40 Years Ago, LBJ Opts Not to Run, Stunning Nation On the night of March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced at the end of a speech that he would not seek another term in office. The president hoped his move would spur a peace process in Vietnam.

40 Years Ago, LBJ Opts Not to Run, Stunning Nation

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Forty years ago tonight, President Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation.

In a broadcast speech, he announced a halt to the bombing of most of North Vietnam. And then, as the speech concluded, he said that he would not seek a second term as president.

Independent producer John McDonough remembers that night.

JOHN McDONOUGH: On this weekend in 1968, Lyndon Johnson's poll numbers had never been lower. Gallup put his overall job approval at 36 percent. His performance in Vietnam was 10 points below that.

On college campuses, this was the music of the moment.

(Soundbite of song "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag (Next Stop Vietnam)")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) and it's one, a two, a three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me. I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.

McDONOUGH: Johnson's problems in Vietnam and his poll numbers may offer vague parallels with the present, but with at least one major difference. Whatever President Bush's poll numbers may affect, they will be not be his political future. When the Constitution promotes him to the rank of former president in 10 months, his principle constituency will be historians.

But in March 1968, President Johnson had a choice. And if his Churchillian resolve in Vietnam was any measure of his political resolve at home, no one doubted what that choice would be.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: This is a decisive time in Vietnam.

McDONOUGH: Just six weeks before, Johnson had spoken to Marines in California.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Pres. JOHNSON: The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself are on that little brave band of defenders.

McDONOUGH: But in the last week in March, Lyndon Johnson's eyes were on a major Vietnam speech he had scheduled for Sunday night, the 31st.

That afternoon, it was still a work in progress as he rehearsed it with the teleprompter.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Pres. JOHNSON: Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft - I - back up there - back up in. I wouldn't say we're going to, back up. We are reducing. I'm not going to and one thing you say you've ordered it, the next day, you go unorder it. You get that, Jim?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Pres. JOHNSON: Mark it on you…

McDONOUGH: It had already been through a dozen drafts. Each one moved Johnson farther from a military solution in Vietnam, and closer to a political one.

By Sunday afternoon, it had become a speech that largely reversed his entire war policy.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Pres. JOHNSON: Tonight, I have ordered an aircraft and naval vessel - wait a minute, tonight - back up - I have ordered our aircraft and naval vessels to make no attacks on the land and population in our decisions. If Hanoi is restrained, we will reciprocate - or something like that.

This is a State Department language that makes sense when I was talking to you about this…

McDONOUGH: There was something else that didn't make sense. In an election year, Johnson knew he could not be taken seriously as a peacemaker and still fight a nomination battle against two Democratic peace candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

To change policy, he must abandon the presidency. That night, 40 years ago, he spoke to the country for about 35 minutes, then departed from the teleprompter with this:

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Pres. JOHNSON: I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes.

McDONOUGH: Reporters looked up from their advanced texts. Nobody saw it coming.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

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

McDONOUGH: A moment later, he was done. Network anchors were still looking at each other in disbelief when suddenly, they were on camera.

At CBS, Roger Mudd and Dan Rather seemed almost paralyzed with surprise.

Mr. ROGER MUDD (Anchor, CBS News): He is out of it altogether? This leaves the Democratic nomination up to Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. The president is no longer a factor. It's - what I'd rather do, Dan, is go home and come back tomorrow morning and begin to talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAN RATHER (Anchor, CBS News): Well, I think we all would rather it. It is a stunning moment. And for those of you in the audience who may be saying, well, those two fellows are having a hard time coming up with something to say, that's the truth of the matter because it did come as a distinct surprise. But Roger, I would take issue with a couple of things that you said, just…

McDONOUGH: The next day, the sound of surprise ended, and the country collected its thoughts. Among the soberest of those thoughts came from CBS commentator Eric Sevareid. He said that Johnson had reclaimed his moral leadership in the act of renouncing it. He then offered what sounded like an early verdict of history.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. ERIC SEVAREID (Commentator, CBS): What has happened amounts to acknowledgement at long last that this war is stalemated, that no military victory is possible, say, by a barbaric scorched-earth strategy north and south, or by total occupation of the south with a million or more American troops and continuing for years to come.

Lyndon Johnson was not a close student of Asia when he came to office. His chief advisers bravely underestimated the problem from the beginning. Asia was his undoing; the endless swamps of Asia trapped and held him.

McDONOUGH: Forty years later, few would argue with Sevareid's words.

The lesson is: History does not always keep us waiting unnecessarily long for its answers.

For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

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