Historical background to the 1968 presidential elections in the U.S

The 1968 presidential election came at a defining moment in the history of the United States. In the preceding elections in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson, a democrat, had won a landslide in an election that was argued to affirm the death of the Republican Party (Nicholas 1). Johnson was succeeding John F. Kennedy, another democrat, who was assassinated the previous year as he served his third year in his tenure. The perception of the death of the Republican Party was however with respect to the events that had preceded this election. Richard Nixon, a rising contender for the Republican nomination, had lost the California governor’s race in 1962 (Nicholas 1). Worse, on losing he had made a career-threating media speech[1] that insinuated he would never be in the running for political office again (Small 514). With the assassination of John F Kennedy, the democrats received favorable treatment from the public and thus, it required a charismatic and transformational leader for the Republican’s to halt the momentum the democrats had generated. Failure by Nixon to maintain his rising prospects, had thus dealt a blow to the prospects of the Republic party ascending to power in the near future.

In contrast to such premature writing off the Democratic Party, the foreign policy of the Johnson presidency and a rejuvenated return of Nixon were to give the Republicans a chance in the 1968 elections. On assuming power, Johnson marked his foreign policy approach through an intensified aggression in Southeast Asia by heightened bombings of North Vietnam and increased troop deployment in South Vietnam (Gould 7). Although the administration argued such aggravation of war in Vietnam to be a temporary measure, which would lead to the defeat of the North Vietnam, they had underestimated the determination of the North Vietnam, which led to prolonged war that was not over even by 1967, the year before the elections were scheduled (Gould 7-12). Such war resulted in the death of many Vietnamese and US soldiers resulting into ant-war protests in the United States (Gloud 7).

The increase in the anti-war sentiments provided an opportune moment for Nixon to re-enter the political scene. On returning into politics, Nixon was received well due to his role in supporting Barry Goldwater during the 1964 elections where the republicans were greatly humbled by the democrats; his support of the Republican candidate however ensured that the republicans remained united (Small 514). On return he was thus considered the Republican front runner; particularly, the incumbent, a democrat, even vouched for Nixon’s nomination since he considered Nixon to be an easy candidate[2] against whom he would be competing (Small 515). One of the president’s actions that launched Nixon into the limelight was his call on return from Manila in 1966, from a conference he had with his Vietnamese allies, for a mutual l withdrawal of American and opposing forces from South Vietnam (Small 514-515). In response, Nixon prepared a lengthy communiqué that found its way to the New York Times; the response criticized the president’s call for mutual withdrawal arguing that it was a step backwards from the achievements made[3] (Nixon and Perlstein 117- 120). The resultant response from the president’s end calling him a “chronic campaigner” elevated Nixon as the republican frontrunner, but this was orchestrated since the president considered Nixon “the most vulnerable man in American politics” (Ambrose 97).

While Nixon’s political star was rising, his core opponent for the Republican nomination was making miss-steps. In a television talk show, George Romney, the opponent, observed: “when I came back from Vietnam, I just has the greatest brainwashing anybody can get” (Gould 28). This statement generated two criticisms. Firstly, it was perceived to be an insult to General William Westmoreland, the Commander of the army in Vietnam, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, the then ambassador in Vietnam who was in support of the war efforts (Small 515). Accordingly, Romney’s remarks appeared contrary to the Republican’s support of the war at the time. Secondly, a casual criticism was that an individual vulnerable to brainwashing was not fit to lead the US (Small 515). Accordingly, Nixon’s front-runner status became more evident.

Although the republicans had their misdoings, probably what shaped the elections outcome was the drama in the Democratic Party that occurred in 1966 and 1967. The Vietnam War was, yet again, the core driver of disorganization in the Democratic Party. Although the domestic record of President Johnson, such as Great Society programs[4] and commitment to civil rights (Nicholas 6), was impeccable, the Vietnam War was quite significant that it brought disharmony in the party (Small 515 -516). Democrats who opposed the war, and whose number increased over time, tried to urge the president to halt his involvement in the War, but Johnson was in a dilemma. A negotiated end to war that resulted in a communist takeover would lead to him losing the election, while an aggressive support for the war would alienate him from the republicans thus risk his nomination to contend on the party’s ticket (Small 516).

Failure by the antiwar movement to convince the president to halt his engagement in the Vietnam war led to core proponents of the cease-war argument to consider a challenger for Johnson for the Democratic nomination to run in the 1968 election. One of these proponents was the Democratic activist Allard Lowenstein, who started such a cause in the summer of 1966 (Small 516). Eventually, Lowenstein gained support from such groups as the Committees of Concerned Democrats[5] (e.g. California Democratic Council[6]), which were keen on seeing the Democratic government disengage from its Vietnam activities (Small 516). Enchanted by such support, Lowenstein prodded the National Student Association in launching a Dump Johnson Movement, an association that he used since he lacked the monetary backup to engage prominent organizations (Small 516-517). Further, Lowenstein lacked a presidential candidate who would foster his quest. The Antiwar proponents favored Robert F. Kennedy, a younger brother to the assassinated John F. Kennedy, and a charismatic civil rights activist (Small 515). Robert Kennedy however was initially not receptive to the proposition to run for nomination, arguing that his candidature would split the party. However, later, he was to join the nomination due to his continued discontent with Johnson’s policies especially the president’s choice for the position of the secretary of State, Dean Rusk (Small 515 -517).

