National Archives News

Author Connects 1968 Events and LBJ Presidency

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2018 — By all accounts, 1968 was a tumultuous year in American history. International and national events changed the landscape of America and the world around it forever. Significant events of that fateful year included the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; a violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago; civil rights protests throughout the country; and Apollo 8’s orbit around the Moon. The world was changing, and so was the nation.

Historian Kyle Longley explored the effects of these events 50 years ago and the role they played within the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson and our nation’s path forward, during a recent talk at the William J. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Longley is author of LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval, published in 2017. 

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero introduced Longley, who is also the Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. Ferriero shared the connection this program has to the current National Archives exhibit “Remembering Vietnam.”

“In the O’Brien Gallery, our exhibit examines the war from its World War II origins to the fall of Saigon,” Ferriero said. “In the section that covers 1968, you’ll find a page from Lyndon Johnson’s March 31st televised speech to the nation. In concluding the speech, he made the surprising announcement that he would not run for President in the coming election.”

Ferriero emphasized the importance of that watershed year in history, quoting Johnson as saying, “As LBJ reflected back on 1968, he said, ‘I sometimes felt I was living in a continuous nightmare. It was a year of challenges.’”  

Although his book explores many of the landmark events of 1968, Longley focused specifically on that momentous day and the series of events leading up to LBJ’s public sharing that evening of his decision to not seek reelection.

The author shared the timeline of LBJ’s decision, including anecdotes and quoted conversations with those closest to the President and minute details about the day itself. Longley described the day as “a transformative, watershed [moment] in American history.”

Longley quoted from Johnson’s speech, which outlined the President’s reasons for not wanting to run for reelection.

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” Johnson said.

Longley described the nation’s reaction as “a collective gasp” heard around the country as LBJ made this announcement, yet the President appeared “very light-hearted, happy, and relieved” upon announcing his decision.

The author told of the deep, personal stress Johnson felt about the Vietnam War and sending our soldiers into combat. “It is Vietnam that is ultimately going to be the Achilles heel . . . that will bring down the Johnson Presidency,” Longley said. “Johnson rarely went anywhere without someone protesting U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.”  

He shared how Johnson was personally affected by the decision to send Americans into combat in Vietnam, noting that both of LBJ’s sons-in-law would both be sent within weeks of his decision to focus on the war and not seek reelection.

Longley also told of the often rivalrous relationship between LBJ and Senator Kennedy, likening it to the relationship shared between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. “Some argue he did not want to run against Robert Kennedy. . . . Johnson’s polling numbers in 1968 were very high . . . and he won against everyone including [Richard] Nixon by a substantial margin. I think that is a mistake to think that Johnson would run away from a fight, especially with Bobby Kennedy, who he despised.”

To learn more about LBJ’s momentous decision and the 1968 events that impacted his Presidency, watch this entire program, “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval,” recorded on the National Archives’ YouTube channel.  

Other recent “1968” programs at the National Archives include “Nixon Legacy Forum: The Greatest Comeback: Richard Nixon and the 1968 Election”, “Symposium: The Vietnam War Revisited,” and Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam,”  See also the National Archives’ “1968” web page, 1968: A Year of Turmoil and Change.