How 1968 Defined The Political Fault Lines That Divide America Today

Originally published on June 8, 2016 3:41 pm

1968 was a landmark year in American history. There were riots, assassinations and protests against the war in Vietnam. And it all affected the presidential election that year.

A new book from author Michael A. Cohen digs into the big political players in that drama, and argues that what happened in that 1968 campaign is still being reflected in the politics of today – and this year’s presidential election. Cohen joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division.”

Book Excerpt: ‘American Maelstrom’


By Michael A. Cohen

As winter gives way to spring, it is said that the month of March enters like a lion and leaves like a lamb. March 1968 would flip this proverb on its head. No month that year offered greater drama and surprises or more enduring political change than these thirty-one days. The month became a character in its own right in the story of 1968; the inflection point in a transformative political year.

March 1968 saw Johnson’s teetering presidency finally collapse. Frustration on the home front mounted as America was buffeted by crises, both domestic and foreign. The entry of a new candidate into the presidential race further roiled the nation’s politics (as did the decision of another not to run). Above all, in the aftermath of Tet, the US war in Vietnam, which by March 1968 had already taken nearly fifteen thousand American lives, began its slow shift toward de-escalation and de-Americanization. The offensive’s political impact would be most acutely felt thousands of miles away, in the state of New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first presidential primary. There, Eugene McCarthy’s motley army of college students and antiwar activists engaged in their own political insurgency—one that before Tet seemed to be on a path to nowhere.

A January survey of Democratic delegates from the 1964 convention showed that 87 percent supported Johnson’s renomination. McCarthy did little better among the rank and file; a February Gallup poll had him trailing Johnson by a 71–18 margin. John Roche, a White House aide, drafted a note to the president saying, “Eugene McCarthy is doing so badly that I am tempted to float a rumor that he is actually working for you to dispirit the ‘peace movement.’”

McCarthy initially resisted even entering the New Hampshire primary out of fear that the state’s hawkish electorate would not warm to his antiwar message. At the urging of his campaign manager Blair Clark and two local activists, David Hoeh and Gerry Studds (a future congressman from Massachusetts), who argued that entering the primary would “reaffirm the seriousness” of his challenge to Johnson, McCarthy relented. It would be one of the few fortuitous moments in the entire campaign when he took the advice of his aides.

Still McCarthy didn’t make his first stop in the state until January 25—only six weeks before the March 12 primary—and his presence there sparked little excitement. He canceled dawn appearances at factory gates to meet voters because, as he told staffers, he wasn’t really a “morning person.” A photographer hired to take pictures of the candidate quit after five days because the only people in the shots were out-of- state volunteers. Richard Goodwin, who had joined the campaign on a whim after reading a newspaper story on the aftermath of Tet, recounted walking into the Sheraton Wayfarer Hotel in Manchester (“maybe the biggest dining room in the state of New Hampshire”) with McCarthy, and “not a single head looked up.”

McCarthy refused to be bothered with the ins and outs of the campaign. He would barely talk to donors and failed to thank them for their support. His speeches sounded more like plodding lectures than rousing calls to arms (“People don’t want to be shouted at,” McCarthy explained). The national campaign infrastructure was basically nonexistent. There were no polls taken (“We don’t want to get discouraged,” McCarthy said); and the New Hampshire contingent was left largely to fend for itself, with no manager at first, no advertising, no campaign materials, and no slogan. (Studds and Hoeh would eventually come up with one on their own: “There Is an Alternative. McCarthy for President.”) “Events will march in our favor,” he told the increasingly exasperated Clark. Newsweek summed up the views of many when it described the New Hampshire effort as “hardly even an embarrassment.”

The candidate’s laconic, indifferent attitude looked like laziness to many, but McCarthy adamantly wanted to make a measured and rational case for change, even at his own political expense. Days after the announcement of his candidacy, McCarthy traveled to Chicago to address an audience of Democratic antiwar activists. Though he had been speaking to such groups for months, the Chicago appearance offered him a coming-out party of sorts—and a chance to preview the key themes of his campaign. At the event he had been slated to follow Allard Lowenstein, who proceeded to rile up the audience with a personal attack on Johnson and a harsh denunciation of the war. As McCarthy stood backstage, his blood pressure began to rise in concert with Lowenstein’s tone (Lowenstein’s right-hand man, the future senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, later described McCarthy as “visibly pissed”). Lowenstein’s stridency represented precisely the sort of demagogic campaign that McCarthy did not want to wage. To prove his point, when his turn came to speak, he went into full poet-professor mode, with obscure references to the Dreyfus case and the Punic Wars, and no mention of Lyndon Johnson. The crowd politely gave McCarthy a standing ovation, but their disappointment was unmistakable.

