No Matter How Bad Things Seem, 1968 Was Worse

Lyndon Johnson, MLK assassination riots, Democratic Convention, Chicago, 1968
President Johnson listens to a tape sent by his son-in-law, Captain Charles Robb, who was serving in Vietnam, July 31, 1968 (left). Soldier standing guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW in Washington DC with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 8, 1968 (upper right). Young "hippie" standing in front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26, 1968 (bottom right). Photo credit: Jack Kightlinger / LBJ Library, Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress / Wikimedia, and U.S. News & World Report / Library of Congress

Just how bad are things today? Let’s compare. Exactly 50 years ago, the Vietnam War was raging — the Tet offensive had begun and 30,000 more troops went to Vietnam while the war dead were returning home in body bags.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, race riots broke out in almost every large city in America, and one political party’s convention became a domestic war zone. In Europe, Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring was crushed by a bellicose Soviet Union.

Even before being elected, Richard Nixon was interfering with foreign policy in his own interests. President Lyndon B. Johnson was driven from office, and he was succeeded by a man who would end up resigning in disgrace.

Imagine if all of this had been covered by cable news 24/7? We would have had a national breakdown.  

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Arizona State University professor Kyle Longley, who has written extensively about Johnson and 1968.

Longley reminds us how angry and frustrated the American people were throughout that decade. During the 1966 midterms, the Democrats lost 47 House seats. Johnson, who had sought power and the presidency his entire life, was watching the world spin out of his control. We learn much about the inability of even so well prepared a leader as LBJ to handle so many crises simultaneously.

By the end, Johnson had clearly lost his political grip, and his manic behavior, as seen through today’s lens, was troubling. What’s most striking, Longley tells Jeff Schechtman, is how many of the same themes and issues of race, class, political corruption, nuclear disarmament, Russia, and the limits of American power once again unsettle the US this year.

Kyle Longley is the author of LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval (Cambridge University Press, February 22, 2018).


