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.