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The Great Society In USA History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.” These words, spoken by Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, describe his administration’s domestic policies collectively known as The Great Society. LBJ was convinced that he could utterly eradicate poverty in the United States and was dead set on doing so. He has been quoted saying that the last thing he ever wanted to be was a wartime president and that his Great Society was his focus. Unfortunately, this would not prove to be the case for LBJ, who wound up being haunted by an expensive and hopeless war in Vietnam. Although LBJ’s Great Society programs successfully improved the economic and social standings of many Americans from 1963 to 1969, social unrest was still rampant after his presidency and, while extremely successful politically in the United States, LBJ failed to resolve the great political issue of the Vietnam War during his presidency. The most successful of President Johnson’s policies were his War on Poverty and his health care programs of Medicare and Medicaid. The next most effective policies were his efforts to promote racial and gender equality. His biggest failure by far was his dealing with the Vietnam War.

With a supermajority in congress LBJ accomplished quite a bit in attempt to end poverty. Thomas Jefferson believed that all men are created equal, but throughout United States history this has not been the case. Some are born poor and some are born rich. “Inheritances and gifts have historically accounted for between 20 and 50 percent of total household wealth accumulation in the U.S.” – Edward N. Wolff, U.S. Department of Labor. This is not the clean slate that complete free market capitalism boasts. The Johnson administration accepted this truth in attempt to end poverty, and instead of letting them fend for themselves, they embarked on the goal to help secure opportunities to those born underprivileged (Doc F). They looked at the root causes of poverty, instead of simply trying to raise the income of the impoverished. LBJ’s administration sought to make education and job training more available, and to develop the communities of the poor. His Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave hundreds of thousands of American’s the opportunity to overcome poverty through education and job development (Doc B). His policies were hugely successful, with non-whites, the most impoverished people in the nation, enjoying an almost 10% jump in population over the poverty line during his presidency. Whites had an almost 2% gain from their already high level of 88.7% to 90.5% of people above the poverty line (Doc H). While these gains are impressive, they fall short of LBJ’s goal of complete eradication of poverty.

The Johnson administration also did much to improve health care. In 1961 the US life expectancy had risen substantially, and as a result the problem of paying for the health care of the senior citizens of America arose (Doc A). LBJ responded with the Social Security Act of 1965 that established Medicare providing financial assistance for medical costs to the elderly by the federal government. This act also provided Medicaid to pay for the health care of welfare recipients. This was hugely successful, allowing about 8 million Americans access to health care that didn’t previously have this luxury.

Lyndon B. Johnson believed in, and desperately sought equality for all. He lived in a time of much social unrest and did quite a bit to combat it. In mid-1963, months before LBJ became president and while he was still Vice President under JFK, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom marched on Washington. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, being assassinated in late 1963, never had the opportunity to respond to this march and so the task fell to his successor, LBJ. His administration responded with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed almost all forms of segregation and discrimination, including both racial and gender discrimination. This was so hugely controversial and effective in the south that after LBJ signed it he is reported to have said “We have lost the south for a generation” referring to their participation in the Democratic Party. This act ended racial segregation in schools that eventually allowed millions of blacks in the south to better their education by attending the more prosperous and better taught previously all-white schools. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made voting discrimination illegal. This gave millions of southern blacks, which had never had the opportunity to vote, a voice in politics. LBJ’s successes in civil rights economically are apparent by the aforementioned massive decrease in non-whites living under the poverty line.

Although these pieces of legislation were landmark in theory, in practice they were slow moving. In 1966 Stokely Carmichael declared to the world that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, ironically, endorsed African American use of violence against whites (Doc C). This declaration shows how bitter the Civil Rights Movement was even after LBJ’s legislation. Women also were not appeased by his legislation. In 1966 NOW, the National Organization for Women, declared that women were not fully participating members of American society, and that it was time that they became so (Doc D). The fact that even in June of 1968 race riots were still being held is proof that Lyndon Baines Johnson’s legislation wasn’t quite as effective as he intended it to be (Doc G).

President Johnson’s heaviest burden and biggest failure was the Vietnam War. Throughout his presidency the U.S. economic train used the timber of the Great Society to fuel the Vietnam War (Doc E). As the Vietnam War raged on and became more and more hopeless, LBJ’s approval rating sank. People were ungrateful for The Great Society’s gains and focused on his failings in Vietnam (Doc F). LBJ did almost nothing successfully in Vietnam and got tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and hundreds of thousands injured in a war that ended up a complete failure anyway. This blow sent ripples throughout American society to the families of those killed and injured, both physically and mentally, in the war. It also showed the American people that they did not always hold the moral high ground and that they did not always win.

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