The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ‘Pearl Harbor in politics’: LBJ’s stunning decision not to seek reelection

On March 31, 1968, as he prepared for a diplomatic trip to Mexico, Vice President Hubert Humphrey heard someone knocking at the door to his apartment.

It was his boss, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Returning from church with his daughter, Luci, and son-in-law, Patrick Nugent, the president stopped by to talk about a speech he planned to make that evening, Humphrey recalled in his memoir, “The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics.”

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While Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, chatted with the Nugents, the president and vice president, accompanied by White House Chief of Staff James R. Jones, retreated to Humphrey’s den. Johnson produced two drafts of the speech he would deliver.

Humphrey reacted with astonishment as he perused the texts. “I could barely believe what I was reading,” Humphrey wrote. “One of them had Lyndon Johnson withdrawing from the 1968 election.”

Johnson put his finger to his lips to signify that Humphrey was to tell no one, Jones wrote in the New York Times in 1988. Johnson told Humphrey he hadn’t decided which version to use but advised the vice president to start thinking about his own political future, according to Jones.

“Don’t mention this to anyone until Jim calls you in Mexico tonight,” Johnson, referring to his chief of staff, told Humphrey. “But you’d better start now planning your campaign for president.”

Johnson had delivered plenty of significant addresses during his presidency, from vowing in 1964 to build a “Great Society” to pushing for the Voting Rights Act in 1965. None of them came with the stunning conclusion of the speech televised that evening from the White House.

With Americans growing weary of the Vietnam War and increasingly discontent with his leadership, Johnson — in his characteristically solemn style — reiterated why the United States was fighting there and offered an olive branch to North Vietnam. He announced a halt to air and naval attacks north of the area immediately above the demilitarized zone and urged the Communist government in Hanoi to enter peace talks.

“We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations,” the president said.

That pronouncement — significant enough by itself — was overshadowed by what came at the end of the speech.

“I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year,” Johnson said. “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

It was an extraordinary decision by the canny Texas Democrat who had assumed the presidency after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and then was elected in 1964 in a landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater.

Benjamin Spock, the best-selling pediatrician and outspoken critic of the war, doubted its sincerity. Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) called it “a courageous and heroic act which will mark him as one of history’s great men.” Rep. Wright Patman (D-Tex.) called it a “Pearl Harbor in politics.”

He was America’s most famous pediatrician. Then Dr. Spock attacked the Vietnam draft.

Johnson’s dramatic denouement came as a surprise to all but his immediate family and a few insiders at the White House. News outlets received advance copies of the speech about 90 minutes before he went on the air, Carroll Kilpatrick reported the next morning in The Washington Post. “But the advance text did not contain any of the latter portion in which he announced his decision not to run again and made his plea for national unity,” Kilpatrick wrote.

Shortly before the president went on the air, Washington Post columnist Bill Gold wrote on April 2, word swept through the newsroom that LBJ planned to say something that wasn’t in the advance text. “We had no hint of what was coming.”

The secrecy reflected Johnson’s desire to keep his options open as long as possible, according to presidential historian and LBJ biographer Robert Dallek. “He remained undecided up to the last minute,” Dallek said. “He reserved the right, so to speak, to leave that out. He thought about it and thought about it and decided it would be the best way to facilitate peace negotiations.”

As he addressed the nation, Johnson looked especially somber, and no wonder. The new year was only three months old, and it was already off to a spectacularly bad start.

The war in Vietnam, to which he had staked so much in blood, prestige and treasure, was intensifying despite years of escalating American involvement and promises that the tide would turn in favor of the United States and South Vietnam.

Over the Tet lunar holiday at the end of January, the Viet Cong launched a surprise offensive throughout the country that included an audacious attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. A weeks-long battle in the old capital of Hue left 2,500 dead before U.S. and South Vietnamese forces regained control.

