February 11, 2008—One painful irony of the Obama-Clinton showdown is that it could end up with middle-aged women – who are determined to elect the first female president – stomping on the dreams of their own children, who have shaken off years of political apathy to rally behind Barack Obama.
That presidential campaign took place before the backdrop of the Vietnam War, with half a million U.S. soldiers committed to the bloody conflict and with millions of young people across the United States protesting to stop the war.
Hoping to redirect the country through the electoral process, many anti-war students joined the campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who was making a long-shot bid to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination.
The anti-war cause was further galvanized by the stunning Tet offensive, which began on Jan. 31, 1968, as Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops launched ambitious – and even reckless – attacks across the length of South Vietnam, puncturing the Johnson administration's optimistic war rhetoric.
Then, on March 12, 1968, McCarthy shocked the incumbent president by closing to within seven percentage points in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy jumped into the race, earning criticism from some McCarthy activists as “a Bobby come lately.”
Kennedy’s entrance, however, was the political death knell for Johnson. On March 31, faced with a growing insurrection within his own party and a growing casualty list from Vietnam, Johnson withdrew from the campaign to dedicate his remaining time in office to bringing the war to an end.
In those heady days of early spring 1968, everything seemed possible. Young Americans thought their enthusiasm and idealism could change the world.
However, those hopes were short-lived. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a rifle shot to his throat. Robert Kennedy learned of King’s death just before he was to address a campaign rally in Indianapolis.
“I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee,” Kennedy told the shocked crowd.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
“We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
“But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.”
Kennedy continued: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
“So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, … but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. …
“The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Despite Kennedy’s elegant appeal, race riots broke out in cities across America. Divisions, distrust and hatreds deepened.
Then, on June 5, 1968, as Kennedy appeared to be headed for the Democratic nomination having just won the California primary, he, too, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
The political vacuum that followed Kennedy’s death turned the Democratic convention in Chicago in late August into a violent free-for-all, with hard-line Mayor Richard Daley unleashing his security and police forces inside and outside the convention hall, beating up young demonstrators outside and roughing up delegates and journalists inside.
Behind Daley’s iron fist, the Democratic establishment controlled the convention, which handed the presidential nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Suddenly, the anti-war youth were looking at a November match-up between two representatives of the old guard, Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon, with the likelihood that the Vietnam War would continue no matter who won.
However, 1968 had one more cynical episode to add to its dark history, albeit one that would be accomplished out of sight and not pierce the public’s consciousness for decades to come.
As the days to the November election counted down, President Johnson mounted a last-ditch effort to achieve a Vietnam peace deal with North Vietnam and the Vietcong through negotiations in Paris. Besides starting to bring U.S. troops home, the deal also might have given Humphrey the boost he needed to edge out Nixon.
According to what is now an extensive body of evidence, the Nixon campaign countered by dispatching Anna Chennault, an anti-communist Chinese leader, to carry messages to the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen van Thieu.
Chennault’s messages advised Thieu that a Nixon presidency would give him a more favorable result than he would get from Johnson.
Journalist Seymour Hersh described the initiative sketchily in his biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. Hersh reported that U.S. intelligence “agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President Thieu in Saigon. … The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress.”
In her own autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
Reporter Daniel Schorr added fresh details in The Washington Post’s Outlook section on May 28, 1995. Schorr cited decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that “many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm.” On Oct. 27, he wrote, “The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. … I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage.”
On Nov. 2, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Vietcong at the Paris peace talks, destroying Johnson’s last hope for a settlement. Though Johnson and his top advisers knew of Nixon’s gambit, they kept it secret.
Anthony Summers’s 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power, provides the fullest account of the Chennault initiative, including the debate within Democratic circles about what to do with the evidence.
Both Johnson and Humphrey believed the information – if released to the public – could assure Nixon’s defeat.
“In the end, though, Johnson’s advisers decided it was too late and too potentially damaging to U.S. interests to uncover what had been going on,” Summers wrote. “If Nixon should emerge as the victor, what would the Chennault outrage do to his viability as an incoming president? And what effect would it have on American opinion about the war?”
Summers quoted Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
As it turned out – even without disclosure of Nixon’s apparent treachery – a late surge brought Humphrey to the edge of victory. Nixon hung on to win by only about 500,000 votes, or less than one percent of ballots cast. Johnson and Humphrey went into retirement keeping their silence.
The direct U.S. role in the Vietnam War would continue for more than four years during which American casualty lists swelled by an additional 20,763 dead and 111,230 wounded. Meanwhile, the bitterness over the war deeply divided the country, in many cases turning children against their parents.
Though the adults who grew up in the Depression and won World War II are often called the Greatest Generation, many of them let down their children during the Vietnam War, as some 58,000 Americans died in a poorly conceived conflict that caused long-term damage to the United States.
It was left to the young adults of that difficult time to grapple with the unusual challenges of the Vietnam War. Should they serve in a war that many of them considered immoral? Or should they oppose their own government – and often their own parents – in resisting the war?
Through both violent tragedy and political intrigue, Election 1968 had been transformed from a hopeful opportunity to change the country into an ugly case study of how easy it is to snuff out idealism and decency.
In many ways, Election 1968 charted the course that the United States would follow for most of the next four decades. On one side, there would be aggressive, win-at-all-costs Republicans; on the other side, timid, don’t-get-too-rowdy Democrats.
Not surprisingly, the youthful idealism of the 1960s devolved into world-weary cynicism that would be passed down like some bitter legacy from the Baby Boomers to their children: You can’t really expect to beat the Man. You need to just look out for No. 1.
By and large, political apathy among the youth held sway – at least until Campaign 2008 when a new generation was caught up in the inspirational message of Barack Obama.
I first encountered the Obama phenomenon when I visited my youngest son, Jeff, at Savannah College of Art and Design in spring 2007. At an arts festival where a park was set aside for students to do chalk drawings on the sidewalks, the only drawings of an American politician were of Obama.
The youth movement for Obama – this new children’s crusade – has influenced some prominent mothers to endorse the 46-year-old African-American senator from Illinois. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, said it was her three children who convinced her to come out publicly for Obama.
“I am happy that two of my own children are here with me,” she said at American University in Washington on Jan. 28, “because they were the first people who made me realize that Barack Obama is the president we need. He is already inspiring all Americans, young and old, to believe in ourselves, tying that belief to our highest ideals – ideals of hope, justice, opportunity and peace – and urging us to imagine that together we can do great things.”
But other mothers – especially white women over 50 who have been targeted as a core constituency by Hillary Clinton’s campaign – are making another judgment. They believe it is time for a woman to be president and they don’t see another likely female contender on the horizon. So Sen. Clinton it is.
During the early primaries, these white middle-aged women have turned out in large numbers to support Clinton, handing her a crucial early victory in New Hampshire and serving as a bulwark for her campaign in several other states, including Massachusetts and California.
They may prove to be the difference in other crucial states ahead, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet, if they are successful, they may have to face a sad and unintended consequence of a Hillary Clinton nomination, especially if she wins in a bruising convention battle in Denver.
These women may have to watch the young enthusiastic Obama supporters – sometimes their own children – suffer the kind of painful disillusionment that an earlier generation of idealistic young Americans went through in 1968.
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This story was published on February 12, 2008.