169. Editorial Note
President Johnson spoke to the nation on March 31, 1968, at 9 p.m. By 1 p.m. that day, Secretary of Defense Clifford had transmitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff an order, effective at 7 p.m., to halt all strikes on North Vietnam north of 20 degrees latitude. (Memorandum by Executive Secretary Benjamin Read, March 31; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET) After Horace Busby, Johnson’s former speechwriter, helped the President finish up the surprise ending of his televised address on Vietnam, the President read it to his wife, daughters, and his friends Arthur and Mrs. Krim, who listened without comment. Between 3:03 and 3:36 p.m., Johnson practiced the speech in front of television cameras, after which he requested a copy of former President Harry Truman’s withdrawal remarks made in 1952. At 6:35 p.m., as Busby continued to revise the ending, the President told him: “Buzz, we’re going down to the line, it’s time … let’s see what you have.” The final pages of the speech did not go to the teleprompters until 7:37 p.m. Presidential aide Jim Jones took the final part of the speech to be encrypted to the teleprompters at 8:10 p.m.; this section was placed into the President’s speech book at 8:55 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary)
President Johnson began his address to the nation at 9:01 p.m. The speech marked the culmination of months of debate within the administration over the course of policy in Vietnam. Describing the recent Tet offensive as a failure, the President stated his intention to seek peace by repeating the offer made at San Antonio the previous fall to end the bombing of North Vietnam when assured that prompt and productive talks would follow and that the North Vietnamese would not take military advantage of the halt. The substantive part of his speech reads:
“We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations. So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict. We are reducing—substantially reducing—the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once. Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area north of the demilitarized zone where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens allied forward positions and where the movements of their troops and supplies are clearly related to that threat. The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam’s population, and most of its territory. Thus there will be no attacks around the principal populated areas, or in the food-producing areas of North Vietnam. Even this very limited bombing of [Page 495] the North could come to an early end—if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi. But I cannot in good conscience stop all bombing so long as to do so would immediately and directly endanger the lives of our men and allies. Whether a complete bombing halt becomes possible in the future will be determined by events.”
He also announced his designation of Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman as his personal representative to peace talks. At the end of his speech, the President discussed a final decision:
“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. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” For full text of the speech, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pages 469–476.
After the speech, the President received a number of telephone calls from colleagues. The first that he took came at 9:46 p.m. from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who told him: “We’re going to draft you. You dropped the biggest bombshell by announcing that you will not be a candidate for nomination for another term as my President.” This call was followed in quick succession by calls from Vice President Humphrey (then in Mexico) and Texas Governor John Connally. Calls later in the evening came from the wife of Senator Eugene McCarthy, former aide Bill Moyers, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and others.
The President then took questions during a press conference from 11 to 11:40 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Dairy) During the press conference, the President described his decision as “completely irrevocable.” He noted that the “turning point” in his decision came during the visit of General Westmoreland the previous November. He also pledged to do as much as he could in terms of the peace process in the remaining months of his administration. For full text of his remarks, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pages 476–482.
In remarks to Krim at 12:12 a.m., the President reflected, “I never was any surer of any decision I ever made in my life, and I never made any more unselfish one. I have 525,000 men whose very lives depend on what I do, and I can’t worry about the primaries. Now I will be working full time for those men out there. I don’t need to worry, and the only guys that won’t be back here by the time my term ends are the guys that left in the last day or two. I think the boys will be glad that I’m working for them.” (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary)