On May 22, 1964, in a graduation speech at the University of Michigan, President Lyndon Johnson put a name to a new vision for the United States. He called it “the Great Society” and laid out the vision of a country that did not confine itself to making money, but rather used its post–World War II prosperity to “enrich and elevate our national life.” That Great Society would demand an end to poverty and racial injustice.
And all of that came to a crashing halt at 0100 Hours (Golf) on August 4, 1964, when the American destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy reported themselves under attack from "North Vietnamese torpedo boats" in the Gulf of Tonkin. That night when he was notified of the event, Lyndon Johnson was literally the only guy on the planet who - unknowingly - got it right about what had actually happened when he exclaimed "Those poor dumb sailors were probably shooting at flying fish." Indeed, in 2006, it was determined that "the lights in the water" the ships reported were the reflection of the moon and the lightning flashes from the storms, on the enormous school of flying fish that annually transit the Gulf of Tonkin in the first week of August.
Had it not been for my best friend from boot camp, by then a Fire Controlman 2nd Class, in the Maddox's gun tower, three times refusing the order to open fire, telling the captain "there's nothing out there except the other ship" the destroyers might have opened fire on each other. He got a general court martial for "failure to obey a direct order" and busted to E-3, and we didn't get World War III. (I was on the staff of the operational command for the destroyers, and learned that truth a month after the event when I walked into a bar in Olongapo and found my friend sitting at the bar, where he told me the story. I have divided my life ever since Before Tonkin Gulf and After Tonkin Gulf. Finding that out was what turned my life around 180 degrees and created the person you know now.)
Yes, we went to war in Vietnam because of flying fish.
And, across the "Percific" Orstralia yesterday has just dumped the wanna-be GOP (LNP) rather dramatically - it's going to be an interesting exercise re-directing Labor (the winner) who are really LNP lite, to a better mindset - it can be done. The Green vote has really increased - but, you see, we are a multi party society, and we have compulsory voting, and we have preferential voting (which means no vote gets lost) and we use PENCIL AND PAPER to record our votes. Plus we have an Australian Electoral Commission which sets the electoral boundaries across the whole country - no gerrymandering and uniform electoral procedures everywhere. Can the USA follow our example?????
And Reagan dragged the country right back to the sewer of money first and last.
FDR, with the New Deal (First Hundred Days) and 2nd New Deal (1935) provided a basis for modern-day America at that time. LBJ, a man with gargantuan appetites and ambitions, sought to out do FDR with the Great Society.
Medicare, two monumental civil rights laws (he took tremendous personal satisfaction in accomplishing what JFK had failed to do), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, poverty programs, NEH, NEA, and hundreds of other transformative initiatives marked LBJ’s Great Society.
Johnson, whose ruthless political skills in Congress were superbly described in Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-winning MASTER OF THE SENATE, knew that he had a short window, after JFK’s assassination and his trouncing of Goldwater in 1964, to jam a panoply of far-reaching legislation through Congress.
This almost seemed like throwing massive globs of pasta at the wall to see what might stick. Johnson was in a legislative frenzy believing that ground-breaking legislation and a moderately open check book could transform the America society.
We are indebted for what President Johnson accomplished. By FDR’s rule of thumb (‘If I bat 70% with what I initiate, that’s pretty damned good’), Johnson scores well. The political push back caused by his Great Society steamroller came rather swiftly. As he noted, when signing his 1965 civil rights law, ‘We will lose the South for at least a generation.’
The Vietnam War proved his major political Achilles heel. Using his same Great Society overdrive in Vietnam, he escalated the war with phony claims (Tonkin Gulf Resolution), lying to the American people about ‘winning,’ and sending over 500,000 military where there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
It probably was as great a shock and personal humiliation for Johnson as his Watergate resignation was for Nixon, when Johnson announced in March, 1968 that he would not run for re-election.
On reflection, I give him poor marks on Vietnam (a Greek tragedy) and a vigorous shout out for his somewhat flawed, but still monumental Great Society.
I wonder how the American society of the 21st century might have been transformed, if President Biden had been able to legislate a robust Build Back Better program.
