The following article on the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign is an excerpt from Warren Kozak’s Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
George Corley Wallace, Jr. was born in Clio, Alabama in 1919. His family was at the bottom of the state’s social ladder. But, like retired Air Force Chief of staff Curtis LeMay, whom he selected in the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign, he had ambition and drive instilled in him by his mother.
He worked his way through college and law school. He was a sergeant in the Army Air Forces, serving under General LeMay in the Pacific, and flew combat missions on B-29s over Japan until he fell ill with spinal meningitis. Wallace returned home with a medical discharge and a disability pension. Politics in the Southern tradition came naturally to Wallace. Even when he was in the Marianas, he began sending Christmas cards to voters—people he had never met. A series of elected offices finally brought him to the Governor’s mansion in Montgomery in 1962. Yet even with this great honor, there was no reason that Wallace should ever have been a national figure. Few Americans could name the governor of any other state except their own.
But on June 11, 1963, Governor Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to deny entrance to the first three black students attempting to register for classes. Wallace failed. The federal government in the form of an assistant attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, ordered him to stand aside, and he had no choice but to move. The black students entered and the process of desegregation began at the university. That should have been the end of it all. But television cameras captured the event, flashing the image across the country. Within hours Wallace became not just a symbol for the South’s intransigence, but a national figure. Such controversial moments were a mere foreshadowing of the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign
Wallace instinctively understood that he could tap into the growing fear among white voters. He had money and an organization to help him run. Some of the money came from questionable contracts that the state of Alabama gave out for its work programs while he was governor. But money also started to roll in from individuals far from Alabama who sent five and ten dollar bills that began to add up to a large sum. Wallace even had a political party—the American Independent Party—and he declared the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign.
George Wallace sidestepped a head-on campaign about race and used the slogan “Law and Order,” even though everyone knew what he meant. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June and the riots surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago in August, Wallace found himself not far behind the Democratic nominee and sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Polls began to show a possibility that none of the candidates might receive an electoral majority, which would then throw the decision to the House of Representatives.
As the election came down to the final stretch in the first days of autumn, crowds at events for the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign were growing and his poll numbers were rising. Money poured into his headquarters. Douglas Kiker, a correspondent for NBC News who traveled with the campaign and was from Georgia himself, observed:
It is as if somewhere, sometime a while back, George Wallace had been awakened by a white, blinding vision: they all hate black people, all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The whole United States is Southern! Anybody who travels with Wallace these days on his presidential campaign finds it hard to resist arriving at the same conclusion.
RUNNING MATE FOR THE GEORGE WALLACE 1968 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
In order for Wallace to get on the ballot in some states, he needed a running mate. Wallace did not particularly want a running mate. He enjoyed being the sole practitioner of his divisive political message. He alone had the capacity to raise crowds into a frenzy, and he clearly relished taunting the inevitable hecklers who followed him from city to city. (More than once, bullies in the crowd who came to support Wallace physically attacked these protestors.) Wallace liked working alone.
The small group of directors who ran his campaign, almost all of them from Alabama, came up with several different names. Wallace wanted Governor John Connolly of Texas, who declined. One suggested J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. In September, the campaign seemed to strike a deal with A. B. “Happy” Chandler, the former governor of Kentucky and former baseball commissioner, but a last-minute problem arose. Chandler had been a racial moderate, and when asked to refute his record, he politely told Wallace and the campaign he would not. Wallace was stuck. A wealthy contributor in Indiana first put out the name Curtis LeMay. Wallace liked it. LeMay had national standing from his long Air Force career, he had tremendous experience, and he was certainly politically conservative. He understood there were a large number of voters who served in the military and would be attracted by LeMay. But when the campaign first approached LeMay, he said, flatly, no thanks.
LeMay was not a racist. There is absolutely nothing among his extensive papers, or any anecdotes over his very long career with slurs about any group or religion. Even in his criticism of liberals, he never pointed to any minority group. Many of the top World War II generals, including General Patton and General Stilwell, could not completely pass this test. Furthermore, LeMay had supported the Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, in initiating integration after World War II. Leaders in the Air Force determined that segregating units by race was wasteful and reduced productivity while excluding a huge talent pool.
On the face of it, LeMay had no incentive to team up with Wallace, or support him in any way. However, when the Wallace people came back to LeMay for a second try, the head of the campaign, Seymore Trammel, wisely hit on the one consequential factor that worried LeMay: the possibility of Humphrey winning and continuing the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara policies in Vietnam and the Cold War. This appealed to LeMay’s ongoing belief in defending his country.
LeMay was intrigued by the idea. He was politically conservative and had real worries about the direction that Johnson had taken the country. He feared that Humphrey would follow in Johnson’s footsteps. And he figured that by running with Wallace, he would draw votes from Humphrey in the South and help elect Richard Nixon while securing a platform from which to talk about his own ideas. While he was still disgusted with Wallace’s brand of racial politics, he became willing to overlook them, failing to understand in a stunning display of political naïveté that by running with Wallace, he would be condoning those politics.
