ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

Lyndon B Johnson and the Great Society

 

*When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson became president.  He had been a Congressman and Senator from Texas for over twenty years, and was chosen as vice-president partly to get Southern Democrats to vote for a Northern Catholic.

 

*Johnson was not a traditional Southern Democrat, however.  He had played a major role in getting Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

 

*In fact, Johnson was very effective at working with Congress.  He had been a Congressman for years and had many connections.  He knew exactly how to reach each person there, whether with persuasion, bribery, or bullying, and won the passage of many laws with 'the Johnson treatment.'

 

*As president Johnson used his connections in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination.  Not only did it help African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, but Title VII prohibited discrimination based on sex.

 

*Johnson did not just want to fight discrimination, he also declared a War on Poverty.  Not only did he get Kennedy’s proposed middle-class tax cuts through Congress, he created programmes to improve education and provide job training for many Americans.  The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) trained volunteers similar to the Peace Corps to work in poor rural and urban areas to provide educational and medical assistance.

 

*Johnson’s War on Poverty created Head Start, to help prepare young children for school.  It also focused attention (and federal funding) on Appalachia, including through the Appalachian Regional Commission, a group originally created by the governors of a number of Appalachian states but which now began to receive significant federal funding.

 

*The Food Stamp Act of 1964 appropriated $75 million, with increasing appropriations for future years.

 

*While Johnson was president, minimum wage reached its highest purchasing power:  in 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour was equivalent to earning $11.63 per hour in 2018.

 

*In 1964, Johnson ran for election as president in his own right against Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater opposed Johnson’s big spending.  He thought the Federal government should do as little as possible while people should take responsibility for themselves.  He would have lowered taxes and cut welfare and other programmes.  Despite wanting a fairly inactive government, he did favour a very strong stand against the Soviet Union and Communism in general (which had the most intrusive government possible).  Republicans said, 'In your heart, you know he's right.'  Democrats said, 'In your guts, you know he's nuts.'

 

*Johnson’s campaign played up some of Goldwater’s extreme views, suggesting he would end Civil Rights legislation and perhaps even provoke a nuclear war.  Goldwater lost the Election of 1964 in a landslide, but he carried five Southern states, the first Republican to win Deep Southern states on his own.  Furthermore, his campaign was seen as the birth of the modern conservative movement (although Goldwater eventually turned against religious conservatives because he felt that legislating morality was too intrusive, too).

 

*Among Johnson's 486 electoral votes were the 3 votes of Washington, D.C., which had been given the right to vote in presidential elections by the XXIII Amendment, passed in 1960 and ratified in March, 1961.

 

*With Johnson elected as president and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, they planned to expand the War on Poverty in order to create a Great Society, in which poverty and discrimination would end, and everyone would be taken care of.

 

*Johnson believed that better education and health care were necessary to end poverty, so he created Medicare (government-sponsored health care for the elderly) and Medicaid (health care for the poor and disabled).  He also increased funding for education with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

 

*To promote government construction of highways and to support public transportation he created the Department of Transportation, and to help house the urban poor, he created the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with the first African-American cabinet secretary, Robert Weaver leading it.

 

*The Great Society would protect the environment.  Modern environmentalism began after the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, describing the effect of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on wildlife, particularly birds and insects.  This encouraged the creation of the Water Quality Act of 1965 and the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966.

 

*In 1965, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, describing low quality and poor safety in American automobiles, which helped lead to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which established safety standards for automobiles.

 

*The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed far more immigrants (particularly from Eastern Europe and Latin America) to come to the US.  Since the 1920s, only Western Europeans had been encouraged to move to the US.

 

*In many ways, Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society were successful:  between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of Americans living in poverty dropped from 22.2% to 12.6%.

 

*Johnson and the Congress were not the only reformers of the 1960s.  The Supreme Court, under Earl Warren (known as the Warren Court), also changed society.  Cases such as Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964) required states to make sure that electoral districts were equal, reducing the voting power of rural areas, which had gotten more voting than their population should have—Charles Baker, a Shelby County Tennessee Republican, for example, complained that electoral districts in Tennessee had not been redrawn since 1901, and did not reflect the urbanisation that had taken place in the intervening six decades.

