Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Other War: American Jews, Lyndon Johnson, and the Great Society

Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Other War: American Jews, Lyndon Johnson, and the Great Society

Article excerpt

Just as President Lyndon Baines Johnson escalated US involvement in Vietnam, he declared another war on the home front: the War on Poverty. The hallmark of his Great Society social reform program, the War on Poverty strove to achieve what LBJ's mentor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not, an end to the nation's most distressing social ills and recognition that racism still divided the nation into distinct economic and social groups. For American Jews, LBJ's reformulation of New Deal liberalism into a group-based, race-sensitive political philosophy challenged long-held assumptions about the role of the state and pressed the community's organized leadership into the forefront of national public policy debate. (1)

Ever since FDR garnered 80 percent of the American Jewish vote in the 1932 presidential election, Jews have voted overwhelming for Democratic political candidates. Jewish commitment to liberal causes helped shape the contours of New Deal social welfare policy, fund and staff many of the nation's leading civil rights organizations, and secure passage of postwar anti-discrimination laws. By the 1960s the nation, as well as the overwhelming majority of its Jewish residents, envisioned an era of unprecedented economic prosperity and social harmony. When John E Kennedy promised the nation a New Frontier in the 1960 presidential campaign, 82 percent of the Jewish electorate signaled its support for the former Massachusetts senator. Four years later, an impressive 90 percent of American Jews joined the political landslide that returned Johnson to the White House. (2)

As LBJ would learn during his tumultuous years in office, hopes for a Great Society, a nation committed to social justice, devoid of poverty, and sensitive to the needs of the most marginalized Americans, proved naive. Millions of Democratic voters registered their disapproval of LBJ by abandoning their long-time political home and bolting to the Republican party. In the 1966 mid-term election, 47 Democrats lost their seats in the House of Representatives, and several high-profile liberal senators suffered electoral defeats. When Johnson departed Washington for his Texas ranch in 1969, he left a nation divided on issues of race and a Democratic party in disarray. Protests against Johnson's unpopular war in Vietnam added to public distrust and assured LBJ's legacy as the twentieth-century's least popular president.

Despite the anti-Johnson backlash, American Jews remained within the Democratic fold. Hubert Humphrey counted 81 percent of the American Jewish vote in his unsuccessful 1968 campaign against Richard Nixon. For many observers, Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party between 1966 and 1968 signaled the continuation of a generations-long commitment to liberal causes. Jews appeared to be exceptional Americans, clinging to the left of the political spectrum even as they enjoyed a rapid rise up the social mobility ladder. In this case at least, polling data masked an important and powerful political drama unfolding in American Jewish life. (3)

During the years of Johnson's Great Society reform program, leaders of major national Jewish organizations struggled to keep pace with a fast-changing political world. The foundation undergirding New Deal liberalism, confidence in Washington's ability to solve social problems, appeared to crack under the weight of race-based social reform programs, urban unrest, and the perceived marginalization of Jews. Jewish leaders wondered if a strong federal government, once a key to American Jewish social mobility, might be proving antithetical to Jewish interests.

The Great Society forced American Jews into a complex and often self-contradictory political quandry. Supportive of more aggressive civil rights programs, Jews preserved their distinction as the nation's most liberal white ethnic group. Most national Jewish organizations backed affirmative action programs and called for a more activist federal government. …

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