We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
On March 31st 1968, President Johnson announced, "I will not seek and will not accept the nomination of my party as your President." The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War was the major contributing factor to the president's decision.
Good evening, my fellow Americans:
Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
No other question so preoccupies our people. No other dream so absorbs the 250 million human beings who live in that part of the world. No other goal motivates American policy in Southeast Asia.
For years, representatives of our Government and others have traveled the world-seeking to find a basis for peace talks.
Since last September, they have carried the offer that I made public at San Antonio. That offer was this:
That the United States would stop its bombardment of North Vietnam when that would lead promptly to productive discussions-and that we would assume that North Vietnam would not take military advantage of our restraint.
Hanoi denounced this offer, both privately and publicly. Even while the search for peace was going on, North Vietnam rushed their preparations for a savage assault on the people, the government, and the allies of South Vietnam.
Their attack--during the Tet holidays-failed to achieve its principal objectives.
It did not collapse the elected government of South Vietnam or shatter its army--as the Communists had hoped.
It did not produce a "general uprising" among the people of the cities as they had predicted.
The Communists were unable to maintain control of any of the more than 30 cities that they attacked. And they took very heavy casualties.
But they did compel the South Vietnamese and their allies to move certain forces from the countryside into the cities.
They caused widespread disruption and suffering. Their attacks, and the battles that followed, made refugees of half a million human beings.
The Communists may renew their attack any day.
They are, it appears, trying to make 1968 the year of decision in South Vietnam--the year that brings, if not final victory or defeat, at least a turning point in the struggle. This much is clear:
If they do mount another round of heavy attacks, they will not succeed in destroying the fighting power of South Vietnam and its allies.
But tragically, this is also clear: Many men--on both sides of the struggle--will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on.
There is no need for this to be so.
There is no need to delay the talks that could bring an end to this long and this bloody war.
Tonight, I renew the offer I made last August--to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam. We ask that talks begin promptly, that they be serious talks on the substance of peace. We assume that during those talks Hanoi will not take advantage of our restraint.
We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations.
So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict. We are reducing-substantially reducing--the present level of hostilities.
And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once.
Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area north of the demilitarized zone where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens allied forward positions and where the movements of their troops and supplies are clearly related to that threat.
The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam's population, and most of its territory. Thus there will be no attacks around the principal populated areas, or in the food-producing areas of North Vietnam.
Even this very limited bombing of the North could come to an early end--if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi. But I cannot in good conscience stop all bombing so long as to do so would immediately and directly endanger the lives of our men and our allies. Whether a complete bombing halt becomes possible in the future will be determined by events.
Our purpose in this action is to bring about a reduction in the level of violence that now exists.
It is to save the lives of brave men--and to save the lives of innocent women and children. It is to permit the contending forces to move closer to a political settlement.
And tonight, I call upon the United Kingdom and I call upon the Soviet Union--as cochairmen of the Geneva Conferences, and as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--to do all they can to move from the unilateral act of deescalation that I have just announced toward genuine peace in Southeast Asia.
Now, as in the past, the United States is ready to send its representatives to any forum, at any time, to discuss the means of bringing this ugly war to an end.
I am designating one of our most distinguished Americans, Ambassador Averell Harriman, as my personal representative for such talks. In addition, I have asked Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, who returned from Moscow for consultation, to be available to join Ambassador Harriman at Geneva or any other suitable place--just as soon as Hanoi agrees to a conference.
I call upon President Ho Chi Minh to respond positively, and favorably, to this new step toward peace.
But if peace does not come now through negotiations, it will come when Hanoi understands that our common resolve is unshakable, and our common strength is invincible.
Tonight, we and the other allied nations are contributing 600,000 fighting men to assist 700,000 South Vietnamese troops in defending their little country.
Our presence there has always rested on this basic belief: The main burden of preserving their freedom must be carried out by them--by the South Vietnamese themselves.
We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts--on their determination and resourcefulness--the outcome will ultimately depend.
That small, beleaguered nation has suffered terrible punishment for more than 20 years.
I pay tribute once again tonight to the great courage and endurance of its people. South Vietnam supports armed forces tonight of almost 700,000 men--and I call your attention to the fact that this is the equivalent of more than 10 million in our own population. Its people maintain their firm determination to be free of domination by the North.
There has been substantial progress, I think, in building a durable government during these last 3 years. The South Vietnam of 1965 could not have survived the enemy's Tet offensive of 1968. The elected government of South Vietnam survived that attack--and is rapidly repairing the devastation that it wrought.
The South Vietnamese know that further efforts are going to be required:
--to expand their own armed forces,
--to move back into the countryside as quickly as possible,
--to increase their taxes,
--to select the very best men that they have for civil and military responsibility,
--to achieve a new unity within their constitutional government, and
--to include in the national effort all those groups who wish to preserve South
Vietnam's control over its own destiny. Last week President Thieu ordered the mobilization of 135,000 additional South Vietnamese. He plans to reach--as soon as possible--a total military strength of more than 800,000 men.
To achieve this, the Government of South Vietnam started the drafting of 19-year-olds on March 1st. On May 1st, the Government will begin the drafting of 18-year-olds.
Last month, 10,000 men volunteered for military service--that was two and a half times the number of volunteers during the same month last year. Since the middle of January, more than 48,000 South Vietnamese have joined the armed forces--and nearly half of them volunteered to do so.
All men in the South Vietnamese armed forces have had their tours of duty extended for the duration of the war, and reserves are now being called up for immediate active duty.
President Thieu told his people last week: "We must make greater efforts and accept more sacrifices because, as I have said many times, this is our country. The existence of our nation is at stake, and this is mainly a Vietnamese responsibility."
He warned his people that a major national effort is required to root out corruption and incompetence at all levels of government.
We applaud this evidence of determination on the part of South Vietnam. Our first priority will be to support their effort.
We shall accelerate the reequipment of South Vietnam's armed forces--in order to meet the enemy's increased firepower. This will enable them progressively to undertake a larger share of combat operations against the Communist invaders.
On many occasions I have told the American people that we would send to Vietnam those forces that are required to accomplish our mission there. So, with that as our guide, we have previously authorized a force level of approximately 525,000.
Some weeks ago--to help meet the enemy's new offensive--we sent to Vietnam about 11,000 additional Marine and airborne troops. They were deployed by air in 48 hours, on an emergency basis. But the artillery, tank, aircraft, medical, and other units that were needed to work with and to support these infantry troops in combat could not then accompany them by air on that short notice.
In order that these forces may reach maximum combat effectiveness, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended to me that we should prepare to send--during the next 5 months--support troops totaling approximately 13,500 men.
A portion of these men will be made available from our active forces. The balance will come from reserve component units which will be called up for service.
The actions that we have taken since the beginning of the year
--to reequip the South Vietnamese forces,
--to meet our responsibilities in Korea, as well as our responsibilities in Vietnam,
--to meet price increases and the cost of activating and deploying reserve forces,
--to replace helicopters and provide the other military supplies we need, all of these actions are going to require additional expenditures.
The tentative estimate of those additional expenditures is $2.5 billion in this fiscal year, and $2.6 billion in the next fiscal year.
These projected increases in expenditures for our national security will bring into sharper focus the Nation's need for immediate action: action to protect the prosperity of the American people and to protect the strength and the stability of our American dollar.
On many occasions I have pointed out that, without a tax bill or decreased expenditures, next year's deficit would again be around $20 billion. I have emphasized the need to set strict priorities in our spending. I have stressed that failure to act and to act promptly and decisively would raise very strong doubts throughout the world about America's willingness to keep its financial house in order.
Yet Congress has not acted. And tonight we face the sharpest financial threat in the postwar era--a threat to the dollar's role as the keystone of international trade and finance in the world.
Last week, at the monetary conference in Stockholm, the major industrial countries decided to take a big step toward creating a new international monetary asset that will strengthen the international monetary system. I am very proud of the very able work done by Secretary Fowler and Chairman Martin of the Federal Reserve Board.
But to make this system work the United States just must bring its balance of payments to--or very close to--equilibrium. We must have a responsible fiscal policy in this country. The passage of a tax bill now, together with expenditure control that the Congress may desire and dictate, is absolutely necessary to protect this Nation's security, to continue our prosperity, and to meet the needs of our people.
What is at stake is 7 years of unparalleled prosperity. In those 7 years, the real income of the average American, after taxes, rose by almost 30 percent--a gain as large as that of the entire preceding 19 years.
So the steps that we must take to convince the world are exactly the steps we must take to sustain our own economic strength here at home. In the past 8 months, prices and interest rates have risen because of our inaction.
We must, therefore, now do everything we can to move from debate to action--from talking to voting. There is, I believe--I hope there is--in both Houses of the Congress--a growing sense of urgency that this situation just must be acted upon and must be corrected.
My budget in January was, we thought, a tight one. It fully reflected our evaluation of most of the demanding needs of this Nation.
But in these budgetary matters, the President does not decide alone. The Congress has the power and the duty to determine appropriations and taxes.
The Congress is now considering our proposals and they are considering reductions in the budget that we submitted.
As part of a program of fiscal restraint that includes the tax surcharge, I shall approve appropriate reductions in the January budget when and if Congress so decides that that should be done.
One thing is unmistakably clear, however: Our deficit just must be reduced. Failure to act could bring on conditions that would strike hardest at those people that all of us are trying so hard to help.
These times call for prudence in this land of plenty. I believe that we have the character to provide it, and tonight I plead with the Congress and with the people to act promptly to serve the national interest, and thereby serve all of our people.
Now let me give you my estimate of the chances for peace:
--the peace that will one day stop the bloodshed in South Vietnam,
--that will permit all the Vietnamese people to rebuild and develop their land,
--that will permit us to turn more fully to our own tasks here at home.
I cannot promise that the initiative that I have announced tonight will be completely successful in achieving peace any more than the 30 others that we have undertaken and agreed to in recent years.
