New Deal Great Society Essay

Essay 1, Unit IV

Discuss the major goals, programs, and results of the New Frontier and the Great Society.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy eked out a razor-thin electoral victory over former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon in a campaign in which Kennedy promised to lead America into a New Frontier.  He contrasted his view of what the nation needed - to move ahead with new vision and new commitment to reform - with what he depicted as the smug complacency of the preceding Republican adminstration.  His favorite campaign theme was the necessity to "get this country moving again."  And his plea in his inaugural was for the American people to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Once in office Kennedy tried to translate his electoral victory into a series of legislative programs what would bring about his New Frontier vision.  Kennedy's highest domestic priority was to get the economy moving again after the two recessions of the Eisenhower years.  Toward this goal Kennedy succeeded in his proposals for trade expansion stimulated by lower tariffs.  These were embodied in the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), a program for economic planning and cooperation with the nation's European trading partners.  Kennedy also secured passage of a tax reform measure which shifted the burden of taxation upward to the higher income level and left more spendable dollars in the pockets of the middle class.

Kennedy also suceeded in his proposal for America to enter a "New Frontier" in space through increased funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA).  To emphasize the administration's committment to this program he placed Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson in overall charge of getting the program going.  Not only did this result in the nation catching up with the Soviet Union in the "space race" but in stimulating the economy through the money poured into this effort.  And Kennedy added a new dimension to our foreign policy with the creation of the Peace Corps, an agency designed to help underdeveloped nations through the technical assistance of American volunteers.

The New Frontier of the Kennedy administration also envisioned a whole series of domestic reform programs to "get the country moving again" in the area of social progress.  These included Kennedy's proposals for long-awaited reforms in education, health care, and civil rights. This attempt to get the federal government to take responsibility for and act in behalf of domestic reform essentially tried to carry on the legacy of Roosevelt's New Deal and Truman's Fair Deal.  Lacking any long-term experience in Congress, Kennedy tried to rely upon personal appeal to get these programs passed, and he failed.  While unable to get any civil rights bill passed, Kennedy's backing for the civil rights movement resulted in new national support for it.

With Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963 a new president with a very different style and background inherited Kennedy's mantle of leadership and his unfinished legislative program.  Lyndon B. Johnson, with his many years of experience in the House of Representative and as Senate majority leader, was much better at working with the Congress than Kennedy.  Johnson, as a "member of the club," knew how to "twist arms" and call in political IOUs to get things done.  Indeed the critical difference in the effectiveness of the two men was Johnson's experience in manipulating the political system.  And the experience paid off in the passage of three reform proposals under Johnson which Kennedy had not been able to achieve.

Johnson pushed through Congress a program of massive federal funding for education - the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  He was also able to secure passage of a program of national health insurance, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor).  And finally Johnson, a Southerner, used all his influence and experience to achieve Kennedy's dream of civil rights reform.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished racial segregation in all public facilities, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed voting rights, which allowed Blacks an active role in Southern politics.  But Johnson was not content with fulfilling the legislative goals of the New Frontier.  He set out to achieve his own vision of the "Great Society."

A truly "great society," Johnson argued, could not allow millions of its citizens to live in poverty.  Therefore the central feature of the  Great Society was to be a War of Poverty.  And Johnson pledged to utilize the nation's resources in this domestic war as he would in a foreign conflict.  The War on Poverty proposals emphasized government funding for such self-help programs as the Comprehensive Education and Training Administration (CETA), and the  Small Business Administration.  CETA was intended to provide job training for high school dropouts and others without employable skills. SBA was designed to loan both money and tecnhical assistance to minority-owned small business ventures.

Under the overall direction of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), these self-help programs produced some improvement in employment, but at a cost that critics felt was excessive.  Administrative inefficiency and abuse led to decreased appropriations for these agencies.  But the real demise of the Great Society came with the escalation of the war in Viet Nam.  Funds previously available for domestic programs were diverted to the "Americanization" of the Vietnamese conflict.  When it became apparent that the nation could not afford both a War on Poverty and a war in Southeast Asia, when the administration had to make a choice between "guns and butter", Johnson chose guns.  The War on Poverty became a casualty of the Viet Nam war.

