Nixon's Savage Attack on the Greatest Anti-War Movement in U.S. History
By Rick Perlstein, AlterNet.
Posted May 12, 2008.
As millions of Americans came together to fight the war in Vietnam,
Nixon's politics became more ruthless.
The following is excerpted from Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.
It was the idea of a Boston envelope manufacturer, the kind of figure
Richard Nixon was used to approaching for political contributions: a
one-day nationwide general strike against the war. Most antiwar
leaders were skeptical. One who wasn't, who knew something about
quixotic successes, was Sam Brown, the organizer of the McCarthy
"Children's Crusade" in 1968. The usual spots where dissidents
gathered, he realized -- New York, San Francisco, Washington -- were
foreign territory to most Americans. This action would be
determinedly local. Get pictures on the AP wire of antiwar butchers,
bakers, and candlestick makers in Schenectady, Cincinnati, and
Bakersfield, and a new antiwar narrative might emerge. Since "strike"
sounded like something bomb-throwers did, they adopted, instead, a
Nixon word: moratorium. A moratorium from everyday life, smack dab in
the middle of the week.
The first press release went out: "On October 15, 1969, this nation
will cease 'business as usual' to protest the war in Vietnam and for
the Nixon administration to bring the troops home." (Nixon issued a
dictate to John Ehrlichman on June 24, using a favorite football
metaphor: come up with an anti-Moratorium game plan by July. What was
significant about that order was that the protest was not announced
publicly for another week.) The Vietnam Moratorium Committee
organized on a scale never attempted before. The core was the 253
student government officers and student newspaper editors who had
signed an anti-draft pledge in spring. The spring clashes on campuses
actually worked to their advantage. People wanted desperately to talk
to these clean-cut kids knocking on their doors -- to grasp the
baffling events just past. That was the conversation starter, the
opening to points like: "Isn't 25,000 a rather token amount of troops
for Nixon to withdraw, given that there were over 500,000 American
boys in Vietnam? Didn't that rate of withdrawal mean we would still
be in Vietnam in nine years?"
John Ehrlichman named as the anti-Moratorium game plan's quarterback
Nixon's favorite football coach, Bud Wilkinson, late of the
University of Oklahoma. What Wilkinson proposed, since "no one likes
to be used," was that he jawbone the kids into realizing the
Moratorium as "an attempt to exploit students for the organizers' own
purposes." "It's easy to manipulate kids," Haldeman agreed, "because
they love to get excited. You can foment them up for a panty raid, or
in the old days, gold-fish swallowing." But six weeks after Bud
Wilkinson started meeting with student leaders to shame them into the
realization that they were cats' paws, he apologetically reported
back: kids were laughing in his face. "The problem of dealing with
the Vietnam Moratorium Committee," Wilkinson noted, with
understatement, "is difficult."
Some Establishment leaders surveying the anti-war disruptions began
concluding that the best way to end the anti-war was to end the war.
Notre Dame's Father Hesburgh earned an Oval Office audience for his
get-tough policies against student protesters and took the
opportunity to beg the president to reform the draft and end the war
"as soon as possible." The president of the most violence-wracked
campus in the country, the University of Michigan, practically
thundered against the war in the opening convocation. Word came down
from the President: "not to be included in any White House conferences."
Simultaneously, the White House launched an anti-Moratorium Plan B:
leaking word that they were responding to demonstrations. The New
York Times printed the testimony of an anonymous "critic" within the
administration that there would soon be "a temporary suspension of
the draft for an unspecified time" and that when conscription resumed
men would only be eligible for a year after their 19th birthday
instead of the present six, and only professional soldiers and
draftees who volunteered would be sent to Vietnam.
Nixon started making mistakes. On September 26 he held his first
press conference since June. Aides urged him not to sneer at
something so obviously broad-based as the new antiwar surge. Asked
first about the proposal of Charles Goodell, the Republican senator
Nelson Rockefeller had appointed to fill out the late Bobby Kennedy's
term, to cut off funding for the war after December 1, 1970, he
responded like something out of 1984: "that inevitably leads to
perpetuating and continuing the war." The third question was a
softball: "What is your view, sir, concerning the student moratorium
and other campus demonstrations being planned for this fall against
the Vietnam War?" He replied, with monarchical bluntness, "under no
circumstances will I be affected whatever by it."
