1968 in America: a Year of Social Unrest and a Presidential Election
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This is Stan Busby. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.
Nineteen sixty-eight was a presidential election year in the United States. It was also one of the saddest and most difficult years in modern American history. The nation was divided by disputes about civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
President Lyndon Johnson had helped win major civil rights legislation. Yet he had also greatly expanded American involvement in the war in Vietnam. By early 1968, it was almost impossible for him to leave the White House without facing anti-war protesters. Johnson wanted to run for another four-year term. But his popularity kept dropping as the war continued. He understood that he no longer had the support of a majority of the people. In March, he announced that he would not be a candidate.
One reason Johnson decided not to run was a senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy competed against Johnson in several primary elections. The primaries are held months before a political party holds its presidential nominating convention. Delegates to the convention often are required to vote for the candidate their party members chose in the primary. Thousands of college students helped the McCarthy campaign before the primary election in New Hampshire. They told voters all over the state that their candidate would try to end the war. McCarthy received almost forty-two percent of the votes in New Hampshire. Johnson received less than fifty percent. For a president in office, the vote was an insult.
After McCarthy's success, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York decided to enter the campaign, too. He was a brother of president John Kennedy, who had been murdered in 1963. Robert Kennedy had served as Attorney General, the nation's highest legal officer, in his brother's administration. Many people were pleased when Robert Kennedy announced his decision. They liked his message. He said: "I run to seek new policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities. I seek to lessen the differences between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the world."
On April fourth, 1968, the nation's top civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Robert Kennedy spoke about king's death to a crowd of black citizens.
ROBERT KENNEDY: "What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom. And compassion toward one another. And a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
No words, however, could calm the anger of America's black community. Martin Luther King had led the civil rights movement with peaceful methods. Yet his death led to violence in almost one hundred-thirty cities in America. Soldiers were called to crush the riots. Hundreds of people were killed or injured. After the riots, another man decided to campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The new candidate was Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Traditional Democrats supported him.
The primary elections continued. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy tried to show how different they were. Many voters, however, saw little difference between their positions on major issues. Both men opposed the war in Vietnam. Both sought social reforms. Both sought improvement in civil rights in America. Kennedy defeated McCarthy in primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. McCarthy defeated Kennedy in Oregon. The next big primary was in California. Kennedy said that if he did not win this important contest, he would withdraw. He won.
Perhaps Robert Kennedy might have won his party's nomination for president. Perhaps he might have defeated the Republican Party candidate in the national election. The nation would never know. Kennedy made his California victory speech at a hotel in Los Angeles. As he was leaving the hotel, he was shot. He died a few hours later. The man who shot him was Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. He was a Palestinian refugee. He said he blamed Robert Kennedy for the problems of the Palestinians.
The nation's two major political parties held their nominating conventions in the summer of 1968. The Republicans met first. It was soon clear that Richard Nixon would control the convention. Nixon had run for president in 1960. He lost to John Kennedy. Eight years later, he won several primary elections. He was a strong candidate to win the Republican nomination again. The other candidates were Ronald Reagan, governor of California, and Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York. On the first ballot, Nixon got more than two times as many votes as Rockefeller. Reagan was far behind. Most of the delegates then gave their support to Nixon, and he accepted the nomination. The delegates chose the governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, to be their vice presidential candidate.
The convention of the Democratic Party was very different from the convention of the Republicans. The Democrats were the party in power. Protests against the war in Vietnam were aimed at them. Thousands of anti-war protesters gathered in the city of Chicago during the political convention. The city's mayor, Richard Daley, had ordered the police to deal severely with all protesters. Many of the young people were beaten. Much later, the federal government ordered an investigation. The report said that the riots in Chicago were a result of the actions of the police themselves.
Inside the convention building, the delegates voted for their presidential candidate. They did not choose the man who had done so well in the early primary elections, Eugene McCarthy. Instead, they chose the more traditional candidate, Hubert Humphrey. For their vice presidential candidate, they chose Edmund Muskie, a senator from Maine.
The two men running for president, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, supported American involvement in Vietnam. Yet during the campaign, both spoke about finding ways to end the conflict. Both also spoke about finding ways to end social unrest in the United States. Many voters saw little difference between the two candidates. About six weeks before election day, public opinion studies showed that the contest was even.
Nixon's major problem was his past. He had made enemies during his early political life. These people now tried to renew public fears about his record as a man who made fierce, unjust attacks on others. Vice President Humphrey's major problem was that he was vice president. He had to defend the administration's policies, even the unpopular ones. If he said anything that was different, another member of the administration intervened.
Once, for example, Humphrey said the United States would stop dropping bombs on north Vietnam. But President Johnson did not act for a month. He gave the order to stop only four days before the election. Later, Humphrey said the delay harmed his campaign so badly that he could not recover from the damage.
On Election Day, Richard Nixon won -- but not by much. He received a little more than forty-three percent of the votes. Hubert Humphrey received just a half a percent less. Nixon was about to become president.
It was the position he had wanted for a long time. It was to be a presidency that would change American government for years to come.
This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Stan Busby. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.