A grisly photo of a Saigon execution 50 years ago shocked the world and helped end the war

“The Communists failed to touch off the takeover of a single city or even hold one indefinitely,” The Washington Post reported Feb. 26. “But the fighting in Saigon, Hue and elsewhere demonstrated their ability to bring the war to the urban centers and create havoc.”

The picture was just as grim elsewhere. On Jan. 23, North Korea seized a U.S. spy ship, the USS Pueblo, and imprisoned the crew. Two days earlier, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed in Greenland, triggering an anxious hunt for the weapons and a months-long cleanup of radioactive snow and ice. Even the White House was not immune. Singer and actress Eartha Kitt made headlines in January when at a White House luncheon she confronted Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, about Vietnam and juvenile delinquency.

Despite his travails, most people assumed the president would seek reelection.

But when Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), tapping into antiwar sentiment, received 42 percent of the vote in the March 12 New Hampshire primary, Johnson’s electoral prospects appeared more uncertain.

Four days after McCarthy’s surprise showing, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York — Johnson’s bête noire — entered the race for the Democratic nomination.

RFK’s 1968 presidential bid sparked hope, then despair

Humphrey remained convinced that LBJ could still pull it off. “I believed the president could not only be renominated, but re-elected, despite Vietnam, polls, predictions, and antagonists,” Humphrey recalled in his memoir. “This is what I had urged him to do.”

Johnson, however, saw things differently. “He understood he was not likely to win,” Dallek said of the factors driving Johnson’s decision. “He was very controversial and really lost his hold on public opinion because of the Vietnam War.”

In addition to the deteriorating political situation, health worries weighed on LBJ, Dallek added — something Humphrey said the president brought up in their conversation. The 59-year-old president, who had suffered a heart attack in 1955, mentioned that “all the men in his family had died in their early sixties or before,” Humphrey wrote.

Although Johnson stunned the nation with his announcement, the idea of declining to run for a second term was not new. LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, had talked about it as early as Inauguration Day in 1965, according to the New York Times’s Max Frankel. By early September 1967, Johnson had tentatively decided not to run again, Dallek wrote in “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times.” He thought about revealing his decision before the year was out, but Lady Bird doubted he would go through with it, according to Dallek.

“Lady Bird’s skepticism was well advised,” Dallek wrote. “While he made plans to retire, he encouraged discussions about a 1968 campaign.”

In early January, LBJ summoned speechwriter and former aide Horace Busby to the White House. The president, Busby recalled in his memoir, said he planned to announce his decision not to seek reelection in the State of the Union address.

“I can’t get peace in Vietnam and be president, too,” Johnson said, according to Busby. But when he delivered the annual address to Congress, Johnson said nothing about his political plans.

Nevertheless, the idea continued to simmer. On March 29, two days before he was to deliver his Vietnam speech, Johnson summoned Jones, press secretary George Christian and Postmaster General W. Marvin Watson to discuss the address over drinks.

“I’m thinking about announcing Sunday that I’m not running,” Johnson said, according to Jones. “What do you think?”

Christian supported the idea, Jones recalled, while he and Watson argued that it was too late to pull out. “We left the meeting,” Jones wrote, “not knowing what he would do.”

Nor did Johnson. Summoned to the White House the day of the speech, Busby listened as LBJ insisted, “I won’t know whether I’m going to do this until I get to the last line of my speech.”

Johnson pondered the impact on the war, the reaction of the Soviet Union and China, and whether he would undercut his own authority as president by announcing he would not seek another term, according to Busby. Although LBJ maintained he was undecided, Busby recalled the president “almost hissed” his desire to get “out of this cage.”

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, the question hung over the White House. Busby reviewed the speech with Johnson. Members of the president’s family urged him to run for another term. Watson, the postmaster general who also wanted him to run, met privately with the president, Busby wrote. With the broadcast fast approaching, longtime Johnson supporter Arthur Krim chatted briefly with the president and quickly returned with news.

“He says,” Krim told Busby, “that the decision has been made.”

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