The remark was the next day's lead story. VMC leaders put on a press
conference timed for the Sunday papers. Dozens of reporters showed up
instead of the usual five or six. They had done what Nixon had done
in 1948 with Truman, and 1966 with Johnson: massively inflated their
stature by making themselves debating partners of a president. They
also played skillfully into the emerging media narrative: that the
stresses of the job were getting to Nixon. They said what distressed
them about his statement "is the degree of isolation which it
reflects. It is the kind of rigid stance which contributed so much to
the bitterness of debate during the last days of the Johnson administration."
They were speaking the Establishment's language, and the
Establishment suddenly started showing respect. Newsweek reported:
"Originally, October 15 was to have been a campus-oriented protest.
But it has quickly spread beyond the campus. And, if everything goes
according to the evolving plans, the combination of scheduled events
could well turn into the broadest and most spectacular antiwar
protest in American history."
Everything was going better than planned. As Weathermen tore up
Chicago, the New York Times reported on a letter from six of the top
Vietnam experts from the Rand Corporation, the top defense think
tank. America should withdraw, they said, unilaterally and
immediately -- not "conditioned upon agreement or performance by
Hanoi or Saigon." They went on: "Short of destroying the entire
country and its people, we cannot eliminate the enemy force in
Vietnam by military means." Even further: if every enemy soldier or
sympathizer was somehow magically eliminated the other side still
would not make "the kinds of concessions currently demanded" -- a
divided Vietnam with the South overseen by a government that the
people there thought fundamentally illegitimate. "'Military victory'
is no longer the U.S. objective," despite what the American
government told the American people, and that wasn't even the worst
of the lies: "The importance to U.S. national interests of the future
political complexion of South Vietnam has been greatly exaggerated,
as has the negative impact of the unilateral U.S. withdrawal" --
whose risks "will not be less after another year or more of American
involvement." The Times called them "men of considerable expertise
who normally shun publicity" -- and that one, "Daniel Ellsberg, spent
two years working for the State Department in Saigon before joining
Rand." The New Yorker, in the issue that hit newsstands three days
before the Moratorium, ran a report called "Casualties of War" about
a five-man reconnaissance squad who kidnapped and gang-raped a South
Vietnamese girl, then murdered her. The anti-antiwar side fought back
with a national newspaper ad headlined "Everyone who wants peace in
Vietnam should: TELL IT TO HANOI." It listed in the left-hand column
seven steps "the President of the United States has done to end the
war in Vietnam." The right-hand column named Hanoi's contribution:
"Nothing." It printed a coupon to clip out and send to "Citizens for
Peace with Security," promising, "We'll see to it that the evidence
of your support for the President without dishonor for the United
States is transmitted to the enemy in Hanoi. The time has come for
the 'silent Americans' to speak out."
Two precisely incommensurate propositions: that either patience or
impatience with the war was the road to national dishonor. On the
15th, the American people could vote on that referendum with their feet.
Richard Nixon lost. Life called it "the largest expression of public
dissent ever seen in this country." Two million Americans protested
-- most for the first time in their lives.
Everywhere, black armbands; everywhere, flags at half staff; church
services, film showings, teach-ins, neighbor-to-neighbor canvasses.
In North Newton, Kansas, a bell tolled every four seconds, each clang
memorializing a fallen soldier; in Columbia, Maryland, an electronic
sign counted the day's war deaths. Milwaukee staged a downtown
noontime funeral procession. Hastings College, an 850-student
Presbyterian school in Nebraska, suspended operations. Madison, Ann
Arbor, and New Haven were only a few of the college towns to draw out
a quarter of their populations or more (New Haven's Vietnam
Moratorium Committee had called up every name in the city phone
book). The nation's biggest college town brought out 100,000 souls in
Boston Common. A young Rhodes Scholar out of Arkansas, Bill Clinton,
got up a demonstration of 1000 people in front of the U.S. embassy in
London. Newsday publisher and former LBJ right-hand-man Bill Moyers,
Paris peace talks chief negotiator Averell Harriman, the mayor of
Detroit, even the Connecticut state chairman of Citizens for
Nixon-Agnew participated in protests. The Washington Post drew a
man-bites-dog conclusion: "Anti-Vietnam Views Unite Generations."
