Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. For more on the year that changed America, watch CNN’s Original Series Event “1968” on Sunday, May 27 and Monday, May 28 at 9 p.m. ET.
America was a mess on Memorial Day 1968.
Almost two months since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the nation yearned for heroes to save them from the turmoil. In the No. 1 song, “Mrs. Robinson,” Simon and Garfunkel expressed the sentiment of many Americans when they wistfully asked: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
Families across the nation desperately searched for a champion as they were keenly aware of the devastating impact poor presidential decisions had caused overseas. And as Americans gathered at parades that May 30 to honor fallen soldiers, they were all burdened by one looming issue: the quagmire in Vietnam.
“World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the crises in between no longer make young American males joke about being future cannon fodder,” noted the editorial board of the Baltimore Sun. “It is a gnawing part of their conscious prospects.”
Memorial Day 1968 fell on a Thursday, and it was also the 100th anniversary of the holiday created to remember those killed in service. But this year, the country’s commemorations felt different – they were “sobered by the mounting loss of American lives in Vietnam,” wrote Emanuel Perlmutter in The New York Times.
In his message to the armed forces, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke on behalf of the nation when he expressed the widespread sentiment that “We yearn for an end to war, for a time when the guns will be silenced forever and men can live as they wish.”
It is not surprising that LBJ felt this way, as the politics of the war were spinning out of control. This was also a presidential election year, and on March 31, President Johnson – the one-time miracle worker who had pushed through Congress a historic number of domestic initiatives – had shocked the nation by announcing on television that he would not run for re-election.
He was exiting the race as two anti-war candidates, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy and New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were trying to take on LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination by promoting their campaigns in large part as a vote against American involvement in Vietnam.
Although Johnson had announced in his resignation speech that there would be a temporary bombing halt to allow for negotiations, many activists on the left did not believe him.
Sen. McCarthy’s spirits had been bolstered just ahead of Memorial Day ‘68 with his victory in the Oregon primary. It was welcome relief after RFK’s dramatic entrance into the race, during which he had offered tough words about the US assumption of “the role of the world’s judge and the world’s policeman” to devastating effect. Vietnam, McCarthy agreed, “grew out of a systematic misconception of America and its role in the world.”
There would be over 500,000 Americans stationed in Southeast Asia by the end of the year. The number of casualties was rapidly rising. Robert McNamara, who had been the secretary of defense during the time of the buildup, had resigned in November 1967 to take over the World Bank.
Throughout the nation, young Americans were taking to the streets and seizing control of college buildings to protest what the government was doing in the name of fighting communism. College students fighting against “LBJ’s War,” as they called it, were inspired by student protests around the globe that suggested a worldwide revolution was underway.
Johnson was under intense pressure from a Democratic Congress to cut domestic spending in exchange for a tax surcharge that would help finance Vietnam and stave off inflation. Meanwhile, Republican Richard Nixon was on the campaign trail, licking his chops as he watched Democrats implode, sensing that the war might not just bring down the Democratic ticket but the entire Democratic coalition, along with Humphrey.
LBJ’s VP spent Memorial Day trying to calm the anger. Humphrey, who was still not prepared to break with his president, told a rain-drenched audience at the Gettysburg National Cemetery that “There is the hope that peace will eventually emerge – perhaps now sooner than we think – as the ally of history’s sobering experience and youth’s unconquerable spirit.”
Yet the war wasn’t the only source of tension on Memorial Day. In Alexandria, Virginia, 50 civil rights activists gathered to protest the City Council’s decision to display the Confederate flag. A few miles away in Washington, 1,000 protesters who were part of the Poor People’s Campaign marched in the rain through the city’s abandoned streets to call for economic justice.
In other local gatherings, some marchers lashed out against the anti-war movement. One high school student in Watertown, Massachusetts, stood up in his hometown to say that, “Today, our forefathers are turning over in their graves because of the lack of courage being displayed by these cowardly draft card burners and by those who advocate dishonorable surrender to the enemy!”
1968 was a year of outrage, and Vietnam was one of many issues at the center of the fury. The country never really recovered from the devastating war, which wouldn’t end until 1973 after more than 58,000 Americans were killed.
The debates over Vietnam and its implications for US foreign policy continued to tear the country apart. Families would have to live with the painful memories of those who were killed or injured in the carnage, while veterans struggled emotionally and financially upon returning home to rebuild their life in a country that generally thought poorly of their service.
It would be several decades before US presidents could build the political support needed to launch another major military operation, and even then the suspicion of our political leaders never disappeared.
As we commemorate Memorial Day in 2018, it would be worth looking back to the trauma that the nation was suffering through 50 years earlier, when the dangerous waters our elected leaders can bring us into were crystal clear.