Friday, May 13, 2016
Book Review: Prisoners of Hope, Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society and the Limits of Liberalism - By Randall Woods
One of the great ironies of American history - at least in the 20th-century - was the presidency of
Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ's heroic domestic agenda - which arguably did more than even
Franklin Roosevelt's to transform American society - should have put him on Mount Rushmore -
at least figuratively. Yet the tragedy and horror of Vietnam has sealed his presidency as one of the great failures in American leadership. Historian Randall B. Woods, in Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism, argues, however, that both the Great Society [as well as his efforts in support of civil rights] and Vietnam were fueled by the same passion: to defeat communism. While Vietnam may be obvious, looking for the roots of anti-communism in the Great Society takes a bit of investigation. Boiled down, Johnson felt that a better-educated, better-fed, better-housed, more racially equal America would be unbeatable against a communist system trying to demonstrate to the world that totalitarian government was the best way to create a great society.
Woods' work starts out, however, with the dubious assertion that, other than the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, the Great Society in general, "has largely been
ignored...Volumes have been written on the mainsprings of other great American reform efforts,
such as the Populist and Progressive movements and the New Deal, but next to nothing on the
forces and factors responsible for the Great Society. Those few liberals who have chosen to
write about the reforms of the 1960s have portrayed them as the culmination of JFK's idealism,
the fulfillment of the New Frontier, ignoring the fact the Kennedy's program remained stalled in
Congress at the time of his death and that Johnson's vision transcended that of his
predecessor." Woods may want to reread the Johnson biographies by Robert Dallek and Robert
Caro, or perhaps Taylor Branch's trilogy on the civil rights movement, all of which give ample
treatment of the Great Society.
Still, Woods is right when he says, "Vietnam has been an albatross that the historical LBJ has
been unable to shed. Most academics of my generation were fervently committed to the anti-
war movement and have never been willing to forgive the Texan for thrusting the republic more
deeply into the Vietnam quagmire."
Woods makes a new observation [to me, anyway] that it is important to note that - unlike almost
every other phase of reform in America - with the exception of civil rights, the Great Society laws
were enacted, "during a period of great moral outrage by the middle class at malefactors of
great wealth, or at a time when Americans feared that the country was about to be overwhelmed
by alien, immigrant cultures, or in the midst of a crushing depression that threatened the very
foundation of capitalism. There seemed to be no sweeping mandate for change." Indeed, while
it is true that - by 1962 - 20% of the U.S. population was living in poverty, "the Roosevelt
revolution had taken place during a time when a huge proportion of middle-class white people
were in dire straits and race was not conspicuously involved..." Yet, in 1964, "the Johnson administration would be attempting to use the federal government and taxpayer money to
eradicate poverty during a period of rising prosperity and growing racial tension."
One of the other themes in Wood's book is the different effects the civil rights movement had in
the South vs. the North. Indeed, the very success of the civil rights campaign in the South led to
problems in the North. As Woods notes, "For the most part there was no legally mandated
segregation in the North, and black voters were not systematically disenfranchised. But informal
discrimination was pervasive. Generally speaking, black voters were nothing more than
powerless pawns in the machinations of big city machines. Public policy, market practices, and
racial prejudice confined African-Americans to deteriorating [northern] neighborhoods, separate
and unequal schools, and menial jobs. The result was a series of urban uprisings that shook the
republic to its foundations." Johnson had, "built a political coalition to enforce equality of
opportunity and access in the South with northern constituencies that were not themselves
committed to those principles in their own backyard."
Johnson first declared a 'war on poverty' in his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964.
He submitted the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) in March 1964. At first, the political
landscape was uncertain. Republican leaders, Woods writes, "were determined to depict the
War on Poverty as the harebrained idea of softheaded liberals sure to bankrupt the nation.
Southerners viewed the program as a civil rights Trojan horse, a federal program to empower
blacks and further the cause of integration." Realizing this, LBJ did not want extended debates
on EOA but instead employed a full-court press to, "focus on the plight of the poor in order to
arouse a wave of public sympathy that would overwhelm Congress...To highlight the plight of
America's poor and to demonstrate that the EOA was intended to help whites as well as blacks,
LBJ, accompanied by his wife Lady Bird, made two conspicuous tours of Appalachia in April and May 1964."