George McGovern spoke in Boston and Bangor, Maine -- backyard of the
new front-runner for the '72 Democratic nomination Edmund Muskie --
where the Great Plains back-bencher was announced as "the next
President of the United States." Conservative Houston was one of the
cities where the names of the war dead were read out in public
squares. (A reader stumbled and stopped; he had come upon the name of
a friend.) The Duke student newspaper editorialized: "We believe a
careful study of history shows that the war in Vietnam is an
imperialist conflict. And we support the struggle of the Vietnamese
people for their liberation." At the University of North Carolina,
the Village Voice's Jack Newfield won an ovation from 2500 children
of the Dixie elite for arguing that the United States had already
lost "because we fought on the wrong side."
Another public square was Wall Street, where some 20,000 businessmen
gathered for a procession to Trinity Church, where the ceremony
reminded communicants of Martin Luther King's March on Washington. In
Midtown Manhattan, 100,000 marched to Bryant Park to hear Tony
Randall, Lauren Bacall, Woody Allen, Shirley MacLaine, both
Republican New York senators, and Mayor Lindsay, who draped City Hall
with black crepe and ordered all city flags flown at half staff. The
lowly New York Mets were up two games to one against the mighty
Baltimore Orioles going into the fourth game of the World Series at
Shea Stadium -- where the flag was also flying half-staff. People
darted in and out of taverns to check the score. At Columbia, Jimmy
Breslin reported what the day's starting pitcher, Tom Seaver, had
told him: "If the Mets can get to the World Series, the U.S. can get
out of Vietnam."
And then there was Washington, D.C. On the evening of the 14th,
twenty-three Congressmen began an intended all-night session Vietnam
on the House floor. Gerald Ford managed to shut them down after four
hours. It was the longest time Congress had ever talked Vietnam at a
stretch. The next day, congressmen vigiled on the Capitol steps. At
lunchtime bureaucrats at the Department of Health, Education and
Welfare could chose from twelve different anti-war discussions. Or
they could simply play hooky, joining the 50,000 who gathered at the
base of the Washington Monument, listening to Coretta Scott King say
that this was war "destroying the very fabric and fiber of our society."
Then, in ranks of ten, they moved out to the White House.
There wasn't a single Viet Cong flag in evidence. There were hardly
any signs at all. There were candles, shimmering in an unbroken line
all the way back to the Washington Monument. (Charleston, West
Virginia's police chief described his city's pro-war
counter-demonstration: "We won't creep around in the dark with
candles like those traitors do.... We'll march at high noon on Monday
and let free people fall right in line.") An NSC staffer took a break
from working on the President's November 3 speech on Vietnam to
witness the flickering encirclement of the White House. He looked up
with a start: it included his wife and children. The President
affected to have noticed nothing: "I haven't seen a single
demonstrator -- and I've been out."
Another public square was the nation's high schools. At over a
thousand, students boycotted classes. In Blackwood, New Jersey, Craig
Badiali, president of the drama society, and his girlfriend Joan Fox,
a cheerleader, chose Moratorium day to borrow the Badiali family
sedan and to turn it into a carbon monoxide chamber: "Why -- because
we/love our fellow/man enough to/sacrifice our lives/so that they
will. Try to find the ecstasy in just being alive."
The M.I.T. student newspaper eulogized: "Two more of the domestic
casualties of our war policy and the jungle which is called society.
How many more will there be?"
