban Development and pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that provided all citizens with the right to vote regardless of race.
Johnson was not the only political figure during this era that made a strong impact on civil rights. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over many controversial cases in the 1960s. One of the most famous cases was Miranda v. Arizona. When Ernesto Miranda, an Arizona man convicted of raping a woman in the early 1960s, confessed his crime to police, he was unaware of his right to remain silent and to not answer the officers’ questions. Miranda’s attorneys appealed the guilty verdict, and the Supreme Court reversed the conviction.
Due to this 1966 ruling, police must now tell any person suspected of a crime in police custody their Miranda Rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with an attorney and/or to have one present when questioned by the police. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you. If you decide to answer questions now without an attorney present, you have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney.”
The Warren Court also took on the issue of school prayer, deciding in Engel v. Vitale that prayer in schools is unconstitutional. It addressed citizens’ political rights in the case of Baker v. Carr, which established that voting boundaries should reflect a state’s population. And, in the 1950s, Chief Justice Warren and his court dealt with segregation in the matter of Brown v. Board of Education, the legendary decision that school segregation violates the Constitution.
While domestic politics ran smoothly, President Johnson struggled to navigate foreign affairs. Upon taking office in 1963, LBJ had announced that he would “stay the course” in Southeast Asia and reversed Kennedy’s order to begin withdrawing American military “advisors” in Vietnam. Originally deployed by President Eisenhower to aid in the creation of a non-communist government in South Vietnam to rival that of communist Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front he had created in the North, Johnson bolstered the presence of these “advisers” with additional troops and military resources. Johnson, like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, feared a “domino theory,” which held that if the communists succeeded in controlling Vietnam they would progressively dominate all of Southeast Asia.
Johnson further expanded America’s presence in Vietnam by signing secret National Security Council “findings” permitting U.S. covert operations against North Vietnam. Following North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North Vietnam and on August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This gave the president a “blank check” to use whatever resources were necessary to bring an end to the war and the further spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia.
The first bombing raids on North Vietnam began later that year. By the end of 1965, the number of American troops in Vietnam had increased six-fold, from 23,000 to 184,000. By 1966, American involvement doubled again, rising to roughly 385,000 troops.
As Johnson committed more and more resources to the war in Vietnam, public dissatisfaction with U.S. policy became apparent. Americans began participating in a growing number of anti-war demonstrations, picket lines, and teach-ins (used to raise awareness about and express their position on the war). By 1966, Senator J. William Fullbright opened a series of Congressional hearings to debate the necessity of a continued American presence in Vietnam.
Despite growing domestic unrest, U.S. troop levels reached approximately 485,000 by 1967. An unfazed LBJ promised that an American victory was imminent. To back up his claims, General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, conveyed the message to America that there was “a light at the end of the tunnel.” However, while militarily outmatched, the North Vietnamese siege at Khesanh and the National Liberation Front’s “Tet Offensive” proved that the U.S. remained far from victory.
By 1968, Johnson could no longer avoid the fact that the U.S. could not win the Vietnam War. Later that year, he agreed to stop the bombing, began withdrawing American forces, and agreed to peace talks in Paris.
Johnson had won the 1964 presidential election on the strength of his social policy, beating out millionaire Republican Barry Goldwater. However, Johnson’s first elected term would also be his last, as criticism over his failure to bring a successful end to the Vietnam War weighed heavily on him. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced to America that he would not accept nomination or election for another term in office. Johnson believed that his decision was in the country’s best interest—a decision that opened the door for the turbulence of the Nixon presidency.
While President Johnson was simultaneously rolling out his Great Society blueprints and entering ever deeper in the conflict in Vietnam, a cultural rebellion was gathering strength in American universities. The affluence of the 1950s allowed an unprecedented number of young people to attend college in the 1960s. This growing demographic had little real-world experience, and they looked critically at a society that had provided prosperity for them and their families. Many university students and young Americans were unsettled with the cookie-cutter lifestyle and middle-class values of the generation before them and set out to make their own mark on society.
