Few years in American history inspire as many of what historians call “counter-factual propositions” as the year 1968. For instance, what would have happened if President Lyndon Johnson had not dropped out of the Democratic presidential race and decided to run for a second full term? His most threatening challenger, New York Sen. Bobby Kennedy most likely would never have directly challenged a sitting Democratic president, and most likely would have lived to run for president in 1972, leaving anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy alone in a quixotic quest to challenge the Johnson juggernaut.
Clearly, because of the president’s continued control over about 66 percent of the delegates who would have attended the Democratic convention, Johnson would have easily won re-nomination. After that, the speculation gets murkier, but given the mood of the time, it is hard to imagine Johnson triumphing in November.
What if Johnson had dropped out, and Kennedy had entered the primaries, but had not been murdered in California? Back in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, historian Arthur Schlesinger, a close friend of Kennedy's, speculated that Bobby would have catapulted from his victory in the California primary to the Democratic nomination. He then would have beaten Richard Nixon in the November presidential election. Winning the White House, Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War much sooner, cutting in half the number of names now on that tragic Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
President Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger speculated, would have continued the reform tradition of the New Deal and New Frontier, might have achieved racial reconciliation between whites and blacks and, by defeating Nixon, would have prevented the national malaise ushered in by Watergate and the later failed presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. That’s a huge, messianic burden for a one-term U.S. attorney general and four-year senator from New York to bear, a similar one that has been thrust upon the shoulders of Bobby’s similarly-martyred brother John F. Kennedy. The idolization of both Kennedys represent prime exhibits of what historians refer to, usually with derision, as the “Great Man” theory of history — the notion that the times are shaped not by larger forces like industrialization or racism, but by bold individuals of unique vision who rise above the moment and bend the world to their will.
There’s reason to think that the world would have changed less dramatically had Bobby Kennedy lived. If he had reached the White House and fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from Vietnam, South Vietnam likely still would have fallen to the communists. Republicans and conservative Democrats would have pilloried him as the man who “lost Southeast Asia,” much as Harry Truman had been condemned as the man who supposedly lost China in 1949. There likely would have been a post-war recession, as happened under Nixon, when defense spending inevitably declined. White Americans still would have been frightened by the rise of assertive black nationalist groups like the Black Panthers, and liberal judges probably still would have ordered school busing in places like Boston, sparking a white backlash that has defined American politics for nearly four decades.
Alone, Bobby could not have healed the Arab-Israeli divide, which might still have sparked the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the resulting Arab oil embargo, an event that exposed the United States as economically vulnerable. In any case, the deindustrialization of the Northeast and the growing support for free trade in both parties that started in the 1960s would have eroded the strength of the union vote so essential to the Kennedy family’s national political ambitions. Bobby Kennedy would have been a more progressive president than Nixon, and may have been less divisive, but he likely would have had as mixed a record as president as his older brother.
What if civil rights leader Martin Luther King had survived 1968? Although he was overwhelmingly admired by African Americans, by 1968 signs abounded that his influence within the left wing of the black community had ebbed. He could not have prevented continued violence by various white-controlled police departments and white supremacists acting alone or as part of an underground. Likely, he could not by himself turn back the embrace by some African Americans of more violent action in response. More radical alternatives to King, like the Black Panther Party, had risen by the time of his death.
Had King lived during the Nixon administration, with the racist J. Edgar Hoover holding on as director of the FBI until May 2, 1972 and given the civil rights violations that took place in the Watergate era, he most likely would have faced even more government harassment that he did under Johnson. The Vietnam War lasted until 1973, and King’s opposition to the conflict most likely would have intensified, putting him more in the government’s crosshairs.
Additionally, King had taken on a far more difficult crusade than Southern desegregation at the end of his career. During his campaign against poverty, he called for a massive redistribution of wealth, a solution controversial even among the liberals who normally would have been his allies. In any case, solving poverty would have been a much more difficult feat than getting “whites only” signs taken down from water fountains. Alienated from at least some more radical African Americans, he likely would have lost white support as well.
In the end, this is all speculation. We can be certain only about what actually happened. The year 1968 marked a triumph not of reform or liberalism but of retrenchment and conservatism. As president, Richard Nixon proved as reluctant as Johnson to be the “first president to lose a war.” As a result, the war dragged on for four more years, and about 30,000 more Americans died in the conflict. Johnson’s last year in office marked the last time that the federal government recorded a balanced budget until Bill Clinton’s second term in the late 1990s. The start of the Nixon years would launch three decades of debt that would leave the funding for federal budget dependent on China’s purchase of U.S. bonds.
Nixon’s insecurities and fears would infect his presidency, leading to the Watergate scandal. Even before burglars working for the Nixon re-election campaign broke into Democratic Party headquarters on June 17, 1972, the deception of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the constant lies surrounding American progress in Vietnam, had pushed Americans into greater skepticism of and alienation from the federal government.
The twin assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, joined with the earlier murder of John Kennedy, led many Americans to doubt the official finding of guilt and to suppose that the federal government, up to the highest offices, played a hand in the murders. The public increasingly concluded that corruption in government was business as usual, leading them to doubt the likely benefits of heroic reform programs that had been promised as part of The New Frontier and The Great Society. Fueled in part by white anger against what was seen as the excesses of the 1960s, and particularly the near-anarchy of 1968, America entered a long political period of conservative dominance starting with Nixon’s election to the White House. Conservative Republicans would control the White House for 28 of the next 40 years and both houses of Congress for 12 of those years.
Humphrey’s defeat and Democratic nominee George McGovern’s crushing defeat by Nixon in 1972 convinced Democrats as well that the days of big government liberalism had ended. The next three Democratic presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama -- would try to rule from the center-right of American politics, and spend much of their political lives criticizing the party’s left wing.
Meanwhile, King’s life and words would be whitewashed. His birthday would become a holiday and his most provocative and radical statements would be forgotten. Conservatives would distort the meaning of his words during the March on Washington, in which he wished for men to be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” to mean that King would have been opposed to affirmative action opening job opportunities to people of color, even though King had supported such programs, and even suggested he backed reparations to African Americans for the centuries of unpaid slave labor. Safely dead, King was remade by white America as a non-threatening figure whose innocuous dream of equality, white America falsely claimed, had been already achieved.
Author Charles Kaiser once interviewed folk/rock star Bob Dylan and asked him about the events in 1968. ”All those things like that deaden you,” Dylan said. “They kill part of your hope. And enough of those blows to your hope will make you deader and deader and deader, until a person is existing without caring any more . . .” America left 1968 sad, exhausted and a little bitter, feeling not hope but a nostalgia for a largely fictitious and presumed Golden Age of Innocence. Instead, in the 1970s, Americans came to believe they lived in a declining empire.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.