The conspiracy to sabotage it all had consumed the West Wing. One
black op consisted of sending a letter sent to every Congressional
office on simulated Moratorium letterhead, announcing that the vigil
had been moved to Union Station. Yet more ads from the supposedly
independent "Citizens for Peace with Security" -- a White House front
-- enjoined Americans to blame Hanoi for the continued warfare. (The
man listed in the ads as the group's chairman, William J. Casey, was
a former intelligence officer who had lost a 1968 campaign for
Congress as a Nixon Republican, then cemented his Orthogonian bona
fides by having his membership application rejected by the Council on
Foreign Relations; in 1971 Nixon nominated him for Securities and
Exchange Commission chairman.) Conservative congressmen were
recruited to assail antiwar colleagues for advocating a "bug out"
that would bring "the slaughter of untold millions to Vietnam." And
Americans who'd been held hostage by the Communists in Vietnam were
wheeled out as political props. Two POWs had been released by the
North Vietnamese in August. In September, the Pentagon sent them
around the country to describe their "ordeal of horror." And surely
their confinement had been no picnic. But journalists noticed their
stories became more extravagant and inconsistent as time went on. The
Secretary of Defense announced of their captivity: "There is clear
evidence that North Vietnam has violated even the most fundamental
standards of human decency." But two years later, when Seymour Hersh
investigated, he discovered a letter from the Pentagon in which Laird
reassured the prisoners' families he was exaggerating: "We are
certain that you will not become unduly concerned over the briefing
if you keep in mind the purpose for which it was tailored."
For the first time, the President sent out Spiro Agnew to do what
Nixon used to do for Ike: call the administration's critics traitors.
On the eve of the protest North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van
Dong broadcast an open letter on Radio Hanoi praising the
Moratorium's efforts "to save the honor of the United States and to
avoid for their boys a useless death in Vietnam." The Vice President
demanded its leaders "repudiate the support of a totalitarian
government which has on its hands the blood of 40,000 Americans," and
said pro-Moratorium congressmen were "chargeable with the knowledge
of this letter." The legalistic insinuation -- "chargeable" -- nicely
recalled the master, in 1952, calling President Truman and Secretary
Acheson "traitors to the high principles in which many of the
nation's Democrats believe."
Jack Caulfield was sent out to investigate the Red hand in the
planning. He claimed the Communist Party "has maintained a background
identity," with the Socialist Workers Party making "the heaviest
outlays of funds." The Kennedys were in on it to -- in order, he
said, to keep the media focus away from Chappaquiddick. Two new White
House aides, who shared a taste for blood, Governor Reagan's former
press secretary Lynn Nofziger and an eager former cosmetics company
junior executive named Jeb Stuart Magruder who had run the
congressional campaign of Donald Rumsfeld in Illinois in 1962,
cranked up the Nixon network to send angry letters to congressmen who
supported the Moratorium. It can't be known whether this letter in
Time was their handiwork -- "How tragic, too, Kennedy's professed
concern with the loss of lives in Vietnam when he was so negligent
about saving the one young life over which he had direct control at
Chappaquiddick" -- for the President specifically instructed Haldeman
to discuss matters concerning Kennedy "only orally."
The conspiracy to blunt the antiwar upsurge unfolded as Senate
Minority Whip Robert Griffith, a loyal Nixonite, warned the President
to withdraw the Haynsworth nomination as yet more shady business
deals were revealed. He thought it was friendly advice. The President
didn't take it that way. He pledged to "destroy Griffin as whip." A
White House that was already ruthless was becoming moreso by the day.
The hatred of the press became more obsessive. The political wisdom
of press-baiting was buttressed by the first major new poll on the
subject since the Democratic National Convention: forty percent
trusted local news sources "very much," but only one in four trusted
national news. Asked to name a syndicated columnist they paid
attention to, only 16 percent could come up with one (the plurality
were advice and humor columnists). The news magazine most trusted by
its readers was the conservative U.S. News. David Brinkley summarized
the findings: they "want me to shut up."
On October 10 the White House attempted a distraction from the
upcoming Moratorium set for five days later. They announced a major
policy address on Vietnam for November 3 -- which announcement, if
tradition held, would lead to columnists' predictions that Nixon was
about to announce a major disengagement. That same day the President
announced the retirement of the hated General Lewis Hershey as head
of the Selective Service Administration. On October 13 White House
couriers pulled a kid out of class at Georgetown for a photo
opportunity. Randy Dicks had written to the President about his
September 26 press conference, "It has been my impression that it is
not unwise for the President of the United States to make note of the
will of the people." Dicks was selected from thousands of
letter-writers to hear back from the President, to show that he cared.
