The 1968 Election: A Turning Point in History

That summer, Mick Jagger sang,

“Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy,
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
Hey, said my name is called Disturbance;
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants”

While Jagger reflected what was happening in the streets, it was much more than that. In the US, the country was tearing apart at the seams. The world, too, seemed to be on the brink. Prague, Mexico City, and Chicago all became focal points of that summer. While Revolution seemed to be within a breath, law and order seemed to be absent. It was year when everything seemed to happen. And to top it all off, the US was having an election. It would be a year unlike any other.

It began to unravel in January 31. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive breaking an agreed upon truce. 70,000 North Vietnamese troops took part in attacks all across the country of South Vietnam. It was military disaster but a psychological victory for the North. They proved they determined the order of battle. They proved that President Johnson and General Westmoreland were lying to the public about who was in control in the war. By taking the battle from the jungle to the city, Johnson and Westmoreland had some explaining to do. The public would not be receptive. Ironically, two days after the offensive began, Richard Nixon, declared his presidential candidacy and entered the New Hampshire primary.

Early on in the campaign, it became evident that Vietnam was the major issue. When Peter Arnett quoted a US major that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” the Johnson administration came under attack for its handling of the war. Adding fuel to the fire came later in February when Walter Cronkite reported on his recent trip to Vietnam. Entitled, “Who, What, When, Where, Why?”, the report was a stinging condemnation of the US in Vietnam. Cronkite’s special contradicted official statements by Johnson and Westmoreland on the progress of the war. Cronkite said near the end, that the US “…not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” Johnson knew that in losing Cronkite, he had lost the middle of the country.

Two weeks later…
On March 12, the New Hampshire primary showed how American felt about Tet. Senator Eugene McCarthy almost defeated incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy entered the 1968 Presidential race. Johnson was to have his hands full if his campaign was to continue. It would not. Johnson would drop out on March 31.

Four days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The largest manhunt began for his killer but not before riots swept most American cities. Robert Kennedy gave one of the most emotional speeches amid the chaos. He was appearing more and more presidential.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — 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 in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’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.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Later that months, the anti-war movement began to throttle up. Occupation of five buildings lasted for seven days later when police stormed the buildings and removed the protesters. Other riots and sit ins began at campuses all across the country. It was not sure if the country would make it to election day.

On June 4, the California Primary saw Robert Kennedy win big. Addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco at 12:13AM on the morning of the fifth, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan claimed he shot Kennedy for his pro-Israeli sentiments. Kennedy, only 42 died on June sixth. The election was getting more and more surreal.

On August 8, the Republicans nominated Richard Milhouse Nixon to be their presidential candidate. The next day Nixon chose Spiro Agnew. Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war but would not reveal what it was. Nixon, said he spoke for a “silent majority” who wanted to restore law and order to the country in chaos. Nixon would later refuse to take part in the debates. He would, however, offer up this campaign commercial.

Nixon was not the only “law and order” candidate. “Dixiecrat” George Wallace ran as his 3rd party candidate that fall.

The former Alabama Governor represented a strong portion of the South that felt the Democratic party had strayed too far from its principles on Vietnam and Civil Rights.

On August 20, 200,000 Soviet troops stormed in to Prague ending the “Prague Spring,” and began “normalization” procedures to return the country under Soviet rule. No response came from the Johnson people. The revolution there had been crushed.

On August 26, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley opened the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It would be the most tumultuous convention in American History. Yippies and riots occurred in the streets, fighting took place on the convention floor, all the while the convention tried to nominate Hubert Humphrey for president. Chicago police took action against the large crowd of protestors, beating some unconscious. Over 100 protesters were sent to the emergency room. Mayor Daley said of the actions by his police, “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” The leaders of the antiwar movement and the protesters, the Chicago 8 (later renamed the Chicago 7), were charged with crimes relating to the riots.

In October, nights before the Olympics began, police attacked protesters in Tlatelolco Square. It was estimated 500 demonstrators were killed. The government of Mexico silenced any news. At Games, 32 African nations boycotted because of South Africa’s participation. On the 18th, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, shocked the world by performing the Black Power salute during the “Star-Spangled Banner” at their medal ceremony for the 200 meters. Smith said,

“If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

On October 31, President Johnson announced a halt to US bombing in North Vietnam. The action gave Humphrey a boost in the polls. It was not enough. Nixon won the electoral college handily a few days later. Dominating the center of the country while Humphrey was strong in the Northeast and Wallace in the deep South, Nixon ran away with the victory.

The 1968 election was steeped in events of the year and in fact, took a backseat to the events of the day. When it was all said and done, the country had spoken its mind. It craved for law and order, some sense of normalcy in a year of chaos. Reflecting back, many leaders of the antiwar movement failed to rally behind any viable candidate. Fractured and disruptive themselves, no consensus could be reached on whom to put forth after the death of Bobby Kennedy. Humphrey was too close to Johnson for them. In reality, Humphrey was more distant from Johnson than he lead on. However, Humphrey was not about to denounce the man to whom he was Vice-President. The failure to support Humphrey was one of the great tragedies of the year. Nixon would not end the war. It would continue on for almost five more years. Although his secret plan of Vietnamization was announced early in 1969, it would not take effect for years as Nixon tried to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail by secretly invading Cambodia.

For a time that summer, many wondered if America was going to collapse and implode. It did not. The antiwar movement would continue throughout Nixon’s first term. The issues to be resolved never were. But 1968 did mark a turning point. The election, while historical, was not the key event. The key event was the US was no longer seen as the bastion of liberty in the world. Between the assassinations, the riots, the Tet Offensive, and the election, freedom was lost. The world would never see us the same way after that summer. It would take a long time for the US to get itself back together and restore its place in the world.


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