A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

“The Great Society”: Remarks at
the University of Michigan (1964)

Lyndon B. Johnson

On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan. Before the audience of young men and women and their families, he unveiled his vision of a “Great Society.” Though much less well known than John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Johnson’s Great Society speech marks a major turning point in American government and politics. Johnson’s legislative agenda (as documented in the next article) was extraordinarily ambitious and would reshape the role of American government. But the larger ideas about the role of government Johnson sets forth here are also significant. Compare this speech to Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. How do their visions of the nation’s purpose differ?

I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of our country. The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation. For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century, we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all our people. The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move

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