 

*Accused criminals were given more rights, too.  Clarence Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and looting a cigarette machine, juke box, and cash register in 1961 based on the testimony of one witness.  Unable to afford an attorney, he represented himself but was found guilty and sent to prison, but appealed, doing his own research in the prison library and writing to the Supreme Court on prison stationery.  Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and later cases said that the accused had a right to a lawyer (even if the public had to provide one).

 

*In 1960, Danny Escobedo was accused of shooting his brother-in-law, and during 14˝ hours of interrogation during which he repeatedly asked for a lawyer, he admitted to knowledge of the crime, which was interpreted as an admission of guilt.  1964, Escobedo v. Illinois determined that people held by the police had a right to an attorney during police questioning, too, as well as during their trial. 

 

*In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was accused of the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old woman.  After two hours alone in police custody, he signed a written confession of his guilt and was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison.  However, in 1966, Miranda v. Arizona overturned the conviction because he had not known he had the right to remain silent or the right to have an attorney present.  Furthermore, the case decided that accused criminals had to be informed of their rights under the V and VI Amendments. 

 

*Earl Warren’s court also supported separation of church and state.  They decided in Engel v. Vitale (1962) that requiring students to pray in public schools violated the First Amendment.  In 1963, Abingdon v. Schempp decided that reading the Bible in public schools violated the First Amendment as well. 

 

*Johnson got around this for a while by spending officially government education money on students rather than schools, allowing the government to help religious (mostly Catholic) schools as well as public schools, something Kennedy never dared do lest he be seen as doing the Pope's work with American money.

 

*Both these decisions made many Americans fear that the government (or at least some politicians) were opposed to religion and were trying to destroy its role in public life.  This was also part of the inspiration of the modern conservative movement, which hoped to reverse this trend and preserve the Christian elements of American culture.

 

*Although the new conservative movement tended to favour Republicans, in some ways, Johnson was still a very conservative Democrat, at least when it came to communism.

 

*Johnson escalated American involvement in Vietnam throughout his presidency to contain Communism in Southeast Asia.

 

*Ever since Fidel Castro aligned himself with the Soviets, America had worried about his attempts to export the revolution to other Latin American nations.  In April 1965, the people of the Dominican Republic revolted against their military government, which was backed by the United States, and LBJ blamed the Communists.  To keep the hemisphere safe, he sent 25,000 troops to restore order.  He was accused by many other nations of being too aggressive and of returning to the gunboat diplomacy of an earlier era, despite American claims to have outgrown that.

 

*As the war in Vietnam dragged on, and America seemed more aggressive elsewhere, other nations of the world grew increasingly critical of America’s actions.  Peace Corps volunteers were expelled from other countries.  Charles De Gaulle, President of France, removed France from NATO’s military alliance and ordered NATO troops out of France in 1966, while simultaneously developing France’s nuclear weapons programme (which had tested its first three A-bombs in the Algerian Sahara in 1960).

 

*With the US busy in Viet-Nam, the Soviets took advantage of the situation to gain increased influence in the Arab world, especially in Egypt.  This was not enough to let Egypt beat Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, however.  In June, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan attacked Israel after a series of border incidents.  Although the Arabs were armed with new Soviet planes and other weapons, they were unable to take over Israel.  Instead, the Israelis seized the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank of the Jordan, which they soon began to settle with Jewish farmers.  Although Israel won alone (or, at least, alone with US weapons and funding), the Arabs claimed that the US and Britain sent planes to help.

 

*In January 1968, USS Pueblo was operating off the coast of North Korea, in international waters, spying on the North Koreans.  On 22 January, North Korean assassins had attempted (and failed) to kill several South Korean leaders.  On 23 January, Pueblo was attacked and captured by the North Korean navy.  The sailors were interned, and later released after being starved and tortured.  Pueblo is still held by the North Koreans, and is only the second US warship captured since the Barbary Wars (USS Wake was captured by the Japanese in WWII).  This was a major embarrassment to the United States, and in the vast propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the world, every embarrassment was serious.

 

*As time passed, American involvement in Vietnam would become increasingly embarrassing, and would lead to Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek a second term of his own in 1968.




This page last updated 26 November, 2018.
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