Ed Driscoll

Amity Shlaes’ ‘Great Society:’ How Poverty Won America’s War on Poverty

“I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve spent a billion dollars.”

Sargent Shriver, brother in law of JFK and the “architect” of the “War on Poverty,” to socialist Michael Harrington (who wanted much, much more of the American taxpayers’ dollars), 1964.

Amity Shlaes’ newest book, Great Society: A New History is a sequel to her two studies of 1930s and 1920s, 2007’s The Forgotten Man, and 2013’s Coolidge. The eponymous Forgotten Man was the taxpayer, the man footing the bill to fund FDR’s New Deal. As a UCLA press release explained in 2004, “FDR’s policies prolonged Depression by 7 years, UCLA economists calculate.” Even socialist Roosevelt worshiper Paul Krugman has been forced to refer to the economic “Miracle of the 1940s” — known to the rest of us as World War II — to explain how the economy was revived after the Depression. As Mark Steyn once wrote, “Lots of other places — from Britain to Australia — took a hit in 1929 but, alas, they lacked an FDR to keep it going till the end of the Thirties. That’s why in other countries they refer to it as ‘the Depression,’ but only in the U.S. is it ‘Great.’”

A key reason that the Depression was “Great” was what Shlaes called “regime uncertainty.” “The trouble,” she wrote in the Forgotten Man, “was not merely the new policies that were implemented but also the threat of additional, unknown, policies. Fear froze the economy, but that uncertainty itself might have a cost was something the young experimenters simply did not consider.”

Written as a sharp contrast to FDR’s endless tinkering with the economy was her sequel, a profile of Calvin Coolidge’s 1920s-era libertarianism. When asked what was the greatest accomplishment of his administration, Silent Cal replied, “I think it would have to be, minding our own business.”

War and its “Moral” Equivalent

Coolidge’s administration was the exception during much of the first half of the 20th century. Left-leaning historians have largely given Roosevelt passing grades as a president because of his successful handling of World War II. As PJM’s own Victor Davis Hanson wrote in his 2017 book, The Second World Wars:

In the end, Americans, who could not settle on much else, agreed that in World War II its greatest generation of leaders—Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Stimson, Omar Bradley, George Patton, Chester Nimitz, Douglas MacArthur, and others—saved the country and perhaps civilization as well from the Axis, and created democracy in the political systems of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the countries that had once set the world on fire.

But it was actually the previous World War that led to the New Deal, and ultimately, it’s massive successor, the Great Society. Woodrow Wilson, whom Jonah Goldberg described in Liberal Fascism as “the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” During WWI, Wilson gave full reign to his totalitarian streak, not only engaging in the first draft since the Civil War, but also a brutal crackdown on free speech:

Under the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of May 1918, any criticism of the government, even in your own home, could earn you a prison sentence (a law Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld years after the war, arguing that such speech could be banned if it posed a “clear and present danger”). In Wisconsin a state official got two and a half years for criticizing a Red Cross fund-raising drive. A Hollywood producer received a ten-year stint in jail for making a film that depicted British troops committing atrocities during the American Revolution. One man was brought to trial for explaining in his own home why he didn’t want to buy Liberty Bonds.

During the 1930s, the slogan of the New Dealers was “We planned in war,” and many of their programs had a military theme to them, Goldberg wrote:

In a fireside chat in 1933, Roosevelt called for a great Mussolini-style “summer offensive against unemployment.” Hollywood did its part. In the 1933 Warner Brothers musical Footlight Parade, starring James Cagney, a chorus line uses flash cards to flip up a portrait of Roosevelt, and then forms a giant Blue Eagle. Will Rogers led a Who’s Who roster of stars in Blue Eagle and NRA radio broadcasts.

In 1906, early “Progressive” philosopher William James wrote “The Moral Equivalent Of War.” This notion would become the overriding American leftist philosophy to this day, to the point where in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez would run around claiming America needed a “Green New Deal,” with America fighting global cooling/warming/climate change/climate chaos as the moral equivalent of World War II, without realizing what a shopworn cliché she was uttering.

