During LBJ’s presidency, a war was waged, as Amity Shlaes demonstrates in “Great Society,” by the federal government against the rest of the nation. Relief might have been expected from Richard Nixon, but Nixon’s true intent was symbolized when he placed a portrait of Woodrow Wilson in the Cabinet Room. This tragic story of government growth sowed seeds of division in America which suggests that, as long as federal power dominates civil society, Americans will live in a “tribalized” nation.
Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes (528 pages, Harper, 2019)
Harry Truman was an enthusiastic New Dealer as were his Democrat successors, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Dwight Eisenhower, in many ways our first modern “celebrity” military President, had few new political ideas, and one would wish that Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford had none. Together, all seven, but especially Lyndon Johnson, shaped conditions that made possible the election of Ronald Reagan—sixteen years later.
Amity Shlaes writes about this era, which she calls “Great Society,” that the federal government “redefined its role in the arts, on television and radio, and in public schools. Washington left no area untouched.” That revolution was made possible by the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the commitment to redistribution of wealth by his Vice President to “cure” poverty, Lyndon Johnson, and the defeat of the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, in the election for President of the United States in 1964. That election gave LBJ the White House and control of both Houses of Congress.
During LBJ’s presidency, a war was waged, Mrs. Shlaes demonstrates, by the federal government against the rest of the nation. Relief might have been expected from the Republican, Richard Nixon, but Nixon’s true intent was symbolized by his placing a portrait of Woodrow Wilson in the Cabinet Room.
This tragic story of government growth capped by a land war in Asia that placed 543,000 troops in Vietnam by April 1969, sowed seeds of division in American society that have been replaced by new divisions which suggest that, as long as federal power dominates civil society, Americans will live in a “tribalized” nation.
The “players” in this carnival of subversion included President Lyndon Johnson, Walter Reuther, and the United Automobile Workers Union, a “New Class” of influential advisors typified by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Sargent Shriver and socialists like Tom Hayden and Michael Harrington.
Thrown into this era of change was Martin Luther King, who embodied JFK’s and LBJ’s civil rights reforms that, Mrs. Shlaes writes, “redeemed our democracy.”
The spiritual face of this “Great Society” was inspired by Michael Harrington’s writings, especially The Other America, poverty in the United States, and his activism, visible in his shaping a meeting of young socialists in June 1962 at the UAW’s retreat at Port Huron, Michigan. From that meeting sprang a manifesto known as the “Port Huron Statement” that, for the Left, was a beacon shining light toward a socialist future.
Coincidentally, and of interest to those who value our original Constitutional order of limited government, a young William F. Buckley, Jr. assembled a group of young conservatives at his family estate in Sharon, Connecticut, where a conservative manifesto was drafted in September 1960 called the “Sharon Statement.”
Michael Harrington was adamant that none affiliated with the Communist Party participated in drafting the Port Huron statement and that the statement avoid criticism of the American labor union movement. His demands, Mrs. Shlaes writes, were directed at Tom Hayden who, though like Harrington was influenced by Saul Alinsky, disagreed with Harrington’s distinction between socialism and communism.
Hayden saw no difference between North Vietnam and what he called the “corrupt” regime in the South. Later he would visit North Vietnam in 1965. Hayden and his future wife, Jane Fonda, whom he married in 1973, visited North Vietnam in 1972. As a young student, Hayden founded Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and participated in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Port Huron in 1962. During the Democrat Party convention in Chicago in 1968, Hayden encouraged rioters, “saying at one point, ‘let us make sure if our blood flows, it flows all over the city.’ “
Though Hayden was on the leading fringe—or center of a fringe—of a radical Left wing, at the very center of this Great Society era was Walter Reuther, a committed socialist and head of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Reuther worked to fashion a system of benefits to abolish poverty. That, surprising some, was what motivated Lyndon Johnson.
Hated by Progressives for his opposition to civil rights reform in his role as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, within a day of the assassination of President Kennedy, LBJ reached out to Walter Reuther and directed the White House switchboard to call Walter Reuther and ask for the phone numbers of labor leaders David Dubinsky, I.W. Abel, and Dave McDonald.
President Johnson was employed in the Roosevelt Administration to persuade farmers in South Texas to plow over crops as a means to raising prices of farm products. He was later chosen to head the Texas office of the National Youth Administration. His commitment to aggressive management of government was symbolized by hanging a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. He was also an aggressive competitor who sought to eliminate or suppress those he perceived were competitors. LBJ wasted no time in announcing his intention to “cure poverty.”