The Kennedy-Johnson years constitute what the text refers to as the   "climax of liberalism."  By this it means that this period saw the fruition of the belief that the government can act as an agent for social reform.  The results of this period of federal government activism, beginning with Roosevelt's New Deal, and extending through Truman's Fair Deal right up to Johnson's Great Society (interrupted only by Eisenhower's "healing calm") are evident in all the legislative programs passed during these administrations - from government agencies to combat recession to laws designed to bring about reforms in education, health care, and civil rights. But by 1968 "liberalism" came into disfavor and gave way to the conservatism of Richard M. Nixon.


Historians and political scientists have most often linked the Great Society to the New Deal; there is no doubt that LBJ was committed to expanding the Rooseveltian reform structure, a phenomenon that he saw as organic rather than static. As he remarked in a March 1937 radio address: “If the administration program [the New Deal] were a temporary thing the situation would be different. But it is not for a day or for a year, but for an age. It must be worked out through time, and long after Roosevelt leaves the White House, it will still be developing, expanding. . . . The man who goes to Congress this year, or next year, must be prepared to meet this condition. He must be capable of growing and progressing with it.” In truth, the Great Society marked the culmination of the effort by liberals to use the concept of positive rights (the right to a decent education, a good job, adequate health care) as opposed to negative rights (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to vote) to achieve social and economic justice.

But, ardent New Dealer though Johnson may have been, he realized that the 1960s were dramatically different from the 1930s. If the New Deal was about security and disengagement from the labor force through such devices as retirement pensions, unemployment compensation, and pensions for the worthy poor, the Great Society, in contrast, was about opportunity and labor force participation. The New Deal supported hard-pressed Americans at a time of economic catastrophe; the Great Society invested in people at the margins of the labor force at a time of economic opportunity. The New Deal was pessimistic, the Great Society optimistic. FDR wanted in the end to create a larger pie, but above all he wanted to ensure that the pieces of whatever pie that existed were more equitably distributed. Assured of an ever-growing pastry by postwar prosperity in general and by the Kennedy tax cut specifically, Johnson was more about political and educational empowerment of the poor and disadvantaged so that they could better compete. He did not on the whole support government-driven redistribution of wealth. He exhibited strong opposition to both guaranteed income measures and public works, favoring instead programs of social rehabilitation and affirmative action.

An “us against them” motif ran through each of the three great reform movements that preceded the Great Society. The Populists railed against bankers, middle men, and railroad magnates. The Progressives decried the threat posed to middle-class society by robber baron capitalists and ignorant, rootless immigrants. In his 1936 acceptance speech, FDR denounced “economic royalists” who were laboring to replace American democracy with an American plutocracy. Lyndon Johnson was determined to rule through consensus, to avoid pitting one group against another. Not only was this a personal inclination, but the stratagems developed for dealing with the civil rights crisis seemed to demand it, and the prevailing prosperity promised to permit it. LBJ made the enemy—the “them”—abstract. Poverty, ignorance, ill health were not the fault of a class or group—they were boils on the body politic. These things were not the result of evil intent or greed on the part of groups or individuals, but seemingly free radicals that everyone hoped to see eliminated from the environment.

The Great Society’s most glaring departure from Populism, Progressivism, and New Deal liberalism was its frontal assault on Jim Crow laws in the South. Despite their idealism, the reformers that preceded Johnson proved unwilling or unable to confront the issue of full citizenship and equality of opportunity for African Americans. In many respects, the interests of black Americans had been sacrificed in the drive by Populists, Progressives, and New Dealers to secure economic and social justice for male-dominated, white, working-class families. Even before he became president, LBJ decided that civil rights for black Americans was an issue that could not wait. If the United States was to retain its fundamental characteristics—individual freedom and democracy coupled with equality under the law and equal opportunity—the nation would have to turn its back on racism in both the public and private spheres. The Great Society would do what previous reform regimes had not dared attempt and in so doing move the nation forward in its ongoing effort to resolve the greatest American dilemma of them all.

Adapted excerpt from Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism by Randall B. Woods. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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