by Jon Wiener
In 1969, as the anti-war movement was reaching a peak, Richard
Nixon's White House staff debated what they could do to "show the
little bastards" what kind of man they were up against. They were
concerned about what would be the biggest antiwar demonstration in US
history on Nov. 15, 1969, when half a million people came to
Washington D.C. to demand that an end to the war in Vietnam.
Now, newly released documents from the Nixon Library provide
fascinating details about the debate within the White House staff two
months earlier about how the president should respond. Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, at the time an influential member of Nixon's inner circle,
suggested that the president could "take away the day" from the
protesters if he would "close down" the White House "in sympathy."
"That will show the little bastards," Moynihan said. He knew the kind
of talk that impressed Nixon.
The Vietnam Moratorium Committee had called for a national work
stoppage and coordinated local protests on Oct. 15, followed by a
massive demonstration in Washington DC a month later. Nixon's staff
was contemplating the October events at their meeting on Sept. 26, 1969.
Moynihan, who at the time held the title Counselor to the President
for Urban Affairs, advocated what he called "a cease fire" with the
moderates in the anti-war movement, according to notes on the meeting
taken by Dwight Chapin, Special Assistant to the President.
Moynihan reminded the staffers in the room that Nixon "is going to do
something which is very difficult," according to Chapin's notes. "He
is going to be the 1st Pres. to lose a war."
"It is not his war," Moynihan said; it was "LBJ's war." That much was
true Nixon had been president for only eight months when this
meeting took place.
The Moratorium organizers, Moynihan told the White House staff, were
"good people," veterans of Gene McCarthy's failed bid for the
Democratic nomination in 1968. That also was true.
Nixon should preempt the demonstrations, Moynihan argued, by going on
TV the night before and declaring that he was "for peace." That would
"keep the nutty opposition invalidated" while it would "pacify the
non-violent." Such a move would give Nixon "more time to work out" an
Nixon however rejected the advice. On Oct. 15, demonstrations were
held in dozens of cities; the biggest was in Boston, where 100,000
turned out to hear George McGovern. The same day in Oxford, England,
a Rhodes scholar named Bill Clinton organized an anti-war Moratorium
And on Nov. 15, half a million people gathered on the Mall in
Washington, D.C. Pete Seeger led them in singing John Lennon's new
song, "Give Peace a Chance." Nixon let it be known that he was
watching sports on TV in the White House. He kept the war going for
another four years, during which tens of thousands of Americans were
killed, along with perhaps a million Vietnamese.
Chapin's notes were among 280,000 pages of documents released by the
Nixon Library on Jan. 11.