Seeing the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency through the March 31, 1968, Withdrawal Speech.


Speaking from the Oval Office in a nationally televised address on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned the nation with his announcement that he no longer was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Because the speech attempted to secure Johnson's place in history by severing Robert Kennedy from the legacy of his brother's presidency and positioning Johnson as John F. Kennedy's legitimate heir, empower Hubert Humphrey only if he would embrace Johnson's policies, and redefine the lines of argument defending Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam, it provides a filter through which to view the rhetoric of the final year of the Johnson presidency. Johnson's rhetoric reveals a person both deeply ambivalent about relinquishing the presidency and calculatedly partisan. Instead of healing the divisions of the country, Johnson exacerbated divisions within his own party and undercut the electoral chances of his presumed heir apparent.

The rhetoric of Johnson's final year in office can be viewed in three phases: Johnson the consensus-building unifier, Johnson the candidate and defensive war hawk, and Johnson the president and party broker.

Johnson the Consensus-Building Unifier

Begun with the proposed San Antonio formula, the consensus phase of Johnson's rhetoric continued until after the Tet Offensive. Articulated in September 1967, the San Antonio formula specified that the United States would halt its bombing if productive talks were scheduled and the other side was not jeopardizing the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers.

During this stage, Johnson tried to please multiple constituencies, including protesters of the war in Vietnam, with his announcement of a proposed bombing halt. The Great Society and the war in Vietnam both were being pursued successfully, argued Johnson. The country could have both butter in the form of the Great Society and guns in the form of the war in Vietnam.

The war was the main topic of Johnson's 1968 State of the Union address. In it, he said,

Since I reported to you last January, three elections have been held in Vietnam in the midst of war and under the constant threat of violence. A president, a vice president, a house and senate, and village officials have been chosen by popular, contested ballot. The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle. The number of South Vietnamese living in areas under government protection tonight has grown by more than a million since January of last year.(1) The speech hinted that Johnson felt somewhat under siege. "I was thinking as I was walking down the aisle tonight of what Sam Rayburn told me many years ago: `The Congress always extends a very warm welcome to the president--as he comes in.'" He spoke confidently of the will of the American people "to meet the trials that these times impose." And he proclaimed that "America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail."

The Tet Offensive called into question the accuracy of the assessment Johnson offered the American people in his State of the Union address two weeks earlier. On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked five of the six largest cities in South Vietnam and entered the grounds of the U.S. embassy. From January 31 until February 24, the Communist forces held the sacred city of Hue.

In a February 3 briefing from Saigon by General John Chaisson about Tet, the word "surprising" recurred:

It was surprisingly intensive, and I think in conducting it, he [the enemy] showed a surprising amount of audacity because he has put an awful lot of his goods up on the table in this battle.... I don't believe our intelligence at least never [sic] unfolded to me any panorama of attacks such as happened this week.(2) Robert Komer, senior staff member of the National Security Council, recalled, "We genuinely believed we were winning. Of course, we completely undermined the president's position because when Tet turned out the way it did, it was in stark contrast to what the president had been telling the nation."(3)

Vietnam was a sensitive topic with the president. Johnson speechwriter Harry McPherson recalls,

The president had excised a long section of his 1968 State of the Union address which dealt with Vietnam. He preferred to reserve the subject for a later occasion and instructed me to prepare a draft. After Tet, the need seemed greater than ever. But so was the confusion about what to do. There was a baffling disparity between reports from MACV [Military Airlift Command Vietnam] and the story that dominated the papers and the evening television screens.(4) Tet was a turning point in Johnson's presidency. "President Truman, a genuinely modest man, had renounced power with hardly a second thought. I could not then imagine Lyndon Johnson doing the same thing, but that was before Tet," recalls Clark Clifford.(5) Tet was a major factor in Johnson's decision to withdraw from the presidential race.

The impact of Tet on U.S. public opinion is reflected in the questions asked at the press conference Johnson held on February 2. "Mr. President, does this present rampage in South Vietnam give you any reason to change any assessment that you have made previously about the situation in South Vietnam?" "Sir, do you see anything in the developments this week in these attacks in Vietnam that causes you to think you need to reevaluate some of those assumptions on which our policies, our strategy there has been based?" "In short, sir, are we still winning the war?" "Mr. President, one of the problems people seem to be having in making up their minds on the psychological importance of this goes back to our reports that the Viet Cong were really way down in morale, that they were a shattered force. Now people ask, `Well, how, then, can they find the people who are so well motivated to run these suicide attacks in so many places in such good coordination?'"

Changes in the political terrain affected Johnson as well. On March 11, Democratic party challenger Eugene McCarthy took 42.4 percent of the popular vote in the New Hampshire primary, compared to Johnson's 49.4 percent, as McCarthy won 20 of the 24 available delegates. McCarthy's candidacy was a protest against Johnson's policies on the war. In Manchester, McCarthy had said, "The Democratic party in 1964 promised `no wider war.' Yet, the war is getting wider every month." McCarthy, referring to Johnson's State of the Union address, said, "Only a few months ago, we were told that 65 percent of the population was secure. Now we know that even the American embassy is not secure."(6) Tet was taking its toll.

McCarthy focused not only on Johnson's war policies but also on the dispositions manifest in the president's rhetoric. In a speech delivered in Chicago on December 2, 1967, McCarthy said,

The office of the presidency of the United States must never be a personal office. A president should not speak of "my country" but always of "our country," not of "my Cabinet" but of "the Cabinet," because once it is appointed, it becomes something different from the man who may have nominated these persons.(7) As McCarthy's strong polling numbers in the Democratic primaries of 1968 suggested, Johnson's consensus was disintegrating.

Five days later, on March 16, Robert Kennedy announced that he too would seek the Democratic nomination. He did so on the grounds that "so long as Lyndon B. Johnson was president, our Vietnam policy would consist of only more war, more troops, more killing, and more senseless destruction of the country we were supposedly there to save."(8)

The pressure on Johnson increased when Kennedy entered the race for president. Kennedy sought the nation's highest office because, he said, "it is

now unmistakably clear that we can change [the country's] disastrous divisive policies [in Vietnam and at home] only by changing the men who are now making them."(9)

Johnson the Candidate and Defensive War Hawk

In this phase of his presidency, which lasted from the Tet offensive until the March 31 speech, Johnson defended his Vietnam policy in an attempt to draw support from labor and Southerners.

Johnson entered a new phase of his presidency after Tet. Having talked of how safe South Vietnam was four weeks earlier in his State of the Union address, he tried to frame Tet as a victory for the United States rather than a defeat. Many Americans wondered how secure South Vietnam was if American troops could not even protect the American embassy in Saigon.

An article by Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post illustrates the interpretive chasm separating the president's men and the public at large concerning Tet:

The cables were thus doubly welcome. The leaders in Washington took heart and believed the country would take heart as well. The leaders were mistaken. While they were receiving, reading, and disseminating after-the-fact official summaries of what had happened, the public was experiencing the worst of the bloodshed through the new technology of television. The summaries were not believed. The projected experience was.(10) One of the indicators that Johnson had lost public support after Tet was a remarkable news segment in which Walter Cronkite, America's trusted CBS network news anchor, said, "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."(11)

After Tet, Johnson shifted to a rhetoric of unification and heightened his defense of his policies. The tone of these addresses was reminiscent of the May 17, 1966, "nervous nellies" speech. That speech was delivered at the end of a thirty-seven-day bombing halt Johnson had called in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to the peace negotiating table.

Like that speech, the addresses of March 1968 attacked Johnson's opponents and personalized his own...

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