The story of race in modern American history is a melancholy one. There was a brief, intense moment of hope in the early 1960s—a moment which produced the landmark civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965—that the nation might somehow transcend its terrible racial past and enter on a new era of justice and comity. But the moment quickly burnt itself out in a series of renewed antagonisms and mutual incomprehensions between blacks and whites that seem today, if not nearly as incendiary as at their worst, still not likely of resolution. Liberals insist that not enough was done to seize the moment, conservatives suspect that much that went wrong had to do with erroneous diagnoses and exaggerated expectations, and hardly anyone has plausible suggestions for what we might do now to set things right.
Nick Kotz’s Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America reflects, in the end, the same mood of sorrowful regret that marks most accounts of the period. Americans are accustomed to think of their nation’s history as a success story, but the tale of the civil-rights movement—despite, as Kotz correctly reminds us, all that its supporters accomplished—cannot persuasively be told that way.
Kotz’s tale is not just a sad one; it is also one that has been told many times before. Indeed, no episode in recent American history has been more thoroughly studied than the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Memoirs, biographies, and monographs have created a profuse and detailed literature that makes it difficult for new books to avoid redundancy. Kotz does not entirely solve the problem—much of his narrative will be familiar to informed readers—but, for the most part, he handles it admirably. He displays a clear command of secondary sources and uses a variety of primary accounts (especially his own extensive personal interviews and President Johnson’s voluminous telephone tapes) to provide immediacy and authenticity to his telling of an oft-told tale.
Most of all, he offers readers a fresh and instructive angle of vision. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson were the two central figures of the civil-rights struggle in the 1960s. But while they on occasion worked effectively together, theirs was always a tangled, mutually suspicious alliance—and one that finally fell hopelessly apart. That did not cause the collapse of the civil-rights movement, but it effectively symbolized it. Kotz’s account leaves the reader with the sense that the disintegration of Johnson and King’s alliance was at once unfortunate and unavoidable. So also, perhaps, with the disintegration of the civil-rights coalition.
But there is still more to learn here—more than Kotz intends, and more, almost certainly, than he would agree with. It is commonly (if often only tacitly) conceded that liberalism went wrong in the 1960s, as measured by the fact that liberals, who once gloried in the label, have been reluctant to speak its name ever since. There are a number of reasons for modern liberalism’s decline, but major among them was loss of confidence in the assumption that had powered it from its origins in Populism through the New Deal and beyond: faith in the power of the federal government to solve the problems of American society.
After the perceived failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—an extraordinarily ambitious program of reform that was at least as confident in the affirmative power of government as was the New Deal—that faith has never fully been restored. And the failure of civil-rights legislation to deliver on its promise of solving the problem of racial conflict in America lies very near the heart of the Great Society’s undoing.
In historiographical terms, Judgment Days can be categorized as moderately revisionist. The treatment of King is more conventional than Kotz allows (he unconvincingly claims that previous authors have not adequately recognized King’s political skills, moderating influence within the civil-rights movement, and developing radicalism). But the book does give a more generous view of Johnson than is customary.
Conservatives disdain Johnson because of the extravagances of the Great Society, while liberals hold him in contempt because his policy in Vietnam reduced America to moral ruin and brought discredit on liberalism. Kotz agrees that Johnson was terribly wrong on Vietnam, but he suggests that liberals, in their preoccupation with the presumed follies of the war, have failed to do justice to Johnson’s domestic accomplishments, especially with regard to civil rights. He did not simply, as is often suggested, ride the national emotion over John Kennedy’s assassination to easy victories on a reform agenda. He won them, Kotz reminds us, through the immense legislative skills he had demonstrated and perfected in his career as majority leader of the Senate. He had, to be sure, a promising opportunity, but he made the very most of it, as Kotz’s skillful narrative demonstrates. He was perhaps as brilliant a leader of Congress as any president in our history.