But it is our fervent hope that North Vietnam, after years of fighting that have left the issue unresolved, will now cease its efforts to achieve a military victory and will join with us in moving toward the peace table.
And there may come a time when South Vietnamese--on both sides--are able to work out a way to settle their own differences by free political choice rather than by war.
As Hanoi considers its course, it should be in no doubt of our intentions. It must not miscalculate the pressures within our democracy in this election year.
We have no intention of widening this war.
But the United States will never accept a fake solution to this long and arduous struggle and call it peace.
No one can foretell the precise terms of an eventual settlement.
Our objective in South Vietnam has never been the annihilation of the enemy. It has been to bring about a recognition in Hanoi that its objective--taking over the South by force--could not be achieved.
We think that peace can be based on the Geneva Accords of 1954--under political conditions that permit the South Vietnamese--all the South Vietnamese--to chart their course free of any outside domination or interference, from us or from anyone else.
So tonight I reaffirm the pledge that we made at Manila--that we are prepared to withdraw our forces from South Vietnam as the other side withdraws its forces to the north, stops the infiltration, and the level of violence thus subsides.
Our goal of peace and self-determination in Vietnam is directly related to the future of all of Southeast Asia--where much has happened to inspire confidence during the past 10 years. We have done all that we knew how to do to contribute and to help build that confidence.
A number of its nations have shown what can be accomplished under conditions of security. Since 1966, Indonesia, the fifth largest nation in all the world, with a population of more than 100 million people, has had a government that is dedicated to peace with its neighbors and improved conditions for its own people. Political and economic cooperation between nations has grown rapidly.
I think every American can take a great deal of pride in the role that we have played in bringing this about in Southeast Asia. We can rightly judge--as responsible Southeast Asians themselves do--that the progress of the past 3 years would have been far less likely--if not completely impossible--if America's sons and others had not made their stand in Vietnam.
At Johns Hopkins University, about 3 years ago, I announced that the United States would take part in the great work of developing Southeast Asia, including the Mekong Valley, for all the people of that region. Our determination to help build a better land-a better land for men on both sides of the present conflict--has not diminished in the least. Indeed, the ravages of war, I think, have made it more urgent than ever.
So, I repeat on behalf of the United States again tonight what I said at Johns Hopkins--that North Vietnam could take its place in this common effort just as soon as peace comes.
Over time, a wider framework of peace and security in Southeast Asia may become possible. The new cooperation of the nations of the area could be a foundation-stone. Certainly friendship with the nations of such a Southeast Asia is what the United States seeks--and that is all that the United States seeks.
One day, my fellow citizens, there will be peace in Southeast Asia.
It will come because the people of Southeast Asia want it--those whose armies are at war tonight, and those who, though threatened, have thus far been spared.
Peace will come because Asians were willing to work for it--and to sacrifice for it-and to die by the thousands for it.
But let it never be forgotten: Peace will come also because America sent her sons to help secure it.
It has not been easy--far from it. During the past 4Ѕ years, it has been my fate and my responsibility to be Commander in Chief. I have lived---daily and nightly--with the cost of this war. I know the pain that it has inflicted. I know, perhaps better than anyone, the misgivings that it has aroused.
Throughout this entire, long period, I have been sustained by a single principle: that what we are doing now, in Vietnam, is vital not only to the security of Southeast Asia, but it is vital to the security of every American.
Surely we have treaties which we must respect. Surely we have commitments that we are going to keep. Resolutions of the Congress testify to the need to resist aggression in the world and in Southeast Asia.
But the heart of our involvement in South Vietnam--under three different presidents, three separate administrations--has always been America's own security.
And the larger purpose of our involvement has always been to help the nations of Southeast Asia become independent and stand alone, self-sustaining, as members of a great world community--at peace with themselves, and at peace with all others.
With such an Asia, our country--and the world--will be far more secure than it is tonight.
I believe that a peaceful Asia is far nearer to reality because of what America has done in Vietnam. I believe that the men who endure the dangers of battle--fighting there for us tonight--are helping the entire world avoid far greater conflicts, far wider wars, far more destruction, than this one.
The peace that will bring them home someday will come. Tonight I have offered the first in what I hope will be a series of mutual moves toward peace.
I pray that it will not be rejected by the leaders of North Vietnam. I pray that they will accept it as a means by which the sacrifices of their own people may be ended. And I ask your help and your support, my fellow citizens, for this effort to reach across the battlefield toward an early peace.
Finally, my fellow Americans, let me say this:
Of those to whom much is given, much is asked. I cannot say and no man could say that no more will be asked of us.
Yet, I believe that now, no less than when the decade began, this generation of Americans is willing to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Since those words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, the people of America have kept that compact with mankind's noblest cause.
And we shall continue to keep it.
Yet, I believe that we must always be mindful of this one thing, whatever the trials and the tests ahead. The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.
This I believe very deeply.
Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.
For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.
And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.
So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.
Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God's, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.
United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.
Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.
Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.
What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.
Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace--and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause--whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.
Thank you for listening. Good night and God bless all of you.
Johnson Announces He Will Not Run 1968 - History
Political Chiefs Stunned Kennedy Sets News Parley
Top Saigon Officials Confused by Refusal of Johnson to Run
Wisconsin Weights Impact on Voting: Primary Excitement Turns to Surprise- McCarthy and Nixon Wind Up Campaign
Halts North Vietnam Raids Bids Hanoi Join Peace Moves: DMZ Is Exempted: Johnson Sets No Time Limit on Halting of Air and Sea Blows
Tax Rise Pushed: Increase in War Costs Cited- No Specific Cuts Suggested
Rockefeller Urges Albany Leaders to Speed Budget: Ready to Work With Them to Provide Funds as Fiscal Year Opens Today
Liberals Designate Javits Nickerson Race Confused
3 Beachfront Hotels Destroyed by Fire in Rockaway Park
House Plan Spurs Investing Abroad: Committee Asks Creation of Quasi-Public Corporation to Attract Private Capital
Washington, March 31 _ Lyndon Baines Johnson announced tonight: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President."
Later, at a White House news conference, he said his decision was "completely irrevocable."
The President told his nationwide television audience.
"What we have won when all our people were united must not be lost in partisanship. I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in partisan decisions."
Mr. Johnson, acknowledging that there was "division in the American house," withdrew in the name of national unity, which he said was "the ultimate strength of our country."
"With American sons in the field far away," he said, "with the American future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the worlds&apos hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office, the Presidency of your country."
Humphrey Race Possible
Mr. Johnson left Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota as the only two declared candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
Vice President Humphrey, however, will be widely expected to seek the nomination now that his friend and political benefactor, Mr. Johnson, is out of the field. Mr. Humphrey indicated that he would have a statement on his plans tomorrow.
The President informed Mr. Humphrey of his decision during a conference at the latter&aposs apartment in southwest Washington today before the Vice President flew to Mexico City. There, he will represent the United States at the signing of a treaty for a Latin-American nuclear-free zone.
If Mr. Humphrey should become a candidate, he would find most of the primaries foreclosed to him. Only those in the District of Columbia, New Jersey and South Dakota remain open.
Therefore, he would have to rely on collecting delegates in states without primaries and on White House support if he were to head off Mr. Kennedy and Mr. McCarthy.
Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon is the only announced major candidate for the Republican nomination, although Governor Rockefeller has said that he would accept the nomination if drafted.
Mr. Johnson&aposs announcement tonight came as a stunning surprise even to close associates. His main political strategists spent much of today conferring on campaign plans.
They were informed of what was coming just before Mr. Johnson went on national television at 9 P.M., with a prepared speech on the war in Vietnam.
As the speech unfolded, it appeared to be a strong political challenge to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. McCarthy, announcing measures that they had been advocating.
The President thus seemed to be acting in the political tradition of his office- demonstrating that his was the power to act while his critics had only the power to propose.
But Mr. Johnson was really getting ready to place himself in a more obscure tradition- that Vice Presidents who succeed to the Presidency seek only one term of their own. Before him in this century, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry S. Truman followed that pattern.
&aposWilling to Pay Any Price&apos
Mr. Johnson ended his prepared speech and then launched into a peroration that had not been included in the printed text and that White House sources said he had written himself.
He began by quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Of those to whom much is given- much is asked."
He could not say that no more would be asked of Americans, he continued, but he believed that "now, no less than when the decade began, this generation of Americans is willing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
This quotation from a celebrated passage of John F. Kennedy&aposs inaugural address of Jan. 10, 1961, appeared to be a jab at Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who now is campaigning against the war in Vietnam.
The ultimate strength of America, Mr. Johnson continued, in the rather funereal voice and with the solemn expression that he had maintained throughout his 40-minute speech, is not powerful weapons, great resources or boundless wealth but "the unity of our people."
He asserted again a political philosophy he has often expressed- that he was "a free man, an American, a public servant and a member of my party- in that order- always and only."
In his 37 years of public service, he said, he had put national unity ahead of everything because it was as true now as it had ever been that "a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand."
Mr. Johnson spoke proudly of what he had accomplished in the "52 months and 10 days" since he took over the presidency, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Tex., on Nov. 22, 1963.
"Through all time to come," he said. "I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement."
"Our reward," he said, "will come in a life of freedom and peace and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead."
But these gains, Mr. Johnson said, "must not now be lost in suspicion and distrust and selfishness and politics_.I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing."
And so it was that the man who won the biggest political landslide in American history, when he defeated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in the Presidential election of 1964, renounced the idea of a second term.
In American politics, a "draft" could override even words as strong as Mr. Johnson&aposs, and he did stop short of the ultimate denial- the assertion that he would not run if nominated nor serve if elected.
But the first reaction of close associates and of other political observers here was that he meant what he said. Moreover, the candidacies of Senator Kennedy and Senator McCarthy would make a draft even of an incumbent President virtually impossible.
Roosevelt Move Recalled
Still, if Vice-President Humphrey does not enter the race, suspicion will undoubtedly be voiced that Mr. Johnson is only trying to stimulate a draft.
