123. Editorial Note

The impact of the war in Vietnam in domestic politics became a significant factor during mid-March 1968. On March 12 Senator Eugene McCarthy made a surprisingly strong showing in the balloting for the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential primary by winning all but 4 of the 24 delegate votes. His tally represented a significant repudiation of the administration’s policies. McCarthy’s relative success encouraged Senator Robert Kennedy to enter the Presidential nomination race on March 16. Five days prior to this announcement, Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorensen met with the President at the White House to present Kennedy’s position on Vietnam. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) Although notes of this meeting have not been found, Johnson did discuss the meeting in three telephone conversations with Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, Illinois, on March 13 and another on March 15. (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recordings of Telephone Conversations Between Johnson and Daley, March 13, 1968, 5 p.m., 10:49 p.m., and 11:22 p.m., Tape F68.05, PNO 1–5, and March 15, 1968, Tape F68.05, PNO 6)

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Both Sorensen and Kennedy met with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford at 11 a.m. on March 14. In this meeting, Sorensen and Kennedy suggested that the Senator would not declare his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President if Johnson agreed to appoint a commission to re-evaluate U.S. policy in Vietnam. Kennedy suggested that he and nine others would direct the commission toward changing the course of the war. That same day Clifford discussed the proposal with the President in a meeting at the White House. The President concluded that he could not accept the proposal since it would “appear to be a political deal.” Clifford then reported the rejection of the idea to Sorensen and Kennedy. (Ibid., National Security File, White House Famous Names, Robert Kennedy) According to transcripts of a telephone conversation at 6:15 p.m. that evening, Presidential aide DeVier Pierson further explained to Sorensen why the President had rejected the idea of establishing the commission: “He feels that public announcement of such a group would be interpreted in Hanoi as a weakening of our position and would have an adverse effect on our own people—particularly in State and Defense Departments—and appear to undercut their efforts.” (Ibid.)