1968: The Nixon backlash and the “silent majority”

November 8, 2018

How could a right-wing Republican like Richard Nixon win the presidency at the end of the revolutionary year of 1968? Lance Selfa, editor of the essay collection U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, has some answers in the latest installment in SW’s series.

ELECTION DAY seemed like an anticlimax following the tumult that accompanied the 1968 presidential campaign. The boring choice was between two career politicians whose conservatism was totally out of step with the radical ferment of a revolutionary year.

The campaign had seen its two frontrunners — Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and Republican Michigan Gov. George Romney — forced out in the early stages, plus a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated.

In August, the Democrats, meeting in a convention hall in Chicago surrounded by a military cordon and defended by police rampages against antiwar protesters, picked Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey to be the party’s nominee.

Despite the fact that Democratic voters had clearly supported “peace Democrats,” including Kennedy and Sens. George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy, in the primaries, the party’s bosses chose a loyal supporter of Johnson’s Vietnam War policies to head the ticket.

Richard Nixon campaigns in Pennsylvania in July 1968
Richard Nixon campaigns in Pennsylvania in July 1968 (Ollie Atkins)

The “peace Democrats” — many of whom had supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy until 1967 and early 1968 — favored a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and the organization of elections in South Vietnam that would include the left-wing National Liberation Front (NLF).

Following their defeat at the August convention, the “peace Democrats” toyed with the idea of running McCarthy as an independent candidate in the November election. But these half-hearted attempts to organize a “new Democratic” party dissolved in October, and McCarthy endorsed Humphrey.

Meanwhile, the Republican nomination fell to Richard Nixon, an old-time political pro famous for his role as a zealous McCarthyite in the 1940s and 1950s. When last heard from — during his losing 1962 race for California governor — Nixon had declared that he would retire so the press “wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”

But for 1968, Nixon’s Madison Avenue campaign handlers rehabilitated him as a candidate who could, in the words of his convention acceptance speech, “bring us together.”

On Nixon’s right stood Alabama Democratic Gov. George Wallace, who organized the racist American Independent Party to mobilize a “white backlash” behind his opposition to the Black Power and antiwar movements.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

Strongest in the South, Wallace combined populist rhetoric against the “pointy-headed intellectuals” in Washington with racist appeals against integration and “crime in the streets.”

THE CRISIS for the ruling class that the Vietnam War had become dominated the political scene during the campaign.

Wallace’s running mate, retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, advocated bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” But LeMay’s extremist rhetoric was out of step with Wall Street and other mainstream ruling-class opinion, which sought some way to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam without admitting defeat.

The Johnson administration had already initiated such a process. Three months after the February 1968 Tet Offensive showed that the U.S. was nowhere near winning the war, as its leaders had claimed, the administration opened peace talks with representatives of the NLF.

The peace overtures were an attempt to buy time while the U.S. shifted the burden of fighting the war to South Vietnamese clients. Humphrey campaigned on this plan, claiming it would bring “peace with honor.”

Nixon, who supported essentially the same “Vietnamization” policy, downplayed criticism of the Democrats on the war. As long as the war continued, it would be a liability for Humphrey, and Nixon hope the electorate would turn to him to wind it down. Business supporters of Johnson in 1964 now pinned their hopes and campaign contributions on Nixon.

Nixon claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war, and his advisers, including Henry Kissinger, actually opened up back-channel negotiations with North Vietnam to try to assure themselves that there would be no resolution to the war before the election.

The election results were far from decisive. Voter turnout differed little from the 1964 Johnson landslide. Nixon won only 43.4 percent of the votes cast. His margin of victory over Humphrey was only 500,000 votes out of more than 72 million cast.

Black turnout in the first election following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 increased only by 7 percent from 1964, with 88 percent going to Humphrey. Southern whites delivered five states of the Deep South to Wallace, but only 15 to 18 percent of white union members supported him.

THUS, THE election had changed the occupant of the White House and the party in charge — but it had delivered no mandate on Vietnam or domestic political issues.

Nevertheless, soon after taking office, the new administration signaled its determination to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement and attack the New Left and the antiwar movement. The conciliatory “new Nixon” of the campaign gave way to the gloves-off, anti-Communist of old.

Nixon called on the conservative “silent majority” of Americans to rally against Blacks and leftists. Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked the press for its allegedly “liberal bias.” Agnew denounced liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union for defending dissenters.

Some of the more vile figures of the U.S. right, including many who are newly prominent under the Trump regime, got their start under Nixon: Patrick Buchanan, Roger Stone and Roger Ailes, to name but a few.

Early in 1969, Attorney General John Mitchell pledged, “This country is going so far right, you’re not even going to recognize it.”