Some observers with long memories recall that in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had Senator Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky read the Democratic National Convention a message in which Mr. Roosevelt said that he had "never had and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office."
The convention nevertheless nominated Mr. Roosevelt for a third term, and he won.
Mr. Roosevelt was not opposed for nomination by any candidate considered as powerful as Senator Robert Kennedy, however. In addition Senator McCarthy appears likely to win the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, after having made a strong showing in New Hampshire.
The low point to which Mr. Johnson&aposs political fortunes have fallen was dramatized in a Gallup Poll published today. It showed that his conduct of his office had the approval of only 36 per cent of those polled, while his handling of the war in Vietnam was approved by only 26 per cent.
The war was unquestionably the major factor in Mr. Johnson&aposs slump in public esteem. He began a major escalation in February, 1965, by ordering the bombing of North Vietnam, just a few months after waging a Presidential campaign in which he had convinced most voters that he would not expand what was then a conflict involving only about 16,000 noncombatant American troops.
Over the years since then, the war has required a commitment of more than half a million combat troops, an expenditure of about $30-billion a year and heavy American casualties.
It limited Mr. Johnson&aposs expenditures for domestic programs, alienated many of his supporters in Congress and provoked a widespread and sometimes violent dissent- including draft card burnings, a march of thousands on the Pentagon last year, and ultimately the candidacies of Senators Kennedy and McCarthy.
Nevertheless, a close political associate of the President said tonight that Mr. Johnson had by no means been "forced" out of the race by his opponents, nor was it yet clear that he would fail to win renomination.
"It was going to be a nasty fight but he had a good chance to win it," was his summation of the political situation. He said that one factor in Mr. Johnson&aposs decision probably was that "this war&aposs upset the hell out of him" and as a result he "really didn&apost have his mind on his politics."
There was some speculation tonight that Mr. Johnson might believe he could work more effectively for peace in Vietnam if he were not a partisan candidate for re-election- despite the "lame duck" status that would confer on him.
Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, an old antagonist of Mr. Johnson, said the withdrawal as "the greatest contribution toward unity and possible peace that President Johnson could have made."
To achieve peace, he said, will require "concessions and compromises which would subject a candidate for public office to the charge of appeasement, surrender and being soft on the Communists."
In support of this thesis, Mr. Johnson&aposs speech on Vietnam- which came before his withdrawal announcement- was notably conciliatory, although Senator Gore pointed out that "the President did not reveal a change in war policy tonight. He discussed only tactics- a partial bombing halt."
In the wake of the President&aposs announcement, some observers here were recalling signals that they had failed to recognize.
Theodore White the journalist interviewed Mr. Johnson earlier this week and is reported to have said later that the President&aposs remarks had a "valedictory" tone.
Others who have talked with the president lately have detected a note of "they can&apost take this away from me" when he discussed his domestic and other achievements.
There was little insight here tonight on why Mr. Johnson chose to announce a withdrawal rather than to fight for renomination. One clue may have been in the theme of national unity on which he chose to base his announcement.
Almost since he took office, and at least until the political pressures generated by the war in Vietnam became intense, Mr. Johnson had sounded that same theme of unity.
Early in his Presidency, he seemed to have built a "consensus" of Americans that was reflected in the more than 60 per cent of the vote he won in 1964.
As a reflection of that vote, he could work in 1965 and 1966 with a heavily Democratic, remarkably liberal Congress that passed some of the most far-reaching social legislation of the post-war era- medical care for the aged, voting rights for Southern Negroes, Federal aid to education, and a sweeping civil rights package.
Mr. Johnson campaigned on a unity theme in 1964 and as far back as when he was the Democratic leader in the Senate, from 1952 to 1960, he frequently appealed for "closing ranks" and for "working together."
In 1964, typically, he appealed to the voters to gather in "one great tent" to work together for progress and prosperity and peace.
Thus he was eminently qualified to say, as he did tonight, that "as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to, the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all people. So I would ask all Americans whatever their personal interest or concern to guard against divisiveness and all of its ugly consequences."
On that note, Mr. Johnson took his own personal step to "guard against divisiveness."
He surprised everybody, the way he always likes to do, and it probably pleased him most that the news did not leak out before he announced it himself.
On this day in history, Lyndon Johnson, 36th President of the United States, stunned the nation by announcing “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President.” At a later news conference he averred his decision was “completely irrevocable.”
The Vietnam War had gotten out of control, and the country was polarized. Johnson found himself increasingly under fire from both the right and the left. He was unable to devise a strategy for victory, withdrawal, or peace with honor. Thus he announced he would not run for re-election. The war would eventually claim the lives of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese.
NPR has a very good 5 minute program produced in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of President Johnson’s stunning announcement that he would not seek another term in office. As NPR producer John McDonough observed, “nobody saw it coming.” You can learn more about it, and also hear the president make his historic statement here. You can also read the entire text of the speech here, in which President Johnson begins by proclaiming his intention to wind down the Vietnam War.
Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.
The Real Reason LBJ Didn’t Run for Re-Election in 1968
The author of this corrective piece researched his heavily documented Johnson effort—resulting in the Kansas Press Book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1984)—back in the era 1976 to 1983. He pioneered in use of the LBJ Papers in Austin. Dr. Bornet (soon to be 100) lives busily in Ashland, Oregon and is a frequent contributor to HNN. His new book, “Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career” (130 pages) will be out soon.
Let’s begin with a quick summary: President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the presidency in November, 1963 after the terrible events in Dallas. He ran against Barry Goldwater with great success in 1964. Then he served a full term “in his own right” from 1964 through 1968, stepping down on January 20, 1969 as the presidency changed hands, Democratic to Republican, from his to Richard Nixon’s.
Our concern here is just how did it happen that in the spring of 1968, the President of the United States announced that he would not be running again for president in spring, summer, and autumn, 1968?
Almost any place one looks (except my account of the Johnson presidency!) the answer usually offered is that “the Left” or “Liberals” in the months of February to April, 1968 succeeded in a major goal. They allegedly made sure everybody would be certain that he could never win if he ran in 1968. As Johnson came to sense that, it is said, he found it necessary to abandon any thought, hope, or plan to run because it would be a waste of time—and embarrassing to boot. Several prominent Democrats claimed they were rising toward probable success at the time. (One of them would fail, one would be shot, others would fall by the wayside.) Hubert Humphrey ultimately obtained the nomination and ran an acceptable race—but did not win, against Richard Nixon.
In the years that have passed there has been conjecture as to why LBJ didn’t attempt to run for reelection. It has been easy to speculate that maybe it was the difficulty facing him in obtaining the Democratic nomination that was the problem, not the strength of the Republican Party with its chosen ticket.
Why did LBJ decline to offer himself? The Vietnam War? (Not going well.) Decline of initial enthusiasm for that Great Society? Let’s admit right away that these are extremely important—and relevant—matters to history and for historians.
But what will be contended here, documented, and soon become quite clear (I trust) to one and all, is this: Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson had long since determined (in September, 1964) out loud, and in front of reliable adults, that the campaign of the year they were in (1964) would be The End of LBJ’s Campaigning for office!
That decision, “witnessed” for all practical purposes, would become known and recognized, amply documented in December, 1967, for all practical purposes irretrievably (though not publicly), starting right then. Letters signed and transmitted behind the scenes, written to several top leaders of the day, pronounced the decision of the Johnsons, husband and wife, in a manner allowing for no retreat, change of mind, or finally “stepping up to the plate,” as is said in some circles. Let’s examine some of the evidence.
(Interrupting a moment: This story appeared deep in chapter 12 of my book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 283-305. Offered were footnotes, both single and double, 39 in all. Under the circumstances, what is being offered here to HNN is a readable precis of that account, footnotes deleted, but with several important sources clearly indicated within the prose.)
Let’s admit at once that there is ample evidence of growing opposition to any Johnson election to a second full term in 1968. Little would be gained here by reciting it. That year was a dramatic one, to be sure, with assassinations, a convention with street demonstrations, and a highly visible—and audible—left wing of the Democratic Party yelling ever louder in the hope of crushing the incumbent part of the party as soon as possible, forcing it to give up, in advance of evolving events.
The burden here is proving that Lyndon B. Johnson was not physically “well” and then indicating that the fact was quite clear to the Johnsons, husband and wife. It is evident that his poor health needs documenting. Then we need ample evidence that the candidacy of 1968 was abandoned because of health considerations long in advance of the time for announcing.
Let’s see. His appendix came out in 1937. He had “chest trouble” when serving briefly with the Navy, actually, six to eight bouts with pneumonia. By developing bronchitis he qualified for a 10 percent veterans disability pay (applying for it but then rejecting it). A kidney stone was taken out in 1948, and after a Mayo Clinic stone removal in 1955 he wore a brace for awhile.
Pretty well known is the 1955 “infarction” of the heart: death of part of the muscle. (On that, I am surefooted, for mine was 1977.) My death of a quarter of the heart laid me out. LBJ’s made him prepare for death talk was of retirement, as he stayed in the hospital a month (I, 22 days). Recovery at the Ranch was solid. Still, the recommendation was for “carefully regulated hours of work and rest.”
Unexpected, of course, was inheritance of the Presidency in November, 1963 (and he would have no vice president!). Moving out of the Elms – his home while vice president – LBJ had a very severe cold and a chest condition, but it was kept private. For a time smoking was out, and he had some sort of prescription. Pajamas were worn in part of the afternoons. His diet was carefully supervised. There were massages and enemas (with others commenting), and he routinely avoided shutting doors. An intimate says he concentrated on his physical distress—but one byproduct was hyperawareness of the medical needs of others, ‘tis said. (A reason for Johnson to appreciate Medicare and Medicare?)
