1968 was an extremely turbulent and painful year in the United States of America. The Vietnam War was in full swing, as well as the protest movement against it. Gallup Poll results in February of 1968 showed that fully half of the American populace disapproved of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) handling of the war in Vietnam. By March of 1968, LBJ notified his party and the nation that he would not run for a second full term in office. In April of 1968, beloved civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In June of the same year, popular NY Senator and former Attorney General Robert Kennedy (RFK) was assassinated. Then, the August Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupted in protests and police violence, the likes of which many in the U.S. had never seen. Needless to say, 1968 was a traumatizing year for the U.S and I’ve just mentioned the high points! Today as an addition to our series about important elections, we’ll be discussing the American presidential election of 1968 within the context of the larger political and social upheaval happening in the U.S. during that time.

Transcript for 1968: A Tumultuous American Year

Written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

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Elizabeth: By 1968, apart from Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933 – so 24 of the previous 32 years. The Democratic Party dealt with dueling loyalties since the 1930s, its staunch segregationist southern element and its more progressive northern faction. In the mid-1960s these dueling loyalties met in a perfect storm, which shook the very foundation of the party and opened the door for Republican domination of the White House throughout the 1970s and 80s (save Jimmy Carter’s one term presidency).

Sarah: By the 1968 election, Democrats were trying to hang on to white voters who were turned off by the racial liberalism of Johnson’s Great Society domestic program, which ushered in economic and social opportunities for racial minorities. The Democrats were also trying to hang on to the more liberal and radical elements of the party who railed against the war in Vietnam and felt that the Johnson administration had lost its moral compass.

Elizabeth: Alternatively, the Republican party was not as weak in the late 60s as the 1964 electoral map would lead many to believe. In the election of 1964, LBJ beat Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide victory. However, Goldwater did win 5 southern states, which historically had always gone to the Democrats. This move by many white southerners to the Republican Party was a signal of what was to come in subsequent elections and guaranteed that the election of 1968 would be a real political contest. 

Sarah: Complicating matters in the 1968 election was the addition of a third-party candidate, George Wallace. The former governor of Alabama who had famously declared “segregation now, segregation forever” was a master at channeling the resentments of white Americans who feared Black people were encroaching on their privileges. The civil rights movement was making real strides during the 1960s. Congress passed Public Law 88-352, more commonly known as The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Provisions of the act barred discrimination in hiring, promotion, and firing in employment. It also prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programs. Basically, the Civil Rights Act ended the legal sanction of Jim Crow laws. Also, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended discriminatory voting practices like literacy tests and poll taxes, ushering in a wave of new Black voters. 

Elizabeth: It’s worth noting however that the Voting Rights Act was immediately challenged in courts and although the Supreme Court issued a number of rulings that strengthened the law, the pushback to the Voting Rights Act shows us how entrenched racism did not simply go away with the passage of a law. Instead, candidates used dog whistle tactics that equated “big government” with race. In a campaign speech George Wallace spoke to a white audience who were against school integration. He promised them, “When I become President there won’t be one thin dime available from Federal funds to pay for all this school busin’…”

Sarah: The Republican presidential candidate in the election of 1968 was Richard Nixon who ran on a “law and order” and states rights campaign and railed against “liberal” government programs, like Johnson’s Great Society. So the political and social playing field in the 1968 election was highly polarized. The social changes and upheaval of the mid to late 1960s made the presidential contest of 1968 that much more electric.

Elizabeth: As early as November of 1967, the presidential race of ’68 was shaping up. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced his candidacy for the Democratic National Party presidential nomination on an anti-war platform. McCarthy is kind of an interesting character. He began his early career as an economics professor and served as a code breaker during WWII. In 1948 he was elected to the House of Representatives where he served until he was elected to the Senate in 1964. He became a staunch adversary of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War as it progressed, earning him accolades from young political Democrats who were against the war.  Young people flocked to his presidential campaign, with men shaving their beards and cutting their counterculture long hair to “Get Clean for Gene” and campaign for him. McCarthy’s run for the presidency didn’t gain much traction as LBJ, the sitting president, was still the assumed candidate for the Democratic ticket. However, that changed in January of 1968.

