“May we all be calm and free and wise and steady. There is something about ‘steady’ that I always associate with Kentucky, and that’s why I’m here.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Dedication speech at Thomas More College
September 28, 1968
Rick Robinson is a local author who is writing a book based on life in Northern Kentucky in 1968 and what we can learn now. LINK will publish excerpts from the book regularly in the LINK Reader, as well as on linknky.com. This is chapter 9. Click here to read chapter 8, Rick Robinson’s 1968: August
In September 1968, Northern Kentucky had a surprise visitor – United States President Lyndon B. Johnson.
President Johnson came to town for the dedication of the newly named Thomas More College. Thomas More president, Msgr. John Murphy had extended the invitation at the beginning of 1968, when Johnson was still running for reelection. However, confirmation of the presidential visit occurred only days before the actual dedication ceremony, leaving college officials scrambling to prepare. The Kentucky Post and Times Star noted President Johnson looked down from the podium “like a benevolent dictator.”
President Johnson’s speech covered everything from theology to politics, with a laundry list of his accomplishments while in office. And while Johnson did not mention those seeking to replace him in the Oval Office by name, the political portion of the speech was certainly aimed at candidates Richard Nixon and George Wallace and those opposing the war in Vietnam. He compared the turmoil of 1968 to that occurring at the country’s first Constitutional Convention. “Today you and I, and the whole American Nation, face another time of controversy and choice. And in a way, I guess we must create our own miracle,” the President said. “We must emerge from a season of bitter debate with a national decision – with a choice – which will strengthen our unity and not endanger it. We must– as we Americans must every election year-renew that great experiment in democratic government that was begun 181 years ago.”
Johnson then turned his thoughts to the 1968 campaigns for President:
“Some people discovered a long time ago that it is easier to scare people than it is to reason with them; that it is easier to shout fire than to fight fire; that it is easier to condemn crime than to conquer crime.
But, in my opinion, anyone–anyone-and I am not speaking a name, I am speaking of anyone — who exploits fear, and who exploits hate, and who exploits prejudice, and who preaches division and disunity – whoever he may be – chooses the low road and the wrong road.”
The Kentucky Post and Times Star called the well-kept secret of the surprise Presidential visit ‘almost flawless, noting “one woman outwitted the security corps by embracing him [Johnson] vigorously and smacking him on the cheek.” There is no indication whether the incident was one of admiration or confrontation.
Valera Koester was at Thomas More that day and reflected on how exciting it was to see the motorcade arrive and shake the President’s hand. “Back then television wasn’t like it is today,” she said. “You didn’t constantly see the president on TV. So, seeing the President of the United States and shaking his hand was quite a thrill.”
President Lyndon Johnson was not the only politician making waves in the region in September 1968. With the election on the horizon, politics were on full display in Northern Kentucky.
A Senatorial debate between Marlow Cook and Kathryn Peden became heated when Peden accused Cook of “trying to demagogue the Vietnam War.” Her declaration of Nixon and Eisenhower as the people who “got us in there in the first place” drew boos from the predominantly female audience at the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs. It also drew a strong rebuke from Cook who asserted the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations were following the Geneva Treaty provisions regarding Vietnam. “Today under Lyndon Johnson the commitment has been elevated from 7,000 men to 580,000,” he said.
Peden stumbled a second time when she responded to Cook’s plans for a volunteer military force and referred to Americans who would willingly become a soldier as “mercenaries.” A woman in the first row with two sons and a grandson who was wounded in Vietnam stood up and ripped Peden for the characterization. The reporter covering the event thought Cook clearly won the confrontation.
In the campaign for President, Northern Kentuckians supporting the Presidential bid of Eugene McCarthy offered lukewarm support to the Humphrey/Muskie ticket. William Billingsly of Ft. Mitchell had been a floor leader for McCarthy at the state convention and noted, “the McCarthy people are split up about what they are going to do.” He hoped McCarthy backers would not be lured away from Hubert Humphrey by the “demagoguery” of George Wallace.
The concept of having no other option was a common response of McCarthy supporters. Covington attorney Jim Nolan, who had chaired the McCarthy campaign in Kenton County, predicted some may stay at home on election day. He personally had concluded, “there is no reason to vote for Republican Richard Nixon or George Wallace … except out of anger.”
