On This Day in History… February 7, 1839: Henry Clay declares “I had rather be right than president.”

February 7, 1839: Henry Clay declares “I had rather be right than president.”

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

HNN, Monday, February 4, 2008

On this day in history…. February 7, 1839 Henry Clay declares in the United States Senate “I had rather be right than president.”

The venerable politician and statesman Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky believed his time to win the Presidency would finally be ripe in 1840. There were many obstacles to his winning the Whig Party’s nomination. One of the most contentious issues in the country in the antebellum period was slavery. Clay tried to take a centrist position, but accusations flew in both the North and the South that he favored extremes. In the North he was accused of “being ultra” in favor of Southern slaveholders. In the South he was accused of being an abolitionist who plotted secretly to abolish slavery. (Remini, 525) As the historian Robert Remini explains, “It may have occurred to Clay that his apparent middle-of- the-road position invited attacks from both sides of the slavery question.” (Remini, 525) Clay felt the charges that he was an abolitionist were detrimental to his chances for the presidency, and he needed to clarify his views on the slavery question. But he intended to stick to his views regardless of the political consequences. As he famously said, “I had rather be right than president.”

In order eventually to capture the nomination he needed support from Southern Whigs, but at the same time, he needed support from the Northern Quakers who were passive abolitionists. The most important aspect was to distinguish himself from the most extreme abolitionists, the “ultras” which he did in a Senate speech on February 7, 1839. Clay’s speech, “Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery,” supposedly addressed a petition by Washington DC’s residents to abolish slavery in the district. Clay actually wrote the petition himself.

The speech was Clay at his worse, which his supporters lamented. As Carl Schurz writes, “It was an apology for his better self. Formerly he had spoken as a born anti-slavery man, who to his profound regret found himself compelled to make concessions to slavery. Now he appeared as one inclined to deplore the attacks on slavery no less, if not more, than the existence of slavery itself.” (Schurz, 164)

In the speech, Clay claimed the only thing he had in common with the abolitionists was “abhorrence of slavery,” but their positions were entirely different, and in no way did he identify with them. Clay hoped this would put the speculation to rest that he harbored secret abolitionist desires. He laid out in the speech the history of the “peculiar institution,” the constitutional and legal questions surrounding it, and the course of action that should be taken to resolve slavery. It was here that he distinguished himself most from the abolitionists while attacking their solution to the slavery problem.

As Remini writes, Clay charged that abolitionists were “setting back emancipation half a century” by their agitation. (Remini, 526) Still, he believed that emancipation was not the answer. Clay claimed he did not believe that blacks and whites could live in racial harmony, as abolitionists claimed. As Thomas Brown writes, Clay believed that the “Freed slaves would flood the North, compete with white laborers, and drive down their wages, or the country, would be convulsed by interracial warfare as blacks and whites sought to preserve the purity and separateness of the races.” (Brown, 144) Clay was concerned that a power struggle would lead to a war between the races, especially since the slaves outnumbered whites in some Southern states. Clay believed that this power struggle would lead to Civil War, and suggested that the status quo was the best approach to take to the slavery question. “It is not better for both parties that the existing state of things should be preserved, instead of exposing them to the horrible strifes and contests which would inevitably attend immediate abolition.” (Remini, 526)

According to Clay “time” was the solution that would eventually end slavery, stating, “Providence will cure all-abolition nothing. It may ruin all; it can save none.” (Remini, 526) He then proceeded to make a plea to the ultra-abolitionists to cease their crusade for the sake of the country. “I beseech the abolitionists themselves, solemnly to pause in their mad and fatal course,” he stated. Clay continued: “Amid the infinite variety objects of humanity and benevolence which invite the employment of their energies, let them select some one more harmless, that does not threaten to deluge our country in blood.” (Remini, 526)

The reactions to Clay’s speech were far ranging. For the most part the speech boosted Southerners’ opinion of Clay. As Shurz writes, “Clay received his reward — or punishment — immediately.” (Shurz, 166) After he finished speaking Senator John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, lauded Clay, praising him for understanding the dangers of the abolitionist movement. Carl Schurz in his biography of Clay believed Calhoun stood up “as if to accept his surrender.” However, Remini describes Cahoun’s enthusiasm as “So spontaneous, so sincere, so fervent … that some wondered if another political alliance between northern money and southern cotton had been struck.” (Remini, 526) This alluded to the “corrupt bargain” of 1825, which handed John Quincy Adams the Presidency despite the fact that Andrew Jackson won the popular vote.