Figure 1 Photo: Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

Sarah: A major escalation of the Vietnam War began on the holiday of Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – on January 30, 1968. The North Vietnamese and their guerilla supporters in the South launched a well-planned assault against the South Vietnamese and their American supporters. American news stations displayed shocking footage of the United States embassy in Saigon being overrun and heavy fighting occurring in the streets. Contrary to what the Johnson administration had been telling the news media, the Tet offensive confirmed that the war in Vietnam was not going well for the South Vietnamese and their American allies.

Elizabeth: The North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive with the plan that a mass uprising of supporters would topple the American-backed South Vietnamese government. This did not happen however, and the North Vietnamese suffered heavy casualties- in the tens of thousands. However, even though the Tet Offensive was eventually quashed Americans were absolutely shocked by the media coverage of the event. On the second day of the Tet Offensive, photojournalist Eddie Addams and NBC cameraman Vo Suru (Bo Suru) were in the Chinese section of Saigon. Addams watched as a South Vietnamese soldier dragged a man wearing a plaid shirt out into the street and put his sidearm to the mans head. Addams, assuming the soldier was going to threaten or interrogate the man, raised his camera and began snapping pictures. However, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan ( When Knock Loan) pulled the trigger. Addams camera snapped a picture at the exact moment the bullet entered the man’s head, capturing the moment of death for all time. NBC cameraman Vo Suru (Bo Suru) captured the execution of the man on film, who turned out to be a Nguyen Van Lem, a member of the Viet Cong who had allegedly killed a South Vietnamese general and his family. Both the photograph and the video affected many Americans and made many feel like they were allied with the South Vietnamese in a war where they had no connection or shared values.

Photo by Eddie Addams.
Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém: February 1, 1968.

Sarah: In February a Gallop Poll reported that 50 percent of the American public disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam. Later in the month, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, a man known as “the most trusted man in America,” questioned the rosy picture that government officials gave about the war. After spending a week in Vietnam, Cronkite editorialized that it was unclear who won the Tet Offensive and from the way he saw things, the war was going to end in a standoff, not a resounding victory like American leaders had been promising. Cronkite’s hard-hitting news broadcast put words to what many Americans were feeling about the war. LBJ is purported to have said to his press secretary afterward, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”[1]

Elizabeth: A few days later on February 29, 1968 the Kerner Commission released a report that warned America was a nation “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”  The national commission, headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, was created in response to urban riots in the summer of 1967. Unfortunately, the report spurred no major policy or cultural changes. It did however, highlight the stark reality that America was not a land of equal opportunity. We should also add, this is during the height of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program. COINTELPRO was originally designed to disrupt the activities of the Communist party but expanded to include domestic civil rights groups. It succeeded in suppressing numerous rights organizations on the left. In fact, a few weeks after the Kerner report, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover secretly ordered COINTELPRO to “neutralize” and discredit black power and civil rights groups in order to prevent the rise of a Black “messiah” in the Black Power movement. You can hear more about COINTELPRO in our Black Panthers episode.

Sarah: The election year of 1968 was already stacking up to be a dramatic one for Democrats as Eugene McCarthy was campaigning against a sitting president and gaining traction. McCarthy’s March 12th New Hampshire Democratic primary win convinced LBJ’s long-time rival Robert F. Kennedy, commonly known as RFK or Bobby, that Johnson’s hold on the ’68 presidential nomination was not a given. Robert Kennedy had been attorney general during the presidency of his brother JFK, and had stayed on in the Johnson administration until he left to run for Senate in New York State in 1964, a seat that he won. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination on March 16 at a press conference in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building – the same room where his brother JFK had announced his candidacy for president years earlier.

 Elizabeth: Kennedy’s entry into the race was met with outrage by both the Johnson and the McCarthy camps. Eugene McCarthy’s campaign was furious that Kennedy would enter at so late a date and practically guaranteed that the anti-war vote would be split between the two candidates. However, unbeknownst to McCarthy, Kennedy, or practically anyone else in the Democratic establishment, LBJ was planning to retire at the end of his term and not seek reelection in 1968.