More than that, he accomplished his victories in civil rights knowing full well that he was risking grave political damage to himself and his party. In the common telling of the story, the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965—the first ending segregation in public accommodations, the second guaranteeing voting rights for blacks—cost Johnson and the Democrats their control of the South and quite likely, over the long run, their national majority as well. That part of the story is more complicated than is normally supposed, but the conventional wisdom cannot simply be dismissed.
So we have, in Kotz’s telling, not just one hero of the civil-rights enterprise but two. Martin Luther King of course was the great prophet of racial liberation, but Lyndon Johnson was his essential political partner. As if to provide dramatic balance, Kotz introduces a villain, as well: J. Edgar Hoover. That’s obvious enough at one level. As head of the FBI, Hoover set out with near-obsessive intensity to destroy King as a civil-rights leader. He fed Johnson—as he had John and Robert Kennedy before him—an endless stream of memos detailing King’s marital infidelities and Communist connections. (Kotz raises questions—largely unpersuasive in my view—about the accuracy of the Communism charge, especially concerning the role of Stanley Levison, one of King’s most influential advisors. Nonetheless, he is correct to note there is no evidence that Communist thought played any significant role in the shaping of the mainstream civil-rights movement.)
Hoover also circulated his information—gathered through various secret surveillance devices—to other political figures and the media as well, hoping the publicity would ruin King’s reputation. (It is encouraging that so few politicians or members of the press publicized the material.) The FBI even went so far as to send King a composite tape of his sexual activities accompanied by an anonymous letter suggesting that the only alternative for him to public disgrace was suicide. Such episodes in sexual blackmail were apparently not restricted to King. Kotz notes the remarkable irony that the FBI used similar tactics against the Ku Klux Klan. “In terms of violating civil liberties,” he concludes, “the FBI’s war against the Klan was just as ruthless as its campaigns against targeted civil-rights activists.”
But Kotz’s disdain for Hoover distorts his analysis. The issue here is not Hoover’s villainy—which is obvious enough—but where it came from and, far more significantly, the role it played in King and Johnson’s ultimate estrangement. Kotz argues that Hoover’s antagonism to King was “fueled by racism,” but he offers little evidence to sustain the charge. Hoover’s racial views were hardly models of enlightenment, but it seems more plausible to ascribe his intense antipathy to King to his lifelong antiradicalism (he really thought, however questionably, that King had been taken in by Communists) and to his sexual puritanism (he was genuinely appalled that a Christian minister—and a public moral hero—should be so morally casual in his private behavior).
That aside, Kotz’s repeated references to Hoover as the “Iago” of the Johnson-King relationship overstates the FBI chief’s influence. It was not, finally, the “poison” of the information Hoover sent Johnson that turned the president against the preacher. (In view of Johnson’s own predilections, it is especially unlikely that he would have been scandalized by the sexual tidbits.) It is no doubt true that mounting opposition to his policies fed Johnson’s incipient paranoia about sinister forces arrayed against him—especially the Communists (or, as Kotz wryly adds, “anyone associated with the Kennedy family”). Hoover fed on that paranoia, but had he never sent Johnson a single memo undermining King, the falling out between the two leaders would still likely have occurred.
Consider the nature of their association. At its best, as Kotz notes, it was marked by a “passion for equality and a dedication to improving the lives of those left out of America’s affluent society.” Both looked to an activist federal government as an essential instrument in advancing the lot of minorities and the poor. They also shared a deep affection for the South, even as they both understood that their home region required a social revolution.
Beyond these agreements, however, there were fundamental differences. They were never personally close. As Kotz notes, both were men of massive egos and deep insecurities, each wary of the other and reluctant to share political or personal glory. King resisted Johnson’s typically overbearing attempts at bonhomie; Johnson was frustrated by King’s determination to maintain a cool distance.
