Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
Fifty years ago, on the last day of March, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation with a surprise announcement that concluded a nationally televised speech on Vietnam. “I will not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President,” Johnson intoned in his signature southern drawl.
Johnson’s decision shocked Americans, ratcheted up political division within the Democratic Party and across partisan lines, and fundamentally altered America’s political landscapes in ways the nation could have scarcely imagined that Sunday evening.
LBJ had become President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and was elected to a full term the following year. His March 1968 announcement that he was not seeking re-election opened the field for rivals like Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had come close to defeating LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, and JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy.
Johnson couched his decision as a bid for unity, claiming that his single-minded pursuit of peace in Vietnam led him to put aside the personal political self-interest required in seeking another presidential term. At a time when demonstrators camped outside the White House protesting the escalating carnage in Vietnam and proliferating racial unrest at home, Johnson presented himself as a statesman eager to stand above the raucous din of political division.
Johnson’s refusal to run for a second term weakened his ability to negotiate a peaceful settlement in Vietnam, one that would not occur for almost five years, with the final American soldier leaving in 1975 with the fall of Saigon.
The “accidental President” who gained the office after an assassination, Lyndon Johnson altered the trajectory of postwar American history by advocating for a “Great Society” modeled after his political hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
A Southern Democrat who became Senate majority leader at the high tide of racial segregation, Johnson envisioned the ebb of American racial apartheid before many of his colleagues and close political friends.
In the White House, Johnson became the nation’s greatest presidential champion of racial justice since Abraham Lincoln. He forged a close working relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and gave two indelible speeches on racial equality on March 15 and June 4, 1965 that stand out as towering rhetorical achievements on behalf of interracial democracy in American history.
Johnson’s finest political moments came with his back against the wall. His March 15 address to the nation eight days after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama showcased the brutality of Jim Crow for all the world to see. Johnson, inspired by King’s political example at the March On Washington and rhetorical elegance in the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” embraced racial justice as a core principal of American democracy during a nationally televised joint congressional session that moved civil rights leaders, including King, to tears.
He went further during a Howard University commencement speech less than three months later, when he defined racial justice as equality of outcomes and not merely equal opportunities.
Vietnam crippled the scope, ambition, and effectiveness of the Great Society, a slate of programs now recognized as encompassing civil rights, voting, immigration, health care, education, environmental and criminal justice reform, to name a few.
Almost two years and three weeks from the day he cried watching LBJ’s voting rights speech, King assailed the Vietnam War, ending his personal and political rapprochement with the President. More apostates soon followed, including Minnesota Senator McCarthy, whose peace campaign attracted youthful long-haired hippies who promised to “Get Clean for Gene” and oust Johnson as a liberal pretender more committed to waging war in Southeast Asia than bolstering peace around the world.
Johnson privately railed against political betrayals from civil rights leaders, especially King, chafed at the release of the Kerner Commission report on civil disorders that seemed to ignore the herculean legislative achievements of the Great Society in favor of fantastical requests for billions of dollars in aid no Congress would ever approve.
President Johnson’s retreat from political office robbed the nation of perhaps the one man who might have been able to stem the decline of full-throated liberalism exemplified by the New Deal and extended through the Great Society. But Johnson remained intractable on Vietnam, a hawk who retained his faith in the necessity of the war even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. And, of course, it’s not certain that Johnson would have defeated the Republican candidate in 1968, who turned out to be Richard Nixon, even if the President had gotten his own party’s nomination.
The roots of the contemporary public skepticism over the integrity of elected leaders and political institutions can be traced back to the “credibility gap” between the White House’s optimistic narration of the Vietnam War and the unvarnished truths being uncovered and disseminated back home by returning soldiers, reporters, and other officials.
Richard Nixon’s campaign and subsequent election opened a Pandora’s Box of racially motivated resentment against economic justice, civil rights, and deep democracy that still reverberates to this day. Johnson did not produce the Watergate scandal, but his exit from the national stage helped unearth political forces that the nation has yet to recover from.
A second full LBJ administration might have been able to negotiate a withdrawal from war while simultaneously pivoting back to the domestic programs that remain Johnson’s enduring legacy. In resoundingly large ways that remain too often unappreciated, Johnson’s decision not to run set the stage for a half century of debate, division, and discussion of the role of government in our constitutional democracy.
Where Johnson’s domestic vision played out in bold strokes, subsequent Presidents (with perhaps Obamacare representing a distinguished caveat) hemmed and hawed over the role of the state as a transformative tool for good.
To his lasting credit, Johnson endorsed a robust vision of American liberalism in service of social justice. He cared about racial justice, poverty, clean water, good schools, safe schools, and the health of children and the elderly. To our nation’s lasting regret, Johnson’s stubborn support of war hastened the decline of a potentially Great Society that we are still trying to create a half a century later.
An earlier version incorrectly listed the state for Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He represented Minnesota.