Calhoun proclaimed, “I heard the Senator from Kentucky with pleasure. His speech will have a happy effect, and will do much to consummate what had already been so happily begun and successfully carried on to a completion.” (Shurz, 167) Clay wanted the nomination so much that he had to take Calhoun’s humiliating words without saying anything. As Schurz explains, “Calhoun assigned to him a place in his church on the bench of the penitents, and the candidate for the presidency took the insult without wincing.” (Shurz, 168)

The speech offended the abolitionists, giving Clay the results he was looking for, distancing himself from them. Clay hoped his speech would increase his support among those he needed to help him garner the nomination. Still it was a turn off to many Northerners. Clay supporters like James G. Birney and John Greenleaf Whittier, who “once idolized Clay, now cast him off as something loathsomely hypocritical.” (Remini, 526) Clay claimed he wasn’t surprised by the response. “My abolition Speech was made after full deliberation,” he told a friend. “I expected it would enrage the Ultra’s more than ever against me, and I have not been disappointed.” (Remini, 527)

Clay should not have been surprised by the negative reaction or the long-term consequences. Before he delivered it, he read it to Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina, and several of his friends and colleagues to get their opinion. They believed that “The speech bears all the marks of that careful weighing of words characteristic of a candidate ‘defining his position’ on a delicate subject.” (Schurz, 164) One of the men believed it could have a negative impact on his presidential prospects, offending both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions. Upon hearing this Clay proclaimed the classic phrase he is most remembered for: “I trust the sentiments and opinions are correct, I HAD RATHER BE RIGHT THAN BE PRESIDENT.” Remini describes it as “the immortal utterance, the classic rejoinder, one that quickly entered the lexicon of American politics and was always associated with Clay’s name.” (Remini, 527)

Senator Preston repeated these words in a speech to a Whig rally in Philadelphia the following month announcing the phrase to the public. Then almost immediately Clay’s words were the talk of the nation, the newspapers reprinted his speech, and citizens found it to “noble and patriotic” and appropriate, while critics and “hard-nosed” politicians laughed upon hearing it. (Remini, 527) Clay may have wanted to be right, but he also wanted the Presidency, and his chances were slipping from him.

Soon after the speech, Clay felt the backlash. First Daniel Webster charged that Clay caused the Whigs to lose the 1838 election in Maine, and that the party should instead support a candidate who had more appeal, such as General William Henry Harrison. Webster was deliberately mounting a campaign against Clay, even going as far as to blame him for losing Harrison’s state, Ohio, in the 1838 election. To cap off this crusade, at the Anti-Mason National Convention in November 1839, the group nominated Harrison for President and Webster for Vice-President.

Politicians in the North, Abolitionists, and anti-Masons preferred Harrison as a presidential candidate to Clay. Another candidate who drew support was General Winfield Scott, whose military record was akin to Andrew Jackson’s. Fortunately for Clay, Webster took himself out of the running for the Whig nomination when he departed for England in 1839. Still Clay believed the nomination was his. As he wrote, “Moderation, conciliation, and decision, but above all firmness and decision should be our course. May it be guided by wisdom and lead to victory.” (Remini, 531)

Even before the Whig Convention Clay lost New York. Thurlow Weed, as Brown explains, thought “Clay had gone too far in his attacks [on abolitionists].” (Brown, 145) Both Weed and Thaddeus Stevens were Anti-Mason leaders, and wanted anybody but Clay as the nominee; they devised a plan to strip Clay of his 254-delegate majority.

