"The Great Society" Primary Source eText

Primary Source

President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson meet members of the Fletcher family of Inez, Kentucky, in April 1964. Johnson declared a President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson meet members of the Fletcher family of Inez, Kentucky, in April 1964. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" as central to building the Great Society. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Lyndon B. Johnson

Date: May 22, 1964

Source: Johnson, Lyndon B. "The Great Society." May 22, 1964. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964, 704–707. Reproduced in CNN Cold War Historical Documents. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/ (accessed April 2, 2003).

About the Author: Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) was born near Stonewall, Texas. After a brief stint at teaching, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1935 and two years later to the U.S. Senate. In 1954, he was named majority leader, the most powerful member of the Senate. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy (served 1961–1963), Johnson was sworn in as the thirty-sixth president (served 1963–1969). He won reelection in 1964, but chose not to run in 1968.


In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) estimated that 33 percent of the nation was "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." To help alleviate suffering, Congress enacted a welfare program that made payments to widows with children. By 1956, the number of Americans living below the poverty line, a government standard of minimum subsistence based on income and family size, dropped to 23 percent.

Despite this decline, from 1950 to 1960 the number of children on welfare had increased from 1.6 million to 2.4 million. Moreover, statisticians made a direct correlation between low income and poor health. Government statistics revealed that 4 percent of middle class families were chronically ill. In contrast, 16 percent of poor families were unhealthy. In addition, the poor were disproportionately afflicted with mental illness, drug addiction, and crime.

In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote the influential book The Other America. Harrington argued that as middle class Americans moved out of urban America to the suburbs, poverty became "less visible." Furthermore, the poor had become alienated from mainstream society, no longer believing in the American dream and were on the verge of giving up. If the United States hoped to rescue the underclass, Harrington contended, the middle class had to become actively involved.

In order the assist the poor, President John F. Kennedy (served 1961–1963), as part of his New Frontier platform, proposed an array of new social programs, including federal money for education, medical care for the aged, urban mass transit, and a federal Department of Urban Affairs. For the most part, Kennedy's domestic agenda was stymied by congressional southern Democrats. After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued his predecessor's reform agenda.

The Great Society consisted of numerous programs passed between 1964 and 1967 that were designed to expand the social welfare system and eliminate poverty. A committed New Dealer, Johnson sought to create a record of domestic achievement comparable to Roosevelt's. Unlike the New Deal, however, the Great Society was launched amid a period of economic prosperity.


The most ambitious of Johnson's legislative agenda was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which declared a "war on poverty." This act combined the progressive welfare state with the conservative notion of self reliance by giving the poor the opportunity to improve themselves. The act created the Job Corps, which provided the poor with vocational training.

In 1965, the government created Medicare, which provided federal funding for older Americans' medical costs. In 1966, the government established Medicaid, which extended medical funding to welfare recipients.

Johnson also sponsored the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which sought to improve education by providing federal funding to cash-strapped public school districts. The rationale behind the program was that children in city slums and impoverished rural areas were educationally deprived and therefore needed supplemental funding. In the related Head Start program, additional funding was directed toward preschool children. The program contributed to improving children's health by ensuring medical examinations and good meals.

In 1964, Congress appropriated $1 billion to the Great Society and another $2 billion the following two years. Afterward, funding was limited because fiscal resources were directed toward the Vietnam War (1964–1975).

The overall success of the Great Society was mixed. Whereas Head Start was a success, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act failed, as many districts funneled federal revenue to cover ordinary expenses and student performances did not significantly improve. The Job Corps was a dismal failure as training costs were high and relatively few trainees completed the courses. Medicare and Medicaid provided medical treatment for millions, but because the government picked up the tab, health care costs skyrocketed. Nevertheless, from 1963 to 1968 the proportion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 20 percent to 13 percent.

Primary Source: "The Great Society"

SYNOPSIS: On May 22, 1964, President Johnson gave his "Great Society" speech before eighty thousand people, the largest commencement ever attended at the University of Michigan. Johnson challenged students to build a Great Society "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."

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, "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 tranquillity 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, 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 it 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, highways and facilities equal to all those built since this country was first settled. So in the next 40 years we must rebuild 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 the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.

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.

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 five years of school. Nearly 20 million have not finished eight 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. 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 who 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, your labor, 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. Goodbye.

Further Resources


Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic, 1984.


Califano, Joseph A., Jr. "What Was Really Great About the Great Society: The Truth Behind the Conservative Myths." Washington Monthly, October 1999. Available online at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/1999/9910.califan... ; website home page: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com (accessed April 2, 2003).

Fumento, Michael. "Is the Great Society to Blame? If Not, Why Have Problems Worsened Since '60s?" Investor's Business Daily, June 19, 1992. Available online at http://www.fumento.com/greatsociety.html (accessed April 2, 2003).


"LBJ and the Power of the Presidency." CNN.com. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/US/9610/17/lbj.day3/index.html; website home page: http://www.cnn.com (accessed April 2, 2003).

"Lyndon B. Johnson: The War on Poverty President." The American President. Available online at http://www.americanpresident.org/kotrain/courses/lbj/lbj_in... ; website home page: http://www.americanpresident.org/home6.htm (accessed April 2, 2003).