Friday, March 16, 2018

March 1968: The Political Hinge

President Lyndon B. Johnson announces
 he will not seek reelection,
March 31, 1968 | AP photo
Nineteen sixty-eight was the extraordinary year that saw the turning point in the Vietnam War’s escalation and the end of the Democrats’ eight years of control of the federal government. It concluded the rush of New Deal/Great Society programs and major civil rights legislation (final legislation signed by LBJ on April 11 – Fair Housing Act).

March was the pivot month. The American war effort was thrown on defense as the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive of January 30 framed the weeks leading up to the first test of the reelection of President Johnson. The New Hampshire primary was on March 12, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, who announced his challenge to Johnson in November 1967, was on the ballot. Although several anti-war liberals, such as Paul Newman, and groups, such as Americans for Democratic Action, supported him and he was a rock star on campuses, New Hampshire polls had him winning only 10 to 20 percent of the primary voters. McCarthy advocated an end to the Vietnam War by way of immediate withdrawal. Most establishment Democrats, big city party bosses and union leaders felt that was too radical and were reluctant to oppose an incumbent president.

Senator Eugene McCarthy, a candidate for
the presidential nomination of the Democratic
 Party, speaking at his New York headquarters
 on Jan. 1, 1968 | Lisl Steiner/Getty Images
But, McCarthy showed with a 42 percent New Hampshire vote that the party was already divided. Johnson barely won with 49 percent, less than half the Democrats. The result was a shockwave that hit Washington, which rapidly brought Bobby Kennedy out to announce his candidacy on March 16.

Johnson now saw the difficult struggle ahead and prepared a March 31 speech offering a bombing pause and efforts at negotiations. But he then ended the extraordinary month and his speech with the surprise announcement: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Robert F. Kennedy announces
his  candidacy for president,
March 16, 1968 | Magnum Photos
As April began, it was clear America had just entered a new political era, with major changes in policies and personalities on the horizon. It was also the beginning of more violence and trauma here at home.

Read The Buzz:
Walter Cronkite calls Vietnam a stalemate
The USS Carl Vinson visits Da Nang

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