More important, though still not at the heart of things, were disagreements on strategy and tactics. Particularly at issue was the question of how much of the war for racial equality would be fought out on the streets and in exercises in civil disobedience. King understood that success for the civil-rights cause depended heavily on the demonstrations that kept the issue in the public consciousness. He believed in and practiced nonviolence, but he recognized that his cause advanced most significantly when dramatic confrontations heightened the moral contrast between peaceful protesters and violent segregationists. Redneck sheriffs and KKK mobs served the movement’s purposes, and King and his allies in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) knew that bringing out the worst in their enemies created the kind of morality plays—widely covered by the media—that aroused consciences and caught politicians’ attention. It was agonizing to involve children in potentially violent marches, but King, as Kotz notes, was capable when necessary of tactical ruthlessness.
King was also caught up in tensions within the civil-rights movement. The spectrum of militancy in the movement ranged from the relative conservatism of such established organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League to the impatient radicalism of such groups as CORE and SNCC. King’s SCLC, roughly in the middle, drew suspicion from both sides, but King was increasingly sensitive to charges from his left that he had achieved recognition as the nation’s most prominent black leader by moderating his demands and tactics to meet the rules set by the white liberal establishment.
Johnson, a politician to the bone, understood all this, at least at one level. He knew that King had to be seen to be his own man; he knew, more particularly, that King could not give up public demonstrations. But the president faced pressures of his own. There was, first of all, the danger that the demonstrations and the reactions to them could spiral into public chaos. A primary duty of government, after all, is to preserve order, and a government incapable of doing so is a government risking illegitimacy. That essential point has not properly been taken into account in many versions of the story of what went wrong with liberalism in the 1960s.
Johnson faced more particular problems as well. King and other civil-rights activists hoped that violent responses to their demonstrations would force the federal government to provide the protection for peaceful protesters that local governments could not or would not supply. Johnson was willing to push the FBI to offer behind-the-scenes protection where necessary, but he hesitated to mount any major federal show of force. He did not want to confirm conservative southern images of civil-rights protest as a Second Reconstruction, a reenactment of the post–Civil War era in which (however briefly and ineffectually) the North was seen to force racial equality on a defenseless South.
Johnson’s political situation was delicate. He had come to the presidency by terrible accident and was burdened with the label of “Southerner.” No one from deep in the South had held the presidency since before the Civil War. As Kotz indicates, Johnson knew that to govern effectively—and to win the 1964 nomination on his own—he would have to gain the confidence of the liberal northern wing of the Democratic Party.
That meant breaking with the South. Johnson and other Southerners with national ambitions had known this for some time. It is noteworthy that as far back as 1956 the only three southern senators who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto pledging resistance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education were those—Estes Kefauver, Albert Gore Sr., and Johnson himself—who had eyes on the presidency.
The other, more familiar side of the story is that Johnson and his party risked their hold on both the White House and Congress by supporting the biracial northern forces pushing for civil rights in the South. The president famously remarked to his aide Bill Moyers after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” And, of course, that turned out to be true over the long run.
Again, though, the story is more complicated than is often supposed. The issue of race both began and ended the Democratic ascendancy in the South. The South lost the Civil War, but it did not thereby lose its dedication to white supremacy. The era of Reconstruction taught whites that their only hope of maintaining that supremacy was maintaining racial unity in support of the Democratic Party. To vote Republican was to divide and so betray the white South.
Over time, the tribal allegiance to the Democrats gave to southern politics an increasingly unnatural air. The South was always the most culturally conservative region in the nation, and, especially with the rise of the New Deal, that made its monolithic Democratic attachment among whites a jarring anomaly. Thus emerged the so-called “unholy alliance” in Congress between northern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in opposition to New Deal initiatives on a wide variety of issues, an alliance that continued into the 1960s. The 1964 Civil Rights Act—which substantial majorities of Republicans in the House and Senate supported (though the party’s presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, did not)—ended the era of white supremacy in the South and the rationale for the region’s unity in the Democratic Party.
