Sunday, March 30, 2008

President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Vietnam 40 Years Ago

Forty years ago tomorrow – March 31, 1968 – President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a surprised American public that he would not seek another term as President of the United States.

Johnson’s exact words on national television were: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

In Clay Risen’s April 2008 Smithsonian magazine article “The Unmaking of the President,” Risen says that, after making this announcement, Johnson was “by all accounts a man renewed.” Johnson felt he now had “the political capital to get passed” several of his domestic programs as well as achieving peace in Vietnam.

Yet just four days later on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. And as riots spread in cities throughout the U.S. over the loss of this major civil rights leader, Johnson’s ability to follow through on his new agenda was severely hampered, Risen says.

In my forthcoming book MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL, I describe the moment when Sharon hears the news of the killing of Martin Luther King. In 1968, only four years after the passage of the Civil Right Act, this is an incredibly dramatic moment in American history.

Yet what I had never considered, until reading Risen’s article, is that besides all the potential improvements in the lives of American blacks that might have been made if Ray had not killed King, the Vietnam War might have ended in 1968.

While the young men already in ROTC would still have served their two-year active duty commitment, in the spring of 1970 (when the novel takes place) these young men and their wives would not have had to fear an unaccompanied Vietnam tour. And the Kent State National Guard shootings would never have taken place, because the U.S. would no longer be fighting in Vietnam.

Forty years ago one man’s mad act changed the world in ways that may never fully be understood.

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