Lyndon B Johnson Great Society Dbq Essay

Commencement Speech at the University of Michigan


President Hatcher, Governor Romney, Senators McNamara and Hart, Congressmen Meader and Staebler, and other members of the fine Michigan delegation, members of the graduating class, my fellow Americans:

It is a great pleasure to be here today. This university has been coeducational since 1870, but I do not believe it was on the basis of your accomplishments that a Detroit high school girl said, “In choosing a college, you first have to decide whether you want a coeducational school or an educational school.”

Well, we can find both here at Michigan, although perhaps at different hours.

I came out here today very anxious to meet the Michigan student whose father told a friend of mine that his son’s education had been a real value. It stopped his mother from bragging about him.

I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your country.

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

So I want to talk to you today about three places where we begin to build the Great Society — in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms.

Many of you will live to see the day, perhaps 50 years from now, when there will be 400 million Americans — four-fifths of them in urban areas. In the remainder of this century urban population will double, city land will double, and we will have to build homes, highways, and facilities equal to all those built since this country was first settled. So in the next 40 years we must re-build the entire urban United States.

Aristotle said: “Men come together in cities in order to live, but they remain together in order to live the good life.” It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today.

The catalog of ills is long: there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing and old landmarks are violated.

Worst of all expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature.

The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.

Our society will never be great until our cities are great. Today the frontier of imagination and innovation is inside those cities and not beyond their borders.

New experiments are already going on. It will be the task of your generation to make the American city a place where future generations will come, not only to live but to live the good life.

I understand that if I stayed here tonight I would see that Michigan students are really doing their best to live the good life.

This is the place where the Peace Corps was started. It is inspiring to see how all of you, while you are in this country, are trying so hard to live at the level of the people.

A second place where we begin to build the Great Society is in our countryside. We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.

A few years ago we were greatly concerned about the “Ugly American.” Today we must act to prevent an ugly America.

For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.

A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children’s lives will be shaped. Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.

Today, 8 million adult Americans, more than the entire population of Michigan, have not finished 5 years of school. Nearly 20 million have not finished 8 years of school. Nearly 54 million — more than one quarter of all America — have not even finished high school.

Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates, with proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot afford it. And if we cannot educate today’s youth, what will we do in 1970 when elementary school enrollment will be 5 million greater than 1960? And high school enrollment will rise by 5 million. College enrollment will increase by more than 3 million.

In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.

But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.

These are three of the central issues of the Great Society. While our Government has many programs directed at those issues, I do not pretend that we have the full answer to those problems.

But I do promise this: We are going to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences and meetings — on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. And from these meetings and from this inspiration and from these studies we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.

The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.

Woodrow Wilson once wrote: “Every man sent out from his university should be a man of his Nation as well as a man of his time.”

Within your lifetime powerful forces, already loosed, will take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination.

For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.

So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace — as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?

There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.

Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality. So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.

Thank you. Good-bye.


New political and economic challenges in the 1960s caused some Americans to question the future direction of the country. “New Left” groups like Students for a Democratic Society feared that the American ideals of equality, democracy and progress had succumbed to civic indifference and corporate greed. President Johnson responded with this challenge for Americans to build the “Great Society.” With the support of national leadership, economic opportunity would come to mean something more than success for some and failure for others. Beyond the mere pursuit of economic success, Americans would find meaning and purpose in life through greater educational and recreational opportunities. Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society” was meant to uplift the American spirit at a time when citizens were especially anxious about Cold War developments and deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

Questions for consideration: In Johnson’s vision, what qualities will distinguish the “Great Society” from the society that then existed in America, and what will life be like for citizens in that “Great Society”? Why are urban renewal, conservation of natural beauty, and improved educational opportunities so critical, according to Johnson?  What is the role of government in building the “Great Society”?

Great Society

Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took the oath of office on the plane carrying John F. Kennedy's body from Dallas to Washington, D.C. on November 22, 1963. Johnson's presidency began in turmoil with Kennedy's assassination and continued throughout most of the decade in the same manner.

Johnson, a self-made man from simple roots—the polar opposite of Kennedy's fame and family money—brought to the White House a dogged determination to push through domestic legislation. He dreamed of a "Great Society," a vision he shared at every opportunity. This sweeping set of New Deal-style economic and welfare measures demonstrated his commitment to taking care of Americans first. During his presidency, the former Senate Majority Leader was able to earn approval for more domestic legislation than any twentieth century president except Franklin Roosevelt.

