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Lyndon Johnson Fights Two Wars: One on Poverty, the Other on Communist Expansion

LBJ_NARAviaWikiCommonsWhen Lyndon Johnson appeared before a joint session of the House and Senate to deliver his third State of the Union Address, he pressed the need for two different policy priorities: one domestic, and the other military. Two years before, he had announced his determination to fight a war on poverty. Later in the same year he had requested Congressional authorization to increase the US military engagement in Vietnam. By now, Johnson’s critics were pointing out a conflict between the two agendas; the nation did not have the resources to fight a war on poverty and a war in Vietnam at the same time, they said. In his speech on January 12, 1966, Johnson acknowledged the difficulty: “Because of Vietnam we cannot do all that we should, or all that we would like to do.” He promised that his administration would “attack waste and inefficiency” in an effort to stretch the federal dollar. But he insisted on pressing forward on both the domestic and defensive fronts. He argued that the war in Vietnam was necessary to defend American freedom, while the war on poverty, he implied, preserved the justice of the American experiment:

There are men who cry out: We must sacrifice. Well, let us rather ask them: Who will they sacrifice? Are they going to sacrifice the children who seek the learning, or the sick who need medical care, or the families who dwell in squalor now brightened by the hope of home? Will they sacrifice opportunity for the distressed, the beauty of our land, the hope of our poor?

Time may require further sacrifices. And if it does, then we will make them.

But we will not heed those who wring it from the hopes of the unfortunate here in a land of plenty.

I believe that we can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam. But if there are some who do not believe this, then, in the name of justice, let them call for the contribution of those who live in the fullness of our blessing, rather than try to strip it from the hands of those that are most in need. . . . .

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