A friend of Webster’s, Peleg Sprague, introduced a motion that changed the voting. Each state would choose three delegates to a committee, the committee in turn would ask their state which candidate they preferred. A vote would be held in private, and when there was a state consensus, the delegates would report it to the full convention. Clay’s supporters could not stop the motion even through it was obviously designed to strip Clay of the nomination, and soon Clay’s majority melted. Stevens and Weed preferred Harrison to Scott or Clay, but Scott’s candidacy seemed to benefit from their maneuvering. To counter this, Stevens released to the delegates a letter Scott wrote to Francis Granger that appeared favorable to the abolitionists. This was enough to damage Scott’s propsects and give Harrison–the least controversial choice–the nomination. Clay’s chance to capture the Presidency had ended.

Anti-Masons and abolitionists, the two groups Clay alienated with his February 7, 1839 speech, controlled the Whig Party. But Clay, says Remini, “also had a hand in engineering his [own] defeat. His Senate speech on February 7, 1839, against the abolitionists, more than any other single factor, undoubtedly prevented him from gaining a single northern state at the convention ‘except glorious Rhode Island.’ ‘I had rather be right than President,’ Clay had announced. So be it, responded the delegates.” (Remini, 554) Henry Clay would live to regret his words on the Senate floor, because ultimately they caused him to lose the nomination he wanted more than anything.

As we are now reaching a defining moment in the 2008 campaign with Super Tuesday around the corner, another candidate has been compared to Clay. Hillary Clinton has been haunted by her Senate vote for the Iraq war, but has refused to apologize for it, though her position on the war has evolved. In a February 2007 Christian Science Monitor article Daniel Schorr wrote, “Whether that will appease her supporters remains to be seen. What they apparently will not get from her are those three little words. ‘I am sorry.’ What her lack of contrition will cost her, that also remains to be seen…. She may take comfort from the ‘great compromiser,’ Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who on the Senate floor in 1839 declared, ‘I had rather be right than president.’”

Sources and further reading:

Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Henry Clay, The Works of Henry Clay, Barnes & Burr, 1863.

Robert Vincent Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Daniel Schorr, “Will voters accept Hillary Clinton’s nonapology? Her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq might cost her the presidency,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2007.

Carl Schurz, Life of Henry Clay: American Statesmen, Volume: 2, Houghton Mifflin, 1899.

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Q & A: How Many October Surprises Have There Been?

HISTORY ARTICLES

HISTORY, NEWS & POLITICS

HNN, 10-25-04

How Many October Surprises Have There Been?

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern

The first election in which an “October Surprise” played a role in the campaign was in 1864. Thereafter it was a central concern in the campaigns of 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1996, 2000, and 2004. The term “October Surprise” originated in the 1980 campaign, and was coined by then Republican vice presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush. The Reagan campaign was fearful that with the hostages still being held in Iran, that incumbent and Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter would negotiate their release just prior to the presidential election, thus ensuring he would win, hence the “October Surprise.

The term usually refers, as one website put it, to a “political revelation or dramatic policy move, made late in the campaign, designed to affect the outcome of a presidential election,” which is usually engineered by the party in power. Princeton political science professor Fred Greenstein describes it as “the notion is that the October surprise is a Halloween trick for politicians.” But it can also be defined loosely as an event taking place late in a campaign that dramatically affects the outcome. The capture of Osama bin Laden between now and the election would fit this definition.

1864

In the spring of 1864 in the midst of the Civil War, Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln was worried that he would go down to defeat. Two events helped propel him to certain victory. First, the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, nominated the former union general, George McClellan, and adopted a peace platform, which called for a negotiated end to the war, as well as a repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation. The second was the increase in decisive Union victories: Admiral G. Farragut captured Mobile; two days after the Democratic convention General Sherman took Atlanta and began marching through Georgia, Ulysses S. Grant made made progress at Petersburg, and General Philip Sheridan began his devastation of Virginia.

These victories were a turning point, which almost guaranteed an end to the war, and a Union victory. The Albany Journal wrote, “If you want to know who is going to vote for McClellan, mention Atlanta to them. The long face and the low muttered growl is sufficient. On the other hand, every Lincoln man bears a face every lineament of which is radiant with joy.” After these developments, the Radical Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, dropped out of the campaign, and the Radical Republicans supported Lincoln’s re-election. Lincoln won a decisive victory in the election. Referring to the 2004 election, historian David Herbert Donald recently wrote: “I fear an October surprise, which, of course, Lincoln was able to produce with Sherman’s help…. Then of course there’s the other side of it. Lincoln’s opponents in effect committed suicide. Put a general [George McClellan] on your ticket and a peace platform.”

