Nixon’s back, baby! The 1960s were a tumultuous time in American history. How did Johnson’s 1964 blowout win lead to the resurgence of the conservative movement? Warning: you may experience audio hallucinations of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” during this post.
The Last Four Years
President Johnson, now serving a full term of his own, aimed to continue his interpretation of John F. Kennedy’s agenda, which he called the Great Society. Thanks to the Democratic majority in Congress, he signed ambitious legislation to help the underprivileged, improve education, conserve natural resources, and protect consumers. New programs included the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (headed by the first African American cabinet member). Perhaps their most important act was the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, which provided health insurance to the elderly and poor, respectively. Johnson’s other policy goal was to advance the War on Poverty. Under this banner, he created Community Action Agencies (CAA) to supervise and coordinate social service programs in cities across the country. Though well-meaning, the CAAs quickly became a source of controversy as local community activists and established politicians clashed for control over them. This conflict destabilized the relationship between two major constituencies of the Democratic Party, which was easily exploited by Congressional Republicans who objected to the increase in spending. Although Johnson was relatively successful in reducing poverty, his party was forced to defend the unpopular agencies.
Another major domestic challenge was Civil Rights. In Johnson’s last term, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally banned segregation in public places. The next step was voting rights. Since the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws prevented African Americans from exercising their rights. In March, 1965, a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, was met with extreme violence by the police. Johnson used the public’s reaction to televised coverage of the event to push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended literacy tests in counties where voting rates were below a certain threshold, covering most of the South. It also provided federal registrars and enforcement. Over the next four years, Black voter turnout tripled. The act solidified African Americans as an important part of the Democratic base, and pushed white conservatives further towards the Republicans. Many Southern politicians switched parties. For the first time ever, Republicans had a chance to win local elections in the South. Unfortunately, racial tensions continued. Between 1964-1968, there were race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington, DC. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, by career criminal James Earl Ray.
In 1964, Congress authorized President Johnson to take all necessary measures to protect South Vietnam from the Communists in the North. In February the following year, he initiated a sustained bombing campaign of the country. In March, he sent the first US combat troops. A month later, they were making full-scale offensive operations. Washington was torn between hawks and doves. Hawks wanted to use aggressive tactics against the Communists, including nuclear weapons, if necessary. Doves, which included Vice President Hubert Humphrey, called for peaceful negotiations and eventual reunification of the country. Johnson’s compromise between them was to use ground troops and bombs to convince the Communists that they could not win, at which time the US could begin negotiations. The problem with this strategy was that the North Vietnamese were willing to continue fighting at all costs. To them, the conflict with the US was part of a decades-long series of Western invasions that prevented true unification of their country. The prolonged nature of the war reduced public support and led to divisive anti-war protests. Support reached its lowest point following the Tet Offensive in 1968. North Vietnamese forces made a series of risky attacks against US troops that inflicted high casualties on both sides. They hoped that this additional blow to morale would force them to withdraw. American opposition to the war, and President Johnson, spiked. Even trusted CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announced his disapproval of Vietnam on air. Johnson remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Despite the important steps taken by Johnson to help African Americans and the poor, his term was overshadowed by increased social unrest. The Vietnam War and resistance to Civil Rights divided the nation. Just a few years after his huge election victory, Johnson was deeply unpopular. On the Right, conservatives argued that Johnson represented an out-of-control liberal elite that was to blame for increased violence.
After their huge loss in 1964, Republicans hoped that the recent social unrest would provide a rebound. While most party leaders struggled to draw broad support, one name stood above the rest: Richard Nixon. Following his two terms as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon lost an incredibly close presidential contest to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Two years later, he also lost his bid for California governor. For a time, it seemed like his political career was dead. One news outlet even ran a “political obituary” for him. But in 1968, Nixon was back to give it one last shot. He used the primaries to dispel his “loser’s image” and to convince party leaders that he could unify the conservative and moderate factions. He fought off challenges from moderates like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt’s father), as well as conservatives like California Governor Ronald Reagan. Nixon maintained his lead and easily won the nomination at the convention. His running mate was little-known Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, who appealed to voters in border states. The party platform called for a gradual end to the Vietnam War by moving more responsibilities to the South Vietnamese. It also criticized the rise in crime and violence under Johnson and promised to restore “law and order.” In his acceptance speech, Nixon appealed to the “Silent Majority.” As he put it, they were “the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators” – in other words, middle class, white Americans who were tired of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.
The Democratic nomination did not go quite as smoothly. Johnson faced a tough primary challenge from Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate who attracted liberal doves and college students eager to volunteer for his campaign. McCarthy fared well against the incumbent president in the first primary state, New Hampshire. His support waned, however, when another anti-war candidate with youth support entered the race: Robert F. Kennedy. After serving as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, Robert became Senator of New York. He reignited the enthusiasm built by his brother, both from voters and the party establishment. It became clear to Johnson that his re-nomination was unlikely. On March 31st, he shocked the nation by declaring his withdrawal from the race during a televised speech. He also announced a reduction of bombing in Vietnam and an invitation to the North for peace talks in Paris. In his absence, the current administration was represented by Vice President Humbert Humphrey. Formerly seen as a leader of the liberal wing of the party, Humphrey was now associated with Johnson’s hawkish tactics. After a big win in California, it seemed like Robert Kennedy would cruise to the convention. Sadly, on the night of his win, Robert was assassinated outside of a hotel in Los Angeles by Palestinian nationalist Sirhan Sirhan. Suddenly, the nomination was wide open yet again.
