Lyndon Johnson's Great Society

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act. Bettmann / Getty Images

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was a sweeping set of social domestic policy programs initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson during 1964 and 1965 focusing mainly on eliminating racial injustice and ending poverty in the United States. The term “Great Society” was first used by President Johnson in a speech at Ohio University. Johnson later revealed more details of the program during an appearance at the University of Michigan.

In implementing one of the most impactful arrays of new domestic policy programs in the history of the U.S. federal government, the legislation authorizing the Great Society programs addressed issues such as poverty, education, medical care, and racial discrimination.

Indeed, the Great Society legislation enacted by the United States Congress from 1964 to 1967 represented the most extensive legislative agenda undertaken since the Great Depression era New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt. The flurry of legislative action earned the 88th and 89th Congress the moniker of the “Great Society Congress.”

However, the realization of the Great Society actually began in 1963, when then-Vice President Johnson inherited the stalled “New Frontier” plan proposed by President John F. Kennedy before his assassination in 1963.

To succeed in moving Kennedy’s initiative forward, Johnson utilized his skills of persuasion, diplomacy, and extensive knowledge of the politics of Congress. In addition, he was able to ride the rising tide of liberalism spurred by the Democratic landslide in the 1964 election that turned the House of Representatives of 1965 into the most liberal House since 1938 under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

Unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal, which had been driven forward by sweeping poverty and economic calamity, Johnson’s Great Society came just as the prosperity of the post-World War II economy was fading but before middle and upper-class Americans began to feel the decline 

Johnson Takes Over the New Frontier

Many of Johnson’s Great Society programs were inspired by the social initiatives included in the “New Frontier” plan proposed by Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign. Although Kennedy was elected president over Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, Congress was reluctant to adopt most of his New Frontier initiatives. By the time he was assassinated in November 1963, President Kennedy had persuaded Congress to pass only a law creating the Peace Corps, a law increase in the minimum wage, and a law dealing with equal housing.

The lingering national trauma of Kennedy’s assassination created a political atmosphere that provided Johnson an opportunity to gain Congress’ approval of some of JFK’s New Frontier initiatives.

Harnessing his well-known powers of persuasion and political connections made during his many years as a U.S. Senator and Representative, Johnson swiftly managed to gain congressional approval of two of the most important laws forming Kennedy’s vision for the New Frontier:

In addition, Johnson secured funding for Head Start, a program that still provides free preschool programs for disadvantaged children today. Also in the area of educational improvement, the Volunteers in Service to America, now known as AmeriCorps VISTA, program was created to provide volunteer teachers to schools in poverty-prone regions. 

At last, in 1964, Johnson got a chance to start working toward his own Great Society.

Johnson and Congress Build the Great Society

The same Democratic landslide victory in the 1964 election that swept Johnson into his own full term as president also swept many new progressive and liberal Democratic lawmakers into Congress. 

During his 1964 campaign, Johnson famously declared the “war on poverty,” to help build what he called a new “Great Society” in America. In the election, Johnson won 61% of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes to easily defeat ultra-conservative Republican Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

On January 4, 1965, in his first State of the Union address after being elected president in his own right, Johnson described his vision for the “Great Society.” In his memorable address, Johnson informed the American people and then-incredulous lawmakers that the task would require passage of a massive social welfare package consisting of an expanded Social Security program, federal support for education, and expanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include the “elimination of the barriers to the right to vote.” In describing his vision. Johnson stated:

“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.” 

Drawing on his many years of experience as a legislator and strong Democratic control of Congress, Johnson quickly began to win passage of his Great Society legislation.

From January 3, 1965, to January 3, 1967, Congress enacted:

In addition, Congress enacted laws strengthening the anti-pollution Air and Water Quality Acts; raised standards ensuring the safety of consumer products; and created the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.

Vietnam and Racial Unrest Slow the Great Society

Even as his Great Society seemed to be gaining momentum, two events were brewing that by 1968 would seriously jeopardize Johnson’s legacy as a progressive social reformer.

Despite the passage of anti-poverty and anti-discrimination laws, racial unrest and civil rights protests – sometimes violent —grew in frequency. While Johnson would continue to use his political power in an attempt to end segregation and maintain law and order, few solutions were found.

Even more damaging to the goals of the Great Society, ever larger amounts of money originally intended to fight the war on poverty was being used to fight the Vietnam War instead. By the end of his term in 1968, Johnson suffered criticism from conservative Republicans for his domestic spending programs and by his fellow liberal Democrats for his hawkish support for expanding the Vietnam War effort. 

In March 1968, hoping to prompt peace negotiations, Johnson ordered a near halt to American bombing of North Vietnam. At the same time, he surprisingly withdrew as a candidate for re-election to a second term in order to devote all of his efforts to the quest for peace.

While some of the Great Society programs have been eliminated or scaled back today, many of them, such as Medicare and Medicaid programs of the Older Americans Act and public education funding endure. Indeed, several of Johnson’s Great Society programs grew under Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Although Vietnam War-ending peace negotiations had begun when President Johnson left office, he did not live to see them completed, dying of a heart attack on January 22, 1973, at his Texas Hill Country ranch

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Longley, Robert. "Lyndon Johnson's Great Society." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Lyndon Johnson's Great Society." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).