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Historians have long written about inflection points in history. In American history, events surrounding the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II, are all such points. It’s arguable that we may very well be living through one right now.
But clearly the last great historical inflection point came exactly 50 years ago, and reached its apogee in the year of 1968. Lyndon Johnson was president, and a series of events led us to believe that Yates was right. That the center could not hold, and that near anarchy was loosed upon the world. The Tet Offensive, the King and Kennedy assassinations, the Prague Spring, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, and the election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew cap quite a year.
Sydney Schanberg, the great reporter, once told me in an interview that he thought Vietnam in the ’60s represented the end of consensus politics in America. As such, it also represented the end of what politicians like Lyndon Johnson were trying to do. We’re going to talk about this today, with my guest Kyle Longley. He’s the Snell Family Dean’s Distinguished Professor of History at Arizona State University, and he’s the author of the new book, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval. Kyle Longley, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Kyle Longley: No, thank you for the invitation.
Jeff Schechtman: One thing about looking at the totality of 1968, and I really just hit a few of the key points in that list, is that it really puts our current events, as dramatic as they are, as busy as they are, it really puts them in a profound perspective.
Kyle Longley: That is definitely so. And I make that argument strongly that 1968, as you know, is an inflection point. It’s where it appears the country is just coming apart. You know, Johnson would refer to it as a year of a continuous nightmare. I think that really stands out. But the other part of it being an inflection point, and your entry, introduction, pointed this out, there’s a lot that resonates today. And we’re seeing it still continue to play out, what the influence of 1968 is definitely in place today. And we’re seeing a lot of the things, again, just resonate.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s not only just the influence of 1968, it’s in many ways, and this is what comes across to me strongly, is it’s the continuation of 1968. All of those issues have never been settled.
Kyle Longley: That is fundamentally my argument. A lot of this is, again, just resonating today. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. The one that most people don’t know about, but stands out directly, is the Fortas nomination, where Johnson tried to put Abe Fortas into the chief justice position, and bring in another one named Homer Thornberry. The argument that the Republicans are going to adapt on the defeating Fortas is the President, being a lame duck president, should not have the right to name the next Supreme Court Justice, and that should be left to the next president. If that doesn’t resonate with people today, I don’t know what will.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent did Johnson, although he was so caught up in all of this, to what extent do you think he had a historical perspective with regard to how much was happening, and what it might mean historically?
Kyle Longley: I don’t know if he really consciously had that, but what I do think he did have an understanding was of the historical legacies that are going to shape his responses. Take the best one, I think, in this case is Czechoslovakia in 1968 in August, when the Warsaw Pact invades. There’s really not much Johnson can do, but what he is using as his reference point, is how the Eisenhower administration handled Hungary in 1956, where they gave them signals that we were going to come to their support. Johnson says, and he remembers this very vividly how they got crushed, and he says, “No, we’re not going to do that,” and he remembered the historical lessons. Maybe that’s the difference between understanding the larger sense of what’s going on. He did have historical lessons that he applied that year.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that’s so remarkable is that the two, I would argue, the two most central figures to 1968, Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, hated each other.
Kyle Longley: Oh, very much so. I just wrote an opinion piece that’s going to be out in the Washington Post in the next couple of weeks, talking about how this really ties even to today. They hated each other. I mean, it was so bad, and if you remember the story of Johnson and Kennedy’s last meeting was in the White House, where Kennedy is trying to ascertain what Johnson is going to do as far as who he’s going to support, how much he’s going to support, after the March 31st speech, in the presidential race, or the Democratic primary. Johnson goes afterwards and says, “Bring me the tape of the, and the transcript of the tape.” There is no tape, because Bobby Kennedy did not trust him, and had brought a scrambler to the meeting.
So this animosity is deep-seated, and it is a rivalry to a large degree that defines that decade. But what I argue in this new piece is Johnson put aside his political differences, and personal differences, and went out of his way to help the Kennedy family deal with the loss of Bobby Kennedy. Now, that’s a good lesson that our current president could learn, vis-a-vis John McCain.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s interesting too, that you get the sense that Johnson didn’t hate the Kennedys. He didn’t hate the family. He just hated Bobby.