On March 31, Johnson gave a televised speech where he outlined a de-escalation in Vietnam. He announced that U.S. aircraft and naval attacks against North Vietnam would stop, with exception around the demilitarized zone.  He outlined details about the national budget and a need for a surtax. Then, at the end of his televised speech he notified a stunned America that he would not run for, nor accept the nomination for president in the coming primary or election. He said, “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. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”[2]

Sarah: Much has been written about LBJ’s refusal to run for a second full term. On its surface, some assumed it was because McCarthy had a good showing in the primaries, Kennedy had joined the fray, and Johnson was suffering from low approval ratings. However, LBJ presidential transcripts and diary entries by Lady Bird Johnson reveal more personal reasons for the president’s departure, his extreme fear that he would be stricken with a debilitating health issue while in office. In fact, he had even debated not running in 1964 after serving out the remainder of JFKs term. Johnson was extremely worried his health would give out, as many in his family had died young or had disabilities in their old age. In fact, he’d already had one heart attack in 1955 and was afraid he wouldn’t survive another. In a post presidency interview he said, “Every time I addressed the [Senate] chair in 1959 and 1960, I wondered if this would be the time when I’d fall over. I just never could be sure when I would be going out.”[3] Johnson was deathly afraid he’d end up like Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke while in office and spent the last years of his presidency incapacitated.  When refusing to run for a second full-term, Johnson professed that by forgoing the election he would be able to give his full attention to the war in Vietnam. After announcing he would not run for a second full term, Johnson was free to focus on the war full time and apparently felt a greater ease once the decision had been made. For weeks letters and telegrams poured into the White House commending Johnson for making such a selfless decision and his approval ratings rose to nearly 60 percent. 

Elizabeth: Only a week after the nation experienced the shock of LBJs announcement, the unthinkable happened. While in Memphis, Tennessee assisting African American sanitary workers with their labor strike, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist. At 6:01pm, while speaking to Rev. Jesse Jackson on the outdoor balcony in front of room 306 at the Memphis Lorraine Motel, a lone bullet struck King in the right cheek and then severed his spinal cord. He fell back on the balcony unconscious but still alive. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital but was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm on April 4, 1968.

Demonstrators with signs, one reading "Let his death not be in vain", in front of the White House, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, April, 1968
Demonstrators with signs, one reading “Let his death not be in vain”, in front of the White House, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, April, 1968 | Library of Congress  Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Sarah:  News of the killing reverberated through the country, sending many Americans into the streets in violent rage. Riots began across the country almost immediately and so did gloating by white racists. Even all the way in Vietnam some white G.I.s paraded around dressed as Klansmen in celebration of King’s murder.

Robert Kennedy was on the campaign trail, set to give a speech in Indianapolis, Indiana when he heard the shocking news. Standing on the flatbed of a truck, Kennedy addressed the mostly black audience and solemnly gave them the news of King’s assassination. Many in the audience screamed in grief. Kennedy spoke for just under five minutes, acknowledging the anger and rage many would feel and told them he understood their anger, as his brother was struck down by an assassin’s bullet just five years earlier. He said, “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”[4]

Elizabeth: For weeks, mourners expressed their sadness and rage over King’s murder in different ways. As his body lay in state, with dignitaries and officials streaming by his coffin, young people took to the streets in cities across the nation. Civil unrest defined the month of April, with the worst riots happening in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore.  According to press secretary George Christian, Johnson was not surprised by the riots that followed: “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”[5]

Sarah: As the nation mourned MLK and questioned its role in the Vietnam War, Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy for the Democratic party presidential nomination at the end of April. Humphrey had assumed he would be running for president in 1972, after Johnson’s second full term. Johnson’s March 31 announcement that he was not running for a second term surprised Humphrey as much as it had the rest of the nation. With little time to build his campaign, Humphrey announced his candidacy on April 27, 1968. Humphrey entered the race too late to compete in any of the major state primaries. Lucky for him he had the support of much of the Democratic establishment in states that did not conduct primaries, so his path to becoming the Democratic national candidate was good even if he won no state primaries.

