Modern history

Conclusion: Liberalism and Its Discontents

The presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson marked the high point of liberal reform. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society expanded the power of the national state to provide both compassionate government and bureaucratic regulation. Liberalism permitted greater freedom for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; expanded educational opportunities for the disadvantaged; reduced poverty; extended health care; and began to clean up the environment. However, liberalism imposed a degree of federal oversight that seemed too restrictive and expensive to many Americans. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War weakened many of these accomplishments and fractured the liberal consensus of the 1960s.

Kennedy and Johnson did not achieve liberal triumphs by themselves. The civil rights movement, with unsung heroes like Bayard Rustin, forced the federal government into action by creating crises and raising the stakes for preserving domestic tranquillity. In addition, Earl Warren’s Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of major pieces of reform legislation and charted a new course for expanding the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

Although the Vietnam War tarnished liberalism, the struggles of African Americans, women, Chicanos, Indians, and gays continued. Indeed, the civil rights movement spurred other exploited groups to seek greater freedom, and they flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s despite the waning of the liberal consensus. Even the counterculture, which lost its most extreme elements to drugs and overindulgence, saw its styles, music, and attitudes toward pleasure blended into mainstream consumer culture.

Liberalism produced unparalleled accomplishments but planted the seeds for its own unraveling. During the 1960s, liberal policies and programs generated powerful counterattacks from radicals and conservatives alike. Indeed, over the next twenty-five years conservatives mobilized the American electorate and gained power by attacking liberal political, economic, and cultural values. The liberal ascendancy proved shortlived, but its impact on the United States has had a lasting effect.

Rather than encompassing any one political and social philosophy, the decade of the 1960s was a time when reform, revolution, and reaction intermingled. Although the era remains known for radicalism and excess, it also saw the revival of conservatism as a force that would dominate politics for the rest of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the next millennium.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

New Frontier (p. 674)

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (p. 677)

Tet Offensive (p. 678)

Freedom Rides (p. 679)

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (p. 681)

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (p. 681)

Freedom Summer (p. 682)

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) (p. 682)

Voting Rights Act (p. 683)

Great Society (p. 684)

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (p. 687)

Port Huron Statement (p. 687)

Free Speech Movement (FSM) (p. 687)

Weathermen (p. 689)

counterculture (p. 689)

Commission on the Status of Women (p. 690)

National Organization for Women (NOW) (p. 690)

Roe v. Wade (p. 691)

Black Panther Party (p. 692)

La Raza Unida (The United Race) (p. 693)

American Indian Movement (AIM) (p. 693)

Stonewall Tavern (p. 694)

Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) (p. 696)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. How did President Kennedy's domestic agenda reflect the liberal political ideology of the early 1960s?

2. How and why did the united states escalate its role in the vietnam War?

3. What role did the federal government play in advancing the cause of racial equality in the early 1960s?

4. How did civil rights activists pressure state and federal government officials to enact their agenda?

5. What problems and challenges did Johnson's Great society legislation target?

6. in what ways did the Warren Court's rulings advance the liberal agenda?

7. How did organizations on the left challenge social, cultural, and economic norms in the 1960s?

8. What groups were attracted to the 1960s conservative movement? Why?



• Young Americans for Freedom founded; Sharon Statement issued


• Kennedy sends military advisers to South Vietnam

• Cuban exile invasion force lands at Bay of Pigs

• CORE mounts Freedom Rides

• Soviets build Berlin Wall


• Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issues Port Huron Statement

• Cuban missile crisis


• U.S. troop levels in Vietnam rise from 16,000 to 536,000


• Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique

• U.S. and Soviet Union agree to Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

• March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

• John F. Kennedy assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald; Lyndon B. Johnson becomes president


• Great Society domestic programs enacted


• Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed

• Freedom Summer project in Mississippi

• Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


• Operation Rolling Thunder begins

• Voting Rights Act passed

• Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision


• Black Panther Party formed

• National Organization for Women (NOW) formed


• American Indian Movement (AIM) founded

• Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated

• Tet Offensive begins in Vietnam


• Gays fight police at Stonewall Tavern


• Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision

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