It is interesting to read of how comprehensive (and expensive) were the medical costs of Johnson’s government air tours anyplace people and preparations added up. His physician was promoted to vice admiral, and joint appointments for M.D.s were general. Adjacent medical facilities in Texas got shots in the arm. Three days after the 1965 inauguration LBJ was taken by ambulance at 2:26AM, allegedly with a “cold,” but the VP says “chest pains.” (He is described as “solemn” and “grim,” with “fears and apprehensions.” Was there heart arrythemia?)
There was in 1965 “stomach pain.” There were “night sweats.” In October 1965, ten doctors attended a two-hour operation to take out a gall bladder and kidney stone, leading to “limited activities.” There would be abdominal and throat surgery in 1966. Why bother even mentioning here the 40 or so skin pre-cancers or the eye styes? Or his complaints of “foot trouble.”
While an English biographer noted “recurrent anxieties about his health” rather early, it is clear that President Johnson did survive his elected term, returning to the Ranch as planned. More to the point, he came down with chills and fever on December 16, 1967. Lady Bird offers a graphic description of his indolence and demoralization (my choice of words) in the hospital at the time. John Steinbeck said Johnson was “too drawn and too taunt” just then. Precautions were made routinely for a turn to the worse by the incumbent President.
Detouring to the post-presidency a moment: Johnson died before a term beginning in 1969 would have been over! (Before generalizing on that, one should take account of how LBJ abused his wellbeing in post presidential years: heavy drinking and smoking marked those sad months when that past President’s responsibility was minimum. All in all, there is plenty of evidence that President Johnson in office was often seriously ill, that the public was kept ignorant of many episodes indeed, that the major heart attack of 1955 was considered a guidepost to the future by some—not all. Now, it’s time for evidence about retirement not to be ignored.
Lady Bird says in her Diary that the decision to run in 1964 (repeat, 1964!) was only made after searching conferences with cardiologists James Cain and Willis Hurst. They wondered if he was up to a full term as President, that is, four years, either psychologically or physically. (I summarize the group’s opinion in my book: “they thought he should try.” Emphasis mine.) That is, he should try to run in 1964!
Time passed. By mid-1967 it was becoming important that the tired and often discouraged man in the White House get ready to make a decision about running in 1968 and (behind the scenes, of course) let key people know. Fortunately, one decision had been made—over again— on Labor Day, 1967. (Governor John Connelly was sick of serving the national ticket by running as governor of Texas. He had to be told.) At the Ranch, pressed by Lady Bird, Lyndon proclaimed: “All right, you’ve been talking about this for a long time, so we’ll make this decision right now and make you happy…. I’ve decided I won’t run for reelection.”
There is little to be gained by tracing LBJ’s hints and warnings from that point on, but one can. What is relevant is how he handled his mandatory, official, notifications. (We’ll even ignore speculating on the significance of the secret study of Johnson’s life expectancy conducted quietly in 1967.) That intimates were given hints by LBJ in that year is merely interesting. What evidence would have deep and compelling meaning for us, today? How do we really know that the totally private decision of late summer, 1964 was still considered compelling as the time for getting ready for a Real Decision (even if behind the scenes) came into focus at or just before Christmas, 1967?
An early communication of consequence was when Lady Bird told the Johnson’s good buddy Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas in May, 1967. (Some readers may have read of the terrible Fortas summer when the top position on the Court escaped him as the President lost. Jack Valenti, dearest of friends, no stranger to life in the White House, had been told even earlier, by quite a bit. It is wonderful to read in Lyndon’s wife’s diary intimate words reinforcing her unqualified faith in the decision early on not to run.
Far more relevant are these actions: James Webb, head of NASA needed a successor to get ready…. So he was told early. Texas congressman Jake Pickle had to know for many reasons he was told. The time was at hand in autumn, 1967, when the highest of officials had to be advised officially from the top. General Westmoreland was one. McNamara was leaving, he learned, and enroute the General was filled in on facts about Johnson’s health. LBJ candidly discussed “presidents’ health” where talk included the term “invalided.” General Eisenhower was next. (I observed in my book version that LBJ would never have lied to West Point graduates on a matter of this kind.) Ike instantly conveyed what he learned to General Goodpaster, who, advised, says he found it “very revealing” on many matters.
There would seem to be little real gain in moving on at this point to a discussion of exactly how President Johnson chose to reveal to the greater public and to an array of key figures his decision not to run. The time came when it was very late—March, 1968, and the chief executive was weighing all kinds of things: principally just what could he get out of North Vietnam with a conveyed decision that he would no longer be in “that office.”
Need we, having established the truth about the Johnson renunciation of being on the 1968 Democratic ticket, trace any of the events that occurred then and in the more than a half year to come? No but a quotation from astute Richard Nixon is worthwhile. Late in 1967 he said observantly of the sitting President: “He seemed to be running away from…his policies in public” and failing to generate support. So observed the master politician! Not even knowing the decision had been made, that veteran could sense that something important had been decided on a key matter.
Few, or no, individuals were as close to Lyndon Johnson as Arthur Krim (who would in later years lead Hollywood, but at the time was the guarantor of candidate LBJ’s solvency when seeking election. On March 11, 1968 he selected Hubert Humphry to be President’s Club speaker on April 30. As for Humphrey, sitting vice president, he was told well ahead of time, and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State was another who learned of the truth (though he didn’t believe it).
At the appropriate time the crafty President, seeking to get something out of words and deeds, said to a national audience: “…I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” May I now quote my book on the reaction? “Listeners were incredulous. Eric Severeid and other TV anchormen were at a total loss for interpretations, just as Johnson had hoped they would be. Contrary to what some have alleged, Lady Bird was ‘radiant’ to her Lyndon she said, ‘Nobly done, darling.’ ”
Having (I think) established my main point, that Lyndon B. Johnson was not forced out of running for reelection in 1968, I see nothing to be gained by ruminating about reactions nationally in party circles, or among White House aides. Johnson seems to have thought he could/would have won.
Maybe giving Lady Bird the last word is warranted. In autumn, 1967 she had written in private: with four more years in office for a man in his sixties, “bad health might overtake him… a physical or mental incapacitation would be unbearable, painful for him to recognize.” (There had been so many visits by Lady Bird to hospitals!)
My conclusion is sturdy: (page 296) “So, Johnson’s withdrawal from candidacy for another term could have been—but clearly was not—due to Tet, the war in general, rival challengers in his party, the protesters, the polls, the ‘system’ working, any alleged mental quirks or supposed tendencies toward avoiding conflict, or the fear of losing.” His key words of summation were used by me in my chapter title, to wit, “I’VE GONE THE DISTANCE.”
Johnson Announces He Will Not Run 1968 - History
Speeches and other Media Uses by Lyndon B. Johnson,
36th President of the United States,
11/22/63 - 1/20/69
The most comprehensive site is Telephone Conversations at Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. Their Telephone Conversations Release Sample Audio Files contains 6 excerpts from early years.
It may pay first to see excerpted selections at American RadioWorks from Steven Smith and Kate Ellis, White House Tapes - The President Calling with sections on Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. The President Calling - Lyndon B. Johnson has four pages and topics, each with explanatory material on Johnson's unique method of telephone persuasion. Included are "In-Depth Stories" on the wrenching November 1963 transition entitled The Sudden President then comes The Road from Selma on 1965 emergence of the Voting Rights Act then The Vietnam Dilemma (speaks for itself, with some of this from 1964 as Johnson publicly disavowed any intention to broaden American involvement there).
Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program and History and Politics Out Loud also have many illuminating excerpts.
Following are some leading examples of Johnson on the telephone from these four sources, itemized by date(s) of the events.
11/24-29/63 - Selected Telephone Conversations Concerning the Special Commission to Investigate the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (The Warren Commission), November 24-29, 1963 source: LBJ in the Oval Office from History and Politics Out Loud
12/14/63 - LBJ explains his economic philosophy to CEA Chairman Walter Heller, an influential holdover from the Kennedy Administration source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
5/14/64 - LBJ on the Economic Opportunity Act to key Congressman Phil Landrum (D-Ga.), audio source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
7/23/64 - LBJ and Sen. Eastland of Mississippi (arch-enemy of civil rights) on the three civil rights workers murdered there in 1964 source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program
7/29/64 - LBJ Sells the War on Poverty to friend and skeptical Texas Democrat George Mahon source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
7/30/64 - War on Poverty and Racial Tension in the Urban North with Rep. Frank Smith of Mississippi (a rare Mississippi ally who sought to deemphasize racial politics), audio source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
11/5/64 - LBJ Compares the War on Poverty to the Abolition of Slavery, to Senator Joseph Clark (leading Democratic civil rights advocate, from Pennsylvania), audio source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
3/1/65 - Telephone Conversations Release Sample Audio Files - Adam Clayton Powell, mp3 or ram source: Telephone Conversations at Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
12/24/65 - Mayor Daley of Chicago and the Community Action Program of the War on Poverty (as aspect of the War unloved by urban mayors, to say the least), audio source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
2/1/66 - LBJ, Eugene McCarthy, and Vietnam, 1966 conversation with the man who become the first to run against LBJ in 1968 as an antiwar candidate, audio source: Miller Center of Public Affairs - Presidential Recordings Program in Transcript & Audio Highlight Clips
All press conference transcripts are available from Presidential News Conferences by The American Presidency Project.
The President Announcing His Decision to Halt the Bombing of North Vietnam
Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968-69. Volume II, entry 572, pp. 1099-1103. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1970.
Note: The President recorded the address on October 30, 1968, in the Family Theater at the White House for broadcast over nationwide radio and television at 8 p.m. on October 31. In his address he referred to W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus R. Vance, U.S. representatives at the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Army Chief of Staff who preceded General Abrams as U.S. commander in Vietnam.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Good evening, my fellow Americans:
I speak to you this evening about very important developments in our search for peace in Vietnam.
We have been engaged in discussions with the North Vietnamese in Paris since last May. The discussions began after I announced on the evening of March 31st in a television speech to the Nation that the United States&mdashin an effort to get talks started on a settlement of the Vietnam war&mdashhad stopped the bombing of North Vietnam in the area where 90 percent of the people live.