1956

In the midst of the final days of the campaign between the Republican incumbent Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson two foreign developments dominated the news. The first was the Suez Canal crisis. Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal which prompted the canal’s stockholders, Britain and France, with the help of Israel to invade Egypt. They intended to get rid of Nasser and internationalize the canal. Their attack was kept secret from President Eisenhower, who saw this as a betrayal by America’s allies. Eisenhower joined with the United Nations and Russia in condemning the Anglo-French-Israeli action and pressured them to withdraw their troops. Eisenhower backed up his words by imposing economic sanctions on the three countries; soon after they withdrew their troops.

Almost simultaneously Eisenhower was confronted by another international crisis. The Soviet Union brutally invaded Hungary, in an attempt to suppress the Hungarian government’s threat to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Officials of the Eisenhower administration had previously shown support for liberating countries under Soviet domination. But Eisenhower chose not to come to the assistance of the Hungarian government, fearful that doing so might touch off a war with the Soviets. Instead, Eisenhower chose to condemn the invasion and to assist the Hungarian refugees. Although before these crises it was a forgone conclusion that Eisenhower would win his re-election bid, the events helped widen his margin of victory. The American people were not willing to change their president at a time of international uncertainty, and Eisenhower’s military record and leadership experience was deemed by the voters as assets in this climate.

1960

On October 19, two days before the final debate between Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King was arrested. King was jailed along with 52 other blacks who were trying to desegregate a Georgia restaurant. He was sentenced to four months of hard labor based on breaking probation (King had previously been charged with driving without a license, when he actually had been driving with an Alabama license in Georgia). King’s wife, Coretta, was frantic and called Harris Wofford, a Kennedy campaign aide , claiming that “they are going to kill him [King].” Wofford contacted Sargent Shriver, who was married to Kennedy’s sister Eunice. Shriver convinced Kennedy that he should telephone King’s wife, which he did, expressing his concern. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s brother Robert negotiated with the judge and secured a promise that King would be released on bail.

In contrast, Nixon consulted with Eisenhower’s attorney general, who advised him not to intervene in the matter. The Kennedys’ intervention gained JFK support from blacks, including King’s father, an influential minister who had previously supported Nixon. The senior King told the press, “I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.” As Evan Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life, “Just two phone calls–one by JFK, one by RFK–decided the outcome of the election, and determined the course of racial politics for decades to come.” Kennedy won the close election, 49.7 percent to Nixon’s 49.5 percent.

1964

On October 14, LBJ aide Walter Jenkins was arrested for disorderly conduct in a Washington YMCA under compromising circumstances. Jenkins, who held the position of special assistant to the president, was not only a close and loyal staffer but a family friend. Johnson campaign advisors believed that the incident would cause problems for Johnson’s campaign, and that Johnson should distance himself from Jenkins, and campaign with his wife and daughters during the last two weeks of the campaign. Johnson immediately released a statement that Jenkins had resigned from his position, but did not clarify what the position was. However, Johnson did not personally distance himself from Jenkins, offering Jenkins a position as the manager of the Johnson ranch, while the First Lady issued a statement stating, “My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country. Walter Jenkins has been carrying incredible hours and burdens since President Kennedy’s assassination. He is now receiving the medical attention that he needs.”

Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate believed that the arrest gave him the ammunition he needed to make the case of moral decline. Although no medical excuse could be found to cover the Jenkins story, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover decided to intervene, claiming that Barry Goldwater and his campaign had actually set-up Jenkins as part of a “Republican plot” to bring down Johnson. Hoover made this connection because Jenkins had served in the same Air Force unit which was commanded by Goldwater. In order to legitimize his claims, Hoover conducted an elaborate investigation. The Jenkins issue however, disappeared from the newspapers within days, and was eclipsed by foreign policy issues. Communist China successfully tested its first nuclear device and the Moscow politburo overthrew Nikita Khrushchev. The Jenkins issue became irrelevant in the campaign, and President Johnson won the election by a landslide.