Mitchell’s Justice Department and the FBI greatly stepped up the Johnson administration’s COINTELPRO program of murder, disruption and harassment against the New Left, the Black Panthers and the antiwar movement. In March, the government indicted protest leaders from the 1968 Democratic convention for conspiracy to incite a riot.

While the Wallace campaign had shown the potential for a right-wing backlash, the Nixon White House took no chances.

The White House staff reached into its bag of “dirty tricks” — the extent of which would become known during the 1972-74 Watergate scandal — to smear opponents. In one notorious example, Nixon operatives organized a “spontaneous” attack by construction workers, or “hard hats,” on antiwar protesters in Manhattan in May 1970.

DESPITE THE repression, the ranks of the far left swelled, its politics swinging sharply to the left.

Students for a Democratic Society, many of whose members had worked for Johnson’s election in 1964, grew to an unprecedented 100,000 members by 1969.

When existing political fissures developed into an irreparable split in December 1969, the new organization spawned both a “new Communist movement” of revolutionary organizations, and the Weathermen, who were committed to waging underground guerrilla warfare.

In a 1968 Fortune magazine poll, 368,000 students had identified themselves as revolutionaries. Two years later, 1 million students called themselves revolutionaries. Other surveys showed that one-quarter of the Black population identified with the Black Panthers’ revolutionary goals.

The six-month student strike at San Francisco State College, which began two days after Nixon’s election, showed the degree to which the radicalization had spread. A student strike for Third World studies programs shut down the overwhelmingly working-class school for months.

The influence of student radicals spread throughout the city as Black, Latino and Asian working-class communities rallied to their support. Only massive police force, ordered by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, helped end the strike in April 1969.

At the same time that antiwar sentiment grew, working-class militancy reached a high point not seen since 1946. Strike levels hit their highest point in two decades, with rank-and-file and wildcat movements exploding onto the scene.

In February 1969, 15,000 West Virginia miners struck to force the state to award disability benefits for black lung disease. Several thousand miners marched on Charleston, occupying the state Capitol building until the black lung bill was passed.

In the two years following 1968, the militant League of Revolutionary Black Workers spread from the auto plants of Detroit to factories around the country. And Nixon was forced to mobilize the National Guard to crush the illegal postal workers’ strike of March 1970.

Inspired by the Black movement, other oppressed groups mobilized to demand their rights. The June 1969 Stonewall Rebellion inaugurated the modern-day LGBT movement.

The women’s liberation struggle mushroomed following 1968, culminating in the August 1970 “women strike,” in which women across the U.S. took to the streets to demand equal pay, community control child care and free abortion on demand.

Nixon was able to add new conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. And yet the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationally was decided right around the time Nixon was inaugurated for a second term, having won a landslide re-election victory.

DESPITE THIS upsurge, the Vietnam War held the attention of most radicals. Millions across the country took part in the October 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, when Washington, D.C., saw its largest demonstration of the decade. Though Nixon announced his “Vietnamization” program in 1969, he had actively expanded U.S. involvement.

Secretly, Nixon had moved U.S. forces into Cambodia. His April 1970 announcement of the U.S. bombing of Cambodia touched off the largest and most militant antiwar protests yet seen.

Hundreds of campuses erupted in response to Nixon’s move. In the following week, the National Guard killed four students at Ohio’s Kent State University, and racist police killed two students at all-Black Jackson State University in Mississippi.

The campus demonstrations turned into a student general strike. Four million students and 1 million others walked out for a week or more to protest Cambodia and the campus killings that spring. Nine hundred campuses closed down. More than 35,000 National Guardsmen were mobilized and 21 campuses were occupied. Later, Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger said the crisis left Nixon “on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”

As Nixon continued to prosecute the war, the antiwar movement grew bolder still. In May 1971, more than 1,200 arrests were needed to prevent antiwar militants from occupying government buildings in Washington.

So Mitchell’s prediction that the Nixon administration would turn the U.S. to the right was proven only partially correct.

Nixon won an overwhelming victory in 1972, which seemed to indicate the support of the “silent majority” for his right-wing policies.

But at the same time, radical protests and working-class militancy flourished. Antiwar opposition was at a fever pitch in the military itself, where a rash of mutinies and “fraggings” (the killings of officers by rank-and-file soldiers) were destroying the Army’s discipline in Vietnam.

Although never acknowledging that the radical movement affected his policies, Nixon accelerated withdrawal from Vietnam and ended the massive draft calls following the Cambodia crisis. Nixon had not crushed the radical wave, which would die down only following the 1974-75 recession.

By that time, the ruling class had ditched Nixon and his cronies. His attacks on dissent had gone one step too far when he ordered a “third-rate burglary” at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex.

Further Reading

From the archives