Remembering 1968: LBJ Surprises Nation With Announcement He Won't Seek Re-Election That night, history arrived without much of a warning. Johnson's speech delivered such a shock that some who first heard the news the following day thought it had to be an April Fools' joke.
NPR logo

Remembering 1968: LBJ Surprises Nation With Announcement He Won't Seek Re-Election

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/596805375/596805376" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering 1968: LBJ Surprises Nation With Announcement He Won't Seek Re-Election

Remembering 1968: LBJ Surprises Nation With Announcement He Won't Seek Re-Election

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/596805375/596805376" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation when he announced he would not seek a second term as president. It was a decision that would change the course of the Vietnam War, and it was a moment in a string of events in 1968 that continue to shape our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1ST MICHIGAN COLONIAL FIFE AND DRUM CORPS' "WASHINGTON'S ARTILLERY MARCH MEDLEY")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When we want a history lesson, we turn to NPR's senior political editor, Ron Elving, our own professor Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It was a Sunday evening in early spring when the president interrupted regular network programming to make a speech to the nation. The speech he was to give was about the war in Vietnam, a national preoccupation in March of 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson told the nation he would pause the intense U.S. bombing in Vietnam to encourage peace talks. But what would be remembered most of the 40-minute televised address was another kind of bombshell that came at the very end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: 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 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.

ELVING: Tens of millions of viewers suddenly came to full attention. What did he just say? What could that mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

ELVING: With that, the man who won a landslide of epic proportions in 1964 was stepping away from the office and the destiny he had spent his life pursuing. But what the country could not have known at the time was that LBJ had been agonizing over this decision for more than six months. A series of health problems had plagued him in 1967 - repeated surgeries, a serious respiratory infection, heart issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: NBC News presents "Viet Cong Terror."

ELVING: Then came the Tet Offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two hundred thirty-two GI's killed and...

ELVING: North Vietnamese and communist guerrillas attacked key targets in South Vietnam, including even the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Military police got back into the compound of the 2-and-a-half-million-dollar embassy complex at dawn. Before that, a platoon of Viet Cong were in control...

ELVING: LBJ's approval rating fell to the mid-30s, his handling of the war to the mid-20s. In that moment, New Hampshire held its presidential preference primary.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: By any political measure, President Johnson has suffered a major psychological setback in New Hampshire.

ELVING: Upstart Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy, a little known senator from Minnesota, came embarrassingly close to beating the president on an anti-war platform.

EUGENE MCCARTHY: Well, I think I can get the nomination. I'm ahead now.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Days later, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy jumped into the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man...

ELVING: He was the younger brother of the president whose assassination had first elevated Johnson to the Oval Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course...

ELVING: The time to give that withdrawal speech had finally come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Let man everywhere know, however...

ELVING: Hardly anyone had been forewarned. LBJ left his options open up to the final moments, telling some that he had made his final decision only after beginning the speech. The president had told a handful of aides, a speechwriter, a typist. He had told his daughters and his wife, Lady Bird. But she had heard him muse about quitting for years. As Johnson delivered the live version, White House aides were calling members of his cabinet to make sure they were watching and knew what was coming. Media reaction to Johnson's self-sacrifice was overwhelmingly positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Well, now I think we will probably see - we should probably see a great turn around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Lyndon Johnson is a man who was far more interested in uniting the American people...

ELVING: His polling went from 57 percent disapproval to 57 percent approval virtually overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: This is a man who is doing what he believes to be best for the unity of all the country in a very difficult period. And for this, I think he deserves the thanks of all of us.

ELVING: But that was April, and the tragedies that defined the year 1968 were only beginning. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.