Lacking a candidate, the antiwar Lowenstein-led movement settled on a low-key Democrat, McCarthy, a choice that was argued to be so poor that it made “even Johnson look good” (Unger and Unger 299). McCarthy was not popular and lacked charisma of Robert Kennedy, the candidate the antiwar movement had earlier preferred. His sole rallying point was his long-term opposition to the Vietnam War; he stressed how the Vietnam War was having adverse effects on the values espoused by the nation and on the country’s economy (Small 518). However, his candidacy was further challenged by the lack of adequate binding primary elections that would help him gather adequate delegates to defeat Johnson during the convention (Small 517). Such numbers were with the president who still held substantial influence within the party’s power channels. Despite such advantage, Johnson’s fortunes were to change during 1968 when he was forced out of nomination by increasing opposition to his actions, leaving his vice-president, Humprey, to contend for the nomination with McCarthy (Nicholas 3). The contender, Robert Kennedy, who had returned into vying after failing to convince Johnson to drop his secretary of state, had by then been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, following his strong sentiments supporting Israel[7], sentiments that were aimed at winning him the Jewish Americans’ vote in Oregon and California (Small 521).

Another core occurrence on the Democratic Party’s end was the violence that characterized its convention. Although, Humphrey emerged the winner, the violence that resulted during the convention almost derailed the core purpose of the convention (Nicholas 3). The candidacy of Humphrey was perceived as an outcome of corrupt Party systems mainly manifest through the iron-fist approach used by Mayor Richard Daley of , where the convention was held (Nicholas 3; Small 523) . The resultant unrest which involved protestors led by the anti-Johnson democrats and the police put a dent on Humphrey’s campaigns in the following months (Small 523 -524; Nicholas 3 – 4). Such violence for instance provided fuel to the Republican’s proposition that the Democratic Party was “the party of disorder” (Small 523). Further, the violence led to changes in the party that resulted into the alienation of party faithfuls thus resulting into its further loss in Nixon’s second term.

Apart from the convention, other aspects of the 1968 elections indicate its shaping of subsequent presidential elections in the US. One of these is reinforcement of a principle that Schlesinger, a notable historian at the time, referred to as “Turn the Rascals Out” (149). This was the tendency of the voters to reject a party that was perceived to have had a bad run in office. Accordingly, Schlesinger notes that the Democrat’s allowance for American involvement in the Vietnam war to escalate was such an indication of a bad run in office, which meant that the voters could not vote in the Democratic party during the 1968 elections. The second principle, according to Schlesinger is the preference for human-considerate means of solving problems rather than use of machines. The evidence of such an argument was brought out in the 1968 election in contrasting ways. Firstly, it appears to have been at the center of the increased popularity of the Democratic Party towards the election date. However, the fact that the electorates decided to vote in a man who had voiced his preference for the Vietnam War seems to demystify this argument. More likely, the increase in popularity of Humphrey may have arisen from events that took place towards the election date, events that would have possibly led to the change in the outcome of the election.

One of these is the tampering of the Peace process that Johnson had eventually agreed to by the Nixon group. The Nixon group, through the head of a women group that supported a Nixon-Agrew candidature, were trying to influence the South Vietnamese to decline any offers for a peaceful resolution (Small 527). This was done through Chennault’s covert interactions with Bui Diem, the then ambassador of South Vietnam in the US (Small 527). Such actions were deemed to frustrate Johnson’s efforts to secure a peace resolution thus paint him as being reluctant to stop the military action in Vietnam.

In all the election events, various paradoxes can be identified. Firstly, despite the general aversion towards the continued participation of the US in the Vietnam War, voters were receptive a Nixon president though he advocated for continued deployment. Such however could have been due to Nixon’s strategy of avoiding situations that would involve a succinct explanation of his foreign policy. For instance, despite Nixon’s promising that his leadership would usher in an era of peace in the pacific and end the Vietnam War, he avoided detailing how he would arrive at such a feat (Small 523). When asked about how he would achieve such a promise, he would sidestep the issue stating that he did not wish to reveal his policy to his opponents before assuming the presidency (Whalen 96). Such a response, according to Small (523) indicated the lack of succinct plan on how he wished to achieve his promises. This aspect seems to render credence to Schlesinger (149) to the observations that the elections reinforced the principle that voters are not willing to vote in a party that has performed badly in office, even when such a party changes its leadership.


[2] Nixon considered to be an unprincipled politician thus the president opined that it would be easy to overcome such an opponent in the elections   (Small 515)


[3] Nixon proclaimed in his letter that “on the surface, a commitment to mutual withdrawal appears to be reasonable …[for] de-escalation … But on reflection, ..[it] simply turns the clock two years and says ‘let the South Vietnamese fight it out with the Vietcong’” (Nixon and Perlstein 119).

[4] Great Society programs were programs introduced to help reduce effects of poverty including legislation that enhanced social reform.


[5] These committees emerged from informal groups of democrats who had started meeting at the district level to address concerns of their party losing ground due to Johnson’s support of the Vietnam War (Small 516).


[6] The California Democratic Council had indicated that if the war would not come to a close in 1967, they would run a delegate campaign to dethrone Johnson from assuming the Democratic nomination during the June 1968 primary (Small 516)

[7] In a synagogue appearance, Kennedy had proclaimed that “We are committed to Israel’s survival”, a comment that is said to have angered Sirhan Sirhan, greatly (Small 521).

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