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“im A Born Optimist”
The Era of Hubert H. Humprey
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Humphrey had been opposed to Vietnam involvement in the beginning, then for it, then against it again. Early in the Johnson years, he wrote a private memorandum sharply warning against escalation of the war. LBJ’s reaction was to exclude Humphrey from the inner councils of the administration, and the Vice President-as he had during his early Senate years-bled. In 1966 he flew off to Saigon ostensibly to dramatize land redistribution and other “good works” which the administration was aiding in Indochina, and came back an unabashed cheerleader for the war. Doubtless, he wanted to believe, because he wanted to belong. He was back in the fold, but uneasy still at the burgeoning domestic opposition to the war. In October of 1967 he returned to Saigon and warned the leaders of South Vietnam that U.S. support for the war was deteriorating. They smilingly told him there was no turning back for the U.S., no matter how many years the conflict lasted. It was the turning point for Humphrey. Upon his return, he submitted a blistering report to Johnson. LBJ never released the report, but by now support for the war had so eroded that the President no longer could isolate and ignore its critics as he had done before.
Many observers were convinced in 1968 that Humphrey could have defeated Nixon in the presidential campaign if he had broken completely with Johnson. He thought many times about doing just that. But he felt that even if it meant winning the Presidency, he could not turn against the man whose Vice President he was.
“It might have been better—tactically better—to break with Johnson,” he conceded later. “But it would have destroyed the Paris peace negotiations. I couldn’t do that. I was Vice President. I was obliged to be a member of the team. I consulted with Averell Harriman on September 14  and urged that he and Cy Vance [Harriman and Cyrus Vance were the U.S. negotiators] agree to a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Harriman was upset. Vance was upset. Johnson was upset.” Two of Humphrey’s ablest advisers, Ted Van Dyk and campaign manager Larry O’Brien, told him never mind—he had to turn his back on a policy that no longer had general support and which, moreover, he knew was wrong. It had placed Johnson’s chances for renomination in peril, rendered his re-election virtually impossible, and dissuaded him even from running. But despite a partial break, following which his standing in the polls soared, it was not in Humphrey’s nature to abandon Johnson completely. He stayed aboard the sinking Johnson ship too long and went down with it.
I had sat with Humphrey and his entourage during the tumultuous days of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when heads were being broken, stink bombs thrown, antiwar demonstrators arrested. Agonized, knowing his chances for election were waning with every moment of televised violence, Humphrey still could not desert his President.
“I don’t know if that one issue cost the election,” he later said. “There were a lot of factors. It was a period of unrest throughout the world. In the U.S., there had been three tragic political assassinations. There was so much unrest over civil rights, and of course there was unrest over the war. Still, it was one of the most exciting periods in American history. I may have made some little impact on it. It was a great adventure. I think as a nation we came through it all right. We learned something. I’m a born optimist.”
Whatever he did, whatever stand he took, Humphrey always wanted his audience, be it one person or thousands, to understand . It was the reason he talked overly long—approaching a subject from the front, the back, and every side.
“I believe I helped bring out a social consciousness in people. I always stressed things important to people . Back at the convention in 1948, we were instrumental in opening up the area of civil rights. At the time, it was a very lonely and a very sad journey. I loved the South. I’ll never forget how badly I used to feel because my friends from the South didn’t see Hubert Humphrey as I thought he was. But that’s all in the past now. I was in Dallas recently and someone said to me: ‘Humphrey, you’ve changed. ‘Well, Dallas has changed. This country has changed.”
Why had he risked his career to lead a fight that meant nothing in terms of his electability in his home state?
“I had been taught that the way you treat people is the way you treat God,” he once explained, and added, “I was taught that religion should have something to do with your daily Hf e-not just with Sunday.”
Now Humphrey was a desperately sick man. On the day when tourists in the corridor had failed to recognize him, when I had accompanied him into his office, he talked of the United States as it had been when he had first come to the Senate and as it was now, thirty years later.