The tradition is to mark history in round numbers, and 54 years ago is hardly that, but March 31, 1968 was a pretty interesting moment in time and, besides, I have a doctor’s appointment this morning, so had to put something together in advance.
So here was a historic moment for the date, and let me be honest that we weren’t huddled around our televisions. In fact, I was at the campus coffeehouse when someone got up between sets and told us what had happened. The place erupted, because nobody — left, right, hawk, dove — had seen this coming.
The speech was about the bombing halt and a call for Hanoi to negotiate, until the mindblower at the end:
It was, to say the least, stunning.
But what I found, when I poked around to see how political cartoonists handled the news that Johnson was stopping (most) bombing, inviting peace talks and taking himself out of the 1968 campaign, was a stark reminder of the gap between how antiwar college students took the news and how the grownups reacted.
The “Generation Gap” was never more starkly, or meaningfully, on display!
Bill Mauldin, perhaps predictably, had the most balanced perspective: Johnson had taken his hat out of the ring and, instead, inserted an olive branch.
The great thing about this cartoon is that he didn’t judge. He simply reported.
Looking back, that was probably the most honest way to assess the moment.
As we learned later, the chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” had apparently really gotten to Johnson.
Time Magazine made him their “Man of the Year,” but commissioned David Levine to portray him as Lear.
He’d be dead within five years, at only 64, and, looking back, it’s easy to feel sorry for him.
However, that week in 1968, two of my closest high school friends were in the mud at Khe Sanh, and I would soon run into another, home now but badly injured by a satchel charge while defending the perimeter of a fire base.
I was loyal to my friends and had little time or sympathy for LBJ.
But, out in the straight press, he was still the president, and Newton Pratt noted the moment when Johnson set the bookmark and claimed his place in history.
Herblock, too, saw it from the grown-ups’ (“Establishment’s) perspective, pairing the surprising presidential announcement with the quest to end the war, which was, indeed, a very reasonable take from that viewpoint.
Still, at 18, I was aware that nobody had planted victory gardens or sacrificed under rationing of sugar or meat or gasoline, and that the Generation Gap was not so much about rock-and-roll or hair length, as about respect and recognition.
There was no mystery about what our generation was going through. In January, Time magazine had run a story about Vietnam vets, headlined “Oh, you’re back,” which laid out the indifference and lack of support returning vets — particularly Black vets — were encountering.
The calls for tickertape came decades later. For now, there were calls for hair cuts, compliance and proper behavior, but the war, and its warriors, were a sideline in a prospering nation.
If you wanted to know, it was out there.
If you didn’t want to know, Bonanza was Sunday at 9 and Dean Martin was Thursday at 10 and “Love is Blue” was #1 on the Top 40.
Gene Basset — who had traveled to Vietnam for a look-see — noted the split impact of Johnson’s speech, because LBJ had at once announced a de-escalation of the war and thrown the 1968 Presidential Race into chaos, confounding the pundits who had been watching both the Republican effort to mount a credible opponent against the incumbent and the incumbent’s own struggle against the ongoing “Children’s Crusade” for Eugene McCarthy, and, lately, the anti-war challenge by Bobby Kennedy.
It’s important, at this point, to point out that not all college students were in the antiwar movement, and Richard Yardley‘s response to the speech echoed among ROTC students and their cohort. My sister’s fiance was an Air Force pilot likely headed for the war, and I remember her argument that my friends and I should stop demonstrations while LBJ attempted to work with Hanoi.
My reply being that, if we eased the pressure, not a damn thing would happen.
That was the gap within our own generation, and it was very real.
LBJ’s sudden departure, as John Fischetti noted, awakened Republicans who had, perhaps, decided that a race against the incumbent was not worth pursuing.
Suddenly, they had to shape up for a fight.
Nixon, as Frank Interlandi noted, was already in the game with a “secret plan to end the war,” which his faithful have always insisted he never claimed to have.
Maybe, maybe not, but they didn’t stamp out the concept at the time, and, some years later, we discovered that he did have a secret plan: One that involved urging the North Vietnamese to hang in there and ignore Johnson’s attempts to broker peace.
Which is why half the names on that wall belong to him, though we didn’t know then how things would turn out.
Juxtaposition of Youth
Indeed, we did wish we could vote. We settled that a few years later, but, in the meantime, the line from the pop song resonated “You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting. You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re toting?”
Or, as Ochs put it, “It’s always the old to lead us to the war, always the young to fall.”
So we kept up the pressure in the streets, the only venue open to those without a voice in Establishment politics.
As for Don Hesse, my recollection is that political activists preferred Gene to Bobby, seeing McCarthy as a serious politician and Bobby as someone preppies and groupies gushed over.
But once LBJ was out and Bobby was surging, pragmatists came over to his side, since Gene was never likely to win the nomination and Bobby looked like he could.
Until … y’know.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere in America
Cartoonists warned that Martin Luther King would bring violence to the summer ahead, and, specifically, decried the unrest in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.
Four days later, Dr. King was dead.
A topic for another day, but ask me again sometime why we didn’t trust the Establishment press.
Janis is currently on her Farewell Tour. You might want to catch it.