Elizabeth: The California Democratic state primary was held on June 4, 1968. Robert Kennedy won the primary, winning 46.4 percent to McCarthy’s 41.8. RFK was pulling some of the anti-war Democratic vote away from McCarthy and quickly gaining in popularity. Additionally, the Mexican American vote in California largely went to Kennedy. Spurred by support from labor leader Cesar Chavez, California’s Mexican Americans turned out in record numbers for RFK. That night around midnight Kennedy gave a victory speech in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel. Upon leaving the stage, he and his entourage took a shortcut through the hotel’s kitchen on their way to the press area.  As Kennedy shook hands with kitchen crew and well-wishers, a crazed man named Sirhan Sirhan came out of the crowd and shot RFK three times. One bullet hit Kennedy at close range behind his right ear, one lodged in his neck, and a third entered the back of his shoulder and exited his chest. Five other bystanders were wounded by stray bullets. Kennedy was taken to the hospital and was pronounced dead 26 hours after the initial shooting, in the early hours of June 6, 1968.

Sarah: Again, the country mourned not only a Kennedy, who’s brother had been brought down by an assassin’s bullet only five years earlier, but another civil rights leader. Although RFK’s record on civil rights wasn’t perfect, he was a staunch champion of the civil rights movement and had done much to further its cause. In two short months the country had lost two of its most enigmatic leaders to bullets. As America entered the summer months the country rumbled with protests over the war coupled with anger, mourning, and violence over the racial reckoning that many were fighting to overcome.

Elizabeth: The Republican primary was also shaping up to be a crowded contest. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Governor George Romney had thrown their hat in the race. California Governor Ronald Reagan was vying for his party’s nomination too. But it was Richard Nixon who won the Republican party’s nomination for the presidency at the party’s August 8 convention.

Nixon was no stranger to politics, having been in Republican politics since his 1946 election to the House of Representatives when he ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for a Senate seat in California. He used red baiting to defeat her. Gahagan Douglas was a liberal, New Deal Democrat and Nixon claimed she was sympathetic to communism. He called her the “Pink Lady,” and said she was “pink all the way down to her underwear.” Pink being his misogynist allusion to communists “reds” and directing people to think about his female opponents undergarments. Nixon conducted a dirty campaign that included anti-Semitic attacks (Douglas’ husband was Jewish). But red-baiting won the day and Nixon defeated Gahagan Douglas while earning himself the nickname “Tricky Dick.” His tactics became a template for other Republicans to use red-baiting as a tactic in future campaigns.

Sarah: In 1950 Nixon was elected to the Senate and in 1952 served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years. He ran for president in 1960 but was beaten by Democrat John F. Kennedy. In 1968 Nixon again secured the Republican nomination for president, easily winning the nomination on the first ballot. He named Maryland governor Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential running mate, who would also go on to commit crimes in office separate from those of the later Watergate crimes.

Elizabeth: On August 10th, just two days after the Republican convention and a few weeks before the Democrat’s national convention Senator George McGovern of South Dakota entered the presidential race. Since RFK’s assassination, Kennedy’s supporters had not moved to support Humphrey or McCarthy in high numbers leaving McGovern feeling like he had a chance of securing those voters. McGovern’s entrance to the race was seen as carrying on RFKs goals in the campaign. However, as the Democrats were gearing up for their national convention, events on the world stage quickly grabbed headlines.

Sarah: On August 20th Warsaw Pact countries, under direction from the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia bringing an end to the so-called “Prague Spring.” Since January, under the direction of its new leader Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovakian government was moving towards decentralizing its economy and granting more rights to Czechoslovakian citizens. Restrictions on media, speech, and travel were loosened and Dubcek split the country into two republics, the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. In response to these democratization moves by the Dubcek government, the Soviets invaded with a half million Warsaw Pact troops and artillery to occupy the country. The Soviets assumed it would take roughly a week to take control of the country, but citizen resistance held out for eight months. America and its NATO allies, afraid to tempt nuclear war with the Soviets and stretched too thin in Vietnam, made the decision to not aid the Czechs in their bid for democratic freedoms.

