home | history

Johnson's Great Society, the Economy and Vietnam

The unofficial name for legislation introduced by President Johnson during his State of the Union address in January 1964, was the "War On Poverty". This legislation was a response to a national poverty rate of around 19 percent. The speech led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. Johnson's War on Poverty policy was to continue through his administration (to January 1969) with federal programs such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), TRiO, and Job Corps.

in 1965, the first year of Johnson's full term as president, the GDP increased 8 percent, and in 1966 it was 9 percent. Unemployment remained well below 5 percent. Real Economic growth (considering inflation) during the Johnson years (1963 to 1969) was to average 5.3 percent. And under Johnson, debt as a percentage of GDP continued to decline. In 1968 the average income an US family would be twice what it had been in 1958.

But there are economists who tell us that income growth during the Johnson years was of little help to the elderly and other Americans living on fixed incomes. The Republicans in their 1968 Party Platform would posture that they could do better, pointing to inflation as a fault under Johnson. The Republican Party Platform in 1968 would state:

Inflation has eroded confidence in the dollar at home and abroad. It has severely cut into the incomes of all families, the jobless, the farmers, the retired and those living on fixed incomes and pensions.

It would be said that high inflation discouraged people from saving money. And responsibility for the inflation would be attributed to Johnson committing US forces to Vietnam. The Defense Department described actions in Southeast Asia as costing $103 million in 1965, $5.8 billion in 1966, $20.1 billion in 1967, and $26.5 billion in 1968.

The 1968 Republican Party Platform would complain that "Tens of thousands of young men have died or been wounded in Vietnam." The platform reminded potential voters that a Republican president, Eisenhower, had ended the war in Korea followed by "eight years of peace [and] enhanced respect in the world. And the platform complained that "Many young people are losing faith in our society" — not an endorsement of the great dropout movement (the hippies) among youths during Johnson's Great Society, or of that different phenomenon the Free Speech Movement.

Disaffected Youths

In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was the so-called Beat generation counterculture. There was the novelist Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who traveled across the US, publicizing Kesey's book, getting great publicity in the media, and turning kids onto marijuana and flamboyantly sloppy clothing. It was a sensation, with San Francisco becoming a major focus for those wanting to "drop out." The hippie movement would to some extent be a creation of affluence: young people consuming food discarded by supermarkets and receiving money from parents. (During less affluent times, like the Great Depression, the homeless were more desperate than they were celebrants.)

Happenings at the University of California, Berkeley, was something else — although around the university campus, like many big universities, there were a few non-student counter-culture intellectuals of various sorts such as anarchists, Trotskyists or what have you.

At Berkeley, students supporting civil rights actions had been under pressure from the university administration. Back in September 1964, Dean Katherine Towle announced that existing University regulations prohibited advocacy of political causes or candidates, outside political speakers, recruitment of members, and fundraising by student organizations — to be "strictly enforced" at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues. Speaking for these students was Jackie Goldberg (future member of the California State Assembly) who complained:

the University has not gone far enough in allowing us to promote the kind of society we're interested in. We're allowed to say why we think something is good or bad, but we're not allowed to distribute information as to what to do about it. Inaction is the rule, rather than the exception, in our society and on this campus. And, education is and should be more than academics. We don't want to be armchair intellectuals. For a hundred years, people have talked and talked and done nothing... We want to help build a better society.

On October 1, Jack Weinberg was arrested on campus while sitting at a Congress of Racial Equality table. Students surrounded the police car, employing the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement and prevent the police car from moving. Throughout the night and into the next day, students gave speeches from atop the car calling for free speech on campus. Weinberg was booked an then freed. On December 2, student activists poured into the main administration building, Sproul Hall, for a sit-in, while Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome." On December 4th at 3:30 in the morning the state police came (on orders from Governor Pat Brown, a Democrat). Students were dragged down the stairs, bumpity bump, and arrested, clearing the building.