Kyle Longley: That is very much the case. I mean, there’s a level to it, because Johnson always felt like the Kennedys looked down on him, as well as the people around him. The Schlesingers, and the Goodwins, and people like that close to him looked down on him, because he was some hick from Texas. But boy, when it came down to it. He really respected John, and he appreciated what John had done for him, but he hated Bobby. Bobby created a lot of that animosity by his actions towards LBJ throughout their relationship. Not to say it wasn’t reciprocated, but Bobby went out of his way starting in 1960 to try to marginalize Lyndon Johnson, and ultimately Lyndon Johnson gained the upper hand, and then Bobby resented that.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the speech, the March 31st speech, and his decision not to run. And a little bit about the context of that. And one of the other things that’s remarkable, is that there was so much year left in 1968, even after that speech.
Kyle Longley: Well, the two things that I argue very strongly, is Johnson had this in his back pocket for a while. When he went to give the State of the Union in January, he actually had a section of the State of the Union, where he was going to withdraw at the point. So this is not, as some argue, that Bobby Kennedy entered the race, and Johnson got scared and pulled out. No. It hadn’t, I think if anything, Kennedy, he would have enjoyed that primary fight.
But what it does, the two things I argue are Johnson pulls out because he’s worried about his health. He’d had a massive coronary in 1955, and he’s worried that he’s going to die in the White House, or worse, have a stroke like Woodrow Wilson and end up incapacitated.
The second part of it is Vietnam is wearing on him so much that it’s just added another layer to it. And now that his two son-in-laws are going to Vietnam, he just reaches the conclusion, “I gotta clean this mess up, and I want to devote the last part of my presidency to try to get the United States out of Vietnam.”
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent did that decision, when he finally made it, after he gave the March 31st speech, to what extent did that impact policy. If Johnson had stayed in the race, would his decisions, and would the policy, have been the same or different?
Kyle Longley: I think it would have been different. I think, I do think he would have continued to try to seek a way out of Vietnam. I think he was truly committed to that. He had announced his San Antonio Formula in August of 1967, he was trying to get the North Vietnamese to the peace table, as well as the Viet Cong. And Tet definitely gives them some incentive, because they get their clocks cleaned. And they have some, Hanoi has some incentive to come to the peace table.
So I don’t think it would have changed that much, but it definitely would have changed the conditions of, like, the Fortas nomination. They couldn’t argue that he was a lame duck president. So it would have moved things along in a different way. I think he would have continued to try to push his policies, more so in terms of domestic policy. But unfortunately, in 1966 Congress changed to a much more conservative Congress when the Democrats lost 47 seats. It changed the dynamic. So he was really going uphill, uphill battle against Southern Conservative Democrats, and Mountain West, Western, Republicans.
Jeff Schechtman: How did the King assassination play with LBJ?
Kyle Longley: You know, I wrote a good piece recently on this matter, and I talked about the whole idea of how Johnson showed interesting amount of empathy toward the African Americans who were out in the streets protesting. He does this privately. He doesn’t say it publicly. But he’s saying, “You know, I understand why these young men feel like their leaders are being picked off one at a time, and why they’re angry.”
And he orders, when the federal troops go in, he makes sure, and to Chicago, and to D.C., and to Baltimore, he makes sure the commanders understand, “I don’t want a bloodbath. We’re going to get in, we’re going to quell this, and we’re going to get out, and I don’t want you using this as a chance, or your green troops using this as a chance, for a massacre and turning this into something much worse than it could be.”
So he does show a remarkable, as you read again behind the scenes, a remarkable amount of empathy as he tries to, basically, comfort the nation. And then he tries to push through the, of course 1968 Civil Rights legislation, which is a major victory for fair housing.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet he’s undercut, once again, by the power of Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis.
Kyle Longley: Yes. It is definitely there. But when it comes down to it, that Bobby Kennedy gives a great speech, Lyndon Johnson actually has actions that make a difference.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the foreign policy outside of Vietnam, and Johnson’s focus on what else was going on in the world. We mentioned the Prague Spring before. To what extent was there enough bandwidth that Johnson would have to deal with some of these other issues, beyond Vietnam?
Kyle Longley: Well, that’s a great question. And the Czech, the Prague Spring, and the crushing of the Prague Spring, is directly related to one of the things that he wanted to achieve most, and that was more nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union.
He had a planned summit, to go to St. Petersburg, Leningrad, October of 1968, but unfortunately, when the Russians crushed the Czechoslovakians, he had to pull out of that. So he does have that, but you know, I make the central argument: Vietnam is the arsenic that is just taking the blood, and sweat, and tears of the country, and the President. And of course, it’s of his own creation to a large degree, but he wants desperately to try to rescue his legacy. But Vietnam undercuts him all the way across the board, including efforts to, in Chicago in 1968.
Jeff Schechtman: You make the point, repeatedly I think, that Johnson knew better. That he knew this was a no win situation.
Kyle Longley: He definitely understood that. And if he’d had his way, he would have never fought the war. He would have, as he always said, “That bitch of a war on the other side of the world’s distracting me from my one true love, and that’s The Great Society.” But he didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war, and he also couldn’t admit to a mistake, and George Reedy, I’ve got a great quote from George Reedy, who said, “This was a man just like many people in power, they cannot admit mistakes.” And he would not move off of that. And you see this schizophrenia on Vietnam throughout his presidency. But ultimately, it’s what drags him down.
