Health, Education, and Welfare

President Lyndon Johnson tapped John Gardner to succeed Anthony J. Celebrezze as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the summer of 1965. Gardner became Johnson’s domestic field commander, charged with engineering a wide array of programs that made up Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society.”

As secretary, Gardner was critical to enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act; launching Medicare and Medicaid, the bill having been signed into law July 30, 1965; implementing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); and launching the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, following release of the report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television and passage of the Public Broadcasting Act in April 1967.

Yet the massive domestic agenda competed with the demands of the rapid escalation of the war in Vietnam. Increasingly, Gardner saw the social and material costs of the war as a threat to the Great Society programs that he believed in so deeply. As a result, Gardner's inability to give the President his full support as a member of the Cabinet led to his decision to resign as Secretary, effective March 1, 1968. Then, on Sunday evening, March 31, 1968, President Johnson spoke to the nation, famously concluding "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

John W. Gardner, swearing in, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

August 18, 1965

John W. Gardner is sworn in as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by Secretary of State Dean Rusk. President Lyndon B. Johnson is to Gardner's right, Vice President Hubert Humphrey to his left. Rusk was Gardner’s neighbor in Scarsdale, New York, and fellow foundation president until he was called to serve as Secretary of State in 1961 by President Kennedy.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 is still the conceptual and structural basis of the federal aid program today, called ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act. Gardner’s work with that task force was just crucial, and that will be a monument which will stand.

Michael Kirst, Emeritus Professor, Stanford's Graduate School of Education
John W. Gardner and Lady Bird Johnson on a school bus, 1967
John W. Gardner, Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare
John W. Gardner, Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare

From left to right:

With First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in the South, 1967

As secretary, Gardner led Johnson’s domestic agenda including the War on Poverty and the fight for civil rights

Secretary Gardner launches the implementation of Medicare, 1966

The goal is not to achieve wholeness by suppressing diversity, nor to make wholeness impossible by enthroning diversity, but to preserve both. I don't think it is venturing beyond the truth to say that ‘wholeness incorporating diversity’ defines the transcendent task for our generation.

John W. Gardner, Stanford Centennial Commencement, 1991
HEW: Congressional Hearings : Topics from John W. Gardner Memoirs
HEW / Congress : Topics from John W. Gardner Memoirs
John W. Gardner memoirs : HEW: Congress. tape G
John W. Gardner memoirs : HEW: Legislation. tape 15
John W. Gardner memoirs : HEW: Legislation. tape I

Memoirs: HEW

Listen to Gardner's recollections about his time at HEW. Tapes recorded in the mid-1990s by his daughter, Francesca Gardner.

Vietnam War and the Domestic Agenda

In January-February 1966, following a State of the Union address in which Johnson asserted that prosecution of the war would not threaten the viability of the Great Society, US and South Vietnamese representatives gathered in Honolulu to discuss strategy for the war, including for pacification and broad reforms. John Gardner was among the Cabinet members in attendance (fourth from right, seated next to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara). The strategy determined there led to a massive scaling of the war over the next two years. In the end, it gutted the resources for domestic programs and contributed to widespread unrest in the US.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library - Serial Number A1886-5
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library - Serial Number A1886-5

To learn more about Gardner's time as Secretary of HEW, read Gardner's oral history with the LBJ Presidential Library, conducted by David G. McComb in 1971.