October 1968. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace, and were desperately trying to win the Presidential election. Former Vice President Nixon had moderate conservatives and war-hawks backing him. Vice President Humphrey had Democratic core voters and intelligent liberals backing him, and Alabama Governor George Wallace was the darling of racists and right wing extremists.
1968 Democratic Convention (The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
1968: A Year of Chaos
In 1967, most had assumed President Lyndon Johnson would run, and likely win reelection. Those in his administration’s military leadership offered an optimistic view of the Vietnam War, with one of his recent close advisors publicly saying that the enemy was losing their will to fight.
Despite the rosy picture, over 70,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed or wounded during the war, and 1,000 more were being killed each month. Opposition to the war was tearing the Democratic party apart, and it overshadowed almost all other political issues.
In late January 1968, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. Ultimately, the invading armies were beaten back, but the offensive shocked the United States. Those confident of Johnson’s ability to bring a successful end to the war waned in their support, and in March, the New Hampshire primary gave Johnson an uncomfortably narrow win over Eugene McCarthy, who was considered a relatively minor candidate that focused on an anti-war campaign.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (AP Photo/Dick Strobel)
Soon after the primary, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and Johnson ended his campaign. (Although Johnson probably dropped out because he doubted he could beat Kennedy, it is noteworthy that President Johnson’s decision to drop out was heavily influenced by his health concerns. Specifically, that he would likely not live through another term.) Without Johnson in the race, there was no single, obvious choice for President.
The year became more chaotic after Johnson dropped out. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6. Anti-war and civil rights protests and riots, along with mounting U.S. casualties in Vietnam dominated the news everyday.
Baltimore, Maryland, 1968 (Photo by Afro-American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
By October, voters were reacting to the the presidential election as the prescription moment in the United States. The next President would either cure or kill our country, depending on the point of view. People who sought a calm return to normalcy were split between Nixon and Humphrey.
However, there were people who sought a disruptive choice for President, in the hopes that he would revive the Confederacy’s goal of remaking the United States into a white dominated government that would undo decades of work to create equal rights for all citizens. Their choice was George Wallace.
While many may believe that Wallace was a bigger threat to Nixon’s campaign, the reality was that the Governor from Alabama was luring as much as half of the support of the unions that normally support the Democratic ticket. Uneducated, Caucasian, blue-collar workers were taken in by Wallace’s hardline racist positions.
The civil rights riots generated fear among white voters, many of whom, felt they were not racist, but were of the opinion that life for the African-American would be fine if they would just settle down and accept their lot in life.
In the end, Nixon won with less than half the vote, and was in a statistical tie with Humphrey, but he had a significant electoral college margin. Wallace won over almost ten million voters, and certainly had an impact on the outcome.
Both Nixon and President Johnson used last-minute tactics to sway voters in the final weeks. President Johnson publicly suggested that a Vietnam peace deal was imminent, and Nixon’s campaign used back channels to interfere with those peace efforts, coupled with a spy in the White House that kept the Nixon campaign informed of Johnson’s diplomatic efforts.
NEXT: A hard look at the Wallace voter