1968: Elections then and now
Perspective through examination of history is always helpful, as long as we perceive the past accurately. Extreme, overwrought rhetoric has now become commonplace, within the media as well as from political candidates.
Statements include the bizarre claim that the United States is on the verge of “another Civil War.” Keep in mind that war cost the lives of over one-half million men, and resulted in long-term economic and physical devastation of the southern states. The aftermath of the war poisoned American politics for decades.
Do we face that? Of course not, and responding effectively to this superficial and immature rhetoric should include examining in specific terms the U.S. presidential race of 1968, just 50 years ago.
As the year began, the nation was experiencing a sustained violent crime wave. This was unprecedented, at least since World War II. Crime rates today are extremely low, despite the terrible problem of periodic mass killings.
Additionally, urban riots, which reflected intense racial unrest, and at times violent anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, characterized our nation in those difficult years. This is absent today. Beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson became a prisoner of events, restricted in major public appearances primarily to military bases.
The leaders in Hanoi of the long-term, brutal revolution in Vietnam took full advantage of the situation. On Jan. 30, 1968, during an agreed ceasefire, the Viet Cong guerillas along with heavily armed elements of North Vietnam’s formidable army suddenly attacked virtually every city and town across South Vietnam.
Bloody fighting went on for weeks, and sporadic action continued into the fall of the year. Initially, the enemy gained ground, killed large numbers of both Americans and South Vietnamese, and enjoyed tremendous shock effect.
Confirming Hanoi’s gamble, the Tet Offensive resulted in military defeat but political victory. Public support for the Vietnam War dissipated.
Anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) won a significant vote in the March 12 New Hampshire presidential primary. President Johnson actually won the election, but many interpreted the result as a defeat. Senator
Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) declared his candidacy. President Johnson withdrew from contention.
On April 4, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Violent riots exploded across the nation. Heavily armed U.S. Army and Marine forces deployed to protect Washington D.C.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, an assassin fatally wounded Kennedy in a hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just narrowly won the California Democratic presidential primary.
Just before the California election, Senator McCarthy had decisively defeated Kennedy in the important Oregon primary — a fact overlooked in many popular accounts of those days. Neither candidate was clearly winning.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Richard Nixon came back from what appeared to be political oblivion to secure the Republican presidential nomination. He was the favorite of grass-roots party workers, and held off challenges from uncertain liberal Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and aggressive conservative Governor Ronald Reagan of California.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee, initially was far behind Nixon in opinion polls, and for a time, third party racist candidate Governor George Wallace (D-AL) was a major threat to his support.
Yet Humphrey, a brilliant campaigner, surged and only narrowly lost to Nixon. Opinion polls generally showed him more popular than either Kennedy or McCarthy and a stronger candidate against any likely Republican nominee.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War."