Speech at the Greek Theatre

March 24, 1968


Los Angeles, CA

Surrounded as we are by a crisis in Vietnam, civil strife in our great cities, and a division among our people, which often erupt in dramatic forms, it is easy to overlook the most profound crisis of all: the unprecedented and perilous drift of American society away from some of its most treasured principles.

This crisis is not dramatic. It does not suddenly flare into morning headlines or across the evening television screens. The movement cannot even be noticed as we go about our daily tasks. Yet over a period of years it has brought us to a most dangerous point. We know what this generation can accomplish.

We have had problems in the past. But at the same time we have shown that we can deal with our adversaries without bloodshed, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. We know that we can move toward protecting mankind from nuclear disaster, as with the …Test Ban Treaty. We know that this nation can be fired by idealism and will serve the needs of others by peaceful means, as through the Peace Corps. We know we can begin to reduce the tensions between black and white, and not just through laws by personal leadership.

Together, we can make this a nation where young people do not seek the false space of drugs. Together, we can make this a nation where old people are not shunted off; where, regardless of the color of his skin or the place of birth of his father, every citizen will have an equal chance at dignity and decency. Together, Americans are the most decent, generous, and compassionate people in the world.

Divided, they are collections of islands. Island of blacks afraid of islands of whites. Islands of northerners bitterly opposed to islands of southerners. Islands of workers warring with islands of businessmen.

The sense of possibility matched to human capacity has been the central theme of our history, from the first settlers through Wilson and Roosevelt and Truman. It was the moving spirit of the Democratic Party in its proudest and most productive moments; it was the tradition of this country. Something has happened to that guiding spirit.

In specific terms the shift of deterioration is easier to see. It is most dramatically illuminated by the current disastrous course we follow in Vietnam. More than five hundred thousand American soldiers have been hurled into a bottomless Asain swamp against the counsel of almost every intelligent general from MacArthur to Ridgway. We know that by following the present course we cannot win a military victory—we cannot settle the war.

All that happens is ever-increasing destruction as frustration causes us to hurl more and more power against a small society…But the fact that our enemy is so primitive is also their greatest strength. For our power is meant to disable sophisticated, urban, technological societies. In Vietnam it is like fighting a swarm of bees with a sledgehammer…

All the phrases which have meant so much to Americans—peace and progress, justice and compassion, leadership and idealism—often sound not like stirring reminders of our nation, but call forth the cynical laughter or hostility of our young and many of our adults. Not because they do not believe them, but because they do not think our leaders mean them.

These specific failures reflect the larger failure of national purpose. We do not know where we are going. We have been stripped of goals and values and direction, as we move aimlessly and rather futilely from crisis to crisis and danger to danger. And the records shows that kind of approach will not only solve problems, it will only deepen them.

This is not simply the result of bad policies and lack of skill. It flows from the fact that for almost the first time the national leadership is calling upon the darker impulses of the American spirit: not, perhaps, deliberately, but through its action and the example if sets—an example where integrity, truth, honor, and all the rest seem like words to fill out speeches rather than guiding beliefs. Thus we are turned inward. People wish to protect what they have. There is a failing of generosity and compassion. There is an unwillingness to sacrifice or take risks. All of this is contrary to the deepest and most dominant impulses of the American character—all that which has characterized two centuries of history.

The issue in this election, therefore, is whether this new and startling path shall continue into the future, or whether we shall turn back to our roots and to our tradition, so that future historians shall view this period as the great aberration of American history. This is the issue you must decide this year. That is why I am running. Not simply to become president of the United States. Not simply because I have new ideas and new programs and new policies. But because I hope to offer you in the form of my candidacy—because that is the only way our system allows such a choice—I hope to offer you a way in which the people themselves can lead the way back to those ideals which are the source of national strength and generosity and compassion of deed.