The chaos continued at the party convention in Chicago. The delegation was divided into hawks and doves. Disagreements bordered on violent. Despite the intense debate, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot. He shared the ticket with Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. McCarthy supporters demanded that the party platform include a promise to withdraw troops and halt bombing in Vietnam. Instead, Humphrey supporters, following Johnson’s directives, rejected this proposal and committed only to end bombing given the assurance that it would not endanger US troops. When the hawks’ version passed, doves donned black armbands and sang the Civil Rights song “We Shall Overcome.”
Outside the convention, thousands of anti-war protesters, mainly young people, descended on Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley responded aggressively by sending the city’s entire police force and the Illinois National Guard to patrol the area around the amphitheater. He also had the actual Army on standby as reinforcements. The week saw numerous small clashes between police and protesters, but the biggest fight occurred on the night of Humphrey’s nomination. When demonstrators attempted to enter the convention, police responded with violence. They attacked the crowd, including reporters and bystanders, with clubs and tear gas. The following night, Daley filled the theater with supporters who chanted, “We love Mayor Daley!” Humphrey expressed his regret for the situation in his acceptance speech. At the same time, police were storming Eugene McCarthy’s headquarters and attacking campaign staffers. Polls showed that most Americans sympathized with the police. For many voters, the violence at the center of the Democratic Party’s most important event justified Nixon’s call for law and order.
In the South, segregationists were unhappy with the choice between Nixon and Humphrey. Their candidate was Alabama Governor George Wallace, under the American Independence Party. As governor, Wallace adamantly opposed school integration and refused to protect demonstrators during the Selma March. He threatened Nixon’s advantage with social conservatives, as well as Humphrey’s base of Northern, blue-collar workers, who were increasingly fed up with liberal intellectuals. Like Nixon, Wallace campaigned on law and order. The American Independents didn’t actually expect to win the election, but they hoped to win enough electors to influence the next administration.
Nixon started out with a huge lead in the polls. He benefitted from greater party unity, more money, and support from most newspapers. Nixon was confident of his victory and, unlike his 1960 attempt, played it cool. He focused his campaign on swing states, saved his energy for major appearances, and kept his positions vague on major issues. He even declined Humphrey’s challenge for a televised debate. Nixon’s campaign continued to emphasize law and order, a promise to resolve rising crime rates and violent demonstrations. While this appealed to a large portion of middle (white) America, it was also an important part of his “Southern Strategy.” “Law and order” was coded language for “no more Civil Rights movement.” Nixon was intentionally attracting racist voters who had been slowly leaving the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. Nixon’s campaign faced its biggest threats when covering for Spiro Agnew’s frequent gaffes.
Humphrey initially struggled in the campaign. He had poor staff organization, little money, and was far behind in the polls. He often faced hecklers due to his association with Johnson and the Vietnam War. His usual Midwest charm did nothing to calm protesters. Accusations that he was a murderer and warmonger even brought him to tears. Nixon exploited this intra-party division by playing up the connection between Humphrey and Johnson.
Humphrey’s situation improved in the fall. He started separating himself from Johnson by firmly opposing bombing in Vietnam. He slowly became the peace candidate, even earning the endorsement of Eugene McCarthy. Humphrey became more aggressive, attacking Wallace for appealing to racists and calling Nixon “Richard the Chickenhearted” for refusing to debate. He also received a series of important endorsements from liberal Democrats, political organizations, and unions. This finally brought more money, reduced hecklers, and a rise in the polls.
As Johnson made progress in the Paris peace talks, Nixon publicly stated that he had received reports that the recent surge in negotiations was a deliberate attempt to save Humphrey’s candidacy. Though Nixon claimed to not believe that accusation, the damage was done. In reality, Nixon was using his Washington connections to stall the peace talks. Regardless, Johnson suspended bombing on October 31st.
Geographically, Nixon dominated. He did well in the Midwest and West. Humphrey preformed best in the Northeast, but lost most of the South to Nixon and Wallace. Wallace won five states, plus one faithless elector from North Carolina. He remains the last third party candidate to win an entire state’s electoral votes.
Richard Nixon became America’s 37th president! While the electoral score of 301-191-46 showed a large win for Nixon, the popular vote was extremely close. Nixon only won by a little more than 500,000 votes, 43.4% to Humphrey’s 42.7%. Nixon is the only presidential winner since the turn of the Twentieth Century to have previously lost the general election.
Republicans also gained seats in Congress, but Democrats held control. Nixon was the first president in over 100 years to start his term with the opposition in control of both houses.
What Did It Say About America?
It’s time for a new party system, because the New Deal Coalition is over! For the next 40 years, Democrats would not win the South without running a Southern-born candidate. The Democrat Party was now the party of African Americans, intellectual elites, and trouble-making Leftists. The Republican Party represented rural America, social conservatives, and rich benefactors.
In other news, state primaries will quickly gain importance going forward. Rule changes by the Democratic Party, aimed at preventing another disastrous convention, would make participation in the primaries a necessity. Humphrey was the last nominee to not actively campaign during the primaries.
Was It The Right Decision?
No! As you might know from my Impeachment Extravaganza, Richard Nixon was a pretty sleazy guy. He also rehabilitated a deplorable constituency that, four years earlier, was thought to have died with Goldwater’s presidential hopes. America was right to be angry at the Johnson Administration, but not because of the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, Johnson’s mistakes in Vietnam were too much for Humphrey to bare. Ironically, he differed more with Johnson on the war than Nixon did. In any case, Nixon’s low popular vote percentage, and failure to capture Congress, was not exactly a mandate for his agenda. Liberals would still have a chance to influence his administration.