Never having lived through a major war, these youth had a jaded view of the war in Vietnam. They looked past Johnson’s claims that it was a war that must be finished and saw only the increasing number of Americans who continued to lose their lives. They felt the struggle between the South Vietnamese government and the Vietcong was a civil war that the United States should have avoided. Above all, those opposed to the war protested the way it was being fought, with massive aerial bombings, use of napalm and other chemical weapons, and the killing of civilians by U.S. troops.
By the late 1960s, dissatisfaction among American youth led to a counterculture that opposed the status quo and challenged traditional norms and values. Based on conflicts like the Berkeley Free Speech fight in 1964, college students across the country began organizing “teach-ins” on the Vietnam War.
Slowly, the rebellion that began as a protest against Johnson’s foreign policy grew into a rebellion against American culture as a whole. American youth lashed out at society through their language, music, and actions.
Taking a cue from the civil rights movement, young adults staged marches, sit-ins, and other demonstrations against every perceived injustice—from major political events, to the war, to a vague sense of unhappiness with their circumstances. College students especially banded together to form alliances of like-minded activists.
One such alliance was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This organization was borne at the University of Michigan by students Tom Hayden and Al Haber to protest American capitalism. In 1962, the SDS gathered 60 intellectuals together at Port Huron, Michigan, who shared Hayden’s and Haber’s belief that individual freedom was being unfairly limited for Americans. They created a manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement that focused on student and individual rights, economic justice, and societal reform.
The Port Huron Statement inspired action around the country. At the University of California Berkeley, students staged a sit-in to protest a decision made by that school’s chancellor, Clark Kerr, prohibiting political demonstrations. Over 2,000 students participated in the sit-in, and the school’s administration eventually acquiesced.
Berkeley student Mario Savio formed the Free Speech Movement in 1964 to present an organized front in future protests. He organized another sit-in to protest university politics that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of student protesters. The governor sent 600 armed policemen to detain the peaceful students, which stopped the protest but further inflamed students across the country.
It seemed that every aspect of college students’ lives in the 1960s reflected the agitated atmosphere and counterculture. 1950s Rock and Roll music had begun a revolution by providing young people with an electrified sound unique to their generation. The musicians of the 1960s took that sound and added lyrics that echoed the counterculture of the time.
Within the U.S., new rock music styles were flourishing—like the psychedelic sound from San Francisco—but the greatest musical influence of the time came from across the Atlantic with the “British Invasion.” Groups such as The Rolling Stones and the overwhelmingly popular Beatles expressed a mystical view of life that embraced drugs and Eastern religions as well as themes of anger, frustration, and rebelliousness that energized American youth.
Folk singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan used lilting, melodic tunes to encourage a natural, harmonious lifestyle. Their songs often railed against the establishment and encouraged listeners to break free of tradition.
Mind-altering drugs—primarily marijuana, but also hallucinogens such as LSD—gained unprecedented popularity during the 1960s. Radical Harvard professor Timothy Leary encouraged students to “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” and many young people were happy to follow his hedonistic advice. Drugs and music were often intertwined at events like Woodstock, a three-day music festival in 1969 where hippies could listen to many of the preeminent musicians of the day and share drugs, alcohol, and sex.
In an effort to live more simple lives and escape what they felt were the moral impositions of society, some young people relocated from college dormitories and parents’ homes to communes in rural locations. Most of these communes were not well conceived or cared for, and often any profits that were realized from the land were squandered. Eventually the poorly tended land could not sustain its inhabitants, and most communes disbanded. By the 1970s, most of the hippies had rejoined the society that they had “dropped out” of just a few years earlier.
While the 1960s saw young people “tune out” by way of the hippie counterculture, other segments of society were also calling for change. Both ethnic minorities and women were hard at work challenging what they saw as unjust laws and unfair treatment by society.
Women, who had been the nation’s primary labor source during World War II when most men were serving in the military, became less complacent with the duties of child rearing and homemaking. Taking their cue from the African American community’s struggle for equality, women realized that the best way to be heard was to present a united front.
