2018 elec­tion was calm and quiet com­pared to ‘68

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - His­tory Lessons Guest colum­nist

Per­spec­tive through ex­am­i­na­tion of his­tory is al­ways help­ful, as long as we per­ceive the past ac­cu­rately. Ex­treme, over­wrought rhetoric has now be­come com­mon­place, within the me­dia as well as from po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates.

State­ments in­clude the bizarre claim that the United States is on the verge of “an­other Civil War.” Keep in mind that war cost the lives of over half a mil­lion men, and re­sulted in long-term eco­nomic and phys­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion of the South­ern states. The af­ter­math of the war poi­soned Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for decades.

Do we face that now? Of course not, and re­spond­ing ef­fec­tively to this su­per­fi­cial and im­ma­ture rhetoric should in­clude ex­am­in­ing in spe­cific terms the U.S. pres­i­den­tial race of 1968, just 50 years ago.

As the year be­gan, the na­tion was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a sus­tained vi­o­lent crime wave. This was un­prece­dented, at least since World War II. Crime rates to­day are ex­tremely low, de­spite the ter­ri­ble prob­lem of pe­ri­odic mass killings.

Ad­di­tion­ally, ur­ban riots, which re­flected in­tense racial un­rest, and at times vi­o­lent anti-Viet­nam War demon­stra­tions, char­ac­ter­ized our na­tion in those dif­fi­cult years. This is ab­sent to­day.

Be­lea­guered Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son be­came a pris­oner of events, re­stricted in ma­jor pub­lic ap­pear­ances pri­mar­ily to mil­i­tary bases.

The lead­ers in Hanoi of the longterm, bru­tal rev­o­lu­tion in Viet­nam took full ad­van­tage of the sit­u­a­tion. On Jan. 30, 1968, dur­ing an agreed cease­fire, the Viet Cong gueril­las along with heav­ily armed el­e­ments of North Viet­nam’s for­mi­da­ble army sud­denly at­tacked vir­tu­ally ev­ery city and town across South Viet­nam.

Bloody fight­ing went on for weeks, and spo­radic ac­tion con­tin­ued into the fall of the year. Ini­tially, the en­emy gained ground, killed large num­bers of both Amer­i­cans and South Viet­namese, and en­joyed tremen­dous shock ef­fect.

Con­firm­ing Hanoi’s gam­ble, the Tet Of­fen­sive re­sulted in mil­i­tary de­feat but po­lit­i­cal vic­tory. Pub­lic sup­port for the Viet­nam War dis­si­pated.

Anti-war Sen. Eu­gene McCarthy won a sig­nif­i­cant vote in the March 12 New Hamp­shire Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary. Pres­i­dent John­son ac­tu­ally won the elec­tion, but many in­ter­preted the re­sult as a de­feat. Sen­a­tor Robert F. Kennedy de­clared his can­di­dacy. Pres­i­dent John­son with­drew from con­tention.

On April 4, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated in Mem­phis. Vi­o­lent riots ex­ploded across the na­tion. Heav­ily armed U.S. Army and Marine forces de­ployed to pro­tect Washington D.C.

Shortly af­ter mid­night on June 5, an as­sas­sin fa­tally wounded Kennedy in a ho­tel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just nar­rowly won the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary.

Just be­fore the Cal­i­for­nia elec­tion, Sen­a­tor McCarthy had de­ci­sively de­feated Kennedy in the im­por­tant Ore­gon pri­mary – a fact over­looked in many pop­u­lar ac­counts of those days. Nei­ther can­di­date was clearly win­ning.

Mean­while, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon came back from what ap­peared to be po­lit­i­cal obliv­ion to se­cure the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. He was the fa­vorite of grass-roots party work­ers, and held off chal­lenges from un­cer­tain lib­eral Gov. Nel­son Rock­e­feller of New York and ag­gres­sive con­ser­va­tive Gov. Ron­ald Rea­gan of Cal­i­for­nia.

Vice Pres­i­dent Hu­bert Humphrey, the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, ini­tially was far be­hind Nixon in opin­ion polls, and for a time third party racist can­di­date Gover­nor Ge­orge Wal­lace of Alabama was a ma­jor threat to his sup­port.

Yet Humphrey, a bril­liant cam­paigner, surged and only nar­rowly lost to Nixon. Opin­ion polls gen­er­ally showed him more pop­u­lar than ei­ther Kennedy or McCarthy and a stronger can­di­date against any likely Repub­li­can nom­i­nee.

The durable Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem worked in 1968. We prob­a­bly will sur­vive 2018.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege and the author of “Af­ter the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmil­lan/Pal­grave). Con­tact acyr@carthage.edu.


Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, right, con­fers with Pres­i­dent-elect Richard Nixon in the White House in Washington, D.C.

Arthur Cyr

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