1968 and 2016 presidential elections

By Bill Kaplan

My biggest political mistake was not voting for Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968. He lost narrowly to Richard Nixon by about 500,000 votes (likewise in Wisconsin by 61,000 votes). Back then I attended UW-Madison and opposed the Vietnam War. I still think the war was a misbegotten tragedy. More than 58,000 Americans, including 1,160 Wisconsinites, came home in body bags. And, nearly 3 million Vietnamese died. However, I failed the leadership test.

My zeal in opposing the Vietnam War carnage blinded me to the consequences of not voting. Humphrey, LBJ's vice president, had ardently supported the war. But at the 1968 Democratic convention he saw the wisdom of supporting a peace plank in the platform. However, LBJ was opposed and Humphrey foolishly deferred, giving war opponents a flimsy excuse not to support him. Unbeknownst to most of us, the U.S. was getting close to productive peace negotiations with North Vietnam in Paris. But while campaigning in 1968 Nixon worked to scuttle the peace talks by suggesting deceptively that he would end the war. Moreover, Nixon secretly convinced South Vietnam not to cooperate. The peace talks went nowhere. Nixon narrowly won in November.

Pulitzer Prize winner Neil Sheehan said: "when he (Nixon) became president in January 1969 he had no intention of ending the Vietnam War ... Nixon could probably have negotiated a cease-fire in exchange for a rapid American withdrawal with a publicly announced deadline. But that would have entailed admitting that the war was a hopeless cause, and Mr. Nixon could not bring himself to do that." The slaughter continued.

Finally, Nixon knew the jig was up. By the time the 1973 peace-agreement was signed and U.S. combat troops withdrawn, "21,000 Americans had perished during Richard Nixon's presidency, more than a third of the 58,000 who died in Indochina" (Sheehan). And, the Washington Post reported that "more Vietnamese and Cambodians were killed on Nixon's watch than on Johnson's" (LBJ). Elections have consequences.

1968 was not a normal election. Nixon went on to pack the Supreme Court, tilting it sharply to the right. And, a paranoid, psychotic Nixon used the full force of the federal government to go after his "enemies". The Army, CIA, FBI, IRS, National Security Agency and Secret Service were unlawfully unleashed on Nixon's opponents. Then there was Watergate. He resigned to escape impeachment. Later, tape recordings made by Nixon revealed what a racist he was. Lessons for 2016.

Nixon and Trump have much in common: "law and order candidate", appeals to the "silent majority", i.e., white people, "unpredictable" on war and unhinged talk on using nuclear weapons. Moreover, Trump's open racism and belittlement of opponents trumps Nixon, as do his attacks on the press and judicial system and his call for an authoritarian presidency. In 1968 I failed in ignoring the differences between Humphrey and Nixon. Wisconsin must not make the same mistake in the 2016 presidential election.

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009

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