Team Work

What’s Great About the Great Society

A new history say a lot of what we think we know about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is wrong. For starters it was a group effort with a huge assist from the Greatest Generation.

John Rous/AP

Responding to a 2014 New York Times article that reported on the renewed debate over Lyndon Johnson’s presidential legacy, World War II veteran and historical essayist Edward W. Wood Jr. wrote, “For my generation … the social legislation passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s leadership helped fulfill some of the ideals we had fought for in that war, expressed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. I cried from a long-delayed joy when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.” Moreover, Wood said, “Johnson’s other legislation still resonates 50 years later. His initiatives helped create the society we fought for from 1941 to 1945. Certainly, the terrible war in Vietnam tarnished his reputation, but we must never forget his contribution to a better America.”

In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, an author of several presidential histories, and a weekly columnist for, essentially joins the debate on Johnson’s legacy. And though he does take LBJ down a peg, his narrative of the making of the Great Society—which focuses especially, but not only, on the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and War on Poverty programs, most notably Medicare—should please Mr. Wood.

When I say that Zelizer takes Johnson down a peg, I do not mean that he goes after LBJ. Not at all. Rather, Zelizer seeks to deepen and broaden our historical memory of the ’60s by showing how others enabled Johnson to pursue his agenda (though considering books such as Robert Weisbrot and G. Calvin Mackenzie’s The Liberal Hour and Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century—not to mention many another civil rights history—he is hardly alone in doing so).

Zelizer contends that “historians have often failed to understand how the Great Society … was enacted, because they have accepted two myths about the nature of the political challenges the Great Society had to face.”

The first myth, he explains, “presents the 1960s as the apex of modern American liberalism, the culmination of those forces that arose in the Progressive era at the turn of the twentieth century when the federal government came to be seen as a positive good…” That is, we have failed to appreciate not only how strong the forces of conservatism were in Congress in the late ’30s right through the ’50s, but also what it took to actually turn the ’60s into the “liberal hour.”

The second myth, Zelizer says, “has to do with presidential power.” He definitely appreciates both that Johnson was “Master of the Senate” in the ’50s and that both as Senate majority leader and later as president he was very effective in applying “The Treatment,” his famous/infamous method of persuasion that entailed getting physically up close and bending you to his will. And yet, Zelizer says, scholars and pundits have written of the enactment of the laws, policies, and programs of the Great Society as if they were all due to “Lyndon Johnson’s brilliant legislative prowess.”

As Zelizer sees it, “the Great Society had less to do with the overwhelming popularity of liberalism or the presidential power of Johnson than with the specific changes [in American public life and government] between the summer of 1964 and the November elections that created unusually good conditions for passing domestic bills.”

In short, Zelizer asks us to recognize how black (and white) struggles from below for racial justice and equality created a situation that propelled liberals into Congress in 1964 and thereby enabled Johnson to actually succeed in securing as much as he did between 1964 and 1966: “During this critical period, the power of the conservative coalition [of Republican and southern Democratic congressional representatives] was diminished, first by the actions of the civil rights movement … and subsequently by the 1964 elections.”

From the diverse campaigns for civil rights to those for enacting and implementing the War on Poverty, Zelizer presents a solid narrative of the politics high and low that empowered the grand liberal moment of the ’60s. Indeed, he does a truly splendid job of weaving together presidential, congressional, and movement politics—and thankfully, he never fails to tell us not only who did what and when, but also why they held the views they did, and why, in the face of dramatic events and historic opportunities, many of them were willing or unwilling, to do the right thing.

As Zelizer shows, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, liberal legislators Democratic and Republican, and civil rights leaders south and north all made history in the ’60s. To capture media attention and the imagination and sympathy of their fellow citizens, movement activists had to rally African Americans on an unprecedented scale to sit-down, march, and confront deadly violence, and, with their allies from labor, the churches, and liberal civic groups, to organize and undertake congressional lobbying campaigns to turn all that hard-won popular sympathy into popular pressure. Johnson—who, shaped by his family background, his experience as a young man teaching poor Tejanos, and both his attachment to FDR and his work as a New Dealer heading up the National Youth Administration in Texas, turned out to be far more of a liberal than John Kennedy—had to not only publicly articulate the moral and democratic imperative of acting now rather than eventually, but also reach out to those who, from civil rights leaders to Republican senators and representatives, didn’t trust him. And congressional liberals, who are no less the protagonists of Zelizer’s story than LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr., had to not only get elected, but also organize themselves, strategize how to take over or bypass Dixie-dominated committees, and connive to make it all come together.

Furthermore, even as Zelizer relates the hard-win victories in Congress, he does not shy away from the tragic and ironic turns of the day. He attends not only to the urban riots that broke out up north and out west in the mid-’60s, events that eroded popular support for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, but also to Johnson’s decision to fight communism in Southeast Asia—a decision that LBJ made, at least in part, to win GOP support for his Great Society initiatives, a decision which would stymie his liberal ambitions, cost him his presidency, and lead to the deaths of 50,000 young Americans.