An NSC aide drafted Nixon's response. Kissinger kept on tossing them
back: "Make it more manly."
The President ended up saying: "Whatever the issue, to allow the
government policy to be made in the streets would destroy the
The press corps asked Randy Dick what he thought of it. Not much, he
said, before launching into a peroration about his indifference to
"the democratic process": monarchy, he said, "was the superior form
They had carefully selected one undergrad. They carelessly neglected
to learn that he was president of something called the Student
On Moratorium Day, they recruited parachutists to touch down on the
Mall and in Central Park, bearing American flags: perhaps the crowd
would seize them, maybe burn them, and that would become the story.
Instead, the crowds just laughed.
Excerpted from Nixonland by Rick Perlstein.
'Nixonland' by Rick Perlstein
How one man's strategy to appeal to the disaffected has helped to
polarize the nation.
By Jim Newton
May 18, 2008
The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
882 pp., $37.50
The surprises begin right away in "Nixonland." The book opens with
the Watts riots, a singularly unconventional starting point for a
narrative built around Richard M. Nixon, who was not in office and
not involved with the 1965 events or their aftermath. But these
passages in Rick Perlstein's rambunctious, ambitious, energetic tour
through the Nixon era set both the tone and approach that distinguish
this remarkable work.
As the initial setting makes clear, Perlstein is after something
other than biography here. And wisely so. The world almost certainly
has enough Nixon biographies; few subjects have tantalized writers
more than the troubled soul of Yorba Linda's favorite son. Instead,
he tells the story of Nixon's America, a country of division and
resentment, jealousy and anger, one where politics is brutal and
psychological, where victors make the vanquished suffer. Perlstein,
who covered some of this ground in "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater
and the Unmaking of the American Consensus," aims here at nothing
less than weaving a tapestry of social upheaval. His success is dazzling.
His method is worth noting as well. "Nixonland" is not,
fundamentally, a work of primary research. Its sources largely are
news accounts and other books; although there are occasional
citations to personal papers and interviews, this is a synthesis, not
an investigation. Written with verve and a ranging, incisive
intelligence, "Nixonland" re-defines the fissures of that period as
the product of conflict between two forces, which Perlstein dubs the
Franklins and the Orthogonians after two fraternities that claimed
opposite corners during Nixon's Whittier College days.
The Franklins were the dapper, refined Big Men on Campus; in the
larger story of "Nixonland," they are the Ivy Leaguers, the U.S.
Supreme Court clerks, men of privilege like Alger Hiss and Jack
Kennedy, Jerry Voorhis and Eugene McCarthy. This was not Nixon, who
co-founded the Orthogonians for the strivers and loners, the
shirt-sleeved and tough. Nixon, as is well known, met his wife by
driving her on dates with other men, simmering and persisting until
eventually she accepted him. He was drawn to others like himself, and
he found them on the outskirts of every kind of organization, even in
sports, where most observers saw glamour or fame. "It was an
eminently Nixonian insight," Perlstein writes, "that on every sports
team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win
the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous,
strategy is to concentrate on the non-spectacular -- silent --
majority. The ones who labor quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the
quarterback's shadow: the linemen, the guards, the punter."
There began a lifetime of positioning, of nurturing and exploiting
the nation's deepest resentments, of rallying the silent and the glum
to their champion. This cleavage defines "Nixonland," and the
resulting tensions make the riots the right place to start, for it
was in those bloody days that the American consensus, such as it was,
melted in the streets of Watts, just months after President Johnson
crowed about American civilization at its apex, about a nation
prepared to deliver "abundance and liberty for all."
