Background to the 1968 Presidential Race

1968 began as a tumultuous year. On 21 January North Vietnam launched an assault on the key Marine base at Khe Sanh. On  23 January USS Pueblo, an electronic surveillance ship, was seized by the North Koreans and towed into Wonson Harbor. The North Koreans declared that the crew were spying and brutally tortured the men. One week later North Vietnam and the Viet Cong staged a massive offensive on American and South Vietnamese forces and cities during the Tet holiday. The American embassy was nearly overrun, and Hue City was conquered by the Viet Cong, requiring a brutal all-out counter assault to retake the city. President Johnson and his top military advisors had some inkling of the Tet Offensive, but Johnson, who had come to realize how much that “bitch of war” was destroying his presidency and his dreams of a Great Society, decided to let General William Westmoreland’s soothing words of “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” be the official policy from Washington. A few weeks after the Tet Offensive was launched, a political cartoonist showed Uncle Sam seeing light at the end of a tunnel, but it was a train tunnel, and the light was attached to a train hurtling towards a bemused Uncle Sam. The war in Vietnam, the urban riots that had torn Detroit and Newark asunder in 1967, the seething unrest on college campuses, and the incessant chant of “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”, gave many voters the sense that the United States was no longer a functional country.

Enter Senator EuGene McCarthy

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Senator McCarthy came from Minnesota, and was largely unknown until he decided to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968. Most party leaders found this idea laughable, since Johnson had won the 1964 election with the largest popular vote margin in history, but McCarthy, despite having voted for the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which authorized President Johnson to use force in Vietnam, now felt that the war was immoral. McCarthy spoke to the high school and college students who were bearing the brunt of the draft for the war, and he also organized these students into a remarkably effective machine. These students “scrubbed clean for Gene”, cut their long hair and beards, and went to New Hampshire in droves to door knock and convince voters that Senator McCarthy would be a better nominee for the Democratic party. On 12 March the Democratic voters in New Hampshire sent the party leadership a stunning message by nearly defeating Johnson, a sitting president. McCarthy won 40% of the primary vote, taking 20 of New Hampshire’s 24 delegates for the upcoming Democratic convention in Chicago.

Senator Robert Kennedy Enters the Race

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Robert Kennedy, brother of the murdered President John F. Kennedy, had been elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964. Since then, those who had loved his brother and his policies had been urging him to run for the presidency, but Kennedy, ever the party loyalist, felt that it would be wrong to challenge the president and leader of his own party for the nomination. As the Vietnam War grew in ferocity, Kennedy saw Johnson’s War on Poverty become consumed by the war in Vietnam. Kennedy also saw his brother’s dreams of America being a shining beacon of democracy and hope destroyed by napalm dropped on Vietnamese women and children. But Kennedy, unlike McCarthy, didn’t enter the race for the nomination…until after McCarthy’s amazing performance in the New Hampshire primary. On 16 March Kennedy stood at the same spot in the Senate where his brother had stood eight years ago and announced his candidacy for the presidency, stating “the disastrous, divisive policies in Vietnam and at home could only be changed by changing the men who are making them.” The entry of the Kennedy into the race infuriated McCarthy and his followers, many of whom felt that that Kennedy had watched and waited as McCarthy did the hard work to prove that Johnson was beatable, and now Kennedy was swooping in to reap the rewards that he hadn’t earned. For the next 88 days Senator Kennedy’s candidacy would energize the nation and serve as a bit of hope in a year that seemed all too hopeless for many.