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by William H. Benson

March 20, 2008

     On Sunday evening, March 31, 1968, forty years ago, the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, appeared on nationwide television and announced, “I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict. Tonight I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area of the Demilitarized Zone. I call upon President Ho Chi Minh to respond positively and favorably to this new step of peace.”

     The American people who were watching their black and white television screens that night most assuredly breathed a collective sigh of relief. They felt that the end of this horror story in southeast Asia may now finally be in sight. (But, alas, it was not to be.) But, why had the President changed his policy after three years of stubbornly professing that we were on the verge of winning the war? Why had he finally buckled?

     LBJ by the spring of 1968 was under enormous pressures. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive over the previous two months had demonstrated the Viet Cong’s resolve to defeat American and South Vietnam forces. Anti-war demonstrators, mainly students, were marching upon the nation’s college campuses, demanding an end to the draft and to the war. LBJ’s approval ratings on how he was handling the war had dropped to 28%.

     Then, a quiet unknown Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, won the Democratic Presidential primary election in March in New Hampshire with 42% of the vote, stunning Johnson. McCarthy had entered the presidential campaign with a single promise: if elected, that day he would bring all the American soldiers home from Vietnam. Then, on Saturday, March 16, Robert F. Kennedy announced he would also run for President, Johnson’s worst fear.

     For three years LBJ had buried himself in a dreamlike world, that the outcome of the war was about to turn, but by early 1968 the dream had evaporated. His daily contact with the real world—rampant inflation, the Tet Offensive, students marching, and the Presidential primaries—had forced him back to reality.

     “Hating the days, Johnson hated the nights even more,” wrote LBJ’s biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin. He would crawl out of his bed, and holding a small flashlight, he wandered about the White House until he stood in front of Woodrow Wilson’s picture, which he would reach up and touch. “This ritual, however, brought little lasting peace. . . . Johnson’s enthusiasm and vitality steadily receded. He was really tired, and he knew it.”

     “I felt,” Johnson said, “that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions. On one side, the American people were stampeding me to do something about Vietnam. On another side, the inflationary economy was booming out of control. . . . After thirty-seven years of public service, I deserved something more than being left alone in the middle of the plain, chased by stampedes on every side.”        

     “How is it possible,” Johnson asked, “that all these people could be so ungrateful to me after I had given them so much? . . . . Take the students. Young people by the thousands leaving their universities, marching in the streets, chanting that horrible song about how many kids I had killed that day. . . . I felt as if I’d been slapped in the face.” Johnson heard the taunts and chants, and they wounded him deeply.

     The American people who were seated in their living rooms on that Sunday night stared at the heavily-lined face of their President, and suddenly, they heard him say, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” He had had enough.

     On Thursday of that week, April 4th, James Earl Ray was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, and on June 5th, Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles and died the next day. In January of 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated President, and LBJ flew back to Texas, back to his beloved ranch near Johnson City. Four years later, in January of 1973, he passed away, and in April of 1975, Saigon fell to the Viet Cong.