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Vietnam War Era: 1955–1975

U.S. Presidential Election of 1968

Conditions Surrounding the 1968 Election

The 1968 primaries, party conventions, and final candidates' campaigns were very different for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
In January 1968 the communist forces in Vietnam began the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack on 13 South Vietnamese cities. Although they were eventually pushed back, to many Americans it was further proof of the deep commitment the Vietnamese Communists had to "liberate" all of Vietnam from foreigners. Support for the war was waning. With President Johnson announcing on March 31 he would not run for reelection, Vietnam became an issue in the 1968 Democratic primaries.

Candidates in the 1968 Presidential Primaries

Democratic Party Primary Candidates Republican Party Primary Candidates American Independent Party
Hubert Humphrey, vice president, and former Democratic senator from Minnesota Richard M. Nixon, former vice president under Eisenhower and 1960 presidential candidate George Wallace, former Alabama Democratic governor who formed a "law-and-order" party
Robert F. Kennedy, New York Democratic senator, and former attorney general Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York  
Eugene McCarthy, Minnesota Democratic senator and advocate for ending the war    

On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King had been opposed to the Vietnam War, claiming: "We have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam." He believed the war placed the burden of fighting on America's working class and minorities and urged the United States to end the bombing of Vietnam and announce a cease-fire. Upon his death, African Americans turned their grief into anger and rioted in over 100 American cities. On June 5, after running a successful California primary, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The nation was in shock over the two killings, but the primaries continued.

Primaries and Outcome

Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by convincing the American people a new administration could put an end to the Vietnam War.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey did not enter the Democratic primaries. However, he managed to gain the support of enough of the delegates from those states not holding primaries to exert influence at the convention. Eugene McCarthy won primaries centered on the idea of putting an end to the war. Republican candidate Richard Nixon pointed out a new administration could end the war. Support for segregationist and prowar candidate George Wallace grew, as many turned to his law-and-order party.

The Republican convention was held in Miami Beach on August 5–8, 1968. The main issue was whether any candidate could stop Nixon. No one could, and he won the nomination. A year later Nixon would call on the silent majority, Americans who supported his Vietnam policy and helped elect him president but who weren't politically outspoken, for their continued support in Vietnam. Nixon believed the silent majority was largely overshadowed by antiwar protestors who were a "noisy minority." The Democratic convention, held in Chicago on August 26–29, was chaotic, as antiwar groups held many protests. The hotly debated platform issue of Vietnam War policy led to an extended floor fight—a combative argument among delegates, often intended to force a vote on an issue or candidate. In the end, Hubert Humphrey won the party's nomination along with an uncompromising platform on Vietnam.

In his campaign, Nixon spoke of reaching an honorable peace in Vietnam and "law and order" at home. Humphrey's campaign dealt with constant hecklers about his Vietnam policy. He advocated establishing "order and justice" at home. George Wallace's campaign kept to one issue—law and order. By October the polls showed Nixon in the lead. On October 31, however, Johnson announced an agreement with North Vietnam to begin peace talks and the suspension of the bombings on the North. Nixon won the election.

November 5, 1968, Presidential Election Results

Presidential Candidate Political Party Popular Vote Electoral Vote
Richard M. Nixon Republican 31,785,480 301
Hubert H. Humphrey Democratic 31,275,166 191
George Wallace American Independent 9,906,473 45