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Excerpt: ‘American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election And The Politics Of Division’

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Excerpt: ‘American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election And The Politics Of Division’


The 2016 campaign may look like the craziest campaign in modern political history. But we’ve been here before. Forty-eight years ago, another racist demagogue who “told it like it is”; played on white racial anxieties and pledged to bring law and order to America ran for president. Alabama governor George Wallace might have run on a third party ticket that year – and only ended up winning 13 percent of the popular vote – but he gave Republican politicians a blueprint for how to use racial and cultural fear and anti-government populism to their political benefit.  Wallace’s rhetorical appeals in 1968 would become the template for a generation of Republicans and can be heard directly in the campaign musings of this year’s Wallace-like figure, Donald Trump. Indeed, by the fall of 1968 Wallace was running a strong third in the polls, nipping at the heels of Hubert Humphrey and seemed to poise to potentially win enough states to stop any candidate from winning a majority of electoral votes and thus throw the 1968 election into the House of Representatives. 

Then he picked his vice presidential running mate, General Curtis Lemay, and practically overnight, the bottom fell out of his presidential campaign. This adapted excerpt from Michael A. Cohen’s recent book American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division tells the story of perhaps the most disastrous campaign press conference in modern American history – a story that will likely sound very familiar to those who have followed this year’s wacky and seemingly unending presidential campaign.

By the first days of October 1968, George Wallace had reached the apex of his political rise. Featured on the covers of Life, Time, and Newsweek, Wallace, according to the New York Times led in seven states versus only four for Humphrey. His campaign rallies remained as enthusiastic, well-attended, and unruly as ever — twenty thousand greeted him at Boston Commons (far more than Humphrey turned out), and thirteen thousand in Fort Worth. The overflow crowds lapped up his paeans to the policeman and the firefighter, the beautician and the truck driver and his harsh attacks on the anarchists, the hippies, and the meddling, liberal elite. Angry and bigoted taunting of reporters and demonstrators as well as fisticuffs between pro- and anti-Wallace forces was the norm.

As his poll numbers began topping 20 percent Wallace suddenly became a major political problem for both parties. Humphrey worried about Wallace eroding his support among blue-collar workers. Nixon feared losing the votes of disaffected and resentful whites –people who without Wallace in the race were likely to vote Republican. So Nixon soon followed Humphrey’s lead in attacking Wallace.

Nothing the two candidates did, however, could match Wallace’s own self-sabotage in his choice of a running mate. All else being equal, Wallace would have preferred to run alone, but many states required a vice presidential candidate to be on the ballot with him. Wallace’s close aides wanted a national figure, someone who might lend credibility to the ticket while also extending their electoral possibilities outside the Deep South and into places like Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia. A. B. (Happy) Chandler, the one-time commissioner of Major League Baseball and former governor and senator from Kentucky, seemed like the perfect candidate.

Wallace, however, was unconvinced. “Well, you know, that fellow’s liberal now . . . . He’s the one . . . that integrated baseball.” Chandler’s tenure had indeed coincided with the breaking of the color barrier by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As governor of Kentucky he had mobilized the National Guard to protect black students integrating previously segregated schools. Further complicating matters, Chandler was unrepentant in his pro–civil rights positions.

As speculation mounted that he would get the vice presidential nod, Chandler told reporters, “I wouldn’t change my record if I could.” Sure enough, as Chandler’s name began to leak, Wallace’s backers publicly denounced the pick.

Wallace quickly reversed course: Chandler was out. He instead turned toward a candidate whose name had floated around the campaign for several weeks — General Curtis LeMay. Wallace, who believed that a military man would appeal to soldiers and veterans, could hardly have done much better than LeMay. During World War II and later as chief of staff of the air force, he became an infamous and, in some circles, heroic military figure. His decision to fire-bomb Japanese cities had killed hundreds of thousands of civilians but also helped to short-circuit an invasion of the Japanese mainland by American troops. In 1948 he had led the successful Berlin airlift during the Soviet siege of the city, and he had enshrined the nation’s nuclear deterrent capabilities as head of the StrategicAir Command.

With his square jaw; gruff, no-nonsense manner; and uncompromising views on the use of military force, he represented the ultimate foreign policy hawk.