But in the 1960s, America’s stunning success in WWII led most liberals (as American “Progressives” rebranded themselves in the 1920s, a stolen base used to distance themselves from the disastrous taint of Wilson’s administration) to believe that if America could beat the Nazis, why couldn’t it fight poverty and win? “As Stalin was said to have joked, America was the only country in the world that could afford communism,” Shlaes writes in the introduction to Great Society, along the way to introducing readers to Michael Harrington, the future chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, who two years earlier, had written The Other America, his 1962 best-selling look at poverty:

In his State of the Union address, the president had told the country he wanted not only to alleviate suffering but to actually “cure poverty.” No American leader had ever taken on poverty in this way before. There wasn’t even a real poverty office yet, so the new poverty czar worked from a suite at the Peace Corps, which he already headed. The focus of the author’s book was the cycle of poverty in one region, Appalachia. The man had also seen poverty in the city where he grew up, St. Louis. In St. Louis the poverty was in part caused by government plans gone wrong, as in the case of the bulldozing of streets people loved in the name of moving them into public housing slums they didn’t love. America, the author thought, should invest billions to abolish poverty. It was incredible that America knew so much about poverty and had done so little. The state governments could not do this work. State governments were beholden to retrograde conservative legislatures. For systemic change, the author had come to believe, there was “no place to look except toward the federal government.”

The Land Where Times Stands Still

In a nice touch, Shlaes holds off on announcing Shriver’s, Harrington’s and Johnson’s names, or the date of this incident for a couple of pages, adding that “The story sounds like something that could happen today,” yet another reminder that “Progressivism” is the land where time stands still. ‘60s-era liberals would learn the hard way (actually, most never learned them at all) the lessons taught by former British prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple in his brilliant 2001 book on poverty in England, Life at the Bottom. Its subtitle, “The Worldview That Makes the Underclass,” is a reminder that poverty also has a behavioral component; simply throwing money at the problem wasn’t the solution. In 1965, one of Shlaes’ recurring players, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote his 1965 report on welfare, titled, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action:

The memo quantified what the mayors had been finding anecdotally: that black unemployment was no longer marching in tandem with white unemployment, as it had in the 1950s. Black unemployment stayed higher longer. And even when black unemployment dropped, applications for welfare payments did not. Moynihan suggested this change was due to something more than the departure of jobs from cities and from union-dominated states. Black children suffered because of the breakup of the black family. When they became teenagers, they failed to find the education or focus necessary for employment. This story line made intuitive sense to Moynihan, whose own childhood had featured more than one father. Boys like the young Moynihan struggled when they encountered the discipline of the workplace. Moynihan traced the roots of the black problem back to slavery, and noted that black families’ troubles had been exacerbated from the New Deal on by welfare programs and the isolation of what Moynihan termed “urbanization”—exemplified through the Pruitt-Igoes. Blacks in the 1960s overall were faring, Moynihan said, “worse, not better.” Moynihan’s report concluded that the United States somehow had to help the black family, and that only by helping that family would America see the black American get “full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship.” In other words, families, not community rights, not housing, were where the federal government should do its work.

As a result of this report, Shlaes writes that Moynihan became a pioneering victim of what we now refer to as liberalism’s cancel culture. “At the beginning of a civil rights conference in the fall of 1965, one Johnson official had, tongue in cheek, blithely announced ‘I have been reliably informed that no such person as Daniel Patrick Moynihan exists.’ That had hurt.”

Union City Blues

The Official Boomer Mythology of the 1960s has a sprawling cast, with everyone from JFK and LBJ to the Rat Pack, the Beatles, Charles Manson, Ho Chi Minh, and the NASA astronauts playing their parts. But like her previous books, Shlaes takes a sort of New Journalism approach to telling the story of the Great Society and its aftermath, focusing on several key players who weave their way in and out of her narrative. Some, such as LBJ and Richard Nixon are still known to this day. But others are largely forgotten now. Looking back in 2020, perhaps the most surprising players in Shlaes book are America’s various industrial unions, especially the United Automobile Workers, led by Walter Reuther. While 1962’s “Port Huron Statement” is still somewhat well known (it was mentioned in 1998’s The Big Lebowski and featured in a 2008 episode of Mad Man), what is little-known is the role that Reuther’s union played in its creation. “The Port Huron Statement,” co-written by young radical Tom Hayden, demanded, in its florid language, among many other things, “A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency, and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before.”

It was written at a Michigan retreat owned by Reuther’s United Auto Workers:

It would be Reuther to whom Attorney General Kennedy would turn in 1963 when Alabama courts set an exorbitant bail for the release of King and fellow protesters from a Birmingham jail. Reuther and others would raise $160,000 and dispatch two UAW staffers—Irving Bluestone and William Oliver—to Birmingham, their midsections bulging with cash in money belts. Reuther’s support for Martin Luther King was admired by whites and blacks alike. Reuther was one of the few whites who would speak at a march on Washington for civil rights the following year. The largely black crowd on the Mall would applaud, though not everyone in the crowd recognized him. “Who is that?” one member of the crowd asked another. “Don’t you know him?” came an answer. “That is the white Martin Luther King.” It seemed that in every new movement—or what promised to be a movement—Reuther or his people were present financially and physically, obviously or behind the scenes.