When our representatives&mdashAmbassador Harriman and Ambassador Vance&mdashwere sent to Paris, they were instructed to insist throughout the discussions that the legitimate elected Government of South Vietnam must take its place in any serious negotiations affecting the future of South Vietnam.
Therefore, our Ambassadors Harriman and Vance made it abundantly clear to the representatives of North Vietnam in the beginning that&mdashas I had indicated on the evening of March 31st&mdashwe would stop the bombing of North Vietnamese territory entirely when that would lead to prompt and productive talks, meaning by that talks in which the Government of Vietnam was free to participate.
Our ambassadors also stressed that we could not stop the bombing so long as by doing so we would endanger the lives and the safety of our troops.
For a good many weeks, there was no movement in the talks at all. The talks appeared to really be deadlocked.
Then a few weeks ago, they entered a new and a very much more hopeful phase.
As we moved ahead, I conducted a series of very intensive discussions with our allies, and with the senior military and diplomatic officers of the United States Government, on the prospects for peace. The President also briefed our congressional leaders and all of the presidential candidates.
Last Sunday evening, and throughout Monday, we began to get confirmation of the essential understanding that we had been seeking with the North Vietnamese on the critical issues between us for some time. I spent most of all day Tuesday reviewing every single detail of this matter with our field commander, General Abrams, whom I had ordered home, and who arrived here at the White House at 2:30 in the morning and went into immediate conference with the President and the appropriate members of his Cabinet. We received General Abrams&rsquo judgment and we heard his recommendations at some length.
Now, as a result of all of these developments, I have now ordered that all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam cease as of 8 a.m., Washington time, Friday morning.
I have reached this decision on the basis of the developments in the Paris talks.
And I have reached it in the belief that this action can lead to progress toward a peaceful settlement of the Vietnamese war.
I have already informed the three presidential candidates, as well as the congressional leaders of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties of the reasons that the Government has made this decision.
This decision very closely conforms to the statements that I have made in the past concerning a bombing cessation.
It was on August 19th that the President said: &ldquoThis administration does not intend to move further until it has good reason to believe that the other side intends seriously&rdquo&mdashseriously&mdash&ldquoto join us in deescalating the war and moving seriously toward peace.&rdquo
And then again on September 10th, I said: &ldquoThe bombing will not stop until we are confident that it will not lead to an increase in American casualties.&rdquo
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, all military men, have assured me&mdashand General Abrams very firmly asserted to me on Tuesday in that early, 2:30 a.m. meeting&mdashthat in their military judgment this action should be taken now, and this action would not result in any increase in American casualties.
A regular session of the Paris talks is going to take place next Wednesday, November 6th, at which the representatives of the Government of South Vietnam are free to participate. We are informed by the representatives of the Hanoi Government that the representatives of the National Liberation Front will also be present. I emphasize that their attendance in no way involves recognition of the National Liberation Front in any form. Yet, it conforms to the statements that we have made many times over the years that the NLF would have no difficulty making its views known.
But what we now expect&mdashwhat we have a right to expect&mdashare prompt, productive, serious, and intensive negotiations in an atmosphere that is conducive to progress.
We have reached the stage where productive talks can begin. We have made clear to the other side that such talks cannot continue if they take military advantage of them. We cannot have productive talks in an atmosphere where the cities are being shelled and where the demilitarized zone is being abused.
I think I should caution you, my fellow Americans, that arrangements of this kind are never foolproof. For that matter, even formal treaties are never foolproof, as we have learned from our experience.
But in the light of the progress that has been made in recent weeks, and after carefully considering and weighing the unanimous military and diplomatic advice and judgment rendered to the Commander in Chief, I have finally decided to take this step now and to really determine the good faith of those who have assured us that progress will result when bombing ceases and to try to ascertain if an early peace is possible. The overriding consideration that governs us at this hour is the chance and the opportunity that we might have to save human lives, save human lives on both sides of the conflict. Therefore, I have concluded that we should see if they are acting in good faith.
We could be misled&mdashand we are prepared for such a contingency. We pray God it does not occur.
But it should be clear to all of us that the new phase of negotiations which opens on November 6 th does not&mdashrepeat, does not&mdashmean that a stable peace has yet come to Southeast Asia. There may well be very hard fighting ahead. Certainly, there is going to be some very hard negotiating, because many difficult and critically important issues are still facing these negotiators. But I hope and I believe that with good will we can solve them. We know that negotiations can move swiftly if the common intent of the negotiators is peace in the world.
The world should know that the American people bitterly remember the long, agonizing Korean negotiations of 1951 through 1953&mdashand that our people will just not accept deliberate delay and prolonged procrastination again.
Well then, how has it come about that now, on November 1st, we have agreed to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam?
I would have given all I possess if the conditions had permitted me to stop it months ago if there had just been any movement in the Paris talks that would have justified me in saying to you, &ldquoNow it can be safely stopped.&rdquo
But I, the President of the United States, do not control the timing of the events in Hanoi. The decisions in Hanoi really determine when and whether it would be possible for us to stop the bombing.
We could not retract our insistence on the participation of the Government of South Vietnam in serious talks affecting the future of their people&mdashthe people of South Vietnam. For though we have allied with South Vietnam for many years in this struggle, we have never assumed and we shall never demand the role of dictating the future of the people of South Vietnam. The very principle for which we are engaged in South Vietnam&mdashthe principle of self-determination&mdashrequires that the South Vietnamese people themselves be permitted to freely speak for themselves at the Paris talks and that the South Vietnamese delegation play a leading role in accordance with our agreement with President Thieu at Honolulu.
It was made just as clear to North Vietnam that a total bombing halt must not risk the lives of our men.
When I spoke last March 31 st , I said that evening: &ldquoWhether a complete bombing halt becomes possible in the future will be determined by events.&rdquo
Well, I cannot tell you tonight specifically in all detail why there has been progress in Paris. But I can tell you that a series of hopeful events has occurred in South Vietnam: &mdashThe Government of South Vietnam has grown steadily stronger. &mdashSouth Vietnam&rsquos Armed Forces have been substantially increased to the point where a million men are tonight under arms, and the effectiveness of these men has steadily improved. &mdashThe superb performance of our own men, under the brilliant leadership of General Westmoreland and General Abrams, has produced truly remarkable results.
Now, perhaps some or all of these factors played a part in bringing about progress in the talks. And when at last progress did come, I believe that my responsibilities to the brave men&mdashour men&mdashwho bear the burden of battle in South Vietnam tonight, and my duty to seek an honorable settlement of the war, required me to recognize and required me to act without delay.
There have been many long days of waiting for new steps toward peace&mdashdays that began in hope, only to end at night in disappointment. Constancy to our national purpose&mdashwhich is to seek the basis for a durable peace in Southeast Asia&mdashhas sustained me in all of these hours when there seemed to be no progress whatever in these talks.
But now that progress has come, I know that your prayers are joined with mine and with those of all humanity, that the action I announce tonight will be a major step toward a firm and an honorable peace in Southeast Asia. It can be.
So, what is required of us in these new circumstances is exactly that steady determination and patience which has brought us to this more hopeful prospect.
What is required of us is a courage and a steadfastness, and a perseverance here at home, that will match that of our men who fight for us tonight in Vietnam.
So, I ask you not only for your prayers but for the courageous and understanding support that Americans always give their President and their leader in an hour of trial. With that understanding, and with that support, we shall not fail.
Seven months ago I said that I would not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that were then developing in this political year. Accordingly, on the night of March 31 s t, I announced that I would not seek nor accept the nomination of my party for another term as President.
I have devoted every resource of the Presidency to the search for peace in Southeast Asia. Throughout the entire summer and fall I have kept all of the presidential candidates fully briefed on developments in Paris as well as in Vietnam. I have made it abundantly clear that no one candidate would have the advantage over others&mdasheither in information about those developments, or in advance notice of the policy the Government intended to follow. The chief diplomatic and military officers of this Government all were instructed to follow the same course.
Since that night on March 31 st , each of the candidates has had differing ideas about the Government&rsquos policy. But generally speaking, however, throughout the campaign we have been able to present a united voice supporting our Government and supporting our men in Vietnam. I hope, and I believe, that this can continue until January 20 th of next year when a new President takes office. Because in this critical hour, we just simply cannot afford more than one voice speaking for our Nation in the search for peace.
I do not know who will be inaugurated as the 37 th President of the United States next January. But I do know that I shall do all that I can in the next few months to try to lighten his burdens as the contributions of the Presidents who preceded me have greatly lightened mine. I shall do everything in my power to move us toward the peace that the new President&mdashas well as this President and, I believe, every other American&mdashso deeply and urgently desires.
Vietnam War: A timeline of U.S. entanglement
Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discuss their new PBS documentary series 'The Vietnam War' and the importance of remembering the war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
American soldiers are dropped off by U.S. Army helicopters to join South Vietnamese ground troops to advance in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border, in March 1965 during the Vietnam War. (Photo: Horst Faas, AP)
May 7, 1954: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces defeat the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, effectively ending the 7 ½-year Indochina War.
July 1954: At a conference in Geneva, world powers agree to a divided Vietnam.
Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, control the North. The United States eventually supports an anticommunist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem in the South.
Sept. 10, 1960: Le Duan replaces Ho Chi Minh as First Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi.
Nov. 8, 1960: John F. Kennedy beats Richard Nixon in the U.S. presidential election Lyndon B. Johnson is vice president.
Dec. 20, 1960: Southern revolutionaries, backed by the North Vietnamese Communist Party, form the National Liberation Front, known in Saigon and Washington as the Viet Cong.
June 11, 1963: Self immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon sparks outrage around the world and brings attention to the developing conflict.
Nov. 1-2, 1963: President Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu are murdered during a coup by dissident generals of the South Vietnamese army.
Nov. 22, 1963: Kennedy is assassinated and Johnson is sworn in as president.
