1964 Twenty-five Years Ago

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Two cornerstones of the Johnson administration’s Great Society were set in place in July. On July 2 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during a nationally televised ceremony. The law prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations, in employment or union membership, and in voter registration.

Though Johnson stated that the goal of the law was “to bring justice and hope to our people—and peace to our land,” the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X argued that “you can’t legislate good will.…by promising that which cannot be delivered.” The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., agreed with the President, predicting that the Civil Rights Act would “bring a cool and serene breeze to an already hot summer.” But racial riots later that month in several Eastern cities would demonstrate that the legislation would not solve all the problems that American minority groups faced.

On July 23 the Senate passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Johnson’s bill initiating the War on Poverty. The act authorized $947,500,000 for job training, small-business loans, and community-action programs to fight unemployment and illiteracy. Johnson signed the act into law on August 20.

The Johnson administration had been looking for a pretext to expand military involvement in Vietnam for several months when, on August 2, three North Vietnamese PT boats attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox as it patrolled the Gulf of Tonkin. The North Vietnamese probably struck on the assumption that Maddox had led a South Vietnamese naval attack against Vietcong installations two days earlier.

Though the Maddox suffered no casualties, President Johnson immediately ordered military retaliation against strategic targets in North Vietnam, and on August 6 he asked Congress to give him the power to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States” in Vietnam. His Southeast Asia Resolution would in effect give him the freedom to wage an undeclared war against North Vietnam. “Like grandma’s nightgown,” Johnson would say later, “it covered everything.”

Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon warned that Johnson was misleading Congress about the nature of the attack in the gulf, and Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska stormed that “all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy,” but they stood alone. Johnson’s so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed the Senate by 88 to 2 and the House of Representatives by 416 to O. The congressmen apparently had support at home for their vote: A Harris poll conducted that week indicated that 85 percent of the American population supported Johnson’s military retaliation against the North Vietnamese.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported on August 31 that California had passed New York as America’s most populous state.