LeMay shocked everyone around him when he finally said yes—and agreed to join a campaign that played off America’s worst impulses. His friends from the military tried to dissuade him. There were strong letters that came from every corner. Old timers like Spaatz, Eaker, and others told him to steer clear of Wallace. And his family was not interested either.
In LeMay’s acceptance speech at the press conference was one of the more extraordinary moments in a political year filled with them. It was breathtaking in its brevity and in its impact. British political observers Hodgson, Chester, and Page, who were present, described it this way:
It was over in seven minutes flat. One reporter was so stunned that he forgot to switch on his tape recorder. A CBS reporter, broadcasting live, had to take a grip on himself not to shake his head with sheer astonishment as he listened. A veteran British reporter who had slipped out for some refreshment at the bar came back in as LeMay finished. “Did I miss anything, old boy?” he asked. He sure did.
Everything George Wallace had feared, and every reason Wallace wanted to run alone played out in front of him. Everything he had worked for and felt within his grasp suddenly dissolved, like a handful of sand in an ocean wave. The George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign was suddenly collapsing.
Instead of explaining why he felt compelled to run, or why George Wallace was a good alternative to Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey, LeMay, inexplicably, chose to use this national platform, his first in years, to explain his philosophy of war and why every weapons system—including nuclear weapons—should be used to win wars rather than have prolonged and gradual conflicts like the one taking place in Vietnam. A person with any political acumen would have chosen fifty topics to cover before talking about the use of nuclear weapons. And nobody in the crowd was more flummoxed by what came out of LeMay’s mouth than George Corley Wallace, who tried to step in and salvage what might be left of his campaign.
“General LeMay hasn’t advocated the use of nuclear weapons, not at all,” Wallace tried to interject. But LeMay came right back and replied: “I gave you a discussion on the phobia that we have in this country about the use of nuclear weapons.”
Wallace jumped in again, and again LeMay answered.
The George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign had shown clear signs up until that moment that it was being run by amateurs. This press conference, which should have been a rote introduction of a running mate instead turned into what could best be described as a segment from a political version of the Keystone Cops. Everyone knew LeMay was no politician, but this press conference went beyond what they might have considered to be a worst case scenario. If LeMay wanted to destroy the chances of Hubert Humphrey taking the White House, he may have succeeded in doing exactly that to Wallace.
It can be seen in the polls of that year that Wallace crested to his strongest numbers ten minutes before that press conference began in Pittsburgh. From that moment on, he would only go downhill. The great political writer of the twentieth century, Theodore White, watched the change in mood towards Wallace. “Down he went, gurgling, first in the Harris poll, then in the Gallup poll, followed by every other index. . . . And the peril with which he had threatened the two-party system appeared, for the year 1968 and the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign at least, to have been smothered by the much-maligned electoral system ordained by the United States Constitution.”
The reaction to LeMay’s decision to run with Wallace was clear and strong. His boss at Network Electronics Corporation, Mihal Patrichi, called him a no-good bum (LeMay would never return to the job). A former colleague at the Pentagon, said, “He’s not helping us a damn bit.” His friend and former Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater admitted: “I hope he hasn’t made a mistake, but I think he has.” And his own 91-year-old mother-in-law back in Ohio, Maude Maitland, said, “I idolize Curt, but I’m very, very disappointed.”
Perhaps the most stinging commentary of the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign came from the political cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times, Paul Conrad. On the front page of the October 6, 1968, edition, millions of readers saw the image of Wallace and LeMay in uniform standing together at a podium, smoking cigars, and up above the clouds, a smiling Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering with the caption reading: “It brings to mind der good old days . . . yah, Herr Goering?” The irony came full circle as LeMay, a legitimate American hero, was compared to the most evil, maniacal villain of our time—someone he risked his own life to defeat.
Mercifully, LeMay had come into the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign late. There was only one month for him to do what he disliked in the first place. The Wallace people were grateful for this as well. Once, when a reporter asked him about legalized abortion and the use of birth control, two essential platforms for Wallace’s support from the conservative right, LeMay did not back away for a second. “I favor them both,” he candidly responded. His political handlers visibly winced.
The entire riotous George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign came to an end on Tuesday, November 5, when 71 million Americans cast their votes. Richard Nixon barely squeaked past Hubert Humphrey, winning with 43.4 percent of the popular vote against Humphrey’s 42.7 percent . . . a difference of only 500,000 votes out of 71 million cast. Wallace/LeMay garnered just under 13 percent or 9.9 million votes.
Nixon was farther ahead in the electoral count, winning thirty-two states against Humphrey’s thirteen states plus the District of Columbia. The George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign carried five states, all in the South: Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and, of course, Alabama, for a total of 46 Electoral votes against Humphrey-Muskie’s 191 and Nixon-Agnew’s 301.
This article on the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign is from the book Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician © 2014 by Warren Kozak. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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