In 1968, it was assumed that President Lyndon B. Johnson would run for reelection, and indeed his name was entered in early primaries with his consent. But unhappy with Johnson and war in Vietnam, many Democrats urged Senator Robert Kennedy to oppose him. In January, faced with what was widely considered an...
In 1968, it was assumed that President Lyndon B. Johnson would run for reelection, and indeed his name was entered in early primaries with his consent. But unhappy with Johnson and war in Vietnam, many Democrats urged Senator Robert Kennedy to oppose him. In January, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic if not impossible race against an incumbent president, Kennedy stated publicly he would not seek the presidency. However, early 1968 was tumultuous and events were fast-moving and unpredictable. On January 30, the North Vietnamese launched the massive Tet Offensive, a surprise attack on South Vietnamese and American forces that reached from every province in Vietnam right into the American embassy itself. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese forces claimed victory based on repulsing the attacks and body counts, the Tet Offensive made the American people realize that their opponent was stronger and better organized than had been previously realized, and that the light (a military victory) was not visible at the end of the tunnel, as had been promised.
At this point, beginning in February and March, RFK’s closest friends begged him to reconsider his decision not to run against Johnson. They wrote him with tales of poor people around the country hanging his picture on their walls. They appealed to his sense of public service and the legacy of his brother. One such friend was the wife of late Kennedy friend Dr. George Minot, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Helen had been a friend not only of Robert but of John Kennedy as well. She urged him to run for President against Johnson in a March letter.
On March 12, 1968, in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson was opposed by Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an outspoken foe of the war but a virtual unknown lacking any funds or any sense of charisma. Johnson had done well in New Hampshire in the 1964 election, and it was anticipated that he would clobber McCarthy, and that if McCarthy could gain any appreciable vote it would be a miracle. Johnson won, all right, but it was a narrow victory (McCarthy received over 40% of the vote) that showed how vulnerable Johnson was. Kennedy now realized that perhaps Johnson’s grip on the nomination was not so strong as he had considered, and he made a move. Kennedy declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate office building—the same room where his brother declared his own candidacy eight years earlier. He stated, “I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”
On March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race with the support of the party establishment. Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries. This he did in Indiana and Nebraska in May of 1968, and he began to look to California. On May 20, he paused to write his friend Helen Minot, thanking her for her kind words and giving her partial credit for his decision to run for President. It was one of the later letters he would write in his life, as two weeks later he would be dead.
Typed letter signed, on his United States Senate letterhead, Washington, May 20, 1968, to Mrs. Minot. “Dear Helen: I am sorry I have been so long delayed in replying to your kind letter of March. I did think you should know, however, that after reading your note, I decided to run. Seriously, it was nice to hear from you, and I hope I’ll have a chance to see you in the coming weeks.” This letter was acquired from the Minot heirs and has never before been offered for sale.
On June 5, Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in California, and he died the next day. Because of the pace of the campaign and his delayed entry, letters from RFK’s campaign are very uncommon, and that is particularly true of one signed so late and relating to the decision to run itself.
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