The sit-in event was big news in California, as California's disappointed Goldwater supporter, Ronald Reagan, looked on from his home near Malibu with concern. Reagan would be running for governor in 1966. He would blend the Free Speech and the Hippies and would describe the events in Berkeley as one reason to vote for him — "to clean up the mess at Berkeley." Conservatives thought liberals were too inclined toward tolerance and sweet kindness. The conservative Reagan during his campaign for governor had no such feelings toward the student activists at Berkeley. He lashed out out at appeasement of campus malcontents by the California university system president, Clark Kerr, and appeasement by his opponent, Governor Pat Brown. Reagan called for keeping the university "isolated from political influence" and denounced students who want to rebel rather than just study. He was on his way proving he was more than just an actor, and on his way to becoming Governor of California.

Social Unrest, 1965-67

Under Johnson in 1965, there came more landmark legislation: the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination regarding the ability to vote. There was Education Act which funded schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families — a part of Johnson's War on Poverty. And there was the Freedom of Information Act against excessive government secrecy.

In February in New York City, Malcolm X was assassinated — not something that could be pinned on the Johnson administration.

Neither could the troubles associated with Selma, Alabama. There, in the month of March, attempts were made to march fifty miles from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, marches that were stopped by local police. On March 7, 1965, marchers were beaten and gassed when attempting to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was to be described as "Bloody Sunday." It was broadcast on television and would be described as leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in the US Senate by a 77-19 vote on May 26 and in the House of Representatives by a vote of 333-85 on July 9. The Republican Senate leader, Dirksen of Illinois helped to draft the legislation after his reluctance was overcome by his awareness of the police violence.

Johnson got on the phone with Alabama's governor, George Wallace, and told him "The Negro is going to win his right to participate in his own government," and he told Wallace to "consider history's verdict" and added: "You ought to be thinking of where you will stand in 1995, not 1965."

On March 25th, meanwhile, Klansmen shot to death Viola Liuzzo, of Michigan, as she was driving marchers from Montgomery back to Selma.

In August in Hayneville, Alabama, a construction worker and deputy Sheriff, Tom Coleman, wielding a shotgun, killed the Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels as Daniels was shielding a 17-year-old. Daniels and a group of young blacks were trying to buy cold soft drinks at a store that served non-whites.

In August, 1965, it was the uprising in the community of Watts in Los Angeles that became a center of attention — seven days of rebellion quelled with the help of the California Army National Guard.

In 1966, civil rights activist James Meredith was shot while on his "March Against Fear" from Memphis Tennessee. The march continued, joined by an angry young activist Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others.

On Jul 18-23, 1966, violence in Cleveland's predominately black neighborhoods included arson destroying several blocks of homes and businesses. Four people were killed and 30 critically injured before the Ohio National Guard "restored order."

In 1967 there was what was called the long hot summer. There were uprisings in the Roxbury section of Boston. An uprising in Buffalo that lasted five days, uprisings in Newark, in Detroit, in Cairo (Illinois), and in Memphis. President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to assess the causes of the violence. The report would be released in early 1968 and would conclude that the "rioting" of 1967 was the result of black frustration over a lack of economic opportunity. The Republican Party Platform would declare that "Our Inner cities have become centers of despair... Millions of Americans are caught in the cycle of poverty—poor education, unemployment or serious under-employment, and the inability to afford decent housing."

Meanwhile, the conservative John Birch Society (not to be confused with mainstream Republicans) had published an article that asked: "What's Wrong with the Civil Rights Movement?" It claimed that nothing was wrong except that "the American Negro" was better off than negroes elsewhere thanks to whites, and it claimed that the Civil Rights Movement "has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists, patiently building up to this present stage for more than forty years."

Johnson's ideas about Vietnam

In March 1965 3,500 US Marines arrived in South Vietnam – the first ground force units from a foreign power since the war between the Vietnamese and the French. In April at John Hopkins University he described their purpose: to help South Vietnam defend its independence. Vietnam was one country that was supposed to be united by elections, and the Marines found themselves fighting villagers in South Vietnam.

