Posts Tagged ‘Great Society’


President Barack Obama has lost his hold on a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. Though more than two years remain in his term, the popular appeal that propelled him to win the 2008 and 2012 elections may be beyond recovery.

It is sadly reminiscent of what President Lyndon B. Johnson experienced in the mid-1960s after winning the 1964 presidential election by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.  This is not to suggest that history is repeating itself. There are too many differences between Johnson and Obama — both the men and their presidencies — to argue that. Yet, as Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

In broad terms, though, LBJ and Obama share a record of pushing through bold domestic reforms, then losing momentum as foreign affairs blocked their progressive programs. With Johnson, it was largely foreign problems that stopped his forward motion. With Obama, it has been foreign and domestic developments.


Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs generated strong conservative opposition to so broad an expansion of federal power. Johnson most likely wouldn’t even have been able to enact his stunning domestic reforms if not for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. This tragedy gave Johnson a martyr to invoke in his effort to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which forbids racial segregation in public accommodations and helped establish an anti-poverty agency that Johnson said JFK intended to create.

The two-thirds Democratic majorities that Johnson had in both the House of Representatives and the Senate after the 1964 elections allowed him to push through the Voting Rights Act, as well as Medicare and federal aid to education. Numerous other progressive reforms became law in 1965 and 1966, including two new Cabinet departments –transportation and housing and urban development.

By 1967, however, Johnson’s advocacy of additional reforms had fallen victim to the fighting in Vietnam, where the United States was losing close to thousands of combat troops every month, and doubts had arisen about the wisdom of fighting a war against insurgents in the Vietnamese jungles. The public  questioned why American sacrifices in Southeast Asia were essential to defeating Communist Russia and China in the Cold War.

The surprising North Vietnamese-Viet Cong Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 did much to create a Johnson “credibility gap.” He had been insisting the U.S. military could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

“How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth?” Johnson’s critics would ask. “When he rubs his chin or pulls at his ear lobes, he’s telling the truth. When he moves his lips, you know he’s lying.”


Tet and the credibility gap helped end any prospect of renewed progressive advances in the United States and destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning another term. Vietnam crushed Johnson’s reform ambitions and hopes of a historical reputation as one of America’s great presidents.

Ironically, Johnson thought if he lost Vietnam it would kill his reform agenda. But it was the fighting in Vietnam that ruined all his progressive dreams.

Obama has had no single foreign-affairs frustration comparable to Vietnam. Historians will likely credit the Obama administration with more advances toward a more humane society. His signed into law his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, designed to provide health insurance to most of the more than 40 million uninsured; promoted equal rights for women, including equal pay for similar work; ensured equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians; increased protections for the environment, and pressed for sympathetic treatment of illegal immigrants, especially the “Dreamers,” children brought to the United States by their parents.

The Obama presidency will likely be remembered as part of the country’s progressive tradition — dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Johnson.

At this juncture, however, when Democrats look unlikely to take back the House or perhaps hold the Senate in the midterm elections, Obama’s progressive agenda seems to be stymied by both domestic and foreign developments.

At home, he confronts the aggressively conservative Tea Party movement. Its message has been consistently anti-government — and anti-Obama.

During one of the five dinners that Obama has held with a group of presidential historians (including me), I said the Tea Party is practicing classic “politics of resentment.” Though Tea Party adherents talk about being opposed to government debt and intrusion into people’s private lives, this is only the overt part of their opposition, I explained. Tea Party adherents are mainly white, middle-class citizens, angry at being elbowed aside by minority voters. Obama replied only that he saw something “subterranean” in their outlook.


In many ways, though, these Tea Party conservatives are a throwback to the fundamentalists of the 1920s, who spoke out against blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants. The 1924 National Origins Act, strongly supported by small-town and rural Americans across the country, served as a roadblock to post-1870 immigrants, who flocked to America from Southern and Eastern Europe. When Johnson put through major immigration reform in 1965, tossing out the National Origins measure, he called the 1924 law “racist.”

Tea Party-inclined Republican representatives in the House have indeed played a large part in stopping Obama’s reform agenda. The Republican House majority has often made it impossible for the president to negotiate compromises on his proposals and virtually killed some legislative advances Obama hoped would expand his record of progressive reforms.

Even if the Republicans didn’t control the House, however, Obama’s foreign-policy problems would likely have made a bold reform program problematic. In May 2009, at the first of our White House dinners, three historians (full disclosure: including me) cautioned the president against expanding the war in Afghanistan or sending in additional ground forces.  History has shown the difficulty of combining guns and butter, we stated.

