American Maelstrom

AP Photo

New Yorkers, later joined by New Hampshire, demonstrate during anti-war plank at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 28, 1968. 

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” For those of us who were in our early 20s in 1968, Wordsworth’s famous lines rang true then and continue to ring true even now, in spite of all the disappointments that followed. The mythical age known as “The Sixties” culminated in many ways in 1968, the year that forms the focal point of Michael Cohen’s vivid and compelling new book, American Maelstrom.

The famous (or, depending on your point of view, infamous) trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” is a convenient if wholly inadequate metonymy for the surge of youthful energy that seemed at the time to be remaking American culture. Politics was only one part of that culture, whose importance varied, then as now, from individual to individual. But even those who were in one way or another politically engaged in the ‘60s inevitably saw only part of the picture—and the electoral politics minutely recounted in American Maelstrom was not where the action was at for most people in their 20s. So even for one who “was there,” there is much that is new in these pages—the “adult” Sixties, as it were.

The times were tempestuous and violent on the surface—a “maelstrom,” as Cohen’s title has it—yet the really important changes were slow and subterranean and therefore difficult to appreciate as they were taking place. American Maelstrom appears in a series entitled “Pivotal Moments in American History,” and 1968 fully deserves that appellation. Although Cohen largely ignores the countercultural pageantry of the day, he masterfully links the historical antecedents of that momentous election year to the immense and durable political transformation that followed.

Speaking of the French Revolution, Robert Darnton remarked that the events of 1789 struck people dumb with awe because of the sheer acceleration of time: So many unprecedented developments crowded themselves into such a brief period.

This was also the case in 1968, especially in the extraordinary month of March, which saw not only Gene McCarthy’s near-victory in the New Hampshire primary and the announcement of Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy but also a highly charged meeting at the White House at which the Wise Men—a panel of distinguished Cold War hands—announced to the president that the war as it was then being waged could not be won. The shock of January’s Tet offensive in Vietnam had put paid to all claims of inexorable progress. And then, on the final day of that remarkable month, came Lyndon Johnson’s stunning announcement that he would not be a candidate to succeed himself in the upcoming election.

I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. LBJ’s declaration came at the end of a long speech offering various conciliatory gestures to the North Vietnamese, whom he hoped to entice to the negotiating table. I had been lounging with friends on a battered brown couch in a dingy apartment in a rundown part of Cambridge, Massachusetts, listening with one ear as the president maundered on in his irritatingly lugubrious Texas drawl—such was our impatience with the Johnson presidency that we couldn’t stand anything about the man, not even his voice.

Wisecracks flew between LBJ’s words, which emerged from his mouth so slowly as to invite running commentary. “Question authority!” (one of the watchwords of the day) would hardly have done justice to the tenor of our barbs, authority by then having discredited itself to the point where it could no longer be questioned but only mocked. I recall comparing Johnson’s long, sad, creviced face with its beetling brows and drooping cheeks to the face of the beagle he had notoriously lifted by its ears. But then, after the bathetic, ritual homage to “America’s sons in the fields far away” (and at the time I had no inkling that I would soon be joining them), came the stunning words: “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

It was an electrifying moment. Coca-Cola sprayed from my mouth in astonishment, spattering the wire spool from Simplex Cable that served as our makeshift coffee table. Here, surely, was the consummation for which we had so devoutly wished. With his abdication—for it seemed like nothing less than an abdication—Johnson was admitting (or so we thought) that the war in Vietnam had been a mistake. Soon it would be over. The years of mounting protests, coupled with the shock of Tet and the ensuing loss of elite confidence, had done their work. McCarthy’s courageous decision to challenge a sitting president from within his own party had borne its fruit, not least because the voters of New Hampshire, where my friends and I had canvassed for the Democratic insurgent earlier that month, had brought him within seven points of the president’s 49 percent!

In retrospect, of course, we should have seen what a remarkable thing it was that a president waging an unpopular war nevertheless still commanded the allegiance of half the party electorate. We should have realized that Johnson’s apparent self-sacrifice was merely an inveterate deal-maker’s upping of the ante, offering himself as the ultimate bargaining chip in the climactic horse-trade he hoped would cap the work of his presidency. For the success of that work—the fulfillment of the New Deal in the Great Society, the advances in civil rights, the sacrifices that Johnson had already made to liberate liberalism from its dependence on the Jim Crow South—we were too alienated to show proper respect. Youth is impatient and therefore unjust.

Yet it is difficult, even in retrospect, to say that our misjudgment of Johnson’s achievement was truly an injustice, so monumental was his blunder in committing the United States to a disastrous war primarily because he feared the domestic political consequences of cutting his losses. Johnson pushed the postwar foreign policy consensus on the containment of Soviet expansion well beyond all reasonable limits solely because he was convinced that his vision for a Great Society would otherwise have been doomed. Remembering the debate over “who lost China,” he believed that the Republicans would exact a heavy political price if he “lost Vietnam.” Yet he simultaneously recognized the folly of his own fears. In characteristically pungent language, the president said that “if I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with the bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home.” Such was the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: his lucidity was exceeded only by his ambition.

But in fact everything at home was already lost, even if few at the time recognized the tenacity of the conservative resistance. The forces of reaction, which LBJ thought he had definitively crushed in his 1964 drubbing of Barry Goldwater, proved to be remarkably resilient. The Kerner Commission, whose report was delivered to the president in February of 1968, had discovered in America “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Johnson’s efforts to make this divided society whole again had spurred a vehement and at times violent riposte: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, just four days after Johnson withdrew from the race. Yet many whites continued to resent what they saw as a federal government overly attentive to the needs of blacks, at their expense.