One local Democrat hoped Humphrey would move further left. While in the United States Senate, Hubert Humphrey maintained a liberal voting record. One could logically conclude the statement was aimed at his support of President Johnson tactics in Vietnam and his failure to support a “peace platform” at the Democratic National Convention.
Endorsements mattered in 1968 and politicians scrambled in and out of the offices of local newspapers to get them. The Kentucky Post and Times Star was no exception.
In the race for the 4th District seat in the United States Congress, The Kentucky Post and Times Star endorsed Republican Gene Snyder over Democratic lawyer and newspaper publisher, Gus Sheehan. The editorial carrying the endorsement noted the pair had similar views on many issues – “particularly in conservatism, adherence to constitutional principles and states’ rights.” But the editorial noted, “The chief difference as we see it is Snyder’s now-established Washington know-how, his verve, wider public contact and recorded interpretation of public opinion.”
The newspaper endorsed a second Republican when they endorsed Marlow Cook for United States Senate. Interestingly, while previously praising Snyder’s conservatism, the endorsement of Cook labeled him as a “modern, moderate Republican, a sober individual who confronts but is able to reduce crises.” And his neither “hawk” nor “dove” stance on Vietnam played into the endorsement. “In broad terms, he calls for a much larger participation there by other Southeast Asian nations and for an ‘honorable’ American withdrawal.”
An endorsement of Richard Nixon for President of the United States made it a sweep for Republicans. The editorial set forth the concept of Vice President Hubert Humphrey would have to heal the Democratic Party before he dealt with the nation. It also stated George Wallace offered no hope at all. The editorial went through the issues facing the country and explained how Nixon was better equipped than Humphrey to handle each of them. Nixon, the editorial concluded, “has the experience, the knowledge and the innate intellect which we expect and need in a President.”
All politics aside, it was headlines about Army Private Michael Branch, a twenty-one-year-old soldier from Alexandria, causing a major stir in Northern Kentucky.
Private Branch dropped out of high school to enlist in the Army. He served some time in Germany before getting deployed in Vietnam in February of 1968. Once in-country, Branch began driving an ammunition supply truck between Utah Beach and Da Nang. Sometime in April he quit writing letters to his family in Campbell County and they became worried. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Branch was listed as AWOL (Absent Without Leave). When the Army eventually informed the family of his formal status, they were in shock. They began asking questions and shared their story with The Kentucky Post and Times Star.
According to the articles, accounts of Branch’s whereabouts varied. A cousin of Branch’s wife heard a radio report on Radio Hanoi stating Branch had defected. Another said Branch went AWOL but had been apprehended. The AWOL rumor, from an Army official at the Pentagon, claimed Branch was in the custody of United States military police in Hanoi. Another soldier alleged to have seen Branch voluntarily walk off the base where he was stationed.
Branch’s wife Marilyn did not believe any of the accounts being told to her. “He was getting out July 16,” she said. “Why would he do that?” She began a letter writing campaign.
The first to respond was a Major General of the Army stating, “Every effort is being made to confirm or deny these reports and to positively ascertain the exact status of [Branch].” The letter only made the situation more confusing to the family.
United States Congressman Gene Snyder got involved and clarified the status of Michael Branch had been changed to “Missing in Action.” Snyder’s letter to the family included a telegram from the Army stating, “after an extensive investigation by military personnel and new evidence acquired by military intelligence established that Specialist Branch may not have acted under his own volition.” The telegram also noted the report of Branch being in the custody of military police was given in error.
The letter from Congressman added a new twist. Michael Branch’s family wondered what was meant by the reference in the telegram of “new evidence” meant. They would soon find out when a special board was convened in Vietnam to determine if Michael Branch had deserted his post.
In a harsh editorial, The Kentucky Post and Times Star attacked the Army for its Pentagon double talk and contradiction. It sided with the family and blasted the Army for charging a soldier near the end of his hitch with desertion when he would not be there to defend himself. “Is Specialist Branch a dead hero, a live deserter, a prisoner of war, a defector, a victim of Communist drugs and torture, or of Washington bureaucracy or of Military snafu?”
Indeed, Michael Branch was very much alive. He was, in fact, a Prisoner of War.
