Through newsreel footage, archival photos, and interviews, this video segment adapted from American Experience surveys the array of civil rights and social welfare legislation that President Lyndon Johnson championed in pursuit of what he characterized as the "Great Society." Johnson's success in enacting reforms in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, education, health care, and housing were quickly met by budgetary constraints, including those imposed by increased spending on the Vietnam War, and significant public skepticism that compromised the effectiveness of many of the new programs.
Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency three decades after the social welfare initiatives of the New Deal. In the intervening years, World War II and the Cold War had become federal priorities, and those living in poverty (19 percent of the population) and especially racial minorities still suffered from discrimination that in many cases was condoned by local law and local officials.
Johnson responded by initiating what he called a War on Poverty that would lead to an era of prosperity and equality that he labeled the Great Society. In support of this effort, Congress enacted a number of important laws in the first two years of his administration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government the authority to enforce nondiscrimination in housing and public accommodations, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a similar effect on polling place inequities. The Office of Economic Opportunity oversaw such new programs as the Job Corps and VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Head Start introduced preschool support, while the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided Work-Study grants, student loans, and Teaching Corps support for low-income students. Model Cities, the Fair Housing Act, and the Community Action Program were designed to improve low-income housing and economic opportunities, while Medicaid and Medicare extended health services to the poor and senior citizens.
These Great Society initiatives promised a rare level of improvement in the lives of the poor and minority citizens. Thanks to Johnson's political skills and the convincing mandate he received in the 1964 election, he was able to see these proposals quickly enacted. Improvements in civil rights were immediate, and the level of poverty was also reduced to 12 percent of the population by 1969.
Still, the War on Poverty was far from a total success. Program costs were substantial, particularly in light of the escalating war in Vietnam; yet Johnson, unwilling to admit financial constraints, allowed the public to believe that it could have what came to be known as both "guns and butter." As the Vietnam War siphoned more federal funds and urban riots encouraged a growing backlash against providing special programs for the poor, the goal of a Great Society receded further into the distance.
For a reference collection of archival videos and interviews about the Vietnam War, see the Vietnam Collection in WGBH's Open Vault.
NARRATOR: It was a legislative avalanche. No president had ever put so many bills before Congress. Funds for education, elementary, secondary and college, and, for preschool children, Head Start; funds for conservation, clean air and clean rivers, national parks; funds for consumer protection, truth in labeling and packaging, automobile safety. There was urban renewal and housing, public television, the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts. The list goes on and on.
LYNDON JOHNSON: I have had butone objective-- to be the president of all the people; not just the rich, not just the well-fed, not just the fortunate, but president of all of America.
R. SARGENT SHRIVER: You could see the great progress which was being made for poor people. The transformation of young men and women who were in the Upward Bound program-- you could see them going to universities when they never had anybody in their family ever went to a college in their whole life. You could see that. You could see what was happening to the mothers-- not just to the children, but to the mothers of the children in the Head Start program.You had mothers who were illiterate and never been to school suddenly starting to learn themselves because they were learning simultaneously with their child who was in Head Start. I want economic opportunity to be spread across this land--north, south, east and west, to all people, whatever their race, whatever their work, wherever they live.
REBECCA DOGGETT: Certainly this was a great opportunity for minorities, for women. I very early had an opportunity to become an administrator of a very large corporation, a multimillion-dollar corporation, which, of course, was really unique in those days. We were young, we were gifted, we were black, and we saw national will and there was certainly this local energy of people who wanted to make a change in their lives. And it came together all at the same time.
NARRATOR: The president never asked for a declaration of war, but on July 28, 1965, Lyndon Johnson went to war in Vietnam. He kept the risks and costs of war hidden from the American people. He never told them he'd been warned that hundreds of thousands of soldiers might be needed.
LARRY BERMAN: He doesn't tell the American people what's really going on because he fears that's the end of the Great Society. That's the end of the one thing he cares about more than anything.
NARRATOR: Just two days after his decision to commit America to a land war in Asia, he traveled to Independence, Missouri and signed into law Medicare. Johnson continued to pass legislation. Only the president knew that his Great Society was in jeopardy. He hid the costs of the war from Congress and signed more bills.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America. It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill in Vietnam while we spend, in the so-called War on Poverty in America, only about $53 for each person classified as poor.The country began to get out of control, and President Johnson was no longer in control of the Congress. The economy was creating problems for him, the war in Vietnam was being lost.
NARRATOR: By 1966, hundreds of thousands of Americans were in Vietnam. Thousands were dead. Johnson's dream of a Great Society was in danger... and the end was nowhere in sight.
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