Great Society

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What wer

  • John Morton Blum. Years of Discord: American Politics and Society, 1961-1974. Norton, 1991. 530 pp.
  • Chalmers, David Mark. And the crooked places made straight : the struggle for social change in the 1960s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xviii, 232 pp.

What was going on in the country during the Great Society? How did it fit into the Civil Rights movement and counter-culture? What problems was it meant to address? Was it successful?

In America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin discuss what was going on in the country during the 1960s. Many Americans saw the election of John F. Kennedy as the beginning of a new era of prosperity. There was a general sense of hope. Civil Rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. were making some progress at desegregating the South. We appeared to be winning the Cold War. Even the assassination of Kennedy did not keep the country down for long. Lyndon Johnson entered the White House with a promise to continue the legacy of Kennedy. In reality, Kennedy had never really cared about domestic policy until the last year of his life when violence in Birmingham convinced him to come out for civil rights legislation. Johnson was in many ways more liberal than Kennedy (although Johnson had a tendency to support whatever was popular). In the 1964 election, Johnson won by a landslide and the most liberal Congress in history was chosen. The “Great 89th” Congress would prove to be one of the most productive in the country’s history. The Great Society goal of eliminating poverty seemed possible.

But the optimism masked deep conflicts within the country. A new generation of African Americans was coming to power. Sick of small gains, the younger blacks demanded radical reforms. Black power replaced nonviolence. Riots broke out across the country as blacks reacted to racial injustice. White America responded by refusing to support any more legislation designed to help the urban poor. At the same time, a conservative revival was sweeping across the country. The huge Democratic victories in 1964 were washed away in 1966. The President’s own Party was abandoning him as well. Liberal Democrats turned on Johnson because of Vietnam. Conservative Democrats turned on Johnson because he was spending so much money on his Great Society and in Vietnam. While all this was going on, there was also a culture war being waged between young Americans and their parents. The 60s will forever be remembered for its counter-culture. Not all American will remember it fondly however. While some saw it as a flowering of creativity and love, others saw it as a period of corruption and recklessness. With all this going on, the changes proposed in the Great Society were doomed to either failure or, if Johnson was lucky, partial realization.

The Economy of the 1960s

  • Cortada, James W. The digital hand : how computers changed the work of American manufacturing, transportation, and retail industries. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004. xvi, 494 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

Liberalism and the Great Society

  • Gareth Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

As the Vietnam War continued to take its toll on the nation, many in the Democratic party began to question the traditional view of welfare and assistance. Was it possible that poverty itself was the problem that needed to be solved? If money was provided directly to those in need, could the problems faced by impoverished be brought to an end? These are just some of the questions that those who favored entitlement payments attempted to answer.

Gareth Davies explores the transformation of welfare policy during the 1960s from liberal New Deal ideology of opportunity to the Great Society concept of entitlement. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty "was a war born of optimism" which "promised a hand up, not a handout" (39). By the end of the decade the change in welfare policy from one of providing opportunity to a policy of providing guaranteed income had not only occurred but had become accepted (211).

In the 1960s American Liberalism took a firm hold on the levers of power in the United States. Liberal politicians were finally able to take the actions necessary to turn their political theories into real programs. Then everything seemed to go wrong and liberalism began to loose favor with the electorate in this country. Allen Matsuow's book is a detailed history of this process as he seeks out the causes for the failure of liberalism.

Activists, Protests and Counter-Culture

  • John Morton Blum. Years of Discord: American Politics and Society, 1961-1974. Norton, 1991. 530 pp.

Most histories of the New Left Movement focus on the end of the decade of the 1960s. Miller looks at the other end of the decade when the movement was forming to demonstrate that the movement at the beginning was something better than what it became after Chicago. He approaches the subject as a former member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the organization at the center of the New Left Movement,

The Sixties contains 10 essays that ‘analyze the ways in which the great issues of the sixties…are shaped and contested through the changing nature of cultural authority and political legitimacy.’ (1) The essays do not record a narrative sequence of events. There is an emphasis on the counter-culture rather than the culture.


  • Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (New York: Viking Press, 2000)

In The World Split Open, Ruth Rosen presents a balanced view of the social and cultural changes accompanying the modern woman’s movement of the last half of the twentieth century. She presents the successes, failures, and ambivalence of the movement for gender equality and inserts her own experience into her analysis.

Ruth Rosen focuses on the experiences of white,, middle-class women beginning with their participation in civil rights organizations. This provides the reader with a link between the first wave of the feminist or women's movement which was initially part of the abolitionist movement and lasted for about seventy years from 1848 until just after the 1919 passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment giving women the right to vote. The second wave of the women's movement began around 1965 when white, middle class women were no longer needed as active participants and organizers in the civil rights movement.

  • Watkins, Elizabeth Siegel. On the pill : a social history of oral contraceptives, 1950-1970. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Biography and Memoirs

Lyndon Johnson was nothing if not complex. He was personally ambitious yet many of his programs were aimed at the poorest of the poor. He was politically astute yet became the focus of scorn and derision. Johnson’s mastery of the workings of Washington is perhaps unequaled by any President, certainly by any modern President. He could convince anybody of anything. Califano remembers Johnson as ‘brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibility intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive.’ He could be ‘altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest and calculatingly devious.’

Johnson had sought to become the new FDR. Even though he passed more legislation than FDR and spent more time and energy on the country's poor, Johnson's presidency will forever be remembered for Vietnam. His inability to muster the strength to either pull out of Vietnam or tell the truth about what was going on cost him dearly. Race riots were the nail in the Great Society's coffin. Johnson had spent and enormous amount of time and energy trying to help poor African Americans. When they rioted, he felt betrayed. The country quickly lost its stomach for reform and actually began to blame the Great Society for the civil unrest.

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