Jeff Schechtman: Why was he so passive with respect to what he knew Nixon was doing behind the scenes?
Kyle Longley: Well I don’t think he was passive, much less, because, for example, he gave the information on the Chennault affair over to Hubert Humphrey, and Hubert Humphrey also chose not to use it. What I think is at play here, and what I argue, two things were at play: one is he was afraid of creating a constitutional crisis, because everyone, for the most part, thought Richard Nixon was going to win. Even though the polls were tightening, and we know it was a very close race.
The other part of it was he would have to give up where he got his sources. Wiretapping American citizens, wiretapping our allies in Saigon, as well as the South Vietnamese embassy in the United States, and I think those two things play out. He didn’t want the creation of this constitutional crisis, but look what it brought about. Because the Chennault affair, in the end, laid the groundwork later for Watergate.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about Johnson’s reaction, and I think this is really underreported. Johnson’s reaction to what he saw taking place during the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Kyle Longley: He played such a substantial role behind the scenes in the process. Unfortunately, it undermined Hubert Humphrey, I think, to a large degree. Both as selection of sites, which put it in the worst possible place in the country for the Democrats, and that was Chicago, with Richard Daley and his police force ready for a confrontation with those anti-war protestors. Humphrey wanted it in Miami far away, making it more difficult for the protestors to get there.
I think the most important part is where Hubert Humphrey had fashioned a compromise plank on Vietnam, with the Kennedy people, and with the McCarthy people. The supporters. Johnson undermined that, and it led to turmoil on the floor, which we all remember. Well, I was only five, but, you know, I’ve seen the scenes of what happened on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. We know what happened outside. Johnson, there’s a scene where he thinks, actually, the Democratic party might call him and ask him to come rescue them. He was going to fly up to Chicago on his birthday, that Tuesday before the nomination. He’s sitting at the ranch in Texas, waiting for the phone call that never comes. It’s one of the saddest moments in his presidency. As I tell the story, it really just hits you strongly.
Jeff Schechtman: Why didn’t they move the Convention to Miami? Why didn’t they have it in Miami?
Kyle Longley: Well, Johnson had a strong tie to Richard Daley, and the Republicans had already just come out of Miami, which would have made more sense, because the press was already there. And again, these anti-war protestors are coming out of the Midwest or the West Coast, would have had a much more difficult time getting to Miami than they did Chicago. But Johnson was committed to this, and he pulled the strings behind, because Humphrey wanted Miami. He also wanted Edmund Musky as the campaign, the Convention Manager, and Johnson undercut that. So it was Johnson unable to surrender control of the Democratic party to Hubert Humphrey, who he had a very interesting relationship with.
Jeff Schechtman: Was that personal, or was it that Johnson, because of all that was going on, and all that pain that he was really going through from all of this, had sort of lost his political mojo.
Kyle Longley: I think it’s a combination of both. I think it’s partly personal, he still wants the control. Not just Johnson, but the people around him in some ways. But it’s also, yeah, it is the confusion. It is not believing that, who would envision Chicago blowing up in the way that it did? We’d never seen anything quite like that in the modern American history of a convention just digressing into, basically, anarchy.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the human side of Lyndon Johnson. Before we started recording, I mentioned to you how powerful the picture on the cover of this book is. And that really reflects the, sort of, humanity of Lyndon Johnson.
Kyle Longley: Right. Well, the picture is just classic. It’s a picture of Lyndon Johnson listening to a tape recording from his son-in-law, Chuck Robb, who is a marine lieutenant, and he’s talking about how he’d lost some men in combat there in Vietnam. And the stress, and the strain, that he’s just… His head’s down on the table, and you just see what this year is doing to him. This is in the summer of 1968. In the foreground, or in the background is John Kennedy’s bust. In effect, ghost, that just sort of lingers over Lyndon Johnson throughout his presidency, and then the haunting just continues with Robert Kennedy. There is a humanity to him, that he had a private side that oftentimes we fail to see, because we fall victim to wanting to understand the caricature that was Lyndon Johnson.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the influence that Lady Bird had.
Kyle Longley: Well, she is definitely his rock. Stabilizing force. I mean, he’s got some really good people around him. Harry McPherson, Joe Califano, those are some really good advisors. Clark Clifford. Then he has some on the fringes like Walt Rostow. But he really has a solid, but Lady Bird is the one he always comes back to. The greatest source for this book, I still think, was Lady Bird’s diaries from the White House. If you ever get a chance to look at those, those are remarkable. She would tape them every night, and then have them transcribed. But you see the strength of character that she has, and how she helps him hold it together. And she is his conscience to a degree, and is always, when he’s off on this frenetic pace or something like that, she brings him back.