LeMay, however, had one glaring liability. When it came to the use of American military force, he was something of a nut. “If you have to go [to war], you want LeMay in the lead bomber,” John F. Kennedy said. “But you never want LeMay deciding whether or not you have to go.” Practically no man in American public life spoke more loudly about the benefits of air power — and countenanced the use of nuclear weapons — than LeMay.

Indeed, in the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove, director and cowriter Stanley Kubrick used him as a model for the flamboyant and hawkish General Buck Turgidson. Unlike Wallace, LeMay was neither a segregationist nor a doctrinaire conservative, but on war and in particular the use of nuclear power he was practically an evangelist. Unsurprisingly, then, even though Wallace’s aides warned LeMay over and over against raising the nuclear issue when preparing for his introductory press conference in Pittsburgh on October 3, LeMay could not leave well enough alone.

It took only one question after Wallace had introduced the general to the assembled reporters and the millions watching on live television to light the firestorm. As a potential vice president, one reporter asked, “What do you feel your experience can bring to the solution of the nation’s domestic problems . . . and secondly, as a potential President, what would be your policy in the employment of nuclear weapons?” Unsurprisingly, LeMay chose to answer the second question first. “We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons,” he replied. “I think to most military men that a nuclear weapon is just another weapon in our arsenal. . . . I think there are many occasions when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons.” With the first words out of his mouth, LeMay had already begun to self-destruct.

After playing down the contamination risks that came from nuclear testing, LeMay argued that while nuclear war would indeed be horrible, “It doesn’t make much difference to me if I have to get killed in the jungle of Vietnam with a rusty knife or get killed with a nuclear weapon. As a matter of fact if I had the choice I’d lean toward the nuclear weapon.” Many Americans at home likely preferred a third option, dying not by a corroded blade or an atom bomb. His efforts at reassurance did little to help. “I don’t believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon,” he told the increasingly slack-jawed reporters, cheerfully noting that after viewing films of Bikini Atoll, which had been the site of numerous nuclear tests, he had become convinced that people were not only exaggerating the dangers but also downplaying the positive side of nuclear weapons. “The fish are all back in the lagoons; the coconut trees are growing coconuts; the guava bushes have fruit on them; the birds are back.” Even the rats had become “bigger, fatter, and healthier than they were ever before.”

Ed Ewing, a Wallace press aide, recalled that when he looked over at his boss, he had “never seen anybody angrier in his life.” An ashen-looking Wallace finally edged up to the microphones. He tried to nudge LeMay aside to clarify matters. “General LeMay hasn’t advocated the use of nuclear weapons, not at all. He discussed nuclear weapons with you. He’s against the use of nuclear weapons and I am too.” It was true LeMay hadn’t actually called for the use of nukes in Vietnam — yet. But the reporters were not about to let LeMay off that easy. Jack Nelson, of the Los Angeles Times, kept pushing the point. “If you found it necessary to end the war, you would use them, wouldn’t you?” LeMay rose to the bait. “If I found it necessary, I would use anything that we could dream up . . . including nuclear weapons, if it was necessary.”

Again Wallace tried to correct the record. LeMay preferred to use no weapon, he said, but if the “security of the country depended on the use of nuclear weapons,” he would, like any national politician, counsel that they be used. Wallace began to walk away from the microphone, assuming – or perhaps hoping — the press conference had finally come to a merciful end.

But the general was not done. “I know that I’m going to come out with a lot of misquotes from this campaign,” said LeMay, demonstrating for the first time that morning actual self-awareness. “And I’ll be damn lucky if I don’t appear as a drooling idiot whose only solution to any problem is to drop atomic bombs all over the world.”

The damage had been done. “Anyone who can speak so lightly about the use of nuclear weapons has no conception of the reality of their terror,” said Humphrey. Henry Reuss, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, more directly captured the sentiments of many. He called LeMay a “Neanderthal.” Even Nixon hit the Wallace-LeMay ticket for its “irresponsibility and excessively hawkish attitudes.”

LeMay’s selection had been intended to boost Wallace’s standing on national security; instead, it reminded voters of the man they had rejected four years earlier, Barry Goldwater.