To learn the rest of the saga, you must fast forward five years to March of 1973 when POW Specialist Michael Branch finally came home from Vietnam. His first stop back in the United States was at Ireland Hospital on base at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. There he was warmly greeted by his parents and members of his family.
The Kentucky Post and Times Star covered the tearful reunion.
“The helicopter circled down, the MPs straightened their stance and Brig. General Homer S. Long, came forward.
It was 5:45 p.m. The ‘copter’s engine was cut, the doors opened.
And there, after five years in the jungles of Sout Vietnam and the rubble of the north stood Spec. 4 Branch.
He saluted, and sided by members of the base’s Operation Homecoming, walked steadily forward.
He looked slightly to the right and left. He was thin and piqued and apprehensive.
It was quiet as onlookers filled their eyes with the sight of a returning solider, home from a cruel war.”
Before returning to civilian life, Branch went to Washington, D.C. to face charges regarding his service. While imprisoned, Branch was alleged to be a member of a group of prisoners known as the “peace committee.” Many returning POWs were upset at members of the peace committee for speaking out against America’s presence in Vietnam in return for special treatment by prison guards. Fueled by a New York Times article labeling Branch as a self-described deserter, he faced charges related to his actions while in captivity. Charges were dropped against Branch, and he was granted an honorable discharge. While in D.C. defending himself, Branch was unceremoniously dropped from the guest list at a White House celebration honoring POWs.
Shortly thereafter Michael Branch faced the media. He explained that, following a meeting with the base Chaplin over a “Dear John” divorce letter from his wife (a letter his wife later denied writing), he left the base to take a thoughtful walk along a nearby beach. There, in sight of US military vessels offshore, he was captured by three North Vietnamese regulars and taken to prison.
According to The Kentucky Post and Times Star:
“He told of beatings, being bound and gagged, being forced to kneel with his arms raised above his head for hours at a time, so that the blood drained from them and made them numb.
He admitted calmly he had signed ‘certain statements,’ including one he was a deserter, ‘because I was forced and beaten.’
And I was not a member of any ‘peace committee.’
A reporter asked him if he thought he was a hero.
No, I am not a hero,” he said reflectively. ‘But there were heroes, I suppose, and if I’d been a hero, I would have died over there.’
Much like Vietnam itself, Northern Kentuckians were split about Michael Branch. His 1973 return was at the end of Vietnam and just a month before the South Vietnamese capital fell to communist-backed Viet Cong forces. As a returning POW, many gave Branch a hero’s welcome home. Michael Branch Day in Campbell County included a special Mass, a parade, accolades, and the presentation of a scholarship to NKU.
Others, including those in the anti-war movement, viewed Michael Branch with a jaundiced eye. Once when speaking about President Gerald Ford’s amnesty plan for men who had fled to Canada to avoid military service, “You see, when I got back, I expected the anti-war movement to be there to support us. They weren’t there and I was real disappointed.”
Back to September of 1968, the whereabouts of Michael Branch was unknown and the local body count from Vietnam continued to rise.
Williamstown resident, Private First-Class Edgar Lee “Scooter” Tomlinson, whom had previously been awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his actions in combat, was killed when the armored personnel carrier he was driving struck a land mine. He was only 19 years old. “After his 17th birthday, he decided he was going to enlist,” his father said. “We couldn’t talk him out of it. My son was that kind of boy.”
Another 19-year-old, Marine Private First-Class Bobby Reece Sumpter of Alexandria was killed while on patrol in Quang Nam Province.
More than any other month in 1968, September had shown the intertwined relationship between Vietnam and politics. A heralded visit from a Democratic President was offset by a clean sweep of endorsements of Republicans running for federal office. It brought the policy behind Vietnam into focus. The deaths of Bobby Reece Sumpter and Edgar Lee “Scooter” Tomlinson coupled with the case of Michael Branch made the focus on policy very personal to Northern Kentuckians.
As this was happening, young people were listening to a new generation of music being played across the region.
Rick Robinson’s award-winning books can be found at area bookstores and are available on Amazon. In a new book to be released later this year, he will be viewing Northern Kentucky through the lens of 1968. If you wish to contact Robinson with a story or thoughts about 1968, you may do so at [email protected]. Photo credits compliments of Kenton County Library Faces and Places. Unless otherwise noted, all stories and quotes from 1968 are from articles that appeared in The Kentucky Post and Times-Star.