Jeff Schechtman: Come back to this idea of the people that surrounded Johnson. Because we always hear, and so much has been written, about those that surrounded Jack Kennedy. The best and the brightest. But this was a pretty talented group of people.
Kyle Longley: Oh, very talented. Again, they were young. They’re very vibrant. I mean by ’68, Robert McNamara’s out. Dean Rusk is still in as Secretary of State, he’s still a strong component of the administration, but there’s been a lot of change. A lot of these are young people he brought up from Texas. Again, McPherson, Tom Johnson, who later goes on to the lead the Los Angeles Times and CNN. Larry Temple, his legal counsel. These are people that really are very strong. They’re able to help him negotiate these crisis, after crisis, after crisis.
At the top, Johnson’s providing the leadership, but they’re providing a lot of support. Cyrus Vance is his go-to person on anything that’s a crisis. Like I say, they’re a best and the brightest. They may not get the credit that Schlesinger and others, they have done for themselves, but they are a good group, and again, especially in 1968.
Jeff Schechtman: Yeah. Even people like Califano, and Bill Moyers, and some of the other people around him.
Kyle Longley: Califano is definitely an important voice. You read his works, and you get how strongly this was intertwined. So again, I think as far as the people around him, again there is a best and brightest to them. They don’t have the academic credentials maybe that the, Halberstam writes about with the Kennedy people, but they also aren’t encountering many of the challenges that Johnson does in this tumultuous year.
Jeff Schechtman: How did he think he’d get out of Vietnam? How did he expect that to end?
Kyle Longley: It depends on what time. You know, ’65 it’s a definitely different Johnson than it is in ’68. Sixty eight, he knows he’s going to have to negotiate his way out. I think Cronkite and others just lay the tome, but this had been an ongoing process. J. William Fulbright and Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been a thorn in the side of LBJ’s original policies towards Vietnam. And you’re seeing more and more people push him that way. Even the wise men who in March of 1968 really just laid it out for him: “We’ve got to seek a negotiated settlement. We’ve got to get out. We’ve got to try to Vietnamise the war, and we’ve got to let them settle this.” So I think that was his ultimate hope. But strongly making sure there was a strong South Vietnam in place before we withdrew.
Jeff Schechtman: What was his relationship with the generals? With the Pentagon?
Kyle Longley: Well, the chapter on Tet, I think, really highlights this. And that is how the JCS, especially Earl Weaver, tried to manipulate the Tet Offensive to get 206,000 more troops, and how Johnson finally puts his foot down and says, “No, I’ll give you 30,000 but that’s it, and we’re going to try to move in a different direction.” And he pushes aside Westmoreland, puts in Creighton Abrams. So it’s a very, it’s always been a song and dance between the president and his generals. And also McNamara’s involved in this, Clark Clifford is involved in this, the new Secretary of Defense. And they, Clifford comes in a hawk, but within a few months becomes one of the leading doves, and pushing the president toward the negotiated settlement, and the withdrawal of US troops.
Jeff Schechtman: What surprised you the most to learn about Johnson in the course of reporting this book?
Kyle Longley: I think it is the humanity of him. When you read Caro, you read some of the other biographies of Johnson, you develop caricatures. That he’s crass, that he’s overbearing, that he’s a bully. There’s truth to that, but I also think they miss, a lot of times, the human side to him. The grandfather that is, as he’s making huge decisions, is playing with his grandson, Lyn. Or again, when he’s going to the funeral for Bobby Kennedy at Arlington, he’s crying, and you never see that in the public realm. That this is a man who is torn apart by what is going on to his beloved country, as well as the office of the President. That, to me, probably was the most surprising aspect that has really not been developed over time.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that was Johnson seeing what was happening to his presidency? That this was a guy that had always dreamed of being president, and finally, because of circumstances, he has the opportunity, and he sees it falling to dust around him.
Kyle Longley: That is the, like I say, that one scene I talked about, that Tuesday of his birthday, 60th birthday, where he is expecting to be called and asked to come to Chicago. That scene, that afternoon when he realizes they’re not going to ask him, and that he is no longer the leader of the party. That, to me, sort of symbolizes the whole year, and the recognition that it’s over. Finally over, and there’s not going to be a change.
Jeff Schechtman: Kyle Longley. Kyle, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Kyle Longley: Oh, thank you for the opportunity.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening, and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share, and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from MLK, RFK, and LBJ (JFK Library) and LBJ’s 1968 (Cambridge University Press).

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One response to “No Matter How Bad Things Seem, 1968 Was Worse”

  1. Phillip Michaels says:

    Roger Stone, yes the same Stone known as a close associate of President Trump and a possible dirty-trickster for the Republican party, wrote a very compelling book (The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ) pointing to LBJ as the center of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. Further, once he was in the Presidency – his life-long objective – Johnson had every reason to see that Bobby Kennedy was never in a position to truly investigate JFK’s murder. The problems Johnson faced were mostly of his own making and, in spite of probably being a sociopath, I think in the end he knew it.