As his Administration progressed, four concerns occupied LBJ: a war in Vietnam, the Budget, the ratio of gold reserves to federal reserve notes, and critics in the press whom he considered traitors. After all, LBJ achieved real reforms in civil rights, attempted to rid poverty from the lives of Americans and created hundreds of programs that employed tens of thousands of Americans. He had emulated FDR by creating the equivalent of a Brain Trust that brought Robert McNamara, Sargent Shriver, Theodore Sorenson, and Richard Goodwin into service in his administration. All were representative of a New Class of government planners who were described by Moynihan as “scientists, social scientists who used not ideology but statistics to arrive at serious conclusions.” He called this “The Professionalization of Reform.” Still, this New Class reviled the man that Kennedy apparatchiks liked to call “Senator Cornpone.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, leading member of a New Class was what critics of behaviorist social science call a “bean counter.” Moynihan might not have bridled at that because, he said, “Progress begins on social problems when it becomes possible to measure them.” “Unless you are in a position to measure your results you will never be able to bring the program to a high level of efficiency much less to prove it to Congress.”
Even more than Moynihan, Sargent Shriver was representative of this “New Class” because of his ideological commitment to aggressive government action which he used with alacrity. Shriver was tapped by LBJ to head the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and enlisted Michael Harrington, the guru of poverty, into the “poverty war.” It would be unfair to say that Shriver liked all forms of war. Shriver enlisted in the U.S. Navy in WW II, serving five years, and suffered wounds in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Married to Eunice Kennedy, however, Shriver served with his wife in the Justice Department where they went to war building with vengeance a program to reduce juvenile delinquency. Best known for founding the Peace Corps, Shriver retained that position while held serving as head of OEO. Ensconced in the immediate circle of LBJ, Shriver used his access to the President of the United States—and the financing of OEO with billions of taxpayer dollars—to found Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a Youth Corps, Head Start, and an Office of Legal Services. His service to LBJ ended only when Bobby Kennedy announced on March 15, 1968 a run for President. Johnson then decided to sideline Shriver and proposed to send him to France as Ambassador. On March 31, LBJ announced that he would not run for reelection.
It was about time.
LBJ needed new taxes to finance the war in Vietnam, but Cong. Wilbur Mills chose not to support a Vietnam tax surcharge. And Sen. Eugene McCarthy won 41.9% of the New Hampshire presidential primary compared to LBJ’s 49.6%. LBJ then saw the light shining from what he called “that b— Vietnam.”
More ominous for the long term prospects of Big Government were political conditions created by LBJ’s “Great Society” programs that led to successful entry into politics of Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. Reagan came to prominence during the Presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater when he gave a nationally televised speech titled “A Time to Choose.” The 1964 election, Reagan said, presented a choice whether America would become collectivist or free.
Ronald Reagan immediately became a hot political prospect, made even more attractive by his attack on busing public school students in LA schools and opposition to the California Rural Legal Assistance program. Just how radical Reagan was may be seen in this: when elected, Reagan was the first California governor in recent years not to hold a law degree, and insulted members of a “New Class” of litigators by nominating William Clark, who also never earned a law degree, to the California Supreme Court as an appellate Justice. Also, as governor, Ronald Reagan cut $220 million from “Medi-Cal,” California’s Medicaid program, and was instrumental in having Angela Davis fired from her teaching position at UCLA.
Good God, what was happening?
Amity Shlaes is a journalist and classical liberal in the school of Adam Smith and David Ricardo who chairs the Board of Trustees of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. She is the author of the 2007 book, The Forgotten Man, a study of the Great Depression. Mrs. Shlaes has done a commendable job in Great Society demolishing the reputation of an era many of her readers remember principally for arrogance of government. The only complaint that I have with Mrs. Shlaes’ Great Society—which I have for her other excellent book—is length. Are there no editors in publishing today who can edit a 500 page book to a more reasonable 300 pages?
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Amity Shlaes, Great Society: A New History (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 319.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Penguin Specials, 1963.
 See Appendix.
 Op. cit., p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 295.
 Ibid., p. 87.
 Ibid., p. 173.
 Ibid., p. 89.
 Ibid., p. 283.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Ibid., p. 107.
 Ibid., p. 112.
The featured image is a detail from a photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman library and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.