International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences © Thomson Gale 2008


The Great Society













The term Great Society, which refers to the set of domestic programs initiated by Lyndon B. Johnson, who became the U.S. president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, was coined by Johnson’s speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin early in 1964. In an address during commencement exercises at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on May 22, Johnson used the term publicly for the first time. The new chief executive, eager to map out his own legislative agenda, challenged the American people to build a society “where progress is the servant of our needs,” a society “where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth,” a society that “rests on abundance and liberty for all,” a society that “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.” Johnson identified the three places to begin the building of the Great Society—in the cities, in the countryside, and in the classrooms. He catalogued the social ills that needed to be corrected—urban decay, inadequate housing, poor transportation, environmental pollution, overburdened seashores, disappearing green fields, a poorly educated adult population, overcrowded classrooms, outdated curricula, unqualified teachers, and inadequate college funding. The far-thinking president envisioned a society where people are more concerned with the “quality of their goals” than the “quantity of their goods,” a glorious America where the meaning of people’s lives matches the marvelous products of their labor (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, pp. 704–707).

Johnson, who came to Washington during the 1930s, modeled his domestic initiatives on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the policies implemented to combat the effects of the Great Depression. At the same time, the concept of the Great Society was meant to continue the legislative program begun by President Kennedy, called the New Frontier, and its implementation followed the same path.

The 1960s legislation, in contrast to the New Deal of the 1930s, was begun in a period of economic prosperity. After Johnson’s Ann Arbor speech, fourteen separate task forces comprised of government experts and university scholars were assembled to study all major aspects of American society. One task force addressed foreign affairs, and the rest tackled domestic policies concerning agriculture, economic recession, civil rights, education, economic efficiency, health, income maintenance, intergovernmental cooperation, natural resources, environmental pollution, preservation of natural beauty, transportation, and urban problems. During the 1964 presidential campaign, however, the proposed Great Society agenda, other than civil rights, was not widely discussed. Johnson’s popular vote majority of 61 percent, combined with the Democrats’ winning enough seats to control two-thirds of the House and Senate, set the stage for the subsequent passage of bills submitted to both chambers. Lingering public and congressional sympathy for the slain president’s program undoubtedly helped as well.

In late 1964 Johnson reviewed the task force reports submitted to the White House, and a number of recommendations were briefly mentioned in his State of the Union address on January 7, 1965. The president, now elected in his own right, confidently talked about the “beginning of the road to the Great Society” and summit meetings ahead with foreign heads of state, “where freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit.” He sought opportunity for all, a just nation that would provide hospital care for the elderly under social security, eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty, assure civil and voting rights for blacks, and provide to immigrants the promise of America based on the work they could do and not where they were born. In 1965 eighty-seven bills were submitted to Congress by the new administration, eighty-four of which were signed by Johnson. With this legislation, in addition to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the core of the Great Society was created.



It was in the areas of civil rights and economic assistance that the Great Society was most effective. The Civil Rights Act (1964) made employment discrimination and segregation in public accommodations—on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—illegal. This legislation was followed by the Voting Rights Act (1965), which guaranteed minority voter registration and voting by restricting the use of literacy tests and poll taxes. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act (1965) did away with the national origin quotas put in place in 1924; this law opened the door to waves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, a pattern still apparent in the early twenty-first century. The 1968 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in housing and granted constitutional protections to Native Americans living on reservations. Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty had its roots in the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), which established an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to manage a variety of “community action” programs. The OEO was never meant to deal with poverty by raising welfare payments or guaranteeing wages, but to help the poor help themselves through education, job training, and community development. The Job Corps, Project Head Start, the Model Cities Program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, Upward Bound, and VISTA were the most important new programs designed to assist poor people.

The Great Society also spawned well-known legislation in the areas of education and healthcare. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) provided significant federal aid to public education, and secured Head Start, originally a summer program, as a permanent component. Since education was a state and local matter, the federal government previously had refrained from assisting public schools for fear of violating the principle of “separation of powers.” The Higher Education Act (1965) raised federal aid to public and private universities, granted scholarships and low-interest loans to students, and set up a National Teachers Corps. The Bilingual Education Act (1968) helped local school districts address the English-language needs of minority children. Medicare and Medicaid, today the bedrock of the U.S. healthcare system, had their origins in the Social Security Act of 1965. Initially bitterly opposed by the American Medical Association, these publicly funded programs that covered hospital costs and doctors’ fees have been indispensable to older Americans, welfare recipients, and low-income families.

