Hubert H. Humphrey was born on May 27, 1911, in South Dakota. As a young politician, Humphrey fought for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention, making himself a national figure, propelling him through a respected career as mayor of Minneapolis and later, a United States senator. Eventually he joined Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential ticket, and they won in a landslide in 1964.
Humphrey’s nickname was the Happy Warrior; he was known as a vice president who forged ties within the liberal establishment. But during his tenure in the White House, the unpopular war in Vietnam raged. Humphrey was torn between loyalty to his boss and his own political fortunes, which depended on distancing himself from administration policy. “Few vice presidents in history have been in as awkward a position as was Hubert Humphrey in 1968,” writes political scientist Marie D. Natoli.
1968 was a calamitous year in American life and politics. Johnson, battered by opposition to the war, declined to run for re-election just four years after his massive election victory in 1964. Political challengers Eugene McCarthy, and later Robert Kennedy, enlisted the support of throngs of youthful Democrats, who viewed Humphrey as hopelessly allied to discredited war policies. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, the assassination of Kennedy in June, and anti-war riots that accompanied Humphrey’s nomination in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in August contributed to a sense of national crisis. Humphrey very well might have lost the election the night of his nomination, as Americans were repulsed by the sights and sounds of riots in the streets of Chicago during the convention, writes Natoli.
But historian Kent G. Sieg notes that during the campaign, Humphrey moved quickly up a dozen points in the polls as he distanced himself from Johnson’s war policies, calling for a bombing halt in North Vietnam during a September 30th campaign speech. Johnson was furious at what he viewed as disloyalty from his vice president, but the decision to present a more dovish approach to the conflict appealed to many young, disaffected Democratic voters. By October, there appeared to be movement at the Paris Peace Accords, which continued to assist the Humphrey surge. “The kids are now identifying with Humphrey,” noted one aide.
And then the peace talks stalled. Sieg blames that development on Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, who enlisted the aid of political operative Anna Chennault to open a back channel to representatives of the South Vietnamese government. Nixon let the American allies know that if they distanced themselves from the talks, they could expect a better deal with a Republican victory. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering was wiretapped by Johnson. The implications were enormous: Nixon had sabotaged peace talks for a political purpose.
Though Humphrey knew this, he kept the revelations to himself. “Humphrey sat on the bombshell that could have won him the election,” Sieg writes. Humphrey apparently thought that a public release of the information would do even further damage to the stalled talks. Sieg and Natoli argue that this restraint is in fact proof of Humphrey’s rare political integrity.
Nixon scraped by with a narrow popular vote victory and a 301-191 Electoral College win, with third party candidate George Wallace winning 46 electoral votes. Natoli posits that the results were damaging to the country. The war raged on, national unity remained elusive, and “One of the most brilliant men to illuminate American politics in the twentieth century fell victim to the mood of 1968 America.” Many observers note that Humphrey, though well-respected in Democratic circles for his civil rights record, simply brought too much baggage at a time when his party was facing generational discord. As a presidential candidate, he found himself unable to unify a Democratic Party increasingly beholden to a younger generation urging radical change.