Johnson next made the shrewd move to persuade Democratic Georgia Congressman Phillip
Landrum to sponsor EOA in the House. Johnson did so, Woods writes, by convincing Landrum
that, "the poor whites as well as blacks in his district would benefit." The EOA passed and
became the first building block in LBJ's program.
Civil rights, however, was the key, Johnson believed. The legislation that became the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 was the most important legislation on civil rights in 100 years. LBJ argued
with southern segregationists, Woods writes, that, "the end of segregation and discrimination
would bring the South finally and firmly into the national mainstream, with all the economic
prosperity and political influence that that would mean. Racial justice was just as much in the
interest of southern whites as southern blacks."
Passage of the Civil Rights Act in the House was not easy, but was accomplished with a 290-
110 vote on February 10, 1964. But it would be in the Senate that the true LBJ 'treatment'
would be used. As Woods notes, "The administration understood that it had the votes to pass
the Civil Rights bill if it was ever allowed to be considered by the full Senate...The issue was the
southern filibuster. Two methods were available for defeating segregationist Senator Richard
Russell [D, GA.] and his troops. The first consisted of exhausting the talkers, a stratagem LBJ
had employed previously [while Senate Majority Leader] and one he still favored. The rules of
the Senate limited members to two speeches per calendar day. Once debate on a measure
began, the calendar day lasted as long as the debate - a week, a month. LBJ wanted to keep
the Senate in continuous, 24-hour a day session, thus finally exhausting the filibusters."
Countering that argument, however, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield [D, MT] disagreed.
As Woods writes, Mansfield wanted instead, "a petition of cloture, which, if approved by two-
thirds of the Senate, would shut off for the debate after an additional 100 hours." The problem
was that, of the eleven cloture petitions dealing with civil rights ever voted on, all had been
defeated. Nonetheless, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach convinced LBJ that
cloture was the way to go and that they could get the necessary votes.
And the key to getting cloture votes was the Republican contingent in the Senate, specifically
23-25 Republicans needed to desert their party and vote for cloture. And the key Republican
would be Everett Dirksen of Illinois. LBJ employed the full 'treatment' on Dirksen, emphasizing
to him that he would go down as the greatest Republican of the 20th-century if he could get
those 23-25 votes for the Civil Rights bill. In late-April 1964, Senator Hubert Humphrey [D, MN]
and Mansfield got Dirksen directly involved. As Woods writes, "Over the next two weeks, they
and Katzenbach met almost daily with Dirksen and, in essence, let him write the bill. There was
no change in substance, but the language was Dirksen's; he could proudly claim to be the sole
author, an honorific the Democrats were more than willing to bestow."
Johnson also began touring the country in support of the bill. Woods notes that Johnson would
later say, "Now, I knew that as president I couldn't make people want to integrate their schools
or open their door to blacks. But I could make them feel guilty for not doing it and I believed it
was my moral responsibility to do precisely that - to use the moral suasion of my office to make
people feel that segregation was a curse they'd carry with them to their graves."
Johnson's tour - which included the South and specifically an address to the Georgia legislature
- was a smashing success. Indeed, in Atlanta, the crowds lining the streets to cheer him
numbered over half-a-million people.
It was at this time that LBJ put a name to his program. Johnson delivered his 'Great Society' address to the graduating class at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. Woods points out that, while LBJ's speech was well-received, "Americans did not necessarily take LBJ literally. When a Gallup poll subsequently asked whether people thought poverty would ever be eliminated from American society, only 9% answered in the affirmative." Two weeks after his 'Great Society' address, Johnson dispatched White House aides Bill Moyers, and Richard Goodwin, as well as Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to lead a group of thirty academics from Harvard, MIT and other leading institutions to tackle the issues to be addressed by the Great Society programs. As Woods notes, "Out of this and subsequent meetings came some fourteen task forces comprising academics, government officials, and prominent citizens, with instructions to recommend policy initiatives in the following fields: transportation, natural resources, education, health, urban problems, pollution of the environment, preservation of natural beauty, intergovernmental fiscal cooperation, efficiency and economy, agriculture, civil rights, foreign economic policy, and income maintenance policy." These reports would be delivered six months later, just after Election Day.
