Fifty years ago this week — on March 31, 1968 — President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation on TV, and boomers of all ages were watching. The President began his speech with specific proposals about the war in Vietnam that he hoped would further the chance for peace talks. The President announced a halt to all air and naval bombing missions in North Vietnam (north of the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ]), as long as doing so did not endanger American troops. Secondly, he decided to send an additional 13,500 troops and third, he said he would request additional funding from Congress to bolster American efforts to assist the South Vietnamese army. He went on to talk about the divisive nature of politics and the war in the nation, and that he felt a responsibility to devote his time to the Office of the Presidency. At the end of his speech, he shocked the country by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
The Tet Offensive at the end of January, 1968 brought the bloody struggles happening a world away into the homes of Americans as pictures of fighting in the streets of Saigon countered the Administration’s optimistic pronouncements of a winnable war. Then the New Hampshire Primary, held on March 12, showed the President to be vulnerable in his own party. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had mounted a challenge based on his end-the-war stance. Though Johnson won the New Hampshire Primary, McCarthy picked up 42 percent of the vote and the majority of electoral votes for the state.
Despite his de-escalation announcement, Johnson remained dedicated to a military victory in Vietnam. The U.S. dropped more bombs into the DMZ in the three months after his speech than had been dropped in the previous years of the war.
Lady Bird Johnson recalled that she and the President discussed him not running for reelection as early as 1964. She was concerned about his health — particularly his heart condition. She was completely against him running for another term. Johnson himself said in his memoir, The Vantage Point, that he did not want to announce his decision not to run ahead of the speech. The line was not included on the teleprompter and he did not read it while practicing the speech the day before, but on the morning of March 31 he did inform Vice President Hubert Humphrey that he would include it if conditions were right — that is, no major attacks occurred in Vietnam or there was other world news leading up to the broadcast. He wrote that he did not make the decision to include the now-famous line about not seeking reelection until it was time for the televised broadcast.
A newly-minted teenage Mister Boomer sat with his family watching the speech as it aired. He was still forming his understanding of politics, though he was already certain that he wanted no part of any war. His elementary school days humanized war for him and his boomer classmates when bandaged, wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam — brothers and cousins of his classmates — came to thank the kids for sending them care packages from home.
In retrospect, Mister Boomer can point to this speech as a political awakening of sorts. He began paying much closer attention to the news and the campaigns of the 1968 Presidential Election. Though Mister B was still years away from voting age, the voices of the earliest boomers were about to be heard in one of the most tumultuous years in the country’s history.
Do you remember watching President Johnson’s speech on March 31, 1968, boomers?