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Lyndon Baine Johnson's Great Society

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April 15, 2014
HI338 Analytical Essay

Lyndon Baines Johnson became one of the most progressive Presidents the United States has ever seen when he strongly pushed his Great Society agenda to citizens and politicians alike. After the shocking and unfortunate event that took John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life in November of 1963, Johnson was swiftly forced into office with an inevitable crisis in Vietnam and growing concerns about the Cold War. Recent Presidents before him had always considered progressive domestic policies, but were ultimately too concerned with the Cold War and foreign issues to give any significant dedication to the cause. As Kennedy’s Vice President, Johnson always preached strong domestic policies and programs, but once he became President in November of 1963, he finally had the power to enact them. Lyndon Baines Johnson changed the political landscape of the United States during his tenure as President as he implemented his Great Society agenda and put a large emphasis on domestic issues such as the war on poverty, federal aid to specific projects, and equal rights compared to foreign issues. The political atmosphere was different before Johnson entered office. Harry Truman had to finish the Second World War and both Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had to deal with the Cold War and consistent pressures from other nations. There were just more important conflicts on the agenda for these Presidents than domestic problems. In his 1960 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, Kennedy talks about “[pioneering] towards the New Frontier”1, which was his domestic policy agenda, but it ultimately wasn’t a large part of his Presidency. It had great ideas such as ending racial discrimination, giving federal aid for education, and giving medical care for the elderly, but with Cuba and the Cold War weighing on his shoulders, Kennedy couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to these policies. Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first President during the Cold War period to seriously dedicate a lot of his time and energy to domestic problems and it all started with his idea of the Great Society. The Great Society was an important aspect to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Presidency and helped shape the domestic landscape of the United States. It created invaluable programs that helped shape the economy and environment while also severely lowering the poverty rate. The Great Society had numerous plans, such as using Federal aid to support education, having mental health facilities, providing health care options for the poor and aging, creating equal rights for all Americans, and having environmentally friendly legislation. It was a type of agenda that in the past has never been pursued so heavily by a President and it all started when new President Johnson gave his State of the Union address in 1964 for the whole world to hear. Every individual in the United States was full of anticipation to hear what the new President had to say in his State of the Union address. With the late-President Kennedy still fresh in peoples’ minds and growing concerns about Vietnam and the Cold War, people were curious as to what the President would discuss. Johnson starts his State of the Union address by constantly stating “let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for…”2, which has important undertones to it. With the passing of President Kennedy happening two months prior, the citizens of the United States were still mourning his death and living in the past. Johnson realized that he needed to get the American people to think about the future and discontinue thinking and mourning about the past. With so much fear and uncertainty looming towards the American people, hope was a necessity to get the United States and Johnson’s agenda back on track. Only through being optimistic about the future can Johnson truly have the support of the people and get his agenda completed. Consistently referring to this session of Congress “as the session which…”3 sounded like hope to the American people. It ultimately allowed them to think about the future and what “this session of Congress” was capable of instead of mourning the death of President Kennedy. Without talking about what the future beheld for the American people and what this Congress was capable of, Johnson’s State of the Union address might not have been as effective of getting his Great Society agenda across. In Lyndon Baines Johnson 1964’s State of the Union address, the President puts a large emphasis and solving poverty in this country and achieving lower unemployment rates. He even goes as far as to “declare [all-out] war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States”4, which sparked a rather interesting response from the spectators of his speech. As he talked about the “war on poverty”, individuals clapped, but it wasn’t the large and elongated applause that would be expected from such a distinct and new plan. When Johnson entered office in 1963, Americans living under the poverty line was 22.2% 5, which is absolutely absurd compared to today. Declaring “unconditional war on poverty in America”6 and asking “congress and all Americans to join [Johnson]”7 in the effort to end poverty should be electrifying and exciting news to the American people. Instead, this statement didn’t get an unusual amount of applause as individuals were more concerned about the Cold War and foreign policy than domestic issues. It’s the reaction from Congress and all the spectators that really shows what everyone was thinking during this time period. Instead of pondering the current state of the United States and how to fix specific domestic issues, almost every American was more concerned about foreign issues. With Cuba being a large problem, the Soviet Union creating chaos in Berlin, and Vietnam growing, it seemed people couldn’t think about anything else. This is why it’s so interesting that President Johnson dedicated most of his State of the Union address to a “war against poverty” as most people weren’t concerned about that issue. Ultimately, President Johnson and his quest to end poverty being a top priority was something that recent Presidents never considered as they were occupied with foreign affairs.