In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by a small group of female activists led by Betty Friedan. The organization believed that workplace discrimination based upon sex should be abolished. NOW grew rapidly and eventually would go on to tackle other vital women’s issues, including abortion rights as well as federal and state support for childcare. NOW’s efforts led to the Educational Amendment Act of 1972, which called for affirmative action programs to ensure that women had equal rights to education. NOW also lobbied for a constitutional amendment to guarantee women equal rights; this “Equal Rights Amendment” or ERA was approved by Congress in 1972, but never ratified.
Hispanic Americans also became active in the fight for civil rights. Although many Hispanics had been living in the United States for decades, they—and their descendants—were still seen as outsiders by many Americans. As a result, Hispanics often encountered discrimination in education, jobs, and housing, which led to high poverty rates among that demographic.
Cesar Chavez, the son of Mexican immigrants, stepped up to lead the Hispanic struggle for civil liberties. Chavez formed an organization called the Farm Workers Association in the early 1960s, which would later become the United Farm Workers (UFW). The organization was largely comprised of poor Hispanic migrant workers who individually had no clout but as part of the UFW were able to gain respect and be heard.
The UFW, with Chavez at the helm, led grape and lettuce growers through strikes and boycotts that demonstrated the power of a united front. Under the leadership of Chavez, the United Farm Workers made historic achievements for farm workers. They signed the first genuine collective bargaining agreement between farm workers and growers in the history of the United States, the first union contracts that protected the rights and health of workers and provided job security, and established the first comprehensive union health benefits for farm workers and their families. Politicians, especially in the west, took note of the growing influence and power of the Hispanic community.
American Indians organized to regain some of the influence and liberty they once enjoyed. They called themselves “Native Americans” to emphasize the stewardship they once held over the entire continent as well as their equality as Americans. Many Native Americans sought more than equality—they sought restitution. Armed with copies of old treaties, Native Americans took to the courts to demand compensation for the land that had been assumed by the government centuries earlier. Several states, including Alaska, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts awarded settlements large enough to increase the standard of living on Indian reservations.
Of course, the prominent equal-rights struggle during the 1960s was that of the African Americans. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) promoted sit-ins, marches, and other peaceful demonstrations to bring attention to their cause. African Americans had long been stymied by segregation, but in the 1960s their plight began to receive national attention.
With the aid of television, families across the country could witness the struggle for equal rights firsthand. Both vigilantes and state and local law enforcement often physically harmed peaceful protesters with rocks, fire hoses, gas attacks, and police dogs. In the south, even after segregation had legally ended, black travelers took their lives into their own hands by boarding public trains or buses. On numerous occasions, buses carrying blacks coming into the community as peaceful demonstrators were pelted with pipes and rocks and sometimes even set on fire.
Eventually, African American frustration boiled over in a series of riots in the mid-1960s. One of the largest, the Watts Riot, occurred in a Los Angeles suburb in the summer of 1965. By the time peace was restored to the city, over $35 million dollars in damage had been done, and 34 people were killed. Less violent, but still destructive, riots occurred in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and Jacksonville throughout 1966 and 1967.
In response, Congress and President Johnson established a commission to investigate the causes of these riots. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner was appointed to lead the commission. The Kerner Commission concluded that poverty was the root of the reason for the riots, and the U.S. was rapidly deteriorating into two separate and unequal societies. The Commission recommended stronger social welfare programs to assist African Americans and other poverty-stricken groups to bridge the economic gap. Both President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., wholeheartedly supported the Kerner report, but the implementation of its remedies would be put on hold when Johnson left the White House in 1968.
Another event in that same traumatic year further set back the Civil Rights movement. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a white man who resented the increasing black influence in society. King’s murder set off a new round of riots across the country, while both blacks and whites mourned the tragic death of a charismatic leader. As Nixon prepared to take office, he faced a nation in the midst of political and social turmoil.