Domestic Politics in the 1960s
Domestic Politics in the 1960s
In 1961, Democrats gained control of the White House and kept it until 1969. Democratic leadership meant that domestic politics revolved around liberal reforms. John F. Kennedy grappled with congressional opposition to his plan for a New Frontier until his assassination in 1963, when Lyndon B. Johnson took office and pushed his predecessor’s proposed reforms through Congress under the umbrella of what he called the Great Society.
The JFK Administration and the New Frontier at Home
John F. Kennedy, who won the presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960, promised a “New Frontier” for America, encompassing reform at home and victory in the Cold War. To accomplish these goals, he assembled a group of young technocrats and politically savvy advisers, termed “the best and the brightest” by historian David Halberstam. Robert McNamara, the president of Ford Motor Company, served as secretary of defense. McGeorge Bundy, a dean of Harvard University, was special assistant for national security affairs, and the president’s brother Robert Kennedy filled the post of attorney general. JFK carefully crafted his image as a young, intelligent, and vibrant leader.
Despite JFK’s reputation, he was unable to push much reform through Congress, where he faced an opposing coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. After a string of early legislative failures, Kennedy backed off from his reform program. His plans for increased federal aid to education, urban renewal, and government-provided medical care went unrealized. Kennedy’s primary achievements at home were the raising of the minimum wage and the 1961 establishment of the Peace Corps, a program created to send volunteer teachers, health workers, and engineers to Third World countries.
Despite JFK’s image as a dynamic and successful leader, he was unable to push his plans for social welfare reform through Congress, where he faced an opposing coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats.
An important aspect of JFK’s domestic record arose near the end of his time as president. Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962, which exposed the environmental hazards of the pesticide DDT, touched off a broad movement to push environmental measures through Congress. In 1963, this effort spurred the passage of the Clean Air Act to regulate factory and automobile emissions. This act, along with the 1960 Clean Water Act, marked the beginning of a period during which the federal government became increasingly invested in environmental matters.
On November 22, 1963, JFK’s presidency abruptly ended when he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.
LBJ and the Great Society
Following the death of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson backed his predecessor’s failed program of reform, calling for the passage of tax cuts and civil rights bills as a memorial to the slain president. In 1964, Johnson’s skillful backroom bargaining achieved just that: the passage of both a tax cut and the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations, gave the government broader powers to enforce desegregation in schools, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prevent job discrimination. A year later, Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act, which authorized federal examiners to register qualified voters and to suspend literacy tests in voting districts where fewer than half of the minority population of voting age was registered. The bill’s passage resulted in an explosion in black enfranchisement. The number of registered black voters doubled in many areas.
Along with furthering civil rights, Johnson mounted a “war on poverty” by pushing for a wide array of social legislation. In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which provided young Americans with job training and created a volunteer network devoted to social work and education in poor areas. The 1965 Medical Care Act created Medicare and Medicaid, providing senior citizens with medical insurance and welfare recipients with free health care.
These reform programs became a part of what Johnson called the Great Society, a vision of the future that included an end to poverty, improvements in healthcare, protection of the environment, and racial equality. The Great Society, however, never fully emerged. The program’s failure was due partially to poor design and partially to the enormity of the task LBJ had set for himself. Primarily, though, the Great Society was undermined by a shift in the federal government’s focus from domestic to foreign policy in response to the worsening situation in Vietnam.
LBJ’s Great Society program sought to end poverty, provide health care to all, increase spending on education, and achieve racial equality. However, as foreign relations became increasingly pressing, the Great Society was left unattained.
The Supreme Court Under Warren
During the 1960s, the Supreme Court, under the liberal chief justice Earl Warren, delivered a number of significant decisions that earned the admiration of many and the enmity of many others. In 1962, Baker v. Carr granted federal courts jurisdiction over state apportionment systems to assure that all citizens’ votes were granted equal weight. The decision in Engel v.Vitale that same year prohibited prayer in public schools. The 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright obliged the states to provide indigent defendants in felony cases with public defenders. The 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona required police to make suspects aware of their rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning, the so-called Miranda rights. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia declared laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. That same year, Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court, making him the first African American to receive such an honor.
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