Study Guide

The Great Society Speech

By Lyndon B. Johnson

The Great Society Speech Introduction

Four years later, and he would've been run off campus.

But this was May of 1964, and the graduating class of the University of Michigan listened attentively as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, riding a wave of popularity helped along by sympathy for the recently assassinated JFK, gave the invited commencement address. LBJ took this opportunity to enlist the students' help in realizing his goal of creating the "Great Society."

Four years earlier, Senator John F. Kennedy spoke at Michigan and introduced his dream of the Peace Corps. When LBJ gave his Great Society speech, he was looking to put his own stamp on the social reform that Kennedy had planned. JFK's assassination in 1963 had elevated Johnson to the Oval Office, but the slain president cast a long shadow.

"I never thought I'd have the power," Johnson said of his accidental presidency. "I wanted power to use it. And I'm going to use it" (source).

What was the "Great Society" that LBJ envisioned? Well, it was a society where everyone— regardless of race or religion or economic status—could reach their true creative, intellectual, and spiritual potential. Where a beautiful and healthy environment would nourish the soul, and appreciation of the arts would nurture America's creative impulses.

In Johnson's vision, cities would be dynamic and affordable. Natural resources would be protected. And schools would be well funded to prepare all students for the challenges of the future. Civil rights would no longer be a dream deferred. Some 34 million Americans would find their way out of poverty. There would be opportunities for everybody.

In other words, Sweden.

Who could argue with that?

Lots of people, it turned out. Problem was, these noble goals would be addressed by massive federal programs that dwarfed even FDR's New Deal. They'd require piles of legislation and massive funding bills. They necessitated the government's involvement in so many aspects of life that conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater (LBJ's opponent in the 1964 Presidential election) thought it was absolute Big Brother tyranny.

But those fights were still ahead of him when Johnson laid out his hopeful and ambitious agenda to the Michigan grads. He declared war on poverty and racism and created programs that we can't imagine society not having today: Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, the Educational Opportunities Commission, Public Broadcasting, Air and Water Quality Acts, the National Endowments for the Arts.

And that's just a sample.

Johnson told the students that it was up to them to take up the cause of eliminating poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity.

Were they convinced?

Hard to say. Johnson defeated Goldwater a few months later in the 1964 elections with an electoral landslide of 486-52. College grads broke for Johnson by only four percentage points; it was working class folks that gave him the huge margin of victory. Still, LBJ knew he needed these kids on his side to wage his wars on poverty and racial injustice.

It's a good thing he gave this speech in 1964. Because of his escalation of the Vietnam War, Johnson's popularity tanked, especially among draft-age adults who were old enough to be forced to fight but not old enough to vote on Johnson's policies. By 1968, LBJ was the target of campus strikes and administration building takeovers at colleges across the country, including at the University of Michigan.

The Great Society wasn't looking so great anymore. But the speech? That became a classic.

  

What is The Great Society Speech About and Why Should I Care?

  • Cleaner air and water.
  • Safer cars.
  • Medical care for Grandma and Grandpa.
  • College loan programs.
  • Civil rights for all Americans.
  • Sesame Street.

The Great Society brought us all those things. It also fundamentally changed the relationship between the federal government and the people.

Think that doesn't matter to you? Think again.

Practically every big political fight today comes down to two sides: government should be an active participant in public life, or government should stay out of the way and let individuals and the private sector come up with their own solutions.

Sounds simple enough, but there's a huge gray area. A lot of people depend on government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). Or they think Head Start is a valuable tool for preschool kids. Or they watch PBS. Or they're applying for federal loans to go to college.

Most of your life, you've been living in the Great Society. Government has been involved in and has funded science and the arts, paid for safety net programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and promoted environmental protection.

Conservative legislators think that some of these programs should be run by states, not by the federal government, or not by the government at all; that churches, corporations, and private charities are better equipped to provide the social safety nets their neighbors need; or that all those programs just create a "nanny state" that does nothing but make people dependent on the government.

Some things are just so massively expensive that the federal government probably has to get involved: disaster relief, for example. States and private corporations just wouldn't have the resources available to fix the problems caused by disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Another example: without federal programs like Social Security Disability, millions of Americans who are unable to work would have no means of income; private giving just wouldn't be enough to meet the need.

But how about the rest?

Does government support of the arts and humanities make us a better nation, as LBJ thought, or is it an unnecessary use of funds that could be used to build better roads and bridges? Do all those social welfare programs for the poor make us a more humane nation, or are they encouraging dependency and killing individual initiative? Does protecting the environment hurt the economy by over-regulating businesses or does the government need to limit emissions of greenhouse gases regardless of the cost to factories or the auto industry? Should even beloved programs like Medicare be turned over to private insurers? Is education more effectively provided by private charter schools and churches?

It's complicated.

Ever since the 1964 presidential election, conservatives and liberals have been duking it out over Great Society programs. But here's the thing: you'll be the ones to decide what makes a society great.

No pressure.

The Great Society Speech Resources

Websites

LBJ Presidential Library
All you've ever wanted to know and more in 45 million document pages, 650,000 photos, and 5,000 hours of recordings.

American Experience
LBJ gets the PBS treatment as part of its series The Presidents.

Volunteers for America
50 years of VISTA.

Sixty from the '60s
An interactive exhibit featuring 60 individuals who shaped the 1960s.

Movie and TV Productions

LBJ: The Early Years (1987)
Randy Quaid won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the president's rise in this made-for-TV movie.

Selma (2014)
The critically acclaimed depiction of a pivotal moment in civil rights history has its share of detractors who say LBJ isn't portrayed fairly.

All the Way (2016)
Bryan Cranston reprises his Tony Award–winning Broadway role as LBJ in this HBO drama.

LBJ (2016)
Woody Harrelson steps into Johnson's presidential shoes in this upcoming political biopic.

Articles and Interviews

Seeing Is Believing
Joseph A. Califano, special assistant to LBJ from 1965 through the end of his presidential term, talks about the administration's accomplishments.

The Great Society at 50
The Washington Post recaps the Great Society on the 50th anniversary of LBJ's speech.

Did We Win the War on Poverty?
A cool learning guide from The New York Times that cuts back and forth from LBJ's Great Society speech and a recent article about poverty in Appalachia. The verdict? The war's still on.

Video

An Outbreak of Hope
A concise look at the causes and effects of the Great Society.

Small Miracles
The Office of Economic Opportunity produced this short on the war on poverty.

Audio

The Speech
Audio of the May 22nd, 1964, Great Society speech at the University of Michigan.

Straight from the Boss' Mouth
Six U.S. presidents secretly recorded phone calls and Oval Office conversations. LBJ was one of them. A selection of those tapes can be heard here.

Images

One Day in Dallas
Lyndon Johnson becomes the 36th president of the United States.

Irresistible Force Meets Unmovable Object
The president meets with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., December 1963.

The Poverty Tour
In the spring of 1964 LBJ and the first lady toured Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the country, to meet with local residents.

Lady Bird Stumps for Lyndon
The Lady Bird Special campaign train heads out in October 1964.

And the Winner Is…
LBJ watches election returns, November 1964, on the Big 3—ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Voting Rights Act
LBJ talks to MLK after signing the Voting Rights Act, August 1965.

The Watts Riots
Days after the Voting Rights Act was signed, riots erupt in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.

Motown Mayhem
Detroit explodes, 1967.

The Tide Turns
Demonstrators march to protest the war in Vietnam, 1967. Guess who they blamed for it.

Great Society in Action
Lady Bird visits a Head Start class, 1968.

Natural Wonder
Lady Bird among the Texas wildflowers, 1968.

Home on the Range
The president at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, 1968.