Elizabeth: Concurrently, liberal Democrats were working on the party platform for the upcoming national convention. Many in the party believed that a Democrat could not win the national election unless their party moved away from the Johnson administration’s policy on the war in Vietnam. However, as acting president and leader of the party, Johnson would not allow the adoption of a party platform that was critical of his Vietnam policy. 

Sarah: The Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago on August 26, 1968 with the Johnson administration supporting a decidedly mediocre platform on the war that stated bombing would halt only “when this action would not endanger the lives of our troops in the field.” It was hardly the anti-war platform that many liberal Democrats were hoping for. A vote for a “peace platform” that would state the party agreed to an immediate end to all bombing was debated on Wednesday August 28th but the Johnson administration controlled the debate and ultimately the party voted on the administration-supported plank. Supporters of the “peace plank” filled the arena with singing “we shall overcome” while others chanted “stop the war.” These dramatic events were broadcast on national television and word spread to protesters lining Chicago’s streets.

Elizabeth: News that the peace plank lost to the more moderate majority platform further inflamed tensions both inside the convention and outside on the streets of Chicago. For months, anti-war demonstrators planned and organized a massive rally in Chicago during the national convention. Groups as disparate as the Youth International Party, or Yippies, to the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, known as “the Mobe,” met on the streets of Chicago to protest the war and attempt to sway the convention to support an anti-war and anti-racist platform. However, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and his city police force had no intention to suffer the protesters. For months, organizers were denied permits for amassing people in public spaces and streets so when thousands of protesters arrived in the city, there was nowhere for them to legally congregate. Mayor Daley had six thousand police on the streets of Chicago in preparation for the convention and the expected protesters. Another six thousand national guard troops were added along with one thousand Secret Service men. Fences and barbed wire were added around the convention hall to keep the protesters away from the convention site.

Sarah: Violence began almost as soon as the convention opened. On the night of August 26th police fired teargas into Lincoln Park on the city’s North Side in an attempt to clear it for an 11pm curfew. The same occurred the next night on the 27th but this time the crowds moved to Grant Park and camped there through the night. At Grant Park the next afternoon, police clubbed a protester who appeared to be taking down an American flag from its flagpole. The gathered crowd responded by throwing bricks and debris at the police and shouting “Fascist bastards” and “Death to the pigs.” British journalists describing the chaos that erupted afterwards wrote the police “went, quite literally, berserk” in their retaliation against the protestors.[6]

Young "hippie" standing in front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26, 1968
Young “hippie” standing in front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26, 1968 | U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection (Library of Congress) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Elizabeth: That night around 8pm the largest outbreak of violence took place. Roughly three-thousand demonstrators congregated on South Michigan Avenue. As police attempted to stop the crowd from marching, some police charged into the crowd, beating protestors with their bully sticks. Bystanders were pushed through the plate glass windows of the nearby Conrad Hilton Hotel. Tear gas permeated the air as national television cameras caught the melee on film and broadcast it for the world to see.

Sarah: The violence outside the convention permeated its way inside the convention. Footage by CBS News, which we will link in the show notes on the blog, shows that delegates were aware of what was going on outside and were angry at the overzealous actions by Chicago police. Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut denounced the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago,” from the podium as the nearby Mayor Daley shouted an anti-sematic epithet from his seat on the convention floor. Leadership from the McGovern campaign said one of their volunteers had gone outside to buy something from a street vendor and was clubbed in the face by police without provocation.[7] Dan Rather was roughed up and punched in the stomach by security guards while trying to interview a Georgia delegate who was being roughly escorted out of the hall which prompted Cronkite to call the security guards thugs.[8]

Elizabeth: However, not all who were watching had sympathy for the bloodied protestors. Polls taken after the convention found that a majority of Americans found the fault for the chaos and violence lay with the protestors, even though a federal investigating commission concluded that the violence had been the result of a “police riot.”