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There is little evidence that Reuther or others at the top of the UAW seriously scrutinized drafts of the Port Huron Statement. What the UAW cared about was the scale of the potential constituency that students represented. At the beginning of the 1960s, there had been more than 3.6 million Americans enrolled in institutions of higher education, up from 2.4 million at the beginning of the decade before.41 That figure was set to double in the coming decade. Students would join workers in a great future UAW. And the UAW could also find much to like in the principles that had come out of Port Huron. The first advantage was the name, “Port Huron Statement,” rather than “Manifesto,” which felt too close to Karl Marx for political comfort. Many of the points actually read as though they had come out of Reuther’s UAW propaganda mills, as they may have. In addition to emphasizing income inequality, the statement noted that “the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock,” a concentration of wealth that Reuther also railed against. The students noted the domination of the military in the economy—Reuther was concerned about that, too. The statement quoted Charles Erwin Wilson, who had headed GM, as noting that the country could be characterized as living in a “permanent war economy.” Well, in a way, the country was.

Tom Hayden himself pops up at several points in Great Society, none more infuriating than when in the fall of 1965, he, Herbert Aptheker, “a respected scholar of Marx and theoretician of the American Communist Party,” and anti-war Spelman professor Staughton Lynd decided to take their Grand Tour of socialism. The trio visited Prague, Moscow, Beijing, and ultimately, Hanoi. There, the North Vietnamese government arranged a meeting with an American airman who had been shot down and taken prisoner, whom the trio tried to convince was on the wrong side of war, foreshadowing the much more famous visit of Hayden’s future paramour, Jane Fonda, to North Vietnam:

As reports published later show, the travelers missed much of what was going on in North Vietnam. The prowess of North Vietnam’s youthful sharpshooters was not the only reason the North Vietnamese Army was downing so many American bombers. Soviets were aiding Ho militarily, bringing hundreds of North Vietnamese to the Soviet Union to learn to operate Soviet surface-to-air missiles. The Russians were also sending the North Vietnamese the missile launchers, and the missiles. Hanoi was at this time no easy place to live…The Soviet definition of communism..was electrification, yet in Vietnam electricity was scarce or unavailable.



While we think of the Great Society as beginning with LBJ wanting to emulate his idol FDR during a time of relative prosperity for millions of Americans, some of its elements have their origins in the previous decade, especially housing and urban renewal. Perhaps the most infamous example of this approach was at the St. Louis project whose full name was The Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and William Igoe Apartments, but known universally as Pruitt-Igoe. First contemplated in the late 1940s, and completed in the last days of a still segregated Missouri:

The St. Louis project, like [Washington, DC’s] HUD building so much later, was enormous: thirty-three towers of eleven stories each on their blueprints. The city named the two complexes after two heroes of St. Louis: a Tuskegee Airman who died at the end of World War II, Wendell O. Pruitt; and a congressman, William Igoe, who knew St. Louis’s needs especially well because he had, in the Depression era, served on the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. The care carried over to the architecture. To design Pruitt-Igoe, the authorities selected a modern architect who in his day was thought to be as promising as Marcel Breuer, Minoru Yamasaki, the same architect the Johnsons would later consider for the presidential library. Yamasaki took pains to distinguish what he did from Breuer brutalism: “I cannot envision buildings which are too heavy and brutal just for sensational effect,” he said once. Still, Yamasaki’s buildings, like Breuer’s, were stark and large.

Minoru Yamasaki’s name would be attached to another doomed modernist complex: the original New York World Trade Center, vaporized by Al-Qaeda on September 11th, 2001.

While the World Trade Center was German Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe’s pioneering 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings scaled up to gargantuan proportions, for Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki took as his influence the concepts of Swiss-born French modernist Le Corbusier, who was obsessed with building tall apartment buildings in a park-like setting. Corbusier hated the street, which he viewed as messy and chaotic, and in 1925, developed a plan for Paris, with its downtown leveled and replaced with a series of giant cruciform-shaped tower blocks in parks crisscrossed by elevated freeways. (No wonder during WWII, Corbusier was a Vichy collaborator.) This approach, only slightly miniaturized, became the core of America’s urban renewal projects in the 1950s and ‘60s.