The Wallace camp tried to argue that the general’s words had been blown out of proportion, but they were so desperate to get LeMay away from reporters that they sent him on a “fact-finding” mission to Vietnam. In the airport in San Francisco, as he prepared to board a flight to the Far East, LeMay was cornered by reporters and somehow found himself saying that China never would have gotten involved in the Korean War had it not been for “traitors” in the United States. “Who are those traitors?” LeMay was asked. “You know who they are as well as I do,” he snapped.

Days after returning from his mission he gave a speech at Yale on environmental conservation, an issue, oddly, that was close to his heart. Though the address would be well received, news headlines were dominated by LeMay’s statement in the question-and-answer period that he favored both birth control and abortion, comments sure to go over badly in the working-class Catholic enclaves in the North on which Wallace increasingly relied.

LeMay’s constant gaffes threw Wallace back on his heels. Compounding his problems, at virtually the same time as the disastrous Pittsburgh press conference, America’s labor unions launched a massive campaign highlighting Wallace’s antilabor record in Alabama.

In the end, Wallace became his own worst enemy. For four years he had reaped political benefit from campaign rallies that teetered on the brink of full-scale riots. After a while the disorder and chaos made him seem less like the man who could clean up America’s problems and more like the person partly responsible for them. Wallace, who once reveled in the abuse he took from hecklers, began looking increasingly haggard and even frightened by the barrage of abuse being hurled at him on the stump. His frustration soon showed. “You’re a little punk,” he growled at one demonstrator. In San Diego, protesters who took the satirical approach of screaming “We Want War” drowned out his remarks. At a rally in Texas, demonstrators yelling “Sieg Heil” were so loud and persistent that he had to leave the stage without finishing his speech. In New Mexico schoolchildren booed him. When he did speak he complained that reporters were distorting his words and claimed that polls showing his numbers slipping had been “rigged by the Eastern Establishment moneyed interests.”

Though Wallace pressed on, his candidacy was clearly in decline. The combination of his own excesses; the counterattacks from Humphrey, Nixon, and labor; and the traditional skepticism that third-party candidates generally receive at the tail end of presidential elections slowed his momentum. The race had become a two-man battle between a newly reinvigorated Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, whose efforts to run out the clock were slowly beginning to unravel.

Michael A. Cohen is a national political columnist for The Boston Globe and a frequent contributor on politics and American foreign policy. Excerpted from American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2016.

If you enjoyed this selection, purchase the full book here.



  1. greenlantern1 October 2, 2016

    Was Nixon involved in the attempted assassination of Governor Wallace?
    Was E. Howard Hunt at the “grassy knoll”?

    1. Diane October 2, 2016

      Did Martha Stewart steal her apple pie recipe from Julia Childs?

      1. Karen October 2, 2016

        I had to upvote you just for the laugh quotient you provided.

    2. Dan S October 2, 2016

      Was Ted Cruz’s father in Dallas when JFK was shot ? Did he collaborate with Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby ? Inquiring minds want to know ????

  2. apzzyk October 2, 2016

    I got out of the USMC in 7/61 on a medical, and did not even know that I was eligible for VA disability, and did not apply for it until 2002, but, in 1968 as I was completing my MS, I only applied to Canadian Universities, so I got an Ontario Fellowship and moved there, wife and child in tow, and since I had been involved in the anti-war movement I knew that I probably had a COINTELPRO file (which is still active) and wife and I voted absentee for Wallace, just because we thought that the US deserved him and that a popular revolution would soon follow his election. The revolution did not happen, but on a graduate student’s assistantship money with blue $5 bills (monopoly money) could not afford to stay so returned to US and completed the degree at another university knowing that the contents of my COINTELPRO file were being used against me.
    Now, at 77, I am still in the US, but if Trump is elected, I will trade in the family homestead for a big (‘full timer’) motor home and and join the line going to Mexico – I can’t take the cold that well any more – and go back to waiting for the popular revolution.
    I am again tried of the hate and fear speech and the same crap as before on the use of war as foreign policy.

    1. Mama Bear October 2, 2016

      I for one wish you the very best!

      1. apzzyk October 2, 2016

        Thanks. One thing that I did learn in the USMC was something about not shoveling doodoo against the tide, and then there was there is now such thing as a dumb question, but those that do not question remain stupid.

