The Great Society

Speaker: Lyndon B Johnson
Delivered On: 5/7/1964
Place: Ohio University, Athens, OH
Subject: Civil Rights, Social Justice

Audio/Video Available:

Description: In 1964, President Johnson announced a set of programs for the US that focused on social reformation and bringing justice amongst races. Similar to the New Deal program introduced by FDR, the programs also focused on education, healthcare, and urbanization and transportation issues. While the New Deal was enacted while the nation was in crisis, the Great Society programs were enacted before many people were able to see the economic downturn. During his last two years in office, Johnson passed laws to expand the Food Stamp program, introduce the Fair Housing Act, assist the handicapped, and improve safety standards. By the end of his term, Johnson had helped pass 226 out of 252 legislative acts to ensure equality and government aid. Here, we show part of the Great Society speech, given in Ohio, Michigan, and several other places, detailing the government's response to people in need.

Johnson: And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

Narrator: The war against poverty was the war that Johnson really wanted to fight. In his first State of the Union address he reached back to the populism of his father and grandfather. He took a Kennedy anti-poverty proposal and made it his own.

Johnson: It will not be a short or easy struggle, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

Narrator: When Lyndon Johnson became President 35,000,000 Americans were living below the poverty line in the most affluent country in the world.

S. Douglas Cater: And I said, "But they don't vote. They don't have any organized lobbies. How in the world are you gonna get any substantial legislation on poverty? Jack Kennedy couldn't, how are you gonna do it?" He leaned back and he said these words engraved on my memory. He said "I don't know whether I'll pass a single law or get a single dollar appropriated, but before I'm through, no community in America is gonna be able to ignore the poverty in its midst."

Narrator: Johnson now turned to the Director of the Peace Corps, Sergeant Schriver.

Sergeant Schriver: One Saturday morning he called me up and said that his radio show, which he had every Saturday, was gonna go on a couple of hours and he wanted to announce on that show that I was gonna be the new head of the war against poverty, or the head of the new war against poverty. I said "Well, Mr. President, really, no, I haven't had a chance to speak to my wife. I haven't had a chance to talk to any of the people in my office. I don't know what they'll think about it in the Peace Corps. Couldn't you just postpone that? Frankly I would rather talk to you about it next week." He said "Well now Sergeant", he said "No, the truth is we've gotta get on with that war against poverty, so please talk to Eunice now, just talk to her now and I'll call you back". So I put the phone down. I couldn't believe my ears. The next thing you knew the phone rang again and there was the President on it. He said "Well, what have you decided?" and I decided, I said "Well, Mr. President, it would really be much better for me and my family if we could just talk about this next Monday or Tuesday and see what if I have a better idea of what you want me to do and I'm afraid if you announce that I'm the head of the war on poverty people ask me 'What am I gonna do about it?' and I don't know, and that will be a source of embarrassment to me and maybe not so good for you". He said "Well, Sarge, you know, I have this radio program, it's going on in about an hour", he said "Well, let me call you back". So, he called me back about 20 minutes later and in a very low voice, confidential-sounding voice, he said "Now listen", he said "I'm going to announce you and I can't speak about it loud because I have the whole cabinet here in the office with me, but you just have to understand Sergeant, this is your President speaking and I'm gonna announce you as the head of the war against poverty". Boom.

Johnson: Office of the President, so help me God.

Sergeant Schriver: I turned to my wife and I said "Looks as if I'm the new head of the war against poverty".

Sergeant Schriver: President Johnson's program on poverty is distinguished in at least four ways. First of all it is-

Narrator: In six short weeks Johnson had come up with his package, but he would let Schriver worry about the details.

Sergeant Schriver: He didn't have to tell me what he desired. I knew what he desired. He wanted to get going big and he wanted to get going with success. He didn't have to tell me that.

Narrator: Johnson criss-crossed the country, appealing for support for his anti-poverty legislation. Poverty in America had been invisible. Johnson put it on the front pages.

Johnson: Our first objective is to free 30 million Americans from the presence of poverty. Can you help us free these Americans? And if you can, let me hear your voices.

Narrator: For Johnson, it was a return to his political past, the old battle cries of the New Deal coming alive again.

Donald Malafronte: He was the last soldier in the New Deal war, like the final expression of everything which had gone on in the 30s and 40s, government as mother, father, smothering Lyndon Johnson's big arms around you, "I love you. I want you to do better."

Johnson: Do something we can be proud of. Help the weak and the meek and lift them up and help them train and give them an education where they can make their own way instead of having to live off the bounty of our generosity.

Ronnie Dugger: Most people don't actively care about people they don't know, people who are suffering. Its hard for us to remember those people. Lyndon never really forgot them I think. I really think he never did.

Robert Dallek: His vision was of helping the disadvantaged to help themselves. His hope was that you give them education, you give them opportunity, you give them the chance to come into the mainstream of American middle class economic life, and that's as thoroughly American as apple pie.

Johnson: We have a right to expect a job to provide food for our families, a roof over their head, clothes for their body, and with your help and with God's help we will have it in America. Thank you.

Narrator: Johnson would make war on poverty, and there would be no casualties. Everyone would be a winner, even big business.

Ronnie Dugger: And he would tell business people "Listen, we've got a very abundant country. We've got the resources to help these people who are right at the bottom. For God's sake, don't you understand that your interest, in effect he was arguing, your interest as a business leader is the welfare state because you keep everything stable?" It must have been a very appealing argument to a corporate executive who was not to the right of Attila the Hun, that in a civilized country with such abundance that we have, astounding abundance compared to the rest of the world, you can afford to be liberal with the poor.

Sergeant Schriver: We were a generation of people who had been in World War II, so when a war against poverty was launched it was typical of all of us at that time to think of this war, the war against poverty in terms just like the war against Hitler. We were accustomed to thinking in terms of the United States being able to do big things. America bestrode the world like a colossus. There was nothing in the world equal to the Unite States of America.

Narrator: The war on poverty was just part of Johnson's program for the country. Few anticipated that this course and abrasive Texan would propose a series of laws to enrich daily life for all Americans. He called his vision The Great Society.

Johnson: The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

Narrator: It was an inflated rhetoric.

Johnson: It is a place where man can renew-

Narrator: The kind American leaders seldom use anymore.

Johnson: It is a place which honors creation for its own sake.

Narrator: As one aide described it "What he meant was a full stomach, yes, but a fuller life too."

Johnson: It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

Narrator: His aspirations were enormous. He wanted to do something for everyone. He wanted to be the best father Americans ever had. But in 1964, Johnson still thought of himself as standing in John Kennedy's shadow. He hated that he was merely an accidental President. He wanted to be elected President in his own right. The Republican party was going to make it easy.

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