The Great Society
The Great Society/p>
Johnson wasted no time in making his vision of a Great Society a reality. People remembered years later that on the night of his inauguration, he reminded them to get to bed early because there was hard work ahead the next morning. Johnson used his tremendous skills as a negotiator to persuade Congress to pass important social programs. All but about 20 of some 200 bills he presented to Congress between 1964 and 1968 became law.
This table shows the key programs of the Great Society.
Programs such as public TV and the National Endowment for the Arts improved the lives of all Americans. However, Johnson especially wanted to help the rural poor. He never forgot his young days in the classrooms of Texas, where he had taught the children of migrant workers and other poor people. These were the people he wanted to help the most because he felt they needed it most. Johnson believed that the purpose of government was to serve the people.
The Great Society also addressed environmental legislation. Years before, Roosevelt and Taft had passed important legislation in this area, but the post-World War II era threatened the environment with hazards that had not existed during the Progressive Era. Millions of cars on the high- ways contributed to an enormous air pollution problem. Air conditioners gave off dangerous fumes. In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book describing the devastation that chemical pesticides had wrought on the countryside. The spring, once a season of chirping birds, had become silent; hundreds of thousands of birds had died from exposure to DDT and other pesticides, or from eating the insects the DDT had poisoned. These pesticides harmed humans as well by contaminating the water and food supplies. Carson’s book and the public response to it were responsible for a permanent ban on DDT, the most harmful of the pesticides. Johnson also urged Congress to pass laws that would control and improve air and water quality, along with other environmental bills.
The Supreme Court also contributed to the Great Society during the Kennedy–Johnson era. Led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court set several important precedents during the 1960s. Gideon v. Wainwright stated that courts must provide attorneys for accused criminals who could not afford their own. Escobedo v. Illinois stated that an accused person had the right to have an attorney present during questioning by the police. Miranda v. Arizona stated that anyone being arrested must be informed of his or her rights to remain silent and to consult an attorney, in words familiar to millions from their repetition in television crime dramas.
The Warren Court decisions were important because they were designed to protect those who lacked education, wealth, power, and influence. Wealthy and middle-class Americans were usually well educated; they already knew their legal rights and could afford their own lawyers. The rest of society—by far the majority of those who got into trouble with police or the law—usually ended up as confused victims of a system whose workings they did not understand. The primary effect of the Warren Court decisions was to make the American justice system much more fair.
The Great Society lifted millions of Americans above the poverty level. It was an era of hope for those who had long ago lost hope. Later in Johnson’s term, the Vietnam War diverted funding from domestic social programs to the military. By the time Johnson left office, the Great Society had declined. However, some of its most important programs are still in place, providing essential services to those who need them most.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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