It certainly looked good on paper and during the tabletop model phase of building design. However, as Shlaes writes, a critic of modernist architecture, New York’s Jane Jacobs, was able to see the advantages that the messy street had over Corbu’s sleek apartment blocks and green parks:

New York’s Moses had leveled neighborhoods in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Now Robert Moses claimed that Hudson Street was “blighted” and vowed to replace it as well. But the view from her Hudson Street window did not look like blight to Jacobs. Indeed, Hudson Street enchanted her. From the first stirrings of a garbage truck to the last rowdies emerging from the White Horse Tavern at night, the street was always busy. Locals emerged from their doorways, shopped in the dime stores, and, most important, looked after one another. The “eyes on the street,” as Jacobs called them, were always there. In its mixture of pedestrians, trucks, and public transport, Hudson Street was something like a European street, the sort the Beatles would capture in their ode to a street in their hometown, Liverpool, “Penny Lane.”

* * * * * * * *

Snatching time in a small office her husband had rented for her in an all-male rooming house, Jacobs had recently penned a whole volume on the flaws of the development culture, titling the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In Death and Life, Jacobs offered a powerful critique of federal housing policy, arguing that the original hostility to cities was simply wrongheaded and outdated.

When it came to design, Jacobs said, the planners were deluding themselves, especially when they told each other that, as Robert Moses said, placing a park around a murderously dull high-rise mitigated its evil. A park was nothing unless it was surrounded by a complex set of businesses and homes, a place where families, schoolchildren, shoppers, and office people appeared all day long.

Nowhere was this proven out more than Pruitt-Igoe. In 1955, after Brown v. Board of Education, segregation was banned, whites quickly fled Pruitt-Igoe, leaving a largely black population at the mercy of the development’s myriad roaming gangs. This turned Pruitt-Igo’s park-like setting into a vast no-man’s-land, creating a war of wills between themselves, who loved nothing more than smashing the complex’s exterior lights, and the designers, who were forced to design increasingly sophisticated ways to protect them vandalism.

This was a recurring theme in LBJ’s Great Society: move the poor into disastrous modernist apartment blocks and attempt to run the rest of America through, to borrow a line from Tom Wolfe, row after Mies van der Rohe of modernist office buildings in Washington DC. The poor resented being uprooted, and America’s governors, expecting the federalism promised to them in America’s Constitution, resented being told what to do by LBJ’s wiz-kids.

The 1960s: When California Was Still the Future

In contrast to the Union-dominated corporatist fusion of big business and liberal government in the 1960s, Shlaes returns periodically to Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore of Fairchild Semiconductor, which would eventually rebrand itself with a now-universally known name: Intel. In the 1960s, Noyce and Moore were creating Silicon Valley and the technological future we started to take for granted by the 1990s: the personal computer, which would be connected to the world via another 1960s invention: the Internet. Noyce and Moore operated very differently from 1960s corporate behemoths. There shops were non-union, but with equity an option to most employees. (Silicon Valley has many stories of secretaries and other mid-level employees becoming quite wealthy when other Silicon Valley corporations such as Apple went public.)

Naturally, in response, Michael Harrington went both Luddite and Orwellian:

Harrington had just published a book that argued that technology, Noyce’s and Moore’s magic, was yielding a “slave civilization,” with machines as master of workers. Harrington suggested that modern ills would be reduced if America achieved true socialism, which he defined as “the freedom of individual man.”

It’s What’s Happening Baby!

Perhaps the most surrealistic moment in Shlaes book, was the effort in 1965 by Shriver to craft a TV show to sell the Great Society to the proverbial Youth of America. Titled, in true-“Bob Hope in a hippie wig” sixties jargon, It’s What’s Happening Baby!, the show ran on CBS on June 28, 1965, and was hosted by New York disk jockey Murray Kaufman, who dubbed himself both “Murray the K,” and “the Fifth Beatle,” for his role in helping break the Liverpool band in America. (The Beatles, while appreciating his efforts, never viewed Kaufman as “the Fifth Beatle.”) Kaufman managed to rope in surprisingly heavyweight talent: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Ray Charles, Bill Cosby, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Righteous Brothers. Arguably, that heady moment – Socialism! Television! Rock & Roll! — was the Great Society at its zenith. Shortly thereafter, as Shlaes writes, the Watts and Detroit riots occurred, the latter playing a key role in that city’s downfall from America’s richest, to its current post-Hiroshima-like state. As Shlaes writes, rioting was virtually anticipated by the Great Society’s masterminds, culminating in the 1968 Democratic National Convention with its left-on-left violence, beamed into Americans’ homes thanks to its three television networks:

Indeed, the bitter truth Reuther had to concede was that Chicago was in part Reuther’s own fault. Some of the protesters were in Chicago in the first place because Reuther’s own offices had stationed them there. Others whom the UAW had supported elsewhere, in ERAP programs in the cities, had also converged. The SDS members had teamed up with a new and noisier group, the pro-violence Youth International Party, or Yippies. The Yippies were a kind of combo of performance artists and political guerrillas. They threatened to put the drug LSD in Chicago’s water supply, and embarrassed the heretofore largely dignified antiwar movement.

How Richard Nixon Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great Society

While the sixties began with the optimism of JFK’s New Frontier, the real frontier that emerged, that of Vietnam, assassinations, radical chic, and riots, culminating in the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention, led to Richard Nixon’s narrow election that year, running as “the law and order candidate.” Like Eisenhower before him with the New Deal, Nixon, it was widely believed by voters, would roll back Johnson’s Great Society programs. Instead, as Shlaes wrote, he expanded them. “Total annual entitlement outlays grew 20 percent faster under the Republican Nixon than under President Johnson, the Democrat.”

Shlaes devotes a few paragraphs to an effort by Nixon at triangulation to help wind down the Vietnam War, that is currently having disastrous consequences, which began dominating headlines gradually, and then suddenly, to borrow from Hemingway, shortly after her book was published in late 2019. Nixon also went to China in early 1972 in part, Shlaes writes, to help keep his inflation-riddled economy out of the news.

In an effort to salvage the economy during that election year, Nixon’s liberal governance culminated, Shlaes writes, in his introduction of wage and price controls a few months ealier. Shlaes devotes a detailed look at how Nixon brought together Chairman of the Federal Reserve Arthur Burns, free marketers Herbert Stein, and George Shultz, who ultimately, as Wikipedia notes, drafted “temporary wage and price controls, allowed the dollar to float against other currencies, and ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold. Nixon’s monetary policies effectively took the United States off the gold standard and brought an end to the Bretton Woods system, a post-war international fixed exchange-rate system.” As Shlaes writes in response:

No one at Camp David would ever go as far as the libertarian Murray Rothbard, who several days later would put his opinion bluntly: “On August 15, 1971, fascism came to America.” But all the economists saw that, with the Camp David measures, they were moving the economy farther away from traditional capitalism. As the Spectator of London, reviewing Nixon policy a year later, would conclude, “President Nixon, like Mr. Wilson, is turning socialist.” The provisional name the White House team had given to the package was the New Economic Policy. Later, however, “NEP” would be quickly dropped when the Administration realized that it was Lenin’s old name for a program in communist Russia.

Shlaes’ book ends, appropriately enough, with the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, which the liberal New Republic magazine dubbed “The Death of Moderns.” Sadly, it wasn’t death of the philosophy that drove the Great Society; AOC’s Moral Equivalent of War “Green New Deal” is but the latest reminder. Or as Shlaes writes in the epigraph of her book, “Nothing is new, it is just forgotten.”

In his review of Great Society at Reason magazine, John McClaughry writes:

And that brings Shlaes to her trenchant conclusion. Quoting the economist Friedrich Hayek, she concludes that grand governmental schemes to broadly reorder society are doomed to fail. Public planners do not have adequate information from the grassroots, and they cannot collect information from a nonexistent price system. The Great Society program deserves to go down in U.S. history as a baneful example of a far-ranging, high-sounding, politically motivated experiment that turned out to be largely futile in achieving its hopes, proposed and carried out by theoreticians and planners who (to borrow from Moynihan) simply did not know what they were doing. With the notable exceptions of the civil rights bills, this was a sorry legislative era that festers in the memory of many people still living.

Ronald Reagan appears several times as part of Shlaes cast, first as a spokesman for GE, which, like Nixon talked conservative, but fully embraced the benefits of big government, and later as governor of California, leading a quixotic fight against the Great Society. Because her book ends in 1972, we don’t see his election to the presidency in 1980.  But his two successful terms in office were, in part, a rebuke to the failures of the Great Society, which America is still dealing with today, not least of which because of an ever-expanding budget. As he liked to say, “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” To understand why, read Amity Shlaes’ Great Society.