Vietnam differed from Korea in that in Korea it was the Communist North that had obstructed elections to unite the country, followed by its attempt to unite the peninsula by military force. For Vietnam it was the US and its regime in Saigon that was opposed to election, and the Communist regime in the North felt it had a right to support a unified Vietnam and those people in the South who were being assaulted by a Vietnamese minority in league with those they saw as an invading foreign power — the United States. The North had a lot of supporters in the South, a problem for the US military. Looking at Vietnam as a whole, one might have described it as engaged in a civil war.

In June in Saigon, Nguyen Cao Ky became Prime Minister, and with Nguyen Van Thieu became chief of state. It was the 10th government in Saigon in 20 months. Much of the world saw the United States as the stable power in Saigon while the Johnson administration was sticking to its claim that the Saigon regime was truly independent and Vietnamese.

US Army and Marines began ground operations to ferret out and defeat the communist forces. On August 5, a CBS newsman in Vietnam, Morley Safer, sent a news clip of Marines in the village of Cam Ne setting fire to the homes of those they considered their enemy. This didn't fit Johnson's neat and convenient rationale about the war. Johnson decided that Safer must be a Communist. He ordered a security check, and, when learning that Safer was Canadian, Johnson said, "Well, I knew he wasn't an American."

Johnson had been describing the conflict in Vietnam terms as simply matter of an invasion by the North against the South. At John hopkins University on April 7, he said:

...to abandon this small and brave nation to its enemy, and to the terror that must follow, would be an unforgivable wrong. We are also there to strengthen world order.

We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied.

To discourage the North from intervening in the South he initiated in March a bombing operation against the North called "Rolling Thunder." It was to continue to October 1968. He was hoping that sustained bombing would encourage North Vietnamese leaders to accept the non-Communist government in South Vietnam. The administration also wanted to reduce North Vietnam’s ability to produce and transport supplies to aid the Viet Cong insurgency.


Operation Rolling Thunder failed to intimidate the regime in North Vietnam into accepting the Saigon regime in the South. And the regime in Saigon was failing to win the support of people in the South. The war in Vietnam and US intervention was moving on. Johnson's approval rating in the United States dropped from around 70 percent in 1965 to the low 40s by early 1968. His disapproval ratings were up from 20 percent in 1965 to around 45 percent and climbing in early 1968. Johnson’s popularity within his own party also declined, and it appeared that the Democrats might select a rival nominee for the coming presidential election. Johnson in March 1968 told the public that he would not seek or accept "the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

The chaos of 1968 included the assassinations of Reverend Kings and, in early June, Robert Kennedy after he had just was the primary in California. Richard Nixon won the presidency for the Republican Party pledging to restore law and order, to restore traditional American values and to end the war in Vietnam. He appealed to opinion in the South that has been described as resentful of civil rights gains and President Johnson’s federal antipoverty programs.

The economy in 1968 grew 4.9 percent. But after 1965, the financial demands of the war had burdened the economy. The US Defense Department estimated expenditures regarding Southeast Asia was $103 million in 1965, $5.8 billion in 1966, $20.1 billion in 1967, $26.5 billion in 1968, and $28.8 billion in 1969. Johnson did not request Congress to pass a tax to finance the war. This guns and butter approach burdened the federal debt, and according to Historycentral.com "it pushed the economy beyond the careful constraints the Council of Economic Advisors had suggested to promote non-inflationary growth. By 1966, the government wage and price controls were breaking down. In 1967, Johnson recommended that Congress pass a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, which Congress passed in 1968.

Nixon is said to have inherited a weak economy from President Johnson. According to thebalance.com, Johnson's war "sent inflation to a disturbing 4.7 percent." Americans were importing and creating a huge balance of payments deficit. This threatened the gold standard. That's where the Federal Reserve redeemed $35 for an ounce of gold. "Foreign countries held $45.7 billion in dollars, while the U.S. only held $14.5 billion in gold. It wasn't enough to redeem all of them. Foreign holders turned in their dollars for gold, depleting central banks' gold reserves even more. Nixon was to have a problem with a run on gold, the value of the dollar, and inflation that was to rise to 6.2 percent in 1969.

CONTINUE READING: The Nixon Presidency and Vietnam

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.