What prolonged the Vietnam War?
Diaries of Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, demonstrate that Nixon was fully aware in election year 1972 that the Vietnam War was not popular. The White House turned a paranoiac, watchful eye ever outward, constantly alert, scanning the political zodiac for any sign that the Democrats were going to capitalize on the unpopularity of the war.
Nixon came into the White House knowing he would not have won in 1968 had Robert F. Kennedy, his campaign rocket-propelled by opposition to the war as well as by the Kennedy mystique, not been assassinated; had Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey not been inextricably tied to Vietnam; and had the early and effective opposition to the war by Eugene McCarthy not been derailed by RFK. The history of the Sixties is partly a series of flukes, had they not been tragic; a series of near-misses that narrowly avoided ending the Vietnam War on the larger scale and the political career of Richard M. Nixon among others on the smaller. At any moment the nation had the potential to rise up in organized, spontaneous political action to break the stranglehold of Vietnam.
Nixon knew it. Even the impossibly late entry into the 1968 nominating process of George McGovern, hero to the young, helped fuel the passion against Nixon and the war; even with opponents of the Vietnam War hopelessly split, there was such a Democratic reenergizing in the last few weeks and especially the last days of the 1968 campaign that Hubert Horatio Humphrey almost managed to squeak out a win. Citizens who had at long last turned away their scrutiny from LBJ and focused it on Nixon and Agnew got so motivated, or so steamed, that in some places HHH came into respectful treatment as a candidate that he scarcely received at the time he was nominated. At the start of his campaign, Humphrey could hardly get paid attention. At the end, there was such a surge that ordinary donors were literally throwing money–tens, small bills–at him or his people in personal appearances; his volunteers were opening hastily sealed envelopes of miscellaneous sizes and stationery, into which money had been thrust without request for receipt or sometimes even a note, sent via regular mail.
Unfortunately the Democratic Party of the time never did adequately focus on and oppose the Vietnam War, not in an adequately organized way, and historians are free to wonder why not. One cause was certainly the grief, fear and demoralization brought about by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. (It is Orwellian that those murders, which did so much to wound and cripple the Democrats, have been vaguely blamed on some culture of Sixties permissiveness.) Another cause was the lack of a blocking agent, as John Stuart Mill would put it, in that the press was as usual royalist and timid in scrutinizing the actions of presidents in conducting war. (Regarding Vietnam, the press was additionally confused by a gullible view that Henry Kissinger would bring about peace if Nixon would let him.) Undoubtedly another cause was White House manipulation of internal Democratic Party politics, using tactics including bribery and assisted by several prominent personalities of the time including John Connally, Billy Graham and George Wallace.
But the war was always present, and opposition to the war was growing daily. One did not have to start from any particular spot on the political spectrum. When combat veterans started coming home from Vietnam by the thousands, if alive and relatively healthy they came home with a single, lucid, across-the-board recognition that many of them had acquired within a few minutes in Southeast Asia: “nobody [back home] knew anything.” The recognition did not necessarily translate into instantaneous and organized opposition, but it did translate into solid, bedrock, widespread lack of enthusiasm. That, in other words, was square one – not among draft resisters and war opponents but among people who had gone, and their relatives and acquaintance. Anecdotes about fragging First Lieutenants will do that.
Nixon knew it, and took steps accordingly.
Over the next few weeks, we in our time will be facing a chief executive bent more than Nixon was on prolonging and expanding a war. As always when there is heavy rightwing rhetoric on “moving forward,” we have to look backward to some extent for guidance on the tactics that will be used. Forewarned is forearmed.
The process might also shed some light, valuable for historians including amateur historians, on the question about Watergate often scanted even in good histories of Watergate. Why was the Democratic National Committee headquarters broken into in the first place?