Sarah: Despite the violent clashes outside of the convention, the party nominated its presidential candidate. Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination with 1,760 votes to McCarthy’s 601 and McGovern’s 146. Humphrey chose Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as his running mate. Even though the business of the party went on at the convention, the news footage left many Americans feeling that the Democratic party was in disarray, and it was.

Elizabeth: Additionally, the violence of the convention gave both Richard Nixon and George Wallace fodder in their charges that the Democrats were the party of lawlessness. Among the vast majority of Americans who were not keyed into politics and social justice 24/7, the anti-war movement and the turmoil over race relations in the U.S. were one in the same. They saw the Johnson administration as unable or unwilling to address and squash domestic dissent. Additionally, crime rates did increase during the 1960s and 70s due to a variety of factors, however one popular talking point on the right countered that crime was rising because liberal justices were imposing restrictions on police officers. All of you true crime junkies out there are familiar with Miranda rights. Miranda rights come from the 1966 case Miranda v Arizona, in which the Supreme Court ruled that police must inform a person of their rights in a criminal case. Detractors argued that rulings such as Miranda decided by the “liberal” Warren Court helped criminals at the expense of law abiding, and let’s not mince words, white citizens.

Sarah: After the Democratic convention Humphrey’s campaign hobbled along. By mid-September polls showed Humphrey trailing Nixon by 15 points. In fact, Humphrey’s numbers weren’t much better than George Wallace’s third-party presidential run. Finally, on September 30, in a speech in Salt Lake City, Humphrey broke with LBJ over policy in Vietnam, promising to stop the bombing in North Vietnam. He immediately saw a bump in the polls and supporters began showing up with signs that said, “If you mean it, we’re with you.”

Elizabeth: However, unbeknownst to the Humphrey camp, candidate Nixon was engaging in double-dealing in regard to peace talks with Vietnam. On the surface, Nixon campaigned on conservative domestic points such as “law and order” issues and ending social welfare. He claimed that his support came from the “silent majority” who didn’t subscribe to the counterculture or the pushback against the status quo. When asked about Vietnam, he gave vague answers promising that he would end the war but not how he would do it. He relied on giving broad statements about American values and he maintained he wanted to avoid undermining Johnson’s potential peace efforts in Vietnam. This wasn’t the truth.

Sarah: In late October, LBJ was purportedly nearing a peace deal between North and South Vietnam, however the South Vietnamese surprisingly walked away from these negotiations. This was because Nixon had a back-door liaison to the South Vietnamese through a woman named Anna Chenault. She told the South Vietnamese to wait and make a peace deal with the Nixon administration instead of making a deal with the lame duck Johnson administration, promising that Nixon would give them better terms. On the surface Nixon professed to support Johnson’s efforts but behind closed doors he was actively undermining LBJ’s prospects of gaining peace, which Nixon feared would help the Humphrey presidential campaign if Johnson succeeded.

Elizabeth: Wind of Nixon’s double-dealing spread throughout high levels of the administration. LBJ had Chenault surveilled and found out about Nixon’s plot, which he equated to treason. But Johnson didn’t act on the intelligence because he was afraid that if he exposed Nixon’s double-dealing the public would be seen as a political move meant to hurt his vice-president’s rival. Additionally, Johnson didn’t have the smoking gun, so to speak, of direct evidence showing Nixon’s involvement in the plot. In surveillance, Chenault always referred to the “boss,” and never said her boss was Nixon by name. In 1980 Chenault confessed to her participation in the plot but Nixon went to his grave professing his innocence. However, in 2017 Nixon’s role in the Chennault Affair was revealed when biographer John A. Farrell found notes written by Nixon aide and later chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, stating that Nixon had in fact directed an intermediary to persuade the South Vietnamese to not agree to a peace deal until after the election. 

Sarah: On November 5, 1968 Americans went to the polls deeply divided over issues of civil rights, social welfare, and the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t until the early hours of November 6th that Richard Nixon was declared the winner of the presidential race, winning in one of the narrowest popular vote margins in U.S. presidential election history. He won by just under 500,000 votes even though his electoral college victory was quite large. American Independent Party candidate George Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and carried five southern states in the electoral college.

