As 1965 dawns, President Lyndon Johnson launches the Great Society, the most ambitious raft of social program bills since the Great Depression. He also wants to pass a voting rights bill, but is worried he will alienate Southern legislators.
Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., frustrated at the lack of progress on voting rights, has mounted a vote campaign in Selma, Alabama, which Sheriff Jim Clark brutally thwarts.
As Johnson attempts to juggle these issues, a crisis develops in Vietnam: The Viet Cong attack a Marine support base, and the President feels compelled to retaliate. Despite Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s trepidations, Johnson agrees to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s plan for a bombing campaign and an increase in American troops to get the North Vietnamese to negotiate.
King organizes a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. After the marchers are brutally attacked by Sheriff Clark’s troopers, Johnson tries to get Governor Wallace to protect them. Wallace refuses. Furious, Johnson puts the Alabama National Guard under federal control.
At the same time, he sends his voting rights bill to Congress. Legislative victories follow as Congress passes bills on Medicare, education, poverty programs, and finally, voting rights.
But ominous events cloud these bright achievements: Facing instability in Vietnam, Johnson sends more American troops. Despite greater numbers, they meet with little success. Then, one week after the Voting Rights Act is signed, the Watts riots in Los Angeles begin to stir up public opinion against civil rights.
As 1966 dawns, the Vietnam War drag on. Casualties are mounting with no sign of victory in sight. King has moved north to Chicago to challenge housing discrimination there. Johnson is trying to pass an open-housing bill to remedy discrimination, but faces stiff resistance, particularly from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. After white residents attack peaceful black demonstrators, riots erupt.
The civil unrest in the North increasingly swings American voters to the right. In quick succession, Johnson is handed defeats on his open-housing bill and in the midterm elections of 1966. A divide begins to appear between King and the President. In early 1967, the rising death toll in Vietnam sparks more antiwar protests. Finally, King speaks out against the war, which creates an irreversible rift between the two men.
On the economic front, the war has caused deficits and inflation to mount. Johnson is forced to defend his social programs against budget cuts by conservatives and his war policy from attacks by the left. An atmosphere of paranoia envelops the White House as Johnson increasingly suspects Robert Kennedy of trying to undermine him. Finally, in early 1968, the President is faced with a major North Vietnamese offensive and a near-defeat in the New Hampshire primary. He decides not to run for another term.
The Great Society Legislation
On Jan 4, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union speech, announces a plan for the most sweeping series of social programs since the Great Depression. He called this collection of programs “The Great Society.” In the two weeks following the speech, he introduced bills that would fund huge increases in support for health care, education and a campaign he called “the war on poverty.”
In a whirlwind of legislative activity, Johnson then managed to pass 181 bills over the next two years, including:
• The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal aid for materials and special education programs for low-income children and also established Head Start to give preschool education for poor children.
• The establishment of Medicare, which provided low-cost hospitalization and medical insurance for Americans over 65.
• The Economic Opportunity Act of 1954, which provided more funding for the Office of Economic Opportunity and enhanced programs such as Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment.
Joseph Califano, former United States Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said, “. . . from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, and the percentage of African Americans below the poverty line dropped from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968.”
But a variety of factors undermined support for many of the Great Society programs. The cost of the Vietnam War squeezed funding for domestic programs, and the resulting rising inflation and government spending deficits led to public support for cutbacks. In the ensuing years, although Medicare remained fully funded, the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan further cut funding for many of these programs.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.