To his credit, Zelizer also notes how Johnson failed to fulfill his promise to AFL-CIO leaders Walter Reuther and George Meany, who had put labor’s resources solidly behind the legislative campaigns for civil rights and the Great Society, by not pressing for repeal of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which had licensed southern states to enact anti-labor “right-to-work” laws. Unfortunately, however, Zelizer does not explain that LBJ’s failure would not only weaken labor but also American democratic life for decades to come.

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Still, Zelizer concludes on a more hopeful than tragic note. Following the story of the Great Society initiatives into the late ’60s and early ’70s, he shows how Republican President Richard Nixon, who cared little about liberal domestic programs, actually enlarged upon Johnson’s work not only by signing into law the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but also by proposing new initiatives to combat poverty. And Zelizer goes on to argue in his concluding pages that, despite 40 years of rightwing ascendance, “conservatives in the Age of Reagan never succeeded in reversing the gains of the Great Society.”

In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Zelizer reminds us not only both of how conservatism limited democratic progress right through the years of the supposed “liberal consensus” and of how liberalism once upon a time was a “fighting faith.” He also reminds us that in the ’50s and ’60s there actually were quite a few Republicans who had not abandoned Lincoln’s legacy and that as much as they were determined to defend the interests of business against working people black and white, they were also to varying degrees ready to guarantee African-Americans’ civil and voting rights.

And am I confessing too much when I say that I was startled to be reminded of Nixon’s treachery during his 1968 presidential campaign versus Vice President Hubert Humphrey? As Zelizer writes:

On October 31 [1968], Johnson announced that he was temporarily halting the bombing as part of ongoing peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese, but on November 2, the South Vietnamese announced they would not participate in any further negotiations. Johnson heard from his intelligence sources that Nixon’s foreign policy advisers … had contacted the South Vietnamese and assured them they would get a better deal with Nixon in office … [But Johnson] did not reveal what Nixon had done, in large measure because he thought it would dangerously subvert Nixon if he won.

Zelizer has written a good history—again, a history that should please World War II veteran Edward Wood. Nonetheless, while I am sure Wood would not say it himself, Zelizer actually shortchanges Wood’s generation—and in doing so weakens his own narrative.

Zelizer emphasizes the persistence of the conservative coalition from the ’30s through the ’60s. But he fails to make much of the persistence of popular progressive aspirations through those very same years. He fails to acknowledge how the young men and women who enlisted in the New Deal to beat the Great Depression and in the War Effort to defeat Fascism did so not merely to save the nation and themselves from destruction and tyranny, but also to make a freer, more equal, and more democratic America. Hell, they fought for the Four Freedoms even before FDR pronounced them in 1941—and they not only accomplished a great deal, but also, as a series of 1943 polls registered, looked forward to creating nothing less than a social-democratic America at war’s end. We cannot understand the liberalism and progressivism of the ’60s without recognizing how the labors and struggles of the ’30s and ’40s made those Americans the most progressive generation in American history—and how they acted to realize their youthful commitments in the ’60s. All of which truly made them the Greatest Generation.

Sure, their numbers included scoundrels and racists aplenty. But when they were challenged to live up to the promise they had fought for, the majority of them did so. Who voted for a first-ever Catholic president in 1960 and overwhelmingly rejected the conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964 in favor Johnson and making of the Great Society? Moreover, consider who issued the calls and led the campaigns that made the ’60s so progressive: veterans of the labors and struggles of the Roosevelt years. Men and women who not only had witnessed what democratic government and an organized citizenry could accomplish, but also had joined in making it happen. Recall the lives and actions of labor, civil rights, feminist, and the environment activists such as A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Ella Baker, Whitney Young Jr, James Farmer, Jerry Wurf, Tony Mazzocchi, Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Rachel Carson, and Barry Commoner; of U.S senators such as Philip Hart (Michigan), Joseph Clark (Pennsylvania), Edmund Muskie (Maine), Paul Douglas (Illinois), Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin), Claiborne Pell (Rhode Island), and, Republican Jacob Javits (New York), who translated aspirations into legislation; and of not only JFK and LBJ, but also their cabinet officers Orville Freeman at Agriculture, Stewart Udall at Interior, Arthur Goldberg at Labor, and Nicholas Katzenbach at Justice who pursued the policies and programs. And though Zelizer makes no note of it, don’t forget that the author of the decidedly progressive 1960 Democratic Party platform was Chester Bowles, the former director of FDR’s wartime Office of Price Administration.

Richard Nixon, himself a World War II veteran, wanted to be a domestic conservative. But, from personal experience and the many polls that he commissioned, he knew his generation well. He knew that his fellow citizens—as eager as they were for peace at home and abroad (things that LBJ had failed to give them)—still wanted a liberal, if not a social-democratic, America. Which is why he increased spending on the War on Poverty, signed bills protecting workers and the environment, and floated domestic policy ideas of a progressive sort.

The Fierce Urgency of Now is a well-crafted political history. But Zelizer could have given his narrative more propulsion had he appreciated how a generation of leaders, legislators, and activists carried the promise of the Four Freedoms from the fight against depression and fascism to the fight against racial supremacy and poverty—by recognizing how the arc of liberalism extended from the ’30s to the ’60s. He was definitely right to try to widen the lens on the Johnson years. He just didn’t widen it quite far enough.

Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Follow him on Twitter.