        1. Mama Bear October 2, 2016

          amen brother. What would happen if we funnelled out time and energy and money into peace instead of feeding the war machine. Hopefully one day we will find out.

          1. apzzyk October 2, 2016

            I am still waiting for the answer on “What would happen if they gave a war, and nobody came?” Read your fist (above) and your starting year was my MS year, after leaving Canada, I taught at a small state U in IL, and got canned after Kent State, but I had allready been accepted at a TX U that was proudly the most Consevative (behind the times) U in the country, and could not figure out an all male U were 90% of the undergrads wore uniforms. I had come from one that was 60% female, and had to make the weekend trips to UT to the Library to find sanity. Want to take a ride to the Yucatan?

  3. charleo1 October 2, 2016

    We often hear complaints about the length of American Presidential campaigns. I might have on occasion agreed. But given the less than stellar acumen of millions of voters to quickly recognize such a transparent fraud as Trump, and then summarily dismiss him from consideration. I withdraw all previous protests.

    1. Normamperson4 October 3, 2016

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family! !mj152d:
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      ➽➽;➽➽ http://GoogleFinancialJobsCash152ShopHostGetPay$97Hour ★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★::::::!mj152d:….,…..

  4. Mama Bear October 2, 2016

    I was a college student in the deep south at a major university in 1968. Being from a northern state what I saw and heard there scared the bejingles totally out of me. I felt as though I had been dropped on another planet with no warning. They spoke a different language – the language of anger and hate and bigotry. They saw the world thru eyes that never stopped resenting what Abraham Lincoln did “to them”. As the years have passed and the influx of northerners into that region …..nothing seems to have changed for most of those folks and their disease has spread.

  5. Aaron_of_Portsmouth October 2, 2016

    I’ve noticed in comments at dinner tables in my home some decades ago, hearing past conversations whispered by those one mighjt say were sane and rational people, and here in this forum, that they often spoke(and speak) of racism as though it were a thing of the past, was restricted to the South, or has been so muted, compared to the past, that it is of little if any consequence today.

    Only a fool who refuses to move on in life, and who pays lip-service to working for racial amity, would deny the racism that Trump has been able to reignite.

    But, Trump would not have been so successful if the embers of institutional racism, a more subtle yet more devastating cancer, had not been kept warm by the belligerent and callous attitude of the GOP as a whole towards the work to bring America together and the many examples of a cruel and shameful reaction to the nation’s first Black President. And yes, the “One Drop Rule”(a social construct defined in the 19th Century) defines Obama as being Black.

    In the final analysis, Trump is merely a vehicle, and the GOP and Conservative Ideology and Right WIng media are the Engine and the gasoline; Trump on another level, besides his base appetite and greed, is serving faithfully as a mirror of what so many in America think about people who do not look like themselves.

    Certain odd aberrations have cropped up during this period, with Ben Carson feeling obliged to play a role as a 21st Century Step-n-Fetchit (yes, AgLander, that is the role he has played despite his being enabled to attain a prominent role as a neurosurgeon, thanks to the sacrifices of the Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., the deaths of 4 little girls at a Sunday service at a Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the Viola Luizza and Medger Evers slayings), and a black minister(Rev. Mark Burns) also stepped forward displaying a clownish personae suggesting that he was willing and ready to drop to his knees to lick Trump’s shoes should the latter felt an urge to have his shoes cleaned by the good reverend.

    This Election Season was meant to be this way, to serve as a vivid reminder of the peril we still face from within. Black males have felt that peril first-hand, with often deadly consequences—again, thanks to the fires of racism stoked by the GOP and by Trump.

    The spirits of an era of Racism Past, of George Wallace and KKK’s 1950’s inspiration provided by Bob Jones of North Carolina have been resurrected through the efforts of a so-call anti-Establishment figure, whose wealth has been attained courtesy of the Establishment and its loop-holes.

    “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. This unity can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded.”

    This quote by Baha’u’llah is a reference to Baha’u’llah, and a reminder of His role and mandate in helping bringing fulfill its highest form of organization and reach its spiritual Maturity—a plateau and maturity which weren’t achievable, nor humanity ready as a whole, during the Dispensations of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and all the Other Messengers(known and unknown) of bygone Eras.


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