The 1968 Exhibit: LBJ's "I shall not seek, and I will not accept" televised speech, March 31, 1968

LBJ's "I shall not seek, and I will not accept" speech, March 31, 1968

On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson sent shockwaves through the country with his stunning announcement, added to the end of a televised speech from the White House, that he would not run for a 2nd full term as President that year.  

35

The rest of the lengthy speech focused, inevitably, on Vietnam, He warned that the Communists in North Vietnam were "trying to make 1968 the year of decision in South Vietnam--the year that brings, if not final victory or defeat, at least a turning point in the struggle."  He declared that these efforts would fail, but that "many men--on both sides of the struggle--will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on."

LBJ once again extended, if not an olive branch, then at least what he considered major unilateral steps toward de-escalation, including a halt of bombing raids over most (but not all) of North Vietnam.   The minutes ticked by, and Johnson piled on more detail.  Then the speech began to take a more reflective turn, as Johnson began to speak about his years of public service, and--quoting Lincoln-- how the country had become a "house divided against itself," and that Americans should "guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences."  He said:

"Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.  

With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, 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 a 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."

And then this famous line: "Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." 

Johnson had hoped to become a symbol of Democratic party and national unity in 1968, as he had been in the dark days following the assassination of President Kennedy less than five years earlier.  But by March 1968, he was instead the symbol of divisiveness and the focus of intense national anger.  

Little surprise that Boston Globe cartoonist Paul Szep chose this image of ritual suicide and titled it "Unity."   

You can watch the final five minutes or so of this speech here.  The "Accordingly" line begins at 4:54.