On June 10, 1964, following 75 days of debate, the Senate voted in favor of cloture to end the
debate and put the Civil Rights bill to a vote. On June 19, the Senate passed the Civil Rights
Act 73-27 and Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964. As Woods writes, "It was an historic
bill. The measure not only desegregated public parks, swimming pools, libraries, restaurants,
hotels, and places of amusement but also expanded the authority of the Congress to enforce
the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision." Yet, unlike the Brown decision, "the Civil Rights Act
did not bring in its wake a wave of violence or calls for massive resistance; defections from the
Democratic Party there were, but Johnson would go on that November to carry half of the states
of the former confederacy."
Indeed, the outcome of the 1964 election exceeded LBJ's - or any Democrat's - expectations. His
opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater [AZ] won only six states - five in the South and his home
state of Arizona. LBJ won the Electoral College 486-52 - only Franklin Roosevelt's 523-8
thrashing of Alf Landon in 1936 was bigger. Johnson's nearly 43 million popular votes [Goldwater won 27 million] represented the largest vote ever cast for a winning candidate. And LBJ's 61%
margin of victory was the widest in America to date. Woods also notes that, "LBJ's fears that he
would lose the South were not borne out. Although southern support for Johnson was 14% less
than that given to the party by voters in all other regions combined, he carried 51% of the
popular vote in 11 ex-confederates states, up from 49% for Kennedy. He also won Arkansas,
Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The Republicans lost more than 500
seats in state legislatures, 37 in the House, and two in the Senate."
The task forces LBJ had assigned among the Harvard-MIT intellectuals was received at the
White House on November 10, 1964. Lawyers and others on LBJ's team then took these
reports and delivered a 1,200-page, sifted down list of programs to Johnson.
After the election, one of the first areas tackled was education in the form of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act [ESEA]. It was introduced in Congress on January 12, 1965. According to Woods, ESEA, "was based on a rather simple formula: the federal government would allocate funds to each state according to the number of children in the state from low-income families [less than $2,000 a year] multiplied by 50% of the state's average expenditure per-pupil." It was estimated that private school children would receive anywhere from 10.1 to 13.5% of the dollars appropriated under the ESEA. The act passed by the end of March.
But ESEA was only the first part of a two-pronged approach to aid to education. The second
was the Higher Education Act. Woods argues that the latter, in particular, was driven by the Cold
War and Johnson's vision of the nation's colleges and universities being vital to winning it.
Indeed, Woods writes, "education took its place alongside national defense as an overriding
concern of the federal government. And the measures [ESEA and the Higher Education Act]
were exemplars of creative federalism. They facilitated desegregation and, most important, led
to a general improvement in school buildings, libraries, textbooks, and quality of education in the
nation's public and parochial schools. The Higher Education Act helped make America's
colleges and universities the envy of the world and its population the most educated in history."
Next came amendments to Social Security - the Medicare and Medicaid Acts. They introduced health insurance for both hospital and medical for the elderly and disadvantaged. Under the proposed act, Woods writes, "future recipients of old-age pensions [Social Security] would be automatically covered by hospital insurance at age 65. It would be 90 days of care for each illness, with the patient paying the $40 deductible for 60 days and $10 a day thereafter. Funding would come from payroll deductions and employer contributions beginning at the combined Social Security rate of 7% in 1966 and rising to 11% in 1973–1975 on the first $6,600 of annual earnings. The new legislation established, in addition, a system of voluntary medical insurance available to anyone 65 years or older, with the individual paying three dollars a month and the Treasury three dollars a month into the Medicare Insurance Trust Fund, Part B. Together, these two provisions would become known as Medicare." When it was passed, Johnson had the signing ceremony held at Harry Truman's presidential library, giving the first pen he used to the 33rd President, who had first proposed old-age health insurance in 1948.
Woods points out that, "As was true of many of the Great Society programs, Medicare had a
civil rights component. In those hospitals and doctors offices that participated, 'Colored' and
'White' signs disappeared from waiting rooms, restrooms, and water fountains, but that did not
mean an end to discrimination." Still, Woods notes, "the legislation creating Medicare required
the government to certify hospitals for participation. Among other things, this meant that they
could not segregate their patients and had to admit black doctors." Thus, by October 1966, the
number of segregated medical facilities in the entire South had dwindled to twelve.