A priority that President Johnson addresses in his State of the Union address is that of federal aid to education and investing in more libraries. Johnson states he wishes that his session of Congress is the one “which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.”8 With Americans living under poverty being at such a high level, a large number of young kids couldn’t afford to attend school and get a basic education. Also, with college tuition prices rising, many Americans couldn’t afford to send their kids to college. In 1960, according to National Center for Education Statistics9, only 45.1% of high school graduated enrolled in College. It’s an interesting statistic because with the economy doing relatively well, it would be assumed that more individuals would be attending college to obtain a degree and better their lives. This is extremely telling about the time period as higher education wasn’t a huge priority for many American families, but also around the country there were still areas where school systems experienced a lot of problems. With poverty being at such a high number, some families couldn’t afford to send their kids to schools. Also, some school districts weren’t receiving a lot of federal aid and couldn’t afford text books, teachers, and other basic necessities for a school. Federal expenditures for education around 1960 were estimated to be around $12.5 billion10, which wasn’t a large amount of money. This shows that before President Johnson, education wasn’t a large priority of the United States government, especially with recent Presidents being occupied with the Cold War. The combination of Americans being in poverty and not a lot of federal aid being dedicated to education resulted in a pedestrian education system. Johnson thought that it was the role of the government to help provide communities with education opportunities, which is why he wanted his session of congress to “help build more schools… and libraries”11, which ultimately signified a turning of political culture. Dedicating so much effort to education was something that was never done before by recent Presidents until Johnson as they were all concerned with their foreign policy agenda.
One of the most intriguing aspects of President Johnson’s State of the Union address is how he addresses the issue of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. With growing concerns about what to do with the Civil Rights Movement after the Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks, and other events, Presidents were never able to dedicate a lot of time to the situation because of what was happening abroad with the Cold War. Although they potentially wished to help the situation, they ultimately didn’t have the time for it with them being preoccupied with other serious events such as Cuba and problems arising in Berlin. For example, President Kennedy finally addressed the American people in June of 1963 about Civil Rights after he had no choice after the events of Birmingham, Alabama, and the Freedom Riders. With the Riders being violently abused, Kennedy had to address this situation as it became a national story-line. It wasn’t a top priority for him and he only addressed the situation when it was necessary. This all changed when President Johnson took over the Presidency and stated in his State of the Union address that he wanted “this session of Congress [to] be known as the session which did more for Civil Rights than the last hundred sessions combined”12. This quote seriously speaks volumes about how the Civil Rights were thought about in the past and what Johnson planned to do in the future. The wording of “the last hundred sessions combined” is constructed in a particular way in which it attacks the past sessions for doing nothing towards gaining Civil Rights progress. Johnson wanted to word it as to show that no progress has been made for Civil Rights in the United States before and how that was all going to change under him. It would be a memorable statement that all Americans would remember and it had a lot of conviction. President Johnson also discusses how the increased opportunities “in education, in housing, and in every field must be open to Americans of every color”13, which also was an extremely powerful statement from his State of the Union address. Before, in the United States, most beneficial domestic policies would only be directed towards White Americans as other people were either in slavery or severely looked down upon. President Johnson wanted it to be known that every new beneficial piece of legislation he passed wouldn’t just benefit the White Americans, but America as a whole and all its citizens. Never before has a President put such an emphasis and commitment to helping the Civil Rights Movement and making sure that all American citizens were equally treated. Through his State of the Union address, President Johnson changed the political atmosphere of the United States as he dedicated a large portion of his agenda to helping the Civil Rights movement, which was never accomplished before by recent Presidents.
An interesting tactic that President Johnson uses in his State of the Union address is talking about the late President John F. Kennedy’s agenda and how he must continue it. Bringing up the recently assassinated President is a calculated move by Johnson and his speech writer so they can use the emotions of the American public to their advantage. When emotions are high, people tend to think more through emotions and not use their head, which Johnson realized. When President Johnson says “let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy”14, it’s an extremely powerful statement for the American people. With the assassination fresh in their minds, late President Kennedy became an American hero to everyone, which is why Johnson stated that America needs to “carry forward [his] plans” as to almost carry on the legacy of President Kennedy. With Americans blinded by emotion, they’d be willing to support Johnson and that allows the President to get his agenda through effectively and with the support of the public. Ultimately, President Johnson used the late President John F. Kennedy in his State of the Union address to gain the support of the public by utilizing their emotions of his assassination.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson changed the political landscape of the United States after his State of the Union address in 1964 as he centralized his agenda around domestic issues while Presidents before him centralized their agenda’s around foreign policy. Through his State of the Union address, Johnson addressed directly issues surrounding poverty, education, and the Civil Rights Movement. Previous Presidents discussed these issues, but they were never a main priority for them as the Cold War was the main concern of the country. Beginning with his State of the Union address in 1964, President Johnson changed politics in America as he dedicated more time to solving poverty, granting more federal aid to education, and taking a strong stance on the Civil Rights Movement compared to previous Presidents as they dedicated most of their efforts to the Cold War.

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