The South was thereby liberated, against its will, from the iron bond of race and freed, for the first time since the Civil War, to develop something like a normal politics, a politics where it was no longer unthinkable for whites to change party allegiance. Racial issues, of course, continued to be part of that politics, but they did not, as before, overwhelm it. The move into the Republican Party was made possible by racial politics, but, once begun, it had many other sources to perpetuate it.
The South’s turn to the GOP after the civil-rights revolution has, in retrospect, the appearance of inevitability. It did not necessarily seem so at the time. Johnson and other Democrats had their worries about the matter—which is why they urged that the necessary changes in southern life be carried out with due attention to white sensibilities—but they also had hopes that a new Democratic coalition might be assembled. Both Johnson and King thought moderate whites and blacks—the latter massively increased in number after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—could come together to keep Democrats competitive in the region. And indeed, skillful Democratic moderates, as recently as Bill Clinton, have demonstrated that the South need not be written off by Democrats as a politically lost cause.
In any case, it was not differences over how to conduct the struggle for civil rights that finally drove King and Johnson apart. Those differences took their toll, but they were not determinative. Something much larger was developing behind and beyond them, an emerging ideological conflict that finally divided not just these two men but the entire American Left.
That conflict was most visible, of course, in the contentions over Vietnam. Kotz’s Judgment Days is about civil rights, not the war, but he recognizes that the story of the Johnson-King relationship—especially their final falling out—cannot be told without reference to Vietnam. Johnson did not doubt the rightness of the war effort, but he was never optimistic about its success. From the beginning of his presidency he privately worried that Vietnam was indeed the quagmire its opponents declared it to be. He did not know how to win or to achieve an honorable negotiated peace, and he did not know how to get out without destroying the nation’s credibility and his own presidency.
King had always thought the war misguided in itself and a drain on resources he wanted directed to antipoverty and racial-justice programs in America. For some time, however, he withheld or muted his criticism. He hesitated to break with the president, and, in any case, his advisers warned that he should not risk losing support for civil rights by opposing a war that most Americans still approved.
By 1967, though, King had become determined to speak out. The war was going badly and people on the Left increasingly identified opposition to Vietnam and support for civil rights as a common cause. As Johnson’s popularity declined, so did the costs of opposing him. Kotz emphasizes, however, that King’s dramatic antiwar address on April 4 at Riverside Church in New York was based on morality, not political calculation. He was appalled at a war that was, in his view, “destroying the moral fabric” of the nation and placing the United States “on the wrong side of the world revolution.”
Johnson took King’s attack as a declaration of war and responded in kind. Not unreasonably, he felt that his leadership on civil-rights legislation had been insufficiently appreciated by the black community in general and King in particular. The relation between Johnson and King was weakened in 1966 when the SCLC publicly criticized the administration for escalation in Vietnam and “inadequate enforcement” of the civil-rights bills. And King’s scathing attack on the war in 1967 broke that relation entirely. Johnson’s attachment to the cause of civil rights was such that he continued to press—against the advice of his key associates—for new legislation, but he was done with King. As Kotz notes, he not only encouraged Hoover to circulate the FBI’s attacks on King, he pushed his aides in the White House to join in the effort.
King’s highly emotive antiwar rhetoric was part of a growing radicalizing of his politics in general. That radicalism, it seems, came from mutually reinforcing sources of frustration and political naïveté. It was nearly inevitable that passage of the civil-rights bills would be followed by a letdown. Gaining access to public facilities and the ballot box did not significantly change the day-to-day lives of most southern blacks. King and his followers may have known at one level that this would be the case, but the “We Shall Overcome” spirit of the movement, necessary to its success, had generated expectations impossible of quick fulfillment. There was also the problem for King of what to do next, how to keep alive the movement and his leadership in it. He did the obvious thing: He headed north, and there the frustrations were compounded.
