Eugene McCarthy and the Myth of the 1968 New Hampshire Primary

After the March 12, 1968 New Hampshire primary political researchers did a demographic analysis of the electorate. A substantial number of the Eugene McCarthy voters cast their protest ballots for him not because they wanted peace and withdrawal from the war in Viet Nam, but because they were opposed to LBJ’s war strategy and wanted a more militant and hawkish intervention. They wanted to “win the war,” and not “end the war.” By their ironically casting their protest vote for the dovish McCarthy was the only way they could show their opposition to Johnson.

McCarthy’s strong performance, however, did not mean that voters had embraced his antiwar stance. Many New Hampshire Democrats didn’t even know McCarthy’s position on the war (his staff suspected that at least some of those who voted for him thought they were casting a ballot for Joe McCarthy)—and 60 percent of his backers believed Johnson should be fighting the war more aggressively. Neither Vietnam nor crime, the cost of living nor the Great Society united McCarthy supporters (in fact, an estimated one in five McCarthy voters would cast a ballot for George Wallace in November). Frustration with Johnson was their only true consensus position.

So what led to LBJ’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race and his abdication of the presidency?

As historian/economist Murray N. Rothbard noted:

Increasingly, however, the power elite became divided over the morass of the Vietnam War. Under the blows of the Tet offensive in January 1968, Robert McNamara had become increasingly dovish and was replaced as Secretary of Defense by hard-liner Clark Clifford, with McNamara moving gracefully to take charge of the World Bank. But, on investigating the situation, Clifford, too, became critical of the war, and Johnson called a crucial two day meeting on March 22, 1968, of his highly influential Senior Informal Advisory Group on Vietnam, known as the “Wise Men,”made up of all his key advisors on foreign affairs. Johnson was stunned to find that only Abe Fortas and General Maxwell Taylor continued in the hard-line position. Arthur Dean, Cabot Lodge, John J. McCloy, and former General Omar Bradley took a confused middle-of-the-road position, while all the other elite figures such as Dean Acheson, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, C. Douglas Dillon, and Cyrus Vance had swung around to a firm opposition to the war.

As David Halberstam put it in his The Best and the Brightest, these power elite leaders “let him (Johnson) know that the Establishment—yes, Wall Street—had turned on the war. . . . It was hurting the economy, dividing the country, turning the youth against the country’s best traditions.” LBJ knew when he was licked. Only a few days afterward, Johnson announced that he was not going to run for re-election and he ordered what would be the beginnings of U.S. disengagement from Vietnam.


10:26 am on March 11, 2018