The war in Vietnam provided the fuel for the political storms that swept across the United States during 1968. With the brutal conflict in Southeast Asia dragging on in late 1967, the Democratic Party saw an antiwar challenger to President Lyndon B. Johnson emerge in Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. The revolt against Johnson enjoyed little support until the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Though the attack resulted in huge losses for the enemy, the event shook American confidence in ultimate victory. Although President Johnson won the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy made a strong showing that underscored the president's vulnerability. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York came into the race against Johnson in mid-March only to have the president announce his refusal to be a candidate for another nomination on March 31. Meanwhile, former vice president Richard Nixon was piling up delegates in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Four days after Johnson's announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. The death of the civil rights leader sparked racial violence in Washington, D.C. and other cities. Tension over race relations, already high because of earlier rioting and the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and other evidence of black nationalism, became more pronounced. A reaction against social disorder helped Nixon's candidacy. Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama pushed a third party race for the White House on a program that emphasized states' rights and anti-black themes to appeal to white ethnic voters in both the North and South angry about civil rights.
In the race for the nomination, McCarthy and Kennedy on the left opposed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the choice of the party's establishment. Some dissident students, opposing the war and fearful of being drafted, supported McCarthy by shaving their beards and wearing respectable clothes to be "Clean for Gene." Others in the younger generation endorsed Kennedy. Still other young people on the right espoused conservative causes and endorsed Nixon and other Republicans. A sense of generational upheaval marked the entire year with protests in France and Czechoslovakia as well as the United States.
The race for the Democratic prize was still up for grabs when Robert F. Kennedy won the California primary on June 6. Leaving the victory celebration, Kennedy was shot and died the next day. His death cleared the way for Humphrey to win the Democratic nomination. During the summer, Nixon triumphed over Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller to gain the Republican nomination. He chose Governor Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate. Nixon promised "new leadership" in Southeast Asia and talked about how he would pursue an end to the war in Vietnam. He never announced "a secret plan," but intended to diminish the American role and use diplomatic pressure to persuade the enemy to negotiate an end to the fighting.
With the war still going on, the Democrats gathered in Chicago in August for their national convention. Antiwar sentiment among many delegates and the students who gathered to protest Humphrey's likely selection led to apprehensions of violence. The mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, mobilized his police force to deal with any disruptions. Outside the convention hall, demonstrators and police clashed in bloody confrontations that were covered on national television. The resulting violence worked against the Democrats who seemed incapable of preserving order and offering a positive alternative to the Republicans. Humphrey was nominated after a stormy convention that left the party in disarray as a result of divisive debates about the party's stand on the war. His running mate was Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine.
The presidential race that followed opened with Nixon having a strong lead in the polls over Humphrey. Wallace was running strongly in the South where his appeal to whites continued to be powerful. For the Democratic candidate, the major problem was Lyndon Johnson and his policies toward Vietnam. As long as Humphrey remained tied to the White House, dissident Democrats refused to give him their support. Nixon's campaign stressed his commitment to an "honorable" peace in Vietnam but offered few specifics about how his goals would be achieved. The Republican candidate looked to run out the clock against his confused and under-funded Democratic rival.
By the end of September, however, Humphrey moved away from Johnson on the war and his fortunes began to improve. Labor unions stressed to their members in the North that Wallace had an anti-labor record, and the Alabama governor's support eroded rapidly. As Humphrey surged, Nixon had no effective campaign appeal to prevent the Democrats from reuniting. A closer race loomed than would have seemed possible at the beginning of the campaign.
To help the Democrats and insure his own reputation, Johnson pressed hard for an agreement to have the North Vietnamese come to the negotiating table before Election Day. The South Vietnamese were not happy at this turn of events. Nixon made it clear to the government in that country through back channels that they should not help the Democrats to win. As a result, Johnson's initiative faltered in the days before the voting as South Vietnam declined to help the president. Though Humphrey made a close race of the election, Nixon's majority held together to enable him to gain the presidency. Humphrey was strong in the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. Wallace carried several states in the South but ran a lackluster third as his chances ebbed.
The entire year of 1968 was traumatic for the nation, and the scars it inflicted burdened the Democrats in particular for many years. Everyone sensed that an important change in the history of the United States had occurred. The era of Democratic dominance had ended, the war in Vietnam would not be expanded, and the eruption of youthful protest that seemed so powerful faded away in the years that followed. The civil rights movement also suffered serious reverses because of the death of Martin Luther King and the increasing unhappiness with black protest in general. Twelve months of bitter conflict and social upheaval over the war and its effects left enduring scars.
Chester, Lewis; Hodgson, Godfrey; and Page, Bruce. An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968. New York: Viking, 1969.
Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Farber, David. Chicago '68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Gould, Lewis L. 1968: The Election that Changed America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.
White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1968. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Witcover, Jules. The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America. New York: Warner Books, 1997.
Lewis L. Gould