Voting rights was next on the agenda, even though Johnson himself was concerned about
his ability to get it passed. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, in seven southern
states - Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia - the vast
majority of blacks still could not vote as 1965 dawned. Indeed, in Mississippi only 6% of blacks
were on the voter rolls; in Alabama the number was only 19%.
Woods argues that the close professional relationship between Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. made the Voting Rights Act possible. Also key was the Selma march in March 1965. With the violence that came on the first attempt to cross the Edward Pettus Bridge in Selma, LBJ saw opportunity. As Woods notes, "Lyndon Johnson was not a man to ignore the power of circumstance. His advisers and his instincts told him that the time had come for the administration and the federal government to join hands with Martin Luther King and his followers and lead rather than follow in the struggle for dignity and equality for African-Americans."
Johnson addressed Congress and announced plans for a Voting Rights Act. Johnson's speech was electrifying. As Woods writes, "No president, not even Abraham Lincoln, had identified himself, the Constitution, the values of the country with the cause of equal rights for African-Americans. One shrewd heartland politician [LBJ] was finishing what another [Lincoln] had started." In the speech, Johnson said, "the real heroes of the hour are the civil rights activists who are demonstrating, going to jail, and dying." LBJ continued, "Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." Johnson then paused and - remarkably - said slowly and deliberately, "We - shall - overcome!" As Woods writes, "The assembled throng rose almost as one and delivered a roaring, prolonged ovation." The Voting Rights Act was signed August 6, 1965.
While changing white attitudes had been a key to Johnson's strategy, Woods writes that the
Johnson administration knew that, even if they succeed in moving white attitudes, "the culture of
poverty among African-Americans would still persist. And the White House began to get an
inkling in the summer of 1965 that the number one racial battleground in the future would be the
large urban areas of the northeast and midwest - not the South - where millions of southern
blacks had settled between 1940 and 1970."
The War on Poverty had led to a number of studies to try to discover the historical and social
roots to what was called the 'culture of poverty'. The most famous - or infamous - was authored
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The report was chilling. Nearly one-fourth of city-dwelling black
women who had ever been married were now divorced, separated, or deserted; as compared to
7.9% for whites. As Woods writes, "As a result, one black family out of four was fatherless.
More than half of all Negro children would've lived in broken homes by their 18th birthday. One-
fourth of all black babies born in America were illegitimate compared to 3.07% for white....The
intention of the report, Moynihan later recalled, was not to indict the black family but to use it as
'the best point...at which to measure the net, cumulative plus-or-minus impact of outside forces
on the Negro community. All the abstractions of employment, housing, income, discrimination,
education, et al. come together here'."
Needless to say, publication of the Moynihan report was explosive. Woods writes, "The report
would be fodder for every racist who was trying to discredit the values of African-Americans.
Black activists, especially the more radical in SNCC [Strident Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee] and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], were sure to insist that the government
was trying to blame the victim for the crime. It seemed to be saying that if only blacks would
take control of their lives, embrace monogamy, and nurture their children, all would be well.
But where would the jobs come from, where the schools, where the rat control programs, where
the healthcare? How could inner-city blacks reach the suburbs, where the jobs were, without
The result of the Moynihan report was that LBJ got hit on both sides. Woods writes, "Conservatives, for the most part, chose to view the disintegration of the black family as proof of the innate depravity of inner-city blacks; many blacks chose to view the report...as attempts by the white power structure to blame the victim,"
The first crack in the Great Society facade came just days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act when riots erupted in Watts, Los Angeles. They lasted nearly a week, leaving 34 people dead and thousands injured. Woods writes that, until Watts, LBJ, "had been relatively successful in denying conservatives use of the law-and- order issue." Not anymore. Woods points out an often overlooked - but critical - factor that led to Watts was a lack of information [on the part of White House officials] of what life was like in the ghetto. Amazingly, for all of their studies and knowledge, Woods writes, "the Johnson Administration was caught by surprise by Watts. For one thing, the Justice Department seemed largely unaware of the history of police brutality against minorities in the nation's major urban areas, an issue that future studies would show to be paramount."
