Seeing the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency through the March 31, 1968, Withdrawal Speech

By Jamieson, Patrick E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency through the March 31, 1968, Withdrawal Speech


Jamieson, Patrick E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Speaking from the Oval Office in a nationally televised address on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned the nation with his announcement that he no longer was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Because the speech attempted to secure Johnson's place in history by severing Robert Kennedy from the legacy of his brother's presidency and positioning Johnson as John F. Kennedy's legitimate heir, empower Hubert Humphrey only if he would embrace Johnson's policies, and redefine the lines of argument defending Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam, it provides a filter through which to view the rhetoric of the final year of the Johnson presidency. Johnson's rhetoric reveals a person both deeply ambivalent about relinquishing the presidency and calculatedly partisan. Instead of healing the divisions of the country, Johnson exacerbated divisions within his own party and undercut the electoral chances of his presumed heir apparent.

The rhetoric of Johnson's final year in office can be viewed in three phases: Johnson the consensus-building unifier, Johnson the candidate and defensive war hawk, and Johnson the president and party broker.

Johnson the Consensus-Building Unifier

Begun with the proposed San Antonio formula, the consensus phase of Johnson's rhetoric continued until after the Tet Offensive. Articulated in September 1967, the San Antonio formula specified that the United States would halt its bombing if productive talks were scheduled and the other side was not jeopardizing the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers.

During this stage, Johnson tried to please multiple constituencies, including protesters of the war in Vietnam, with his announcement of a proposed bombing halt. The Great Society and the war in Vietnam both were being pursued successfully, argued Johnson. The country could have both butter in the form of the Great Society and guns in the form of the war in Vietnam.

The war was the main topic of Johnson's 1968 State of the Union address. In it, he said,

   Since I reported to you last January, three elections have been held in
   Vietnam in the midst of war and under the constant threat of violence. A
   president, a vice president, a house and senate, and village officials have
   been chosen by popular, contested ballot. The enemy has been defeated in
   battle after battle. The number of South Vietnamese living in areas under
   government protection tonight has grown by more than a million since
   January of last year.(1)

The speech hinted that Johnson felt somewhat under siege. "I was thinking as I was walking down the aisle tonight of what Sam Rayburn told me many years ago: `The Congress always extends a very warm welcome to the president--as he comes in.'" He spoke confidently of the will of the American people "to meet the trials that these times impose." And he proclaimed that "America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail."

The Tet Offensive called into question the accuracy of the assessment Johnson offered the American people in his State of the Union address two weeks earlier. On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked five of the six largest cities in South Vietnam and entered the grounds of the U.S. embassy. From January 31 until February 24, the Communist forces held the sacred city of Hue.

In a February 3 briefing from Saigon by General John Chaisson about Tet, the word "surprising" recurred:

   It was surprisingly intensive, and I think in conducting it, he [the enemy]
   showed a surprising amount of audacity because he has put an awful lot of
   his goods up on the table in this battle.... I don't believe our
   intelligence at least never [sic] unfolded to me any panorama of attacks
   such as happened this week.(2)

Robert Komer, senior staff member of the National Security Council, recalled, "We genuinely believed we were winning. …

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Seeing the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency through the March 31, 1968, Withdrawal Speech
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