By: Lyndon B. Johnson
Date: March 31, 1968
Source: Johnson. Lyndon B. "President Lyndon B. Johnson's Address to the Nation Announcing Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam and Reporting His Decision Not to Seek Reelection." March 31, 1968. In Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.
About the Author: Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) was born near Stonewall, Texas. In 1930, he earned a degree from South West Texas State Teachers College. After teaching English in Houston, he worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C. In 1937, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1955, his Senate colleagues elected him majority leader, the most powerful member of the Senate. In 1960, he was elected vice president of the United States, and later served as president.
In the 1964 election, Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona. A hawkish anti-communist, Goldwater once joked about tossing a nuclear bomb into the Kremlin's bathroom. During the campaign, Johnson, running as the peace candidate, said, "We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
Johnson won the election by the largest margin of popular votes in American history, forty-three million to twenty-seven million. The landslide victory afforded Johnson (served 1963–1969) the opportunity to pass much of his liberal domestic agenda. However, after 1966 financial funding for his Great Society programs was consumed by the Vietnam War (1964–1975). Although Johnson regretted prematurely ending what would be his domestic policy legacy, he feared losing South Vietnam to the communists and forever being tarred a coward or an appeaser.
In mid-1965, Johnson was an extremely popular figure. Within two years, however, his public approval ratings plummeted from 70 percent to 40 percent. Johnson's slide in popularity mirrored the United States' increasing involvement in Vietnam. From November 1965 to March 1968, the number of American troops in Vietnam increased from 175,000 to over 500,000.
Opposition to the war affected the 1968 presidential campaign when Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Wisconsin, made an extraordinary decision to challenge the incumbent wartime president. Running as the antiwar alternative, McCarthy drew considerable support in February 1968 following the Vietcong's (VC) Tet offensive against South Vietnam. VC forces attacked thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals and five of the six major cities, including Saigon. The offensive, though a military blunder, contradicted U.S. government statements that it was winning the war and bolstered the antiwar movement.
After the Tet offensive, support for the manner in which Johnson was managing the war fell from 56 percent to 28 percent. In March 1968, Johnson won the first Democratic primary election in New Hampshire. McCarthy, however, received an unprecedented 42 percent of the vote. Recognizing that the president was vulnerable, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, who had earlier decided not to run, announced his own candidacy.
The beginning and end of Johnson's presidency were shrouded in grave adversity. He was suddenly elevated to the presidency by the assassination of his predecessor and later chose not to run for reelection because of the United States' escalating involvement in the Vietnam War.
After taking office, Johnson advanced John F. Kennedy's (served 1961–1963) idealism through his Great Society programs and civil rights legislation. However, his management of the war helped usher in an era of increased public suspicion toward the federal government. In the fall of 1968, the Democrat Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard M. Nixon, who claimed to have a "secret plan" to end the bloodshed. The war, however, dragged on for several more years. On January 22, 1973, Johnson died, one day before the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were concluded.
Primary Source: "President Lyndon B. Johnson's Address to the Nation Announcing Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam and Reporting His Decision Not to Seek Reelection" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: On March 31, 1968, Johnson became a casualty of the Vietnam War. Before a surprised nationwide audience, he announced that he would not seek reelection. He vowed to devote the remainder of his term to a quest for peace. On May 10, 1968, preliminary peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam began in Paris.
Finally, my fellow Americans, let me say this:
Of those to whom much is given, much is asked. I cannot say and no man could say that no more will be asked of us.
Yet, I believe that now, no less than when the decade began, this generation of Americans is willing to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Since those words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, the people of America have kept that compact with mankind's noblest cause.
And we shall continue to keep it.
Yet, I believe that we must always be mindful of this one thing, whatever the trials and the tests ahead. The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.
This I believe very deeply.
Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.
For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.
And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.
So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.
Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God's, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.
United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.
Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.
Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.
What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.
Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
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.
But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace—and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause—whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.
Thank you for listening.
Good night and God bless all of you.
Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1969.
Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
Dallek, Robert. "Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: The Making of a Tragedy." Diplomatic History 20, 1996, 147–163.
Nelson, Justin A. "Drafting Lyndon Johnson: The President's Secret Role in the 1968 Democratic Convention." Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, 2000, 688–713.
"Lyndon Baines Johnson." Presidents of the United States (PO TUS), Internet Public Library. Available online at http://www.ipl.org/ref/potus/lbjohnson.html; website home page: http://www.ipl.org/ref/potus/ (accessed April 2, 2003).
"Lydon B. Johnson: The War on Poverty President." The American President. Available online at http://www.americanpresident.org/kotrain/courses/lbj/lbj_in... ; website home page: http://www.americanpresident.org (accessed April 2, 2003).