Legislative actions in the areas of culture, transportation, consumer protection, and the environment are likewise the direct result of President Johnson’s vision for a better America. The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act (1965) created two separate federal agencies for the funding of artistic and humanistic pursuits to counterbalance the emphasis given to scientific endeavors. The Urban Mass Transportation Act (1964) provided hundreds of millions of dollars in matching funds to cities for public and private rail projects, and the Highway Safety Act (1966) was enacted to protect motorists from unsafe roads and vehicles. American consumers benefited from a number of laws such as the Child Safety Act (1966), the Flammable Fabrics Act (1967), the Wholesale Meat Act (1967), and the Truth-in-Lending Act (1968).

More than any of the other sets of laws associated with the Great Society, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s stirred public controversy, which has continued for four decades. Johnson issued in 1965, and later expanded in 1967, Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to “take affirmative action” to ensure that people are hired and treated during employment without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. By 1972 this presidential mandate, together with the legal ban on discrimination, led to federal pressure on employers (and then schools and housing providers) to take positive steps to correct past wrongs by giving “preferential treatment” to minorities and women. Before long, quotas were introduced, setting “goals” for protected classes of Americans and “timetables” for achieving them. White males responded with cries of “reverse discrimination”: Complaints before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, state human rights agencies, and federal and state courts numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A few cases reached the Supreme Court.

In a series of split and often very close decisions on both sides of the affirmative action debate, the Supreme Court itself added to the controversy. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, the Court in a five-to-four decision prohibited a California medical school from using a quota—reserving a specific number of places—for minorities in admissions. A year later, however, in United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, the same court ruled that it was okay for the steelworkers union to select only minorities for a special training program. Two cases two years apart, both involving firefighters, are also contradictory. In 1984, in Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts, it was decided that seniority was more important than race, that the City of Memphis could lay off recently hired minorities first in staff reductions. However, in International Association of Firefighters v. City of Cleveland (1986), the municipality was permitted to promote minorities over more senior whites. Three recent cases, two concerning the same educational institution, have further confused the issue of affirmative action with decisions that alternately sustained and reversed earlier rulings. In Texas v. Hopwood (1996) the high court let stand a lower court decision that race could not be used in college admissions. In Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), in a six-to-three decision the University of Michigan’s strict formula awarding advantage based on race for admissions was struck down, but in the very same year, in Grutter v. Bollinger, by five to four the University of Michigan Law School was permitted to use race as a factor in admissions.



Funding the Great Society initiatives became difficult beginning in 1968 because of the burden of the Vietnam War, Johnson’s reluctance to ask Congress for a tax increase, and the goal of reaching a balanced budget. Many of the programs had no political constituencies, that is, they did not originate from outside lobbying and thus lacked the support necessary for continued financing. Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the 1968 presidential race further weakened his advocacy of government intervention on the side of racial justice and economic equality. Under the Republican administration of President Richard M. Nixon, in 1969 the OEO was dismantled and its poverty programs transferred to other federal agencies. Democrat Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency, bogged down with the twin problems of inflation and recession, did little to restore the earlier funding for social causes. Carter offered no new initiatives along the lines of Johnson’s program, focusing instead on international affairs.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan’s strong conservative views on the role of government and federal spending, combined with a Republican Congress’s disinclination to continue social programs, led to draconian cuts for the Great Society. The huge increase in appropriations for the military during this period further tolled the bell for the two-decades-old set of domestic programs. The administration of George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) essentially held fast to the new conservative agenda in Washington. By the time Bill Clinton took the oath of office in 1993 the Democrats had accepted the hard fact that most of the Great Society goals had not been, nor could they ever be, accomplished, and they did not push for new social legislation. Clinton’s failure to get approval for a national health insurance program but success at passing a welfare reform bill only served to scale back the accomplishments of earlier Democratic presidents. Welfare reform now meant that time limits were imposed on the benefits received, able-bodied adult recipients were required to perform public service work, and more rigorous eligibility requirements were imposed, changes all contrary to Johnson’s original goals for a better America. Under the administration of George W. Bush, which began in 2001, the Republican Congress did not kill all previous social programs, and it kept up some funding, but Bush’s efforts toward the global war on terror and his initiation of the war in Iraq devoured budget surpluses and rendered impossible any meaningful attempt to reinvigorate Great Society spending, just as the war in Southeast Asia had almost four decades earlier.