Another poignant theme of the book is that while the civil rights movement was successful in the first half of the decade in dealing with southern racism, it largely failed when those same tactics were used by King and others in the North. This was a failing of both King and Johnson. As Woods writes, "Like Johnson, King was a southerner who had viewed racial injustice in the South primarily through the lens of Jim Crow. Watts brought home to both men just how much more needed to be done. It was during Watts that King came to a fuller awareness that the two great civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 had addressed the evils of southern segregation but had barely touched the ghetto's problems of poverty, joblessness, isolation, family disintegration, and hopelessness. With Watts, King began moving toward a far more radical critique of American society, one that focused on institutions and cultures."
Vietnam also played a larger role by mid-1965. At that point, LBJ still enjoyed support for the war efforts, even if most Americans didn't fully understand why we were there. At that point, it was still common to accept the argument that - because the President said it needed to be done - it had their support.
Woods writes, "In some ways the Great Society and the war in southeast Asia stemmed from the same route; the moral awakening among middle-class whites that provided much of the impetus for the 'Second Reconstruction' and programs such as Medicare also provided much of the energy that fueled the Vietnam consensus." It's important to remember that the time of the escalation in Vietnam was also the time when LBJ was pushing through the Great Society programs [civil rights, Medicare, federal aid to education, etc.]. To push these programs, Johnson - Woods writes - "needed, if not the outright support of the anti-big government, states rights South, then it's acquiescence. But the former confederacy was traditionally the most hawkish section of the country. Johnson perceived that he could not ask the region to swallow civil rights accompanied by a dramatic increase in federal power, on the one hand, and the loss of southeast Asia to the communists, on the other. In the context of the Cold War and America's embrace of liberal internationalism, how could the United States abandon a non-white people struggling for freedom in Southeast Asia while helping American blacks to full citizenship and equal opportunity in the United States?...The War on Poverty remained at the very core of the Great Society. It was perceived to be the key to social justice, putting an end to class animosities, providing substance to the civil rights movement, quelling urban unrest, and demonstrating to the world that capitalism was superior to communism."
The money to fund the Great Society programs had come in no small part from the benefits
accrued in the Tax Cut Act of 1964. Yet, funding both those programs and Vietnam ran the risk
of inflation. This was particularly true after December 1, 1965, when Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara stunned LBJ by telling him that - to continue to fight the war in Vietnam at
present levels - Defense would need to ask Congress for an additional $11 billion. And, if more
troops and bombings were undertaken in 1966 as currently planned, Defense's request for fiscal
year 1967 would be $61 billion for Vietnam.
Despite increasingly higher inflation as 1966 began, Woods writes that LBJ, "persevered; no let-
up on the domestic front or in Vietnam, and no tax increase.... With Vietnam, inflation, and the
need for a surtax converging, and conservatives waiting in the wings, LBJ perceived that he had
a narrow window of time in which it might be possible to realize [what he considered to be]
Phase Two of the Great Society." Yet, by the summer of 1966, polling asking Americans if they
had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Great Society showed that 32% said 'favorable'
while 44% said 'unfavorable' [24% gave 'no opinion'].
And that summer was bleak. There were riots in 38 cities, including Minneapolis, Atlanta,
Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. After the riots, Woods writes that opinion polls showed
that, "86% of whites believed that blacks were getting a better break in finding jobs than they
had five years previously. 54% were convinced that Negro children were receiving as good an
education as whites. But 70% were of the opinion that blacks 'were trying to move too fast'."
Virtually all who responded blamed the federal government, in general, and Lyndon Johnson, in
particular, for opening Pandora's box. The most dramatic shift in opinion was in the North and
West. For both North and South, the issue seemed to be physical proximity. White enthusiasm
for civil rights spread across the spectrum, with the right to vote and enjoy equal protection
under the law winning the most support, and fair housing laws compelling residential integration
the least. Socioeconomic status continued to matter; the poorer, the white and the less educated,
the greater the hostility to blacks in general and the civil rights movement in particular."