Aug. 2-4, 1964: Two supposed incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin lead Johnson to seek congressional approval for direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
March 8, 1965: First Marines land in Danang.
Nov. 14-18, 1965: In the Ia Drang Valley, American troops fight their first large scale battles against the North Vietnamese Army.
College students march against the war in Boston. October 16, 1965 in 'The Vietnam War.' (Photo: Frank C. Curtin, AP via PBS)
April 15 and Oct. 21, 1967: Hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters gather for demonstrations in New York’s Central Park and in Washington.
Summer 1967 to Spring 1968: During a series of “border battles” in the remote locations of Dak To, Con Thien and Khe Sanh, U.S. Army and Marines face relentless onslaughts from North Vietnamese.
Jan. 31, 1968: During the Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launch surprise attacks against targets throughout South Vietnam.
February 1968: In the ancient imperial capital of Hue, communist forces execute at least 2,800 people, mostly South Vietnamese civilians.
Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam
Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F Kennedy as president. Like many ‘hawks’ in the White House, Johnson was a fervent supporter of the ‘Domino Theory’ and he was keen to support South Vietnam against the NLF:
“If we quit Vietnam tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco.”
Johnson was encouraged by his advisors to take up a more forceful approach to the Vietnam conflict and to send in US troops to bolster the South Vietnam Army. The new leader of South Vietnam was General Khanh and he made it clear to Johnson that he did not believe that the South Vietnamese Army could withstand the NLF. Initially Johnson was not keen to send in troops to South Vietnam. He knew that politically that this would not be a popular move and that he was facing an election in 1964. Johnson told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to support Khanh but that this would not include sending in US troops until the November 1964 Presidential election was over. This comment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff was made at the beginning of 1964. They became concerned that the eleven-month gap would be too long for the survival of the South Vietnamese Army.
In this situation the military found itself at odds with their commander-in-chief, the US President. They wanted greater US involvement and they wanted it immediately whereas the President, Johnson, was very aware that full US military involvement might have a negative impact on his chances of winning the 1964 election.
Johnson was not adverse to greater US military involvement – he was simply aware that it would not be well received in some quarters of America. He gave his support to ‘Operation Plan 34B’. This involved sending Asian mercenaries in to North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage. As part of a reconnaissance programme, the ‘USS Maddox’ was sent in to the Gulf of Tonkin to examine North Vietnamese naval defences. The outcome of this was the attack on the ‘Maddox’ by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
Johnson was given the reason he needed to order bombing raids on North Vietnam. As president and commander-in-chief he would have been seen as a weak leader if he had done nothing to counter this – just as both his Chiefs of Staff and he, himself, had bargained on. On national television Johnson told the US public:
“Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.”
Congress gave Johnson near enough total support for his actions (Senate 88 to 2 and House 416 to 0) and also authorised him to take whatever measures he deemed necessary against North Vietnam.
In the lead up to the 1964 presidential election, Johnson was chided by the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, for being too soft in his approach to the North Vietnamese. In response, Johnson told the public that he was not prepared to send US troops thousands of miles overseas to do what the South Vietnamese Army should be doing – protecting its people.
Johnson won the 1964 presidential election with ease. It was not long before US troops were sent to South Vietnam.
In early 1965, Johnson authorised ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which started on February 24 th . This was the wholesale bombing of North Vietnam and NLF-held territory in South Vietnam. Initially, ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ was meant to last for eight weeks – it lasted for three years. The NLF responded to the bombing by attacking US air bases in the South Vietnam. The commander of US advisors in the South, General Westmoreland, informed Johnson that the men he had in the South were inadequate to defend their bases and that he needed more men. Johnson responded by sending in US troops – this time they were not ‘advisors’. On March 8 th 1965, 3,500 US Marines – combat troops – arrived in South Vietnam. Johnson sold this deployment to the US public by claiming that they would be in South Vietnam as a short-term measure. In a poll held in 1965, 80% of those Americans polled indicated that they supported Johnson.
Johnson could never have envisaged what he had started. By the time of the 1968 presidential election, America had become embroiled in a war that was to take on far greater dimensions than anyone could have believed in 1965. Johnson did not stand for the 1968 presidential election and many pundits at the time stated that this was the result of what was happening to US troops in South Vietnam at the time.
Lessons from the Election of 1968
Almost fifty years ago, on March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson stunned everyone by announcing that he would not run for a second term as President. Johnson had gone on television at nine o’clock that evening to address the nation on the war in Vietnam. It was not going well. In the past three years, the United States had dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped by all the belligerents combined in the Second World War. Twenty thousand Americans had died there, four thousand in the previous two months, following a surprise attack, known as the Tet Offensive, by North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. Enemy losses were much higher, but that only made the war seem more horrific and out of control.
I was at home, sitting in the basement, where we kept our television set, listening to Johnson’s speech with my father. He was standing with his back to the screen, so that he would not have to look at Johnson. He was protesting Johnson’s policy on Vietnam. The only person present in the basement to appreciate the symbolism was me.
My father had already registered his opposition in a more substantive way. He had been working in Washington, D.C., for one of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, but he had resigned because he felt he couldn’t work for an Administration that was propping up autocratic regimes in Saigon and napalming the Vietnamese. So we had moved back to Massachusetts, where he took a lesser job with, I assume, a lower salary.
In his address, Johnson announced a reduction of American air strikes and said that he would seek a negotiated settlement, but he also said that he was sending more troops. Then he said, “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.” My father perked up. He did not, however, turn around. “Accordingly,” Johnson went on, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
“He’s not running!” my father shouted to my mother, who was upstairs. She had refused even to listen to Johnson. That’s the kind of house I grew up in. “He’s not running!”
For antiwar liberals like my parents, who had marched in Washington the previous October in a giant demonstration organized by a group known as the Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), Johnson was a monster who had betrayed liberalism, and the knight who slayed him was Eugene McCarthy.
McCarthy was the senior senator from Minnesota, a liberal anti-Communist whose roots, like my parents’, were in New Deal politics. Unlike my parents, McCarthy had a spiritual side. As a young man, he had entered a monastery under the name Brother Conan but was kicked out for the sin of intellectual pride. McCarthy had always had a bit of contemptus mundi about him. Turning your back to the television set was the kind of gesture he would have understood.
In the beginning, McCarthy was a single-issue candidate. He was a dove. He ran against continued American military intervention in Vietnam. But he was also offended by the Administration’s insistence that its war powers were absolute, and by its increasingly transparent lies about the progress of the war. He had come to see the Administration as a danger to democracy. He was an enemy of what used to be called “the imperial Presidency.”
As unpopular as Johnson was in 1968 with Democrats like my parents, he was a man politicians thought twice about crossing. He had won the 1964 Presidential election, against Barry Goldwater, with the highest percentage of the popular vote in American history, and he knew how to squeeze his opponents. Even Democrats in Congress who knew that Johnson was driving the country off a cliff—and by the end of 1967, when four hundred and eighty-five thousand Americans were stationed in Vietnam, the folly of intervention had become plain—were loath to break with him publicly. But McCarthy did. In November, 1967, he announced that he was entering the Democratic Presidential primaries. He was running against a sitting President of his own party. Many people thought that he had committed hara-kiri—a noble act, possibly, but politically insane.
The New Hampshire primary, held on March 12, 1968, made those people think again. It wasn’t because McCarthy did especially well. Johnson’s name was not on the Democratic ballot, but he won easily as a write-in candidate, with forty-nine per cent of the Democratic vote. McCarthy got forty-two per cent, despite the fact that his name was the only name on the ballot, and even though he had five thousand New Hampshire students and two thousand out-of-state volunteers canvassing the state for him. McCarthy received about twenty-two thousand Democratic votes, roughly three votes for every campaign worker.
In national politics, twenty-two thousand was not an intimidating number of votes—twenty-two thousand people would not even fill half of Yankee Stadium—and New Hampshire was not a state that Democrats needed to carry. In the previous five Presidential elections, it had voted Republican four times. (The exception was the Johnson landslide in 1964.) The winner of the Republican primary, Richard Nixon, got eighty-four thousand votes, thirty thousand more than Johnson and McCarthy combined. But blood was in the water, and four days later, on March 16th, Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from New York, declared his candidacy.
If Kennedy hadn’t entered the race, Johnson could have fended off McCarthy. In 1968, the primaries played a minor role in the delegate-selection process. Thirty-six states did not even hold them. The parties controlled the process. The man who eventually won the Democratic nomination, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President, did not enter a single primary.
Robert Kennedy is one of the great what-ifs of American political history. In 1968, he was just forty-two years old. He had the most glamorous name in politics he wore the mantle of martyrdom and he had transformed himself from a calculating infighter—he had managed his brother’s Presidential campaign, in 1960, and served as his Attorney General after the election—into a kind of existentialist messiah. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, he had received a twenty-two-minute standing ovation just by appearing at the lectern.
There was a rawness in Kennedy’s face and voice that seemed to match the national mood. He was the personification of the country’s pain over its fallen leader. And he had the ability to reflect back whatever voters projected onto him. He seemed to combine youth with experience, intellect with heart, street sense with vision. He was a hero to Chicano grape pickers, to inner-city African-Americans, to union workers. He was a man of the times when the times they were a-changin’. Kennedy had haters. Having haters is part of the job of being a messiah. But he was salvific. He could rouse audiences to a frenzy and he could make hardened politicos weep. People thought that he could go to the Convention and steal the nomination from Johnson. People thought that he could beat Nixon.
Johnson was not salvific. “Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on,” I heard Pete Seeger sing in Washington in 1967. It’s a song about a platoon in the Second World War, but everyone knew who the big fool was. The line was electric. Pete was a sing-along performer, and the liberal audience (who else would be at a Pete Seeger concert?) roared it out.
It was as though they had forgotten that Johnson had pushed through two major pieces of civil-rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination by race or religion or sex illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the franchise to African-Americans in the formerly segregated South. Those were the greatest legal advances in race relations since the Civil War amendments. But by 1968 Vietnam had eclipsed them.
