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.