Indeed, it was the civil rights movement's shift from South to North [and the outbreak of race
riots] that transformed - and not for the better in terms of race relations - how one viewed the
Great Society and - with the obvious inclusion of the effects of Vietnam - largely robbed LBJ of
the legacy he sought. With the movement to the North, the civil rights movement underwent a
sea change. Woods writes, "The rhetoric and philosophies of its leaders were more secular
[Stokely Carmichael] and less religious [Martin Luther King, Jr.]; its stratagems departed from
Gandhian nonviolence and integration and became more militant and separatist; and its focus
shifted from the immorality of segregation to a harsh critique of the social and economic order."
The change stunned Johnson, who simply didn't understand it when someone like Carmichael
started using the phrase 'Black Power'. While certainly LBJ had been aware - as early as 1962
- that government officials were warning of serious problems in America's ghettos, Johnson
thought he had addressed this with his 'war on poverty'. As Woods writes, "Johnson's response
to the Black Power movement and urban rioting alternated between outrage and empathy. He
empathized with those in the ghetto and agreed that he could understand why they were
fighting. But he also identified with working-class whites who were repelled and angered by
urban rioting and black power." Woods points out, too, that this had another effect, "The Black
Power movement's rejection of the system, and the violence and lawlessness associated with
the urban riots, threatened to forfeit the legal and moral high ground that had been occupied by
the civil rights movement."
By late 1966, many liberal activists and civil rights leaders had also become disenchanted with
the Great Society's emphasis on opportunity and rehabilitation. Woods notes that liberals and
blacks argued that, "What the poor needed were jobs and money, the second through the first if
possible, but without it if necessary."
Still, there was much that LBJ and the Democrats could feel good about as they prepared for
the 1966 mid-term elections. Woods writes, "During Johnson's 36 months in office, the
unemployment rate had dropped from 5.7% to 3.7%. Industrial production had risen by 25%.
GNP had increased by 70%, and the average American's real income had risen by 14%. While
4 million Americans moved above the poverty line, both profits and wages had increased.
Medicare had helped 3 million elderly Americans to obtain access to healthcare, 8 million new
workers were covered by the minimum wage laws, and Jim Crow was on the run in the South.
Yet for all of this, Democratic leaders approach the elections with apprehension."
The reason? More and more Americans turned against the war in Vietnam.
The mid-term election results were not unexpected. Woods writes, "Election Day 1966 proved to be humbling, if not disastrous, for the Democrats. The GOP gained 47 seats in the house, three in the Senate, eight governorships [including California's Ronald Reagan], and perhaps most significant, over 500 seats in state legislatures."
In addition to the financial cost, and the diversion of funds from Great Society programs to the
war effort, Woods writes there was also a moral toll Johnson paid: "There had always been a
complicated but critical connection between the civil rights movement in the United States and
the war in Vietnam. The moral imperative that Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and others
had invoked to persuade white, middle-class America to support the drive for racial equality had
reinforced and been reinforced by the liberal internationalist notion that the United States had an
obligation to help the peoples of the Third World - most of whom were non-white - resist
communist domination.... But as the Black Power advocates co-opted the civil rights movement
and intimidated white liberals, and as a new wave of urban rioting swept the nation's cities, a
white backlash had erupted that threatened not only the Great Society - especially the 'Second
Reconstruction' - but the war in Vietnam as well.... It was the growing doubts among the
average American that the Judeo-Christian ethic could or should be applied to social problems
at home and abroad that did the real damage."
Riots in Newark, New Jersey, in July 1967, lasting six days, took 26 lives, injured 1,500, and left
most of the inner-city a burned out shell. Even worse violence came to Detroit beginning on the
morning of July 26, 1967. By the time is was over, 43 were dead [33 blacks and 10 whites], and
another 2,250 were injured [more than 4,000 were arrested]. As Woods writes, "Even before
the ashes of Detroit had cooled, the Conservative Coalition had moved to blame the rioting on
LBJ and the permissive policies of the Great Society. Figures on the Right from [Rep.] Gerald
Ford [R, MI] to [Alabama Governor] George Wallace [D], Ronald Reagan, to [Senator Richard]
Russell [D, GA] declared that the War on Poverty was fueling urban unrest, not fighting it. They
deliberately refused to make a distinction between civil disobedience and urban violence; when
challenged, they declared that at best the first led to the second. The Great Society was
undermining individual responsibility and personal accountability, conservatives charged. Head
Start and the anti-poverty programs were indirectly subsidizing anarchism and riots and playing
into the hands of Hanoi, Moscow, and Beijing."
