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The Second World War was an international conflict fought from 1939 to 1945 involving Germany, Italy, and Japan, who were known as the Axis powers, and France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, who were known as the Allies. The war officially commenced in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland when Great Britain and France countered by declaring war on Germany. The United States attempted to remain neutral in the war, but it was thrust into the worldwide conflict when Japan attacked the unsuspecting American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the U.S. declared war on Japan, thus causing Italy and Germany to declare war on the U.S. While the Allies seemingly “won” the war because of the surrenders of Germany and Japan, no single country truly benefited from the catastrophic fighting. American society was greatly changed after WWII, bringing about many issues that future presidents would have to settle, such as poverty and social welfare. The issue of social welfare arose in the U.S. due to the belief that the government should provide economic assistance to groups of people to address problems such as poverty – especially after the harsh effects of the Great Depression – in which several US presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and their administrations became heavily involved in after WWII.
President Dwight Eisenhower came into office in 1953 with very little experience, but he was also one of the most politically successful presidents of the postwar era. He avoided creating many new initiatives and continued the work of earlier reformers, such as his predecessor, President Truman. However, Eisenhower aspired to limit federal activities and encourage private enterprise; he lowered federal support for farm prices and “removed the last limited wage and price controls maintained by the Truman administration.” He also “opposed the creation of new social service programs such as national health insurance” and steadily strove to reduce federal expenditures (Glass, 1). The right wing of his Republican party urged the president to overturn the welfare policies of the New Deal, but Eisenhower resisted. On the contrary, in 1954 he agreed to extend the Social Security system, originally initiated in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to an additional ten million people and unemployment compensation to an additional four million people and agreed to increase the legal minimum hourly wage from 75 cents to one dollar. The legislation also increased payments to all retired workers by at least 60 dollars a year while raising annual benefits for future retirees to as much as 4,200 dollars (Glass, 1). Not long after, the Eisenhower administration passed what may be its most significant legislative accomplishment and the largest public operation in American history, known as the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which authorized 25 billion dollars for a ten-year project to build over 40,000 miles of interstate highways. Overall, the Eisenhower administration avoided creating any new large-scale programs for social welfare, but it did expand on former programs and was able to greatly improve the benefits they offered individuals.
When Eisenhower’s presidency ended in 1961, John F. Kennedy succeeded him and even though his presidency was cut short, he was still able to create his own economic and social programs as part of his “New Frontier.” Before Kennedy was even elected he offered a long list of major proposals to achieve his goals, including establishing a volunteer Peace Corps to assist undeveloped countries, raising the minimum wage and broadening its coverage, raising Social Security benefits, providing medicare, providing federal aid to education, creating a federal department of urban affairs, and increasing the power of the federal government to deal with economic recessions. Although Congress refrained from passing all of Kennedy’s reforms, a Peace Corps was established and Social Security benefits and the minimum wage were raised (U.S. Department of Labor, 1). Despite the unfortunate fact that Kennedy was assassinated shortly into his first term and was not able to accomplish all that he aspired to, he still had a lasting impact on the nation with his reforms and accomplishments.
Vice president Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. During his presidency from 1963 to 1966, Johnson was able to accomplish more than most of his predecessors by not only winning support for many New Frontier proposals but also by constructing his own reform program known as the “Great Society.” Johnson assisted the federal government in developing the first major new social welfare programs since the 1930s to contribute to what he called his “war on poverty.” The most significant of these being Medicare, which was a program enacted in 1965 to provide federal aid for the medical expenses of the elderly. The program seemed to end the debate about national health assistance and whether it was “socialized medicine” or not and pacified critics by simply shifting the responsibility of medical expenses from the patients to the government rather than giving the elderly special treatment at the expense of others. Johnson also drove the creation of the Medicaid program in 1966, which extended federal medical assistance to welfare recipients and virtually all poverty-stricken individuals. Another important reform Johnson was able to establish was the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which created an assemblage of new programs for education, housing, employment, and health-care. However, the OEO was controversial due to its commitment to the idea of Community Action, or an effort to involve members of the programs designed to help them. This program provided jobs for many poor people and gave them valuable experience in administrative and political work. Many of the men and women involved in Community Action, including many Hispanic and black politicians, grew to obtain careers in politics. However, although this program helped reduce poverty in some areas, it failed overall due to inadequate funding. Lastly, the Johnson administration worked to improve decaying cities with the Housing Act of 1961, which offered cities 4.9 billion dollars in federal grants for the conservation of open spaces, the development of mass-transit systems, and the subsidization of middle-income housing. In addition, Johnson managed to achieve something that Kennedy had fought hard for but failed to achieve: federal aid to public education. The Johnson administration passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in order to extend services to both private and provincial schools; these services were not based on the needs of the schools like in the past, however, bur rather the economic conditions of the students. Although the Great Society reforms of social welfare immensely increased federal spending, they were some of the most innovative and aided the American population living in poverty hugely.
After reviewing a timeline of the postwar U.S. presidents, it is safe to say that America experienced numerous changes, both positive and negative. The social welfare system of the country advanced remarkably during this time and many presidential administrations contributed to its growth with the development of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which continue to be vital components of American life today, and many more. However, new social welfare programs did not stop evolving after these three presidents; an abundance of new programs have also been created since WWII and will continue to evolve.
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