In May 1964, Lyndon Johnson described his vision of a great society in a commencement address delivered to the University of Michigan.
The audience could not have been more receptive to his message. Speaking to a university where President John F. Kennedy had announced the Peace Corps and which had supplied some of the leaders of the activist group, Students for a Democratic Society, Johnson called out to the audience a series of questions, each one eliciting vocal waves of affirmative answers from the graduating class.
The speech, in some respects, was a cornerstone of Johnson’s 1964 election campaign. He used the speech to articulate his own program, distinct not only from Kennedy but also from his political mentor, Franklin Roosevelt, in whose shadow he stood.
LBJ wanted to put a stamp on a program of his own. He believed that the power he had in his hands was to be maximized for progressive ends. More importantly, though, liberalism was undergoing a series of shifts in direction. Johnson’s speech helped channel and accelerate the new mood.
To many liberals, prosperity had come to seem an almost permanent characteristic of American life. A broad, expanding middle-class was taken for granted by the date of Johnson’s speech.
If sixties liberals saw the New Deal as primarily an architecture to provide an economic floor for citizens when industrial capitalism faltered, they also concluded that a new program was needed to address the anxiety and discomfort that was festering in America. Liberals had concluded that government’s mission had less to do with ensuring economic fairness than with helping people to find meaning in their lives and to achieve a level of spiritual fulfillment.
Above all, Johnson wanted to deliver a speech that called Americans to a greater purpose. Without this context it’s difficult to grasp why Johnson announced a vision of such sweep.
Why was it called ‘the great society?’
LBJ began the speech with a call, simple and bold, to bring an end to the twin scourges of racism and poverty in his time. But that was just the start, he announced.
In his brilliant memoirs, Richard Goodwin – who was the primary author of Johnson’s speech – recalled how almost as an afterthought he had inserted the phrase “Great Society” into a minor speech. “In our time,” he wrote, “we have the opportunity to move not just toward the rich society or the powerful society, but toward the great society.” Johnson admired the phrase and continued to use it in his remarks. Reporters soon were describing Johnson’s entire program as “the Great Society.”
Goodwin explained that “the very engine of prosperity—growth, development, technology, the golden liberators – were themselves corroding the spiritual and material conditions of American life,” and Johnson’s speech, which put a stamp on the phrase and outlined the philosophy behind it, took aim at the developments.
Johnson declared that the government, working with a citizenry motivated to improve community life, had to make cities more livable, protect the natural environment, and provide education that gave all citizens regardless of race or class the chance to rise in society and find meaning in life.
The speech was a spiritual invocation as much as a political statement to fulfill Jefferson’s promise in the Declaration of Independence to give all the right to “pursuit of happiness.”
“The Great Society,” Johnson declared, “…demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” but it also had to be “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent…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.”
The Great Society, he added, meant making the nation’s cities places where “future generations can come together, not only to live, but to live the good life.” It was a place where “America the beautiful” and “our natural splendor” were protected from the pollution that threatened to destroy “the water we drink, the food we eat, the very air we breath.”
While Johnson’s 1964 speech dwelled on the problems of the cities, the environment, and education, the constellation of programs that came to be known as the Great Society addressed a much wider agenda. They included not only Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights legislation but also the creation of a department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, to name just a few.
“The liberal assumption that rising wealth more widely distributed would liberate Americans for the ‘pursuit of happiness’ had proven…inadequate,” Goodwin wrote of the genesis of the speech. The address, he argued, represented “the only possible direction for liberating, progressive change”.
Unlike today, people had faith in good government
The speech was also a response to the movements for social change led by the civil rights revolution in the South that were sweeping the country.
The liberals in the White House, Goodwin observed, were very much citizens of their time. African-American, women, consumer and nascent student movements suggested to the liberals in power that citizens and their government could relieve people from the suffocating bonds of past prejudices and free them to fulfill their potential.
Johnson’s speech reflected his faith in the power not just of government but also of ordinary citizens to enact changes that benefitted fellow Americans.
Over the past decades, Democratic politicians have worked hard to put a lot of distance between themselves and Johnson’s call for a Great Society.
Bill Clinton declared the end to the era of big government in 1996, and Barack Obama has resisted in his oratory and policies the kinds of soaring promises of a revolution in society initiated by government.
Johnson’s speech contains sentiments that no major Democrat would dare to voice in 2015 and still hope to be taken seriously. And for good reasons.
The hopes and promises articulated by Johnson were grandiose, and inevitably raised expectations (bringing an end to poverty and racism for example) that no president could realistically hope to achieve.
Johnson’s Great Society by now has also become so associated with big-government connotations that Democrats running for office at a time when government is viewed with extreme displeasure, would be committing political suicide if they embraced Johnson’s soaring rhetoric.
Nonetheless, Johnson’s speech remains a great speech and not only because it defined a program – much of which was enacted into law – that has proven beneficial to millions of Americans for the past 50 years and counting. The Great Society speech marks a key moment in American history because it called on both government and citizens to create a just, more equal and humane society – cutting the poverty rate, protecting the environment, bolstering public education, curbing racism -— in ways that still guide our political debates and capture much that is decent and sensible in the liberal political tradition.
Even as Democratic politicians run from Johnson’s legacy, they are forced, wittingly or not, to operate in the shadow of the words he uttered at Michigan more than 50 years ago.
Following is the full text of Johnson’s speech:
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 (and I quote), “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 and 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 is 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 and 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 these precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.
And 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. And 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. And 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 that 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 and your labor and 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.