ForeignPolicy

Nixon's Savage Attack on the Greatest Anti-War Movement in U.S. History

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."

Mistake.

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 democratic process."

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 of government."

They had carefully selected one undergrad. They carelessly neglected to learn that he was president of something called the Student Monarchist Society.

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. Copyright © 2006 by Rick Perlstein. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.