Early in 1964, Johnson told Congress, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill." He cannily used the nation's grief to force a civil rights bill through Congress that was significantly stronger than the one Kennedy had proposed. The Civil Rights Act of July 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in all public places, such as restaurants and hotels, and banned discrimination for employers, unions, and programs financed by the federal government.

In pursuit of his Great Society, Johnson sent a special message to Congress on March 16, 1964, calling for a "war on poverty." He proposed a $962 million program, expanded to $3 billion by 1966, which would bring relief to the most poverty-stricken areas in rural and urban America. Johnson was committed to social programs that would provide jobs, medical assistance, education, civil rights, and aid to the indigent. Building on Kennedy's Peace Corps, Johnson created VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, a program that provided volunteers to aid underprivileged areas of the United States.

Under Johnson's leadership, insurance programs like Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor were established, as well as educational programs like Head Start for preschoolers and a job corps for inner-city youth. Other Great Society initiatives protected consumers, safeguarded the environment, and initiated food stamp programs. Johnson also created the Department of Housing and Urban Development and pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that provided all citizens with the right to vote regardless of race.

Johnson was not the only political figure during this era that made a strong impact on civil rights. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over many controversial cases in the 1960s. One of the most famous cases was Miranda v. Arizona. When Ernesto Miranda, an Arizona man convicted of raping a woman in the early 1960s, confessed his crime to police, he was unaware of his right to remain silent and to not answer the officers' questions. Miranda's attorneys appealed the guilty verdict, and the Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

Due to this 1966 ruling, police must now tell any person suspected of a crime in police custody their Miranda Rights: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with an attorney and/or to have one present when questioned by the police. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you. If you decide to answer questions now without an attorney present, you have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney."

The Warren Court also took on the issue of school prayer, deciding in Engel v. Vitale that prayer in schools is unconstitutional. It addressed citizens' political rights in the case of Baker v. Carr, which established that voting boundaries should reflect a state's population. And, in the 1950s, Chief Justice Warren and his court dealt with segregation in the matter of Brown v. Board of Education, the legendary decision that school segregation violates the Constitution.

While domestic politics ran smoothly, President Johnson struggled to navigate foreign affairs. Upon taking office in 1963, LBJ had announced that he would "stay the course" in Southeast Asia and reversed Kennedy's order to begin withdrawing American military "advisors" in Vietnam. Originally deployed by President Eisenhower to aid in the creation of a non-communist government in South Vietnam to rival that of communist Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front he had created in the North, Johnson bolstered the presence of these "advisers" with additional troops and military resources. Johnson, like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, feared a "domino theory," which held that if the communists succeeded in controlling Vietnam they would progressively dominate all of Southeast Asia.

Johnson further expanded America's presence in Vietnam by signing secret National Security Council "findings" permitting U.S. covert operations against North Vietnam. Following North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North Vietnam and on August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This gave the president a "blank check" to use whatever resources were necessary to bring an end to the war and the further spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia.

The first bombing raids on North Vietnam began later that year. By the end of 1965, the number of American troops in Vietnam had increased six-fold, from 23,000 to 184,000. By 1966, American involvement doubled again, rising to roughly 385,000 troops.

As Johnson committed more and more resources to the war in Vietnam, public dissatisfaction with U.S. policy became apparent. Americans began participating in a growing number of anti-war demonstrations, picket lines, and teach-ins (used to raise awareness about and express their position on the war). By 1966, Senator J. William Fullbright opened a series of Congressional hearings to debate the necessity of a continued American presence in Vietnam.

Despite growing domestic unrest, U.S. troop levels reached approximately 485,000 by 1967. An unfazed LBJ promised that an American victory was imminent. To back up his claims, General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, conveyed the message to America that there was "a light at the end of the tunnel." However, while militarily outmatched, the North Vietnamese siege at Khesanh and the National Liberation Front's "Tet Offensive" proved that the U.S. remained far from victory.

By 1968, Johnson could no longer avoid the fact that the U.S. could not win the Vietnam War. Later that year, he agreed to stop the bombing, began withdrawing American forces, and agreed to peace talks in Paris.

