LBJ came to the presidency in the worst way possible, taking the reins from the loved JFK after one of the most shattering events in American History at the time. The country would remain in shock while LBJ tried to pick up the pieces of a government that seemed numb at best. He would take this opportunity to force through massive reforms which he called the Great Society.1 He did not want to be known as the care taker president of an assassinated man and at the same time wanted to push the boundaries of liberalism in the same way that FDR did in the 1930’s. It would become a race for him to push through legislation after legislation; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, followed by Civil Rights bills, medicare, anti-poverty, etc, etc. Anything that would increase the reliance of ordinary and poor people on the largess of the government for their subsistence would be the end goal of his deluge of legislation. It seems as if he could not fathom a bottom to a barrel of giving the government would create. Gone were the days of self-reliance and personal responsibility, instead in their place the United States had come to represent socialist countries engaging in wealth redistribution, the wealthy footing the tab while the rest of the country were on the dole. There would be no attempt to curtail government spending as the prevailing thought of continued economic growth would provide the needed capital through taxation to fund all these programs and mandates. Not that some of these programs weren’t needed, because they were, especially in the Civil Rights context, but to force through massive amounts of legislation that required funding was irresponsible.
The problem was realistically, no amount of taxation or government revenue would be able to keep up with the ballooning amounts of cash that would need to be provided to fund all these giveaway programs that kept coming one after another. When you combine this reality with the horrors that were coming as the Vietnam conflict exploded onto the national scene and the nightly news the end result was a quagmire of confusion and regression in the United States. If this confusion were not enough the Vietnam War would turn much of the young, more liberal individuals against Johnson and the government. The war would cause a rift in America as Johnson’s War escalated and young men lost their lives overseas, ultimately crushing his presidency under the label of war monger and forever tainting the 60’s for a generation of men and women.
In the end the Great Society and the War of Poverty did nothing to help either. More people ended up in poverty, segregation became more pronounced as people were separated along economic lines. Those who took hand outs and ended up on the dole went to the projects, the hoods, the ghettos, the trailers, and the poor side of town. Sure, many could escape, but only by leaving behind the massive amount of programs meant to “help” them. Johnson’s goals failed utterly.
1. Alonzo L. Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challengers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 258.