Johnson had no experience in foreign policy. Much as Harry Truman had done, in 1947 and 1948, he allowed the generals and the policy hawks to convince him of a central fallacy of Cold War thinking: that America’s standing was at stake in every regime change around the world. He did not want to be the President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism.
“He scoffs whenever I suggest a scenic route.”
By 1968, Johnson’s Great Society programs—legislation on education, health care, urban renewal, and transportation whose scope rivalled that of the New Deal—were dying because of the cost of the war, and he had imposed a ten-per-cent income surtax, a dependable way to become unpopular with just about everybody. Inflation, which had been low for most of the postwar era, had reached four per cent. (It went much higher: the country was on the brink of an economic retrenchment that took fifteen years to work through.)
The message of New Hampshire, therefore, was not that McCarthy was the answer to the nation’s troubles. It was that Johnson was the face of what many voters wanted to get away from. New Hampshire did not make McCarthy seem electable so much as it made Johnson seem beatable. That was the message that Kennedy had been waiting to hear, and he wasted little time jumping into the race. He was accused, rightly, of opportunism.
Although Johnson had served as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President, there was no love lost between him and the Kennedys. He was not cut out for a part in Camelot. Colonel Cornpone, Jackie Kennedy used to call him. At the first Cabinet meeting after J.F.K. was assassinated, Robert arrived late, and everyone in the room rose as a sign of respect, except for Johnson. Five years later, Johnson was losing one war overseas he could not engage on a second front at home. So, on March 31st, two weeks after Kennedy entered the race, Johnson made my father, briefly, a happy man.
After March 31st, the primaries became a mano a mano between Kennedy and McCarthy. As a campaigner, Kennedy was hot and McCarthy was cool, but McCarthy did not suffer from the contrast, at least among white liberals. He had established his own aura, the aura of the samurai: unswerving and ascetic.
On May 28th, he defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary. It was the first time in twenty-seven consecutive races that any Kennedy had lost an election. On June 4th, Kennedy rebounded and won the big one, California. Minutes after declaring victory, he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel, in Los Angeles. He died on June 6th, along with the seeds of whatever future America he carried within him.
All the antiwar fury in the Democratic Party could now focus its hopes on McCarthy. I went with my family to see him on July 25th at an enormous rally at Fenway Park, in Boston. McCarthy’s wife, Abigail, who was closely involved in the campaign, defined McCarthy’s constituency as “academia united with the mobile society of scientists, educators, technologists and the new post-World-War II college class.” If that was your base in 1968, Fenway Park was the ideal place to address it.
Almost forty thousand people were jammed into a stadium whose official capacity is under thirty-eight thousand five thousand more listened outside. McCarthy was introduced by Leonard Bernstein, a man practiced in podium histrionics. I can still hear him cuing McCarthy’s entrance—“Even now, entering from the center-field bleachers . . .” A door opened under the stands, and McCarthy walked across the field to a speaker’s platform at second base.
McCarthy had adopted the rhetoric of revolution. It was to be a revolution of reason and common sense, of course McCarthy was a Midwesterner and a Catholic. He loathed the yippies and the student radicals his student volunteers were encouraged to go “clean for Gene.” But the language of revolution was what you used to mobilize antiwar liberals in 1968. So McCarthy spoke at Fenway about the “power of the people” and called his campaign “a kind of uprising.”
McCarthy had a wry and slightly professorial tone. “Almost everything that the Church tried to give up at the Vatican Council has been picked up by the Defense Department,” he said at one point. I don’t think that line would have meant much in Cleveland, but it received knowing chortles and applause in Boston.
He got his loudest and most sustained reaction when he mentioned the Convention, then one month away, in Chicago. “Any visit to Chicago is always beset with some uncertainties, some dangers,” he said (applause indicating that understatement was always appreciated), “but I think that we shall succeed there.” He said it in the most nonchalant tone of voice imaginable, but the cheers went on and on.
Those were the cheers of desperation, tribute to a valiant effort doomed to come up short. Everyone at Fenway knew that McCarthy did not have the delegates. He would have to inspire a stampede at the Convention to rip the nomination from Humphrey, who stood to inherit Johnson’s delegates. In the minds of everyone who was old enough, there probably flickered the memory of a speech that McCarthy had delivered at the 1960 Democratic Convention, putting Adlai Stevenson’s name in nomination. “Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party,” McCarthy had said, setting off a floor demonstration that threatened to steal the Convention from J.F.K. But lightning was not likely to strike twice, and in 1960 Kennedy won on the first ballot, anyway.
We watched every minute of the 1968 Convention in our basement, and there were some very late nights. What everyone remembers are the attacks by police and National Guardsmen on demonstrators in the streets outside. In fact, the networks did not devote much time to covering those. Out of thirty-eight hours of Convention coverage, CBS devoted thirty-two minutes to the demonstrators. NBC devoted fourteen minutes out of nineteen hours of coverage.
But the scene inside the hall—the Chicago Amphitheatre, on the South Side, near the stockyards—was tumultuous enough. The CBS reporters Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were roughed up by security personnel. After a vote on an antiwar platform plank failed, members of the New York delegation joined arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” When Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut, was giving a speech, the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, shouted at him, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.”
The antiwar delegates lost every battle. A last-minute attempt to draft Edward Kennedy was aborted, and Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot, with some seventeen hundred delegates, eight hundred and forty-seven more than the rest of the field.
The Convention left the Party fractured. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey, who began the fall campaign far behind in the polls. “Right now, you’re dead,” his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, told him. He did come back, and nearly made up the difference. At the end of September, he at last broke with Johnson and announced that he would halt the bombing. At the end of October, McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey. It was not quite enough. On November 5th, something happened that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier: Richard Nixon was elected President.
The story of this election has been told in many books, from Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1968” and Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page’s mammoth “An American Melodrama,” both published in 1969, to Michael A. Cohen’s “American Maelstrom,” which came out in 2016. It is featured in classic histories of the postwar period, including Hodgson’s “America in Our Time,” Allen J. Matusow’s “The Unraveling of America,” G. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot’s “The Liberal Hour,” and Todd Gitlin’s “The Sixties.” The story of the 1968 Presidential election is like oral poetry, a saga passed down from bard to bard that no one (or no one of a certain age, maybe) seems to tire of hearing.
Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” (Penguin) is the latest in this string of recitations. O’Donnell is the host of “The Last Word,” on MSNBC he has worked on Capitol Hill, and he was a writer and producer for “The West Wing.” His book relies almost entirely on published sources, and so it adds little to what we know. But he is a talented storyteller, and his analysis of campaign tactics is sharp.
And the story of that election still matters. In 1968, Americans elected a man with some savvy and no principles. In 2016, they elected a man with neither. O’Donnell’s book makes it a little easier to understand how we got from there to here. It turns out that the distance is not all that great.
Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).
In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on.
Millions more Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than voted for Donald Trump, but the Trump voter is now the protagonist of the national narrative. People talk about how Americans want to roll back globalization—even though most Americans who voted appear to want no such thing. The United States is one of the few democracies that does not have a coalition government, and a winner-take-all electoral system breeds a winner-take-all punditry.
The winner-take-all interpretation of the 1968 election was that, with the defeat of Hubert Humphrey, the nation repudiated liberalism. The election supposedly marked the demise of an ideological consensus that had dominated national politics since Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and that made politically possible the use of government programs to remedy the inequities of free-market capitalism.
But did Humphrey lose because he was a liberal, or because he ran a tone-deaf campaign? “Here we are, the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy,” he chirped in the speech in which he announced his candidacy. The date was April 27, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated three weeks before. It was a bizarre moment to introduce a phrase like “the politics of joy.” And although Johnson had just been forced to withdraw from the race by two candidates who opposed his Vietnam policy, Humphrey did not mention Vietnam in the speech.
Even after he had the nomination in hand, he seemed reluctant to dissociate himself from a policy with which the electorate had clearly lost patience. Yet the popular vote was surprisingly close. The margin was eight hundred thousand votes, seven-tenths of one per cent of the total. Some of the Democratic base did not turn out, and some Democrats—my mother was one—voted but did not check a box for President (another symbolic protest performed for a local audience). Humphrey got twelve million fewer votes than Johnson did in 1964, and he still nearly won a plurality. It’s hard to believe that twelve million people consciously embraced liberalism in 1964 and consciously rejected it four years later.
O’Donnell argues that the lesson of 1968 is that “the peace movement won.” And although his McCarthy is not an entirely sympathetic figure—he relies considerably on Dominic Sandbrook’s 2004 biography, in which McCarthy comes off as sour and aloof—he is the hero of O’Donnell’s story. “The last word about Gene McCarthy,” he says, “should always be that no one did more to stop the killing in Vietnam than Senator Eugene McCarthy.”
This seems a stretch for any number of reasons, the most obvious being that McCarthy lost, and that the war continued for seven more years. Nixon didn’t want to be the President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism any more than Johnson did, and he had no idea how to end the war, either. More than a third of all the Americans killed in Vietnam were killed during his Presidency.
It wasn’t as though Nixon was winding things down. In 1970, he extended the war into Cambodia. In the last of the major campus disruptions, protesting students were killed at Kent State, in Ohio, and at Jackson State College, in Mississippi. In 1972, after running again on a promise to end the war, Nixon ordered the so-called Christmas bombing of North Vietnam: in the course of twelve days, some seven hundred and forty sorties by B-52s dropped twenty thousand tons of bombs. Sixteen hundred Vietnamese were estimated to have been killed.
The purpose of the Christmas bombing was to pressure North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the fighting, which finally happened in 1973. But, in 1975, the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon and united the country under Communist rule, exactly the outcome that France and the United States had been fighting to prevent for thirty years. By then, Nixon had resigned and Gerald Ford was President. When O’Donnell writes that “the peace movement drove U.S. forces out of Vietnam, not the North Vietnamese Army,” he is making the same mistake that every Administration made: imagining that it was decisions taken by Americans that determined the fate of Vietnam.