Johnson had won the 1964 presidential election on the strength of his social policy, beating out millionaire Republican Barry Goldwater. However, Johnson's first elected term would also be his last, as criticism over his failure to bring a successful end to the Vietnam War weighed heavily on him. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced to America that he would not accept nomination or election for another term in office. Johnson believed that his decision was in the country's best interest—a decision that opened the door for the turbulence of the Nixon presidency.


While President Johnson was simultaneously rolling out his Great Society blueprints and entering ever deeper in the conflict in Vietnam, a cultural rebellion was gathering strength in American universities. The affluence of the 1950s allowed an unprecedented number of young people to attend college in the 1960s. This growing demographic had little real-world experience, and they looked critically at a society that had provided prosperity for them and their families. Many university students and young Americans were unsettled with the cookie-cutter lifestyle and middle-class values of the generation before them and set out to make their own mark on society.

Never having lived through a major war, these youth had a jaded view of the war in Vietnam. They looked past Johnson's claims that it was a war that must be finished and saw only the increasing number of Americans who continued to lose their lives. They felt the struggle between the South Vietnamese government and the Vietcong was a civil war that the United States should have avoided. Above all, those opposed to the war protested the way it was being fought, with massive aerial bombings, use of napalm and other chemical weapons, and the killing of civilians by U.S. troops.

By the late 1960s, dissatisfaction among American youth led to a counterculture that opposed the status quo and challenged traditional norms and values. Based on conflicts like the Berkeley Free Speech fight in 1964, college students across the country began organizing "teach-ins" on the Vietnam War.

Slowly, the rebellion that began as a protest against Johnson's foreign policy grew into a rebellion against American culture as a whole. American youth lashed out at society through their language, music, and actions.

Taking a cue from the civil rights movement, young adults staged marches, sit-ins, and other demonstrations against every perceived injustice—from major political events, to the war, to a vague sense of unhappiness with their circumstances. College students especially banded together to form alliances of like-minded activists.

One such alliance was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This organization was borne at the University of Michigan by students Tom Hayden and Al Haber to protest American capitalism. In 1962, the SDS gathered 60 intellectuals together at Port Huron, Michigan, who shared Hayden's and Haber's belief that individual freedom was being unfairly limited for Americans. They created a manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement that focused on student and individual rights, economic justice, and societal reform.

The Port Huron Statement inspired action around the country. At the University of California Berkeley, students staged a sit-in to protest a decision made by that school's chancellor, Clark Kerr, prohibiting political demonstrations. Over 2,000 students participated in the sit-in, and the school's administration eventually acquiesced.

Berkeley student Mario Savio formed the Free Speech Movement in 1964 to present an organized front in future protests. He organized another sit-in to protest university politics that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of student protesters. The governor sent 600 armed policemen to detain the peaceful students, which stopped the protest but further inflamed students across the country.

It seemed that every aspect of college students' lives in the 1960s reflected the agitated atmosphere and counterculture. 1950s Rock and Roll music had begun a revolution by providing young people with an electrified sound unique to their generation. The musicians of the 1960s took that sound and added lyrics that echoed the counterculture of the time.

Within the U.S., new rock music styles were flourishing—like the psychedelic sound from San Francisco—but the greatest musical influence of the time came from across the Atlantic with the "British Invasion." Groups such as The Rolling Stones and the overwhelmingly popular Beatles expressed a mystical view of life that embraced drugs and Eastern religions as well as themes of anger, frustration, and rebelliousness that energized American youth.

Folk singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan used lilting, melodic tunes to encourage a natural, harmonious lifestyle. Their songs often railed against the establishment and encouraged listeners to break free of tradition.

Mind-altering drugs—primarily marijuana, but also hallucinogens such as LSD—gained unprecedented popularity during the 1960s. Radical Harvard professor Timothy Leary encouraged students to "Tune in, turn on, drop out," and many young people were happy to follow his hedonistic advice. Drugs and music were often intertwined at events like Woodstock, a three-day music festival in 1969 where hippies could listen to many of the preeminent musicians of the day and share drugs, alcohol, and sex.

In an effort to live more simple lives and escape what they felt were the moral impositions of society, some young people relocated from college dormitories and parents' homes to communes in rural locations. Most of these communes were not well conceived or cared for, and often any profits that were realized from the land were squandered. Eventually the poorly tended land could not sustain its inhabitants, and most communes disbanded. By the 1970s, most of the hippies had rejoined the society that they had "dropped out" of just a few years earlier.