King’s Chicago venture of 1966 was an inglorious failure. The difficulties of blacks there did not originate, as in the South, with the absence of legal protection. As Kotz notes, laws against discrimination in housing and employment were already in place (however indifferently enforced), and blacks voted in large numbers. Moreover, Mayor Richard J. Daley was, in Kotz’s words, “a card-carrying liberal Democrat” who had instructed the congressmen in the Chicago machine to vote in favor of civil-rights and antipoverty legislation. There was racism aplenty in Daley’s Chicago, but the links between it and negative conditions in the black community were not so obvious as was widely assumed. King sought immediate improvements in jobs, housing, and education, but the cultural legacy of discrimination was such that those improvements would not easily occur, even supposing an improbable utopian turn in race relations. The marches King mounted in the city had, in the end, not much point to them other than the general plea that, somehow, attention must be paid.
King got nothing out of the Chicago project but, as Kotz puts it, “a toothless set of pledges” from the city that efforts would be made to make things better. The Chicago failure, by all accounts, pushed King sharply left. As Kotz says, “King now indicted the government and American society with a fierce new rhetoric.” Pragmatic liberal reform did not go deep enough. America’s problems were “systemic” (a term that became pervasive on the Left). “Something is wrong with the economic system of our country,” King said to his advisors. “Something is wrong with capitalism.” Kotz concludes, as have others before him, that King had decided some form of socialism was necessary to set things right. Aware that advocacy of socialism was political suicide, King talked instead of guaranteed jobs and incomes and of a vast Marshall plan for the nation’s cities.
For King and countless others in the 1960s, civil rights and Vietnam came together in a negative synergy to edge their politics from liberalism to radicalism—the sum of the two protests greater than its considerable parts. Radicalism was not unfamiliar to the American left; the 1930s, for example, had been awash in visions of the fundamental transformation of economic and social relations. What distinguished the 1960s from previous manifestations of leftist protest (aside from its dubious celebration of the superior wisdom of youth) was the direction of that protest.
From Populism through Progressivism, down to the New Deal and beyond, reformers had focused on targets on the Right: the railroad barons, Wall Street, the trusts, big business in general. But now the enemy was the liberal establishment itself, in particular a presumably liberal Democratic administration that could not or would not provide an acceptable level of racial justice and that was conducting a monstrously immoral war in Indochina. It was this unprecedented internecine war on the Left that accounts for so much of the febrile and hysterical nature of the politics of the 1960s.
King was no hysteric, but he was a Christian preacher involved in intense political action. Inevitably he brought to his political rhetoric the moral passion that is natural to the pulpit. Much of the success the civil-rights movement had attained depended, of course, on the power of King’s rhetoric to stir black souls and unsettle white consciences. King was unequaled in his ability to present the movement for racial equality as, at its heart, a simple requirement of moral decency. The moral clarity of the issue gave it a religious dimension unprecedented in American politics since the Civil War. Kotz rightly emphasizes the extraordinary influence of the “armies of God” at every level of the civil-rights revolution.
The moral passion that King and other people of religious conviction brought to civil rights carried over to their opposition to the war. That issue, too, seemed to them morally unambiguous. The two issues together bid up considerably the moral intensity of politics. A politics of moral certainty is not a politics open to compromise. As activists solidified their certainties, they widened the ideological gap between themselves and most ordinary Americans, who had their own uneasiness about Vietnam but who were not inclined to define the war—much less, politics as a whole—in terms of moral certitude.
The estrangement between Johnson and King was characteristic of an estrangement between liberals and radicals that occurred everywhere on the Left as the 1960s wore on. To put the matter simply, liberals were people who could still, however uneasily, say “Yes” to the American reality; radicals were those who had come with varying degrees of reluctance to say “No.” Most Americans found that “No” incomprehensible, and they turned against the Left in general as they saw so many erstwhile liberals flirt with, or succumb to, radical criticism.