The backlash was not confined to the South. Foreshadowing this year’s Trump insurgency, Alabama governor George Wallace became the spokesman for smoldering white rage: “The South is no longer geography,” he said. “It’s an attitude and a philosophy toward government.” A Wallace rally in Madison Square Garden drew 15,000 people, who together produced what “may have been the loudest sustained din ever heard in New York.” Wallace—“the ablest demagogue” of the day, as one observer called him—appealed to people who thought of themselves as “authentic Americans,” whose righteous antipathies were being arrogantly ignored, they believed, by an elite able to sustain itself in power by pandering to an “un-American” minority. And like Trump, the ablest demagogue of our day, the blunt-spoken Alabaman stirred fears of latent American fascism: “Never again will you read about Berlin in the ‘30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces,” one commentator wrote of Wallace’s New York rally. Though only dimly remembered today, Wallace took nearly 15 percent of the vote in the general election, carried five states in the Deep South, and won 46 electoral votes.

With such an overtly racist demagogue to his right, Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, was able to pass as a centrist despite running a campaign that appealed in a more covert manner to the same fears and resentments that fueled the Wallace rebellion. Nixon’s “southern strategy,” as it would later be dubbed, was all the more successful in passing for centrist because the more moderate wing of the Republican Party collapsed in 1968. Its two standard-bearers, Michigan Governor George Romney and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were both outmaneuvered by Nixon. Or, rather, both did themselves in, while Nixon looked on and rubbed his hands with glee. Watching Romney run for president, one commentator observed, “is like watching a duck try to make love to a football.” Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage dispelled what little appeal his big-government activism held for the increasingly conservative Republican base.

Thus the stage was set for the next half century of American politics. The Republican Party had shifted sharply to the right. The Democratic Party had alienated part of the white working class and the unions that were once its mainstay, as liberal support for struggling minorities fueled a white backlash and the peace movement scared off staunchly anti-Communist union bosses.

Yet for all its dramatic and durable consequences, the election of 1968 was surprisingly close. Only 500,000 votes separated Nixon (with 43.4 percent of the vote) from Humphrey (with 42.7 percent). A shift of a few tens of thousands of votes in a handful of states would have prevented Nixon from winning a majority in the Electoral College, and Humphrey would likely have been elected by the Democratic House over Republican howls.

“Close” was not how it felt to us 20-year-olds, however. Neither nominee represented our hopes, which the election would have crushed no matter how it turned out. Those of us who had looked to McCarthy in the spring had sought not just an alternative candidate but a moral regeneration. The political skills of the man nicknamed “Clean Gene” had always been in doubt. His prickly personality made him an unlikely chief executive: “Gene just isn’t a nice person,” Bobby Kennedy once said of him. But he had had the courage to stand up and say no to the absurdity of Vietnam. In that respect he was irreplaceable—as Bernie Sanders’s young supporters think he is irreplaceable today. What we wanted was not to win an election but to repair the damage to the national soul. Some of us are still waiting for that regeneration, while others have concluded that it is not the business of politics to attend to the nation’s soul—but that is a discussion for another time and place.

Still others, more pragmatically minded, had seen Bobby Kennedy himself as the more likely giant-slayer: He could muster moral fervor when it suited him, but he could also, notoriously, play political hardball, for which McCarthy was temperamentally unsuited. But an assassin’s bullet ended Kennedy’s life in June. His death, along with the unspeakable police violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, cast a pall over the remainder of the campaign.

So it was with no joy that the same group of students who had gathered to watch what turned out to be Johnson’s abdication in March gathered again in November on the same battered brown couch in the same dingy apartment to watch the results. The winner, as it turned out, would not be decided until the next morning, but I already knew that my candidate would not be the next president of the United States, since I had cast the first presidential ballot of my life for the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, Eldridge Cleaver (whose name does not appear in American Maelstrom).

I recall that vote with some shame now, not only because Hubert Humphrey’s on the whole honorable political career deserved at least the courtesy of an unenthusiastic vote but also because I was reminded by American Maelstrom how clairvoyantly “the joyful warrior” had foreseen the political disaster that Johnson’s decision to escalate in Vietnam portended for the Democratic Party. He had warned Johnson in a lengthy memorandum not to take the course he took. Yet he remained to the end the president’s faithful lieutenant, believing this to be his duty. Such was the tragedy of Hubert Humphrey: his lucidity was exceeded only by his misplaced loyalty.

In November 1968, however, I was an angry young man: angry that my party had nominated a candidate who refused to put daylight between himself and his misguided president, angry that racism and reaction seemed rampant in a country largely unrepentant for the ravages it was inflicting on helpless Vietnam, and angry that my desk drawer held a letter bearing “Greetings from the United States of America,” which in its wisdom had tapped me to fight that “land war in Asia” to which Johnson, in crushing Goldwater four years earlier, had pledged he would never send “American boys.” Hence I cast a protest vote for a candidate I knew had no chance of winning—a perfectly futile gesture. The election took place on November 5. One week to the day later, on November 12, I was conscripted as a private in the U.S. Army, on my way to becoming an interpreter of Vietnamese and a depressing but eye-opening year in the Mekong Delta, bearing witness to the folly of deploying immense power without commensurate purpose.

The election of 1968 was thus a turning point not only in American political history but also in my personal history. Readers interested in my more private, intimate thoughts on the tumultuous era recounted in Michael Cohen’s American Maelstrom can turn to my novel Shooting War, in which I remember wie es eigentlich gewesen.

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