1968

In October, President Lyndon Johnson was attempting to reach an agreement with the North Vietnamese in the Paris peace talks. This would allow him to halt the bombing which would salvage Vice President and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey’s campaign. The Republican candidate Richard Nixon realized that Johnson was attempting to use the power of the presidency to help Humphrey, and accused him of doing so. Johnson denounced such claims as “ugly and unfair.” However, five days before the election on October 31, President Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, stating, “I have reached this decision on the basis of developments in the Paris talks, and I have reached the belief that this action will lead to progress for a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam War.” Humphrey of course said he was pleased: “I have been hoping for months that it would happen, for months.” The bombing halt allowed many people to conclude that the end of the war might be approaching, putting Humphrey in a favorable position. Humphrey went up in the polls, but when the South Vietnamese government indicated it would not negotiate, Humphrey’s ratings again slid. Nixon won the election by a slim margin.

1972

In the weeks leading up to the end of the campaign Nixon suspended bombing in Vietnam and engaged in secret negotiations with the National Liberation Front. Just before the election at an October 26 press conference, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced, “We did agree that we would make a major effort to conclude the negotiations by October 31. As far as Saigon is concerned, it is of course entitled to participate in the settlement of a war fought on its territory. Its people have suffered much and they will remain there after we leave. We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight, It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution.” Kissinger’s announcement convinced many voters that the Vietnam War would soon be over, helping Nixon win a landslide victory against his opponent, Democratic candidate George McGovern, who ran on a peace platform.

1980

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s campaign strategists, fearful of a late-breaking deal ending the Iranian hostage crisis, warned the public about the possibility Jimmy Carter could use the presidency to manipulate events and win the election. To neutralize the effect on the country of an “October Surprise,” Reagan and his strategists continually mentioned the possibility of something happening at the last minute. They believed that by bringing up the issue in advance the voters would see it as a cynical bid for votes rather than as the product of careful statesmanship. As Reagan said on a Tampa Bay television station in early October: “Presidents can make things happen you know.” With the one year anniversary of the hostage taking approaching on Election Day, Reagan’s comments were intended to cause public cynicism. Reagan ended up winning the election by a narrow popular margin. The hostages were released within an hour of Reagan’s inauguration.

This was not however, the end of the story. Soon after Reagan was sworn into office there were theories that, as Gary Sick a former aide on the National Security Council staff for the Carter Administration wrote in a 1991 op-ed and later in a book, “individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the U.S. election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.” The agreement also supposedly included a $40 million bribe. Sick believed that George Bush was one of those Americans that were associated with the negotiations. William Casey, a campaign adviser who was appointed head of the CIA, was also linked to the negotiations. The theory gained credibility when the Iran-contra affair was revealed. In exchange for help in releasing the American hostages held in Lebanon, the United States sold Iran truckloads of weapons. Two congressional inquiries have concluded that there is no proof the Reagan campaign made a deal with Iran in 1980.

1992

Going into the election, the Republican candidate and incumbent president, George H. W. Bush, hoped the GATT talks would result in a free trade deal. This would have given Bush an advantage over Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. Instead the Friday before the 1992 election, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who served in the Reagan administration, was indicted by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh in connection with the Iran-contra affair. The indictment distracted Bush’s campaign and suggested to some that Bush, who had claimed he was “out of the loop,” had possibly not been honest about his own role in the scandal.

1996

President Bill Clinton the incumbent Democratic candidate looked to create his own October Surprise in his re-election bid against Republican candidate Bob Dole. In June Clinton met with top FBI and CIA aides in hope of organizing a successful sting against the Russian Mafia, which had ben rumored to be interested in selling a nuclear missile. The operation failed to become a real October Surprise, however. Clinton also hoped he might be able to broker a last-minute deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. The two sides however only agreed to more talks. Clinton nonetheless won reelection, the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.