Consider: U.S. participation in World War I ended the Progressive movement; after Pearl Harbor, FDR said “Dr. Win the War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal;” President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal went a-glimmering with the Korean War, and LBJ’s Great Society came to a halt with Vietnam.

lbj -- obama-face

Obama replied that he was not unmindful of what we were saying. But, he added, he had a problem with this argument. We took it to mean that though he had labeled Iraq a “mistake” and vowed to “remove” U.S. troops from there as soon as possible, he had called Afghanistan a “necessary” conflict and could not back away from it without paying a substantial political price or abandoning a foreign-policy judgment he still considered accurate.

Other foreign problems have also undermined Obama’s popularity. These include a red line in Syria that he never enforced, as well as an inability to influence events in Egypt or the fighting between Israel and Hamas. He also looks unprepared to deal with Islamic State’s challenge to the Iraqi government and other Middle East nations, and the Ebola crisis has driven his approval numbers lower. With only about 40 percent of the country now supporting him, it is doubtful that he could have led other bold reforms through even a more sympathetic Congress.

Like Truman, Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama now looks like he could end his presidency on a sour note. Yet he still has two years to recoup some of the lost political ground and find a formula that excites renewed enthusiasm for his leadership.

It is doubtful that Obama will end up with as poor a reputation as Johnson. Recent polls place Johnson third from the bottom in the rankings of public approval for the 10 last presidents — ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. Obama will certainly do better than that.

The high hopes Obama initially brought to the White House, however, have been disappointed. He has again forcefully demonstrated that being president can be a hazardous enterprise.

PHOTO (TOP): REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking hands with a crowd in 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Voting Rights Act of 1965.

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado, April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek is the author of two volumes on President Lyndon B. Johnson, «Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson in his Times 1908-1960» and «Flawed Giant 1961-1973.» He is also the author of «An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963» and most recently «Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.» He is now writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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50 Years Ago Congress Gave the President a Blank Check for War 

by Leonard Steinhorn

HNN August 3, 2014


Walt Rostow showing LBJ a map of Khe Sanh in 1968


Fifty years ago, on August 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It is a day that should live in infamy.

On that day, the President gave himself the power “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces,” to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and assist our ally in South Vietnam “in defense of its freedom.”

Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it decades later, it gave “complete authority to the president to take the nation to war.”

History has shown that the resolution was built on a foundation of misinformation, fabrication, and willful evasion of the truth. Contrary to what the President claimed, there was no unprovoked “act of aggression” against the American  destroyers that were patrolling the Tonkin Gulf, and a second alleged incident never even took place.

But the Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to escalate the war. “We don’t know what happened,” National Security Adviser Walter W. Rostow told the president after Congress passed the resolution, “but it had the desired result.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have had the desired result, but the war it unleashed didn’t.

By the time Lyndon Johnson left office more than four years later, we had amassed over half a million troops in Vietnam, lost nearly 37,000 soldiers, dropped more bomb tonnage than we had in all of World War II, released chemical weapons – Napalm and Agent Orange – throughout Southeast Asia, and burned thousands of South Vietnamese homes and villages to the ground.

Yet it was increasingly clear by then that we could not win the war.

Rather than stopping any dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution set in motion a series of dominoes in our own country  that would profoundly alter our politics, economy, and culture for years to come.

Perhaps the most significant decision President Johnson made beyond using his newly authorized power to escalate the war was to hide the cost of the war and resist any tax increase to pay for it. Johnson feared that any congressional debate over funding the war would come at the expense of his Great Society program.

He wanted both guns and butter, but he worried that Congress would choose guns over butter. So once again he resorted to obfuscation and deception to get his way.

What resulted was a cascading series of economic  consequences that would transform our nation and undermine the Great Society he so dearly wanted to protect.

To pay for the war without gutting his robust domestic agenda, Johnson resorted to deficit spending which fueled an already overheating economy that was now being asked to divert its productivity away from consumer goods and toward the war effort.

Consumer demand began to outstrip supply, and that let the inflation genie out of the bottle. Less than five years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, inflation more than quadrupled.

Johnson couldn’t hide the rising cost of the war for long, and by 1968 he asked for a 10 percent tax surcharge on all but the poorest Americans. But it came at a cost: Congress demanded, and he had to accept, a 10 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending. Barely three years after birthing the Great Society, he began to starve it to pay for the war. It never fully recovered.

