The turbulent 1960s reached a boiling point in 1968.
When the year began, President Johnson hoped to win the war in Vietnam and then cruise to a second term to finish building his Great Society. But events began to spiral out of his control.
In February, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam brought a shift in American public opinion toward the war and low approval ratings for the President. Sensing vulnerability, Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson for his own party's nomination. When the Democratic primary votes were tallied in New Hampshire, McCarthy scored a remarkable 42 percent of the vote against an incumbent President. Johnson knew that in addition to fighting a bitter campaign against the Republicans he would have to fight to win support of the Democrats as well. His hopes darkened when Robert Kennedy entered the race in mid-March.
On March 31, 1968, Johnson surprised the nation by announcing he would not seek a second term. His Vice-President Hubert Humphrey entered the election to carry out Johnson's programs.
Feverish political turmoil bloomed in the spring of '68. Humphrey was popular among party elites who chose delegates in many states. But Kennedy was mounting an impressive campaign among the people. His effort touched an emotional nerve in America — the desire to return to the Camelot days of his brother. Kennedy received much support from the poorer classes and from African Americans who believed Kennedy would continue the struggle for civil rights. Both Kennedy and McCarthy were critical of Humphrey's hawkish stance on Vietnam.
On April 4, Martin Luther King's assassination led to another wave of grief. Then waves of rioting swept America. Two months later, shortly after Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd cheering his sweep in the California primary, an assassin named Sirhan Sirhan ended Kennedy's life. The nation was numb.
All eyes were focused on the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. With Kennedy out of the race, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey was all but certain. Antiwar protesters flocked to Chicago to prevent the inevitable Humphrey nomination, or at least to pressure the party into softening its stance on Vietnam.
Mayor Richard Daley ordered the Chicago police to take a tough stance with the demonstrators. As the crowds chanted "The whole world is watching," the police bloodied the activists with clubs and released tear gas into the streets. The party nominated Humphrey, but the nation began to sensed that the Democrats were a party of disorder.
The Republicans had a comparatively smooth campaign, nominating Richard Nixon as their candidate. Nixon spoke for the "Silent Majority" of Americans who supported the effort in Vietnam and demanded law and order. Alabama Governor George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ticket. Campaigning for "segregation now, segregation forever" Wallace appealed to many white voters in the South. His running mate, Curtis LeMay, suggested that the United States bomb Vietnam "back to the Stone Age."
When the votes were tallied in November, Nixon cruised to an electoral vote landslide while winning only 43.4 percent of the popular vote.