Johnson and the Great Society

Johnson's personality and political style contrasted sharply with the urbane and cultured Kennedy. A rough‐edged Texan with a vulgar vocabulary, Johnson had supported New Deal reforms and had wielded considerable political power as Senate majority leader. As president, he used his political skills to enact what remained of Kennedy's programs. He also used his influence to push through a flood of new laws intended to help the poor and minorities and to create what he called the Great Society — a country in which poverty, disease, and racial injustice would be eliminated through government reforms. Unfortunately, his domestic initiatives fell victim to the deepening crisis in Vietnam, which drained valuable resources from domestic concerns and eroded Johnson's public support.

The Great Society. Johnson was able to persuade Congress to enact a wide range of programs following Kennedy's assassination. Having grown up poor, the president knew first hand what poverty meant, and he declared a war on poverty early in 1964 through the Economic Opportunity Act. The act provided funds for the Job Corps, which secured employment for inner city youths; established the Head Start program, to give disadvantaged preschoolers an early opportunity in education; and set up a domestic version of the Peace Corps known as VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America.

Following his landslide victory over Republican conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Johnson used his popular mandate to expand the Great Society. In 1965, after almost 20 years of inaction on the issue, Congress finally passed Medicare, which provided Americans over the age of 65 with medical insurance, and Medicaid, which allotted federal grants to states for medical coverage of the poor. Money was earmarked for the Appalachian area, one of the most severe pockets of poverty in the country, through the Appalachian Regional Development Act (1965). Billions of dollars were channeled into housing reform through rent subsidies for low‐income families and the “model cities” program to rehabilitate substandard residential buildings. The nation's schools received the federal funding promised under Kennedy with substantial grants to both elementary and secondary school education. Also created were the Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965 — headed by Robert C. Weaver, the first African‐American to serve in the cabinet) and the Department of Transportation (1966), as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (1965). Additionally, the first serious attention was given to the environment with the enactment of the Water Quality Act (1965) and the Air Quality Act (1967).

Civil rights under Johnson. Johnson's Great Society also addressed racial injustice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public accommodations, authorized the attorney general to file suits to desegregate schools, and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate complaints of job discrimination. During the “freedom summer” of 1964, CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Mississippi Summer Project, a voter‐registration drive in the South. In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., coordinated a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for black voting rights that was often marred by violence. Combined with the ratification of the Twenty‐fourth Amendment, which outlawed the poll tax in federal elections, the Selma march marked a shift in civil rights tactics from seeking integration to stressing political power. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended literacy tests in counties where less than 50 percent of the eligible voters had cast ballots in 1964, provided for federal examiners to register voters, and gave the attorney general the authority to begin litigation against the poll tax. In 1966, the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax in all elections. The combined effect of these measures was to dramatically increase the number of African‐Americans registered in the South, from approximately one million in 1964 to more than three million by 1968, which ultimately transformed the Southern political landscape.

Neither the Great Society programs nor the civil rights legislation could prevent outbreaks of violence in the black neighborhoods of American cities in the 1960s. At the heart of the issues in the urban north was the lack of economic opportunity and political power. A major riot broke out in Los Angeles in August 1965 that left 34 people dead and cost more than $30 million in property damage. Rioting continued over the next several summers in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark. Finally, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, unrest broke out in more than 100 communities across the country.

At the same time, new black leaders were emerging to challenge King's integrationist and nonviolent philosophy. Malcolm X, the leader of the Black Muslim movement (also called the Nation of Islam), rejected integration and preached pride in the African heritage. He was assassinated in 1965 after he broke with the Nation of Islam. Similarly, Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC became an advocate of Black Power and moved the SNCC away from its original coalition of black and white students into black militancy. He became involved with the radical Black Panther Party that was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. The shift from integration to separatism cost the civil rights movement white support in the late 1960s.

Blacks were not the only minority struggling for equality. Cesar Chavez, the founder of the National Farm Workers Association (1962), organized a nationwide strike of grape pickers and boycott of grapes (and then lettuce) to fight for improved wages and working conditions for migrant labor. Meanwhile, young Mexican‐American activists called themselves Chicanos and demanded bilingual education programs in the public schools and Chicano studies at universities. Of all the ethnic groups in the country, however, Native Americans were in the most desperate position; they had the highest unemployment rate and the lowest life expectancy. In 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded to advocate for Native American rights. In the following year, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to dramatize their demands for enforcement of their legal rights, tribal autonomy, and restoration of tribal lands.

Johnson and Vietnam. In August 1964, two North Vietnamese patrol boats reportedly fired on American destroyers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson charged that these were unprovoked attacks and used the incident to persuade Congress to act. Through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (August 1964), the president was authorized to take any action necessary to repel attacks against U.S. forces and to prevent further aggression. The resolution became the official sanction to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. In early 1965, Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam to stop the flow of men and material to the south. Operation Rolling Thunder, as the air campaign was called, continued until the spring of 1968. The first American combat troops were sent to Vietnam in March 1965 and the scope of their responsibility quickly shifted from defensive (protecting U.S. installations) to offensive operations. The number of ground troops rose incrementally, and just under 500,000 were committed to the war by 1968.

Much like the troop build‐up, opposition to the war in the United States developed slowly. The first teach‐ins, which questioned why the United States was fighting in Asia, were held on college campuses in the spring of 1965. Antiwar protests increased over the next several years, and more and more criticism was heard from the mainstream of American society, including such senators as William Fulbright and Robert Kennedy, who argued against Johnson's policies. Opposition grew as the cost of the war (which gutted many Great Society programs) rose, the number of American casualties mounted, and people's horror intensified as they viewed the conflict — America's first televised war — each evening on television. A key factor in shaping the public's attitudes toward the war was the Tet Offensive, which began on January 30, 1968.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces took advantage of the lunar New Year (Tet) truce to launch a month‐long attack against more than 100 cities and military bases in South Vietnam. During the offensive, Hue, the former administrative seat of Southern Vietnam fell, and the American embassy in Saigon was briefly occupied. Although the campaign proved to be a military disaster for the North, it had a great psychological impact in the United States. Public opinion shifted against the war as many Americans became convinced that the war could not be won in the traditional sense. Tet also had a direct effect on American politics. Johnson's popularity plummeted in the wake of the offensive, and the president announced that he would not seek a second term. He also stopped most of the bombing over the North and peace talks with the North Vietnamese began in Paris in May 1968.