Urban Unrest

While the 1960s saw young people "tune out" by way of the hippie counterculture, other segments of society were also calling for change. Both ethnic minorities and women were hard at work challenging what they saw as unjust laws and unfair treatment by society.

Women, who had been the nation's primary labor source during World War II when most men were serving in the military, became less complacent with the duties of child rearing and homemaking. Taking their cue from the African American community's struggle for equality, women realized that the best way to be heard was to present a united front.

In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by a small group of female activists led by Betty Friedan. The organization believed that workplace discrimination based upon sex should be abolished. NOW grew rapidly and eventually would go on to tackle other vital women's issues, including abortion rights as well as federal and state support for childcare. NOW's efforts led to the Educational Amendment Act of 1972, which called for affirmative action programs to ensure that women had equal rights to education. NOW also lobbied for a constitutional amendment to guarantee women equal rights; this "Equal Rights Amendment" or ERA was approved by Congress in 1972, but never ratified.

Hispanic Americans also became active in the fight for civil rights. Although many Hispanics had been living in the United States for decades, they—and their descendants—were still seen as outsiders by many Americans. As a result, Hispanics often encountered discrimination in education, jobs, and housing, which led to high poverty rates among that demographic.

Cesar Chavez, the son of Mexican immigrants, stepped up to lead the Hispanic struggle for civil liberties. Chavez formed an organization called the Farm Workers Association in the early 1960s, which would later become the United Farm Workers (UFW). The organization was largely comprised of poor Hispanic migrant workers who individually had no clout but as part of the UFW were able to gain respect and be heard.

The UFW, with Chavez at the helm, led grape and lettuce growers through strikes and boycotts that demonstrated the power of a united front. Under the leadership of Chavez, the United Farm Workers made historic achievements for farm workers. They signed the first genuine collective bargaining agreement between farm workers and growers in the history of the United States, the first union contracts that protected the rights and health of workers and provided job security, and established the first comprehensive union health benefits for farm workers and their families. Politicians, especially in the west, took note of the growing influence and power of the Hispanic community.

American Indians organized to regain some of the influence and liberty they once enjoyed. They called themselves "Native Americans" to emphasize the stewardship they once held over the entire continent as well as their equality as Americans. Many Native Americans sought more than equality—they sought restitution. Armed with copies of old treaties, Native Americans took to the courts to demand compensation for the land that had been assumed by the government centuries earlier. Several states, including Alaska, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts awarded settlements large enough to increase the standard of living on Indian reservations.

Of course, the prominent equal-rights struggle during the 1960s was that of the African Americans. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) promoted sit-ins, marches, and other peaceful demonstrations to bring attention to their cause. African Americans had long been stymied by segregation, but in the 1960s their plight began to receive national attention.

With the aid of television, families across the country could witness the struggle for equal rights firsthand. Both vigilantes and state and local law enforcement often physically harmed peaceful protesters with rocks, fire hoses, gas attacks, and police dogs. In the south, even after segregation had legally ended, black travelers took their lives into their own hands by boarding public trains or buses. On numerous occasions, buses carrying blacks coming into the community as peaceful demonstrators were pelted with pipes and rocks and sometimes even set on fire.

Eventually, African American frustration boiled over in a series of riots in the mid-1960s. One of the largest, the Watts Riot, occurred in a Los Angeles suburb in the summer of 1965. By the time peace was restored to the city, over $35 million dollars in damage had been done, and 34 people were killed. Less violent, but still destructive, riots occurred in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and Jacksonville throughout 1966 and 1967.

In response, Congress and President Johnson established a commission to investigate the causes of these riots. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner was appointed to lead the commission. The Kerner Commission concluded that poverty was the root of the reason for the riots, and the U.S. was rapidly deteriorating into two separate and unequal societies. The Commission recommended stronger social welfare programs to assist African Americans and other poverty-stricken groups to bridge the economic gap. Both President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., wholeheartedly supported the Kerner report, but the implementation of its remedies would be put on hold when Johnson left the White House in 1968.

Another event in that same traumatic year further set back the Civil Rights movement. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a white man who resented the increasing black influence in society. King's murder set off a new round of riots across the country, while both blacks and whites mourned the tragic death of a charismatic leader. As Nixon prepared to take office, he faced a nation in the midst of political and social turmoil.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "LBJ - Lyndon Baines Johnson" Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <>.

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