McCarthy had taken on Johnson, in large measure, because he believed the president and the war had coarsened the national discourse and bred “political helplessness.” He refused to try to repair those wounds with more invective. Eight years earlier, in Frontiers in American Democracy, McCarthy wrote, “The Christian in politics should shun the devices of the demagogue in all times, but especially at a time when anxiety is great, when tension is high, when uncertainty prevails, and emotion tends to be in the ascendancy.” This attitude would be reflected in virtually every aspect of the New Hampshire campaign. As he told a local radio station in early March, “The issues with which we are dealing are the kind that ought to be considered with some reservation and some restraint—somewhat moderately instead of in the atmosphere of shouting and emotion.”

While McCarthy’s views on the war and US foreign policy in general departed from the political consensus, few who encountered McCarthy in New Hampshire would have easily drawn such a conclusion. In fact, his campaign downplayed his opposition to the war, and his local staff kept the shrillest antiwar voices at arm’s length. The message of campaign advertisements and press releases—which were similar to McCarthy’s own public statements since the fall—was focused on the larger question of whether America had lost it way. “What happened to this country since 1963?” asked one flyer, accompanied by a picture of a smiling McCarthy and President Kennedy. “The Bigger the War the Smaller Your Dollar,” said another, which contrasted the prosperity of the Kennedy years with the higher cost of living that had resulted from Vietnam.

“The great issue in this contest between President Johnson and myself is not Vietnam,” McCarthy told voters. “It is not rising violence in the cities or rising prices. It is one of leadership and the direction of our nation.” McCarthy targeted those who might not have agreed with his opposition to the war—or his overall foreign policy views—but who believed that Vietnam was taking a terrible toll on the nation as a whole. “It’s not only the war,” he reiterated in a February campaign appearance in New Hampshire, “but what it’s doing to us at home.”

McCarthy’s low-key demeanor, particularly in his television advertising, which would become his main source of contact with voters, gave his message even greater effectiveness. “Nobody could look at McCarthy and think that he was a radical,” said Goodwin. “They saw that Midwestern face and the manner of speaking… and it was absolutely clear that they were looking at a man that, whatever his position on the issues, that in his heart he was a conservative.” In a year of heightened political passion and social upheaval, there would be substantial electoral benefit in toning things down, rather than ratcheting up the rhetoric.

McCarthy’s “reasoned” approach to New Hampshire voters would also be reflected in the campaign’s intensive ground game. Curtis Gans, a deputy of Lowenstein, and Sam Brown, a Harvard divinity student, developed and implemented the “Clean for Gene” canvassing effort, which took full advantage of the legions of college students who flocked to New Hampshire that winter. Gans and Brown made clear that no young men with long hair would lobby the state’s famously conservative voters. Shave, they were told, or head to the basement of McCarthy headquarters to prepare campaign materials.

The strict rules didn’t stop the flow of volunteers. They came from college campuses across the Northeast, intent on fulfilling McCarthy’s pledge to restore “a belief in the processes of American politics.” In fact, few of those who were knocking on doors in snowy New Hampshire would have counted themselves among the more radical fringe. Serious and sophisticated, McCarthy’s young supporters were far more likely to run for a position in student government then ask how many kids LBJ had killed that day. “We aren’t the see-you- in-Chicago crowd,” said Brown. “They want to tear it all down.”

Armed with rational, evidence-based arguments, young men in suits and young women in maxiskirts were set loose on New Hampshire Democratic voters. They were instructed to ask voters questions, listen politely to their answers, and under no circumstances argue with or berate them. They talked about the war in terms of its “endless nature,” said Gans, rather than offering dovish solutions to end it. They received a far more positive response than anyone might have imagined. “Violet-eyed damsels from Smith are pinning McCarthy buttons on tattooed mill-workers,” wrote the columnist Mary McGrory, “and Ph.D.s from Cornell, shaven and shorn for world peace, are deferentially bowing to middle-aged Manchester housewives and importuning them to consider a change of commander-in- chief.”

Over a six-week period, McCarthy’s enthusiastic army of polite, well-scrubbed volunteers rang some sixty thousand doorbells—accounting for two out of three New Hampshire Democrats. These grass-roots efforts were backed by a near-constant stream of newspaper and radio ads (often voiced by McCarthy’s legion of celebrity supporters, like actor Paul Newman) asking voters, “Won’t you be happy to have a new change for America?” By mid-March it would have been nearly impossible for New Hampshire residents to ignore McCarthy’s call for change.

For his part, Johnson deliberately avoided the hustings in New Hampshire— and purposely limited White House engagement with the primary campaign—for fear that taking part would grant legitimacy to McCarthy’s challenge. Johnson wasn’t even an official candidate in the primary: voters had to write in his name on the ballot. Instead, he relied on nominal Democratic allies New Hampshire governor John King and Senator Thomas McIntyre to make his case to the voters. They hardly could have taken to the job with greater tactlessness. The Johnson camp openly accused McCarthy of providing aid and comfort to the enemy: a vote for the senator “would be greeted by cheers in Hanoi,” claimed one campaign ad. Another praised Johnson for sticking with men like General Westmoreland and “not listening to those peace-at- any-price fuzzy thinkers, who say give up the goal, burn your draft card, and surrender.” (Only a few weeks after the primary, Johnson announced that Westmoreland would be stepping down as commander in Vietnam.)

