If you look at an American history book today, you're likely to see Lyndon Johnson's name prominently linked with the Vietnam War.
There is certainly good reason for that. Like the mutually dependent tales of the Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal, you can't tell the story of the Johnson presidency without telling the story of the Vietnam War — and vice versa.
Dig a little deeper in history's account of that administration, and you're likely to see Johnson's name mentioned in connection with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, Johnson was a major figure in those legislative acts as well, and it would be wrong for the history books not to mention his contributions to them.
It's interesting, isn't it, the things a president is remembered for — as opposed to what that president wanted to do when he took office? But the truth — as unpleasant as it often can be — is that the times define the president, not the other way around.
It's pretty well known that Johnson was an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal," which should come as no real surprise since Johnson served in the U.S. House for the last two–thirds of FDR's presidency. But when LBJ became president, he had to lead a nation that was embroiled in a Cold War that never existed in Roosevelt's day. And the economy of the 1960s was in much better shape than the economy of the 1930s had been.
Johnson wanted to leave his mark on American daily life in a way that went beyond what FDR's presidency had achieved. When he left the White House, he wanted to leave behind a government that would offer to people not a handout but a hand up. He was ensnared by a war in a tiny Asian land few Americans knew existed, but he still had many domestic accomplishments, and he might well be remembered as one of America's 10 greatest presidents if not for that war in southeast Asia.
Sometimes, I'm inclined to believe that LBJ may have felt more pressure to build on FDR's legacy than he felt to be worthy of being Kennedy's successor.
Nevertheless, on this day in 1964 — exactly six months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy — Johnson fired the first shot in the war on poverty.
He came to Ann Arbor, Mich., to address the graduates of the University of Michigan, and he took the opportunity to call upon them — and the rest of America's citizens — "to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."
The "Great Society." That, Johnson apparently believed, would be the phrase that would conjure up memories of his presidency for future generations. The way "New Deal" summoned memories of FDR and the way "New Frontier" reminded listeners of JFK.
He pursued that goal because he had been personally touched by poverty when he was young in central Texas, touched by it in ways that patricians like Roosevelt and Kennedy never could have been.
He did not pursue it because powerful lobbyists encouraged him to do so. There are no lobbyists for the poor, the homeless, the uneducated. Nor were there many votes to be gained from legislation aimed at helping the needy.
He felt called upon to urge his countrymen "to lead America toward a new age." He genuinely wanted to help what the Bible called "the least of these."
Perhaps LBJ believed what Gandhi believed, that "[p]overty is the worst kind of violence." I don't know if he did or did not, but wouldn't it be ironic if Lyndon Johnson, whose name is cursed in the annals of history for America's long and bloody involvement in Vietnam, was driven in his quest for the Great Society by his revulsion to the violence of poverty?
"We have the power," he said, "to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will and your labor and your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society."
And, in the days ahead, Johnson promoted — and pushed through Congress — enough domestic legislative accomplishments — among them, acts that created Head Start, food stamps, Work Study, Medicare, public broadcasting and Medicaid; acts that provided funds to support the arts and the beautification and conservation of the nation's natural wonders; acts that encouraged a higher standard of living for all — to make half a dozen administrations successful in the assessment of history.
Eradicating poverty was a worthy goal, but Johnson was not naive enough to think that it could be achieved in a few years. He warned his listeners that "the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."
America, he knew, would always be a work in progress, and there are many challenges today that Johnson could not have anticipated 46 years ago. But, because of his efforts, when Johnson left office, the playing field had been leveled dramatically. In less than six years, Johnson brought the nation's poverty rate down from 22% to 13%.
In his speech at Ann Arbor, wrote historian Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1964," Johnson "was describing ... all the uplands of the new civilization to which America could be guided."
And, yes, there was a clear upside to it for LBJ when compared to his predecessor. "Kennedy had demanded sacrifice," wrote White. "Johnson promised happiness."
I recall once hearing George Carlin making fun of the tendency in America to "declare war" on anything we don't like, and then he recited a list of such wars — the wars on cancer, crime, poverty, drugs, etc.
It was a funny bit, but I wonder, when I think of what Johnson achieved, whether it isn't necessary to call for an effort that is the moral equivalent of war on some things in order to bring the kind of serious attention and focus that is needed to make them realities?
Maybe it will take that kind of approach to finally rid the world of cancer. Maybe things like cancer can't be stopped until they are treated like the deadly adversaries they are.
And, perhaps, that brings us to another lesson from the Johnson/Vietnam years that can be applied to almost anything from the war on drugs to the prospect of a nuclear war:
Some wars cannot be won and must never be fought.
And some wars, like the war on poverty and the war on terrorism, are going to take a lot of commitment and sacrifice.