O’Donnell thinks that the nomination of Nixon marked the end of liberalism, at least in the Republican Party. That’s quite right: a certain type of Republican politician, the type represented by Nelson Rockefeller (the governor of New York, who ran a poorly mounted and hopelessly belated campaign against Nixon), George Romney (the governor of Michigan, who knocked himself out of the Republican primaries early by telling a reporter that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam), and John Lindsay (the mayor of New York, who some foolishly hoped might be Nixon’s Vice-Presidential pick), largely disappeared from the Party after 1968. But that leaves a question: Why didn’t their supporters become Democrats? This is where the diagnosis becomes complicated.
People who write and argue about politics are ideologues. They hold a coherent set of positions that they identify as liberal or conservative (or some variant, like libertarian or leftist). But, to millions of voters, those terms mean almost nothing. These voters do not think in ideological terms, and their positions on the issues are often inconsistent and lacking in coherence. Given the option, they will sometimes identify as moderates or centrists, but this tells us very little about how they will vote.
The fact that voters are often responding to nonideological cues helps to explain the apparent volatility of the electorate from race to race. In 1964, for example, running against Goldwater, a conservative from Arizona, Johnson carried the neighboring state of California with fifty-nine per cent of the vote. Two years later, running as a conservative who had prominently backed Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California with almost fifty-eight per cent of the vote. In the 1968 Presidential election, forty per cent of the people who had voted for Johnson in 1964 voted for Nixon, even though Nixon’s opponent was Johnson’s own Vice-President. What cues were these voters responding to?
After Nixon’s victory, two books, both of which became enormously influential, proposed explanations. According to “The Real Majority,” by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, the 1968 election proved that, particularly in a time of extremes like the late nineteen-sixties, centrism was the winning position. Nixon got to the center, while Humphrey and the Democrats remained associated with the extremes.
Centrism requires a delicate balancing act, which Nixon, a man with many innate liabilities as a politician, turned out to be extremely good at. He opposed the Johnson-Humphrey Administration’s policy on the war, but had no policy of his own. (Nixon never made the claim, often attributed to him, that he had a “secret plan to end the war.” That phrase was invented by a reporter.) As long as the war was going badly, people who favored withdrawal and people who favored escalation both found in Nixon a congenial alternative.
At the same time, Nixon figured out a position to run on. He became the candidate of “law and order.” Goldwater had used that expression in 1964, and so had Reagan in 1966. It was a brilliant political slogan, a whistle heard by many dogs. It transposed political issues like civil rights and Vietnam into what appeared to be a straightforward legal position: crime is wrong and criminals should be punished.
To liberals who believed in the righteousness of the civil-rights demonstrations and the antiwar protests, the disruption and violence that accompanied them was caused by the overreaction of the authorities. For most voters, though, the disruption and violence were the fault of the demonstrators. Most people don’t like righteousness in others. They can be quite righteous about it.
For these voters, it was not a contradiction to profess support for racial equality and to condemn the marchers in Birmingham and Selma, or to be against the war in Vietnam and to believe that people like Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman should be locked up. In polls taken in 1968, only three per cent of voters who objected to Johnson’s policy in Vietnam were also sympathetic to antiwar protesters. My parents were part of the three per cent.
Politically, the most important event in the United States in 1968 was, therefore, the assassination, on April 4th, of Martin Luther King. Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities. Thirty-nine people died and twenty thousand were arrested. More than fifty thousand troops were deployed. Washington, D.C., became a war zone. In Newark, New Jersey, there were nearly two hundred fires. Large numbers of white Americans did not interpret this disorder in terms of social justice. They interpreted it as a breakdown of civil society. The rioters were not black or white they were arsonists and looters (who happened to be black). Nixon showed that political advantage came from steering clear of the underlying issues. He gave people respectable reasons to vote for a candidate they favored for what they might have worried were not such respectable reasons.
The second influential post-1968 book was Kevin Phillips’s “The Emerging Republican Majority,” published in 1969. This is the book that popularized what became known as the Southern Strategy. Like Scammon and Wattenberg, Phillips saw that millions of voters were repelled by what they regarded as extremism, but he gave a name to what he thought was the key issue. He called it “the Negro problem.”
The big news electorally in 1964 was that a Republican carried five Southern states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. It was the first time those states had not gone Democratic since Reconstruction, and the reason was not obscure. The voting was white backlash against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Senator Goldwater had voted against. Goldwater was not a segregationist he was a states’-rights conservative. But he flipped the South to the Republican Party.
The key to exploiting this shift in party alignment, as Nixon understood, was not to oppose the civil-rights movement but to force the Democratic Party to take ownership of it. The Kennedys had seen the perils in that, and they had been extremely careful about not appearing to be too close to King. But Johnson effectively put his personal brand on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and the Party thus had to take on the baggage of the urban rioting and the militancy of groups like the Black Panthers. Republicans didn’t have to say a word against integration. All they had to do was talk about law and order.
Still, Nixon didn’t carry the Deep South in the general election. George Wallace did. And Wallace didn’t use a dog whistle. Wallace was the dog. He was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, a time when the official logo of the Alabama Democratic Party was a rooster with a banner above it reading “White Supremacy.” The next summer, he achieved national recognition when he resisted the attempt to enroll the first black students at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa—the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” (The confrontation was staged, to allow Wallace to make his point in exchange for letting the students enroll. Those students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were quietly admitted through another door.)
A year later, Wallace ran in the Democratic primaries, and surprised many people by winning a third of the vote in Wisconsin and more than forty per cent in Maryland. In 1968, he ran as an independent, hoping to win enough electoral votes to deny any candidate a majority, giving himself leverage in choosing the next President.
Wallace came to Massachusetts several times in the summer of 1968 on drives for signatures to get on the ballot. I heard him on one of those trips. The crowd was small and mostly hostile. What amazed me was that Wallace gave the stump speech he delivered everywhere, which consisted almost entirely of taunts, insults, and threats. He did not reason with his opponents.
He called professors and Washington bureaucrats “sissy britches” and mocked “the bearded professor who thinks he knows how to settle the Vietnam War when he hasn’t got enough sense to park a bicycle straight.” As President, he said, he would seek indictments for “any college professor who talks about hoping the Vietcong win the war.” He liked to invite hecklers to come up to the stage after his speech. “I’ll autograph your sandals,” he’d say. He told reporters, “I’d let the police run this country for a couple of years. I’m not talking about a police state, but sometimes it takes a police state to run some people.” Voters did not need to be told who “some people” were.
Wallace won just three per cent of the vote in Massachusetts, but his act played well across much of the country, where he spoke to boisterously enthusiastic audiences. After a rally at Madison Square Garden, supporters marched out chanting “White supremacy!” People told reporters that they admired him because “he says what he thinks.”
Late in the race, one of the reporters who covered Wallace, Douglas Kiker, tried to explain the phenomenon. “It is as if somewhere, sometime a while back, George Wallace had been awakened by a white, blinding vision: they all hate black people, all of them,” Kiker wrote in New York. “They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The whole United States is Southern! Anyone who travels with Wallace these days on his Presidential campaign finds it hard to resist arriving at the same conclusion.”
Wallace’s big mistake, late in the campaign, was to name as his running mate a former general, Curtis LeMay, who advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. LeMay terrified everyone, and Wallace ended up with thirteen per cent of the vote. He was also hurt, as Humphrey was hurt, by being seen constantly on television surrounded by angry protesters. Those were the scenes people were voting to get away from. But Wallace carried the Southern states that Goldwater had won in 1964, and, as everyone now recognizes, he offered a taste of demagoguery to come.
Objects in the rearview mirror often really are closer than they appear. It’s not that far from Wallace to Trump. The focus on Presidential elections makes it hard to see that from one election to the next pretty much the same people are voting, and most people do not change much over time. The Presidency is a beach ball bouncing along the surface, the winner an artifact of the circumstance that there are usually only two candidates to choose between. “Public opinion,” or the forces that move it, runs below the surface, and has a much slower tempo.
In “Deeply Divided,” a 2014 study, the political scientists Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos argue that since 1960 our politics has been driven by two movements: the civil-rights movement and what they call a “countermovement,” which could be broadly described as anti-integrationist. It includes racists, but it also includes many white Americans who acknowledge the principle of racial equality but resist involuntary race-mixing, people who accept and even defend de facto segregation. “The collapse of the postwar consensus,” McAdam and Kloos maintain, was not because of Vietnam it “had everything to do with race.”
White voters abandoned the Democratic Party. In 1968, Humphrey got thirty-eight per cent of the white vote. In 1972, George McGovern got thirty-two per cent. In 1980, Jimmy Carter, a white Southerner, got thirty-six per cent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, running against the toxic nitwit who is now the face of our politics, received thirty-seven per cent.
One thing that surprised analysts about Wallace voters was how young they were. To most observers during the campaign, it looked as though Wallace was appealing to older voters who were uncomfortable with social change or were unwilling to abandon old prejudices. These observers assumed that the United States would age out of those attitudes as the new day of tolerance and equality brightened. I’m sure we white Massachusetts liberals believed something like that. We thought that racial injustice and American exceptionalism were on history’s dust heap, only given a last breath by the election of Nixon in a crazy and fluky election year. We thought the gains of mid-century liberalism were lasting.
We were suffering under two delusions. The first was that ending de jure discrimination meant ending discrimination. We know better now about that. The other delusion, though, persists. This is the stereotype of sixties youth as progressive and permissive. There were such young people, of course, and they got a lot of press. But most young people in the nineteen sixties did not march for civil rights or protest the war in Vietnam. They had no sandals to autograph. Like young people in any era, most of them were like their parents. ♦
An earlier version of this article misstated Robert Kennedy’s age in 1968. He was forty-two, not forty-three. It also misstated the date of the California primary in 1968. It was on June 4th, not June 5th.