Events in Washington would soon lend new impetus to the anti-Johnson effort. Americans for Democratic Action took the extraordinary step of endorsing McCarthy—providing clear evidence of the widening divisions on the left over Vietnam. The real test for Johnson, however, came not from those who thought the war was lost but instead from those who believed it could still be won. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had (with little success) been urging Johnson to increase US military efforts on Vietnam by mobilizing the US Army Reserves. After Tet, they made a new push. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Earle Wheeler, traveled to Vietnam in February and returned with a stunning and unanticipated request—another 206,000 soldiers for the war effort. “It’s not possible to overestimate the degree of concern and even fear that possessed the heads of our government when Wheeler returned,” Clark Clifford, who took over as secretary of defense at the beginning of March, later said. Johnson remained “as worried as [Clifford had] ever seen him.”

With the admonition that Clifford should give him “the lesser of evils,” Johnson ordered an evaluation of Wheeler’s proposal. Clifford had long been a hawk on Vietnam. In fact, when asked by LBJ (along with several other close confidants and advisors) to review McNamara’s November 1967 memo calling for de-escalation, he sent the president one of the most forceful and dismissive responses. But as he undertook his assessment of Wheeler’s troop request, what he found shocked him. The military leadership could provide him no guarantee that the additional soldiers they were requesting would be enough to win the war or even bring about the de-Americanization of the conflict. “All I had,” Clifford later said, “was the statement, given with too little self-assurance to be comforting, that if we persisted for an indeterminate length of time, the enemy would choose not to go on.”

For Johnson to ask for a further expansion of the war, after his claims of progress the previous fall—and after his confident pronouncements following Tet—would have been nearly impossible to explain to the American people. The president turned down the call for more troops, but the debate inside the administration would cast a dark political shadow. Two days before the balloting in New Hampshire, the New York Times revealed Wheeler’s request. In a front-page blockbuster, the paper quoted a senior Pentagon official saying that Vietnam had become “a bottomless pit.” On the same day a new Gallup poll showed that 49 percent of Americans now believed that the United States was wrong to have ever chosen to fight in Vietnam.

Johnson called Roche, who was on the ground in New Hampshire the night before the primary to ask how things were looking. Roche had no good news for the president. McCarthy could get as much as a third of the vote, he predicted. “No, he’ll get 40 percent, at least 40 percent,” said Johnson. “Every son-of- a-bitch in New Hampshire who’s mad at his wife or the postman or anybody is going to vote for Gene McCarthy.”

The next day, McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 49 percent. He also won twenty of the twenty-four state delegates that would be sent to the Democratic convention in Chicago. After write-in votes were counted, Johnson’s margin of victory was a mere 230 votes. Though LBJ had officially won, the result was seen as a clear repudiation of his administration. McCarthy’s strong performance, however, did not mean that voters had embraced his antiwar stance. Many New Hampshire Democrats didn’t even know McCarthy’s position on the war (his staff suspected that at least some of those who voted for him thought they were casting a ballot for Joe McCarthy)—and 60 percent of his backers believed Johnson should be fighting the war more aggressively. Neither Vietnam nor crime, the cost of living nor the Great Society united McCarthy supporters (in fact, an estimated one in five McCarthy voters would cast a ballot for George Wallace in November). Frustration with Johnson was their only true consensus position.

Overnight, the presumed inevitability of Johnson’s renomination had been punctured. McCarthy had given direct voice—and a political outlet—to the antiwar sentiment inside the Democratic Party. His success in New Hampshire inspired a crop of Democratic activists and future politicians to recognize the value and power of grass-roots organizing within the political system. This opening up of the political process would eventually lead to a host of party reforms that changed the way Democrats, and later Republicans, chose their presidential nominees. By energizing skeptics of the Cold War consensus, McCarthy’s performance also led to a dramatic shift in how the party approached foreign policy and national security in general. Challenging Johnson when he seemed almost certain to be the party standard bearer in November fundamentally changed the direction of the Democratic Party. It would, contra Orville Freeman, be far more important than a mere historical footnote.

As McCarthy spoke to his delirious supporters on election night in New Hampshire, he seemed to sense the momentous nature of the vote. He went “through an almost physical change,” said Goodwin, “You could see the color come into his face.” A romantic campaign intended to reframe the national debate over Vietnam was on the verge of national legitimacy. McCarthy’s backers could be excused, if only momentarily, for imagining their man standing in front of the assembled delegates in Chicago five months later, accepting the party’s nomination for president.

Reprinted from AMERICAN MAELSTROM: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Michael A. Cohen.


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