Nixon’s War 2

On March 31, 1968, when Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to retire, he claimed that he wanted to withdraw from “the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year” in order to devote himself to a dispassionate quest for peace in Vietnam. As the race for the presidency gathered momentum, however, he began to feel that his abdication might not be irrevocable; perhaps the Democrats would clamor for him to run again when they held their convention in Chi-cago in August. So he continued to maneuver from behind the scenes, indicating that he was willing to be drafted. Above all, he was deter¬mined to block the nomination of a candidate who would transgress his Vietnam policy by proposing greater concessions to the Com¬munists, such as a total halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. He suspected that Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, his logical heir, fa¬vored that course as the only way to triumph over Senator Eugene McCarthy’s strident antiwar faction, which threatened to fracture the party. But Johnson preferred a Republican successor—even the re¬pugnant Nixon—to a Democrat who would disavow him.
Chicago resembled riotous Saigon when the Democrats assembled there in late August. Some ten thousand antiwar protesters had converged on the city, most of them white youths, their groups a melange of left-wing extremists, moderate dissidents and hippies simply out to create chaos. Mayor Richard Daley had mobilized an equal number of police and national guardsmen to maintain security, but one of his aides only increased the tension from the start when he impugned the crowd as “revolutionaries bent on the destruction of America.” Army, navy and air force intelligence services had also infiltrated the dem¬onstration with covert agents—including a team, disguised as a tele¬vision crew, to photograph the youngsters for the federal records. Clandestine CIA operatives were present as well, despite regulations that prohibit them from functioning inside the United States.
At first no more disorderly than a campus pantie raid, the events on the streets of Chicago suddenly flared into violence on August 28, when police and guardsmen tried to prevent the demonstrators from marching on the International Amphitheater, where the Democratic convention was being held. They chased the kids through the down¬town area, attacking them with clubs, rifle butts and tear gas while the youths, some waving Vietcong flags, riposted with rocks and bottles. Hundreds were arrested, yet thousands reappeared the next day at a rally in Grant Park to hear Tom Hayden, a radical organizer who later married Jane Fonda, warn that the battles were only begin¬ning. Television made the most of the spectacle, and Sam Brown, a McCarthy activist, afterward looked back on the Chicago episode as a disaster that alienated many Americans sympathetic to the antiwar movement. “Instead of nice young people ringing doorbells,” he said, “the public saw the image of mobs shouting obscenities and disrupting the city.”
Vice-President Humphrey and his staff, anticipating trouble at the convention, had drafted a compromise platform on the Vietnam war. Among other things, it called for a complete cessation of the U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam and the transfer of more responsibility to the South Vietnamese. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in June and the language seemed to satisfy his former supporters as well as such Johnson loyalists as Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow—all of whom realized that Richard Nixon, by then the Republican nominee, would be the sole beneficiary of discord within the Democratic ranks. For a moment it looked as if a consensus had been achieved. But then Hum¬phrey telephoned Johnson in Texas to obtain his approval, and he got a typically petulant response. The compromise, Johnson growled, was a personal affront to him: “This plank just undercuts our whole policy and, by God, the Democratic party ought not be doing that to me. And you ought not be doing it. You’ve been a part of this policy.”
Humphrey capitulated. He introduced a Vietnam platform conforming to Johnson’s dictates. Other factions thereupon presented rival versions, and an unprecedented three-hour debate ensued—the speakers constantly interrupted as emotional antiwar delegates snaked through the convention hall, chanting slogans against the administra¬tion. The Johnson plank, under Humphrey’s sponsorship, finally passed by a slim margin as its foes unleashed a torrent of protests. Members of the New York delegation, wearing black armbands, rose to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Humphrey soon sensed his blunder. As he acknowledged afterward, he should have defied Johnson, struck a bargain with the Kennedy contingent and isolated the stubborn McCarthy fringe, thus reunifying the Democrats. But he did not declare his independence until the end of September in Salt Lake City, where he delivered the speech that he had wanted to give at the convention—advocating a total bombing halt and the “de-Americanization” of the war as “an acceptable risk for peace.”
The discussions in Paris, which had been dormant, were now awak¬ened by the North Vietnamese. They offered to broaden the talks to include both Saigon government and Vietcong representatives if, in exchange, the U.S. air raids against North Vietnam were uncondi¬tionally stopped. The overture was partly intended to confer official status on the Vietcong, which would presumably damage the morale of the South Vietnamese regime, but it was also designed to boost Humphrey, whom the Communists preferred to Nixon, despite their scorn for all American politicians.
The gesture put Johnson on the spot. To agree to the proposal would mean, in effect, to endorse the conciliatory platform he had spurned on the eve of the Democratic party convention. He was re-luctant as well to appear to be playing politics with the war just before the election. But to reject the proposal might earn him a dark place in the history books as a president who, during his last days in office, rebuffed a chance for peace. On the evening of October 31, in a televised address to the nation, he announced a complete halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.

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