The loss of confidence among liberals—“we have failed” became a common mantra—led to conservative political gains. As the liberal establishment moved left under radical pressure, conservatives gained purchase on the political center. It was Vietnam that most moved liberalism left, but for the majority of Americans it was the racial issue, not the war, that turned them, however uncertainly, in the opposite direction.
Judgment Days offers a mostly conventional liberal reading of the increasing deadlock on civil rights. Kotz recognizes that proponents of change held often unrealistic hopes for how easily and quickly improvements would come in the black community, but he blames the reformers’ frustration at the rate of change mainly on white recalcitrance. He notes disapprovingly that as Congress balked at passing new civil-rights legislation or at spending as much as the president wanted on his War on Poverty, “from the public came only indifference, or a sense that black Americans and their white liberal allies, including Lyndon Johnson, were pushing too hard.”
That reading of the situation cannot be dismissed. Racial prejudice, insufficient moral concern, and social lethargy were widespread among whites and help explain why an era of racial reform that began so promisingly with the March on Washington in 1963 ended so disastrously in assassinations, riots, and bitter recriminations some five years later. But the reading is also seriously incomplete.
There is evidence that in the aftermath of the March on Washington the majority of northern whites held mostly benign views toward the idea of racial justice for blacks. Few of them could quarrel with the moral logic of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and for many the guilt he rightly inspired about America’s racial history inclined them to agree, with conservative Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen, that civil rights was “an idea whose time had come.” It is hard otherwise to explain the wide margins by which the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965 passed in the face of united southern opposition. Public opinion polls of the time further bear out that interpretation: Congress was acting in accordance with, not contrary to, majority views.
Why then did those benign views shift, if not to opposition, at least to serious reservation? The standard interpretation is that King’s move north brought the issue home in a negative way to whites in Chicago and elsewhere who could without cost support black equality in distant Dixie but who developed second thoughts when civil rights entered their backyard.
But that is far from all that was happening. Moderate whites who supported civil-rights legislation thought that in doing so they were doing the right thing. They also thought they were helping to secure social peace. They paid due attention to the activist slogan, “no justice, no peace,” and assumed that the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965 would be taken as the justice that assured peace. Moderates reacted less sympathetically to repeated street demonstrations in Chicago—demonstrations that often provoked violence from white mobs—than to those in Birmingham or Selma. Blacks in the South excluded from the political process had no place to take their politics other than to the streets, but that was not the case in the North. Marches in the South took the form of morality plays pitting good against evil. Those in the North, however justifiable in political terms, lacked the same transparent moral clarity.
Infinitely more troubling to political moderates were the violent racial protests in the North that began in 1964 and continued, in escalating severity, every summer for several years. Within two weeks of passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964 a major riot broke out in Harlem, followed quickly by outbreaks in other northeastern cities. Just five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 came the conflagration in Watts, one of the deadliest race riots in the nation’s history.
It would be difficult to overestimate the damage that those and subsequent riots did to the cause of civil rights. White guilt dissipated; white outrage flourished. Moderates had assumed that in supporting civil-rights legislation they were both doing the right thing and purchasing social order. When that implicit bargain broke down, they felt betrayed, and they became increasingly dubious about arguments that only further legislation would make possible a break in an endless series of “long, hot summers.”
The reaction to the riots on the Left further unsettled moderate whites. King, not surprisingly, blamed specific outbreaks mostly on official misbehavior—often police brutality—and put increasing emphasis on the economic roots of black protest. He called the Watts riot a “class revolt” of the underprivileged. Many white liberals, while insisting that they did not condone black violence, so emphasized the importance of understanding the frustrations leading to its occurrence that they seemed to be justifying it.
The official establishment response to the riots, the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, carried that form of analysis a step further. It concluded that the most fundamental cause of the riots was “white racism” and warned that only massive government spending could remedy the “economic and social decay” of the urban ghettoes that was turning America into two separate and unequal nations.