George Wallace portrait
George Wallace in 1968 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The deflection of aggrieved white Democrats in the North to Nixon and white southerners to Wallace meant that the Democrats take of the national vote was twelve million votes less than it had been four years earlier when Democrat Lyndon Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater. From Nixon’s presidency onward, the GOP positioned itself as supporting civil rights in general while avoiding using federal power to pursue anti-racist ends specifically. Republicans went on to dominate the presidency throughout the 1970s and 1980s, save Jimmy Carter’s one term.

Sarah: Repercussions of the disastrous Democratic convention spilled over into 1969. Weeks after the late August convention, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley issued a report that blamed the violence on “outside agitators,” who were described as “revolutionaries” with an “avowed purpose of a hostile confrontation with law enforcement.”However, The Department of Justice report found no grounds to prosecute demonstrators. Additionally, the Johnson administration appointed the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to conduct investigations of the violence.

Elizabeth: The commission released their report on December 1, 1968 and laid blame for the violence on both police and agitators. The report stated that demonstrators had provoked violence, which led the police to retaliate with violence of their own, resulting in a “police riot.” The report recommended prosecution of police who used indiscriminate violence and warned that failure to do so would further deteriorate public confidence in law enforcement.[9]

Sarah: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois convened a grand jury to investigate whether the organizers of the demonstrations had violated federal law and whether any police officers had interfered with the civil rights of the protestors. In early 1969 John Mitchell, the new U.S. Attorney General appointed by President Richard Nixon following his inauguration, worked with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to strengthen draft indictments against demonstrators. This resulted in the Chicago 8 trial, later known as the Chicago 7 after Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale was granted a separate trial but not before he was gagged and chained to his chair for refusing to obey Judge Julius Hoffman’s contempt citations.

Elizabeth: The Chicago 7 trial is known as one of the great court trials in American history and to many is an example of a political show trial against radical dissidents. The trial deserves its own podcast and hopefully we can provide you with that in the future. But today we’ll end with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and the traumatic events of such a watershed year. So thanks for listening and we encourage you to leave a five star review for our show on your podcast app.

Sarah: You can also support the show by heading to patreon.com/digpodcast where you can financially support our show for as little as $1 a month. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and join our Facebook group by searching Dig History Pod Squad. Until next time!

Bye!

Sources

Michael Beschloss, “Lyndon Johnson on the Record,” Texas Monthly, December 2001.

John A. Ferrel, Richard Nixon: The Life (New York: Doubleday Publishing: 2017)

Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election that Changed America (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 1993)

Kyle Longley, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Bruce A. Ragsdale, “The Chicago Seven: 1960s Radicalism in the Federal Courts,” Federal Judicial History Office, 2008.

Michael Schumacher, The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2018).

1968 Democratic National Convention CBS News Coverage- Chicago.

1968: CBS News’ Dan Rather gets roughed up while trying to interview a Georgia delegate.

LBJ: I will not seek reelection, March 31, 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy, Statement on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Kyle Longley, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 71, also see footnote 57 on same page.

[2] Lyndon Baines Johnson, March 31, 1968.

[3] Transcript of LBJ Interview in Michael Beschloss, “Lyndon Johnson on the Record,” Texas Monthly, December 2001.

[4] Robert F. Kennedy, Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968,

[5] Quoted in Longley, 218.

[6] Quoted in Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election that Changed America (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 1993) 129, from Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, (New York: Viking Press, 1969).

[7] 1968 Democratic National Convention CBS News Coverage- Chicago, 43:30. https://www.c-span.org/video/?444739-1/cbs-news-1968-democratic-national-convention-coverage

[8] 1968: CBS News’ Dan Rather gets roughed up while trying to interview a Georgia delegate. https://www.cbsnews.com/video/1968-cbs-news-dan-rather-gets-roughed-up-while-trying-to-interview-a-georgia-delegate/#x

[9] Rights in Conflict. Convention Week in Chicago, August 25–29, 1968. A Report submitted by Daniel Walker, Director of the Chicago Study Team, to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Introduction by Max Frankel. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968. pp. 1, 10–11.


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