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History, The Liberal Agenda and Domestic Policy: The 1960s

Texas politician, Cold War policies, affirmative action policies, brief tenure, Project Head

In the 1960s, presidential initiatives, judicial rulings, and social protest movements generated reform. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the youth movement, and the environmental movement changed people’s lives. They also created a climate of rebellion, confrontation, and upheaval.

Handsome, dynamic, and articulate, John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1960—the first election in which televised debates between presidential candidates played a major role. When he accepted the Democratic nomination, Kennedy urged Americans to meet the challenges of a “New Frontier.” The term New Frontier evoked the spirit of exploration that Kennedy wanted to bring to his presidency. His youth and vigor raised expectations. In practice, however, his actions were cautious and pragmatic.

In his brief tenure, Kennedy continued Cold War policies by broadening U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, overseeing an arms buildup, and hiking the defense budget. He also inaugurated a long era of economic expansion, based largely on additional spending for missiles, defense, and the space race. In 1961 he began the Peace Corps, an innovative federal program that sent American volunteers to assist needy nations by providing educational programs and helping communities build basic infrastructures. After first evading civil rights issues, Kennedy responded to the calls of civil rights advocates and proposed a comprehensive civil rights bill. Congress, however, had not passed the bill when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

At Kennedy’s death, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, became president. A Texas politician since the New Deal and a majority leader of the Senate, Johnson seemed less likely than Kennedy to be an innovative leader. But, as president, Johnson plunged ahead with domestic reform. In July 1964 he proposed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted in memory of Kennedy. The law prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment. Johnson then declared a “War on Poverty” in the United States. He promoted a billion-dollar campaign to end poverty and racial injustice. In August 1964 Congress established an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to direct the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty program and a Job Corps to train young people for the employment market. Johnson also supported a volunteer program, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic version of the Peace Corps; Project Head Start, to educate preschoolers from disadvantaged families; and several other public works and job-training programs.

In the 1964 presidential election, Johnson won a landslide victory over conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. He then pressed legislators to add to his reform program, which he labeled the “Great Society.” In 1965 Congress enlarged the War on Poverty by enacting Medicare (a program of medical insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (a program of medical care for the needy), and funding urban development, housing, and transit. Congress also passed the Voting Rights Act, which protected the rights of minorities to register and vote. In addition it established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities to provide funding for the arts, provided funds to school districts with children from low-income families, passed the Clean Air Act, and enacted legislation to protect endangered species and wilderness areas.

Finally, Johnson supported two policy changes with unexpected future impact. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed quotas based on race or nationality that had been in force since the 1920s, and it paved the way for massive immigration from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. Also in 1965, Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required groups that did business with the federal government to take “affirmative action” to remedy past discrimination against African Americans. As Johnson told black leaders, his goals for racial progress meant “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” Over the next three decades, the federal government implemented affirmative action policies to promote the hiring of women and minorities.

Stunning in its scope, Johnson’s ambitious domestic agenda soon ran into problems. Within three years, the United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War; its expense and controversy undercut many Great Society goals. But the civil rights revolution that Johnson endorsed made unprecedented gains.

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