To middle and working class Americans, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the war’s economic impact was taking a toll. Though inflation meant pay raises once a year, prices for food and consumer goods were rising every month which then ate away at any increase in their wages.

Their standard of living began to stagnate. Nor were taxes indexed to inflation in those years, so every pay increase risked pushing them into a higher tax bracket, which took even more money from their pockets in addition to the tax surcharge they would have to pay.

These were largely Democratic voters who generally supported the president and the war – many had their own boys fighting in Vietnam – so if they were looking for blame they weren’t about to point the finger at a deceptive and misguided war policy.

Instead, they saw higher taxes, higher domestic spending, and lots of fanfare for a Great Society that didn’t seem to include them. They also saw domestic unrest and urban riots.

To them, they were hard-working Americans who played by the rules yet were now forced to tread water just to keep from falling behind while government seemed to be giving everything away to the poor. That domestic programs themselves were getting squeezed by the war was a detail that got lost in the heat of the moment.

Couple these growing resentments with the fact that it was their boys, not the children of the well-educated, who were being sent off to war. From their perspective, the liberal elites were taxing them to coddle the poor, yet when it came to defending our nation these same liberal elites sheltered their sons in colleges and universities.

Those seeking to understand the rise of Reagan Democrats and white working class Republican populists – and the corresponding demise of the New Deal majority – need look no further. The cultural and political divide that began in the Sixties was a direct result of the deceit that brought us the Vietnam War.

And what was then a still fragile liberal consensus that government could mitigate the hardships of poverty – a consensus that enabled passage of the Great Society legislation – began to erode.

That an administration could dissemble us into war would lead to another cultural and political repercussion of Vietnam: our growing and seemingly permanent distrust of government.

Trust in government peaked at 76 percent in 1964, not coincidentally the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and declined precipitously in the years thereafter, reaching what was then a low of 25 percent in 1980, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies.

Not all of this decline is due to Vietnam, but a war built on the original sin of deception, fiction, and illusion deserves a good deal of the blame.

Almost daily, Americans were treated to an official  version of the war that had us winning. The  Johnson administration trumpeted body counts and bombing raids and assured us, in the famous words of General William Westmoreland, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But there was no light. The dark reality we saw every night on television contradicted what our leaders were telling us. We saw bloodied soldiers, troops burning villages, body bags, fear and despair and little of the triumphalism that was emanating from the Pentagon.

When the Vietcong launched their Tet Offensive in  January 1968, striking at the U.S. Embassy and other key sites in the heart of Saigon, Americans had a hard time reconciling the official version with what they were witnessing.

Thus was born the credibility gap between the American government and its citizens.

And nowhere did it grow wider than among journalists, who were greeted with untruths during the daily military briefings in Vietnam – known as the Five O’clock Follies – and saw through such euphemisms as “pacification,” which in truth meant torching Vietnamese huts and shooting those who resisted, and “collateral damage,” which in reality meant civilian deaths.

Reflexive skepticism of government remains a defining characteristic of contemporary journalism.

Watergate, which calcified the credibility gap, also grew out of Vietnam when President Richard Nixon authorized his secretive White House Plumbers to retaliate against Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the duplicity behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the U.S. prosecution of the war.

Years later Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told Ellsberg that if members of Congress had seen the evidence from the Pentagon Papers in 1964, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee, and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”

What Lyndon Johnson saw as a ploy to grant him war powers ended up harming so many and transforming our nation in ways the President surely never intended. It would end up engulfing the liberalism he so loved. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the hubris behind it were the linchpins of Johnson’s Shakespearean Vietnam tragedy – and ours as well.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, where he teaches politics, strategic communication, and courses on the presidency and recent American history. He is the author of the much discussed book on baby boomers, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of the critically acclaimed By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race.

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En su primer año en la presidencia, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) inició un programa de reformas sociales que en su conjunto son conocidas como la Gran Sociedad y que estaba basado en dos objetivos centrales: acabar con la pobreza y con la injusticia racial. El Presidente buscó trasformar al país por medio de una serie de importantes reformas. En 1964, Johnson logró que el Congreso aprobara la Ley de Derechos Civiles  y una reducción en los impuestos de unos $10 mil millones, que produjo un aumento en el capital de inversión y en el consumo personal.  Como resultado, la economía creció y el déficit presupuestario se redujo.

