Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society were reform efforts adopted during their respective incumbency under contrasting conditions: the former during an awful depression and the latter at a time of relative plenty. The New Deal was born amid national restiveness due to massive unemployment and bankruptcy to which Roosevelt responded by aggressive federal action. To arrest panic in the banking system, he at once declared a national bank holiday and convinced Congress to immediately pass a new banking legislation to address the crisis
( Himmelberg, 39).
Unlike Roosevelt who had to act quickly to avert total economic disaster, Johnson launched the Great Society against a background of public optimism and high expectations. According to Goodwin, some of Johnson’s work such as Medicare and federal aid to education “became an enduring part of the American landscape” while the Voting Rights Act – enacted during his term – “permanently altered the political process”(285).
In support of the New Deal, a cooperative Congress passed several key legislations. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 authorized businesses to prepare a code of self-governance and established the National Recovery Administration(NRA). It created the Public Works Administration for which $3.3 billion was appropriated to create jobs for 2.5 million Americans. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 enhanced farm productivity through marketing agreements, loans and other conventional remedies, but it embodied the controversial provision on production restrictions intended to cut agricultural surplus at its source. The Glass Steagle Act of 1933 prevented banks, which were among those suspected of causing the economic crisis, from speculating with bank deposits. The Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, created in response to Roosevelt’s request for the creation of “a corporation clothed with the power of government and initiative of a private enterprise” authorized the sale of electricity from the power generated by the TVA. The Social Security Act of 1935 established a national system of old-age insurance funded by tax cuts from workers and their employers. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 outlawed company unions and company discrimination against workers who wanted to join an independent union.
On the other hand, the Great Society was bannered by the following laws: the Social Security Amendments Act of 1965 which established a health insurance program for the elderly and Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor; the Immigration Act of 1965 which abolished national origin quotas and provided for the admission of immigrants on the basis of their skills and professions rather than nationality; the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 to address urban decay; and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which provided for job training, adult education, and loans to small businesses to attack the roots of unemployment and poverty. Johnson also initiated the VISTA(Volunteers in Service to America) program which was a domestic version of the Peace Corps, as well as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Job Corps, the Upward Bound, and the Community Action Program which directly involved the youth in the war against poverty. Johnson also signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the right to vote of every citizen regardless of race or color. (Bailyn, et. al., 734-738).
Overall, these reform efforts exerted positive effects on American society by showing that change was possible within a democratic system, that the age-old problems of poverty and social injustice were not insurmountable.
Americans have nostalgic memories of the 1950’s: a time when Americans basked in national pride and dreamed of conquering outer space. Hailed as heroes of the War, Americans enjoyed the general goodwill of its neighbors and the fruits of prosperity at home. Although the youth of the fifties were uncommitted and indifferent compared to the older generation, they were excited by the advent of modern technology and the limitless possibilities spread out before them. There was an upsurge of national pride and a vague consciousness of destiny. The Cold War had not yet spawned fears of nuclear annihilation, despite Russia’s detonation of an atom bomb, while the nation pushed onward to progress. But within, America’s cities were beginning to fester as materialism pervaded society. Bureaucracy, the mechanization of jobs, the artificiality of modern living, all but stifled the individual. Despite the outward appearance of prosperity, many Americans were destitute. (Bailyn, et. al., 794-797).
I consider the 1950’s a positive period in U.S. history. I believe that a nation that had just survived the Depression and won the War, giving its pound of flesh for every victory, and well on the road to building a great society may be forgiven for its shortcomings.
The pursuit of civil rights by African Americans, by women, and by the American natives has been excruciatingly slow.
Rosa Parks, known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” stood for the rights of women and of blacks. Told to alight from a bus to give way to white passengers, she stood her ground. Her quiet dignity led to a boycott of the bus company for 381 days. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., she followed the path of non-violent protest.
The Women’s Club provided an outlet for the growing social awareness among women. It was apolitical, but it grew from an initial membership of 20,000 in 1890 to nearly a million after twenty years. It remained apolitical, but in its internal discussions there arose concerns for such issues like factory inspection and child labor, criminal justice reforms, social services, and suffrage for women.(Bailyn, 635).
The National Organization for Women (NOW), established in 1966, taught women to be aware of their plight and be conscious of their power. It concentrated initially on economic and social issues: an equal rights amendment, equal pay for equal work, the abolition of sexual discrimination in employment; child care centers; equal access to education and the professions; and birth control and abortion. (Blum, et. al, 833).
By contrast, the emancipation of African Americans has taken a more difficult course. Denied access to free education due to the policy of segregation, blacks could not find jobs other than menial and thus remained ignorant of their rights. In the early 1950’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) waged a court battle against this unjust policy. In a landmark decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that segregation was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. However, it took several more years before the Brown decision, reiterated in a subsequent ruling, could be enforced. Departing from the norm of non-violent protest, militant blacks from the northern states organized themselves under the name Nation of Islam with Elijah Muhammad as leader and Malcolm X, who was subsequently murdered, as spokesman.
The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a brief moment ignited urban riots across America in disregard of his pleas, while living, for non-violence. But the civil rights movement moved on and today he is remembered for his dream of a nation united in brotherhood.
Most native Americans like the Navajo and the Cheyenne, are not exposed to the workings of democracy and are thus not aware of their rights. Moreover, they refuse assimilation, preferring their own culture to that of the white man. Decimated by years of war, disease and starvation, native Americans continued to live in reservations, portions of which were later coveted by white interests. Reacting to this encroachment, native Americans formed militant groups after the black example, such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the American Indian Movement (AIM). Both unleashed violence against Indian bureau offices and establishments, thereby alienating government and losing whatever sympathy the public had for their cause.
In the present perspective, I am of the view that the peaceful, non-violent protests led by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks have changed American Africans’ and women’s lives nobody could have thought possible a century ago. Their sacrifices gave other people freedom to enjoy life and its pursuits. The native Americans may finally learn the way of integration. But for the selfless men and women like King and Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, the business is far from finished. Other women and ethnic groups still suffer elsewhere, waiting for deliverance.
Bailyn, Bernard, et. al. The Great Republic: A History
of the American People. Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1985.
Blum, John M., et. al. The National Experience:
A History of the United States. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1977.
Goodwin, Richard N. Remembering America:
A Voice from the Sixties. Boston: Little Brown and Company. 1988.
Himmelberg, Robert F. The Great Depression and the New Deal.
Westpont, CT: Greenwood Press. 2001