President Johnson Stuns Nation: Will Not Seek Re-election
The American public was jolted the night of March 31, 1968, when, at the end of a nationally televised speech on the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Baines Johnson looked directly into the camera and solemnly, unexpectedly, declared: “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” No one was anticipating his withdrawal from the presidential election, but the subject of his televised speech, the Vietnam War, had a great deal to do with his decision not to seek another term.
America’s involvement in the war had sharply increased during Johnson’s first term, and this mounting escalation angered the public. In a Gallup poll published the day of his speech, Johnson only had a 36% approval rating. Perhaps most telling of all, only 26% approved of his handling of the war. On March 12, just 19 days before his surprising speech, Johnson only defeated peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy by a 49% to 42% margin in the New Hampshire primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. Another daunting factor: polls showed him trailing in the next primary, in Wisconsin, especially since Robert F. Kennedy had joined the race after the New Hampshire results showed how weak Johnson was.
His decision not to seek re-election was a frustrating end to a presidency that was ambitious and accomplished much, at least with its domestic policy. Vice President Johnson was thrust into the role of president by the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During his time as Chief Executive, Johnson shepherded legislation to create the “Great Society,” protecting civil rights with such monumental laws as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, creating Medicare and Medicaid, toughening environmental protection laws, improving aid to education, and declaring a “War on Poverty.” His foreign policy, specifically his Vietnam War policy, doomed his chances of achieving a second term as president.
This copyrighted article about Johnson’s shocking announcement was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on the front page of its April 1, 1968, issue:
LBJ Says He Won’t Seek or Accept Renomination
Limits Viet Bombing, Asks Again for Talks
From Wire Reports
Washington—Lyndon B. Johnson announced last night that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for another term as President of the United States.
Later, in a White House new conference, he said his decision was “completely irrevocable.”
Johnson said he did not believe that he should devote “an hour or a day” to anything but the “awesome duties” of the presidency in the coming year.
He thus left U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York and U.S. Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota as the only two declared candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon is the only announced major candidate for the Republican nomination.
The President conferred yesterday with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey before the latter took off for Mexico, where he will represent the United States at the signing of a Latin American nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Humphrey might well become a candidate for the Democratic nomination, as he was in 1960, with Johnson out of the field.
The President made his announcement after ordering a halt in the air and naval bombardment of North Vietnam except the part just north of the demilitarized zone. He invited the Hanoi government to join him in a “series of mutual moves toward peace” and to agree to an early conference in Geneva or elsewhere.
Johnson’s announcement on not seeking another term of office came as a stunning surprise at the end of a nationally televised speech on the war in Vietnam. It had not been included in the prepared text distributed to reporters in advance.
In the brief final addition, which White House sources said Johnson had written himself, he recalled how he had taken over the office “52 months and 10 days ago,” after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and had asked then for the help of the American people and of God.
Now, he said, there was “division in the American house” and the American people needed again to avoid the “ugly consequences” of such disunity.
“What we have won when all our people were united must not be lost in partisanship,” Johnson declared. “I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in partisan divisions.”
Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek the office again followed a reassertion of a political philosophy he has often expressed—that he was a free man, an American, a public servant and a member of his party “in that order, always and only.”
He said he had also tried in his 37 years of public service to “put the unity of the people first.”
Although the language in his speech was clear, some questions were raised about such possibilities as a draft and Johnson sought to lay these at rest by telling newsmen later that his decision to withdraw is “completely irrevocable.”
In an informal new conference shortly before midnight, Johnson said his health is “perfect, never better” and that was no factor in his decision. He added he has no plans for what he will be doing after next January when his term ends.
There seemed little doubt, however, that he meant what he said and the candidacies of Robert Kennedy and McCarthy probably will preclude the possibility of a draft.
Many Democrats who have been supporting Johnson for re-election are believed to have been secretly partial to Kennedy, the brother of the president whose death in Dallas, Tex., on Nov. 22, 1963, catapulted Johnson, then the vice president, into the White House.
Johnson won the office in his own right the following year, when he defeated U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the Republican nominee, in the biggest political landslide in American history.
From that high mark, however, Mr. Johnson fell politically until, in a Gallup poll published yesterday, he won the approval of only 36% of the respondents. On the vital question of his handling of the war in Vietnam, Mr. Johnson had the approval of only 26% of those responding to the poll.
It was primarily the war that destroyed the President’s former high standing with the public. Under his leadership, it became one of the major wars in American history, beginning with his decision to bomb North Vietnam in February 1965.
In his speech last night, the President made another attempt to end that war by ordering a halt in the air and naval bombardment of most of North Vietnam and invited the Hanoi government to join him in a “series of mutual moves toward peace.”
He called this “the first step to de-escalate” the war, saying the United States will substantially reduce “the present level of hostilities.”
The Chief Executive called on the Soviet Union and Great Britain, as co-chairmen of the Geneva conference, “to do all they can to move from the unilateral act of de-escalation I have just announced toward genuine peace in Southeast Asia.”
In that same April 1 issue, the Plain Dealer published this copyrighted editorial commenting on Johnson’s decision:
LBJ and Peace in Asia
The nation last night was given its greatest political shock since John F. Kennedy’s assassination when President Johnson announced he would not seek nor accept the nomination of his party for another term.
In voluntarily making his status that of a lame-duck President, Mr. Johnson offered the greatest sacrifice he could to prove his sincerity in the policy he has pursued in the Vietnamese war. Hanoi can no longer say he is playing politics.
Earlier in the historic speech the President went as far as he believed he could go in trying to make negotiations attractive to the North Vietnamese.
We applaud his decision to stop—without any time limit set—all air and naval attacks on North Vietnam except in the area immediately north of the Demilitarized Zone.
World opinion should react very favorably to the fact that henceforth the populated areas and the food-producing sections of North Vietnam will not be bombed.
We join with the President in the fervent hope that this first unilateral step toward de-escalation will convince the North Vietnamese that the way to peace lies in talk and not in continued war.
One effect of Mr. Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election should be largely to remove his Vietnamese policy from the political arena.
Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will now find it is not enough just to run on an anti-Johnson platform critical of his handling of the war.
U.S. Sens. Eugene J. McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy will have to come up with more positive programs of their own, not only on the war but on all other issues. So will any other candidates, such as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who may now enter the confused Democratic political picture.
Republican politicians, too, must now busy themselves with an assessment of what President Johnson’s withdrawal will have on that party’s decision regarding a presidential nominee.
It will take days, weeks, perhaps months for all the effects of what President Johnson said last night to become manifest.
The President admitted that divisive forces were tearing the nation apart. One effect should be that his personal sacrifice of any chance for continued leadership of the world’s most powerful nation should reduce those divisive forces and help his plea for a unified country.
President Johnson is staking out his place in history on a sincere desire for peace in Asia.
For more information on President Johnson, visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum website.
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