Johnson también le declaró la guerra a la pobreza. La prosperidad de la década de 1950 no acabó con la pobreza en los Estados Unidos. En su clásica obra The Other America (1962), el activista político Michael Harrington alegaba que 40 millones de estadounidenses no tenían una dieta apropiada y vivían en pésimas condiciones. Con muy poca o ninguna ayuda estatal, los pobres estaban atrapados en círculo vicioso que no les permitía salir de la  cultura de la pobreza.  La falta de educación, cuidado médico y empleo les condenaban, según Harrington, a ser “extranjeros” en su propio país. Para enfrentar esta situación, LBJ propuso la creación de programas de entrenamiento que permitieran que los pobres se integraran a la economía norteamericana. En 1964 fue aprobada la Ley de Oportunidades Económicas creando una entidad federal –la Oficina de Oportunidades Económicas–  encargada de combatir la pobreza. El arsenal de la administración Johnson contra la pobreza incluyó los creación de los “Job Corps”, una especie de Cuerpos de Paz locales, y la creación del programa de Head Star para niños preescolares, entre otros.

Los programas de la Gran Sociedad causaron revuelo entre los conservadores, entre ellos, el Senador por Arizona Barry Goldwater. Goldwater se oponía  al crecimiento del gobierno a través de la creación de programas de asistencia social y del gasto deficitario. El Senador también se opuso a las medidas a favor de la integración ración racial de la sociedad norteamericana. Para las elecciones de 1964, los conservadores, con Goldwater a la cabeza, tomaron el control del Partido Republicano y adoptaron un plataforma completamente opuesta a la Gran Sociedad.  Durante la campaña presidencial, Goldwater criticó la Ley de Derechos Civiles, la guerra contra la pobreza, la política exterior de Johnson, etc.  Sin embargo, ello no fue suficiente para evitar una gran victoria Demócrata, pues Johnson fue electo con el 61.1% de los votos populares (43,127,041 votos). Goldwater sólo recibió el 38.5% de los votos populares (27,175,754 votos) y sólo ganó 6 de los 50 estados de la Unión.

Fortalecido por una victoria aplastante, LBJ impulsó su programa de reformas. En 1965 fueron creados el Medicare y el Medicaid para proveer de servicios médicos gratuitos a los ancianos y los recipientes de ayuda social o welfare, respectivamente. También fueron aprobadas leyes proveyendo mil millones de dólares para la educación elemental y secundaria, suspendiendo las pruebas de alfabetismo como requisito electoral, asignando $8 mil millones a programas de vivienda, asignando $650 millones para becas y préstamos a bajo interés para estudiantes universitarios, creando la National Endowment for the Arts para promover la producción artística y el desarrollo cultural, y aboliendo el sistema de cuotas migratorias creado en 1924, abriendo nuevamente las puertas de los Estados Unidos a los inmigrantes.

Fuente: CARPE DIEM Professor Mark J. Perry's Blog for Economics and Finance (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/09/us-poverty-rate-1959-to-2009.html)

Fuente: CARPE DIEM Professor Mark J. Perry’s Blog for Economics and Finance (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/09/us-poverty-rate-1959-to-2009.html)

En términos generales, la Gran Sociedad tuvo un impacto positivo en las vidas de millones de estadounidenses. Prueba de ello es que la proporción de pobres bajó de 22% en 1960 a 13% en 1969, la mortalidad infantil bajó un tercio, los Head Star atendieron a 2 millones de niños y el ingreso de las familias afroamericanas aumento de un 54% a 61% del ingreso de sus homologas  blancas. El porcentaje de ciudadanos negros en la pobreza bajó de 40 a 20%. En sus primeros diez años de existencia, el Medicare y el Medicare proveyeron asistencia médica a 47 millones de norteamericanos a un costo de $28 mil millones. Sin embargo, la participación de los Estados Unidos en la guerra de Vietnam comprometió el programa liberal. Para 1966, el gobierno federal gastaba 20 veces más en el conflicto indochino, que en la lucha contra la pobreza. Además, no todos los estadounidenses estaban felices con el liberalismo de LBJ. Muchos rechazaban la regulación de los negocios y la intervención del gobierno federal en la educación pública.  Otros, veían con recelo el crecimiento del gobierno federal y su intervención de la vida de los norteamericanos. Las elecciones legislativas de 1966 sirvieron de barómetro nacional, pues los demócratas perdieron 47 representantes, lo que selló el destino del reformismo de Johnson.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, PhD

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