But it was not just the Right. Those on the Left had also grown weary. Woods writes, "While the
Right attributed great influence to the anti-poverty program - if only as a negative force - the Left
gave it little credit and attacked it as a political sham, a token gesture motivated by white guilt
and intended to deflect black demands for structural change." Indeed, Woods writes that, by the
fall of 1967, "Lyndon Johnson was coming to the conclusion that he and the Great Society had
done about all they could do to enhance social and economic justice in the United States and in
By the presidential election of 1968, Woods writes, "liberals had divided into a pro-war faction
typified by [Senator] Henry Jackson [D, WA] and [Vice President] Hubert Humphrey, and an
anti-war segment led by [Senator] Bobby Kennedy [D, NY], [Senator] Frank Church [D, ID], and
[Senator] George McGovern [D, SD]. To the delight of conservatives, anti-war liberals seemed
to be willing to go to any lengths to stop the war and get rid of LBJ, even to the point of
sacrificing Democratic rule. With another wave of rioting looming as summer approached, urban
ethnic Democrats were rallying to Wallace, a southerner, a populist, and a law-and-order
segregationist. Southern Democrats were breaking away from the Great Society consensus and
joining the GOP to block further initiatives in the areas of health, civil rights, public works, and
Social Security. This, in turn, would further endanger the disadvantaged, and the country would
be plunged into an endless cycle of black rage and white reaction."
Yet, as battered as was the reputation of the Great Society in 1968, as had been the case in
1966, there was much that Johnson could be proud of. As Woods writes, by the summer of
1968, "overall spending for health education and welfare increased from $23 million to $46.7
million during the Johnson presidency. The number of individuals living below the poverty line
had dropped by 8 million."
Johnson announced on March 31,1968, that we would not run for president again in 1968 [although he did attempt to start a 'draft Johnson' movement at the Democratic Convention in Chicago later that year]. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a few days later. Then, on June 5, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was shot and lay in a coma. Johnson delivered an incredibly eloquent, seemingly heart-felt address to the nation while Kennedy lay mortally wounded. As years would pass, and the depth of the hatred between the two men became known, Johnson's performance left many questioning his sincerity while admiring his 'acting ability'. But Woods provides a good explanation for Johnson's response and speech. Woods writes, that at that moment Johnson was being sincere because, "if RFK should die, as his doctors predicted he would, the nation would be treated to yet another violent death and was bound to sink once again into a slew of despondency and self-questioning. Whatever momentum toward peace and reconciliation that had begun with [Johnson's] March 31 speech would be lost. And LBJ's hopes of being remembered as one of the nation's most effective and dedicated presidents would evaporate. The bookends to his administration would be the two Kennedy assassinations, he being reduced to a cypher and they elevated in the public imagination to the level of political demigods embodying the youth, vigor, and idealism of the nation."
And yet that is exactly what happened.
Still, Woods argues that - in terms of its stated objectives - the Great Society was a great
success. Woods writes that, "Between 1963 and 1969, when Lyndon Johnson left office, the
portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2% to 12.6%. The
Elementary and Secondary Education Act established a lasting mandate for the federal
government to extend aid to America's public schools, in the process, not coincidently, creating
an instrument to eliminate segregation and discrimination in public education. Costly though it
has proven to be, Medicare since 1969 has provided health care to 79 million Americans who
would otherwise not have received it, and in the process desegregated southern health
facilities...And what would have become of the nation, particularly the American South, without
the civil rights acts of the 1960s? Failure to provide African-Americans with full citizenship and
some degree of opportunity would've led to a national crisis that might've made Vietnam and
Watergate pale by comparison."
Where Johnson erred, Woods says, was in his, "fervent belief that individuals, left to their own
devices, would always act politically in their own interests and those of the society as a whole
seems to have been mistaken. The achievements of the Great Society, with a few notable
exceptions, were not the result of a popular, grassroots movement. In general, except for the
Civil Rights Act of 1964, a suprapartisan centrist consensus favoring liberal programs for the
poor, powerless, neglected segments of the American population did not seem to exist."
But Lyndon Johnson did exist. And, without him, the Great Society programs would have been impossible.