Despite republican’s protests to the contrary they are trying to use the government to reshape society - in their image - by working to control women’s bodies, decide what books we have access to, even what we are allowed to say i.e. don’t say gay. Rolling back civil rights is their goal and always has been There’s a lot to dislike about Johnson but he had a vision I would heartily agree with
A moving, loving, paean for our nation, from our better selves. The morality behind these Letters. Beautiful.
Thank you, Heather for the best letter We could read, one that reinforces how government and Democracy are for the people and by the people. President Johnson was key in introducing sweeping changes, The Great Society, a vision that addressed, gave a name to the poverty and injustice that plagued our country. We lived these great changes. Since then, the repubs have actively worked to dismantle the benefits and protections of all citizens, especially those who had suffered the injustices and inequality the most. And today, the repubs continue to attempt to destroy equality and Justice. We must speak up, vote and stop the slide toward autocracy.
Robert Reich who is often positive and hopeful, spoke in his latest “Coffee Klatch” podcast with great concern and not as hopeful about the direction our government is now traveling. Let’s share the Voices we respect, especially with voters and acquaintances who aren’t paying attention. Friends, family. Even repubs. It’s our Democracy.
Despite LBJ's bold vision and many accomplishments, he fell into the Cold War trap of Vietnam. And everything changed. The vision still awaits to be attained.
Thank you. I needed that.
I remember thinking back on the pre-Vietnam years of the Johnson Presidency when, in 2020, shortly after Biden became the presumptive nominee, the Biden Campaign had joined with the Sanders’ Political Movement to establish six policy task forces covering the economy, health care, criminal justice, immigration, education, and climate change. I recall Sanders saying that he was glad to work with the then former VP in forming the six separate task forces, which had some of the most knowledgeable people in the country coming together. Moreover, Sanders noted, that while the people who represented the progressive movement held a different perspective on policy than did Biden’s people, serious discussion and an honest effort to compromise ensued. Sanders added, “I think the compromises that they came up with, if implemented, [would]… make Biden the most progressive President since FDR. It did not have, needless to say, everything that I wanted. It didn’t have everything that Biden wanted. But there is no question that on some of the major issues facing this country, if that agenda [were]… implemented, life [would]… improve for tens and tens of millions of working people.” Sanders concluded by specifically naming policies directed at the environment, at climate change, at criminal justice, and at the needs of low-income people.
As we have witnessed, every bit of the legislation passed in the Democratically-controlled House and remains stalled in the Senate due, in large part, to the filibuster. Worse, the Budget Reconciliation package (BBB) that contains much of the legislation and requires only 50 Senate votes failed by just two—Manchin and Sinema, resulting in my repeated calls for the Senate to pass whichever Budget Reconciliation provisions can gain support from 50 Senators to present to voters as a down payment with more to come if Dems can hold the House and pick up at least 2 Senate seats.
All I remember from LBJ's "War on poverty" are the cartoons of bombers over Vietnam, with that title. The irony goes on with "Make America Great Again".
I didn’t know that about LBJ. impressive.
Thank you Heather.
I have found it rather striking that the current GOP have taken the corner stone of Johnson's Administration to be the basis of attack. The Voting Rights Act is certainly their biggest emphasis as it will change the face of this Nation the fastest and most directly.
I wonder what LBJ would think of this current horrific stripping of Rights in plain sight?
Be safe. Be well.
So what problem do so-called conservatives have with Johnson's Great Society programs? Is it that they cost money, or that they would benefit the undeserving (according to conservatives), people who don't have a lot of money for a lot of different reasons? Elite conservatives, of course, want any general economic benefit to accrue from "trickle down," that is, the surplus from any big economic benefit the elites get as a matter of course.
Thank you HCR. It's a reminder to those of us who grew up in the 60's that there were politicians who had big thoughts for the welfare of others and who had a congress that could get things done. The big money in politics of our current day has poisoned the well of hope.
Three steps forward, two steps back ... in the fullness of Time, I still believe We Will Get There. Maybe not as we would wish for in our lifetimes? But for the Future, Certainly. Thanks Heather. It's words like yours and your reminders of our history that keep us moving forward in the right direction.