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Politics from Camelot to Watergate

56f. 1968: Year of Unraveling

Robert F. Kennedy funeral card
Just as Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for the White House was gaining steam he was assassinated after delivering his California primary victory speech. Fresh on the heels of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination just months before, the nation once again mourned the loss of a leader committed to civil rights. The card seen above was distributed at Kennedy's funeral.

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.

1968 Democratic National Convention
The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy virtually assured Vice-President Hubert Humphrey the Democratic nomination in 1968. When the party met for their convention in Chicago, thousands of anti-war protesters converged on the city and clashed with police who had been ordered by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to take a tough stance with the demonstrators.

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.

Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson's popularity had plummeted because of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In addition, members of his own party were challenging him for the nomination. In March 1968, he made the stunning announcement that he would not seek another term in office.

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.

On the Web
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Last Speech
On April 3, 1968, just one day before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. In the last paragraph of this last speech by a great American orator, King, Jr. speaks as though he knew of his fate.
Robert F. Kennedy's Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The John F. Kennedy Library provides this short but dramatic statement by Robert F. Kennedy that shocks a crowd as he informs them of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort." Listen to it with RealPlayer.
Limiting the War in Vietnam: President Johnson's Address
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. This division that President Johnson mentioned in this famous address to the nation on March 13, 1968 was so strong that he decided to not seek reelection. Read this text-only page for a historical turning point in the war as Johnson begins to talk about peace with North Vietnam, three months after the Tet offensive.
My Lai Massacre
This extensive 5 part report by the British Broadcasting Company presents one of the most horrific events of a hellish war which killed millions. The My Lai massacre in 1968 involved the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians. This site gives full context to the massacre, and reminds us there were heroes who tried to stop it. Though some of the links don't work, this site covers all the bases.
Robert F. Kennedy Memorial
The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial hosts this superior biography and collection of RFK speeches, quotes, and pictures. Learn about the life, career, and philosophy of a leader who was bound for the presidency until he was assassinated after winning the California primary in 1968. "...Responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom's privileges." -Robert F. Kennedy
It is common knowledge that Yippies have no use for hair spray or other cosmetics for personal use. -Official report, City of Chicago, 1968.
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