What is the Great Society?

Jim B.

The Great Society was the name U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson gave to the series of reforms he enacted in the middle of the 1960s. Building upon the programs of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, Johnson aimed to remedy both economic and racial injustice in America. Spurred on by a landslide win in the 1964 presidential election and helped by his skill as a legislator, Johnson was able to enact a massive series of programs and laws that included reforms in health care, transportation, urban housing, education, and the environment. Although the success of the Great Society was quickly overshadowed by the escalation of the Vietnam War, many of the programs that it created still exist today.

Lyndon Johnson served as John F. Kennedy's vice president.
Lyndon Johnson served as John F. Kennedy's vice president.

Johnson served as Kennedy's vice president when the latter introduced his New Frontier initiatives. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson ascended to the presidency and took up many of these same causes when he sought reelection in 1964. Promising that these intended reforms could lead to a Great Society, Johnson, a Democrat, was elected in a landslide over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.

President Lyndon Johnson developed a large reform program known as the Great Society.
President Lyndon Johnson developed a large reform program known as the Great Society.

Using his negotiating skills that he honed during his many years in Congress, Johnson began to push for many of the programs that Kennedy had wanted. Even before the 1964 election, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that improved the rights of minorities. Johnson then took on Kennedy's economic agenda, pushing through a tax cut and creating programs to improve the conditions of the urban poor.

Once in office, Johnson continued to implement new elements of the Great Society. His health care initiatives included the Medicare and Medicaid programs designed to improve medical treatment of the elderly and the poor. Johnson tackled education by securing assistance for public and secondary schools, created the Department of Housing and Urban Development to spur inner-city growth, pushed through environmental legislation, and took on transportation issues by signing laws to improve automobile safety standards.

By the middle of the decade, many of Johnson's legislative successes started to dim in the face of the Vietnam War, which eventually began to dominate his presidential agenda. Critics of the Great Society took issue with what they perceived as the ineffectiveness of some of the programs, especially those designed to help the poor, even though poverty levels did decline sharply during Johnson's presidency. Many of the programs that were a part of the Great Society still are in effect today, including Medicaid and Medicare, even though Johnson's ultimate legacy as president remains the country's involvement in Vietnam.

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Discussion Comments


@mrwormy, I was around during the Johnson administration and I don't know if his vision of a "Great Society" had enough support to sustain itself during a second term. Johnson was a very complicated man, and he managed to get some of these things passed through brute force and political manipulation. As a Democrat, I liked what Johnson was trying to do for the working class, but on a personal level, I wasn't fond of his tactics.

What matters most now is that almost all of his "Great Society" legislation is still in effect today. He knew how to create legislation that would survive legal scrutiny and political changes. Both Republicans and Democrats support the existence of Medicare, for example, and the Civil Rights Act is still in full effect, despite several major Supreme Court challenges.


The war in Vietnam just killed any hopes Johnson had of getting even more important legislation passed. I believe he might have been able to get a Equal Rights Amendment for women ratified, for one thing. His second term would have probably gone down in the history books as one of the best ever. But he couldn't find a way out of the public relations nightmare called the Vietnam War. His "Great Society" was replaced by Nixon's "Silent Majority".

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