Guest Essayist: Professor Steve Knott


A House Divided: The Presidential Election of 1968

The presidential election of 1968 was held amidst a deluge of violence and civil unrest. That the United States managed to survive this annus horribilis was a testament to the resilience of its people and of its constitutional framework. The simple fact that the election proceeded apace, as did a peaceful transition of power from one party to another, were welcomed signs of health in a body politic that some considered to be terminally ill.

The sense of pride and optimism that Americans felt toward their country in the early 1960s would be severely tested in 1968. The year began with North Korea attacking an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo, killing one crew member and seizing the vessel and its crew. The surviving crew members were tortured for over eleven months by the North Koreans who repeatedly rebuffed the Johnson administration’s appeals for the sailors’ release. Shortly after the Pueblo incident, the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched the “Tet Offensive” in South Vietnam. The offensive was seen as a propaganda victory for the communists, despite the fact that the Viet Cong were effectively destroyed as a fighting force. Nevertheless, the images of “VC” guerillas inside the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon led many Americans to dismiss the rosy scenarios offered by President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The “credibility gap” became the catchphrase of the day.

By the end of March, Johnson, the incumbent president who had won one of the largest landslides in American history less than four years earlier, announced that he would not seek re-election. LBJ had been seriously damaged by the strong performance of the “peace candidate,” Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Additionally, Johnson withdrew after his nemesis, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, announced his presidential candidacy on March 16th. Johnson could not stand the thought of losing to Bobby Kennedy, whom he loathed, and the feeling was mutual.

Less than a week after Johnson’s withdrawal, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, an act which led to riots in almost all of the nation’s major cities. American military units were activated to protect the White House and the Capitol from possible destruction, as smoke wafted throughout the District of Columbia. Two months after Dr. King’s death, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The United States, the “last best hope of earth,” appeared to be devolving into a banana-republic. This impression was confirmed in the minds of many Americans at the Democratic Convention in August, 1968, when Chicago turned into a war zone with students and assorted radicals battling a police department averse to long-hair, libertine lifestyles, and Viet Cong flags. This was a culture war in its most ferocious form.

Unfortunately for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party’s nominee, his earlier pledge to pursue “the politics of happiness . . . the politics of joy” seemed hopelessly detached from reality as tear gas drifted through the streets of Chicago. Additionally, just days prior to the opening of the Democratic Convention, the Soviet Union had suppressed the so-called “Prague Spring.” The Soviet military ruthlessly deposed the Czechoslovakian government which had distanced itself from Moscow and repealed many oppressive measures. The Johnson administration’s tepid response to the Soviet invasion heightened the sense among many Americans that the United States was in decline.

On the Republican side of the race, the main candidates for the GOP nomination were former Vice President Richard Nixon, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Michigan Governor George Romney, and California Governor Ronald Reagan. The Republican Party was desperate to win the White House after having been shellacked in 1964, and the party’s leaders sensed that a divisive war in the midst of domestic unrest at home would lead to a Republican victory. Governor Reagan was the heir to the Barry Goldwater wing of the party, but he had only been Governor for less than two years and jumped into the race far too late to stop Nixon. Nixon ultimately secured the GOP nomination, after having refashioned himself as a “new Nixon,” a kinder, tanned, and funnier Nixon, who adopted the stance of a senior statesman dedicated to healing the nation. This “transformed” Nixon was nothing more than a marketing ruse; one that saw the normally awkward Nixon appearing on television via Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In urging Americans to “sock it to me.” Unfortunately, the “new Nixon” was the same old Nixon who harbored serious character flaws, all of which would come to the fore during his troubled presidency.

As Election Day approached the race began to narrow dramatically. Humphrey had belatedly distanced himself from Johnson’s increasingly unpopular conduct of the Vietnam War; had he done so earlier many believe the Vice President would have won the election. Nixon’s stance on the war was couched in generalities; he frequently suggested, somewhat vaguely, that he hoped to secure an “honorable end” to the war. Nixon’s opaque stance on this issue contributed to his decision to refuse to debate Humphrey (as did the bad memories from his debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960) and to engage with a mainstream media that he believed, rightly so, was hostile to him. While Nixon never claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war, it was difficult to determine if he was opposed to the war itself or to the way it was conducted.

Humphrey might have won the race had the segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama not run as a third-party candidate. Wallace was a Democrat, and thus he may have siphoned-off votes that would have gone to Humphrey, although it is equally plausible that he took votes from Nixon. In the end, Wallace, and his running mate, retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay, managed to carry five southern states, a somewhat impressive performance for a third-party candidacy.

The final results of the election revealed the divided state of the United States. Nixon captured 43.4 percent of the popular vote, Humphrey 42.7 percent, Wallace 13.5 percent. However, Nixon’s margin in the Electoral College was quite comfortable: he became the nation’s 37th president with 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 45. But Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1848 to win the White House without winning a majority in either house of Congress.

Nixon’s tenure in office would be marked by fierce partisan combat with the Democratic controlled Congress, and with an overtly hostile press. As Nixon attempted to secure “peace with honor,” opposition to the Vietnam War took on a more violent character than it had under President Johnson. Groups like the “Weathermen,” a mutant outgrowth of the Students for a Democratic Society, engaged in a terrorist bombing campaign throughout the United States. Nixon responded by urging the Federal Bureau of Investigation to intensify its operations against the antiwar movement, and he later created his own private White House security outfit dubbed “the Plumbers” to carry out covert operations against various administration enemies, ultimately including the Democratic Party. And thus began the road to Watergate, and to the first presidential resignation in American history. But all of that was yet to come; as 1968 drew to a close most Americans were simply thankful that the “last best hope of earth” had survived.

Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College, and the co-author with Tony Williams of Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America.

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