As Perlstein tracks the rise and fall and rise and fall of Nixon, he
hews to the knife's edge of conflict, opting for the cultural over
the narrowly political. Student activist Tom Hayden makes more
appearances in "Nixonland" than Justice William O. Douglas, and
that's appropriate. This broad scope opens up the narrative, and
through it flutter the personalities, large and small, who populated
the late 1960s and early 1970s so colorfully. We find Abbie Hoffman
and H. Rap Brown, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Herbert Marcuse, Stokely
Carmichael and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and John Wayne, H.R. Haldeman
and Spiro Agnew. These figures come back to us in Perlstein's able
hands, a reunion of old friends and enemies drawn together and
mutually repelled by Nixon's influence. They make a dashing backdrop
to this exegesis on love and war, politics and art.
Perlstein sends home some scintillating snapshots from his '60s tour.
His account of the Chicago Seven trial is superb, as is his portrayal
of the nation's response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. His writing is occasionally overwrought, but more
often modulated, breezy in the decade's lighter moments, deliberate
when appropriate. Thus, he observes, candidate "Richard Nixon's
summer of love was spent abroad." And, "Some people wanted peace
because they didn't want America to be humiliated. Some people wanted
peace because they preferred America's humiliation. Now the president
invited Orthogonians to join him in defining themselves by the split
-- in a wager that the majority on his side would grow for it."
Although Perlstein has produced an exuberant reconstruction of these
years, he does, regrettably, adopt one of the period's less admirable
qualities. He embraces hyperbole and, as columnist George F. Will
noted in his recent review of "Nixonland" for the New York Times,
chalks up a few errors along the way. None are devastating, but they
are distracting; one reveals a weakness in Perlstein's reliance on
secondary sources. Describing the 1970 Kent State massacre, he writes
that residents of Kent, Ohio, "were thrilled to see the tanks and
jeeps rumble through town" and later describes children climbing
around the tanks. That appears to be drawn from James A. Michener's
account (in "Kent State: What Happened and Why"), but no tanks appear
in the extensive photographic and journalistic record. (There are
references to armed personnel carriers, but not tanks.)
Another error, harder to explain, caught my eye, in part because it
detracts from what should be a signature scene, Nixon's 1969
inaugural address, when the long-suffering politician finally claimed
the presidency. The occasion had special resonance because the oath
was administered to Nixon that January day by Chief Justice Earl
Warren, who had sparred with Nixon for decades, going back to
Warren's time as California's governor. So deeply did Warren detest
Nixon that the chief justice had tried to retire earlier the previous
year, in part to prevent Nixon from choosing his replacement on the
court. (Warren eventually left in 1969, and Nixon replaced him with
Warren Burger.) Perlstein, however, incorrectly reports that Justice
Hugo Black administered the oath, not only getting the moment wrong
but also robbing it of much of its consequence.
These mistakes are distracting, but hardly debilitating. Once they
are remedied, what will be left is a superb history of a period too
often glamorized beyond recognition. Perlstein's grand epic
revolutionizes the history of those revolutionary times and does
something more as well. Through it, through Nixon, he delivers a new
understanding of some of the divisions of our modern life. The
coarseness and recrimination that undermine our political civility
today have deep roots in the Nixon era. If we now live in a country
where politics swallows its victims, where victory must be total,
where opponents are demonized rather than having their arguments
debated, well, Nixon carries his share of the blame.
Perlstein may make too much of that. Not all conflict is between the
camps of "Nixonland," and there are plenty of evils in modern America
that have nothing to do with Nixon; indeed, our current president has
managed to invent more than most. But for those inclined to minimize
Nixon's demerits, to insist that he only got caught at what all
presidents do, Perlstein reminds us who Nixon was and what he wrought.
Here's one small but telling anecdote, in which Nixon is taped
berating Haldeman and other top aides to use the Internal Revenue
Service to punish administration critics: "We have the power, but are
we using it? To investigate contributors to Hubert Humphrey,
contributors to Muskie, the Jews, you know, that are stealing
everybody. . . . Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know,
the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. . . . Could we please
investigate some of these [expletive deleted]?"
Nixon may not have invented a divisive America, and today's divisions
may not all be his fault, but it's hard to read those words and not
acknowledge that he was in a class of his own. And yes, as Perlstein
concludes, we all have paid a price for it.
firstname.lastname@example.org Jim Newton, editor of The Times' editorial
pages, is the author of "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made."