Anthropologists speak of "foundational" violence, acts that establish a broad milieu of destruction and discord. Forty years ago, America was in the grip of the foundational violence of its war against Vietnam, which, while killing thousands in Southeast Asia, was causing massive divisions in the United States, divisions that were increasingly violent. There was no separating that distant war from the broad social, political, and racial discord that made 1968 America's annus terribilis. On this date in that year, the man most responsible made a valiant attempt both to turn away from violence and to reckon with his own role as its instigator.
In a televised address, President Lyndon B. Johnson surprised the world by announcing a major de-escalation of American hostilities, a cessation of almost all bombing of North Vietnam, coupled with a plea to Hanoi for negotiations aimed at a political settlement. Johnson effectively renounced the goal of military victory.Indeed, his speech marked the end of an escalation that, inside the Pentagon, included proposals for the use of nuclear weapons. What gave this startling announcement its gravity, however, was what followed.
"There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as president of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples . . .
"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 . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Johnson did not explicitly define the meaning of this renunciation of office, and at the time many misunderstood it. Only weeks before, he had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy, and now some polls showed him trailing Robert Kennedy.
But Johnson could have rallied in that contest, and, with diehard support of unions and party bosses, almost certainly won re-nomination. By taking himself out of politics, he was adding weight to his appeal for peace negotiations, but not even that explains what he did.
In leaving the presidency, Johnson was accepting the ethical consequences of the mistake he had made. He could not pretend that the many thousands of deaths in Vietnam, and the torn fabric of American society, were of no significance to him. The words he spoke that night were not nearly as eloquent as the simple action he took, and nothing else could have given such truthful expression to the burden he felt.
At last, it was possible to believe that the president of the United States had been paying attention to the loss of life, erosion of community, skepticism of the young, disappointment of the old, despair of the poor - all that had followed on his foundational choices.
Lyndon Johnson stood before us as an American Oedipus - seeing the truth of what he had done, and doing what to him was the political equivalent of self-blinding. The last words of his speech concerned honor and sacrifice - "the sacrifice that duty may require."
But for once, an American president understood that responsibilities of honor and sacrifice belonged more to him than to anyone.
Johnson's action should have been the climax of that American tragedy, but it was not. The devils were loose, and the spirit of violence was unchecked. Four days after the speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, opening an abyss into which, with much else, the meaning of Johnson's momentous deed fell like a stone.
The peace talks began, but they would be inconclusive. Divisiveness thrived. Robert Kennedy was murdered. Democrats turned on each other. When Richard Nixon was elected as the peace candidate, he immediately restored the goal of victory in Vietnam. The bombers flew as never before.
But today, when the attitude of America's leadership toward the foundational tragedy it has caused is summed up with Dick Cheney's "So?", it is important to remember, by contrast, another president's act of authentic moral reckoning. What a difference! And why shouldn't this nation's soul be sorrowful?