The summer of 1968 was an absolute nightmare for the Democratic Party. Everything that could go wrong, did, and there was precious little the Democrats could do to avoid or even anticipate it.
Summer is typically the time when American presidential campaigns begin heating up. In 1968, the Democrats knew they were between a rock and a hard place. President Lyndon Johnson had renounced all intentions of running for a third term in late March, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, seemingly lacked the strength of personality required to direct the great ship of state. Eugene McCarthy seemed to be making a strong bid for the party’s nomination, and George Wallace, the race-baiting governor of Alabama, was popular in the deep South.
In March, however, Robert F. Kennedy, former attorney general and younger brother of President John Kennedy, had declared his candidacy. Surely he could convince the American voter to trust him with extracting the United States from the Vietnam quagmire and bringing peace to a deeply divided nation. After all, he was young, handsome, and intelligent; he had government experience, and would surely carry on his brother’s legacy.
The fate of RFK’s candidacy, however, was tragically decided by an assassin’s bullet. On the night of June 5, after winning the California primary election—critical for gaining the support of the party—Robert Kennedy was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian enraged by Kennedy’s support for Israel. A mere two months and one day after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down by James Earl Ray, the assassination of yet another popular figure—a Kennedy, no less—deeply impacted the country, as Americans became increasingly concerned with the spirit of the age. Was this a country that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34)? This deep concern made excellent political capital for the candidates, especially Nixon and Wallace, who touted their abilities as “law and order” candidates who could set things right and bring peace to the country, both domestically and internationally.
Not only was there no peace at home, but the United States was still bogged down in the Vietnam War. In the wake of Johnson’s “Withdrawal Speech,” in which he had announced a partial bombing halt in Vietnam, the government of North Vietnam (DRV) had announced its intention to meet with American and South Vietnamese negotiators. Despite this, negotiations were a long time coming, as the DRV refused to meet Johnson’s three “facts of life” (or conditions) and demanded their own conditions—i.e. a full bombing halt—be met, and the government of South Vietnam (GVN) refused to come to the table due to the fact that the National Liberation Front (NLF, or Vietcong) were also present.
Throughout the course of the summer, LBJ resolutely refused to concede to North Vietnamese demands for a full bombing halt without their adherence to his “facts of life,” as he feared that such action would expose American troops to attack. By refusing to stop the bombing, Johnson effectively declined several opportunities to begin negotiations in earnest. At the same time, however, he would not resume bombing in retaliation for instances of minor North Vietnamese intransigence, despite Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s encouragement to do so, because he feared such an action would jeopardize negotiations. Since Hanoi first indicated its willingness to participate in talks, Johnson made concessions where he believed he could, without endangering South Vietnam’s future or the chances of the United States securing an “honorable peace,” as seen in his acceptance of Paris as the location of the talks, despite his concern that the French president, Charles de Gaulle, would favor the North Vietnamese.
With the death of Kennedy, Johnson began reconsidering his decision not to run for another term. Neither McCarthy nor Humphrey were polling well enough to have a clear advantage over Nixon, and a successful reelection campaign could prompt the North Vietnamese to be more pliant at the negotiating table, since Johnson would have the political capital to pressure Hanoi. Indeed, progress in the peace talks by November would likely win him the election. Besides, a number of leaders in the party wanted Johnson to run again, and his reelection could enable him to secure the “honorable peace” he sought in Vietnam, whereas Humphrey would likely tarnish his legacy by compromising with the North.
It appears that, by July, Johnson was seriously considering entering the race, as he made a point of being more cautious in his public statements, and pushed his staff to produce more positive press about him. By August, he was fantasizing about being nominated for another term at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and seriously considered making an appearance there, presumably to be honored by his fellow party members for his 60th birthday. As the convention was going on, he discussed the possibility of flying in using the presidential helicopter, Marine One, in a stunt to gain the nomination. This plan was abandoned, however.
The convention itself was a nightmare. Over the past two years, racial tensions had increased—worsened by MLK’s assassination in April—as had anti-war dissent. Race riots had rocked the nation in the summer of 1967 and the spring of 1968, and anti-war protests became increasingly common (and violent) on college campuses across the country. During the convention (August 26–29), Chicago turned into a battleground, as thousands of anti-war activists gathered to protest near the convention, where they were sure to get national television coverage. Mayor Richard Daley ordered Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard to disrupt the protests, and they applied force in doing so, resulting in hundreds of people being injured—all caught on TV.
Meanwhile, tensions were also evident inside of the convention, with some of the outside violence spreading inside, as several network news reporters were assaulted on live television. Additionally, the party found itself wrapped up in internecine fighting over the question of American involvement in Vietnam, with the dovish anti-war plank being defeated in the final platform vote. During the debates over the platform, several fights broke out, demonstrating the party’s disunity. Ultimately, Humphrey won the nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, and was forced to accept a pro-war platform, despite his personal beliefs to the contrary; indeed, Johnson, working behind the scenes, had helped force the pro-war plank through.
Between the riots and the clear divisions in their party, the Democrats hobbled out of the summer of 1968, badly weakened. They had been incapable of keeping “law and order” during their own convention—how then could they possibly restore peace to their divided nation? Humphrey went on to lose the presidential election to Richard Nixon, who became the president of the United States. Fortunately for the Democrats, they retained control of the House and Senate, which they would continue to hold until 1980. Little did they know that, in six years, the Republicans would have their own political crisis on their hands, courtesy of the man they voted president in 1968.