1968: A Spiral of Chaos and Death

Johnson calls it quits; King, Kennedy are shot.

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Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Hammond, Ind.

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Lyndon Johnson must have been reassured by his prospects for re-election in January 1968. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson had won the presidency in the biggest landslide in American history, winning more than 61 percent of the vote in 1964. He had his struggles in the White House—the Civil Rights Act had exhausted much of his political capital, and the war in Vietnam, where nearly 10,000 Americans were killed in 1967, had stirred up an increasingly restive antiwar movement. But Johnson seemed to be holding firm. Gen. William Westmoreland, his man in Vietnam, had reported in the fall of 1967 that there was "light at the end of the tunnel."

Johnson's approval rating was climbing and, as the incumbent, he remained the clear front-runner. He had received another boost that fall when JFK’s brother Robert—Johnson's personal nemesis and only legitimate rival in the Democratic Party—chose loyalty to the party over the pleas of antiwar activists who wanted him to mount an insurgent campaign. The protest movement had settled, instead, on the unthreatening Eugene McCarthy, an unknown Minnesota senator. Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy was polling at 11 percent.

Over the course of only a few months, all that would change. McCarthy shocked Johnson by nearly beating him in New Hampshire, winning 42 percent of the vote. Kennedy announced that he was entering the race in March, and Johnson, in a surprise announcement, withdrew his candidacy two weeks later. When Kennedy was killed while campaigning that summer—soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—the Democratic Party fell into disarray. Johnson left office with the lowest approval rating of any postwar president.

Tet perceptions. What caused this historic unraveling? Vietnam was mostly to blame for Johnson's fall, but Kennedy's decision to run against him, historians say, may have been the coup de grâce. After years of rosy military analyses and soothing talk, the three-week-long Tet offensive, launched by the Viet Cong at the end of January 1968, made many Americans believe the war had no end in sight, even though the Viet Cong suffered substantial losses. "Americans had been assured the war was going well," says Michael Klarman, a professor of history and law at the University of Virginia. "Then the Communists are in the U.S. Embassy." With major cities across South Vietnam under attack, there was a growing perception the president had a credibility problem. Along with the venerable Walter Cronkite, seven major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, began questioning Vietnam after Tet, giving the battle an immediate political impact. On March 12, McCarthy nearly won New Hampshire.

Four days later, when Kennedy announced he would enter the race, Johnson had to take an even closer look at his re-election strategy. Since Tet began, Johnson had been trying to keep his chin up in public. "Make no mistake about it," he said in a February speech. "We are going to win." But behind the scenes, he was scrambling. Johnson's advisers agreed the war had stalemated—and public opinion was turning against it. According to a poll in mid-March, 49 percent of people believed the United States had never had any business being in Vietnam. With antiwar protesters massing wherever Johnson went, campaigning was going to be a messy affair.

Running against a Kennedy, with his presidency suddenly in tatters, was Johnson's worst nightmare. His entire term in the White House had been served in the shadow of John F. Kennedy, and now, after he had dutifully pushed through many of Kennedy's policies—at great political cost—his boss's brother was trying to unseat him. Polls showed Kennedy running ahead of Johnson in several states. "I felt that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede," Johnson would later tell historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "And then the final straw, the thing I feared from the first day of my presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets. The whole situation was unbearable for me."

Bowing out. On March 31, two weeks after Kennedy's announcement, the hard-bitten Texan who never shied from a fight conceded the race. Johnson framed his decision as an honorable retreat, saying the crisis in Vietnam demanded a nonpartisan figure in the White House. "I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes," he said. "Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

But his attempt to stay above the fray didn't last long. Within the week, King was shot in Memphis and rioting broke out in more than a dozen major cities. Peace talks with the North Vietnamese went nowhere. Kennedy, after building steam in several early primaries, was killed by an assassin's bullet in June. Johnson's presidency would now be dogged by the memory of two martyred Kennedys. "It would have been hard on me to watch Bobby march to 'Hail to the Chief,' " he said after leaving office. "But I almost wish he had become president so the country could finally see a flesh-and-blood Kennedy grappling with the daily work of the presidency and all the inevitable disappointments, instead of their storybook image of great heroes who, because they were dead, could make anything anyone wanted happen." That, in 1968, was not to be. In November, Richard Nixon won the general election.

THE SQUEAKER

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the popular vote over Richard M. Nixon by fewer than 120,000 votes. In the Electoral College, Kennedy won 303 votes to Nixon's 219. Illinois's 27 electoral votes were considered critical to Kennedy's victory, but he won them by some 9,000 popular votes. Republican Party operatives were demanding recounts, claiming that the Chicago Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor, had stolen the election. Despite calls for him to fight, Nixon conceded the race.