The Great Society has always been closely identified with Democratic political agendas and the cold war liberalism of the 1960s. It was premised on Johnson’s “guns and butter” approach, the idea that the United States can wage wars against communism in far-off places and, at the same time, still provide sufficient funding for domestic social programs. Critics of the Great Society were from the start skeptical of the federal government’s ability to bring about the promised social change, and they are credited with paving the way for the conservative backlash of later decades. In the post-Vietnam era, liberal thinking gave way as Americans lost confidence in the effectiveness of military interventions. The cold war liberal Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson) freely used military might to solve international problems (as in Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam), but later Democratic presidents (Carter, Clinton) were reluctant to use force and turned to diplomacy instead (as in Panama, the Middle East, and the Balkans).

The War on Poverty, perhaps the most ambitious feature of the Kennedy-Johnson proposals, was also the most controversial and it has left a mixed legacy. Billions were spent on dozens of programs, but the poverty rate was just modestly reduced in the late 1960s, only to rise again in the 1970s and 1980s due to changing economic and social conditions. The leftist critique of the Great Society claimed that throwing money at problems will not solve underlying social problems without fundamental changes in the structure of the economy and the reduction of inequality in America. Nevertheless, Johnson’s “other war” permanently expanded the U.S. welfare system, gave the federal government important new responsibilities, and provided a “safety net” of programs and benefits that poor people rely on today.

Despite reductions in programs and funding, much of what comprised the Great Society has aided the middle class, not just the poor, and is still with us in some form. Medicare and Medicaid, frequently criticized as wasteful and inefficient, have grown considerably and now enjoy wide political backing. Despite welfare reform, with its “workfare” provisions, the poor have not been thrown out on the street, and public assistance to the non-poor has actually increased. Federal funds for public and higher education are appreciably greater since the Great Society days, probably because they have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans over the years. Importantly, funding for transportation and the environment has continued, and funds earmarked for the arts, humanities, and public broadcasting have survived in the face of many attempts to eliminate them.

All of the civil rights laws, amended many times and continually challenged in the courts, remain on the books, but the Supreme Court, much altered with conservative justices appointed by Republican administrations, has weakened attempts at affirmative action in education, housing, and the workplace. In the face of the recent Gratz and Grutter decisions, the reconstituted court may now have an anti-affirmative action majority. The 2004 election, however, may have demonstrated that cold war liberalism is not dead. Senator John Edwards, campaigning for the Democratic nomination on a platform of old Great Society ideas and promises, did well in the primaries. The selection of Edwards as the running mate of John Kerry, a more moderate politician and well-known early critic of the Vietnam War, was perhaps a final accession to Johnson’s outmoded programs.

Well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is apparent that the ideals first proposed by President Kennedy, expanded by President Johnson, and enacted into law by a Congress bent on building a better America, are not forgotten. Perhaps Edward M. Kennedy, in his 1980 speech before the Democratic National Convention, summed it up best. He had just pulled out of the race for his party’s nomination, ostensibly ruling out any further attempt to reclaim his martyred brother’s presidency. The senator from Massachusetts, in a patent reference to the liberalism of the New Frontier, poignantly expressed the sense of the Great Society for future generations when he exclaimed: “… the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

SEE ALSO Desegregation; Head Start; Johnson, Lyndon B.; War on Poverty



By Raymond M. Weinstein


Andrew, John A. 1998. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: I.R. Dee.


Beckwith, Francis J., and Todd E. Jones, eds. 1997. Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Reverse Discrimination? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.


Bergmann, Barbara R. 1996. In Defense of Affirmative Action. New York: Basic Books.


Cohen, Carl, and James P. Sterba. 2003. Affirmative Action and Racial Preference. New York: Oxford University Press.


Helsing, Jeffrey W. 2000. Johnson’s War/Johnson’s Great Society: The Guns and Butter Trap. Westport, CT: Praeger Greenwood.


Jordan, Barbara C., and Elspeth D. Rostow, eds. 1986. The Great Society: A Twenty-Year Critique. Austin, TX: Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.


Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64. 1965. Vol. 1, entry 357, 704–707. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


Unger, Irwin. 1996. The Best of Intentions: The Triumphs and Failures of the Great Society under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. New York: Doubleday.