This academic year I have taken control of teaching the AQA module ‘The American Dream: Reality & Illusion’ to the second year A-level class in college, and since coming back from the Christmas break we’ve moved on to a brand new president: Richard Nixon. Recently, we covered the 1968 presidential election, which saw the removal of the Democrats and the return of the Republicans under Nixon. The election itself is an interesting and odd one, especially when we consider that the difference in the popular vote between Republican Nixon and Democrat Humphrey was incredibly small. So, I concluded that there was enough intrigue and interest to spend a time reflecting on it in a post.
At the start of 1968 the sitting president was Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), who had been in the White House since the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963. Initially, Johnson proved very popular and was able to ride on the wave of good-feeling with the so-called “Kennedy Legacy” to win a landslide election victory in 1964. Furthermore, LBJ had big plans for the future wrapped up within his vision of the “Great Society”: healthcare and housing reform, environmental protections, as well as an emphasis on attempting to solve the Civil Rights issues. There was an element of success with these policies, especially with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the “Great Society” became derailed due to the heavy attention devoted to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Although this increasing involvement in south-east Asia was not a chief aim of LBJ, year on year saw thousands upon thousands of American troops pile into South Vietnam with no real hope of succeeding. However, America could not be seen to withdraw, such was the fear of Communism profiting from their withdrawal; this was the time of the “Domino Theory” and one country falling to Communism could lead to others also dropping.
By the 1968 election year LBJ’s legacy had proved to be toxic: he was hailed as a “baby-killer” and the Democrats were beginning to fracture. Initially, Johnson had intended to fight the 1968 election, but his unpopularity was exposed in an early primary. On stepping down the field was opened up to others, but each had their own specific idea on the direction of the party and America. Popular candidate – Bobby Kennedy – was assassinated after winning the California primary, and the other options could not hope to live up to Kennedy’s initial promise. The party eventually nominated LBJ’s vice-president – Hubert Humphrey – which seemed to promise more of the same as the old administration (for example, Humphrey retained support of continuing the Vietnam War). However, not all of the party came behind this nomination, with the southern “Dixiecrats” still feeling betrayed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These southern Democrats wanted to re-assert their identity in the south, with segregation still seen as an achievable aim. Therefore they rejected the notion of supporting Humphrey and instead rallied behind George Wallace, who stood as a third candidate. This suggested that the Democrat vote would be split.
Furthermore, there were other problems within the Democrat party, as exposed in the 1968 convention held in Chicago. Youth protesters – under the direction of the Yippie movement – put out a call to attend the convention in order to highlight the wrongs committed by the LBJ administration. The Yippies and an intriguing group: not as united as the Students for a Democratic Society, they were a loose bunch of anarchists, artists and societal dropouts. Their manifesto called for an open invitation to occupy Chicago during the convention for an ‘international festival of youth music and theatre’. It also stated:
‘Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists,” read the manifesto. “It is the last week in August and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY meets to bless Johnson. We are there! There are 500,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony… celebrating the birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.’
Chicago mayor – the Democrat Richard Daley – was determined to stop the protests from taking place. However, his dramatic response of calling in thousands of police and national guardsmen led to heavy-handed tactics; some Democrat members went as far to compare their actions to that of the Gestapo (such as the Senator Abraham Ribicoff). The protests and the brutal responses were captured by the TV cameras, with the protesters shouting that ‘the whole world is watching.’
All of this clearly shows that the Democrat party itself was in a mess during 1968: they were divided and arguing amongst themselves, which provided a stronger platform for Nixon and the Republicans. Nixon portrayed himself as a safe pair of experienced hands, and in the end he won the election. The graphic below highlights that although the popular vote was close, Nixon carried the states. Furthermore, the involvement of George Wallace split the Democrat vote, meaning that the Republicans won their first presidential election since 1956.
The 1968 election is sometimes used to provide a debate as to what was the biggest factor: did Nixon win it, or rather did the Democrats lose it. It is an interesting debate, and one that finds parallels with other elections in the 20th Century; most notably the British general election of 1945 when Prime Minister Churchill – the war hero – lost in landslide win for the Labour Party. Churchill had used negative campaigning tactics, trying to strike fear into the British populace by suggesting that the Labour party were affiliated with the Communists; whilst Attlee’s Labour went with a positive message by offering the British public with a national health service. Similarly in 1968, the Humphrey campaign cast doubt on Nixon’s ability to govern, whilst Nixon used campaign money to cosy up with the media and show that he cared for the youth and wanted progress. The positive approach won the day; this is a line of argument used by Hugh Brogan in his study of American history. He argues that the American public do not want to know how they can be contained or about limits to their capability, but rather they want to be told that the future is strong and filled with promise. Perhaps a closer study of American elections from history could reveal evidence to confirm this theory. Certainly in 1968 election provides evidence to help support it. Either way, the events of this year are fruitful for the study of history, both for its entertainment and education values.