Liberals hailed the report as prophetic, but most Americans found it thoroughly unpersuasive. It was one thing to identify white racial attitudes as the most important source for the long-term disabilities of the black community. It was another to tie those attitudes directly to the often nihilistic violence of Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere—that explanation stretched the causal link to the breaking point. In any case, most Americans resisted any implication that the nation was so morally corrupt that it deserved to be torn apart.
The riots—and the liberal response to them—undermined majority support for civil rights and prompted a broad rethinking of the causes and cures of black inequality. The conventional liberal wisdom, exemplified in the Kerner report, assumed that the essential problem was a system of racial prejudice so deeply embedded in the habits and structures of society as to make overall black progress impossible. The solution was a revolution in white thought accompanied by comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation and lavish public spending to improve conditions and stimulate economic development in black neighborhoods.
Such forms of analysis assumed that, for the most part, black progress was a gift solely in the hands of white society either to withhold or to bestow. Thus, Kotz describes King’s bitterness over his northern misadventures: “Chicago convinced King that white America, North as well as South, was not ready to share the goods of an affluent society—the jobs, the nice neighborhoods.” Most Americans thought the matter of social success or failure, even for minorities, a more complicated matter. Nice neighborhoods did not grow by social fiat. Kotz himself, who by and large accepts the liberal analysis, concedes it underestimated the black community’s cultural conditions that made it difficult, especially for those at the bottom, to take advantage of opportunities that were now available.
The manifold complexities of all this aside, a curious dynamic was at work eroding support not just for civil rights and antipoverty legislation but for Lyndon Johnson’s whole Great Society program. Faith in the efficacy of government to solve social problems depended sooner or later on evidence of success. Johnson’s ambitions were nothing short of grandiose: he intended, as he put it, to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln.” The Great Society included reforms in medical care, education, the environment, immigration, foreign aid, defense, support of arts and humanities—nearly every realm the reform imagination could contemplate.
Most of all, though, it focused on blacks and the poor. Lack of success with these overlapping groups would bring into question the Great Society’s fundamental assumptions. Conservatives, whose numbers, on this question at least, increased exponentially from the early to the late 1960s, pointed to riots, the rise of black power, and wholesale discontent in the minority community to discredit liberal programs. The Left, whose expectations and demands had grown at rates that no scheme of reform could possibly meet, was equally dismissive. (It devastated Johnson that the Kerner Commission refused to acknowledge the improvements in civil rights and social justice that, with a considerable degree of justification, he felt ought to be credited to his account.)
Right and Left agreed that the Great Society had failed, though they disagreed fundamentally as to the sources of its failure. Where conservatives saw excessive confidence in what government had it in its power to accomplish, radicals—and radicalized liberals—saw insufficient willingness to question existing structures and assumptions of the social order. As things turned out, the critique from the Left dissipated rather quickly. Most liberals, instructed by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, gave up their flirtation with radicalism and regained a measure of political sobriety. The McGovern debacle four years later persuaded the holdouts.
What remained in the political atmosphere was a skepticism about activist government so pervasive that, almost forty years later, it is still ideologically dominant. And what most fueled that skepticism was the perceived failure in the interrelated areas of civil rights and poverty. Race did not wreck Lyndon Johnson’s presidency—the hopeless mess in Vietnam did that—but race, more than anything else, wrecked his dreams of reconstituting New Deal liberalism as the animating center of American politics.
It is, in historical perspective, entirely understandable that civil rights is what sent Lyndon Johnson’s political dreams up in smoke. Race is the one issue that Americans have never even come close to getting right. It is our original sin and our abiding conundrum. It continues to divide the nation black and white, liberal and conservative, as post-1960s debates over mandatory integration, diversity, and racial preferences remind us. Given all this, it is ironic but unsurprising that, in trying to achieve racial progress, Lyndon Johnson not only came up short but did enduring damage to the liberalism in whose name he put the issue forward.
James Nuechterlein is the former editor of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.