2000

In early November, just days before the election, police documents were leaked revealing that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Kennebunkport, Maine in the mid 1970s. These revelations hurt Bush at the polls, and may have cost him a popular majority. Karl Rove, his chief political advisor, believes the news disillusioned millions of evangelical voters on whom Bush was counting. Bush of course won the election after the Supreme Court intervened.

2004

In the presidential campaign’s closing weeks, Democrats have been bracing for an October surprise, an event so dramatic it could influence the outcome of the election. Neither Republican incumbent George W. Bush nor Democrat John Kerry has a comfortable enough lead in the polls to afford an October Surprise. Possible surprises that could alter the election’s outcome include: a major setback in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, the capture of Osama bin Laden, a nuclear test by North Korea, an economic shock, or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

How Many Elections Has Vietnam Played a Role in?

HISTORY ARTICLES

HISTORY, NEWS & POLITICS

HNN, 10-04-04

How Many Elections Has Vietnam Played a Role in?

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

The first election in which the Vietnam War played a critical role came in 1964. Thereafter it was a central issue in the elections of 1968, 1972, 1988, 1992, and 2004. (In 1980 and 2000 it briefly became a subject of discussion.) Counting 1980 and 2000, Vietnam has been part of the quadrennial national debate in eight of the last eleven elections. Only the Civil War, of all our conflicts, figured in as many subsequent elections. And at the rate we are going, Vietnam may soon eclipse even the Civil War. (This is not to say that Vietnam had an equal impact on American history. Its impact has obviously been less. But for some reason–which historians must puzzle over–it is having a greater impact as an issue in ensuing campaigns.) These are the elections in which Vietnam has become an issue:

1964

In the 1964 presidential campaign the incumbent, Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson, repeatedly tried to convince voters that he had no intention of getting the United States involved in the conflict in Vietnam. However, according to historian John Morton Blum, Johnson “was already planning to expand that war.” Johnson maintained his non-intervention position on Vietnam even after August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched a supposedly unprovoked and unequivocal attack against the U.S. destroyer Maddox, which was on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. When the ship was supposedly attacked two days later in the same vicinity, Johnson that evening announced that the U.S. would begin retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Johnson subsequently asked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which “supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

As Daniel Ellsberg has recalled, LBJ misled the country in several ways. The attack was not unprovoked; the U.S. had recently shelled several of North Vietnam’s islands in an operation run by the United States, code named 34A. Nor was the attack unequivocal; there was no second attack–the ship’s radar had picked up false readings of torpedoes that had never been fired. Finally, the Maddox and a sister vessel, the Turner Joy, were operating in an area long claimed by North Vietnam. The ships were on a secret mission, code named DeSoto, designed to elicit intelligence about the North’s activities.

Unlike Johnson, the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater publicly argued in favor of intervention. He was deemed by many — including many Republicans — an extremist. Goldwater believed that whatever force was needed to defeat the communists in Vietnam should be used, including nuclear bombs. In response to this the Johnson campaign released a controversial television ad which portrayed a little girl picking and counting petals from a daisy in a field, which then dissolves into a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud. This ad, referred to as the “Daisy Girl,” was intended to highlight Goldwater’s alleged recklessness. In the end voters chose to elect President Johnson in a landslide victory. The following year LBJ began a massive build-up in Vietnam.

  • “Some are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon us to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. They ask us to take reckless action [such as bombing North Vietnam]….Such action would offer no solution at all to the real problems of Viet Nam.”Lyndon Johnson, October 1964
  • “use low yield nuclear bombs, if necessary, to fight communists in Vietnam and elsewhere”Barry Goldwater, 1964

