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THE 1968 Tet Offensive was a decisive turning point in the public life of the United States of America, and indeed in world history. Largely as a result of its impact, Lyndon Johnson's presidency, which started on a note of cautious optimism, peaked in electoral triumph in the 1964 election, but ended in humiliation barely five years later. Recovering from the immediate shock of Tet, Johnson stuck to his guns at first, insisting that the American commitment to South Vietnam should not be abandoned. Then, faced with growing skepticism in the inner circles of the Democratic Party and with waves of increasingly harsh media criticism, he capitulated. His decision to name Democratic Party regular Clark Clifford to replace a disillusioned Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense was actually announced before Tet, and was crucial. Clifford, whom Johnson apparently appointed in the hope that the former's legendary political aplomb and legerdemain would produce a way to salvage the latter's policies, proved to be even less attached to them than his predecessor. With a firm grip on the political realities of Washington, if not on those of the war on the ground in Asia, Clifford determined that a strong policy in Vietnam was a loser. His recommendations to scale back the bombing of the North sharply and to seek a diplomatic exit from the conflict weighed heavily on Johnson's mind.
The decisive blow, however, came from an unexpected quarter: the candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, which was announced in late November. A vocal critic of the war, McCarthy was a relative unknown nationally and pundits gave his peace candidacy little chance. Then, in the 12 March New Hampshire primary, he polled forty-two percent of the vote to Johnson's
forty-eight percent. For a president in office, this result was an unprecedented rebuke from within his own party. That the exit polls showed that much of McCarthy's support came from 'hawks' protesting the President's reluctance to pursue the war more vigorously was irrelevant. With Johnson's vulnerability revealed, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, younger brother of the martyred President, announced his candidacy only four days later.
A coterie of senior, diplomatically experienced advisors to whom Johnson turned for counsel, the so- called 'Wise Old Men', backed Clifford by recommending that America sharply reduce her military commitment to Vietnam. A discouraged and humiliated Johnson appeared on television on 31 March to announce that he would not run for reelection, that he would enter into negotiations with the North Vietnamese and that he had ordered a halt to all bombing of North Vietnam north of 19° latitude. Although formal termination was not until 31 October, the latter in effect cancelled ROLLING THUNDER.
The ensuing contest for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination was the most divisive national political struggle in recent American history. Torn by loyalty to the President, Vice President Hubert Humphrey did not declare his candidacy for the presidency until 27 April, a candidacy that faced enormous difficulties from the start. Public disorder, of which there was plenty during the spring, summer and fall of 1968, rarely helps an administration in power. Anti-administration demonstrations were becoming increasingly large and noisy, and the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther Kina on 5 April sparked riots in inner-city black ghettos across the country. Running on a peace platform of his own, Robert Kennedy quickly outdistanced McCarthy only to be struck down by an assassin's bullet on 5 June as his supporters were celebrating a stunning victory in the California primary, which had made him the leading contender. With the advantages of incumbency, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, but only after a bruising struggle at the National Convention in Chicago. The convention was marked both by disorder on the floor, where news media representatives including CBS television reporter Dan Rather were beaten up by Chicago police, and by violent demonstrations and riots outside the convention hall.
The Republican nomination that year went to Richard Milhous .Nixon, who was written off in 1962 by most journalists and political analysts after an immoderate outburst at the media in the wake of his defeat by Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election. But after licking his wounds, Nixon concluded that there might yet be life after death in politics. While Nelson Rockefeller went home to New York to sulk after Barry Goldwater trounced him at the 1964 convention, Nixon supported the ticket and worked hard in the ensuing years for Republican candidates across the country, building up a stock of goodwill among party regulars. Pundits' prognostications to the contrary, the Republican convention wasn't even close; Nixon won handily on the first ballot. Taking full advantage of his opponent's liabilities, Nixon, an aloof personality never noted for personal warmth, won a narrow victory in the November presidential election.
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