Protecting the Great Society

Download the transcript.

Gaylord Nelson gave this speech to a June 6, 1969 meeting of the Americans for Democratic Action as the winds behind liberalism's sails appeared to be diminishing.

The Vietnam War increasingly sapped up the funding for the social programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. In 1968 Democrats lost the White House to Richard Nixon, who pledged to curtail public spending and bring the heavy hand of the law down on urban rioters. Nelson's resolve, however, was as strong as ever.

Following his reelection in 1968, Nelson was appointed chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment, and Poverty. He successfully challenged Nixon's attempt to dismantle the Office of Economic Opportunity, which offered funding to a wide array of antipoverty programs, from public works jobs to Head Start.

Senator Nelson continued to insist that problems of poverty, education, health care, and the environment must be met with the same outpouring of public spending that had built the nation's military and technological supremacy.

Despite mounting conservative opposition, Nelson remains in this speech remarkably optimistic, believing liberals "are approaching the kind of consensus that will make effective political action possible."

A few months after this speech, Nelson proposed the idea for Earth Day to force such consensus on resistant fellow senators. As he hoped, Earth Day and its environmental mobilization did "make effective political action possible" and launched an environmental decade in Washington.