1968

In 1968, the presidential campaign’s main issue was the ongoing war in Vietnam. “Hawks” remained supportive of the Johnson Administration’s policy in Vietnam, but “doves” opposed the war, and college students by the thousands protested American involvement. With this in mind in October 1967, Eugene McCarthy decided to enter the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination, running as an anti-war candidate. McCarthy, with the help of college students, won 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Shortly afterward Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy on a peace plank. Johnson, faced with declining poll ratings, decided to drop out of the race on March 31st. On June 6th, Kennedy won the California primary, but was assassinated. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Presidential candidate amidst intense anti-war rioting in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The Republican candidate was former Vice President Richard Nixon. He spoke about his plans concerning the Vietnam War in generalities but promised to end it with honor. Humphrey, closely associated with Johnson’s Vietnam policy, was heckled wherever he went. After initial hesitating to break with the administration, Humphrey decided to assert his independence from Johnson, proclaiming his support for a bombing halt even without a goodwill gesture from the North Vietnamese (LBJ favored a gesture of goodwill prior to a halt). Humphrey gained momentum as he began to draw support from liberal Democrats and anti-war protesters. By October, as negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam took place, Humphrey came to wear the mantle of the peace candidate. Even Eugene McCarthy supported him. Nixon, however, believed that the prospect of peace was a campaign ploy. Despite the possibility of peace and Johnson’s decision to order a halt in the bombing, Humphrey lost to Nixon in a very close race.

  • “And I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We shall not stop there — we need a policy to prevent more Vietnams.”Richard Nixon, Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, August 8, 1968
  • “Meanwhile, as a citizen, a candidate, and Vice President, I pledge to you and to my fellow Americans, that I shall do everything within my power to aid the negotiations and to bring a prompt end to this war.”Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, August 29, 1968
  • “As president, I would stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and thereby shorten the war.”Hubert Humphrey, September 30, 1968
  • “In the last thirty-six hours, I have been advised of a flurry of meetings in the White House and elsewhere on Vietnam, I am told that the top officials in the administration have been driving hard for an agreement on a bombing halt, accompanied possibly by a cease-fire in the immediate future. I since learned that these reports are true. I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Mr. Humphrey. This I do not believe.”Richard Nixon, October 25, 1972

1972

In 1972 American involvement in the Vietnam War still remained an important campaign issue. President Richard Nixon was running for re-election and hoped that he could present himself as a peace candidate and focus on his foreign policy achievements. Although he had not ended the war in Vietnam, he had been able to bring tens of thousands of American troops home. Through the process of “Vietnamization,” Nixon was gradually transferring the burden of the war to the South Vietnamese. However, he still heavily supplied the Vietnamese with military equipment, and authorized punishing bombing runs. An invasion of Cambodia had risked expanding the war.

The Democratic candidate was George McGovern, a South Dakota senator who was considered the spokesman for the anti-war movement. McGovern, a World War II bomber pilot, had opposed American involvement in Vietnam since 1963. The Democratic Party’s 1972 platform called for an immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam. The party also supported amnesty for draft resisters, as well as an offer of amnesty to deserters on a case by case basis. This would occur after all American troops and POWs returned home.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the campaign Nixon suspended bombing in Vietnam, and negotiations began with the National Liberation Front. Just before the election Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that “peace was at hand.” Kissinger’s announcement helped propel Nixon to a landslide victory.

  • “We must have the courage to admit that however sincere our motives, we made a dreadful mistake in trying to settle the affairs of the Vietnamese people with American troops and bombers. . . . There is now no way to end it and to free our prisoners except to announce a definite, early date for the withdrawal of every American soldier. I make that pledge without reservation.”George McGovern, announcement of candidacy for the Presidency, 1972
  • “We believe that war is a waste of human life. We are determined to end forthwith a war which has cost 50,000 American lives, $150 billion of our resources, that has divided us from each other, drained our national will and inflicted incalculable damage to countless people. We will end that war by a simple plan that need not be kept secret: The immediate total withdrawal of all Americans from Southeast Asia.”1972 Democratic Party Platform
  • “We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight, It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution.”Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, October 1972

1980

In the 1980 presidential campaign Republican candidate Ronald Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars stated that the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.” In 1980 the war was still an open wound and his comment became fodder for incumbent Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter. A desperate Carter, playing on Vietnam fears, claimed that Reagan would likely involve the United States in war. But Reagan was able to score a victory in November, helping sweep into power a Republican Senate, for the first time in decades.

  • “It’s time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause.”Ronald Reagan, August, 1980

1988

Accusations of draft evasion dogged vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 campaign. Quayle, an obscure senator from Indiana, had been virtually unknown to the nation when George H.W. Bush picked him as his running mate at the Republican convention. Wendell C. Phillippi immediately came forward to claim that he had helped Quayle get into to the National Guard to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. Phillippi was a former senior editor at the Indianapolis News, which was owned by Quayle’s family, and also a major general in the Indiana National Guard.

Phillippi also claimed that there was nothing unusual in his intervention on Quayle’s behalf, as he had acted similarly for others as well. The revelation however cost Quayle, who had always assumed a pro-military posture, dearly. Despite calls to drop Quayle, Bush stuck to his decision and kept the senator on the ticket. The Bush/Quayle ticket won the election in November against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

  • “Exactly 20 years ago, who I said, ‘I’d like to get into the National Guard,’ phone calls were made, I can’t answer the – I don’t know the specifics of that. The only thing I know is I did want to get into the National Guard. I’m very proud of my service in the National Guard.”Senator Dan Quayle, 1988
  • “I got into the Guard fairly. There were no rules broken, to my knowledge… I, like many, many other Americans, had particular problems about the way the war was being fought. But yes, I supported my president and I supported the goal of fighting communism in Vietnam. “Vice President Dan Quayle 1992

1992

Once again in the 1992 presidential campaign, the question of a candidate dodging the draft for the Vietnam War became an issue. Quayle’s service in the National Guard once again made headlines. So too did charges that Democrat Bill Clinton dodged the draft for the Vietnam War. The Republicans claimed that in order to get a draft deferment, Clinton had pledged that he would enter the University of Arkansas Law School and join the R.O.T.C after attending Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. Instead, he chose to be reclassified I-A, which would have sent him to war. After the draft lottery was instituted in November 1969, he drew too high a number to be drafted. Instead of going to Vietnam, Clinton attended Yale Law School.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary a letter Clinton wrote in 1969 to the R.O.T.C chief at the University of Arkansas surfaced. In the letter Clinton expressed his thanks for getting him out of the draft. Despite the controversy–and accusations that he had had affairs with women–Clinton, the “Comeback Kid,” came in second in New Hampshire. In November he won a three-way election against incumbent Republican, George Bush and independent Ross Perot.

  • “I was in the draft before the lottery came in. I gave up the deferment. I got a high lottery number and I wasn’t called. That’s what the record reflects. A Republican member of my draft board has given an affidavit in the last couple of days saying that I got no special treatment and nothing in the letter changes that, although it is a true reflection of a just-turned-twenty-three-year-old young man.Bill Clinton, 1992
  • “I want to thank you, for saving me from the draft…I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress.”Bill Clinton to R.O.T.C commander Col. Eugene Holmes on December 3, 1969
  • “The Vietnam War is not an issue in 1992 and should not be”Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Senator and Democratic Candidate, in 1992
  • “To divide our party or our country over this issue today, in 1992, simply does not do justice to what all of us went through during that tragic and turbulent time.”John Kerry, on the Senate floor, February 27, 1992

2000

Vietnam played a minor role in the election, but questions about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War damaged the Republican’s credibility. Records indicated that he had possibly skipped duty during 1972 when he left Texas to work on a Republican senatorial candidate’s campaign in Alabama. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had served in a non-combat position in Vietnam and escaped criticism on this score at least.

2004

With the war in Iraq continuing, the Vietnam War again became a focus of the presidential campaign. John Kerry was attacked for allegedly “medal-shopping” while in Vietnam and for opposing the war after he returned home. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth assailed Kerry’s patriotism. For several weeks the newspapers were filled with stories about Vietnam. Democrats, reeling from the attacks, slowly responded by attacking George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard. A Texas Democrat claimed he had helped Bush jump other candidates to get into the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War. CBS claimed documents showed that Bush had directly disobeyed an order to take a physical. CBS later apologized, saying the documents may not be authentic.

  • “I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq.”John Kerry, comments released ahead of a midnight speech in Springfield, Ohio, September 2, 2004
  • “Character counts. Especially in the president of the United States, character counts. And we want a president that will be truthful and honest and level with the American people. If the president will lie about this, will he lie about how we got into Iraq, for example?”Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, 2004
  • “Nineteen individuals have served both in the National Guard and as president of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them.”George W. Bush, September 14, 2004

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